Before dawn on Sept. 12, 490 b.c., 10,000 mostly Athenian hoplites formed for an assault on the Persian force assembled before them on the Marathon Plain, nearly 25 miles from Athens. At the sound of a single trumpet, the advance began. Eight men deep on the flanks and four deep in the center, the phalanx of bristling spear points and blazing shields began its slow, inexorable march toward the enemy.
Picking up the pace, first to a fast walk and then to a trot, the Athenian hoplites closed on their enemy at what must have appeared to the waiting Persians a dazzling pace. At 600 yards’ distance the mass of men began to scream their fierce and nerve-shattering battle cry: Alleeee!
Hastily, the Persian commanders aligned their troops. Men holding wicker shields went to the front as thousands of archers arrayed themselves behind them. The Persian army showed no panic. They were professional soldiers, victors of a hundred bloody battles. In another moment their archers would release, and tens of thousands of deadly bolts would fill the sky. Afterward, the waiting spearmen would advance to slaughter the shattered and decimated remnants of the Greek force.
But the Persians had never before faced an army like this one. Athenian hoplites learned the art of war against other hoplites, and their kind of war was not decided by a hail of arrows. It was settled by a collision of wooden shields and deadly iron-tipped spears, wielded by heavily armored men. It was a horrible and terrifying confrontation of pushing, screaming, half-crazed men, who gouged, stabbed, and kicked at their opponents until one side could bear the agony no longer and broke. The victors would then launch a murderous pursuit of their defeated foes as the bloodlust propelled them forward.
This was the kind of war charging down on the Persians, and it arrived at almost incomprehensible speed, for at 200 yards’ distance the Athenian trot became a sprint. Finally, the Persian archers let fly, but to no effect. Never having seen such a rapid advance, they mistimed their shots, and most of the arrows flew harmlessly over the charging hoplites. Hastily the archers reloaded, and the shield-bearers uneasily began inching backwards, as ten thousand metal-encased killers closed upon them.
In a shuddering instant, the hoplites smashed into the lightly protected Persians and convulsed their defensive line.
Then the killing began.
Before the battle was over, nearly 6,500 of Persia’s elite, and until that day supposedly invincible, soldiers had perished. Athens’ battlefield victory had cost it 192 citizen hoplites.
But the day was not won yet. To the Athenians’ horror, those Persians who had escaped were sailing south — toward an undefended Athens. Although they were near the limits of human endurance, the Athenians hefted their heavy shields and formed in marching order. Racing against time, the exhausted hoplites force-marched the 25 miles to Athens. By the time the Persians arrived off Athens’ western coast, awaiting them on the ridge overlooking the beach were thousands of Athenian hoplites ready to contest their landing. The Persians admitted defeat and sailed for home.
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Almost unremarked in the memorials for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was the 2,500th anniversary of the first time Western civilization came under assault from the East. (Many say the 2,500th anniversary was last year, but they forget to account for the year 0 — and I use the Athenian calendar, as Herodotus would have.) In the 2,500 years since the Battle of Marathon, the threat from the East has waxed and waned from one century to the next. In the years after the Industrial Revolution the West’s increasing technological superiority caused many to believe the threat from the East had disappeared, or at least was so weakened as to be of little concern. In fact, during the Age of Imperialism the West felt itself strong enough to counterattack. But the Western offensive surge was but a brief interlude, and one much of the West has spent the past two generations in abject apology for.
If the 9/11 attacks demonstrated anything, it is that our collective repentance for imperialism did not bring forth a new era of peace. The threat from the East is diminished, but far from vanquished. Thankfully, between us and those who would do us harm stands the finest military force in the world. Unfortunately, as the budget battles heat up, many in Congress are placing America’s military squarely in their crosshairs. They would do well to remember that, 2,500 years ago, Western civilization’s continuing existence rested on a thin line of bronze-encased men “as hard as oak” who bravely went forward against overwhelming odds, to victory and never-ending glory. This nation’s modern hoplites have followed that tradition for a decade of continuous conflict. Unfortunately, the threat continues. One must sincerely hope that our modern Solons possess the wisdom of the ancients, who would never consider putting away their armor and shields while the enemy remained at the gates.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine War College and the author of a new history of the Battle of Marathon, The First Clash.