The first concentrated and coordinated offensive of the East against Europe took place 2,500 years ago. Nearly 1 million warriors and many nations from the Middle East attacked the south of the old continent.
West and East clashed repeatedly throughout history in ample offensives and counter-offensives.
Near and Middle East nations set in motion by the Persian “King of Kings” stormed Hellas, which was guarded by phalanxes of the fragile Greek cities. The result was surprising. Actually at first glance, statistically comparing the two forces clashed, the Persian Empire was in a clear superiority. Anyway, the battle between Athens who were at the gates of Europe and the Persian Empire represents an important turning point in European history. A Persian victory at the Battle of Marathon would have permanently changed the culture and destiny of Europe.
Persian danger approaches the gates of Europe
In the fifth century BC century, the Persian Empire was at the height of its power. Founded in the mid-sixth century by Cyrus the Great, Persia turns from a local power into an empire in three decades. Cyrus managed to overcome the resistance of the great powers of Mesopotamia, Assyrians or Babylonians as well. Practically after the fall of the Babylonian Empire, there was no power in the Middle East able to withstand the Persian threat. During Darius I, nicknamed “King of Kings” had one multiethnic empire, strong and well organized. An overwhelming force in Orient.
Darius I had divided his huge empire that stretched from Asia Minor to India and close to China in the East, including Egypt and part of Arabia but the entire coastline of the Middle East in 20 satrapies or provinces led by satraps and military commanders able to raise huge armies when the “King of Kings” needed in his expeditions of conquest. These satraps were supervised by spies known as “the king’s ears”. The role of these spies was to report to the king if these local governors were stealing from taxes that had to pay or plotting against the king. The Capital city of Persepolis was a true marvel of the ancient world, architects, and artists from all over the empire were brought here to help raise the city.
Even during the reign of Cyrus, the Persians have reached to the gates of Europe, conquering Lydia on the west coasts of Turkey today and the Greek Ionian cities in the same area. The next step was Europe itself. Beyond the Aegean were the Greek cities, which were ruled by tyrants, kings, and people. A highly advanced world in terms of economic and cultural progress and very divided at the same time. Even if there is a unity of language, culture, and religion, many Greek cities frequently not understood and wars took place between them. The most powerful and important cities in the state of V century were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. In the fifth century, however, supremacy in Greece was disputed by merchants, navigators and culture of the people of Athens and elite warriors from Sparta
The beginning of a war at the gates of Europe
The clashes between Greece and in the Persian Empire start in the year 499 BC. Greek cities of Asia Minor rebelled against Darius. One of the leaders of the rebellion Aristagoras, the tyrant of Millet, try to obtain the support of the Greek city. Spartans refuse to provide military support to the Ionian revolt. Athens instead sent a fleet of 20 ships and Eretria sent five ships. In 498 BC the Ionians forces manage to destroy the city of Sardis, the ancient capital of Lydia. The Persians, in turn, retaliate and destroy all rebel cities. In 495 i.Hr, Millet is burned to the ground and the inhabitants are deported. Because Athens and Eretria have supported this rebellion, the two city-states become the next targets for Darius.
Darius was driven both by a desire for revenge and the strategic plan, more ambitious, to subject all Greece to prevent future support cities in mainland Greece, for possible riots of the Ionians in Asia Minor.
The formal pretext of the Persian expedition was revenge for the burning of the temple of the goddess Cybele in Sardis by an Athenian contingent that participated in the expedition in Asia Minor, to support the Ionians, in 498 BC.
Over 36 nations have invaded Greece
Darius did not wait too long, he gave orders to all satrapies and gathered a huge army,consisting of soldiers and warriors from 36 nations, with additional mercenaries and a powerful fleet. Following the first wave of attack, led by general Mardonius, Thrace, and Macedonia are rapidly conquered. Attacked by a Thracian tribe, Mardonius is wounded and retreats in Asia Minor. Darius sent ambassadors in all greek city-states, demanding immediate obedience.Frightened the power of the great king, as shown by Herodotus in his famous “Histories”, most city-states surrendered without resistance. Sparta and Athens, the most powerful city-states in Greece executed the Persian ambassadors. A true invasion followed. First, in 490 it was small compared to what was to come a few years later. Darius sent 20,000 soldiers to the shores of Attica near Athens.
In late August of the year 490 BC, the Persian fleet (around 600 ships) anchored in the bay of Marathon. Persian army is only 42 km from Athens, a place where the Persian cavalry advantage was eliminated. The strategy was that if they manage to attract the whole Athenian army on the plains of Marathon, the Persian fleet will be able to quickly occupy Phaleron port so that Athena could be conquered with the support of Peisistratids.
