3 – Battle of Marathon (490 BC)
The famed Greco-Persian Wars began in 499 BC and waged until 449 BC although the most important battles took place in the first half of the conflict. The Ionian Revolt of 499 BC (along with rebellions in areas such as Cyprus and Caria) involved an uprising against Persian rule. Aristagroas, the tyrant of Miletus, attempted to conquer Naxos and when he failed, he feared that he would be removed from office. As a result, he decided to incite the entire region of Ionia into rebellion against Persian king Darius I, also known as Darius the Great.
It took six years to quell the revolt and then Darius decided to punish Athens and Eretria. The Persians conquered and razed Eretria in 490 BC and turned their attention to Athens. Darius’ forces landed at the bay of Marathon some 25 miles from Athens. After a five-day stalemate, the Persians loaded their cavalry onto their ships as they intended to continue onwards to Athens.
It was a costly error as the Athenian commander, Miltiades, learned that the Persians were temporarily weakened, so he ordered an immediate attack. Even so, the Athenians were slightly outnumbered, but Miltiades used a bold strategy to win the battle. He weakened his center to strengthen the wings and gambled on his hoplites in the middle holding firm. Although the Athenian center eventually broke under pressure, it held together long enough for their forces on the wings to overwhelm the Persians. The Athenians then attacked the enemy from the rear causing widespread confusion.
The Athenians possessed better armor than the Persians, and the Battle of Marathon turned into a rout as they slaughtered the enemy with long spears. Herodotus wrote that 192 Athenians died against 6,400 Persians. While this is probably an exaggeration of the one-sided nature of the battle, there is no doubt that the Athenians enjoyed a significant victory.
Legend has it that an Athenian messenger ran the distance from Marathon to Athens to tell the city about the Persian defeat before dying from exhaustion. Herodotus claims that Pheidippides, a trained runner, covered 150 miles in two or three days as he traveled to Sparta to request assistance. The Persian fleet sailed to Athens anyway (sources disagree as to whether this happened before or after the Battle of Marathon). Regardless, the Athenians returned to their city to defend it and prevented the Persians from landing. A frustrated Darius ordered a retreat to Persia, and other problems prevented him from returning to Greece for the rest of his reign.