10. Miltiades Saved Athens But Got No Love From the Athenians
Ancient Athens’ Miltiades (550 – 489 BC) was a general best known for his victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC – an upset victory against a numerically superior force, which saved Athens from Persian conquest. He was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, which owned a private kingdom in the Chersonese (today’s Gallipoli Peninsula), and which Miltiades inherited in 516 BC. When Persia’s king Darius I invaded the Chersonese in 513 BC, Miltiades submitted and became a Persian vassal.
In 499 BC, the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor revolted against Persian rule. 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. The Persians eventually crushed the revolt in 495 BC, and discovered Miltiades’ betrayal. He fled to Athens, where he was elected one of its ten generals.
The Persians determined to punish Athens for aiding the Ionians, and sent a punitive expedition that landed on the plain of Marathon north of Athens, in 490 BC. The Athenians marched out with a force of about 10,000 hoplites – heavily armored infantry – with no cavalry or archers. They faced 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, wavered. For over a week, they simply watched the Persians from heights overlooking Marathon, until Miltiades’ turn to take command. He 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, he ordered his men to charge at a full run.
They rapidly closed the distance, and smashed into the 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. A year later, he led a strong expedition against some Greek islands that had supported the Persians, but it turned into a fiasco, in which he also sustained a severe leg wound. Miltiades’ failure seemed so absurd to his fellow citizens, that they figured it could only be explained by deliberate treachery. So the Athenians, whom he had so recently saved, tried him for treason. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to a heavy fine. While locked up, pending payment of the fine, he died in prison when his leg wound became infected.