In 490 B.C.E. the Battle of Marathon was a brief but important event in the war between the Greek city-states and The Persian Empire. The results of the battle had unforeseen effects on Athens and the future of Western Civilization. The Greek ‘Golden Age’, centred in Athens, brought about new forms of art, the foundations of future philosophy and redirected literature and drama. The achievements of the Athenians during this period were directly connected to the inspiration and prestige (which later translated into power) fuelled by the events at Marathon. How the events of a single day changed the entire course of Western Civilization is hard to fathom but obvious when one looks at the aftermath of that fateful event.
The revolts of a few Greek cities of Ionia were what initially sparked the Persians interest in Athens, Attica and the Peloponnese. When Athens sent a small fleet in support of the Ionian rebels they immediately gave Persia a new target for further expansion. The failure of the revolts and the ruin of Sardis and Miletus shocked the Greek world. The Persians now thought, “if Miletus had been the glory of subject Greece, Athens was the golden gate to free Hellas. A bauble, perhaps, beside the treasures of the empire, but a tempting one.” Now not only did the Persian king Darius want revenge against the Athenians he wanted the entire Greek world to be integrated into the Persian Empire.
In 490 BCE Darius finally advanced towards Greece. After the capture of Eretria, confident of their success, the Persians sailed on to Attica; and under the advice of Hippas* landed at the bay of Marathon, 26 km north east of Athens. When the Athenians received news of the Persians landing, they sent a runner (Philippides) to Sparta asking for support. They knew support would not get to them before the Persians decided to move so the Athenians then made “one of the most fateful decisions ever taken by a democratic government in ancient Greece. It was to advance and engage the Persians at their point of invasion, rather that to sit tight and try to hold the city.” .
This decision was a radical one for a few reasons: the Athenians were highly outnumbered and historically, according to the historian Herodotus, the Greeks had never stood their ground against a Persian attack. Every major battle during the six years of the Ionian revolt demonstrated that the Greeks preferred to defend their cities rather that fight out in the open. For these reasons the Persians were justifiably optimistic about their ability to defeat the Greeks.
Upon the Athenian arrival at their base camp, away from the bay, they were joined by troops from the Athenian ally Plataia (about one thousand). There were 10,000 men in the Athenian army; a general represented each 1000. The ten generals of the army debated over a course of action, either to stay and meet the Persians as they advance or to attack them and try to take them by surprise. Miltiades* overcame the deadlock by appealing to the Polemarch Kallimachos who had an equal vote on the board of generals and convinced him to attack. Miltiades waited until the day of his prytaneia*, the day which he had supreme control over the entire army, to attack the Persians at their base camp. The Persians were taken by surprise and being unprepared, retreated back to their ships.
While the Persians fled to their ships a point when only a narrow passage of beach separated the sea from a marsh was passed, it was here that around six thousand men from both sides were killed, the overwhelming number were Persians. Herodotus reported the casualties of the Greeks amounted to 192 Athenians, and an unrecorded number of Plataeans and slaves, the Persians lost 6400 men in total. The Greeks pursued in an attempt to capture the Persians ships but all but seven escaped. The Persians changed their course of action and sailed around to attack the now undefended city of Athens from the sea. The Athenian army was force to march the 26 km back to Athens in haste to defend the city. They reached the city and the Persian fleet seeing the defenders had returned, did not land but turned and headed back to Asia.
The victory at Marathon and the successful defence of the city, gave the Athenians a sense of moral superiority and pride. In later battles of the Persian War, at Thermopylai and Salamis, the highly regarded Spartans and those of the Peloponnese were largely in control of strategic moves. Although still a major force in every battle, Athens and her allies were outnumbered and thus followed Spartan command. After the second occupation of Athens after the battle of Salamis, the Athenians gave Sparta an ultimatum due to a lack of Spartan support. “If the Peloponnesians wanted Athens’ navy, they must save Athens’ land.” Because the Athenians had more damage to recover from it brought stronger confidence and overall pride for them once the city got back on its feet.
The Spartans, Corinthians and other Peloponnesian allies now had reason to fear Athens growing naval power and its capabilities now that the city was repaired and invigorated with a renewed sense of pride. This is the point that we see the beginnings of a shift in the balance of power and influence between the city-states. When the Ionian states adopted the Athenians as leaders, as opposed to the Spartans who had been pre-eminent for a long time, the rise of the Athenian influence began to show.
For the purpose of protecting all Greeks from a further Persian attack, a league was formed, of which Athens was now the leader. The league included all Aegean states in the interest of their common welfare, and was called The Delian League. At first it was as a leader that Athens lead the allies, who sent members to a general congress, in discussions of further campaigns against the Persians. But that would all change when other city-states adopted the Athenian form of government, democracy, either by force or voluntarily.
Inevitably Athens became the leader of what was now an Athenian Empire. When Athens imposed their “superior” form of government onto other city-states it was no longer a league of self-governing city-states but a league ruled by one. The league, which was formed for the purpose of protection, now became the means for Athens to spread democracy. The Athenian Empire gave Athens a feeling of superiority; it felt that she had the superior form of government, superior ideals, culture and economic practices; that sense of superiority all traced back to the victory at Marathon.
“Suppose, then, that we had never done anything but fight at Marathon – in point of fact we have done much besides: more than any other people of Greece – but just suppose; then Marathon alone would be enough to qualify us not only for the privilege we are claiming but for others too; for in that fight we stood alone against Persia – we dared a mighty enterprise and came out alive – we defended forty-six nations. Do we not, for this act alone, deserve the place of honour…”
From the Athenian Empire and its attitude came many great things that had an unquestionable effect on the future of western civilization. Pericles, a famous name in Athenian politics, is a direct result of the Athenian Empire and all its ideals and attitudes. Pericles took advantage of Athens position of power and used money from the Delian League to fund the construction of major pieces of architecture in the city. Without Pericles there would be no Parthenon or Propylea, and Athens might now have gained the prestige it had during its Golden Age.
Athens golden age was a direct result of the wealth and prestige of empire; without it Athens may not have reached the point where it became the educational and cultural centre of the Greek world. From this centre came great thinkers and playwrights; western civilization gained philosophy, Greek drama and literature, science and democracy.
The Battle of Marathon, although only a single event, had an unquestionable impact on western civilization. Marathon allowed Athens to raise itself to a position of prestige and importance in the Greek world. The Athenians were given the opportunity to become culturally, politically and economically the centre of the Greek world because of the result of the battle of Marathon. Without the Athenians daring strategic move western civilization as we know it today would not be the same.