Ancient Greek Battles at Marathon & Thermopylae

At Marathon, Greek hoplites pursued the defeated Persians back to their ships.
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Greco-Persian Wars, fought from roughly 500 to 449 B.C., were a long-running series of conflicts between the mighty Persian Empire and the independent Greek city-states, which fought to keep their identities and avoid being subsumed by the Persians. Against the odds, the Greeks defeated the Persians, keeping alive a culture that would help shape western civilization. Two battles from Greco-Persian Wars remain famous down to the present day, one of them – the Battle of Marathon – an epic Greek victory, the other – the Battle of Thermopylae – a glorious Greek defeat.

1 The Plain of Marathon

The battle of Marathon was fought in September of 490 B.C., when the Persian king Darius I sent a force to subdue Athens after the Athenians had supported the Ionian Greeks during their unsuccessful rebellion against Persian rule in western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). This first mainland clash between Persia and Greece took place on the seaside plain of Marathon, about 26 miles northeast of Athens, when an invading Persian fleet disgorged 30,000 soldiers to meet a force of 10,000 Greeks.

2 Surprise Tactics

The foes facing off at Marathon had two very distinct styles of fighting. The Persians relied on their highly accurate archers to devastate enemies from a distance. But the heavily armored Greek hoplites (named for the hoplon, their large circular shield) fought in a densely-packed phalanx bristling with long spears. The Athenian commanders, Callimachus and Miltiades, were without the help of the Spartan warriors who could have bolstered their ranks (the Spartans were celebrating a religious feast and would not arrive until the battle was over). Callimachus and Miltiades knew that if the Persians were able to make a stand and fire arrows, the Greeks would lose. So they sent a phalanx to charge straight at the Persians, surprising them. They also put their best troops on their flanks, sucking the Persians into their center and slaughtering them.

3 Another Persian Invasion

The Greeks killed 6,400 Persians that day and sent the others fleeing back to their ships. The Greek army then marched quickly to Athens to keep the Persians from invading there; first, they sent a runner named Pheidippides to tell the Athenians of the victory and thus the modern marathon was born. The Persians were not done with Greece, however. They invaded again 10 years later with a 80,000 man army under King Xerxes I, Darius’ successor. In order to reach central Greece, Xerxes army was forced to march through a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea called Thermopylae. They were confronted there in August of 480 B.C. by a Greek army of 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers, led by the Spartan King Leonidas.

4 Fighting to the Death

Despite being so heavily outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for three days, using their phalanx formation and heavier weapons to keep their enemy at bay in the narrow confines of the pass. At last, however, Xerxes discovered a mountain path that led to the rear of the Greek forces. Seeing that he was about to be attacked from both rear and front, Leonidas sent most of the Greek forces home to fight another day, and died at Thermopylae with his famous 300 Spartans, along with 1,100 other Greek troops.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.