Sept. 12, 2022

The Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Marathon

September 12, 490 BC. A greatly outnumbered Greek force defeats the Persian Army in the Battle of Marathon, preserving Greek independence from the mighty Persian Empire.


Cold Open

It’s a bright, sunny day in 494 BC on the shores of Ionia, a region of Ancient Greece on the west coast of modern Turkey.

The military general Dionysius stands with his back to the ocean, the waves lapping at the heels of his leather sandals. Before him, arrayed in bronze-plated armor and plumed helmets, is a force of approximately 50,000 Greek soldiers.

At the blast of a horn, Dionysius turns and squints toward the horizon. Around 600 Persian warships are ranged across the ocean, their black sails billowing; thousands of oars churning the water until it froths white.

Dionysius turns back to address his frightened troops with a rallying cry: “O men of Ionia! Our affairs stand on a razor’s edge, whether we are to be free men, or whether we are to be slaves!”

Stirred by their commander’s words, the Greeks charge down the beach toward their own ships - moored in shallow waters.

Moments later, the Greek fleet sets sail, advancing to meet the Persians head-on. Dionysius stands at the prow of his ship, watching the enemy armada draw closer. Then the sky darkens, as a shower of Persian arrows blot out the midday sun.

The Greeks raise their shields… as the arrows rain down upon them.

Once the onslaught is over, the Greeks return fire… hurling javelins through the air and maneuvering their ships through the Persian lines.

By now, the ships of the two fleets are just feet apart. Dionysius can see that the vanguard of the Persian ships is merely the beginning; hundreds more stretch beyond, filling the ocean with black sails. The Greeks are hopelessly outnumbered - worse than Dionysius thought. But it’s too late to turn back now.

There’s a chorus of sickening crunches as the two fleets collide. The curved, spiked prows of the Persian ships act like battering rams - puncturing the Greek ships and flooding them with seawater.

Greek sailors begin leaping from their vessels, hurling themselves into the water - which is now thick with blood and corpses. Dionysius realizes he has little choice: he grits his teeth… and abandons his sinking ship.

Many decades ago, the Greek city-states of Ionia were conquered by the mighty Persian Empire. But only five years ago, the Ionians rose up in revolt against their Persian overlords. During their uprising, the Ionians received support from independent Greek city-states who feared the growing strength of the Persian Empire and resented its encroachment into Greek lands.

But the Persians eventually crush the revolt. During the Battle of Lade, as this sea battle will come to be known, the Ionian forces are vanquished – and the Persian King of Kings, Darius the Great, re-establishes his control over the region.

But Darius will not be satisfied with just Ionia. Instead, he will set out to conquer the whole of Greece. Soon, Darius will send an army into the Greek mainland, forcing another Greek force to assemble and defend their independence, at the Battle of Marathon on September 12th, 490 BC.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is September 12th, 490 BC: The Battle of Marathon.

Act One: King Darius’ Revenge

It’s the spring of 492 B.C. in modern-day Iran; two years before the Greeks battle for their independence at Marathon. Inside his royal palace in the Persian capital of Persepolis, Darius the Great sits on his throne, deep in thought.

Darius presides over the world’s largest and strongest empire. His territories stretch from modern-day India in the east to the northern shores of Africa in the west; his military is the greatest ever assembled; and his lavish wealth elevates Darius beyond the realm of men, and into the pantheon of the gods.

And yet in spite of everything he has, the King is discontent.

Two years ago, Darius sent an army to crush the rebellion against Persian rule in Ionia. But his army found themselves up against more than just the Ionians. During the uprising, an independent Greek city-state, Athens, joined Ionia to overthrow the Persian regime.

Athens is one of the most powerful Greek city-states, and it recently adopted a new form of government called “democracy”, “rule of the people” in Greek. Democracy is directly opposed to the Persian model of “tyranny” - the rule of one absolute power. And the Athenians wanted to stop the spread of Persian tyranny, so they joined the Ionians in their uprising. They also enlisted the help of their ally, the Greek city of Eretria.

Despite the coalition forces gathered against him, Darius quashed the rebellion and re-asserted authority over Ionia. But re-establishing control isn’t enough for Darius. He wants to exact revenge on the cities that dared oppose him: Athens and Eretria.

Darius strokes his long, black beard, thoughts of conquest racing through his mind. But suddenly, the squeak of sandals on marble makes Darius look up. It’s his son-in-law, a military commander named Mardonius. Mardonius kneels before the King of Kings and murmurs: “You summoned me, my lord.”

