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The Battle of Marathon

Everyone expected the Persians to win at Marathon1. The Athenian and Plataean soldiers, who had never seen Persians before2, grew afraid just gazing at their unfamiliar and (to Greek eyes) frighteningly outlandish outfits. Nevertheless, the Athenian generals—the board of ten men elected each year as the civil and military leaders of Athens—never let their men lose heart. Led by the aristocrat Miltiades3 (c. 550-489 B.C.) and carefully planning their tactics to minimize the time their soldiers would be exposed to the fire of Persian archers, the generals sent their hoplites across the plain of Marathon at a dead run4 against the Persian line. The Greeks in their metal armor5 clanked across the open space between the two armies under a hail of Persian arrows6 fired like an artillery barrage. Once engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Persians, the Greek hoplites benefited from their superior, more protective armor and longer weapons, which allowed them to strike their enemies while they themselves were still out of reach. After a furious struggle, the Greek infantry men drove the Persians back into a swamp7, where the invaders who failed to escape to their ships could be picked off safely at the attackers' leisure.

Announcing the Victory

At the end of the battle of Marathon an Athenian messenger ran the twenty-six miles from the plain of Marathon to the city of Athens to report the victory and warn the people in the city to guard against a naval attack by the Persian fleet, which was sailing around the peninsula of Attica8 (the territory of Athens as a city-state) to see if the city could be taken by an approach from the coast to its west. When the Persians ended up sailing home without taking Athens9, the Athenians rejoiced in disbelief. The Persians, whom they had feared as invincible, had retreated. For decades afterwards, the greatest honor an Athenian man could claim was to say he had been a “Marathon fighter10.” The run of the messenger who reported the victory is commemorated in today's marathon races, whose name and distance are derived from this run in 490 B.C.

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