The Battle of Marathon (490 BC) was the first Persian invasion of Greece. It was a decisive Athenian victory; and because of their innovations and works of classical importance that came after this clash, we sometimes refer to it as part of the Athenian war. In reality, this was merely a raiding expedition for the mighty Persian Empire and it would later be the Spartans who would do most of the heavy fighting to beat back the Persians.
The battle, nonetheless, was of incredible importance; for if the Persians had defeated and subjugated the Athenians and much of Greece, are we reading Plato or Aristotle today? Do we know the name “Alexander the Great” or is he just another small ruler of a small group within the Persian Empire? Does Western Civilization exist?
But the Persians didn’t win, and the victory for the Athenians was legendary; then and now. The fighting began with a famous charge:
“Extraordinary stories were later told of this advance. It was said that the Athenians ran the whole mile, as though men bold enough to attack the Persians for the first time must have been somehow more than human. In truth, no man wearing the full panoply of a hop-lite, some seventy pounds of bronze, wood, and leather, could possibly have run such a distance and still have energy left to fight effectively.
Even in the relative cool of the early morning, sweat rapidly began to mingle with the dust kicked up by ten thousands pairs of feet, half-blinding the advancing hoplites and stinging their blinking eyes, so that their vision ahead of them – the outlandishly dressed archers reaching for their arrows, the slingers for their shot, the expressions of glee and disbelief in the Persian ranks – grew ever more obscured.
Soon, as the Athenians crossed deeper into no man’s land, the first arrows began to hiss down upon them; then, raising the monstrous weight of their shields to protect their chests, the Athenians did at last begin to run.
Simultaneously, as though the phalanx were “some ferocious cornered creature, stiffening its bristles as it turns to face its foe,” [Plutarch] those in the front three ranks lowered and aimed their spears, in preparation for the coming collision. By now, with some 150 yards still to travel, a storm cloud of arrows and slingshot was breaking over them, thudding into their shields, bouncing off their helmets, striking the odd hop-lite in the thigh or through the throat, but still the Athenians, braving the black rain, only quickened their pace.
Those of the enemy directly in their path had already begun to scramble to erect wicker defenses, as they realized, to their horror, that the wall of shields and iron-tipped spears, far from providing easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had at first imagined, was not going to be halted.
A hundred yards, fifty, twenty, ten. Then, as the Athenians’ war cry, a terrifying ululation, rose even above the thundering of their feet upon the dry earth, the cacophony of clattering metal and the screams of the panic-stricken enemy, the phalanx crunched into the Persian lines.
The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of warfare in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze. Now, though, in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crush of metal into flesh and bone; then a rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows and slings.
The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering, as invariably happened when one phalanx crashed into another, could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death under the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze.”
Persian Fire (p195-196)