Darius motions for Mardonius to stand. He orders his son-in-law to lead a military expedition into the Greek mainland, to punish Athens and Eretria for their participation in the Ionian Revolt. Along the way, he is to bring as under the heel of the Persian empire as many new domains as possible. Mardonius nods, then turns swiftly to leave the palace and commence his mission. 


Within a few months after embarking from Persia, Mardonius’s campaign becomes an emphatic success. Supported by a naval contingent, his ground army marches through modern-day Turkey before entering the independent region of Thrace. Quickly, the Thracian resistance crumbles and Mardonius conquers that territory for Persia. Next, the Persians take Macedonia to the west, before sailing south to the Greek island of Thasos, laying claim to that as well.

Now Mardonius embarks on the central objective of this campaign: an invasion of the Greek mainland. But as he approaches the coast of northern Greece, the weather threatens his plans.

Mardonius stands on the deck of his ship, watching as the skies overhead darken with storm clouds. And soon, forks of jagged lightning flash across the sky. Growing waves crash against the rocky headland in explosions of foaming spray. And the Persian ships lurch as they struggle across the storm-tossed sea. 

And while Mardonius and his crew reach land, many others do not. The squall wipes out up to 300 Persian ships, claiming the lives of almost 20,000 men. And their misfortune doesn’t end there. A few nights later, while camping in the shadow of Mount Athos in northern Greece, a local barbarian tribe attacks the Persian encampment, injuring Mardonius and killing many more.

Having lost more than half his fleet, and a significant proportion of his manpower, Mardonius abandons his campaign. He and his forces return to Persepolis - where Mardonius knows he must face the wrath of his father-in-law, King Darius.

But to Mardonius' surprise and relief, Darius is satisfied with the campaign. Mardonius has successfully secured a land approach to Greece by conquering Thrace and Macedonia. Darius believes that this show of military strength will be enough to force the remaining independent Greek cities to submit to Persian dominance.

And soon, Darius dispatches Persian emissaries to these Greek cities, ordering them to pay tribute and accept Persian authority. Most of the cities acquiesce, afraid of the king’s power and wrath. In the states of Corinth, Rhodes, Thebes, and Syracuse - the city officials bow their heads in submission to Persia.

But two cities refuse: Athens and Eretria.

When Darius learns of these cities' intransigence, he will grow incensed and dispensed with diplomacy. If Athens and Eretria continue to disrespect the Persian Empire, then Darius will be left with no other choice. He will assemble the greatest army the world has ever seen, and wipe Eretria and Athens from the face of the earth.

Act Two: Persians Invade Greece

It’s a hot summer’s day in 490 B.C.; a few days before the Battle of Marathon.

On the Greek island of Euboea, just north of Athens, the city of Eretria lies in ruin. A young girl wanders through the streets, her face covered in blood and soot. All around her are mutilated bodies, temples reduced to ash, and piles of rubble where houses once stood. The girl limps across the scorched earth in a daze, wondering if anybody else survived the attack, or if she’s the only one… 

Six days ago, a Persian fleet landed on the shores of Euboea, carrying a force of around 26,000 highly-trained soldiers. The two generals in charge of this Persian army - Datis and Artaphernes - were sent by Darius the Great with simple instructions: make the people of Eretria regret their participation in the Ionian Revolt.

It did not take long for the Persian siege engines to overpower the Greek defenses. The invading soldiers marauded the streets, wielding curved swords and shooting flaming arrows. They razed temples to the ground, slaughtered civilians, and they abducted women and children to be sold into slavery. By the end of the six-day siege, the first objective of their invasion was complete. Eretria was completely destroyed.

Now the Persians only have one city left to burn: Athens.

An army of 10,000 Greek soldiers marches south to do just that.

But as news of Eretria’s destruction reaches Athens, the city mobilizes. Scouts are sent out to follow the Persian fleet’s course along the coastline. But when they land at the plain of Marathon - a grassy field 26 miles north of Athens - the Athenian army sets off to defend their independence in the face of a foreign invasion.

Today, the Athenian general Miltiades rides at the vanguard. For several years, Miltiades served as a vassal of the Persian Empire in Asia. But eventually fell out with King Darius and returned home to Athens - bringing with him an in-depth knowledge of Persian military tactics. Miltiades knows how tough and disciplined the enemy forces are. If the Athenians are going to triumph, they will need the Gods on their side.

