The West's First Stand: Marathon: At the Dawn of What Was to Become Western Civilization, the Athenians Won an Amazing Victory over the Persians at Marathon

Article excerpt

The man ran along the dusty road, mile after mile in the blazing late summer Mediterranean sun. Past groves of olives and fields of wheat, past farms and villages, his body soaked with perspiration, his runner's frame never flagging, he ran without pause toward Athens, which lay more than 20 mountainous miles ahead. Even when curious knots of onlookers tried to stop him, the man ran on, his eyes riveted to the road. The news he bore was for the ears of Athenians alone, the greatest tidings that had ever sounded in any ears in Attic Greece since the legendary Theseus had founded the city of Athens untold centuries before.

Most of the onlookers that September afternoon probably guessed the runner's business, if not his message. For almost a week, a gigantic invasion force had been encamped on the narrow plain along nearby Marathon Bay, preparing to march on Athens. In that year, 490 B.C., the Persian Empire was the world's superpower, and for the past several decades had been relentlessly subjugating the Greeks. The founder of the Achaemenid Persian dynasty, Cyrus, had conquered most of Ionia, that portion of the Greek world that lay across the Aegean Sea from Athens on the peninsula of Asia Minor. His son and successor, the monstrous Cambyses, had annexed Egypt. The emperor Darius had conquered the northern Greek territories of Thrace and Macedonia two years before, and now had his sights set on Athens which, along with Sparta, represented the last major holdouts of Greek civilization on the Aegean.

Coming Collision

The collision between Athens and Persia had been building for many years. Ever since the Athenians had expelled the tyrant Hippias, in 511 B.C., the former despot had been making the rounds in the Persian court, seeking patrons who would reinstall him in Athens in return for a pledge of submission to the Persian "King of kings."

In 499 B.C., the Ionian Greek cities, led by the city of Miletus and its somewhat erratic leader Aristagorus, revolted against their Persian overlords. Aristagorus resigned his position as tyrant of the city and instituted popular rule. Other Ionian cities followed Miletus' example, and the cities of Athens and Eretria, impressed by what they perceived as a genuine attempt to replace autocracy with popular rule, sent ships and men to support the revolt.

At first, things went well for the Ionians and their allies. The combined Greek forces marched to Sardis, at the western terminus of the Persian Royal Road that ran all the way to Susa and Persepolis, and took the great city, burning it to the ground in the process. But in a subsequent battle near Ephesus, the Greeks suffered a humiliating defeat. The Athenians decided to return home, leaving the Ionians to their fate.

But the seeds for Persian-Athenian enmity had been sown. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, when the emperor Darius was informed of the Athenians' role in the burning of Sardis, he replied contemptuously, "The Athenians? Who are they?" He called for a bow and ceremonially shot an arrow into the air, invoking the powers of heaven to help him punish the upstart Athenians. He even allegedly commanded one of his slaves to remind him thrice at every dinner to "remember the Athenians."

But before Darius could exact retribution from the Athenians, he needed to quell the revolt in Asia Minor. During the next several years, the valiant Ionians bore the terrible consequences of the Persian emperor's wrath. In 494 B.C., the city of Miletus, ringleader of the rebels, came to a terrible end. A Persian navy numbering 600 vessels besieged the city and took it by storm. No mercy was shown during the pillage that followed, the Persians wishing to make an example of Miletus for the rest of Greece and, indeed, all of the other Persian vassal states. Accordingly, the men of Miletus were slaughtered and the women and children carried off into bondage into Susa, at the easternmost extremity of the vast empire. …