I close my eyes and I can still see the empty plain I used to play on as a boy. It used to go on forever, surrounded on all sides by the intemperate sea. I used to race across it with my friends, playing all sorts of games in the eternal summer. I did little of value, my life was simple then.
When I was four years old the revolution broke out. I remember the noise of the mob shouting at the temple gates and throwing stones at the last of the tyrants. I remember Gaius, my father’s Latin slave, taking me home. I think my last name was different then, we tend not to talk about the time before the Demos Kratia.
I raced Cleisthenes along the whole length of the plain once, shouting and whooping in wild abandon as Gaius tried to keep up. It was a hot day and the sea was calm, the statues on the Acropolis gleamed in the light. I reached the shore with miles of space between me and the others, looked into the waves and saw the face of Poseidon looking back. Just for a moment. I like to think he smiled. There was a little shrine of his there in those days, long since reclaimed by the sea.
I hear constant clattering and shouting, someone pushes me back in to line. I do not want to open my eyes. Not yet.
Cleisthenes caught up with me after a while. We stood in peace, looking at the infinite ocean in front of us, drinking in the sight. We spent the afternoon playing and lying on the beach, eating the olives Gaius brought with him. A ship sailed past, a huge gold figurehead on its prow. We had no words to describe our joy at witnessing such a marvel. To this day I still wonder who was on board, who was given such extravagance, it must have been the king of some barbarian land.
We reached home a few hours after that, running back all the way. I could not wait to tell my father of the ship and its beauty, to describe for him the painted sails and the massive size of it. He listened with a smile and told me he could understand my joy but that I should not revel in such things. He told me honour lay in simplicity, that easy living weakens a man. He told me about the food Heracles ate, the vile stew the Spartiates still wolf down to this day. I can hear orders shouted. I miss my father.
I cannot put it off any longer, I must open my eyes.
There are ten thousand of us in tight formation facing across the plain I played on when I was young. My armour is hot, the helmet has never fit me properly, and my spear is heavy in my hand. Not as heavy as my shield, of course, hefted in front of me to form an unbroken wall with my comrades. I am in the front line. The helmet presses awkwardly against my nose, I concentrate on it to drown out my terror.
Across the plain rise pillars of white smoke. It is dawn and the enemy have seen our manoeuvres, they have doused their watch fires and began to arm themselves. There is a flurry of activity in front of me.
I wonder; are they feeling this same terror? Did they hear their masters tell them, in their Persian tongue, to arm themselves and begin to quake? They are an army of the king of the east. They outnumber us, though by how much I cannot tell. I fancy I can see their ships pulled up in the shore. They are here to kill us or enslave us.
Last week I was on my farm, supervising my slaves feeding the goats and tending the olive groves. My land is poor but it is well worked, it is enough for me to afford to maintain my armour and my household. I want to be back there, I want to be lying in my bed with my wife and drinking my wine while the goats bleet about outside and the slaves gossip when they think I cannot hear them. I want to hear the familiar sounds, the sounds of home, not orders bellowed and repeated. Zeus, grant me courage.
Someone shouts and the army begins to move. I feel my battle cloak waving behind me and taste the dust thrown up by a thousand marching feet. It is a strange sensation, marching in a phalanx, you are part of a construct, a brick in a moving wall. It is noisy with clanking bronze as plates clatter off each other, the shriek of iron spear resting in the kink where shields overlap is constant. We are marching towards an unbeatable foe.
Some card begins to shout ‘always be the bravest, always be the best.’ It is the motto of the Myrmidons, the companions of mighty Achilles. We are Athenians, our patron goddess is wise and powerful but she is not the only one we have sacrificed for. We prayed to dreaded Aries to spare us from the horrors of war, but the enemy still came. We prayed to Poseidon to smash their ships to flinders, but the enemy still came. We sought the council of the oracle and payed tribute to hear the words of Apollo, but they were vague and complex and the enemy still came. Finally, in our desperation, we prayed to Zeus and Athena and Pan and Heracles and any god that might listen to spare us from the fate of so many other cities the barbarians have razed. The sounds of dying cattle mingled with the chants of the priestesses and the sizzling of burning incense, we had a hearty meal that night, but the enemy still came.
The line is wavering on the uneven ground. A phalanx must be rigid all the way along or the whole thing can collapse. This is bad, this is brewing catastrophe. They have wrecked cities already, cleared whole islands of innocent Greeks and looted our temples. They are an empire that stretches to the very end of the world and we are only a city. They are going to destroy us all.
The line is not a line any more. We are two thousand five hundred men across and four deep, thin for a phalanx, and the morning sun is heating up our armour. I can see three of the strategos, the generals from here; there marches Miltiades, stern and decisive, shouting at the men to get back in line. There marches Themistocles, cunning and resourceful, singing a hymn to Poseidon. There marches Callimachus, elected war archon, Polemarch, supreme commander, the very best of all of us. I wonder if the Persians see their generals too? If Datis and Artaphernes are busy shouting them into order while we advance?
I have seen a phalanx advance upon me once before, long ago. It was a squalid squabble over a scrap of land and I was full of thoughts of glory and adventure. War was pleasant to me then, I had not yet experienced it. When a phalanx comes you cannot see spears, levelled as they are to face you. You cannot see men, nor helmets nor marching sandals; all you see is a line of shields painted with the leering face of a hideous gorgon. Then the phalanxes crash together and the shoving begins, swearing and thrusting iron points, your hand begins to hurt from the repeated impact of spear tip on shield. Judder. Crash. Judder again. Scream oaths and curses. One side or another will run, whoever does not will pursue and cut them down. It is a terrible thing, to be slaughtered in panic.
The men who had fallen behind are now running to catch up, the line is reforming but it is slow. A sling stone rolls to a halt in front of me, we will be in range of them soon. To my left is a Plataean I do not know. I had forgotten that Plataea sent men to help us. They are a small city with little to their name but they have sent aid and are willing to shed their own blood to help us in this impossible fight. There are a few hundred of them here, far from their home. They have earned our eternal friendship.
I voted for Callimachus as war archon and I cannot remember why and there is not time to think now; we are nearing the enemy. stones are clattering off metal. It is a sound like no other. We are being shot at.
A fine spray of blood comes from the man to my right. He has been hit in the face by a sling stone. He is alive, and he will still fight, but he has lost most of his teeth. He is a fearsome sight now, sweat mingles with blood.
Another stone bounces off my shield and I realise something extraordinary; we are speeding up. A phalanx does not run, yet we are running. I hear Miltiades shouting the order to slow down but his voice is quickly lost in the din of clattering armour. Themistocles is running in grim silence, hefting his spear. Callimachus is shouting a battle cry, though I cannot make out the words.
I can see the Persians in the distance and my helmet hurts my nose because it does not fit and my shield is heavy and my cloak sits uncomfortably over my armour and my spear weighs too much and keeps me off balance and I cannot stop running. Their ships are pulled up on the shore and I miss my father and Themistocles is smiling and there was once a shrine to Poseidon near here and I can see the Persians getting closer. The air is full of dust and stones and the watch fires of the Persians are sending up white smoke and ten thousand men are running in full armour into the embrace of certain death.
In a moment of peace, before Aries is unleashed, I feel the sun on my face.
I can hear them now, babbling in their barbarian tongue and standing on our land. I hate them. I have to hate them. If I do not hate them then I will see that they are just men and I will not be able to kill them. I must hate them completely to survive this, so I do.
Callimachus began a battle chant and the nearest men took it up but now, distant from him, it is simply a bloodthirsty scream. We are issuing a war cry like savages from the west. It is full of terror and rage. The men who had fallen behind have caught up, the men at the front have formed up and the miracle happens.
I am a step away from the Persian line. I have run for a mile in my armour. Stretching away, as far as I can see in both directions, is a perfect wall of shields. Somehow, by some divine quirk, we have formed a perfect phalanx at the moment of decision. My mind pauses. My spear is comfortable in my hand. For now I am Achilles.
We hit them like an avalanche. A sea of bronze and fury. I do not recall even slowing down as I hit their lines. They fall before me, before all of us, like long grass before the sickle. This phalanx is a perfect machine, a corpse factory. Unstoppable.
The Persians wear tunics and trousers. Their soldiers carry long knives, slings and bows. They have no cavalry. They have nothing. Their bodies are small and malnourished. Our bodies are taut and well maintained. We fight for our vote. They fight for their king.
I stab. I stab. I stab. Men scream. Blood flows. My spear arm tires from constant murder. My cloak becomes tangled in the gear of a Persian corpse behind me so I cut it from my shoulders. A lucky knife swing dents my helmet. I am still bellowing, still advancing, still killing.
And suddenly the enemy is not ahead of me any more. They are brave to have held out for as long as they did. Ten thousand Greeks are whooping with joy and running forward to cut down the retreating Persians. They are fleeing to their boats and I am drenched in blood.
Then we are at the boats and capturing four of them. Callimachus is clambering up the side of a ship when one of the Persians hacks off his hand in one fell swoop and he falls down dead trailing his blood behind him in the morning air. Behind me the ground is made of men. It twitches and writhes. It is Hades, it is awful to look upon. Phillipedes is picking his way through the corpses to take word of the battle back to the city, his promise of help from Pan came true.
Miltiades is shouting again but nobody is listening. Already some have stripped off their armour and are wading in to the sea to mock the retreating ships. They do not see what Miltiades sees. They do not see what I see.
The Persian ships are sailing to the city and all of its defenders are leagues away.
The message gets through. It takes too much precious time but everyone is gathered together and readied for the return to the city. Athens is twenty six miles away and we have our war gear on and we have fought a battle and won against impossible odds and the day is hot and the enemy have ships. We are going to race them to our homes.
We begin. There are ten thousand of us. We are running over the corpses of our victims. We are running over the few of our comrades who fell today. We are running against hope, against the fast ships of the Persian fleet. My feet hurt and there is blood crusting on my eyelid. My helmet is dented but it is easier to wear it than to carry it while I run. I am near Themistocles and he is still chanting his prayer to Poseidon. He is as touched as they all say.
I utter a prayer to Hermes, we have to run so far. There are ten thousand of us running, the earth shakes at our footfall. My spear tip is notched, I must replace it. My wife and children are in the city. I am running. There are ten thousand of us.
Hours. Hours upon hours upon hours. We run over the bodies of the slain. Over discarded water bottles from the march towards the Persians. We run over spent sling stones shot out from their ragged line. We march over the uneven ground that slowly shook the phalanx apart. We are going backwards in time, to before the battle on the plain of Marathon. We are running to beat the ships of the Persians to our dock. If they reach the city and there are no defenders they could very well keep us out. If we reach the city before they do it will be impregnable. My thighs are burning with the effort.
I see the walls in the distance. They are gleaming with reflected sunlight.
I am tired and my feet hurt. My knee too, and when I look down I am surprised to see it bleeding. There is a long cut down my shin, I may never discover its source. It stings, badly.
We are ahead of the ships! We cannot stop, we cannot slow down, and we are so very exhausted. The ships had to sail around the peninsula and we could take the direct route but, even so, this is going to be close. This is going to be very close. Did we really just beat a Persian army? My vision wavers. It is so hot. We have run so far.
I can see the walls now. They tower over me. The Acropolis rises off in the distance. This is our land. This is where our Gods live.
I am through the city gate and the sound of ten thousand soldiers grows louder still now it can echo off the walls. I am more sweat than man now, the padding of my armour sticks to me uncomfortably. I consider heading home briefly to hide my valuables in case the Persians do break in somehow. I shake that thought off, I was not the only one to consider it. I can barely stand. I have run twenty six miles in my armour.
I am by the harbour and so are all my comrades. The Persian ships are changing course. They are going to head for home. We are jeering and cheering. I am thinking about the men I killed. Three, at least, I am certain. It is just now lunch time and we have done the impossible. We will be remembered forever for this. We butchered thousands, we have lost so few.
The city is safe. We have won and the city is safe. We are going to live. Forever.
It is hard to estimate the significance of the Battle of Marathon. It is barely mentioned in contemporary Persian records and the expedition of the Persian army was a success. But, and it’s an important but, the Greeks had begun to get the impression that the Persians were utterly unbeatable. Marathon itself was a crushing, overwhelming and total victory for Athens (and Plataea), estimates of the Persian body count vary between 4,000 and 64,000 but perhaps only 192 Athenians perished (including Callimachus, their elected General). There were at least 25,000 Persians to the 10,000 Athenians, though their equipment was rudimentary at best. All of the Greek dead are depicted on the Parthenon, effectively built as a war memorial for the conflict. Ancient warfare didn’t work like that, it just didn’t, more Athenians and Plataeans should have perished, that fact that they did not is ridiculous and extraordinary.