The Athenians set up camp in the hills north of Marathon, while the Persians situate themselves along the pebble beach. From this vantage point, Miltiades assesses the enemy's numbers and contemplates tactics.

The Persians outnumber the Athenians by more than two to one. Any attempt to launch a direct assault across the plain would result in catastrophic losses at the hands of the Persian archers. But retreating would be even more disastrous. It would invite the Persians to lay siege to Athens which the city could not withstand. 

So for the next eight days, the two armies are locked in a tense stand-off - with neither side willing to expose themselves in a direct assault across the plain.

In the meantime, the Athenians request reinforcements from their ally, Sparta. The Spartans are famous for their military brilliance and their aid would be invaluable. But Sparta is more than 300 miles away, and the only way to ask for their assistance is by sending a fleet-footed messenger to cover that vast distance… and time is of the essence.

A messenger named Pheidippides sets off running. Remarkably, he makes the journey in just 36 hours; but his efforts are in vain. The Spartans are in the midst of a religious carnival when the message arrives, and they refuse to abandon their worship in aid of their ally. They send Pheidippides back to Marathon empty-handed.

Following this bad news, some of the Greek generals will lose their nerve: many begin seriously contemplating retreat or surrender. Even the commander of the Athenian army - a general named Callimachus - will waver, unsure of how to proceed.

Until one night, Miltiades will visit Callimachus in his tent. There, he will urge the commander against retreat. And after a tense discussion, Miltiades will leave the commander with these parting words: “With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations. For never since the time that the Athenians became a people were they in so great a danger as now.”

Miltiades’ words will prove persuasive. And soon, Callimachus will make the decision against retreat, deciding instead to stay and fight.

Act Three: The Battle of Marathon

It’s September 12th, 490 B.C. in Greece, and a battle is about to commence.

A light sea breeze skips across the plain of Marathon, where the Persian army advances through a haze of dust and heat. The Athenian general, Miltiades strides to the edge of camp and with trepidation surveys the battlefield.  

A seemingly endless wave of cavalry, archers, and infantry sweeps across the sun-parched ground. But Miltiades’ eyes are drawn by a smaller unit of foot soldiers, an elite Persian infantry division known as the Immortals. Miltiades mutters a prayer to the Gods as he reflects on his own audacious strategy… 

Miltiades has deliberately weakened the mid-section of his army and overloaded the flanks. The plan is for his hoplites - heavily-armed infantry - to hold the center, while two wings of cavalry fan out and encircle the enemy. It is a bold gambit; if the Persians break through the Athenian center, they could rout the cavalry from behind. But Miltiades believes this is their best and only chance at victory.

Suddenly, a battle horn sounds and a phalanx of Athenian hoplites creeps across the plain, spears bristling from behind a wall of shields. The Persian vanguard crashes into the Greek forward line, and the deafening thunder of war fills the morning air.

Miltiades gallops around the flank, praying the center will hold long enough for his cavalry to get into position. And when he reaches his intended location, he can see that the hoplites are about to be overwhelmed by the sheer mass of Persian soldiers.

But they’ve held out long enough. Miltiades raises his sword, lets out an animal roar, and with his cavalry, charges into the vulnerable Persian flank. The enemy troops devolve into chaos and the blindsided Persians soon flee back to their ships.

The Battle of Marathon will end in a stunning underdog victory for the Athenians. Miltiades will be heralded as the savior of Greece, and the hero of independence. But another legend will arise from the Battle of Marathon thanks to the Athenians’ speedy messenger, Pheidippides.

In the 2nd century AD, the Great poet Lucian will describe Pheidippides as a messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens to declare Athenian victory over the Persians - a distance of just more than 26 miles. Almost two thousand years later, Lucian’s account will inspire a poem by the English writer Robert Browning. This poem, “Pheidippides” will in turn catch the eye of a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. Coubertin will introduce a race, just over 26 miles long, in honor of the journey of Pheidippides. And thus, the marathon will be born. 

But the modern marathon is just one of the many important legacies of the Battle of Marathon, which was fought and won to secure Athenian independence on September 12th, 490 B.C.


Next on History Daily. September 13th, 1861. During the American Civil War, Union officers, sailors, and marines of the USS Colorado launch a daring expedition to torch and sink a rebel schooner, the William H. Judah.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser