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How did the city-state of Athens defeat the invaders from Persia, the first world empire, on the plain of Marathon in 490 BCE? Clever scholars skeptical of our earliest surviving source, Herodotus, have produced one ingenious theory after another. In this stimulating new book, bound to provoke controversy, Peter Krentz argues that Herodotus was right after all.
Beginning his analysis with the Athenians’ first formal contact with the Persians in 507 BCE, Krentz weaves together ancient evidence with travelers’ descriptions, archaeological discoveries, geological surveys, and the experiences of modern reenactors and soldiers to tell his story.
Krentz argues that before Marathon the Athenian army fought in a much less organized way than the standard view of the hoplite phalanx suggests: as an irregularly armed mob rather than a disciplined formation of identically equipped infantry. At Marathon the Athenians equipped all their fighters, including archers and horsemen, as hoplites for the first time. Because their equipment weighed only half as much as is usually thought, the Athenians and their Plataean allies could charge almost a mile at a run, as Herodotus says they did. Krentz improves on this account in Herodotus by showing why the Athenians wanted to do such a risky thing.
"It is hard to imagine that Krentz''s account of the events on that sweltering day can be improved on: the maddeningly elusive topography of the Marathon plain, in particular, has never been better treated."—Peter Thonemann, The Times Literary Supplement
— Peter Thonemann
"I love this book! It accomplishes so much at such short length. The Battle of Marathon is not only history but perhaps even literature, evoking the ancient experience elegiacally yet never unmoored from the evidence.”—Phyllis Culham, United States Naval Academy
Athens' Alliance with Darius
A Desperate Situation
Direct relations between the Athenians and the Persians began when the Athenians, finding themselves isolated and vulnerable in Greece, approached the closest Persian satrap (governor) for help. Here's what happened. In 510 BC, the Spartans had expelled the Athenian tyrant Hippias. The son of the popular tyrant Peisistratos, Hippias had become more repressive after the assassination of his brother. He had exiled the wealthy Alkmeonid family, among others. They had tried to return by force, building a fort in Attica to attract like-minded individuals, but Hippias had defeated them. So they plotted to bring in allies who wouldn't lose. With extravagant gifts, they persuaded the Delphic oracle to support their cause. Every time a Spartan came to consult the oracle, Herodotus says, he heard, "Liberate Athens."
The advice fell on willing ears. Probably well-informed ears, too, for though no source says so, it seems likely that Kleisthenes, the leading Alkmeonid, had spoken directly with influential Spartans such as Kleomenes, one of Sparta's two kings. Kleomenes had already pulled off one diplomatic coup by getting residents of Plataea, just beyond the border of northwest Attica, to ask the Athenians for help against their powerful neighbors to the north, the Thebans. The Athenians had agreed to help the underdog. The bitter feelings that resulted between Athenians and Thebans did not surprise Kleomenes. They would prevent the two cities from combining against Sparta. Kleomenes probably saw an opportunity to create a wedge between Athens and Argos, the home of one of Peisistratos' wives and a traditional enemy of Sparta. Liberating Athens by removing Hippias and restoring the exiles would leave the Athenians feeling grateful to Sparta and perhaps willing to break off their tie to Argos. Intervening in Athens would fit Sparta's traditional policy of expelling tyrants and supporting conservative aristocracies.
It took two tries—Hippias managed to drive off the first invasion that came by sea—but Spartan soldiers under the leadership of Kleomenes penned up the Peisistratids on the Acropolis, caught their children trying to sneak out of Attica, and forced them all to agree to leave Attica in order to get back their children unharmed. Hippias went to an Athenian colony ruled by his half-brother on the Asian side of the entrance to the Hellespont.
The Spartans' attempt at regime change did not turn out as they anticipated. Things went well enough at first. The exiles returned, and the Athenians resumed the jockeying for power typical of elites in Greek cities during the Archaic period (eighth–sixth centuries). The two most prominent men were Kleisthenes and Isagoras. When Isagoras won the election for archon, the highest political office in Athens, Herodotus says, Kleisthenes "added the commons [the demos] to his supporters" and began the democratic reforms for which he is still celebrated. He abolished the four traditional Athenian tribes and then reassigned all citizens, based on where they lived, to one of ten new Athenian tribes. He established a new Council of 500, 50 citizens from each tribe chosen by lot. The councilors served for a single year, during which they met daily to supervise state officials and prepare motions for the assembly. All free adult male citizens could speak and vote in the assembly. These changes, the philosopher Aristotle thought, made Athens "much more democratic than it had been in the time of Solon" (before the tyranny of Peisistratos).
