At the Battle of Marathon, Athens' underdog victory stunned Persia

The surprise defeat of the mighty Persian Empire in 490 B.C. began the Golden Age of Athens and the Greco-Persian wars.

A well-armed Greek hoplite (right) slays a Persian soldier in a detail from a 5th-century B.C. ceramic.
BRIDGEMAN/ACI

When dawn broke one summer morning in 490 B.C., Greek troops stood ready for battle on the coastal plain near Marathon, northeast of Athens. They awaited the charge of their mighty enemy: the powerful hosts of Persia, led by Darius the Great. His relentless expansion was headed westward, toward the heart of the ancient Greek world, a society he aimed to subjugate.

The Battle of Marathon marked a turning point in the wars between Greece and Persia. Prior to this defeat, the Persian Empire seemed unbeatable. Other leaders and other forces had fallen before its might, but the Battle of Marathon revealed that Persia, too, had weaknesses.

The victory became a bright, shining moment in the history of Athens. It inspired numerous legends and tales, including one in which the Athenian hero Theseus visits the battlefield to inspire the Greek forces to beat back their enemies. (Theseus faced off against the Minotaur in this famous myth.) Millennia later, the battle would even provide an origin story for a long-distance Olympic event: the marathon.

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