Who Won the Battle of Marathon?

The Battle of Marathon was famously fought between the Greeks and Persians during the Greco-Persian wars. But who actually won the battle?

Apr 11, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
battle of marathon commemorative coin and amphora


The Battle of Marathon is one of history’s most notorious battles, fought between Persians and Greeks in 490 BCE during the Persian invasions of Greece (also known as the Greco-Persian wars). The Battle of Marathon was one of many conflicts during this war. But it made history, because the Greeks managed to win against a much larger army of Persians. And it was no small victory; according to Greek historian Herodotus, the Greeks lost 192 men, to the Persian’s loss of 6,400 men. But which Greeks actually won the Battle of Marathon, and did they have any help? Let’s look into the history of the battle to find out more.


An Athenian-led Army Won the Battle of Marathon

battle of marathon
Ancient Amphora illustrating the Battle of Marathon, image courtesy of What’s Hot in London


The Battle of Marathon took place in the bay of Marathon, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Athens. Because Athens was the nearest city, it was the Athenians who first spotted Persian troops arriving into the bay of Marathon. The army that eventually defeated the Persians was made up predominantly of these Athenians. Led by General Miltiades, the Athenian army managed to block the Persians from advancing by trapping them around the bay.


Hoping to amass a larger army before the Persians could reach Athens and destroy their city, Miltiades sent several runners to Sparta and Plataea to ask for help (these long-distance runners are precursors to today’s marathon runners). Spartans, in particular, had extraordinary military might, but at this particular moment in time they were too busy with a religious festival to step in. So far, the Athenians were on their own.


The Plataeans Helped the Athenians

general miltiades
Bust of General Miltiades, image courtesy of Greek Reporter


The Plataeans, on the other hand, were happier to help. They sent an army of 1,000 hoplites, or Greek soldiers to the Athenians’ aid, and General Miltiades gratefully took them under his wing. The hoplites were composed of a heavy infantry, with sophisticated tools and armor, and a light infantry of less-armed soldiers. The Athenians and Plataeans hovered in stalemate for five days, waiting for the next move. On the fifth day, Miltiades ordered the Athenian and Plataean army to launch an attack on the Persians, suspecting that Athens was about to be invaded. Thus, the Battle of Marathon had begun.

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Greeks and Plataeans Played a Tactical War Game

battle of marathon commemorative coin
Battle of Marathon commemorative coin featuring general Miltiades, image courtesy of AgAuNews


General Miltiades had extensive experience as a politician, and his next moves in Marathon have become the tactical maneuvers of legend. He managed to outsmart and scare off the Persians with a series of radical moves which have fascinated historians for centuries since. Firstly, they attacked the Persians at dawn, catching them completely off guard. Secondly, Greek troops began advancing at a tremendous speed, which both allowed them to avoid Persian arrows and to terrify the Persians who had never experienced anything like this before. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Greeks formed a pincer-like shape that allowed them to advance on the Persians from several sides rather than a united front, and it was this that finally sent the Persians running, securing the Greek’s victory in the Battle of Marathon.


The Greeks Were Ready to Defend Athens

persian warriors
A depiction of Persian warriors, the Berlin Museum, image courtesy of History Hit


Following the end of the Battle of Marathon, Persians set off by ship to attack the unguarded city of Athens. But the Greeks ran to Athens before they could get there. When the Persians arrived and saw Miltiades and his ruthless, tactical Athenian army waiting, they changed their minds, and swiftly set sail back to Asia with their tails between their legs. 


A Long-Distance Runner Might Have Told Everyone the Greeks Had Won the Battle of Marathon

pheiphides marathon
Pheiphides after running from Marathon to Greece, image courtesy of Greek Boston


Legend has it that once the Athenians had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, the Greek runner Pheidippides ran all the way back to Athens to announce victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, before dropping dead upon delivering his message. Although historians have since disputed this story, many agree that Pheidippides was probably one of the first true marathon runners, who could cover vast areas of land at lightning speed.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.