Whether that was Kleisthenes' intent, at least at first, is not clear. He has always remained a rather shadowy figure. His father had been a major player in his day, prominent enough to marry the daughter of the tyrant of Sicyon, after whom Kleisthenes was named. Kleisthenes' sister married Peisistratos, though the marriage did not last. Kleisthenes himself held the archonship in 525/4, before going into exile.
His was not the first exile for the Alkmeonid family. More than a century earlier, the Alkmeonids tangled with an Olympic champion named Kylon who had married the daughter of the tyrant of Megara. With soldiers borrowed from his father-in-law, Kylon seized the Acropolis in an attempt to make himself tyrant of Athens. Besieged by angry Athenians, he and his brother managed to escape, while his supporters took refuge at the altar. When they were on the point of starving to death, the Athenians on guard promised them their lives, brought them out of the Acropolis, and killed them. The Athenians held the Alkmeonid who was serving as archon responsible for this sacrilege. Considering his family polluted and accursed, the Athenians drove the Alkmeonids into exile. By the middle of the sixth century they were back. The experience of exile and return must have dominated many dinner conversations at their houses. After returning from his own exile, Kleisthenes did not want to emerge the loser again. He may have appealed to the people in the hope of becoming tyrant himself.
Neither a democracy nor a new tyranny in Athens was what the interventionist Spartan king had in mind. Kleomenes wanted a nice conservative government he could count on to support Spartan policies. When Isagoras asked him to intervene again, the Spartan king agreed. Their friendship was recent. Isagoras had hosted Kleomenes when he came to Athens to overthrow Hippias, so they now considered themselves guest-friends. (Rumor added that Kleomenes had enjoyed Isagoras' wife.) Kleomenes sent a herald to tell the Athenians to banish Kleisthenes and all his relatives on the grounds of the old family curse. Bowing to the inevitable, Kleisthenes left town before Kleomenes arrived with a small force. Isagoras gave Kleomenes a list of 700 families to be banished, and Kleomenes drove them out. Then he tried to dissolve the new Athenian Council, intending to put Isagoras and 300 of his friends into power. But the Council resisted, the Athenians spontaneously took up arms, and Kleomenes could do nothing other than seize the Acropolis by force. He had no way to bring in supplies, so after two days the Spartans agreed to a truce giving them permission to withdraw unharmed. The Athenians killed all the non-Spartans they caught. On his way home, Kleomenes took over the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis on the western edge of Athenian territory, where he left Isagoras (Figure 5).
The Athenians promptly recalled Kleisthenes and his friends. They must have feared that Kleomenes would return with a larger army. What to do? The Spartan alliance included most of the inhabitants of the Peloponnese or southern Greece, while the Athenians could count as nearby allies only the small town of Plataea. The Peisistratids had received military support from Eretria, Naxos, Thebes, and Thessaly, but after expelling Hippias the Athenians could not rely on help from any of these former friends. Where else could they turn?
The Persian Army
In 507 the Mediterranean world had only one superpower. Modern historians tend to underestimate the Persian army, since much of our evidence for it comes from Greek accounts of two of its rare failures, Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 and Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persians in 334. In the late sixth century, these failures were still in the future. How would the Great King's military power have looked to a Greek then?
The Persian and Median infantry, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, had identical equipment: "They wore soft felt caps on their heads, which they call tiaras, and multicolored tunics with sleeves, covering their bodies, and they had breastplates of iron fashioned to look like fish scales. On their legs they wore trousers, and instead of shields they carried pieces of wicker [gerra], which had quivers hung below them. They were armed with short spears, long bows, and arrows made of reeds. From their belts they fastened daggers, which hung down along the right side." A number of Athenian red-figure vases show scenes of Greeks fighting Persians (two examples appear in Figures 6 and 7). The Persians wear the caps, long-sleeved tunics, and trousers described by Herodotus. They fight with bows, spears, or single-edged curved swords. No iron scales are visible. Some Persians wear corslets that look like padded linen, perhaps the Egyptian corslets that Herodotus says the Persians adopted. The vases also show shields that must be gerra, tall and rectangular. (One is propped upright in Figure 6, and others are held by fighters in Figure 7.) Gerron makers cut slits in a rectangular piece of uncured leather and then inserted pliable willow rods into the slits. When the leather dried and hardened, the shield became light and rigid. The different patterns seen on Greek vases resulted from different kinds of slits and perhaps different colors of paint. Made of perishable materials, few gerra have survived, but American excavators at Dura Europos in Syria found two dating from the third century AD.
