The First War for the West (third blog in a series by Director Stanislaw Karpinski)
(See the descriptions for all 8 Episodes of The First War for the West. Watch the free 22-minute "Making of" special program featuring Stanislaw Karpinski.)
-- Cambridge University's Dr. Michael Scott, Host
The Mystery of Marathon, Part 1
It’s one of the most studied periods in history but some events are still shrouded in mystery. One of those mysteries is the actions of the Athenians in the lead up to the Battle of Marathon which occurred 2,504 years ago. There’s an old saying, put two historians in a room and you will get three opinions. When faced with a debate about what happened at a particular event, we did as much research as possible, visited the site at least once, and then mentally put ourselves in the picture and looked for an explanation that “ticked all the boxes” when it came to plausible, rational or logical.
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The more common view, based on Herodotus, is that the Athenian 10 Generals held a council when they arrived at Marathon, they took a vote on whether to attack or wait for the Spartan reinforcements. The vote was a five way tie and Miltiades, one of the generals, convinced the Polemarch (Callimachuis), chairman general so as to speak, to use his casting vote to bring on a battle. THEN, according to Herodotus the Athenians who had a system of rotating shared command, waited until it was Miltiades day of command before attacking, each general of the day gave his command to Miltiades, but he did not attack until it was his actual day of command. Apparently for the personal glory of Miltiades, and ended up attacking just before the Spartan reinforcements arrived.
The questions that jump out straight away are why wait several days before attacking? And then attack just before the Spartans arrived? You would only do this if you were supremely confident. Would the Athenians have been that confident? Obviously, no. Half the generals did not want to attack and the Persians had chosen to land at the Marathon plain, according to Herodotus, as it was most suitable for their cavalry. No Greek army had yet beaten a Persian army in a pitched battle and we know in one previous battle, Melan, in Ionia during the Ionian Rebellion, the Persian cavalry broke the Greek line. In addition, we glean from Herodotus that morale and unity were an issue in the Athenian camp. So to wait for one general’s day of command is not logical.
Faced with this enigma, we went back to check Herodotus again and came across an old translation by Professor George Rawlinson of Oxford, circa 1860. Rawlinson translates what Miltiades said to Callimachus. "Now if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake the men's resolutions and then I fear, they will submit themselves." The thing that jumps out, of course, is an event so serious in Athens that it could cause the army at Marathon to surrender. After this part of the translation, Herodotus goes on about the generals waiting for Miltiades day of command. Several of our contributors offered the opinion that Herodotus was biased against Miltiades as Miltiades was an ex-tyrant over Greeks for the Persians. We know Herodotus’ timeline can wander at times and, if we put aside the implausible idea that Miltiades had taken over the council of generals for his own personal glory, we start to have an explanation that is ticking the boxes to explain why the Athenians took the huge risk of attacking the Persians on the plain without waiting for the Spartans who were already marching.
So how did Miltiades know of an event in Athens? We have, of course, the minority view, based on the reference in the Suda from a much later period, that the Athenians were told of a plan by the Persians to split their forces, to try to take Athens by surprise from the rear with a troops landed from ships. So, if we put the meeting of generals on the night before the battle, after being told of the Persians' plans, we have ticked all the boxes. The Athenians had to make a decision because the Persians' actions forced them to. The only other option was to fall back to Athens and be at the mercy of the first traitor who opened a gate, as had happened at Eretria.
To finish ticking the boxes, three more points.
1) Was it likely the Athenians could learn of the Persian plans? Well yes, because there were many Ionian Greek conscripts in the Persian army and we know later at Thermopylae of this happening as well.
2) Would the Persians split their forces? Yes, they did so later at both Artemesium and Salamis, when faced with Greeks in strong defensive positions.
3) Would the Athenians attack once they learned the Persians had split their forces? Yes, they did so at Salamis.
(This was third in a series of blogs by director Stanislaw Karpinski)
- Stanislaw Karpinski, Director
Watch the free 22-minute "Making of" special program featuring Stanislaw Karpinski.