Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was an Athenian general best known for his victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
Miltiades was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, which owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula) that Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. In 513 BC, Darius I of Persia invaded the Chersonese, and Miltiades surrendered, accepted the role of vassal, and accompanied Darius on a campaign against the Scythians.
When the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule in 499 BC, Miltiades marched against the rebels, but secretly supported their cause and helped funnel them aid from Athens. Athens sent an expeditionary force which joined the rebels in marching to the Persian governor’s seat in Sardis, putting it to the torch.
When the Persians crushed the revolt in 495 BC, they learned of Miltiades’ betrayal, and he was forced to flee to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals. The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians and sent a seaborne punitive expedition which landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC.
The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – armored heavy infantry – with no cavalry or archers, to confront a Persian force of at least 25,000 infantry, plus thousands of archers and 1000 cavalry. The Athenians, who had ten generals and a rotating command system by which each general held command for a day, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon. Until Miltiades’ turn to take overall command.
Miltiades convinced a closely divided war council to give battle. Descending from the heights, Miltiades assembled the army with reinforced flanks and a weakened center, and advanced. Once they got within Persian archery range, Miltiades ordered his men to charge at a full run, in order to spend the least amount of time under a rain of arrows.
They rapidly closed the distance and smashed into the more lightly armed Persians. The Athenians’ reinforced flanks pushed back their opposition, then wheeled inwards to attack the Persian center, which panicked, broke, and fled in a rout to the safety of their beached ships.
It was a stunning victory, with the Athenians and their allies losing about 200 dead to the Persians’ 6400. Miltiades returned to Athens in glory, but it would not last. The following year, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but bungled it badly, and suffered a severe leg wound in the process. Returning to Athens, his defeat seemed so absurd to his fellow citizens that only deliberate treachery could explain it. Put on trial for treason, he was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced to a heavy fine. He was sent to prison, where he died soon thereafter when his leg wound became infected.