The Persians did not originally have cavalry, which Cyrus the Great organized after he defeated the Lydians. On that occasion, he used camels. By the late sixth century, Persian horses were numerous. Estimates put them at not more than 14 hands tall, weighing about 1,000 pounds. The Persians became great horse breeders. No fewer than ten different breeds appear on reliefs at the palace in Persepolis. Tritantaichmes, the satrap of Babylon, was said to have a stud farm with 800 stallions and 16,000 mares. As a result, Persian horses surpassed the best available in Greece. Xerxes demonstrated their superiority in 480 when he held a race among Persian and Thessalian horses. Herodotus reports that "the Greek horses were left far behind."
Herodotus says that Persian and Median horsemen were equipped in the same way as their foot soldiers, except that the horsemen had bronze or iron helmets. In art horsemen have both bows and spears (mounted archers appear in Figure 8). A cavalry officer named Masistios wore a corslet with golden scales under his shirt at the battle of Plataea. After his horse went down, his apparent invincibility puzzled the Greeks until someone realized he had something under his shirt and stabbed him in the eye.
In an inscription on his tomb, King Darius boasted: "As a horseman I am a good horseman. As a bowman I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. As a spearman I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback." According to Greek sources, Persians were trained in these skills. The ancient geographer Strabo says that "from five years of age to 24 Persians are trained to use the bow, to throw the javelin, to ride horseback, and to speak the truth." They remained liable for military service up to age 50. Xenophon adds that in practice only the sons of great families received this education; Persians who lived on estates in the provinces sent their sons to the satrap's court, where their training was identical to that in Persia. Xenophon has military service proper last from 17 to 27, with liability to conscription lasting for another 25 years.
How did the Persian national infantry fight? It was organized on a decimal system. The largest units of 10,000 comprised units of 1,000 that comprised units of 100 that comprised units of ten. Because one could not shoot a bow while holding a gerron, the front-line man in each file of ten may have held a gerron and fought with a spear or sword to defend the nine shieldless archers behind him. This interpretation fits Herodotus' descriptions of the battles of Plataea and Mycale, where the Greeks apparently have to get past only one line of shields formed into a shield wall.
The Persians would hope to win a battle with a barrage of arrows. They used two kinds of bows. The more common was the Scythian bow, which formed the shape of a Greek capital letter sigma (Σ) when strung. It was about 30 inches long, with a bracing height (the distance from the string to the handle when strung) of about 8 inches. The Persian bow, carried by Persians and perhaps Medes, formed a simple curve with recurved tips. It was longer, about 47 inches, with a bracing height of about 9 inches. Both bows shot arrows made of reed with socketed bronze heads weighing 0.1–0.2 ounces each. The most common was a three-winged head about an inch long. Scythian arrows were about 20 inches long, the Persian about 30.
The Scythian bow imparted a maximum kinetic energy on release of 18–36 joules, the Persian 24–52. (For comparison, later English longbows and Turkish composite bows gave an arrow about 50 joules.) An archer's effective range extended to at least 175–190 yards. The most revealing bit of literary evidence is Herodotus' statement that the Persians shot fire arrows from the Areopagos hill in Athens to the barricades at the gate of the Acropolis, a distance of about 500 feet with a vertical rise of about 100 feet. Those archers could have shot a regular arrow at least 250 yards on a level field. They may have been selected for their strength, but if common archers could reach three-quarters of that distance, they could shoot 190 yards.
The arrows would have lost energy quickly. At 55 yards, the Scythian arrow dropped to perhaps 20 joules. Another 55 yards and it was down to 15 joules. By 220 yards, if it went that far, it had only 9 joules. The larger Persian arrows did better: 30 joules at 55 yards, 26 joules at 110, 20 joules at 220. That compares to about 30 joules for a Greek hand-held spear. A Persian arrow shot from 55 yards away had about as much kinetic energy when it hit as an overhand spear thrust did, a Scythian arrow about two-thirds as much. For causing a wound through armor, a bow has some advantage over a thrusting spear, since a spear needs to create a larger hole than an arrow.
Perforation tests have shown that arrows with an energy below 35 joules would not have penetrated bronze armor 0.04 inches or more thick. Greek shields would have been vulnerable to arrows with an energy of 25–35 joules, so Persian arrows might have pierced shields at close range, but Scythian arrows would have done no harm unless they hit an unprotected area. (See CHAPTER 2 for more information about Greek armor.) If a warrior wore a corslet and carried a shield, his chest was well protected against Persian arrows. This conclusion is consistent with the low casualties reported for the Greeks at the battle of Marathon.
Persians could use their cavalry in several ways. Persian horsemen could attack in squadrons, riding across the enemy front from left to right, shooting arrows or throwing javelins across their bodies as they went, all the while keeping a safe distance. This is how the Persians first assaulted the Greeks at Plataea. Or they could have charged the infantry head-on and fought at close quarters. They did that (unsuccessfully) at Plataea after their commander Masistios went down, and at the battle of Salamis on Cyprus, where the Persian Artybios' horse had his legs sheared off. They would do better against Greek infantry if they could attack the flanks.
Fighting scenes appear only rarely in Achaemenid art, apart from small seals such as the one illustrated in Figure 9. Deniz Kaptan describes the scene on this seal as follows: "A horseman wearing trousers, corselet, and a bashlyk [headgear made of soft material such as leather and wool] thrusts his spear into the chest of a warrior clad in a knee-length chiton [sleeveless shirt] and a conical helmet with a long tassel. He carries a large round shield in his left hand. Its inside detailing, such as the handgrips, has been carefully indicated." The double-grip shield is typically Greek; the pilos-type helmet with its hanging crest is a rare type most similar to funerary reliefs in Lycia.
A similar scene occurs at the center of a battle painting on the north wall of an early-fifth-century tomb chamber known as Karaburun II in Lycia (Figures 10 and 11). Excavated by Bryn Mawr archaeologists in the 1970s, the tomb awaits final publication. In her preliminary reports, archaeologist Machteld J. Mellink described the scene as "some kind of a Persian war in which the Greeks are the losers." The tomb owner, presumably the rider portrayed in the middle, wears a purple long-sleeved tunic over purple trousers tucked into his blue shoes. He rides over a fallen archer as he stabs a warrior armed with a two-handled shield, corslet, helmet, and shin guards. As in the scene on the seal, an eastern horseman uses a spear to kill a warrior armed with a Greek shield. Whether or not these scenes show particular historical events—more likely the horseman died fighting—they provide a nice balance to the vases painted by Greeks. Here Persian horsemen kill Greek hoplites.
Another fascinating battle scene comes from a burial mound near Tatarli in Phrygia. In the 1960s looters sawed in two the wooden beam on which it was painted (Figure 12). The beam ended up in the Archäologische Staatssammlung in Munich, where it remained largely unnoticed until a German scholar, Lâtife Summerer, rediscovered it. It shows a Persian force, coming from the left, defeating a Scythian force coming from the right. In the center, the Persian commander pulls the Scythian leader forward by his beard as he stabs him in the stomach with a dagger—a stock execution scene in Achaemenid art. The Scythian shot through the neck, the fallen Scythian shot in the back, and the horse shot in the chest show that archers won the battle. The foremost archer shoots from a chariot. Seven mounted and two infantry archers follow, the mounted archers in two lines. The infantry archers shoot the Persian longbow, the others the Scythian or composite bow. The painting is dated on stylistic grounds to the mid-fifth century. Though the Persians are not fighting Greeks here, the painting illustrates how the Persians might have hoped to win at Marathon, where the Athenians could not match them in archers or horses.
Excerpted from The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz. Copyright © 2010 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Foreword by Donald Kagan and Dennis Showalter.................... xi
List of Illustrations.................... xv
CHAPTER 1. Athens' Alliance with Darius.................... 19
CHAPTER 2. Athens' Victories over the Boeotians and Chalcidians............ 40
CHAPTER 3. The Ionian Revolt.................... 66
CHAPTER 4. Darius and the Greeks of Europe.................... 83
CHAPTER 5. The Armies Arrive at Marathon.................... 101
CHAPTER 6. The Plain of Marathon.................... 111
CHAPTER 7. When Marathon Became a Magic Word.................... 137
CHAPTER 8. After the Fighting.................... 161
CHAPTER 9. What If?.................... 172
Appendix A. Important Ancient Sources on Marathon.................... 177
Appendix B. The Date of the Battle.................... 180
Bibliographical Notes.................... 195
Posted April 25, 2012
Posted October 14, 2010
A very readable book. It has precision for the scholar and clear explanations for the military historians and novice alike. Krentz's strength and focus is on a rethinking of the battle itself. He makes a persuasive case for the famous run by the Greek infantry as told by Herodotus, which many historians have simply discounted. He rethinks details of the armor materials and weight, as well as the plain where the battle took place, to arrive at some very fresh conclusions about a clash between the Greeks and Persians 2500 years ago.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2011
No text was provided for this review.