Marathon & Thermopylae, Greece (490 & 480 BC)
The battles of Marathon and Thermopylae are two of the most famous engagements of antiquity fought in Greece. Pivotal battles in the First and Second Persian Invasions of Greece respectively, the first is remembered for the 26-mile Marathon races which are still run to the present day; and the second for the valiant last stand of the renowned three hundred Spartans against overwhelming forces. Both battles helped to secure the independence of the tiny but free Greek city-states and the nascent democracies which had newly emerged in places like Athens.
The massive expansion of the Persian Empire which absorbed much of the Middle East in the 6th century BC finally arrived on the doorstep of Greece in 492 BC. Under the Emperor Darius I, Persian armies marched on Athens and its allies in retailation to Athenian support for rebels in Asia Minor. Most Greek city states took a neutral position except Sparta, who though opposed to the Persians did not actively support Athens, which was effectively left to fend for itself.
In 490 BC a Persian force of over a hundred thousand men (the exact figure is disputed) arrived in the province of Attica, with the intention of utterly destroying Athens. Approximately ten thousand Athenians and auxiliaries from Plataea marched out to meet them at Marathon. Thanks to the brilliant leadership of Militiades and bad maneuvering by the Persian cavalry, the Greeks managed to envelop and crush the finest divisions of the Persian army and forcing the remainder to flee. News of this tremendous and unexpected victory was brought to Athens by one Pheidippides, who ran 26 miles to inform the city.
Forced to withdraw from Greece, the Persians retired to Asia Minor to lick their wounds. Ten years later, they returned with a vengeance, this time under Xerxes I, son of Darius. The Persian army was much larger, some sources indicating more than a million strong. However, the Greek response was also greater. The initial focus was on a delaying tactic both on land and at sea. A force of perhaps over ten thousand Greeks from a number of city states marched out to guard the coastal road near Thermopylae. Of these troops the most famous by far were the three hundred Spartans personally led by the Spartan king Leonides.
For three days the Greeks fought heroically, using the terrain and superior tactics to maximum effect. Tens of thousands of Persians fell, with little success against the defenders. On the third day of the battle, the Greeks were betrayed when a local man showed the Persians a secret pass which led behind Greek lines. Unable to hold the pass further, the bulk of the Greek army retreated south. The pass was held by a rearguard consisting of the three hundred Spartans and perhaps as many as a thousand other troops. These were annihilated, though at great cost to the Persians. Although a defeat, Thermopylae became a rallying cry for the Greeks, who drove out the Persians the following year.
The battlefields of Marathon and Thermopylae are both fairly accessible and yet off the beaten path for most visitors to Greece. From a tourism standpoint they are both fairly pristine despite their historical importance, with little in the way of ruins at either location. The field of Marathon is famous for the still-extant Marathon Tomb, a burial mound which once bore the names of those Greekes killed in the battle. Artifacts of the battle are kept at the nearby Marathon Museum. The field of Thermopylae is perhaps more interesting to see, certainly more dramatic from a topography standpoint. The highlight of the Thermopylae battlefield is an ancient commemorative statue of Leonides who still guards the pass.
The battlefields of Marathon and Thermopylae, while ninety miles from each other, can be and often are combined into a daytrip. Marathon is not suprisingly 26 miles north of Athens, while Thermopylae is approximately one-hundred miles northwest of Athens and close to Delphi. Both are open sites. There is no cost of admission to either location. Web: www.visitgreece.gr (official tourism website of Greece)