Marble Bust of Miltiades, from The Louvre

The Battle of Marathon was one of the biggest and most impactful military battles of all time. It was also the conflict that ended the first Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BC. At the center of that battle was Miltiades, the general who devised the tactics that lead to the Athenian victory. He’s also the latest entry in my Badasses of History series. So what makes him such a badass? It was his cunning in devising a strategy that no only defeated a vastly superior Persian force, but was such a departure from conventional thinking.

Athens was one of the cities that had gotten involved in helping cities in Ionia attempt to overthrow their Persian rulers. This pissed off King Darius I, so he sent a fleet to subjugate Athens. His forces landed on the east coast Attica about 25 miles from Athens, where they were met by Miltiades and his men. So the two armies were sitting there, across from each other on the plain below the city of Marathon. The Athenians had roughly a third the number of troops the Persians did. This is where Miltiades’ tactical genius and badassery come out.

The Persians were the mightiest military force in the ancient world and could overwhelm with sheer numbers. This did not intimidate Miltiades in the slightest. After staring at that mighty and imposing force for 5 days he decided to do the unthinkable, which was to actually attack the Persians. A smaller force attacking a larger one is usually not a very successful military tactic. Not only did he do it, but Miltiades stretched his forces in a line the same length as the Persians and put the bulk of his men on the flanks, while weakening the center. The Persians saw this and responded to the attack by concentrating their guys in the center. However, Miltiades and the Athenians were able to rout the Persian flanks and execute a double envelopment with their own flanks turning in on the Persian center and began a slaughter. The Persians hightailed it back to their ships to sail around the peninsula to attack Athens directly.

Miltiades’ military strategy was not limited to actual battles. He realized that even after a defeat, the Persians would not go home and would try a strike at the city of Athens. He and his troops spent that entire night running the distance back to Athens, where the next morning the Persians were shocked to see the same dudes that had just soundly defeated them the day before. They then fled all the way home with their tails between their legs.

Miltiades’ insistence on a military strategy that went so counter to what was accepted at the time is likely what saved the Athenians at Marathon. Who knows how history might have played out had the Persians been able to break through and capture Athens. The ability of Miltiades to stand up to a vastly superior military force and not only defeat it, but route it so badly that it turned and ran away, most likely screaming and crying like a bunch of little girls is what earns him a spot in the Badasses of History.

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