The Two Armies: Athens and Persia



The Athenian army at the time of Marathon was entirely made up of hoplites - heavily armed infantry bearing spears and shields. The weapons and armour used by a hoplite were expensive, so poor Athenians could not afford to be in the army. Ten years after Marathon the poor did take part in the wars with Persia - they were the oarsmen who rowed the warships in the battle of Salamis.


Usually only citizens could be hoplites. A citizen was a free adult male. This meant that slaves, women, and under 18s could not fight. There were lots of foreigners living in the city state of Athens - they also were not citizens, even though many were from other parts of Greece.


What was a citizen?


Being a citizen meant you had the right to vote. Every now and then citizens - as many as 5,000 at a time - would gather on a rocky hillside in the middle of Athens, called the Pnyx. The pictures right show the Pnyx today. Any important issues were debated here. Anyone could take a turn to speak - although usually only well-off, educated, confident men would speak. These orators would stand on a special platform (see picture - that's me on the platform). They would wear a wreath of myrtle on their heads, keep their hands in their cloaks to show proper respect, and try to convince all the citizens to do what they thought was right. After a few speakers had expressed their views, everyone would vote by raising their hands. This is what we call 'democracy'.


In fact it was the Greeks who invented democracy. Great Britain, the USA, and many other countries are now democracies. However, because today countries have such large populations we do not get to vote on every question - instead we vote for representatives (in Britain they are called MPs, or members of parliament). These representatives make all the decisions for us. So you could say Athens had a better democracy than we do, because everyone got to decide on every issue. Except for women and slaves. In fact women in Britain only got the vote in 1918!


The Tribes


The Athenians were divided into ten tribes, named after mythological heroes. The army was also divided into these ten tribes. Each tribe consisted of 900 hoplites, with its own general. The Greek for general is strategos, which is where we get the word strategy from.


When the Athenian army went into battle, the ten tribes formed phalanxes in a long row. At Marathon there were about 1500 men in each rank, so the battle line was about a mile (1.6km) long. There was a standard order in which the ten tribes ordered themselves:


1. Erechtheis

2. Kekropis

3. Aigeis

4. Pandionis

5. Leontis

6. Antiochis

7. Oineis

8. Hippothontis

9. Akamantis

10. Aiantis


Normally the hoplites formed into 8 ranks, although at Marathon the middle two tribes - Leontis and Antiochis - thinned to 4 ranks so the whole battle line matched the width of the Persian line.


In 490BC, there were not enough hoplites to make up the 900 per tribe (9,000 total), and so the numbers were completed by offering slaves their freedom if they fought for Athens.


The Pnyx


The bema, or speaker's platform






There were the ten generals, but at the time of Marathon the overall command of the army was held by a war leader, or polemarch (the ch is pronounced as a k). At Marathon the polemarch was Kallimachos. However, according to Herodotus, who wrote the history of the Persian Wars, Kallimachos and the generals gave over command for the battle to Miltiades, one of the generals. Miltiades was a fairly old man - 64 - and had some experience of the Persians. It was his strategy that probably won the battle for the Greeks, as we will see. As polemarch Kallimachos would have led from the right wing of the army. He died in the battle.


The Plataians


The Athenians were supported at Athens by about 1,000 men from the small town of Plataia. Plataia was an ally of Athens in Boeotia - an area dominated by the city of Thebes. The Plataians were commanded by Arimnestos, who also led them 11 years later in the final victory over the Persians at Plataia. It was a brave decision of this tiny city to send all its men to fight the Persians, and the Athenians must have been very impressed.



The Persians

The Persian Empire was enormous - see the map to the right. Its king, Darius, commanded a vast number of subjects, and a huge army. To attack Athens, Darius decided to send a fleet of 600 ships carrying soldiers and horses. Two years before (492BC) he had sent an enormous army marching on foot, supported by a fleet. This was a very long way, however, and this time Darius wanted to get to Athens quickly. Going by ship, however, meant he could not send as many soldiers. Each ship had oarsmen to row it who were not warriors, as well as 30 or 40 soldiers. So there were probably between 18,000 and 24,000 Persian warriors at Marathon.

The Persian Empire was made up of many nations, and so was the army. In fact the Athenians later claimed they had fought 46 nations at Marathon. The strongest warriors were the Persians themselves, and the Sakai, who fought in the middle of their line. Other nations probably included Afghans and Ethiopians. The troops usually formed 10 ranks deep (compared to 8 in the Greek army).


The Persian Empire - compare it to the size of Greece (in the yellow). This area today includes countries such as Egypt, Libya, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.



Weapons and Armour

The Persian warriors had lots of different types of weapons and armour. Overall they were not as well armed as the Greeks. The main weapon was the bow and arrow. There would have been at least ten thousand archers facing the Greeks - imagine the black cloud of arrows raining on them as they marched to battle! Usually the Persian army depended on their archers to win an easy victory - by wiping out lots of the enemy before they even met in hand-to-hand battle.

The strongest warriors were the Persian spear bearers (see picture below right) and the Sakai, who used battle axes. Other warriors would have had short swords or daggers as well as their bows and arrows.

The Persians used shields of various sorts. The most common was a spara (see right), which was made of osiers (long thin sticks) woven into leather. The spara was quite tough - but not tough enough to stop a hoplite's spear. Helmets were also worn but these were made of leather or cloth - once again, much inferior to the bronze helmets of the hoplite.

On the body cloth armour was worn, of various sorts. Sometimes there would be metal scales for extra protection. The Persian warriors were known for wearing trousers - which oddly enough was seen as womanish by the Greeks! Their outfits were highly patterned, with all sorts of colours.



The Persians were commanded by Datis, one of Darius' top men, commander of the Persian forces in the West of the empire. Not much is known about him. The Persians also brought cavalry to Marathon (probably about 1,000 horses and riders) and they were commanded by Artaphernes, who was a nephew of King Darius.

Persian shield


King Darius (right, with bow)


Hoplite killing a Persian (note the Persian's trousers, cap, sword and bow)



Left - one of the Immortals - the best of the Persian warriors, so called because if any died their number (10,000) was made up by recruiting someone else, so there was always 10,000 of them. (painted tiles from Persia, now in the British Museum)