At that introduce Greek soldiers in front of Persian infantry. “The dress of these troops consisted of the tiara or soft felt cap, embroidered tunic with sleeves, a coat of mail looking like the scales of a fish, and trousers; for arms they carried light wicker shields, quivers slung below them, short spears, powerful bows with cane arrows, and short swords swinging from belts beside the right thigh“ wrote Herodotus. The Persians also had dreaded heavily armed cavalry and archers elite. On the other side were Greek hoplites, a heavy infantry armed with huge and round shields , called Hoplon, arm guards and metal leggings. The hoplites also wore helmets. Phalanx fight in a tight formation, like a wall of shields and lances. They were a formidable force, highly trained and courageous.
In front of 20,000 Persians, there were only 10,000 Athenian hoplites from Plataea 1000. Spartans promised military support for the Athenians, but because of religious traditions, the warriors sent arrived after the battle has ended. Athenians and Plataeans hoplites fought alone against the great Persian Empire.
For several days the situation stagnates. The 10 generals who led the Greek forces were undecided about how the battle was going to unfold. Half of them wanted to avoid confrontation and await the arrival of the Spartan forces. The other half led by Miltiades wanted to leave positions and attack with full force the Persian troops. Finding out that Persians embarked their cavalry on ships, Miltiades manages to convince the generals that now is the time for the decisive fight.
On the day of battle (September 12th according to sources) Greek forces are arranged in this way: on the left flank the Plataeans troops were ready for attack, the center of the front was led by Themistocles and Aristide, the right flank forces were led by Miltiades and Callimachus.
The Persians could not believe what they saw. The Athenians forces had no cavalry nor archers. Their attack seemed a true act of suicide. But the Athenians continued to advance increasingly more rapidly.
The Persian commanders aligned their troops. Warriors with lighter shields pass in front, while thousands of archers sit in a well-defined order, behind the front.
Despite the speed with which the Athenians were coming to attack the Persians do not show any sense of fear or panic. They were professional fighters, winners of numerous bloody battles. The force coming towards them was something totally unique and unexpected, but nobody doubted that the hoplite attack will be repelled.
In the first phase of the battle, the Persians almost managed to break through the center of the front, but the two flanks Greeks were able to overwhelm them, then returned against enemy winner at center and crushing it therefore through a classic pincer movement. It was a memorable victory for the entire military history.
The battle was short and decisive, the Athenians managed to break the Persian lines. According to Herodotus, the Persians lost 6400 soldiers and seven ships which were burned by Athenian forces.
Athenians losses were surprisingly small: Herodotus speaks of 192 deaths among Athenians and 11 of the allies come from Plataea. Among those killed in combat is Callimachus. They were buried in a common tumulus that today dominates the coastal plain of Marathon.
The day after the victory of Miltiades, the Spartans forces, numbering 2000 fighters, arrived at Marathon. They arrived on the battlefield after a three-day forced march, hoping to take part in this fight. Once they saw the battlefield full of Persian corpses, the Spartans congratulated the Athenians for this great achievement and returned back to Lacedaemonia.
However, the Persian danger has not disappeared. The remaining forces still hoped to conquer Athens, which was unprotected, with help from the partisans inside the city.
Fortunately, hoplites led by Miltiades have managed to travel the long the distance between Marathon and Athens to prevent a new Persian invasion.
Noticing that the Athenian troops are ready for a new battle, the Persians have decided to withdraw.
The biggest army that invaded Europe
What are the main consequences of the battle of Marathon? It is the first time a Persian force is defeated. Although the expedition is considered by many historians as being of little importance. The Battle of Marathon proved that the Persian army is not invincible. However, the loss of 6,400 warriors still did not mean a heavy blow to the Persians. This defeat was more a blow to the prestige of Darius. For the Athenian, Battle of Marathon is the beginning of a new era. This battle has propelled the city on top of the Greek city-states, Athens becomes the great rival Sparta. If the battle of Marathon was won by Persians most likely Greek culture would have ceased to exist.Why? Because Greece’s cultural development was a consequence of political freedom in Greek cities If the Persians managed to defeat the Athenians most likely Athenian democracy was going to be destroyed and Hippias, Pisistrates’s successor would have taken control of power.
The Athenian victory brought to an ephemeral peace in Greece. Darius planned revenge for the defeat at Marathon, but his death in 486 BC and a revolt in Egypt because of high taxes has delayed a new invasion of Greece. In 481, Xerxes, Darius’s successor, consolidates its rule and resumed plans for the submission of Greece.
According to Herodotus, Xerxes has managed to assemble an army of 2.5 million soldiers, warriors, and mercenaries from all over the empire, an impossible figure for that period.
Modern historians say that this force is logistically impossible. Many experts say 200,000 people is a more realistic figure. However, a huge figure for those days. This army crossed over a pontoon bridge in the Hellespont and turned in 480 in Thrace and Macedonia.
And this time the Persian forces were defeated in the famous battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale.