By: Professor Livio Catullo Stecchini





1. Herodotus and his Critics

2. The Scythian Campaign

3. The Strategy of Darius the Great

4. The Battle of Marathon

5. The Size of Persian Army

6. The Size of Persian Fleet

7. The Battle of Salamis

8. The Battle of Plataia




1. Herodotus and His Critics





Today the method which aims at the reconstruction of historical events on the basis of data that are quantifiable becomes every day more generally accepted; for this reason it would be proper to ask who is the author of this historical method. In my opinion the first quantitative historian was Herodotus.

The "Father of History" is not considered by the generality of scholars of ancient history and culture to provide an example of sound historical method. He is almost universally considered a man of mediocre intellect who believed all sorts of fairytales, collected spurious anecdotes, and gullibly accepted partisan versions of events. (1)

Most of the work of Herodotus is a geographical and anthropological introduction to the last three books of his history, which concern the campaign initiated in 480 BCE and continued through 479 by the Persians for the conquest of the Greek mainland; it is thus in relation to this part that he must be judged as to his competence in the art of establishing historical truth.

Herodotus was not contemporary with the events he described and, hence, had to rely on opinions, reactions, and interpretations of witnesses. (2)

In his account of the campaign of the Persians against Greece and of the Greek efforts to resist it, Herodotus used all the data he could gather about the numerical composition of the forces engaged, as a testing principle. Critical historians, beginning with Barthold Georg Niebuhr, have turned upside down the scientific method of Herodotus by considering the quantitative data as additional imaginative material that should be disregarded. When Niebuhr states that the forces of Darius in the campaign against the Scythians must have numbered 70,000 men rather than 700,000 (3) and that the Greek army at Plataia must have amounted to much less than 100,000, (4) he does not submit any evidence beyond the subjective insight. This attitude has been continued up to the present.

The evaluation of Herodotus in the works of critical historians who are committed to what they think to be a positivistic method, is a long series of insults. In substance, Herodotus was a gullible simpleton who was inclined to accept what informants told him and who reported versions of the events provided by people who believed in ancient religions, mythology, and oracles. Having gathered these data without eliminating all that was colorful, dramatic, or unusual, he presented them without any general principle of historical causation or development. The notion that a historian must operate on some general principle of historical causation or development is necessary to historians who fragment historical evidence into elementary propositions. For them this is a torturing problem, the object of endless investigations and disputes, because they reject whatever form of organization exists already in the available data. Yet the method of Herodotus, so violently scorned, is in keeping with the best methods of recent science. It is those who belittle him who could be called pre-scientific. (5)

Quantitative methods, of which today statistics is the most striking example, do not tell us all about social reality and can concentrate only on some skeleton points, but they provide us a principle for discriminating within the welter of intuitive generalizations. In my opinion this was the spirit of Ionian science and of pre-Greek science. The simplest example of quantification in the field of historical science is provided by chronology: to order the accounts and testimonies according to time, astronomical time, is the most common method of discrimination, even though it could be observed that it is quite a mechanical one and little related to the psychic time which is the true tempo of social events. History in pre-Greek times began by correlating events with astronomical cycles, and the modern historian who counts by centuries and years should know that he is following the same procedure.

Although for critical historians the Father of History represents the very bottom of historical science, the truth is that there never was a historian who was able to pack into so few pages a greater mass of information about the history and the culture of such a wide area. In spite of almost two centuries of efforts directed at collecting new sources of information employing all sorts of new techniques, Herodotus remains our most important source of information for Greek history and culture. He is about equally valuable to the scholars of Persia and Egypt. The studies concerning Asia Minor and the Near East in ancient times would be indeed in a poor state if we could not rely on Herodotus. Furthermore, it can be added that if it were not for the dramatic and emphatic way with which he presents the information -- the very occasion for the strongest criticism -- the interest in ancient studies concerning the mentioned areas would have been born much more slowly, if at all. The rediscovery of ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia is a direct result of the way in which Herodotus presented the history and the culture of these areas as interesting and problematic. (6)

It is because of Herodotus' account of ancient Egypt that there was organized the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt which initiated the rediscovery of ancient Egyptian civilization; this expedition aimed at finding in ancient Egypt the fulfillment of ideals that had been expressed by the Enlightenment and had exploded in the French Revolution.

The Napoleonic expedition to Egypt had had an antecedent in the Egyptian voyage of Tito Livio Burattini, the first systematic advocate of a new decimal metric system; (7) Burattini was in Egypt collecting data for Father Athanasius Kircher, the author of Oedipus Aegyptiacus, (8) when he met and cooperated with John Greaves, whose report was commented upon by Newton. (9)

Those who identified themselves with the new science initiated by Kepler and Galilei had recognized a kindred spirit in the work of the Ionian scholar Herodotus and in the pre-Greek civilizations that he described. It was because Herodotus seemed so akin to the mind of these representatives of the new science, that Barthold Georg Niebuhr, one of the first important representatives of romantic reaction, directed his fire against him. The attack against Herodotus was linked with the attack against the scientific ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. As Newton had recognized that the Pyramids of Gizah expressed a vision of the world similar to the science of his time, Niebuhr equally perceptibly did recognize what in Herodotus was akin to the accursed Galilean science. (10)

Critical historians totally neglect that Herodotus wrote Ionian prose, a literary form of which the most important examples are provided by medical writings. Quantification is the crucial element that caused Greek medicine to acquire a scientific form and to become free from magical thinking; as Hippokrates and others point out, Greek medicine acquired its character because it started from the study of diets and in relation to athletic performances, factors that were quantified. The ideal of quantification is clearly expressed in the treatise On Ancient Medicine (IX):

Therefore the greater complexity of these ills requires an even greater precision. For it is necessary to aim at some sort of measure. But except for bodily sensations no measure can be found either number or weight, whereby precision could be achieved. Therefore it is an arduous task to make knowledge so precise that only small errors would be made here and there.

It is clearly implied that even in the study of personal reactions to experience one must try to introduce quantification wherever possible or at least strive towards a precision modeled on quantification.

Up to the time of Niebuhr it was agreed that Herodotus wrote in the style of scientific prose; for this reason Neibuhr accused him of being a pretender who tried to imitate the outward form of scientific style.

Niebuhr recognized that Herodotus presents scientific data and speaks in scientific terms, but these would be mere quackery because Herodotus was a pretender who tried to ape the scientific style that was being born in Greece at the time. According to Niebuhr "when Herodotus was observing and writing, there were indeed more than a few Greeks who had more than an elementary knowledge of mathematics and astronomy". (11)

Herodotus did not even have this knowledge, which really did not amount to much, since a rather accurate notion of the configuration of the inhabited earth developed only much later in the Hellenistic age. But later the basic scientific concern was totally disregarded and attention was paid only to what is considered the fabulous element. It is true that Herodotus relates myths, legends, tales, and even gossip, but this is material that even the most scientific historian would have had to consider, since it was the type of information that was available; what is material is not that he reported what people thought and said, but the spirit in which he reported it. An anthropologist today would quote the same kind of information without being of necessity unscientific.

The historians of the critical school believe that because Herodotus quotes mythical stories, versions of the events colored by emotional reactions, and picturesque anecdotes, he is not a scientific historian. His material has a poetic tone, and hence is not scientifically true. Niebuhr starts with the false epistemological assumption that imaginative constructions are of necessity unscientific. In fact, every step in the process of scientific generalization is of poetic or imaginative nature; what makes the generalizations scientific or not is their being verifiable and verified.

Niebuhr and the historians of the critical school would like to transfer to historical science the method of induction advocated for the natural sciences by positivist empiricists. According to these one must start with simple factual propositions that are accepted as true because they correspond to immediate sense experience. The elementary sense experiences should be accepted as being ultimate reality; since these sense experiences are solid and encompassed, like the atoms of Demokritos, the task of the scientist would be simply that of collecting them and finding some principle of organization. This method is valuable in the routine work of the natural sciences, since this can be reduced to the gathering of data by established methods of observation. However, positivist empiricism cannot account for the real important advances in scientific knowledge which consist in the introduction of new forms of observation which are results of changes in epistemological assumptions and by which completely new sets of sense experiences are revealed.

Whatever may be the value of positivist empiricism in the natural sciences; this method cannot be used in historical research except in terms of vague analogy. The historian does not deal with elementary sense experiences (assumed to be independent of mental processes), but with human opinions that have been extensively elaborated by all kinds of mental processes. Hence, the positivist historian splits the information provided by witnesses or documents into elementary propositions which he considers so simple that they may be considered as self-evident. But usually even the most reliable witnesses can be accurate in the general description of the events and quite inaccurate in the reporting of details. Furthermore the principle of self-evidence applied to historical data is completely different from that used in the natural sciences; the critical historian accepts as self-evident those pieces of evidence that conform to his routine experience or that seem psychologically convincing because they conform to his own way of acting. As a result, everything that is unusual is eliminated from the data; but the historical events with which we are most concerned are the extraordinary ones that had extraordinary consequences.

According to the assumptions of the critical historians, one should eliminate from historical sciences the fact that Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, died on the cross or, which is equivalent as far as historical consequences are concerned, that at a given point of time people began to believe that this had happened. Critical historians look with jaundiced eyes at the tradition of the foundation of Rome and prefer to explain away the origin of Rome in terms of a series of slow accretions to an originally insignificant village; but it is a fact that at a given point of history Rome emerges as having an unusual power within her territory, so that it is quite possible that this city was established from the very beginning with unusual characteristics. If the story of the flight of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette which ended at Varennes had been told by an ancient historian, critical historians would have rejected it entirely as a tale. The fact that the departure of the coach was delayed for a long time in order to load a large trunk containing the Queen's toilet set, would be dismissed as nonsense, whereas it is a significant piece of information about the mentality of the monarchs and about the general system of values and practices of the ancient regime.

For those who defend the critical approach, a historian should be concerned only with facts -- meaning by facts data that exclude all subjective elements -- even though, when they proceed to interpret and organize the facts they rely on personal introspective and insight. They have not understood that Herodotus takes a behavioristic attitude towards psychic phenomena. History deals with human actions and hence what people felt or thought, whether right or wrong, is its proper object. Ideas, beliefs, images, conceptions, and misconceptions are relevant as far as they determined actions. Eyebrows have been raised because Herodotus quotes oracles and considers whether they were fulfilled or not; but if he had omitted them from his narrative, he would certainly have given us a distorted picture of ancient culture. He has been criticized specifically for relating the religious ideas and practices of the Egyptians with a deliberate effort not to express any negative judgment; it would seem that, if he had evaluated them in terms of an assumed superior religious persuasion, he would have been a better historian. Herodotus likes to quote anecdotes and it may well be granted that all anecdotes are likely to be spurious; but this does not imply that he indulges in mentioning facts that are recognizably false. An anecdote is a method for conveying a synthetic interpretation of events; it can be quoted aptly or not, but in principle it is not more true or false than a sociological explanation.

In the century following Niebuhr scholars have emphasized more and more the role of imaginative material in Herodotus' narrative. (12)

It has been assumed that the use of such material is per se evidence of lack of a scientific attitude. But recently a Soviet scholar, Aristid Ivanovich Dovatur, has better understood the problem by observing that Herodotus combines the style of Ionian scientific prose with folkloristic narratives. In Narrative and Scientific Style of Herodotus, Dovatur concludes that what is original in this historian is that he tries to preserve the original tone of the popular narrative material while inserting it into a frame written in a scientific style. (13)

Dovatur has handled an epistemological problem in terms of literary form.

Since Niebuhr is the founder of the critical school of ancient history, it is important to define exactly the method followed by him in destroying the authority of Herodotus.

In his Bonn lectures of 1829-1830 Niebuhr launched a sweeping attack against the credibility of Herodotus' account of the Persian campaign for the conquest of Greece in 480 and 479 BCE From the fact that in Herodotus' narrative there are elements that are of anecdotal nature and some details that could be called mythical, Niebuhr concludes that the entire account is of poetic nature, and totally "untenable." It is assumed by Niebuhr that poetic accounts have very little connection with reality. "No reliance, therefore, can be placed upon this whole portion of the narrative of Herodotus." (14)

Much of it is nothing but poetic imagination and of most doubtful nature. The proof of the poetic nature of the account is the very importance and magnitude of the events narrated: according to Herodotus and other Greek authors, this campaign was one of the turning points in the history of humanity: The Greek mainland was invaded by all the forces that the Persian Empire could muster, but the Athenians, the Spartans, and other Greeks were able to resist with such success that the Persians had to withdraw in disaster.

Since the events were marvellous and extraordinary, if one begins with the assumption that the ancients could not achieve any great deed except in their imagination, the events become of necessity incredible. For this reason Niebuhr in his Bonn lectures of 1829-1830 described them as the product of poetic imagination. Niebuhr asserted that Herodotus' account of the Persian campaign is based upon an epic poem of Choirilos of Samos which built a grandiose and picturesque legend around rather modest events. The other Greek sources are equally unreliable. All that can be accepted as certain is that there took place a naval battle at Salamis and a land battle at Plataia, and that the Persians finally had to withdraw from Greece; the sequence of the events, including the dates of these battles, and all the details, cannot be established with any certainty. We should rest assured, however, that rather modest events were magnified beyond all proportion by the mythical imagination of the Greeks.

When this sweeping criticism of Herodotus was first presented by Niebuhr, it was considered extreme, and was not accepted in his time; but it set a sort of an ideal for following historians, so that by a process of gradual erosion of Herodotus' authority, by the end of the last century and the beginning of this century it became almost completely accepted. By clipping a piece here and a piece there in Herodotus' account, in about a century there was attained the result that some major historians could find wide approval when they repeated Niebuhr's conclusion.

When Niebuhr was writing, a most dissonant voice was expressed by August Boeckh who was a Kantian rationalist and interpreted ancient civilizations as the forerunners of quantitative science. Boeckh's conceptions remained most influential up to the death of Theodor Mommsen and Julius Oppert in the first years of this century. The theory of Niebuhr began to produce more generous fruits in the field of ancient studies when Arthur de Gobineau set it within an expressedly formulated frame that rejected above the rationalistic, humanitarian, and egalitarian views of the Enlightenment. In this way he made possible the triumph of the romantic reactionary views within ancient studies in the last years of the nineteenth century. Scholars of the Enlightenment, following in the steps of the Renaissance, had presented the Greeks as trying to take over and advance the scientific culture developed in the great empires of Egypt and the Near East and, as a result, had conceived of rational and scientific thought as being an attribute of man from the earliest known beginnings of history. In order to attack the rationalistic, humanitarian, and egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment, Gobineau built a complete theory according to which pre-Greek civilizations and early Greek civilization, Herodotus included, would be the expression of a praeter-rational mystical insight, clearly opposed to quantitative science. (15)

In his history of Persia, Gobineau uses the Scythian campaign to justify this general proposition:

Nothing is less consonant to the Asiatic spirit, including in it specifically the Greek spirit, than to pursue reasonable calculations. In this respect Herodotus is at fault just as much, not more and not less, than is the general of those who today inhabit the area where he lived. A long experience has taught me to remain totally indifferent to any numerical statement the author of which is a Persian, an Arab, a Turk, or an Hellene. I am often willing to believe in their good faith, but never in their exactness, because nature has refused them any instinct for truth in matters of this sort. (16)

The book of Gobineau opened the floodgates for massive attacks on Herodotus. Within a brief period there appeared the critical edition of Herodotus' text by Heinrich Stein, (17) the analysis of the internal structure of the entire work by Alfred von Gutschmid, and the history of the Persian wars by Amedee Hauvette, (18) all equally destructive. The last mentioned work was a pedestrian enlargement of the ideas of Gobineau, but it had the advantage of having a form more acceptable to the academe, because it lacks the wit and clear elegance of Gobineau and because it flattens his insights which, although all based on a distorted angle of vision, have the merit of bringing into focus vital questions. The opus of Hauvette was laureated with an important academic prize, and has been extensively quoted, since it was not proper to refer to Gobineau.

Hauvette's accomplishment was in giving to Gobineau's attacks a form more conventionally academic. Concerning the Scythian part of Herodotus, Hauvette introduced a method of interpretation that is now generally accepted: the human geography must be separated from the mathematical geography; whereas the former is acceptable, the latter is unacceptable because it is based on numerical data that are precise and hence must be impossible. The military operations consisting of marches and counter marches are absurd because they are related to the numerical form. Today it is widely agreed that every progress in the archaeological and anthropological study of the area described by Herodotus has provided startling confirmations of his account up to details that used to be dismissed outright as being too odd or picturesque. But one is left wondering how Herodotus could have accurate information about the physical and social anthropology not only of European Russia, but also of parts of Siberia, and in the same breath have presented a picture of the physical appearance of the area immediately north of the Black Sea that is not only erroneous, but such that it should have been rejected by any person of common sense.

The death blow to the reputation of Herodotus as a historian was not given by Gobineau, who proved moderate in relation to his epigones, and not by Hauvette, whose work was popular yet shallow, but by the Oxford scholar Reginald Walter Macan who proceeded to expose the faults of Herodotus point by point in five thick volumes, (the first of which appeared in the year following Hauvette's publication) (19) with the stubborn persistence and diligence of an inquisitor bent on forcing his innocent victim to confess. Every sentence is taken apart and used as evidence against its author. The treatise begins with a long analysis of the Scythian campaign, because in dealing with it Herodotus would have openly revealed his true colors. The analysis is summed up in these words:

Briefly stated the critique of the Herodotean story goes to show that the account of the Scythian campaign consists of a mixture of physical impossibilities, inconsistencies or inconsequences and of absurdities attributed to Darius and to the Scythians, which render the whole affair doubtful to the highest degree . . . What standard of historic probability is exhibited by an author who commits himself to such a performance, in which satire and fun seem to run riot? (20)

Macan takes to task even scholars like Grote who had followed the interpretation of Gobineau and had accepted as credible the events that took place on this side of the Danube. (21)

In the Preface to his volumes, after announcing that "no previous commentary has applied so completely the methods of analytic and descriptive criticism to the work of Herodotus," Macan specifies that one great contribution of his is to have traced the sources of Herodotus' shortcomings, among which his ignorance of geography is paramount: "the composite and unsystematic quality of the Herodotean world has not been so distinctly presented as it is in this work."

There is one point on which I agree with Macan: if not only Herodotus, but all ancient writers in general, had the view of the physical world ascribed to them by our contemporary scholarship, it can be presumed that they were totally incapable of any objective judgment not only in science, but in any form of intellectual endeavor. If it is true that only in the age of Aristotle some Greek scholars conceived as a novel idea that the earth was a sphere and that the miserable computation of Eratosthenes was the highest peak of ancient mathematical geography, I am willing to believe not only that Herodotus did not belong to the species homo sapiens, but also that this kind of being had not yet been developed in his time.

Since contemporary scholars are bound to assume that Hellenistic science was technically superior to that of the preceding period, they arrive at the conclusion that Eratosthenes was the first to measure the circumference of the earth. In reality, all that Eratosthenes did was to make the ancient datum acceptable in terms of the scientific style by showing that it could be justified in the light of common sense experience.

Scholars have used the assumed naive view of the physical world in Herodotus to prove the extreme low state of Greek cosmology at the time. But they argue also that his conceptions were so preposterous that he would have modified them if he had just used his eyes in traveling. Hence there has been derived the further deduction that he was an unmitigated liar who never saw the great foreign cities he claims to have visited. Scholars who do not dare to call him an outright impostor have tried to prove, by interpreting the data about his biography, that "his travels occupied only a very short period of his life." The assumption is that if Herodotus had travelled more extensively, he could not have been, despite his lack of judgment, as grossly misinformed as he is supposed to be. Robert Cohen, in summing up the opinions about Herodotus' skill as an historian current in his time, believed to be giving a generous and benevolent interpretation when he stated that he was

also an enemy of great efforts of thought, but with some insight into everything. In conclusion he did all that was within his capacity in order to gain the favor of his contemporaries and of posterity. He was rather a facile writer than a learned one, more naturally gifted than willing to work. He did not prove to be a personality of the first order, he was not a great man. (22)

The words that I have underscored are culled by Cohen from the volume of evaluations written by Philippe-Ernest Legrand, (23) who concludes that Herodotus had some ability in gathering facts and evaluating evidence but could not construe any considerate explanation for historical developments. In the introductory volume to Les Belles Lettres edition of Herodotus' text Legrand believes to be breaking a spear in behalf of the historian by arguing that when he claims to have visited a specific location he must be granted credence, although his visits may have been quick and superficial.

There is poor logic in this castle of deductions built on a flimsy starting point: Herodotus shared the naive cosmology of his age, but he would have modified it if he had used his eyes in travelling as far as Thebes and Babylon. The construction presumes that all the other inhabitants of the ancient world were in a mental state even more schizoid than that of Herodotus.

The gist of the trend of thought initiated in 1811 by Niebuhr was well enucleated in 1921 by Godley in his introduction to the Loeb edition of Herodotus' text. Herodotus' geography represents "a stage of thought" and was "consistent with a current opinion which is nearer to truth than earlier conceptions of the world." (24)

This reveals the basic assumption that the mental capacity of man has undergone a uniform process of growth, so that, although Herodotus' was low, his predecessors were one step closer to the primates. In documenting by an example Herodotus' low mental level Godley asserts: "It is also true that the Danube does not rise in the Pyrenees, and that the course of the Upper Nile is not from west to east." (25)

These are pieces of evidence that beg the question, because they are based on forced interpretations of the texts justified by the assumed mental primitiveness of their author.





  1. A notable exception is Arnaldo Momigliano, whose perceptive study of Herodotus' reputation from antiquity to the seventeenth century, "The Place of Herodotus in the History of Historiography," History 43 (1958), pp. 1-13. could be read as a preamble to the present study.

  2. According to historians of the critical school, one should limit oneself to the bare facts that could not have been the object of personal interpretation by the contemporaries; the interpretation should be provided by the historian. Herodotus, on the contrary, operated on the principle of Ionian historia, of a naturalistic attitude. The opinions of those who lived the events are data that are accepted as such; but there must be found a method to discriminate in an objective way among the several opinions. Since Herodotus developed the art of historical research from geography, he followed quantitative analysis as a principle of discrimination. In geography one is bound to rely on the impressions of travelers or on one's travel experiences, but a net of discriminating principles is provided by mathematical geography.

  3. Vortraege ueber alte Geschichte, Vol. I (Berlin, 1847), p. 190.

  4. Ibid., p. 414.

  5. Today we know that social reality is so complex and varied that it cannot be explained in terms of simple schemes or even less in terms of simple theories of causation, particularly of a mechanistic type. Our awareness of the complexity of social life is such that today there are some political conservatives who take the agnostic position that a scientific study of social life is totally impossible. This is absurd because if we could not make generalizations about social life, our daily existence would not be possible. The truth is that the complexity of social life can be grasped by broad intuitive generalizations, something similar to what the ancients called mythos but we have found a method to control the validity of intuitive generalizations through the use of quantitative techniques, what pre-Aristotelian thinkers called logos.

  6. Cf. Momigliano, op. cit., p. 13.

  7. Misura Universale (Krakow, 1697).

  8. Rome, 1652-54.

  9. Isaac Newton, A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and the Cubits of several Nations: in which from the Dimensions of the Greatest Pyramid as taken by Mr. John Greaves, the ancient Cubit of Memphis is Determined.

  10. It must be kept in mind that in the age of Herodotus writing in prose was a novelty in Greece and that the first examples of prose were those of Ionian scientific writings, particularly medical texts.

  11. "Ueber die Geographie Herodots," lecture presented in 1812, published in Kleine historische und philologische Schriften (Bonn, 1828), p. 134.

  12. Typical is the book of Wolf Aly, Volksmaerchen, Sage, und Novelle bei Herodot (Goettingen, 1929).

  13. Povestvovatelnyj i nauchnyj stil Gerodota (Leningrad, 1957), p. 165.

  14. B. G. Niebuhr, "Die Perserkriege. Griechenland bis auf die Zeit des Perikles," Vortraege ueber alte Geschichte (Berlin, 1847), p. 388.

  15. Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines, 4 vols. (Paris, 1853-55).

  16. Histoire des Perses, (Paris, 1866), vol. II, p. 111. Gobineau's interpretation, except for the detail that the King himself was not in command, (ibid., p. 107), is accepted by several major figures of scholarship, among which are Gaetano de Sanctis, Julius Beloch, and G. B. Grundy.

  17. Herodotus erklaert (1893-1908).

  18. A. Hauvette, Herodote, Historien des guerres mediques, (Paris, 1894).

  19. Herodotus, The Fourth, Fifth, & Sixth Books 2 vols (London, 1895); Herodotus, The Seventh, Eighth, & Ninth Books 2 vols. (London, 1908).

  20. Macan (1895), Vol. II, p. 43.

  21. Macan (1895), Vol. II, p. 44.

  22. R. Cohen, La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique (Paris, 1934), p. 158.

  23. Herodote (Paris, 1932).

  24. A. D. Godley, General Introduction to Herodotus, Vol. I (London, 1921), pp. xi, xii.

  25. Ibid., p. xii.



 2. The Scythian Campaign






Those who wanted to discredit Herodotus as a responsible historian found that the best way was to concentrate their criticism on his report of the campaign conducted against the Scythians by King Darius of Persia around 513 BCE This report occupies most of the Fourth Book (Melpomene) of Herodotus' Histories (1-144); the balance of this book (145-205) consists of a survey of Africa west of Egypt and, hence, can be presumed to be infantile like all things that concern Africa.(26)

If this entire book contains preposterous data, it will be proved that an entire ninth of Herodotus' work is the product of an irresponsible and confused mind, with the result that the rest of his work must be presumed to be unreliable, unless the contrary is specifically proved. (27)

The account of the Scythian campaign is an essential transition in the scheme of Herodotus' narrative: Whereas the first three books present the Persian Empire as a great rational construction based on the scientific and cultural achievements of the preceding monarchies, the Fourth Book describes how the Persian Empire used the military strength inherent to its structure in relation to foreign territories, so that this book sets the technical frame of reference for the presentation of the military campaigns of King Darius and King Xerxes against Greece, the main concern of the last five books. Herodotus intends to explain the historical phenomenon that the Greek city states were able to challenge a state organization based on the rational exploitation of the physical and intellectual resources of a territory embracing a great part of the inhabited earth. The narrative of the Scythian campaign reveals how people willing to make extreme sacrifices for the defense of their liberty could take advantage of favorable geographical factors to frustrate even the boldest and most imaginative plan to make them crumble under the weight of Persian power. Thereby it prepares the reader to understand why Darius' successor, Xerxes, did fail in his attempt to crush the Greeks. This, however, is an historical problem that does not exist for many modern historians because they reduce the proportions of the Persian campaign against Greece to about those of the campaign of Lord Kitchener against the Sudan.

The proper understanding of the nature and development of the Persian campaign against Scythia permits to understand the causes of what we know as the Persian Wars. The scorned Book Four of Herodotus is essential in the general structure of his historical work. But even without considering the later historical consequences, the campaign of King Darius proves to be one of the greatest military enterprises of all times. It was more dramatic and more grandiose in its development and scope than the campaign of Napoleon and the campaign of Hitler. It was not a whimsical sortie conceived by a monarch who could act irresponsibly because of his absolute power; its account is not provided by a storyteller who in his childish imagination pursued details that are both fictitious and inconsequential. In political and military matters King Darius was one of the most powerful organizing minds of all times, certainly not inferior to Alexander the Great or to Caesar, and his greatness found a worthy interpreter in an historian who, although the first to write universal history, well understood the dynamics of the great historical developments. It was the main purpose of Herodotus to explain what were the might and weakness of the great imperial states of the Orient, in contrast with the nature of the Greek city states, and he certainly succeeded. He also tried to explain how ancient imperial states were compelled by their own structure and purpose to follow a given course of action; it is this inner compulsion that caused the Persians to engage first in the unsuccessful war against the Scythians and as a sequel in the equally unsuccessful wars against the Greeks.

The criticism of the narrative of the Scythian campaign is of central significance for those who intend to belittle the achievements of ancient science and try to prove that the predecessors of the Greeks were prelogical and that the Greeks themselves did not emerge from the prelogical mentality, except for the individual contributions of some specific thinkers, most of whom belong to the Hellenistic age.

In two essays, the first of which was presented in 1811, (28)

Niebuhr stated that Herodotus was so "uneducated and simple-minded" as to believe that Scythia had the shape of a square bounded by the sea to the south and to the east. (29)

The west side of the square would be formed by the Danube, believed to be running north-south, from about the latitude of Kiev to the Black Sea. Niebuhr relates that this last point was suggested to him by Ideler, who was the first scholar to claim that the length of the circumference of the Earth was not known in pre-Greek times. (30)

According to Niebuhr, Herodotus would have placed the mouth of the Don at the north-eastern corner of the square at the same latitude as the source of the Danube which, as I have said, he claimed had been placed in the area of Kiev. Niebuhr does not submit a single example of textual analysis in order to prove that Herodotus had concocted this geographical monstrosity, but declared that the work of Herodotus is full of data about measures and distances that do not fit reality. He asserted that Herodotus is wanton when he uses figures, but did not submit these figures to a single test. To discredit the geography of Herodotus means to discredit the scientific value of his entire work, because geography provides the structural framework of the presentation. Herodotus created the science of history by writing a universal history which took as starting model works of universal geography, such as that of his fellow Ionian, Hekataios of Miletos. Hekataios had written a Periegesis, "journey around the world," in which in the form of what we would call social geography, he included a good deal of historical information.

Since Herodotus' account of Scythia was used to justify a revolution in the interpretation of ancient thought, it is worth observing that the interpretation of his words was a distorted one, since not many years after Niebuhr's first writing Arnold Hermann Heeren provided a sensible interpretation of the geography of Scythia according to Herodotus. It is expressed in these words:

The boundaries which Herodotus assigns to Scythia are as follows: on the south, the coast of the Black Sea, from the mouth of the Danube to the Palus Maeotis [Sea of Azov]; on the east, the Persian gulf and the Don, or Tanais, to its rise out of the lake Ivan, which Herodotus was acquainted with; on the north, a line drawn from this lake to that out of which the Tyras, (or Dniester) flows. . . the western boundary was a line from thence to the Danube. (31)

Heeren had proved that Herodotus' text could be taken as having a reasonable meaning if one wanted to; but Niebuhr was speaking in the terms of the spirit of the age and his opinion carried an immense prestige, even though the perusal of his writings does not provide anything but gratuitous assertions.

Among the commentators of Herodotus, only George Rawlinson dared to question outright the interpretation of Niebuhr and to uphold that of Heeren. Rawlinson expressed this opinion: "We seem to see in Herodotus a remarkable knowledge of leading geographical facts, combined, either really or apparently, with mistakes as to minutiae." (32)

But Rawlinson wrote before 1880, before the great turning of the tide in ancient studies. Specialists of ancient geography have on the main accepted Niebuhr's view, except for some minor modifications that are more charitable to Herodotus.

It is regrettable that specialists of ancient geography have accepted the statement of historians of science about the low level of ancient geographical science, so that they have never tried to ascertain why Herodotus based his calculations on a square. Greek geographers repeatedly mention an entity called sfragis, but this term is not explained except by saying superficially that it means "seal," although Greek papyri indicate that sfragis is an entity to which plots of land are related in cadastral surveys. However, it can be gathered from the contexts that when geographers speak of sfragis they mean a geodetic square. All that specialists of ancient geography have achieved is to try to give interpretations of Herodotus' geography of Scythia that are somewhat more charitable than that proposed by Niebuhr.

As a result John L. Myres tries to propound that, in spite of all the criticism, Herodotus still has some virtues as an historian, when it comes to the question of Scythia, argues again, after evaluating the several interpretations, that Herodotus saw this land as being a square surrounded by the sea on two sides. (33)

According to Myres, Herodotus' geographical conceptions were all extraordinarily infantile. The method used by Myres to prove his contention is essentially that followed by Niebuhr, namely, to give a concrete material meaning to mathematical concepts. By this method it could be argued that geographers of our age are so primitive and superstitious as to believe that the world begins at Greenwich and that across the Pacific there runs a line such that by crossing it one can move backwards in time.

A facile writer of history, Bishop Connop Thirlwall, who now is entirely forgotten but in his time was most influential because he was a popularizer of Niebuhr's ideas and wrote in consultation with him, declared that Darius' "adventures in Scythia elude every attempt to conceive their real nature and connection." (34)

But no sample of a possible attempt was submitted. Bishop Thirlwall asserted that all that the Persians did was to engage in a campaign for the conquest of Thrakia in the course of which they conducted a foray across the Danube in order to intimidate the Scythians from molesting the newly acquired territories. Thirlwall's theory has been accepted by the majority of historians among which I may quote Beloch, De Sanctis, and G. Grundy in his book on the Persian Wars, and their preliminaries.

Others, while willing to believe that there actually took place a campaign against the Scythians, treat the matter as not serious, dividing the blame between Herodotus and King Darius: the campaign was an occasional adventure expressing the whim of an Oriental potentate about which Herodotus reported a tale spun with Oriental fantasy. Interpreters have read Book Four so as to make both Darius and Herodotus appear as irresponsible children, one for thinking of the enterprise and the other for weaving such lengthy and pointless tales about it; but they emerge as two giants of the human spirit, one as a statesman and a warleader and the other as the worthy historical interpreter.

Most historians of Greece and of Persia dispose of the Scythian campaign in a passing page. It has become traditional to be flighty about this campaign: Gustave Glotz in his authoritative great treatise of ancient history sums up the events after the crossing of the Danube in these words: "Then, says Herodotus, the army trundled towards the interior, without provisions, without preparation." (35)

Of course, Herodotus does not say anything of the sort.

It is assumed that the marches and countermarches of the Persian army do not need to be considered, since it was Herodotus who pushed this army back and forth across the vastness of Russia, in order to fit the military operations to his insane geography. Rawlinson, since he found the geographical description of Scythia to be comprehensible, protested against the view of those who qualified Herodotus' narrative as "illustrative fiction"; but Rawlinson was speaking to the desert.

By the middle of the last century George Grote could write without bothering to document his extreme contention that what happened after Darius' crossing of the Danube "if tried by the tests of historical matter of fact, can be received as nothing better than a perplexing dream" (36); in Herodotus' account "we find nothing approaching to authentic statement, nor even what we can set forth as the probable basis of truth on which exaggerating fancy has been at work -- all is inexplicable mystery." (37)

Philippe-Ernest Legrand, the author of a comprehensive commentary to the writings of Herodotus, has followed the line of attack indicated by Niebuhr: as a first step he published an essay on Herodotus' account of the Scythian campaign. Herodotus would have invented the Scythian campaign of King Darius in order to have a device to string together the pieces of information that he had collected on the customs and practices of several nations. Geographical lines and the Persian army would have been made to follow the needs of a colorful presentation of ethnological data. Legrand sums up his thought with this exclamation: "I do not believe that in other parts of Herodotus' work there could be found another example that reveals his flippancy (desinvolture) in so striking a manner." He concludes his essay by the qualification that the Scythian campaign is an exception and that usually la fantaisie d'Herodote is kept within narrower limits.

Legrand accepts the view held by the majority of scholars that all that King Darius did was to lead an incursion against some Scythian tribes who lived just north of the Danube. Although "the long tours that Herodotus ascribes to Darius do not have an historical character," Legrand hesitates in calling Herodotus an outright prevaricator. The Greek historian would not have been in bad faith when he related that the Persians advanced to the Volga: some travelers would have seen Scythian tombs in the form of kurgans in the area of the Volga and, knowing that the king had been in Scythia, would have called them "castles of Darius"; on the basis of this Herodotus would have built the story of a Persian advance to the Volga and the construction of a fortified line. Concerning the geography of Scythia, Legrand, although granting that Herodotus' words indicate that he had a map before his eyes, repeats Niebuhr's assertions beginning with the one that Herodotus believed that the Danube flows in a north-south direction. Herodotus had some correct information about the coastal areas of the Black Sea, and for the rest he "embroidered"; names of tribes like the Androphagoi and the Melanchlainoi would have been invented in order to populate a terra incognita. Such is the opinion of a scholar who considers himself a defender of Herodotus' sincerity against more radical critics.

The alleged geographical absurdity of Herodotus' description of Scythia is used as evidence not only against Herodotus, but also against the Persians. In summing up the accepted views, Robert Cohen declares that one of the main causes for King Darius' failure in his campaign was "his ignorance of geography." (38)

The truth could not be more in flagrant opposition to these beliefs of the academic world. An ignorance of geography would have been impossible according to the Persian conception of the cosmological function of their world empire. The Persians were neither ignorant of scientific geography nor indifferent to it. When King Darius, in order to sanction the establishment of his Empire, founded a new capital, Persepolis, he placed its sacred area exactly at latitude 30 degrees 00 minutes North and at a longitude calculated exactly to the minute in relation to Egypt (3 units of 7 degrees 12 minutes east of the Main Axis of Egypt) so as to be at the point considered the middle of the Oikoumene, the inhabited earth.

But, leaving out of consideration general issues, there is specific textual evidence about the method by which the Persians proceeded to gather information about Scythia. Ktesias (fr. 13, Jacoby) relates that, in preparation for the Scythian expedition, Ariamnes, satrap of Kappadokia, was instructed to cross the Black Sea with a small fleet and to conduct raids on Scythia in order to carry off as prisoners possible informants. One of these, the brother of a Scythian king, proved a valuable source of intelligence. The fleet did not consist of triremes, as might be expected, but of 50 penteconters, which may have been chosen in order to ascend the Russian rivers.

King Darius did not start his Scythian campaign before having gathered a mass of exact and systematic geographical information that would have been a feat of scientific achievement even a couple of centuries ago. In the first half of the last century Europeans were not as precisely informed about the geography of Central Africa, as King Darius was informed about the geography of Central Russia. It is true that Herodotus had some difficulty in reporting exactly the mathematical elements of the Persian geographic survey, but the very fact that he tried to cope even with the aspects of ancient geography that were taxing him because of their technicality, prove how well he grasped the importance of geographical information.

In order to plan their campaign, the Persians proceeded to a geographical survey of the Scythian territory. Following what was ancient practice, the survey started by establishing a geodetic square. This geodetic square had an extension of 10 degrees by 10 degrees and included the area from the mouth of the Danube to the mouth of the Don and extended in latitude from the northern coast of the Black Sea to almost the latitude of Moscow. Since Herodotus considered that geography and distances were the main factor in the Scythian campaign, he built his narrative around the data obtained by the construction of this geodetic square. Since he provides exact information about the geography and the distances of the Scythian area in terms of the geodetic square, the first step in understanding the military operations of King Darius and the presentation by Herodotus, is to locate this square on the map. (39)

If this is not done the account by Herodotus becomes incomprehensible and so do the actions of the King. When interpreters throw overboard the data of mathematical geography, they are left with a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Herodotus, who is considered to unfold his narrative without a forethought, dedicates several chapters in the part that immediately precedes the account of the Scythian campaign (III 134-138) to explain by a concrete example, as is his style, how the Persians proceeded to gather geographical information. While the Persian leaders were planning their Scythian campaign, the question was raised by some of them whether action should be taken against the Greek mainland before attacking Scythia. King Darius, leaving the main issue open, immediately ordered that as a preparatory step fifteen prominent Persians should conduct a survey of the coasts not only of Greece proper, but also of that part of Italy where there were Greek colonies.

What were the Persian ambitions is indicated by the circumstance that more than twenty years later the Greek Histiaios, the tyrant of Miletos, who was kept prisoner at Susa, promised King Darius, in order to deceive him into letting him return to his homeland, that he would make him master not only of all the Greeks, but also of the island of Sardinia, which Histiaios described as the largest island of the Mediterranean Sea (V 106). The Persian reconnaissance mission left Phoenicia on two triremes and a large merchant ship loaded with material for gifts and, proceeding along the Greek coast "made a written record of the results of a careful survey of most and best known features of the coastal areas" (III 136). The mission continued beyond Greece to Italy where in Tarentum its members were arrested as spies. Herodotus does not explain who were the fifteen prominent Persians, but possibly they were magi, experts in astronomy who could calculate latitudes and longitudes.

In order to explain how the Persians tried to pool together all the intellectual resources of the Empire, Herodotus gives the example of a certain Demokedes, a Greek from Kroton in Italy, who was brought along in this mission under strict guard. On one occasion in which King Darius, while at the capital of Susa, had dislocated his foot, he turned to Egyptian physicians who were part of his retinue, since Egyptians were reputed to have the greatest skill in the medical art; but when after seven days these Egyptians could not stop the pain in the ankle of the King, he caused Demokedes, who was considered the best physician of Greece, and who was then at Sardis where he had been in the retinue of the local satrap, to be brought to Susa. Demokedes, by following the principle primum non nocere of Hippokratic medicine, instead of the drastic methods of Egyptian medicine, was able to stop the pain and to cause the King to acquire again the normal use of his foot. Demokedes succeeded also in curing Queen Atossa of a cancer of the breast. As a result Demokedes was treated with the highest honor, but was not allowed to leave the King's court, until the Queen who was in favor of a campaign for the conquest of the Greek mainland in preference to the Scythian campaign, persuaded the King to send the exploratory mission to Greece and Italy, taking along Demokedes "as the best man to provide guidance and information in all that concerns Greece" (III 134).

The story of Demokedes is used by Herodotus also to convey the opinion that King Darius would have been better advised if he had attacked Greece instead of Scythia. Queen Atossa was the daughter of King Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, whom the Greeks considered superior in wisdom to his successor. In the tragedy Persians Aischylos presents Queen Atossa as pointing out to Darius' successor, Xerxes, the strategic and political errors that caused the Persian disaster in the campaign against Greece in 480 BCE

All this indicates that the Greeks considered that the Persian rulers in their planning made some erroneous decisions, but not because of lack of rational thinking, nor because of lack of accurate geographical information. Once the geographical data are properly reconstructed, the Persian strategy in the Scythian campaign becomes perfectly clear and Herodotus' account of the events become simple and unequivocal. (40)






  1. See below, Part II: "Herodotus on the Sahara."

  2. This proposition was advanced explicitely by Macan.

  3. "Untersuchungen ueber die Geschichte der Skythen, Geten, und Sarmaten," lecture of 1811, and "Ueber die Geographie Herodots," lecture of 1812, in Kleine historische und philologische Schriften (Bonn, 1828).

  4. Ibid., p. 355.

  5. Ibid., p. 356. Cf. J. Ludwig Ideler, Historische Untersuchungen ueber die astronomische Beobachtungen der Alten (Berlin, 1806).

  6. A. H. Heeren, Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse, and Trade of the Principal Nations of Antiquity (Oxford, 1833) vol. II, p. 257, note 4. Heeren conceived of the square as extending as far north as to include the Czarist administrative districts of Riazan and Mogilev.

  7. History of Herodotus, fourth edition, (New York, 1880), p. 206.

  8. Herodotus, The Father of History (Oxford, 1953), pp. 171-172.

  9. The History of Greece, (London, 1855), Vol. II, p. 223.

  10. Histoire Grecque Vol. II (Paris, 1931), p. 17.

  11. George Grote, History of Greece, (London, 1862), Vol. III, p. 229.

  12. Ibid., p. 226.

  13. R. Cohen, La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique, p. 162.

  14. See below, Part II: "The Geodetic Square of Scythia."

  15. See Part II: Geography.




 The Strategy of Darius the Great




The strategy of Darius becomes clear once the geographical data have been defined. The King of Persia was confronted with the problem that has always beset the great Empires of Eurasia, how to cope with the threat of the nomadic people of the steppes. This is a problem that beset the Chinese for millennia and with which they tried to cope by means of the most gigantic measures. This is a problem that the Roman Empire was not able to solve.

The Arabs were conquered by the Turks and the Turks put an end to the Byzantine Empire. It was not too long ago that the Turks were at the gates of Vienna and all Europe was trembling. Even today the word Hun creates a feeling of fear in our minds. The Tatar invasions were the most important turning point in Russian history. One could continue the list of the examples by roaming widely through the centuries and through all districts of Eurasia.

The threat of the nomadic people of central Eurasia was particularly important for the rulers of the Persian Empire. This is made clear by the very fact that the nations that ruled Iran in succession, the Medes, the Persians, and the Parthians, had come originally from the same group. Those who were called Scythians in the age of King Darius spoke an Indo-European language closely related to Persian. At that time the people called Scythians by the Greeks and Saka by the Persians dominated an area that started from the Danube and extended east far beyond the Caspian Sea; Herodotus, however, uses the term Scythians to refer specifically to those members of this group that lived between the Danube and the Don. He calls Scythia the territory between those two rivers, which for him is the European part of central Eurasia. This area was of particular interest to the Greeks because earlier it had been occupied by the Cimmerians who were expelled from it by the Scythians coming from the east.

Herodotus asserts that King Darius attacked the Scythians in order to take vengeance for the period of 28 years of Scythian domination in the Near East; in these terms he expressed the idea that the Persian Empire could not ever feel secure as long as it had not reduced the Scythians to submission. Scythians appeared in Assyria at the time of King Sargon II (722 - 705 BCE); King Esarhaddon used them as his allies in his struggle for supremacy against the Medes, who were supported by the Cimmerians. In 626 BCE the Scythians helped the Assyrians to break the siege of Nineveh by the Medes. In 611 BCE Scythians entered Egypt and it took a vigorous campaign by the Egyptian King Psammetichos to contain them. The Scythian expansion into the Middle East came to an end only when the Medes allied themselves with the Babylonians and broke forever the power of the Assyrian Empire. Therefore to assume that King Darius engaged on the Scythian expedition out of a capricious whim indicates a lack of historical sense. The problem of the Scythians was one of the great problems of the Persian Empire, and in trying to cope with it Darius employed measures that were proportional to its importance. Herodotus spends almost a ninth of his work in order to deal with it.

The Persian strategy was so conceived as to require the use of an almost unlimited number of men and resources. Herodotus begins the narrative with the words "Darius, having an immense reserve in money and an unlimited number of men to draw upon . . . ," because it is a matter of one of the most grandiose military operations of all history.

Herodotus built his narrative against the background of a map of Russia, describing even its technical details, because the most important actor in this drama is the immensity of the Russian space and the nature of the Russian land. The Scythians and their allies could count on the advantage of mobility; even though some of them had become tillers of the soil and had established permanent settlements of some sort, they were all willing and able to revert to their nomadic ways. Furthermore, they proved willing to resort to an extreme policy of scorched earth whose thoroughness is described in full detail by Herodotus. King Darius tried to cope with them by mobilizing an army large enough to make a clean sweep of the entire Scythian land. His purpose was to dispose forever of the Scythians by smoking them out with a battle all across their territory, which roughly corresponds to the modern Ukraine. The great Russian rivers, which Herodotus carefully locates, were a help to the Persians since they made it possible to supply a large army deep in enemy territory. The scorched earth policy of the Scythians could be frustrated by a power that had the resources of Persia, if transportation was adequate.

King Darius did not advance directly from the heart of the Persian Empire across the Caucasus, going beyond the river Phasis that was the official borderline; rather, he decided on a plan of attacking the Scythians from the rear. Accordingly, he moved his troops all around the Black Sea in order to attack first of all that part of Scythia that was more prosperous economically and was settled in a more permanent way. In order to invest directly the area around the mouth of the Dnieper, he had to move his troops into Asia Minor and from there, crossing the Bosphoros, into Europe. Continuing thence he had to lead them all across Thrakia to a crossing of the Danube. This required a preliminary military expansion in Thrakia which brought the Persians into direct contact with the Greeks of the mainland. By a gigantic effort Darius succeeded in bringing his army across Asia into Europe, crossing first the Bosphoros and then the Danube with a force of about 720,000 men, supported by the entire strength of the Persian navy. For the crossing of the Bosphorus and of the Danube there were constructed bridges for which the King resorted to the engineering skill of his Greek subjects. As Herodotus explains, the mere operation of concentrating and moving these troops by the Persians proves what a gigantic and efficient organization was the Persian Empire. If one were to explain to beginners what an enormous organization was the Chinese Empire, and what mass of resources it could mobilize, one might start by explaining what is the Great Wall. Herodotus used the Scythian campaign for a similar purpose.

Probably Darius set up his base of operation at Olbia and the other Greek cities of the Scythian coast. Herodotus reports (IV 122) that the Scythian scouts found him at about 3 days or 1½ degree east of the Danube. The Scythians decided to withdraw before the Persians, pursuing a systematic scorched-earth policy.

From the Greek cities of Olbia the King's army advanced opening as a fan into Scythian territory. A part moved along the coast towards the Don and a part moved along the limit of the forest line in a north-easterly direction till it reached the city of Gelonos, which was destroyed. (41)

The army then moved south along the eastern bank of the Don. The Scythians took up position in face of the Persians along the entire front and kept retreating while harassing the enemy and systematically destroying the country as much as they could. The Scythians had sent their women and children to the north on wagons with all the cattle that was not necessary for the support of the army; it is almost certain that they were sent into the forest area.

According to Herodotus, King Darius, after destroying Gelonos, pushed into the uninhabited area in the territory of the Boudinoi; this means that he went beyond the limits of the geodetic square. When the army came to the river Oaros it stopped and proceeded to construct a fortified line consisting of eight forts spaced from each other about 60 stadia. Reckoning by stadia of 833 to the degree, the forts were spaced at distances of two Persian parasangs of about 8 kilometers. There is only one place where the construction of this line would have had a function, namely, the point where the Don is closest to the Volga. There cannot be any doubt, therefore, that the Persians reached the area of Volgograd, where the bend of the Don approaches the bend of the Volga. Eight would be the number of forts necessary to close the stretch of about 60 km between the Don and the Volga.

Herodotus states that in pursuing the Scythians King Darius stopped on the bank of the Oaros (IV 124). Numerous scholars have concluded that the Oaros mentioned by Herodotus is the Volga; they quote as supporting evidence the fact that Ptolemy called the Volga by the name of Rhas, which is the Mordvinian name of this river, but the similarity of sound between Oaros and Rhas is not very convincing. Herodotus declares that there are four rivers that flow into the Morass Maiotis together with the Tanais, and lists them as the Lykos, the Oaros, the Tanais, and the Syrgis (IV 123). There is wide agreement that the rivers are described from east to west so that the Syrgis is almost certainly the Donets. Those who identify the Oaros with the Volga point out that a number of ancient and medieval writers describe the Volga as flowing into the Don because the two rivers come most close to each other and the trade route coming from the upper Volga continued into the lower Don. I agree that the Volga may have been listed by Herodotus as an affluent of the Don, but the river that corresponds to the Volga in Herodotus' list must be the Lykos. Since Lykos means "wolf" in Greek, it could be that the name of the Volga, which in truth seems to be of Fenno-Ugrian origin, was understood as meaning "wolf" by people who spoke Indoeuropean languages. The Oaros should be identified with the Ylovlya which flows into the Don exactly at the great bend, after having run for a long time most close to the Volga. When Herodotus decleres that the Persians who had been descending along the eastern bank of the Tanais or Don stopped on the bank of the Oaros, he means that they stopped at the junction of the Ylovlya with the Don. Here the Ylovlya detaches itself from the Don at its bend and runs very close to the Volga. It is at this point that there was built the fortified line from the Don to the Volga.

The Persian plan was to box the Scythians into the barren area of the lower Volga which could not have supported their cattle and hence them. The Persian army must have been aligned all along the Don and possibly the lower course of the Oaros or Ylovlya; the Persian ships made it impossible for the Scythians to achieve a breakthrough by a sudden concentrated thrust across the Don. In order to prevent a Scythian breakthrough at the great bend of the Volga, the Persians had started to build a fortified line to the south.

The Persian plan was spectacular and possibly was the only adequate one. But the Scythians escaped the fate of the German army at Stalingrad. Thanks to their mobility they avoided being caught in a net like fish. By a wide circular movement they crossed the Volga and passed to the north of the Persian army: "While Darius was engaged in the work of fortification, the Scythians whom he was chasing, by a circular movement through the upper country, eluded him, returning to Scythia." (IV 124). Suddenly Darius realized that the Scythians had disappeared and were no longer to be seen. It is conceivable that in order to accomplish the maneuver the Scythians abandoned their cattle, banking on the chance of finding new food supplies once they had returned to their country. The Persian scheme with which Darius had started his campaign -- to pin the Scythians between the Persian army to the north and the Persian border to the south so as to let them die of hunger there -- failed. It failed because of two factors. Herodotus intended to explain what was learned by Napoleon and Hitler at their expense and the expense of their subjects. The Persians failed because of the geographical factor of the immensity of the Russian space, combined with the unusual attachment to their land of the inhabitants of the Russian plains, because of which they are willing to follow a policy of scorched earth and to continue resistance beyond what other people would consider the limit of human endurance. This is what was understood by Herodotus, an historian whom Robert Cohen labels "mediocre in psychology and mediocre in perceptivity." (42)

King Darius, however, had more daring and determination than Napoleon after the capture of Moscow; by a rapid movement the Persian army reversed its course and went back to Scythia, pursuing the Scythians into the territory of the Lower Dnieper. This time the Scythians fled to the north, entering the forest area. They may have chosen this course of action for two reasons; they had realized that the Persian plan was to move north to the limit of the forest area and then push the Scythians to the south towards the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, so that they would be caught between the Persian army and Persian territory. They had to retreat towards the area where earlier they had sent their women and children, as well as the greatest part of their cattle.

The ensuing military operation was more grandiose than anything that was accomplished by Napoleon or Hitler in their invasions of Russia. The Persians pursued the Scythians through the land of the Melanchlainoi, probably the area to the south of Moscow; when the Persians dared to pursue them even there, they moved towards the Baltic Sea, into the land of the Androphagoi. The pursuit continued further across Poland into the land of the Neuroi. The scope of the military engagements was so great that the Melanchlainoi, the Androphagoi, and the Neuroi were forced to abandon their homelands, fleeing into the lands of the extreme north (IV 128). This means that the Persians may have advanced through the area of the Valdai Hills, approached the Baltic Sea, and returned south through Poland.

The Scythians completed a full circle and for the second time approached the area of the lower Dniester. Finally the Scythians went back to their own territory and the Persians to their bases of the lower Dniester. By this time, since the Persians were finally being worn out (VIII 126-130) the Scythians decided that the moment had come to turn the tables by shifting to an offensive strategy (VIII 128). They would try to keep the Persians pinned down in Scythia while cutting their lines across the Danube (IV 130).

If the Scythians had been able to reach the Danube immediately in full force, the fate of their opponents would have been sealed, but the Scythians resorted to the strategy of sending only part of their forces to the Danube while the rest harrassed the Persian army in order to slow it down (VIII 130). The Scythians believed that the Greeks who were in charge of the bridge would be convinced to betray their masters. At this point the Persians were saved from disaster by a piece of clever deception performed by their Greek subjects. A body of Scythians appeared at the bridge over the Danube that had been built and was guarded by Ionian Greeks. According to Herodotus (IV 133), the Scythians reminded the Ionians that when King Darius had crossed the bridge he had given them a rope with 60 knots and told them to undo a knot a day with the instruction that if he had not returned within sixty days they should cut the bridge. The figure of 60 days in the context of a picturesque and unlikely story has been taken by the greatest majority of scholars as the key to their interpretation of the Scythian campaign. They dismiss as meaningless the dozens of precise and verifiable numerical data presented in a technical context by Herodotus' Fourth Book, but they assign supreme significance to the colorful detail of the rope with 60 knots. They like to believe that King Darius was so primitive that he kept records by tying knots on a rope. (43)

In their opinion, this figure should prove that King Darius' campaign did not last more than 60 days. Since Darius' campaign certainly lasted more than 60 days, the story must have been a tale that the Greeks told the Scythians to stall them. >From Herodotus' narrative it is clear that the Ionians were trying to gain time by stalling the Scythians. The Greeks must have told the Scythians that they had taken an oath to guard the bridge for 60 days and that they had to wait for that period. The Latin term obligatio indicates how the ancients used the tying of knots to indicate the contraction of binding engagements. Herodotus (IV 133) presents the Scythians as describing to the Greeks that after sixty days they could cut the bridge without proving faithless. Herodotus (IV 41) further reports that the Scythians after the events judged the Ionian Greeks to be "the most faithless and cowardly of all free men and the most devoted and attached to their masters of all slaves." It is clear that the Greeks only pretended to contemplate treason and fooled the Scythians. The story of the rope could mean that the Ionians promised the Scythians that they would cut the bridge if the Persians had not returned within 60 days; the tying of the rope may have been used to sanctify the engagement taken by the Ionians. The Scythians may have told the Ionians that Darius was trapped in Scythia, and the Ionians may have replied that they would wait for 60 days to see whether this was true. The Scythians may have accepted the proposal of the Ionians rather than engage in a pitched battle with them.

At this point the King, having realized his predicament and understood that his campaign had failed, ordered a desperate march of retreat toward the bridge. After the Scythian move towards the bridge there remained to the Persians no other alternative than to withdraw as quickly as possible. By abandoning rearguard contingents to die or be taken prisoner, King Darius was able to break contact with the main Scythian body, but again the Scythians, thanks to their mobility, by a circular movement were able to arrive at the bridge first. The Scythians told the Ionians: "The number of days has ended and you do not fulfill your obligations by continuing to stay here" (IV 136); the terminology indicates that the Ionians had contracted an engagement with the Scythians. Certainly King Darius could not have asked the Ionians to bind themselves to abandon the bridge and the Scythians could not have accused the Ionians of not doing their duty towards King Darius.

The true story seems to be that the Greeks told the Scythians that they would cut the bridge at the right time, causing the Scythians to retreat. When the Scythians appeared a second time, the Ionians dismantled the part of the bridge on the northern side, which prevented the Scythians from crossing the river and at the same time gave them the impression that the Ionians were leaving. The Ionians may have promised that the rest of the bridge would be dismantled later.

Having seen that the bridge was cut the Scythians moved north to meet the Persian army in retreat, but they were hampered by their previous scorched earth policy so that they had to engage in a circular movement through the inland area. In the event the Persians, retreating at great speed through the barren land, were able to evade them and to arrive at the Danube, where the Ionians rebuilt the bridge upon their arrival.

Herodotus relates with great detail that at the moment of the second Scythian appearance at the bridge, the Athenian Miltiades who had established a tyranny in the area of the Hellespont and had participated in the campaign together with other Greek tyrants under Persian suzerainty, proposed that the Ionians cut the bridge in order to destroy King Darius and his army and "to liberate Ionia" (IV 137). The Ionians were favorable to Miltiades' proposal, but changed their mind when Histiaios, tyrant of Miletos, the most prosperous city of Ionia, pointed out that the tyrants were unpopular with their subjects and were kept in power by the Persians. In this way Histiaios would have persuaded all other Greek rulers under Persian suzerainty that it was in their interest to support their masters. It has been properly observed that the movement of popular opposition to tyranny had not yet started at that time and that the related slogan "to liberate Ionia" had not yet been bandied around. Herodotus probably reports a version of the events that was invented many years later after the Greeks of Asia Minor had revolted against the Persians and Miltiades had become a major figure in the struggle against Persia. It has been suggested on solid grounds that the episode of the debate among the Greeks at the bridge was concocted by Miltiades when he was expelled from his tyranny in 493 BCE and had to return to Athens. Since in Athens he was brought to trial under the charge of being a supporter of tyranny, it is likely that he invented the tale of the debate in order to prove that he had never put the interest of the preservation of tyranny before that of Greek anti-Persian patriotism. On this occasion the detail of the rope with 60 knots was distorted in order to conceal the fact that the behavior of the Ionians aimed at deluding the Scythians and trying to save the Persian army. If the Greeks had seriously considered betrayal, the Persians, who were most suspicious of possible disloyalties, would have wreaked a terrible vengeance, whereas the King of Persia rewarded Histiaios "for guarding the bridge" with a territory in Thrakia close to the border of Greece proper (V. 23). Such a holding would never have been given to a potential traitor or to anyone suspected of Greek nationalism.

The argument that the Scythian campaign was but a brief foray across the Danube is based on the assumption that it was concluded in 60 days. Even Legrand who grants that the story of the rope is a tale concocted in Athens at the occasion of Miltiades' trial of 493 BCE, justifies by the figure of 60 days his contention that the Scythian campaign was invented by Herodotus in order to have a pretext for including in his work an account of the geography of Scythia. Herodotus would be the kind of historian who would invent an entire war for the sake of achieving a smooth literary transition.

The figure of 60 days is so sacred among scholars that Tamara Talbot Rice holds on to it, even though she admits that the Persians advanced to the Volga. But the story about the sixty days cannot be considered an indication of the length of the Persian campaign in Scythia.

Once it is recognized that the King was not a liar when he set up a stele stating that he had marched with 700,000 men, it must be concluded on the basis of the parallel with the expedition of King Xerxes into Greece, that the advance across the Bosphoros, the conquest of Thrakia and the crosssing of the Danube must have taken a full period of military operations. Unfortunately Herodotus does not give a single indication about the time taken by the Persian operations; apparently he received the information from somebody who was using a map, the map presenting the geodetic square of Scythia, and was interested only in indicating the geographical positions and not the times. I would conclude that the Scythian campaign occupied three years. Considering the time that it took for King Xerxes to move his army from Susa to Athens, a full military season, King Darius must have spent a full military season to move his army from Asia Minor to the area of the lower Dnieper where it must have gone into winter quarters. The King must have gone into winter quarters at his base near Tyras. The following year there must have taken place the great advance across Scythia that took the Persians to Gelonos and then to the Volga. Herodotus indicates that the Persians lost contact with the Scythians and regained it only with the advance into the territory of the Melanchlainoi and Androphagoi; this sugggests that the Persians spent another winter in their original winter quarters on the lower Dnieper, and advanced from there to the north in the following spring. The third year saw the Persian advance towards Central Russia and the Baltic coast.

The Persian records do not provide directly a date for the Scythian campaign. From them it can only be inferred that King Darius was engaged in other enterprises up to 518 and after 508 BCE, but his span of time can be narrowed by the Greek records. Herodotus begins the Fourth Book with the sentence: "After the capture of Babylon there took place the drive (elasis) against the Scythians conducted in person by Darius." In 522 BCE Darius was a king's spearbearer in Egypt and in that year he usurped the title of King; the campaign against the other pretenders to the throne and against the revolted provinces culminated with the capture of Babylon in November 521 BCE The year 520 BCE was spent in the reorganization of the Empire, the most significant aspect of which was the issuance of a legal code to be used by all subjects. These facts are mentioned in the great Behistun inscription that was cut at the end of 520 BCE In 519 BCE King Darius invaded the land of the eastern Scythians crossing in person the Caspian Sea on a raft. An addition was made to the Behistun inscription mentioning the victory over the Pointed-Cap Scythians, as the eastern Scythians were called to distinguish them. The Persians gave the name of Saka (equivalent to the Greek term Scythian) to all the Indo-European-speaking nomads who lived in the plains around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. But Herodotus gives the name of Scythians only to those who lived in Europe, which for him extends to the Don. The Behistun inscription mentions that revenge was taken on the Saka for the slaying of the Persian King Cyrus. Herodotus (I 101) mentions those who killed Cyrus as living towards the East between the river Araxes and the country of the Issedones to the north, specifying that "some call them Scythians." He continues giving a description and the dimension of the Caspian Sea (I 203). It is possible that Herodotus' date of the Scythians campaign rests on a confusion between the Saka or Scythians of the west and the Scythians of the east in interpreting the information of the Behistun inscription, the text of which was sent to all parts of the Empire. Herodotus states that King Darius invaded the land of the Scythians, meaning the western Scythians, as a revenge for the Scythians' invasion of the Middle East up to Egypt that had taken place a century earlier, but this invasion in which the Scythians allied themselves with the Assyrians against the Medes, predecessors of the Persians in the imperial rule, most likely was the work of the eastern Scythians. Even though Herodotus may be wrong in his dating, the campaign of King Darius against the western Saka is likely to have been conceived as a necessary continuation of the victorious campaign against the eastern Saka. In the winter of 519-518 BCE the King was in the area of Palestine where among other problems he had to quench the flames of Jewish nationalism. In the year 518 BCE he was in Egypt where he was consolidating Persian rule and taking the steps necessary to be recognized as a Pharaoh by the Egyptians. At the end of 518 BCE he returned to the capital of Susa. The conquest of western India must have taken place in the years immediately following, since India is included in the list of satrapies found in Egypt, a list which was compiled in 512 BCE, as I shall explain below.

The Capitoline Table, which is a Greek list of dates, a copy of which was found in Rome and is preserved at the Capitoline Museum, mentions the crossing of the Hellespont by King Xerxes in 480 BCE and before that it mentions King Darius as having crossed the Cimmerian Bosphorus in the same year in which the tyrant Hipparchos was slain in Athens, that is, 514 BCE There is no reason to doubt this date. The very fact that only western subjects of the Empire were mobilized for the Scythian campaign suggests that the other subjects were still engaged in the Indian enterprise or were returning from it. Herodotus indicates that plans for the conquest of what the Persians considered Europe had started immediately after.

In my opinion, King Darius spent the year 515 BCE moving his forces from Dascylium to the mouth of the Dnieper where he established his base of operation. In the spring of 514 BCE he crossed into Crimea, initiating the great sweep across the Scythian land that culminated at the Volga. Perhaps his plan was to let the Scythians die of hunger in the area of the lower Volga during the winter of 514/513 BCE When they escaped, he returned to the winter quarters of the previous year. In 513 BCE he pursued them to the north and was finally forced to retreat from Scythia for good. Most historians, assuming that it lasted only a year, place the Scythian campaign in 513 BCE, because Greek data suggest that the revolt of the Greek cities of the Bosphoros took place in that year. I assume that 513 BCE was the last year of the campaign. After the Scythian campaign Herodotus mentions the Persian campaign for the conquest of Libya which cannot have taken place later than 512 BCE because the stelai that were erected to celebrate the construction of the canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, which cannot be dated later than 512 BCE, list the area of Libya as a new Persian satrapy.





  1. See below, p. for the location of this settlement.

  2. La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique, (Paris, 1934), p. 157.

  3. Grote, A History of Greece Vol. III, p. 481; Thirlwall The History of Greece, II, p. 223; Dunckler VI, p. 282







The Battle of Marathon




The Scythian campaign opened a series of events that caused Persia to become embroiled in a conflict with Athens.

After 520 BCE the tyrant of Athens, Hippias, helped Miltiades, a member of a rival aristocratic clan, to establish himself as tyrant of the Thrakian Chersonnesos, the peninsula that forms the western shore of the Dardanelles. A number of Athenian settlers were planted in the general area that includes the island of Lemnos which blocks the entrance to the Dardanelles. The advance of King Darius into Thrakia in 515 BCE, as the first move in his advance into Scythian, caused a number of the settlers to return to Athens. It could be that the political instability that followed the return to Athens of the dispossessed settlers who had left their city because they were not friendly to the tyrant, set the stage for the plot against the tyranny that succeeded only in killing Hippias' brother (514 BCE).


The failure of the Scythian campaign caused the Greek cities of the Bosphorus to revolt against Persia. These cities were bound for economic reasons to be dependent on the goodwill of whoever dominated the area of Scythian, with the result that once the Persian king had lost they had to throw their lot with the Scythians. These cities may have been afraid of the Scythian revenge raids into Thrakia that took place in the wake of the Persian withdrawal. In 513 BCE the Persian army did not return to Asia by crossing the Bosphorus, as it had been done in the advance, but was forced to move south and cross at the Dardanelles where it could count on the support of Miltiades. The following year the Scythians took their vengeance on Miltiades by forcing him to abandon his possession of the Chersonessos and return to Athens. The Scythians made overtures to Sparta for an alliance, and it could be that this contributed to the Spartan decision to intervene militarily in Athens in 510 BCE in order to overthrow the tyranny. The expelled tyrant Hippias withdrew to Sigeion in the Troad, on the shore facing the former possession of Miltiades, which indicates that Hippias was an ally of Persia.

Up to the moment of his retreat from Scythian, King Darius had been satisfied with a rather loose control of Thrakia and of the Greek cities of the Aegean Sea, because if he had succeeded in conquering Scythian, Thrakia would have been safely in his grip and the Greeks of the Aegean Sea, whose economic life depended in great part on the trade with the Black Sea, would have been at his mercy. The failure of the campaign compelled King Darius to readjust his plans. The revolt of the Greek cities of the Bosphorus was put down, but it had given a taste to the Greeks of the possibility of revolting against Persian domination. When the King withdrew to Asia, he left in Europe the satrap Megabazos with a force of 80,000 men. Megabazos performed well his task of firmly establishing Persian power in Thrakia. He was so effective that he could force the King of Makedonia to become at least nominally a vassal of Persia.

The Paionians who lived in the area of the river Strymon, which today marks the Graeco-Turkish frontier, tried to resist but were defeated by the encircling tactics dear to the Persians. They aligned themselves along the coast in order to block a Persian advance from the direction of the Dardanelles, but the Persians moved inland through the mountains and fell upon the Paionian cities that had been left undefended. A number of Paionian tribes were deported wholesale to Asia Minor. The tyrant of Miletos, Histiaios, who had saved the bridge across the Danube for the retreating Persians, received as a gift some of the territory vacated by the Paionians; but, when he built a fortified town on the Strymon in a position that not only dominated the crossing of the river, but also an area rich in silver mines and timber for shipbuilding, the Persians concluded that this was too much power in the hands of a subject who was already master of Miletos, the richest city of Ionia. The King announced to Histiaios that he was going to make him one of his counselors and invited him to pay a visit to the capital of Susa, where he was kept as an honored guest. The actual exercise of the tyranny in Miletos was entrusted to Histiaios' nephew and son-in-law, Aristagoras.

As acting tyrant of Miletos, Aristagoras intended to serve his masters well, but was not very successful. When civil war broke out in the island of Naxos, the richest island of the Aegean Sea, and the expelled oligarchs took refuge in Miletos, Aristagoras thought that this provided a good opportunity for seizing the island. He made present to the Persians that the possession of Naxos would make possible not only to extend Persian rule to all the Kyklades islands of the central Aegean, but also provide a basis for the conquest of the island of Euboia that lies against the mainland of Greece and is separated by a narrow body of the sea from Attika (V 31). Aristagoras asked help in conquering Naxos from the Persians who sent a force of 200 triremes with a body of embarked infantry, but possibly the Persian contingent was larger than he had bargained for. A quarrel broke out between the Persian commander and Aristagoras on the question of who should be the effective commander of the expedition against Naxos, with the result that the enterprise failed (499 BCE).

Aristagoras became convinced that as a result of this affair his days as ruler of Miletos might be counted and decided that his only chance of salvation was to stir up a general revolt of the Greek cities against Persian rule. The climate for a revolt was favorable because the Persian method of dealing with the subject Greek cities was to let them be ruled by a tyrant. At that turn of time the institution of tyranny had become unpopular among the Greks; the change had been marked by the expulsion of the tyrant Hippias from Athens (510 BCE) followed by the establishment of a democratic constitution. Aristagoras rebelled against Persia and tried to enlist the support of the cities of Greece proper in the name of a crusade for the liberation of all the Greeks subjected to Persia. Only later, at the end of the general revolt of their Greek subjects, the Persians understood what was the political basis of this nationalistic slogan and permitted the Greek cities under their rule to have democratic constitutions.

Aristagoras visited Sparta where with the help of his map of the world he tried to explain that there was a possibility for a successful Greek attack against the very heart of the Persian Empire. But the Spartans were not impressed with this project that to them must have appeared megalomaniacal. He was better received in Athens where he was granted a small but effective force of ships and infantry. Athens had made a formal act of submission to Persia in 508 BCE at the moment in which a democratic constitution had been established in spite of Spartan pressures; but the Athenian policy of friendship with the Persians was wrecked by their insistence that the Athenians permit the return to his city of the former tyrant Hippias (V 96). The Athenians granted Aristagoras the help of 20 triremes which probably carried a hoplite force of about 200 men (this represented about one fourth of the Athenian sea and land strength); the city of Eretria, which as an immediate neighbor of Athens had no particular love for the Athenian cause, contributed 5 triremes with infantry because earlier Miletos had given her assistance in a fight with a neighboring city of the island of Euboia. With these allies in 498 BCE Aristagoras was able to stage a surprise raid from the coast of Asia Minor inland to the city of Sardis, the former capital of the kingdom of Lydia, which was then the capital of the most important Persian satrapy in Asia Minor. The Persian satrap with his troops was resisting in the citadel of Sardis, when the city by plan or by accident went up in flames. Thereupon Aristagoras withdrew, leaving behind the smoldering city, but the event stimulated a universal revolt of the Greek subjects of Persia all the way from the Bosphorus to the island of Cyprus.

The Athenians did not support this revolt since from their point of view the attack on Sardis had ended in disaster, the Persian cavalry having inflicted heavy losses on the Athenian raiders just when they had returned to the coast at Ephesos. The political faction led by the Pisistratids, the clan of the former tyrants, was able to convince the Athenians to adopt a policy of neutrality in the conflict between Persia and her Greek subjects. It could be that it was because of this political shift that in 496 BCE Miltiades left Athens again to reassert his personal rule in the Chersonnesos. Meanwhile the Persians were able to stage a counterattack and to reduce again to subjection the revolted cities. The combined fleet of the Ionians which gathered up to 353 triremes proved no match for the Persian fleet of 600 triremes (VI 9). The successful Persian counter-offensive culminated in 494 BCE with the siege of Miletos, which was blockaded by 600 Persian triremes, according to Herodotus (VI 9). The Greeks were able to align 353 triremes, but when battle to break the siege of Miletos was engaged, some of the Greek contingents lost heart and deserted, with the result that the Persians stormed the city and destroyed it; its inhabitants were sold as slaves. In their counterattack the Persians relied on the help of the Phoenicians, the mortal enemies of the Greeks, whom earlier they had carefully excluded from the operations in the Aegean and Black Sea area. In 493 BCE the Phoenicians went after Miltiades since they could not tolerate the domination by a Greek of the most strategic point on the line of access to the Black Sea. It must have been with great glee that the Phoenicians in the name of the Persian King burned the Greek cities of Byzantion and Kalchedon that dominated the passage of the Bosphorus (VI 33). Miltiades barely escaped with his life from the hands of the Phoenicians and returned to Athens. Miltiades' eldest son was captured by the Phoenicians who brought him to the Persians, but they treated this prisoner with great honor and gave him a Persian wife (VI 41). Upon Miltiades' return to Athens his political enemies tried to get rid of his embarrassing presence by bringing him to trial as a supporter of the institution of tyranny. Several scholars agree that it was on this occasion that Miltiades concocted the distorted version reported by Herodotus of what had happened at the bridge over the Danube about twenty years earlier; his version of the events had the purpose of proving that he had been an opponent of tyranny and enemy of Persia as far back as that. The ferocious revenge taken by the Persians on the city of Miletos had caused emotional shock in Athens and embarrassed the pro-Persian party. As a result there prevailed in Athens the policy of alliance with Sparta which, however, was not popular, since it meant subservience of Athens to Sparta, given that the latter had a much larger land army. Themistokles proposed the policy of building Athens as a great naval power, by which she would be independent both of Persia and Sparta, but this policy was adopted only after the battle of Marathon.

The year 493 BCE was used by the Persians to consolidate their position in the Greek cities of Ionia and to introduce their new policy that favored democracy over tyranny. Although the Persians had succeeded in reducing their former subjects, it became clear to them that they could not feel safe as long as some of the Greek cities were still independent. In 492 BCE the Persians initiated a campaign to conquer Europe. A large army after having crossed the Dardanelles imposed Persian will on the territories north of the Greek mainland, Thrakia and Makedonia, including the Greek island of Thasos off the coast of Thrakia. They would have continued by advancing into northern Greece, but the project had to be abandoned when the Persian fleet that was moving along the Thrakian coast in order to support the land forces was partly wrecked when caught in a storm while turning the promontory of Mount Athos. Herodotus relates that it was said that the Persians lost 300 triremes and over 20,000 men (VI 44). After this mishap the Persians decided to experiment with completely different tactics: Instead of using the navy to support a large land army, the navy would be used as the main instrument of attack. The year 491 BCE was spent in putting together and training a not-too-great (by Persian standards) but choice force of infantry and cavalry to be carried by the fleet and to be used in amphibious operations. The infantry was carried by the triremes which were in the usual number of 600 (VI 95), but the cavalry was carried on other triremes that had been specially adapted. Possibly the Persians anticipated what was done later by the Athenians who used their old triremes to transport the cavalry (Thuk. II 56).

The purpose of this naval force was to strike terror among the Greeks and in particular to convince the Athenians to break their alliance with Sparta and to adopt a pro-Persian policy. The prestige of the Persian empire required that those independent Greek cities, Athens and Eretria, that had participated in the raid against Sardis be meted exemplary punishment; furthermore, the Persians may have assumed that once these more pertinacious opponents had been disposed of, the remaining cities of Greece proper could be persuaded to accept Persian suzerainty. The Persians aimed at achieving their objectives with the most economical means. An opportunity for successful maneuvering seemed to have offered itself when the tyrant Hippias who had been expelled from Athens fled to the Persian court at Susa, where he asked for assistance claiming to have supporters among the opponents of the newly established democratic constitution of Athens. The Persians were hoping to succeed with the help of the Pisistratid party within Athens, and for this reason the Persian fleet carried along the exile Hippias who also was used as political and military advisor. Hippias was unquestionably popular within Athens, so much so that earlier the Spartans had tried to win Hippias to their side and had invited him to Sparta, proposing to restore him as a tyrant in Athens. (V 91, 93).

The Persian fleet assembled at Samos in the spring of 490 BCE and as a first step moved to attack the island of Naxos. The inhabitants of this island fled to the mountains, abandoning the city of Naxos to the Persians, who put it on fire. The Persians continued subduing other islands so as to close a circle around Athens; the key island of Aigina in the Saronic Gulf in front of Athens had already been an ally of Persia for a few years. Finally the Persians landed at Karystos at the southern tip of the island of Euboia, and after a brief siege forced the people of Karystos to join the Persian side. Having acquired this foothold in Euboia, the Persian fleet, after setting up three bases on the coast of the territory of Eretria, disembarked the cavalry and infantry. The plan to move against the Greek mainland by seizing the island of Naxos and then the island of Euboia had been already considered by the Persians in the unfortunate expedition of 499 BCE on the suggestion of Aristagoras. The people of Eretria withdrew within the city walls, but they lacked the full determination to resist; after six days of Persian siege, on the seventh day two of the leading citizens opened the gate to the enemy. The male citizens of Eretria were made prisoners and taken to the small island of Aigileia (the present Stira) which was one of the bases of the Persian fleet on the coast of Eretria and faces the bay of Marathon in Attika.

As is stated by Platous (Menexenos| 240 C; Laws 698 D), all the Greek cities were paralyzed with fear before the Persian forces. There was no naval force in Greece that could challenge the Persians at sea (at the time the Athenian navy had not more than 80 triremes) with the result that the Persians could freely move to land their cavalry and infantry where they chose. No other Greeks came to the help of Eretria except for 4000 Athenian settlers on the island of Euboia who were instructed by their mother country to help the Eretrians, and these too saved themselves before the battle was over. The technical superiority of the Persian amphibious force was such that it could strike anywhere with impunity. No Greek city would help another because nobody could tell for sure where the blow would fall next.

The cavalry added to the navy completed the principle of absolute mobility on which the strategy of this operation was founded. There are critical historians who consider that this was not true. For instance, De Sanctis and Guilio Giannelli claimed that Herodotus' mention of a Persian cavalry force carried on triremes fitted for the transport of horses (VI 94, 95, 101, 102) is preposterous, because it would have been impossible to transport horses on a long sea voyage. Giannelli, who has written a special essay on the battle of Marathon, added that the Persian triremes were 100 and not 600, so that they would not have been an overpowering threat to the Athenian navy or other Greek navies. That horses could be transported on triremes is evidenced by Thukydides (II 56, VI, 43) and later Athenian documents. Thirty horses could be loaded on a trireme by reducing the oarsmen to 60, that is, one third of the regular number. Whoever invented the trireme reckoned sexagesimally, since in principle there were three rows of 30 oarsmen each on each side, with a total of 180. The lesser fighting ship used earlier by the Greeks, the penteconter, had been conceived by decimal reckoning, since it had two rows of 25 oarsmen each on each side with a total of 100. Probably the 30 horses were placed crosswise in the triremes, one for each bench of oarsmen. It has been argued that when horses were loaded on triremes all the regular seats were removed and the 60 oarsmen sat on the stormdeck that covered the seats of the regular three rows of oarsmen. The assertion of some critical historians that horses could not have been carried by the Persians in their island-hopping operation is gratuitous when we know that in 415 BCE the Athenians sent all the way to Syracuse in Sicily a force of 100 triremes which was fitted out for naval combat and carried 4000 hoplites and 300 horses (Thuk. VI 31, 43).

According to the account of Herodotus (VI 110), the Persians waited a few days after the fall of Eretria and then moved against Athens, confident that the Athenians would behave like the Eretrians. The Persians landed at Marathon which is a few miles across the sea from Eretrian territory and was considered the area of Attica "most suitable for the landing of cavalry" (VI 102). The landing at Marathon must have been conceived as being part of the same general operation as the landing at Eretria, because Herodotus states that when the Athenians learned of the landing at Marathon, the part of Attika nearest to Eretria, "they too came to the rescue" (VI 103). This sentence refers to the fact that when the Persians landed at Eretria, the Athenians had not answered the call of the Eretrians "to come to the rescue" (VI 100), except by so instructing the Athenian settlers who were already in the island of Euboia. Marathon is at the northern limit of Attika at a distance of 42 kilometers from Athens.

The aim of the Persian tactics has been clarified by the discovery in Athens in 1933 A.D. of a stone that contains a most important inscription. There are reasons to believe that this stone was part of the monument that listed the names of the 192 Athenians who died in the battle of Marathon; the monument had been erected on the Athenian Akropolis and was destroyed by the Persians during their occupation of Athens in 480 BCE The inscription contains the text of an epigram of four lines honoring the heroes of Marathon. Several lines are missing, but the essential meaning of the epigram is clear; it can be paraphrased as follows: these men must have had a heart of steel to fight outside the city gates and align themselves in combat formation against an enemy that planned to burn the coastal regions; thereby they saved the city, for they compelled the Persian force to withdraw. The text of the epigram agrees with the expressions used by ancient historians, but adds the new information that the Persians planned to burn the coastal region. But, in truth, this piece of information agrees with the statement of Herodotus that the Persians, "having subdued Eretria, waited a few days and then sailed to Attika, ravaging the land a great deal and believing that they would do to the Athenians what they had done to the Eretrians" (VI 102). This is the reading indicated by the manuscripts of Herodotus, but some editors have changed it because they did not understand the Persian tactics. They have altered the verb kategazw, which in the language of Herodotus means "to ravage" a country.

The Persians hoped that the Athenians would behave like the Eretrians, that is, withdraw within the city walls. If this had taken place the Persians would have been free to ravage the countryside all along the shore, destruction that would have been particularly painful to the Athenians because it was the month of September, the month in whih grapes, olives, and fruits are gathered. The Persians planned to follow the method used later by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War when they systematically ravaged the Attic countryside while the Athenians kept within the walls; but the Persians could have been much more effective than the Spartans because they also controlled the sea and could block all supplies. The Persians hoped that by these tactics they could force the Athenians to change their foreign policy. The return of Hippias to Athens would have been the guarantee that this city would definitely stay on the Persian side. As Fritz Schachermeyr has pointed out, the Persians did not want to destroy Athens, but on the contrary were eager to have the Athenians as allies and to use them as their chief instrument of penetration in Greece and, I would say, the Mediterranean. The Persians did not give up the hope of an alliance with Athens even after the battle of Marathon and conducted negotiations with Themistokles to this end.

The Persians had established their base at Marathon because they assumed that the Athenians would never dare to attack them that far from Athens (some 28 miles) since to move the army there would have meant to leave the city unprotected. But Miltiades convinced the Athenians to take this risk and to march to Marathon. Sources different from Herodotus report that a decree was put before the popular assembly sanctioning the policy that "it is necessary to go out," and not to stay within the walls. The decree of Miltiades agrees with the text of the mentioned epigram, the wording of which is paraphrased in a statement of Cornelius Nepos (Miltiades V) that Athenienses copias ex urbe eduxerunt locoque idoneo castra fecerunt. The Athenians set up camp at the very margin of the plain of Marathon in an area that was higher and rocky so that the Persians could not use their cavalry against them. Practically all scholars agree that the Athenians aligned themselves across the valley of Vrana, the very bottom of which is about 2000 meters from the shore of Marathon. The Persians were aligned along the shore in front of their ships that were either beached or moored on the sandy beach of the bay of Marathon. The result of the extremely daring maneuver of Miltiades was that the Persians could not move from their position; they had landed in Attika but they had found themselves pinned against the shore. Their strength was the cavalry but they could not use it against the enemy positions, and if they tried to move either north or south along the shore they would be exposed to a flank attack. If they tried to embark their forces they could be exposed to an attack while they were in disarray. The infantry could be embarked quickly, but the embarking of the horses must have been a lengthy operation.

Miltiades followed the strategy recommended by the best German generals when the Allies were planning their landing in France: one should try to stop the Allies within the first two kilometers from the shore or not try at all. According to those generals the alternative was to withdraw all the way to the Siegfried line. Between these two alternatives that were similar to those considered by the Athenians, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Hitler chose a middle course, which proved unfortunate.

The surprise move of Miltiades had achieved a victory without a fight. The choice of Marathon as a landing place had proved an error for the Persians; Miltiades took advantage of this error by leading his troops to the valley which is today called Vrana where he could align his army in a position protected on one side by Mount Agrieliki and on the other side by Mount Kotroni, both steep and rocky hillocks. The problems is that of explaining why the Persians, usually so well informed in matters of geography, chose such an unfortunate location. Herodotus states that this was the area of Attika "most suitable for the landing of the cavalry" (VI 102). Most interpreters understand differently the verb enippeusai and translate "most suitable for the deployment of cavalry" and then continue by observing that Herodotus was mistaken because the place was most unsuitable, whereas there were other suitable places. It is the usual technique of interpreting the text of Herodotus so as to let him appear as absurd as possible. As it is observed, the plain of Marathon was limited to the north by a large lagoon and to the south by a smaller one and was further cut by torrents, so that the Persian army was restricted to a relatively small area. This proves that the Persians chose a location where they could easily defend themselves if they were attacked while landing the cavalry. Furthermore, the long sandy beach of Marathon would permit to pull the triremes on shore; this must have been necessary in order to discharge the horses from the triremes, which must have been a long and complex operation. The time needed to disembark and embark the horses may have been the greatest single cause of failure in the campaign of Marathon. It is significant that in the following campaign of 480 BCE the Persians loaded their horses on "small merchant ships" (VII 97) instead of triremes.

Herodotus explains that the Persians landed at Marathon on the direction of Hippias (VI 107). Immediately following this statement Herodotus relates that Hippias had a dream followed by a coughing which he interpreted as indicating that the operation would fail; any modern psychoanalyst would also interpret this coughing as the expression of a subconscious desire for defeat. The coughing which caused Hippias to lose a tooth on the sand of the beach followed a dream of intercourse with his own mother. The Oedipal dream can be understood as significant because Marathon had been chosen by Hippias' father, Peisistratos, for a landing which opened the way for a victorious march on Athens and the establishment of tyranny (I 62). It would seem that Herodotus intends to give a psychoanalytic explanation of why Hippias, who obviously knew the terrain to perfection, made a bad choice in advising the Persians. Hippias wanted to do as well as his father, but his wish took the character of an Oedipal wish to outdo the father and possess the mother, with subsequent guilt and self-defeat.

The Persian strategy and that of Miltiades resulted in a stalemate because the Persians could not move beyond Marathon as they had planned, being unable to use the cavalry on rocky ground, while the Greeks, because of the Persian cavalry, could not attack the Persians that were encamped on the shore of the plain. The Athenians had sent a messenger to Sparta asking for help and were waiting for the arrival of the Spartan forces. The Persians were apparently waiting for dissensions to break out among the Athenians, since they had banked on Hippias' promise that some of his former subjects would rally to his side.

The stalemate had lasted through the tenth day after the Persian landing at Marathon, when on the morning of the eleventh day the Athenians went to the attack. Herodotus (VI 112) asserts that the Greeks resorted to a method of warfare never used before: instead of marching towards the enemy, they engaged in a race (dromos) for the entire distance that separated the two armies, not less than 8 stadia (probably artabic stadia of 8 to a Roman mile, or 1500 meters). The Greek line was strong on the wings and weak at the center. This distribution of the forces was to be expected since the wings had to withstand the strong Persian cavalry force; in ancient warfare the function of the cavalry was to protect the wings and to harass the enemy wings. In the absence of the cavalry, the Persian wings were unusually weak. The Persian center broke though the enemy lines, but the Greek wings closed behind the Persians. The Persians had no other recourse except to try to run back to their ships. According to the report, the Athenians killed approximately 6400 Persians at a loss of 192 of their own men, but they did not succeed in getting hold of the Persian ships before they could take off from the beach; only seven ships were captured (VI 115).

All scholars agree that Herodotus' account contains "not a few patent contradictions." Bury regrets that at the time of Marathon there was not "a contemporary historian lice Thukydides to ask searching questions and record the truth." (44)

Macan declares that the story of the Athenian advance against the Persians is "probably genuine," as long as we assume that it was a march at double speed and not a race, but "the rest is distortion, exaggeration, inconsequence, glorification." (45)

Most scholars are only somewhat less critical than Macan. A group that is more radical than Macan claims that actually it was the Persians who went to the attack; their argument is that, since Herodotus does not mention the participation of the Persian cavalry in the battle, it can be inferred that the Persians had decided to attack the Athenians on the hills.

Several other explanations for the failure of the Persian cavalry to participate in the battle have been offered. Grote suggested that the Athenians caught the Persian horsemen by surprise so that they did not have time to get on their mounts. Among the recent writers, H. G. L. Hammond claims that the cavalry was pasturing further north and did not arrive in time for the beginning of the battle. By the time it arrived, it could not be deployed because the armies were fighting at close quarters. (46)

Some scholars claim that the Persian cavalry had not yet arrived from Eretria, even though Herodotus states that the Persians had landed at Marathon a few days after the capture of Eretria and that the battle took place on the eleventh day after the landing. In order to explain why the cavalry was still at Eretria, Munro adds the further suggestion that the Persians had landed at the same time at Karystos, Eretria, and Marathon with the result that their forces were scattered in three separate actions. (47)

I have already mentioned the opinion that Herodotus is completely wrong when he states that the expeditionary forces sent to Greece included horsemen. At the opposite extreme there are the critics, such as Johannes Kromayer (48) and Hans Delbrueck, (49) who claim that Herodotus is in error when he assumes that the Persian cavalry did not participate in the battle. (50)

Among the minority of scholars who do not assume that the Persians were wanton in their military actions and that Herodotus is fanciful in his report, there prevails the opinion that the cavalry was absent from the battle because it had been embarked, since the Persians were planning to withdraw from Marathon and to land at the Phaleron, the outer harbor of Athens. (51)

The withdrawal of the Persian cavalry is mentioned in the dictionary of Suidas where he explains the meaning of the idiom xwris ippeis "without cavalry, the cavalry is off": "As Datis who had landed in Attica was retiring, the Ionians by climbing on trees signalled to the Athenians the cavalry is off." "As Miltiades learned in this way of their withdrawal, he engaged battle and won. Hence, this expression is used proverbially to refer to those who are breaking their military formation." According to this text the Ionians who were serving in the Persian fleet betrayed their Persian commander by informing their fellow Greeks; the withdrawal must have taken place at night because otherwise the Athenians encamped above Marathon would have seen by themselves what was taking place.

We may disregard the opinion of those, such as Schachermeyr, who question the account of Herodotus by claiming that the Persians never planned to land at the Phaleron after the withdrawal from Marathon (fantaisies had said Hauvette of this [52]).

An opposite position is taken by Anton E. Raubitschek who claims not only that the Persians planned to land at the Phaleron, but actually landed and were defeated there in a battle with the Athenians; (53) neither Herodotus nor any other Greek source hints at the occurrence of this repetition of the battle of Marathon.

Among the other more recent writers on the subject, A. W. Gomme was willing to accept Herodotus' account as having some value. Gomme gave an explanation of what happened at Marathon that to my mind is convincing and in agreement with the texts; but, since to assume that Herodotus said something sensible is a serious offense for modern scholarship, before presenting his views Gomme engaged in elaborate expiatory rites. He began his article thus:

Everyone knows that Herodotus' narrative of Marathon will not do. Many improvements have been suggested: some good, some bad. . . . My theme is rather this: if we reject Herodotus, are we justified at all in correcting, or adding to, his narrative, or ought we just to sit back, and say nothing, because correction is arbitrary? (54)

Gomme then proceeded to state that the Persians, knowing that the Spartan forces sent to succor Athens were two days away, had embarked the cavalry during the night and at daybreak they were in the process of embarking the infantry. The Greeks who already knew that the Persians had embarked their cavalry and, hence, were ready, saw that this was the best moment to strike. Even though Gomme concluded that "this theory explains best the obvious mistakes in Herodotus' narrative," (55) it is in reality a mere expansion of Herodotus' words.

The Persians were trapped on the shore of Marathon so that their first problem was how to pull out from there without being attacked while embarking, and their second problem was to see whether they could land in some more suitable location. The first problem could be solved by embarking at night, since the Greek hoplites did not fight at night. The cavalry was embarked during the night, but in the morning the infantry had not yet been embarked. One can assume, as did Gomme, that the Persians were inefficient and ill-organized and therefore failed to complete the embarkation on time, but all evidence indicates that the Persian military staff planned their operations with extreme care.

The Persians must have decided that it was necessary to keep the Athenian forces at Marathon as long as possible. Probably the Persians decided to provoke the Athenians to action by causing them to see that they were in the process of embarking their forces in order to attempt a dash by sea to Athens. At dawn the Athenians would have seen the Persian infantry aligned in front of the ships without cavalry. The Persians may have decided that that was a risk they had to take in order to pin down at Marathon the Athenian hoplites while the slow-moving cavalry transports sailed toward Athens. Perhaps the Persian plan was not to engage in a full-size battle with the Athenians but to engage them enough so as to make it impossible for them to be ready for battle the following day in Athens. The Persian infantry could withdraw to their ships and have a period of rest while they were transported by sea to Athens. However, it is impossible to guess exactly what was in the minds of the Persians: Herodotus is silent, since he had no sources as to the true Persian intentions.

It is, however, possible to outline the constraints within which the Persian plans had to be implemented. The triremes that transported the cavalry had only about 60 oarsmen each and moved more slowly than the triremes with the infantry which were manned by the full force of about 180 oarsmen. A regular trireme could be pushed by oars, without the help of sails, at a speed of about 6 knots for a full day; but the speed of the triremes with horses cannot have been better than the 3 or 4 knots which was the average speed of ancient merchant ships. Since there are 60 marine miles from Marathon to the Phaleron, the cavalry, having embarked after sunset at Marathon, could not disembark at the Phaleron before the early afternoon. Since it would take between 7 and 8 hours for the Athenian hoplites to move from Marathon to the Phaleron, the Persians may have calculated that they would have to keep the Athenians at Marathon until the cavalry triremes were well underway and until the wind conditions would be such as to enable the infantry triremes to reach the Phaleron in about 6 hours. Vilhelm Marstrand has calculated that under pressure a Greek trireme could do 8-9 knots; but Persian triremes may have done better, since the accounts of Xerxes' campaign describe the Persian triremes as faster than the Greek ones. The embarked infantry could be used to increase the speed by manning a set of supplementary oars. Besides the three sets of oars (about 60 oars to a set) to be used by the oarsmen of the first, second and third level, triremes carried an extra set; some investigators have argued that they were spares, but other investigators have argued, quite convincingly in my opinion, that the extra oars were to be used as a fourth level of oars to be manned in an emergency by the embarked fighters. For these reasons it can be supposed that the Persian triremes could achieve a speed of 9 knots for a few hours. If they had achieved this speed they could have turned Cape Sunion in 4 hours. It can be supposed that the Persians planned to turn Cape Sunion by an effort of the oarsmen lasting approximately from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., the period when the sea is most calm, and to reach the Phaleron with the help of the wind in two or three more hours. Even if the Athenians had arrived there at about the same time they would have been too exhausted by a long march to put up an effective resistance.

The Persians must have studied the ordinary pattern of the winds and currents with care. The regimen of the winds in the southwest side of Euboia and in the Saronic Gulf is quite different from that of the rest of Greece, because the mountainous rib of Euboia deflects the Etesian winds, blowing from the northern quadrant. As a result of this deflection these winds are particularly strong to the east side of Euboia but unimportant to the west of it. To the southwest of Euboia and in the Saronic Gulf the winds that count are the landbreeze and the seabreeze. The landbreeze usually begins to blow during the night and stops around dawn. The seabreeze (called imbat by modern Greeks) begins to blow after mid-morning and lasts up to sunset; in the area of the Saronic Gulf during the summer months it blows briskly from the south. The Persians apparently embarked their cavalry during the calm period after sunset and were planning to embark the infantry in the calm period after sunrmse. If the oarsmen by a strong effort could have taken their ships from Marathon to Cape Sunion in the early morning period of calm, the ships with the infantry could have been rapidly pushed by the seabreeze from Cape Sunion to the Phaleron. The same wind would have helped the cavalry triremes that were under way.

If the Persian plan had succeeded the Athenians would have lost all the advantage achieved by the surprise maneuver of Miltiades who trapped the Persians by encamping his troops in a safe place only 2 km from Persian positions on the shore. >From the Phaleron the Persians could have started a regular siege of Athens. It seems that at this time Athens was not defended by a regular line of city walls. Even if the Persian fleet could not have achieved the speed of 9 knots, the time factor was working against the Athenians because they could not leave Marathon as long as the Persian ships had not turned Cape Sunion, lest the Persian infantry return to Marathon and occupy the passes between Marathon and Athens, while the cavalry was recalled. This fact is recognized among others by Macan. It seems, in fact, that after the victory of Marathon the Athenians waited a number of hours before rushing back to Athens. According to Ploutarchos (On the Glory of Athens, VIII, 350 E) the army arrived in Athens only the day after the victory; possibly the army waited and had a rest and then marched through the night so as to be in position near Athens at sunrise.

Because of this circumstance, one may dare to offer a conjecture on the much-debated mystery of the light signal flashed with a shield. Herodotus (VI 121) relates that after the Persian infantry was already at sea a signal was flashed to Marathon from Mount Pentelikos, which is to the southwest of Marathon; popular rumor explained this signal as intelligence given to the Persians that the traitors within Athens were ready to act, but Herodotus discounts this rumor. It is conceivable that the signal was given by the Athenian lookouts in order to let their general know that the Persian triremes with the infantry were about to turn Cape Sunion and, hence, the Athenian hoplites could safely leave Marathon. Since after the signal was flashed the Athenian soldiers were told to rush back to save their city, the notion could easily have developed in their minds that the signals indicated that Athens was imperilled by traitors.

The Persian plans were intelligently and carefully conceived, as they usually were, but they were foiled by the genius of Miltiades who followed the military maxim pour les vaincre il faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace. The Persians knew that after the withdrawal of the cavalry they were exposed to an Athenian attack, but they must have calculated that if this attack was launched they could embark their infantry and sail off before the Athenians reached the shore. At a normal pace it would take about 15 or 20 minutes for the Athenian hoplite formation to advance the interval of more than a mile that separated the opposing forces. Since the Persians were aligned in front of their ships they could have embarked in this period of time. Even after they were compelled to enter into a fight and lost it, they succeeded in embarking most of their men with the Athenians hard upon them. On each side of a trireme there ran a gangplank placed on top of the outriggers of the oars, a gangplank on which the marines took their stations during naval combat; 50 men on each side could have easily been standing on this gangplank.

It was by the unorthodox maneuver of letting the hoplite formation run towards the enemy that Miltiades foiled the Persians. The Persians were surprised by it and considered it insane (VI 112). Those who want to discredit the account of Herodotus must insist that it is not true that the Athenians raced about a mile for the enemy. This contention was advanced first by Hans Delbrueck (56) and has been frequently repeated up to the recent work of Hammond. Some writers, like Johannes Kromayer, claim that by dromos Herodotus does not mean a running, but a march at double speed; this contention is repeated in the recent essay of Schachermeyr. But whether we believe Herodotus or more charitably we give an unusual meaning to his words, the basis of the argument is Delbrueck's assertion that a Greek hoplite formation could not have run more than 120 to 150 meters (instead of the 1500 mentioned by Herodotus) "without completely exhausting their forces and falling into disorder." According to Delbrueck the Greek hoplites could not perform what Italian bersaglieri do on every parade. The argument of Delbrueck received so much support that Hauvette felt the need to quote the experience of French military authorities to the effect that trained soldiers in formation with full pack and arms can run for much more than a mile. But De Sanctis replied that the soldiers of our modern armies are healthier and better trained than those of the Greek armies. Those who follow Delbrueck imply that the Greeks, far from being athletes of the body and of the mind, were soft not only in their brains, but also in their muscles.

Herodotus indicates that it was the time factor that defeated the Persians; the battle of Marathon was a victory not so much because it inflicted a loss of about 6400 men on the Persians, but because "it lasted a long time" (VI 113). The Persians suffered heavy losses which included their best fighters, but were able to launch almost all their triremes with a major part of their infantry; the Athenians got hold only of 7 triremes by wading into the sea. Perhaps most of the 6400 Persians who died were deliberately sacrificed as rearguard, as the Persians did on other occasions. When the Persians could leave it was too late in the day; probably the seabreeze was blowing against them in their navigation to Cape Sunion. The result was that the Persians were not ready to land at the Phaleron before the following morning. The victors of Marathon were given a few hours' rest and then made to march back to Athens, so that at dawn of the following day they were ready for battle outside the city at the foot of Mount Lykabettos (VI 116) on the road that leads to the Phaleron. Here again the Athenians had chosen a ground where the Persian cavalry could not be used against them.

The Persians had no other choice but to call off the operations against Attika, and to return to Ionia, taking along as the only token of victory the male citizens of Eretria who later were sent to the capital of Susa and made to settle near it.

The Persians had several reasons for calling off their plan of attack against Athens: they could no longer hope to achieve an unimpeded landing in Attika; furthermore, the column of 2000 Spartans was expected and arrived in Athens on the evening after the battle of Marathon, the supporters of Hippias within Athens had not revealed themselves by any positive action, and the end of the military season was approaching, since the battle of Marathon was fought on September 12.

Herodotus' narrative, far from being chaotic and senseless, is built around a numerical frame of reference, as is his practice. The numerical frame of reference in this case is provided by the number of the days between the events. Boeckh, who through his studies has stressed the fundamental importance of numerical concepts in Greek thinking, in 1816 devoted an essay to this problem. From Herodotus we gather that the Persians landed at Marathon on the 7th day of the lunar month; on the same day the Athenians sent to Sparta a runner who arrived there in two days. On the 9th day the Spartans gave their reply to the Athenian call for aid, stating that their forces would leave only on the 16th, after the full moon. Herodotus (VI 106) relates that the Spartans could not leave because of a religious festival which proves to be that of Apollo Karneios celebrated from the 7th to the 15th day of the month.

Writing in 1951, Schachermeyr expressed his surprise that interpreters have not considered the "evident" fact that the Persians must have landed on the 7th day because they knew that from that day the Spartans could not come to the assistance of the Athenians. (57)

Schachermeyr was right in his surprise, but failed to notice that Herodotus states the fact. After having told the story of the Athenian messenger and of Spartan reply, he shifts the narrative to the landing at Marathon. In a single sentence he relates that the Spartans were waiting for the full moon and that the Persians landed at Marathon "having waited for a few days" (VI 106). The Persians probably hoped that the lack of Spartan support would demoralize the Athenians.

It is said that Herodotus' statement that the Athenians sent a message to Sparta only after the Persian landing is absurd. But the Persians were engaged in a new kind of warfare, what we call an amphibious operation, and up to that moment the Athenians could not have guessed what they were up against. Herodotus reports that the people of Eretria became aware of the Persian plans against them only after the enemy had landed on their island (VI 100).

But on the 7th day the Athenians sent a messenger to Sparta and decided to march out to Athens to pin down the Persians at Marathon. Perhaps the messenger had the purpose of informing the Spartans of the military situation and of the golden opportunity that offered itself. Certainly the Athenians were aware of Spartan customs, but they may have hoped that given the circumstances the Spartans would deviate from their traditional rigidity in obeying their laws. If the Athenians had withdrawn within the gates of their city and the Persians had started a siege, the Spartan help could have been effective even later; but the situation was different since it was necessary to have all possible men facing the beach at Marathon. The Athenians mobilized all possible forces offering full citizenship to the slaves who would enlist, since there was a possibility to massacre the Persian army.

It is clear why the Persians departed from the beach of Marathon not later than the 17th day, since the Spartan reinforcements were expected to arrive in Athens on the evening of the 18th day. But it is not clear why they waited up to that day. Probably they decided to wait for a full moon night, since they had to embark the cavalry at night. Once the full moon period came they kept waiting for favorable weather conditions at sea and they waited up to the 17th day when it was not possible to delay any further.

The narrative of Herodotus indicates that the Persians, far from operating with the alleged Oriental thoughtlessness, followed highly prepared staff plans and, in fact, were hampered by a certain rigidity of execution. Once the prosecution of the intended plan did not prove possible, they abandoned it entirely.

As far as Athens was concerned, the Persians had taken a chance and failed, and having failed accepted their losses without trying further moves. The Persians must have counted on such uncertain factors as a favorable wind for their navigation from Marathon to the Athenian harbor of Phaleron, but the Persian strategy was reasonably based on taking big chances because this is the correct game strategy for the party that has a large bank. In relation to the campaign that ended at Salamis ten years later, Herodotus presents king Xerxes as stating that he was willing to try a strategy in which the probabilities of winning were against him. One of the main ideas of Thukydides in his narrative of the Peloponnesian War is that in order to win in war one must have a large bank and be willing to gamble it.

Herodotus is judged an incompetent historian for not stating how many Persians fought at Marathon, although he states that about 6400 were counted as dead on the battlefield. But he who is accused of freely inventing figures, did not provide the data he did not have from reliable sources.

About one hundred years after the events Plato wrote the dialogue Menexenos which contains a parody of the speeches that were usually delivered to celebrate the glory of Athens. In this context it is stated (240 A) that King Darius sent "fifty myriads on triremes and transports and three hundred triremes." Although Plato in his work wants to call to attention the lack of precise and orderly thinking in rhetoricians, these figures are not worthless. The figure of 300 triremes is significant, because the Persians cannot have left the triremes that were beached at Marathon exposed to a surprise attack by enemy ships. As in the case of the following campaign of King Xerxes, the Persians must have divided their 600 triremes into two halves: 300 were engaged as landing craft for the infantry, while the other 300 were the truly fighting ships that operated as a protecting screen. Probably, while 300 triremes were on the beach at Marathon, the other 300 were on guard on the opposite shore along the island of Euboia. Herodotus (VI 115) reports that when the Persian ships left Marathon after the battle, they stopped at Aigialea to pick up the Eretrian prisoners; since speed was important for the triremes that left Marathon with the infantry, this must be an imprecision. More likely it was the transport ships that, upon leaving Marathon with the triremes of the cavalry, took the prisoners on board and left Aigialea accompanied by the 300 fighting triremes as escort. In relation to the Athenian force of 100 triremes that was sent against Syracuse, Thukydides (VI 31, 43) states that, although it was all fit for naval combat, it was divided into 60 "fast triremes" and 40 triremes carrying 100 hoplites each. It follows that triremes with 100 infantry on board were not considered in the best condition for fighting; for a similar reason triremes tried to deposit on a safe point on the shore their sails and masts when combat was considered imminent.

The figure of 500,000 men is not entirely preposterous since 600 triremes require a crew of 120,000 men. Most likely the 300 triremes that were intended to be used as landing craft carried 100 infantry men each, making a total of three myriads. The other 300 triremes may have had the usual complement of about 30 marines who altogether made another myriad. If the infantry force was 30,000 men, according to the table of organization of the Persian army the cavalry should have been 5,000 horsemen, but possibly the number was reduced for an amphibious operation. A trireme could transport 30 horses, so that 170 triremes with crews of some 15,000 men would have been required to carry 5,000 horses. Possibly the relation 6:1 between infantry and cavalry was applied to the triremes. There may have been 100 triremes with 3,000 horses, since the Persian navy was organized by squadrons of 100 triremes. There were also strong contingents of archers and slingers. All these men and horses required a complex system of supplies, since on triremes every inch of space was occupied by the men and even food could not be stored except for what was sufficient for a few days. The Athenian force that went to Sicily in 415 BCE, which consisted altogether of 134 triremes, including those contributed by the allies, carried 5,100 hoplites with 700 slingers, 480 archers and 120 lightly armed soldiers, plus 300 horsemen with their horses on specially adapted triremes. This force that would have been small by Persian standards required a train of 30 heavy merchant ships plus 100 regular merchant ships, accompanied by many other heavy and regular merchant ships belonging to the professional suppliers who followed the armed forces on their own initiative (Thuk. VI 44). Hence, it is credible that almost half a million men were involved in the expedition that went to Marathon.

The figure of 300 Persian triremes at Marathon agrees with Herodotus' statement that the entire Persian navy counted 600 triremes.

Herodotus indicates only that the Persian infantry at Marathon was larger than the Athenian, but there is an epigram that seems to have been written by the poet Simonides who lived in Athens shortly after the battle of Marathon, which reads:

"The Athenians fighting for the Greeks at Marathon,
Slew nine myriads of Medes."

The great expert on Greek lyric poetry, Theodor Bergk, suggested that the word "slew" (ekteinan) be amended to "put to flight" (eklinan). Critical historians found fault with Bergk's correction of this text because it would have made it agree with Herodotus' account and made it appear sensible. But Bergk was vindicated when in 1933 there was discovered the mentioned official epigram about the battle of Marathon, which contains the verb eklinw. The success of the Athenians at Marathon was not that they were able to engage in a great land battle with the Persians and won, but, first, that they were able to stop the Persian plan to use Marathon as a base for raids on Athenian territory and, second, that they were able to force the Persians to withdraw (eklinan). By the manoeuvre of the dromos the Athenians were able to cause the Persians to suffer substantial losses and then to withdraw with such a delay that they could no longer try the landing at the Phaleron.

Scholars criticize Herodotus for not describing the battle of Marathon in the same manner in which he describes the battle of Plataia for which he lists with care the number of the participants on both sides. But here Herodotus is criticized for being a good historian. After the great land battle of Plataia in 480 BCE, which was mainly a Spartan victory even though Athenians participated in it, patriotic Athenians tried to magnify their victory at Marathon into another great land battle in order to prove that Athens had not done less than Sparta in defeating the Persians in land battles. But Herodotus did not fall for this distortion of the record. How Herodotus interpreted the event is indicated by Plutarch in his essay On the Malignity of Herodotus (XXVII, 862 D), in which he accused Herodotus of having reduced Marathon to "a brief strike against the disembarked Barbarians." Plutarch overstates what is Herodotus' disagreement from Athenians patriotic historians, but his interpretation of what Herodotus said is on the main correct.

The figure of the men engaged at Marathon was not preserved because at the moment of the battle this was not particularly important; it was the nature, the location, and the timing of the operations that proved decisive. The author of the epigram said to be by Simonides did not have any datum to reckon by except the figure of 300 triremes mentioned also by Plato. If there were 300 triremes on the beach at Marathon, then crews would have been 60,000 men and the landed infantry could be computed as 100 soldiers to each trireme. All these men were encamped on the shore and were forced to a hasty flight. Hence, the battle of Marathon forced 90,000 men to withdraw from the soil of Attika.

All other figures reported by ancient authors have the same origin. There was established in Athens the tradition that at Marathon the Athenians fought against a force that was tenfold their own. Hence, from the figure of 90,000 men mentioned by the epigram there was derived the notion that the Athenian hoplites that went to Marathon were 9,000. This would have been all the hoplites that Athens could align, since at the battle of Plataia ten years later the Athenian hoplites were 8,000. Hence the figure of 9,000 hoplites is not an unreasonable one. It was further reported that the Athenians were joined at Marathon by a force of 1,000 hoplites sent by the neighboring city of Plataia. Some authors catalogued the figure by taking the total of 10,000 as the number of the Athenians and adding to this figure the 1,000 Plataians. By calculating from this figure of 10,000 Athenians and assuming that the relation between the opposing forces was 1:10, Cornelius Nepos, quoting the historian Ephoros, states that the Persian fighters were 100,000. The Persian cavalry is reckoned by Cornelius Nepos as 10,000 since this would be a normal ratio of cavalry to infantry by Greek standards. It can be concluded that there were no sources of information that were neglected by Herodotus; other writers simply guessed starting from the figure of 300 triremes that is implied in Herodotus' account. The Athenians who were encamped above the plain of Marathon must have seen on the morning of the 17th day of the lunar month that three Persian squadrons of about 100 triremes each were left facing them. The distribution of the fleet into three squadrons corresponded to the distribution of the infantry into a center and two wings.

If one wants to find fault with Herodotus, the only point in which he can be said to have been inaccurate is in having failed to mention the embarcation of the Persian cavalry which is recorded in another text. But one can undestand why he was silent on this point. According to the Athenian political system each of the ten generals in rotation was supreme commander for a day; Miltiades was supreme commander on the 7th day of the month, the day on which it was decided on his proposal to meet the Persians outside the gates of Athens. He was again the supreme commander on the 17th day, when the Persians were about to leave the shore of Marathon; this gave him the chance to order the famous race for the shore. Herodotus (VI 109) states that even before that day the other generals had been convinced by Miltiades that the Athenians should attack, and that each one of them had voluntarily conceded to him the position of supreme commander. This is very plausible, since from the very beginning the generals must have agreed to attack the Persians if they tried to move from Marathon. But Herodotus adds that although Miltiades was given the right to lead the attack when he chose, he waited for the day that was his official day of supreme command (VI 110). Miltiades would not have been the great general honored for his ability by Greeks and Romans if he had reached a fatal decision on such principle.

Probably Herodotus gave credence to a story concocted by Miltiades' enemies who after the battle of Marathon brought him to trial under the charge of having conducted as if it were his personal enterprise the expedition against the island of Paros, which the Athenians attacked the year after the battle of Marathon because it had given assistance to the Persians. Without questioning them, Herodotus (VI 132, 133) repeats in full detail the absurd charges made against Miltiades on that occasion. As Herodotus (VI 132) states, "after the blow given to the Persians at Marathon, the prestige of Miltiades in Athens, which had been great, increased even more." A democratic society like Athens could not tolerate this level of personal eminence and Miltiades was slandered and brought to trial as an unpatriotic egotist. Since Herodotus accepted a version of the events by which the departure of the Persian cavalry could not have determined Miltiades' final order, he remained silent on this point. It could be also that Herodotus accepted a biased version of the events because it reduced the importance of chance, something that historians are forced by profession to try to explain away. Miltiades was given supreme command on the 7th day because the proposal to face the Persians at their landing place was his; the Persians decided to depart on the 17th day because this was the last day before the expected arrival of the Spartans, and it was by chance that on that day it was again Miltiades' turn to be the supreme commander. As Napoleon said, to be a good general it faut de la veine.







  1. J. B. Bury, "The Battle of Marathon," Classical Review X (1896), p. 98.

  2. Herodotus, Vol. II, p. 155.

  3. H. G. L. Hammond, "The Campaign and the Battle of Marathon," in Studies in Greek History (Oxford, 1973), p. 215, 246-248. C. Hignett also says that "once the hoplites came to close quarters, this cavalry would be of no use." Xerxes' Invasion of Greece (Oxford, 1963).

  4. J. A. R. Munro in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. IV (1926), pp. 229ff.

  5. Drei Schlachten aus dem griech.-roem. Altertum, Abh. d. phil.-hist. Klasse d. Saechs. Akad. 34 (1921).

  6. Geschichte der Kriegerkunst I (Berlin, 1920), p. 63.

  7. Kromayer and Delbrueck have been followed by E. Meyer (Geschichte des Altertums IV.1.31f. [4th ed., Stuttgart, 1944]) and De Sanctis Rivista di Filologia 53 [1925], p. 120).

  8. E. Curtius, Griechische Geschichte (1888); J. A. R. Munro, "The Campaign of Marathon," The Journal of Hellenic Studies XIX (1899); G. B. Grundy, The Great Persian War (London, 1901); W. K. Pritchett, "Marathon," University of California Publications in Classical Archaeology IV. 2 (Berkeley, 1960); A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (London, 1962).

  9. Herodote, historien des guerres mediques, p. 266.

  10. "Two Monuments Erected After the Victory of Marathon," American Journal of Archaeology 44 (1940), pp. 58f.

  11. Arnold W. Gomme, "Herodotus and Marathon," Phoenix VI (1952), p. 77, reprinted in More Essays in Greek History and Literature, edited by David A. Campbell (Oxford, 1962).

  12. Ibid. p. 83.

  13. Delbrueck, op. cit., pp. 56, 60; Cf. W. W. How and J. Wells, A Commentary on Herodotus, (Oxford, 1912), Vol. II, p. 112; C. Hignett, Xerxes' Invasion of Greece (Oxford, 1963), p. 62.

  14. F. Schachermeyr, "Marathon und die persische Politik," Historische Zeitschrift 172 (1951).




The Size of Persian Army




The method advocated by Niebuhr became generally accepted by ancient historians, but they hesitated in accepting his specific conclusions about the true nature of the events of 480 and 479 BCE, because this would have meant questioning not only Herodotus' ability to judge reality, but that of all the Greeks. It was only after Gobineau formulated his theory about the intrinsic difference in the mental endowment of the several human races that critical historians dared to agree with Niebuhr on this specific issue. On the matter of quantification, Niebuhr and the critical historians begged the question: Herodotus was unscientific and hence used numbers at random.

In 1862 Gobineau wrote from Persia to his daughter: "As to the Greeks, you can have them, one and all, except for Pythagoras," and, in 1867, in a letter from Athens he declared that the ancient accounts of the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataia "are no more true than the heroism of Miltiades and the honesty of Themistokles, a bandit and a scoundrel!" Gobineau was perfectly clear-minded and completely honest about the aims of his scholarship; he saw that if, by destroying the authority of numbers, the Scythian campaign of King Darius could be reduced to a "perplexing dream," the same could be accomplished with the accounts of the Greek campaign of King Xerxes. Thereby, not only Herodotus, but all the Greeks would be convicted as liars, and the entire value of Greek civilization would be put in question.

The Greeks considered their successful resistance against the might of Persia as the best evidence of the worth of their greatest cultural achievement: Greek paideia had created a personality type such that, when the Greeks found themselves confronted with the greatest military force ever mobilized up to that time, they did not lose heart, because they were convinced that as individuals they were physically and intellectually superior to any enemy.

The best expression of this spirit was the resistance of King Leonidas of Sparta and his band of braves at Thermopylai. Shortly after the event, the poet Simonides wrote for them this epitaph:

Here four thousand from the Peloponnese Once fought three thousand thousands.

Simonides did not mean that Leonidas and his men actually fought three million soldiers, because indeed at the end only three hundred Spartans remained to resist the Persians unto death, but that Greece's finest hour was when, confronted with invading forces amounting altogether to about three million, it did not panic or surrender, even though the active resistance on land had to be limited to such relatively puny efforts as the episode of Thermopylai. Some Greek cities, such as Thebes, capitulated before the Persian invaders, but others, among which were the leading cities of Athens and Sparta, remained convinced that with courage and careful rational planning they had a chance of preserving their independence. The very size of the Persian effort proved to them that the enemy was engaged in a desperate gamble so that, if the Greeks were willing to risk total destruction, they could count on favorable probabilities. The element of extreme daring in taking a calculated risk is emphasized also by Thukydides (I 73, 144) in his references to the Greek strategy in this war.

The tragedy Persians, written by Aischylos, a participant in the war, and put on the stage by young Perikles eight years after the events, presents the Greeks as that kind of people who did not flinch when their small city states were swept by "a great flood of humans" similar to "a wave of the sea that cannot be contained by the most solid dikes" (lines 87-90). The whole of Asia had been emptied and brought to Europe (548-550). "The rash ruler of populous Asia pushes a human herd to the conquest of the entire world" (73-75). When the defeat of the navy forced King Xerxes to withdraw his army, the retreat turned into such a disaster that it destroyed entire nations (729-732).

In the same spirit Herodotus centered his narrative on the size of the Persian forces, which amounted to millions. His figures, except for one point on which he must be corrected, agree with those provided by other Greek writers. Herodotus had a specific reason as an historian to put the main emphasis on the size of the Persian forces: as in the Scythian campaign it was the geographical distances that proved to be the decisive factor, so in the Greek campaign it was the numerical strength of the Persian army and navy that influenced most the dynamics of the events.

Herodotus reports that the King of Persia, after he had brought his army from Asia to Europe on two pontoon bridges thrown across the sea at the Hellespont, proceeded to a muster of the army and the navy at Doriskos, near the present Greco-Anatolian frontier. Herodotus uses the narrative of this muster in order to list and describe in detail all the contingents that composed this army drawn from 46 nationalities (VII 59-88). The infantry would have been counted by letting the men pack completely a precinct that could hold 10,000 men; since the precinct was filled 170 times, the infantry would have consisted of 1,700,000 soldiers (VII 60). This counting by units of 10,000 is mentioned also by Aischylos (line 981). Herodotus reckons that since for each combatant there was at least one non-combatant camp-follower or supply man, the total of the army on foot must have been about 3,400,000 men. But since other Greek sources estimate the effectives of the Persian army around 700,000 or 800,000 soldiers, Herodotus must have been guilty of error: the figure of 1,700,000 must have included the non-combatants. Herodotus estimates that the cavalry amounted to about 80,000 horsemen plus 20,000 men mounted on camels or chariots (VI 84). Later the Persian forces were joined by men provided by the European allies in an amount that Herodotus guesses might have been 300,000 (VIII 85).

When Gobineau questioned the figures cited by Herodotus and other ancient writers, (58) he submitted a solid argument that was accepted by Macan and fully developed by J. A. R. Munro in 1902. (59)

There seems to be a contradiction between the number of men under the command of the Persian officers and the ranks of these officers; if the ranks and the titles are considered, the Persian army appears to have included only 300,000 infantry and 60,000 cavalry. In my opinion, the normal strength of the Persian army and navy had been doubled by King Xerxes for that particular campaign, keeping the usual hierarchical structure but doubling the number of men and ships under the command of the high officers, who were all Persian.

Gobineau thought that he had made a laughing stock of the Greeks by proving that in calculating the size of the Persian army Herodotus had exaggerated almost four times and the other Greek writers two times. But the climate of opinion was changing rapidly among the scholars of ancient history. When in 1895 Macan published the first of his five volumes on Herodotus he thought of himself as a radical critic, but by the time he published the last volume in 1908 he found himself to be holding a rather moderate position. When in 1901 G. B. Grundy estimated the size of Xerxes' army at "several hundred thousands" he was expressing an old-fashioned view. He justified himself by declaring: "The tendency which is sometimes displayed to belittle the Persia of this time, is in violent disagreement with such evidence as is extant." (60)

For historians of the critical school, the theories of Gobineau about the ancient mind became undisputed truth, so that they could carry them to their full implications. In 1887 Hans Delbrueck stated that the army of Xerxes must have included 55,000 fighting men at the most. (61)

Later he was so encouraged by the praise bestowed upon him as a pioneer by Eduard Meyer (62) and Beloch, that he reduced the maximum to 25,000, adding that the correct figure probably was between 15,000 and 20,000. (63)

Delbrueck was a military historian, yet his argument is not grounded on technical considerations, but on psychological ones. He observes that Herodotus could have derived his information either from oral sources or from official Persian records. Oral sources were totally untrustworthy in matters of figures; furthermore, the eyewitnesses were all dead at the time of Herodotus (about forty years after the events). Oriental military annals were totally false when they dealt with figures; a proof of this is that Herodotus drew from Persian official inscriptions the allegedly preposterous figure of 700,000 men for the Persian army that marched against Scythia.

Eduard Meyer disposed of the textual evidence by declaring: "There is no need to explain that all these figures are absurd"; the maximum figure for the Persian army at Doriskos should be 100,000 combatants plus an equal amount of train. (64)

De Sanctis called Herodotus' figures "laughable" and set the maximum at 100,000 men. Ernst Obst, in a special monograph, estimated the maximum of the combatants at 90,000. (65)

Beloch set the figure at 60,000 and W. W. Tarn concurred. (66)

J. B. Bury, who belonged to an older generation and had not entirely accepted the new approach, settled for 180,000, half of the figure calculated by Gobineau, Macan, and Munro. (67)

Robert Cohen, in reviewing the several current opinions, draws the line at estimates that made the Persian army smaller than the lowest possible estimate of the opposing Greek forces; he doubts the maximum of 40,000 Persian fighting men set by Robert von Fischer. (68)

In conclusion, since the beginning of this century there has been among scholars a substantial agreement to the effect that the army that King Xerxes brought across the Hellespont for the invasion of Greece numbered between 50,000 and 100,000 combatants.

Among the more recent writers I may quote Giulio Giannelli who declares that the Persian land force may have amounted at most to 300,000 men including the unarmed service men, (69)

Ulrich Wilcken who believes that the fighters were about 100,000, (70) and Helmut Berve who believes that they were over 100,000 when King Xerxes moved from the concentration point in Asia. (71)

Xenophon, who had direct knowledge of the Persian Empire and its army, believed that Xerxes had come to Greece with "an innumerable army" (Anabasis III, 2). Xenophon thought that he was describing a memorable feat when he explained how under his leadership a band of 10,000 first-rate Greek soldiers were able, in spite of the Persian army, to withdraw from the heart of the Persian Empire. He would have written a more important work if he had explained how King Xerxes came to Greece with a force that militarily was not much superior to Xenophon's companions, since the average member of the Persian army was an indifferent soldier compared to the perfectly drilled Greek athletes, and was able to get out of Greece alive. If it is true that the Persian army consisted of something between 50,000 and 100,000 fighting men, it follows not only that the Greeks were a nation of liars or dreamers, but also that the actions of the Greeks and of the Persians were totally irrational. One must wonder why the Persians should have sent by land an army that could have been easily transported on ships; why should the fleet have followed the army along the coast step by step for five months, suffering great losses because of storms; why should the Greeks have avoided any major military engagement on land for almost two years; why should the Athenians have abandoned their city to the Persians, allowing them to destroy it and massacre the poorer citizens who did not have the means to seek refuge abroad; why should the coalized Greeks have decided that the only possible strategy consisted of abandoning the country to the enemy, while trying to defend the line of the Isthmus of Corinth.

Herodotus (VII 22) relates that in preparation for his campaign King Xerxes sent crews of workmen drawn from the several provinces of the Persian Empire to cut a canal twelve stadia long across the promontory of Mount Athos. According to Herodotus it was so wide that two triremes could row through it abreast (VII 24); according to Demetrios of Skepsis (Strabo VII 35) it was a plethron, or 100 feet, wide. By the reports of our contemporaries who have examined the traces of it, the cut reached as much as "sixty feet below the natural surface of the ground, which at its highest point rises only fifty-one feet above sea-level." (72)

On this basis it can be calculted that the excavation of the canal would have required the digging and disposing of roughly 2 million cubic meters of earth, which must have taken up at least 10 million working days. Since the canal was finished in about three years, at the minimum 10,000 men must have been steadily engaged in the digging, assuming that there were not stones to be removed and rock to be cut. Other men were engaged in constructing protective dikes at the two entrances into the canal. The crews were so large that grain had to be brought from Asia.

Since Herodotus (VI 33-36) provides the most precise technical details, nobody has questioned the truth of the statement that King Xerxes, in order to bring his army from Asia to Europe, caused two bridges to be built across the sea at Hellespont. The bridges consisted of 360 and 316 triremes and penteconters tied together by cables that had been especially prepared in Egypt and Phoenicia. This was an extremely risky operation since a storm could have completely wrecked the fleet of ships tied together by the cables and by a causeway; in fact, a storm had broken up the bridges before the crossing of the army had started. According to the historians of the critical school, these bridges would have been in use for only a few hours. Von Fischer calculates that at most they could have been used for nine hours a day on two successive days. Bury, since he took a moderate position and ascribed 180,000 fighting men to the Persian army, estimated that the crossing was completed in two days.

Very few scholars deny that the Persian fleet disposed of at least 600 triremes plus other warships and transports. Since a trireme could remain fit for action with 100 soldiers on board and could transport up to 300 passengers, a fleet of 600 triremes could have easily carried 60,000 soldiers with their supplies directly from Asia Minor to Attika. This is what was done in the case of the Persian landing at Marathon ten years earlier. In 480 BCE the construction of two bridges across the sea at the Hellespont would have been a pointless gesture if the Persian army had been a force of 100,000 men or less.

In my opinion, one bridge was built across the straits in the case of the invasion of Scythia, but two were built for the invasion of Greece because the army had been doubled. One bridge was used for the fighting men and the other for the train (VII 55); they were used for seven days and seven nights (VII 56). In 1882 Max Duncker calculated, by the experience of the German army of his time, that an organized military force can cross a pontoon bridge ten feet wide in the number of 100,000 men in a day. He assumed that the bridges over the Hellespont were moderately used at night since usually the Persian army moved only in the daytime. I suggest that the nights may have been used to bring up stragglers and to clear the bridgeheads as as to avoid bottlenecks.

The time spent in advancing the 1000 km. that separate the Hellespont from Attika was such that the Persian army, which had left Sardis early in the year, was ready to move beyond Athens only around September 20, at the very end of the season for military operations. According to Herodotus (VII 115), the crossing of the Hellespont (probably including the regrouping and muster at Doriskos) took a month, most likely part of April and part of May. Athens was reached three months later, advancing the army about 10 km. a day, (VII 115), but it took one month more to bring up to Athens all the forces and to regroup them. This delay compromised the entire campaign. The few days gained by the Greeks through the resistance at the Thermopylai combined with a contemporaneous naval action at Artemision, proved most valuable given the lateness of the season. If the Greeks had not reckoned that the time factor was essential, the desperate resistance at the Thermopylai would have been a theatrical gesture. Much can be imputed to Oriental sloth, but even the puritanical Old Testament does not give any indication that Persian kings and their generals spent their time feasting and carousing. The delay can be explained only by the size of the Persian forces.

If the figures given by Herodotus are condemned as an irresponsible invention, the value of the rest of his work must be placed in doubt, and his competence as a historian brought into question. For instance, J. B. Bury, who was among the more moderate of Herodotus' critics, concludes his essay on Herodotus with the following assessment:

He was in certain ways so lacking in common sense that parts of his work might seem to have been written by a precocious child. He undertook to write the history of a great war; but he did not possess the most elementary knowledge of the conditions of warfare. His fantastic statement of the impossible numbers of the army of Xerxes exhibits an incompetence which is almost incredible and is alone enough to stamp Herodotus as more of an epic poet than a historian. It matters not whether he worked out the arithmetic for himself or accepted it entirely on authority; this is a case in which to accept is as heinous as to invent. Heinous for a historian; and if we judge Herodotus by the lowest standard as a historian of war, this case invalidates his claim to competence. (73)

The testimony of Herodotus is dismissed on account of his prelogical mentality, but there remains to be explained how a man with such a mind could invent a detailed presentation of a military plan of action that is perfectly rational and would satisfy any expert of logistics. Herodotus (VI 20) explains how the campaign began to be prepared four years in advance. King Xerxes would have spent one more year (481 BCE) in bringing up his forces from Susa to Sardis, where he spent the winter. Supply dumps for food and fodder were established to the north of the Greek mainland long before the beginning of the operations; "for the dumps the most convenient sites were chosen after a survey, the provisions being brought from many different parts of Asia by a relay of transport ships and ferry barges" (VII 25). After grain deposits were established, inhabitants of the sites along the route to be followed by the army were employed for months to grind the grain into flour. The preparations made by the King's officers along the route included the buying and fattening of the herds of cattle, and there were even set up coops for poultry (VII 119).

According to Herodotus it was the very size of the Persian army that caused its collapse. The King initiated a disastrous retreat without ever having met a major Greek military force on land. Aischylos too stresses that it was the land itself, meaning the supply problem, that was the main enemy of the Persian army (line 792). The enterprise of Xerxes could be the subject of a tragedy because the doom was caused by his own actions. "Rash Xerxes, emptying the entire expanse of our continent" (718); he is called "rash" again on line 754. He was rash because he tried a gamble in which the chances were against him (346). Towards the end of the tragedy the ghost of King Darius appears to draw the lesson of the disaster: to the question, "What course of action is the best for the Persian nation after these developments?" (788-789), he answers that there is no alternative but to abandon the effort to conquer Greece because the land itself is an ally of Greece. This is the political conclusion that Perikles wanted to stress, since he hoped to convince both the Athenians and the Persians to follow a policy of reconciliation since neither side had reason to be afraid of the other. This conclusion agrees point by point with the interpretation of the strategy that Herodotus (VII 46-52) presents in the form of a conversation between King Xerxes and Artabanos at the crossing of the Hellespont when the latter was appointed regent while the King was in Europe. It is not that Xerxes followed an irrational strategy, but that, in order to succeed in an almost impossible enterprise, he tried a strategy that could have succeeded only by a series of favorable outcomes of chance events. However, at the end of Aischylos' tragedy, King Xerxes stresses that the extent of the disaster that followed the failure of the campaign was unpredictable and the chorus agrees with him that it was "an unexpected disaster" (1005). The poet underscores this interpretation when he points out that "winter began precociously" during the retreat (496).

According to Herodotus, the King had concluded that it was necessary for the national survival of Persia to destroy the power of Athens and Sparta; the course of history, as yet unknown in Herodotus' time, proved that the King was right. According to Herodotus, the King knew quite well that he was engaging in a risky enterprise, but decided that the gamble was reasonable if there was a chance whatsoever of success (VII 10, 50). King Xerxes was a rational ruler who decided that all the resources of his empire had to be engaged in a calculated risk, since the very existence of that empire was at stake. The King had in mind not only the support given by the Greek mainland to the revolt of his Greek subjects of Asia Minor and the humiliation suffered by the Persian army at Marathon in 490 BCE, but probably most of all the support given by the Greeks to the revolt of Egypt, a key province of the imperial system. Preparations for the Greek campaign were initiated immediately after the end of the campaign for the pacification of Egypt (VII 8). At that moment the King would have said, "All we possess will pass to the Greeks or all they possess will pass to us" (VII 12). It is currently assumed that Herodotus was totally ignorant of what is called philosophy of history, whereas here he predicted correctly history's future course. The Kings of Persia as well as the Greeks foresaw what finally took place about a century and a half later: if the Persian universal empire could not subdue the Greeks of the mainland, a Greek universal empire would replace it. Even before the start of the Persian Wars Aristagoras with the help of a map had tried to convince the Spartans of this possibility. The situation was summed up by Aischylos, a participant in the battle of Salamis, when he presented Xerxes as uttering the eloquent line (405):

nun uper pantwn agwn
"everything is at stake in the present fight"

In my opinion, the King decided to double the normal table of organization of the Persian army, which was 300,000 infantry and 50,000 cavalry, plus about one non-combatant for each combatant. This would explain the figures of Herodotus and the figures provided by other Greek writers. The apparent contradictions noticed by Gobineau between the titles of the Persian officers and the number of men under their command would be resolved. In the case of the cavalry, the Persians did not succeed in filling up the intended strength, so that they brought to Greece 20,000 men mounted on camels and on chariots whose usefulness in that land was most dubious. The mobilization of the Persian army from Thrakia to Arabia and from India to Egypt was such a complex operation that of necessity it had to take a certain bureaucratic rigidity.

There are indications in Herodotus that the doubling of the army and of the fleet was an idea of the King, and that it was opposed by his uncle Artabanos, the brother of the late king Darius, and Xerxes' main military advisor. When the King was about to cross the Dardanelles, Artabanos stated that nobody could find fault with the size of the King's army and navy and that if the King insisted on increasing his forces, the land and the sea would become his enemies (VII 49); but the King replied that the greatest possible forces had to be risked if there was a possibility of success (VII 50). Apparently Artabanos was asking the King to cross into Europe with only the normal Persian force. Herodotus tells an anecdote to the effect that after an inhabitant of the area had exclaimed, addressing Xerxes: "Why, O god, have you assumed the shape of a Persian and assumed the name of Xerxes, in order to lead the human race to the conquest of Greece? You could have achieved the same result without going to that trouble" (VII 56).

After the battle of Salamis, Mardonios convinced the King to withdraw from Greece, leaving there a force of 300,000 infantry (VIII 100, 101). The King withdrew from Greece with an army that must have been about equivalent to that left with Mardonios; Herodotus (VII 100) declares that the King withdrew with the greater part of the army because his basic estimate of the forces was in excess. The following year the King waited with a part of the army in Sardis while Mardonios continued the operations in Greece. This seems to have been the plan that Artabanos had suggested in the first place: to strike Greece with the normal Persian force while the King remained in Asia with the rest of the army and navy. Herodotus reports that the first statement of the King at the conference in which the war against Greece was discussed for the first time, was that he had decided to add to the dunamis of Persia at least as much as it had been increased by his predecessors (VII 8); the Greek term dunamis means "military and political power," but also quite specifically "force of war."








  1. Gobineau, Histoire des Perses, Vol. II, p. 191.

  2. "Some Observations on the Persian Wars," The Journal of Hellenic Studies, XXII (1902), pp. 294ff.

  3. G. B. Grundy, The Great Persian War (London, 1901), p.

  4. H. Delbrueck, Die Perserkriege und die Burgunderkriege (Berlin, 1887), p. 164.

  5. Geschichte des Alterthums, Vol. III (Stuttgart, 1901), p. 377.

  6. Hans Delbrueck, Geschichte der Kriegskunst Vol. I (Berlin, 1920), p. 106.

  7. Eduard Meyer, op. cit., p. 374f.

  8. Ernst Obst, Der Feldzug des Xerxes in Klio, Beiheft 12 (Leipzig, 1914), p. 88.

  9. W. W. Tarn, "The Fleet of Xerxes," The Journal of Hellenic Studies 28 (1908), p. 208 n.

  10. J. B. Bury, History of Greece third ed. (London, 1963), p. 269. Cf. Munro, op. cit. (1902), pp. 296f.; Macan, Herodotus, The Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Books, (London, 1908), Vol. II, p. 164.

  11. R. Cohen, La Grece et l'hellenization du monde antique (Paris, 1934), p. 164. R. von Fischer, Das Zahlenproblem in Perserkriege 480-479 v. Chr." Klio, N. F., vol. VII, pp. 289ff.

  12. Trattato di storia greca, fourth ed. (Rome, 1961), p. 212.

  13. Griechische Geschichte, ninth ed. (Munich, 1962), p. 140.

  14. Griechische Geschichte, vol. I (1951), p. 253.

  15. George Rawlinson, History of Herodotus (New York, 1880), p. 26.

  16. J. B. Bury, The Ancient Greek Historians (London, 1908).





The Size of Persian Fleet




The problem of the size of the Persian army can be illuminated by considering the size of the Persian fleet, since there must have been a proportion between the two forces.

Herodotus reports that the fleet consisted of 1207 triremes and 3000 lesser fighting ships and supply ships (VII 89, 184). The figure of 1207 triremes is itemized by specifying the number of ships contributed by the several subjects and allies of the Persian Empire (VIII 89-95). Nobody has succeeded in proving that any of these partial figures is questionable; the contributions made by the Greek subjects of Persia corresponds to what we know to have been their naval strength in other episodes of Greek history. Herodotus' figures are confirmed by several other sources. The historian Darius (XI 3) states that the triremes were 1200 at the time of the muster at Doriskos; the orator Lysias (II 27) mentions an initial force of 1200 triremes, whereas the orator Isokrates mentions 1300 triremes at the beginning of the campaign (VII 49) and 1200 on the eve of the battle of Salamis (IV 93); Plato (Laws, III 699 B) speaking in general terms refers to "one thousand ships and more." In order to find a trace of disagreement it is necessary to refer to the narrative of the historian Ctesias, as summarized by the Byzantine writers of the ninth century, Photios; in this text the figure of the triremes is given as 1000, but the text contains such an accumulation of obviously wrong information that either Ktesias or Photios must be dismissed as totally unreliable.

The most important datum is provided by Aischylos who fought at Salamis. In the tragedy The Persians he describes the Persian fleet as consisting of 1000 triremes plus 207 ships "of exceptional speed" (341-343). One may ask whether the distinction was introduced for the sake of variety in poetic diction or in order to refer to ships different from triremes; in any case the 207 ships appear to be militarily as important as the triremes. Herodotus asserts that the Persian triremes were faster and lighter than the Greek ones (VII 10,60). This would indicate that the Persians preferred triremes with light shells and had 207 that were of this type. The 207 ships included the 7 ships of the commanders for which speed was particularly desirable. But many scholars interpret the lines of Aischylos as meaning that the Persian triremes were 800: the poet would have mentioned 1000 ships and then added that 207 were "of exceptional speed," meaning that they were some sort of lesser cruisers. But this is a most forced interpretation of the text. The poet aimed at the dramatic effect of a crescendo of numbers, whereas by mentioning 1000 ships and then deducting 207 light cruisers from the figure he would have achieved an anticlimactic effect. It is true that there is a scholion to the lines of Aischylos that states that the 207 ships must be reckoned as part of the 1000 triremes, but this scholion also states that 207 ships were choice triremes. Even accepting the opinion of the grammarian who wrote this scholion, the conclusion would be that the Persian triremes were 1000 and not 800. In my opinion what Aischylos wants to indicate is that the Persians could afford to build triremes of special timbers that made for lighter shells. This agrees with Herodotus' intimation that Persian triremes in general were faster than the Greek ones. Herodotus states also that at the time of the battle of Salamis the people of Aigina kept their slower triremes to guard the island and sent their 30 fastest ones to meet the Persians (VIII 46).

Grundy, writing in 1901, agreed that the number of Persian triremes must have been around 1207. (74)

The following year Munro tried to apply to the fleet the method of analysis developed by Gobineau for the army. He recognized that the texts indicate that the standard strength of the Persian navy was 600 triremes; but he observed that in the report of the muster at Doriskos there are mentioned four admirals, two of whom are in command of 200 triremes each, so that he concluded that the total strength was 800 triremes. (75)

Tarn accepted that 600 triremes was the normal strength of the Persian navy, but tried to prove that this was also the strength in the campaign of 480 BCE (76)

He remarked properly that the entire Persian fleet was not present at Doriskos, since Herodotus mentions that 100 triremes, the triremes of the Pontic Greeks (the inhabitants of the area of the Bosphoros and the Dardanelles), had been kept at the Hellespont or Dardanelles in order to guard the bridges against possible enemy raids (VII 95). From this Tarn concluded that there must have been five admirals of whom one was at the Dardanelles. He divided a total of 600 triremes into five squadrons of 120, but there is no evidence to the effect that the Persian navy operated by units of 120.

In describing the muster at Doriskos, Herodotus (VII 97) reports that a brother of the King commanded the 200 triremes provided by the Egyptians and that another brother commanded the 200 triremes provided by the Ionians, the Dorians of Asia Minor, and the Karians, whereas two other admirals commanded the rest. This would indicate that there were four squadrons of 200 triremes each. It is striking that Herodotus does not mention the commander of the strongest contingent, the 300 triremes of the Phoenicians. This suggests that the 300 Phoenician triremes were still tied together to form a bridge at the Dardanelles, while the 100 triremes contributed by the Greeks of that area were guarding them. Two admirals with 400 triremes were at the Hellespont, while four admirals were mustering their 800 triremes at Doriskos. It can be inferred that one of the two bridges formed at the Hellespont was left standing for the service of the supplies and for possible reinforcements, as long as the muster at Doriskos had not proved that the army was fit to start operations. Herodotus is in error when he assumes that the two bridges were left in position all through the year (VII 17). In another part he admits that the bridges were no longer there when Xerxes came to the Dardanelles in his retreat, so that the army had to be ferried across (VIII 130). The Persians could not afford to keep the Egyptian and Phoenician contingents immobilized as bridges, and, furthermore, in the course of months the ships would almost certaintly have been destroyed by storms.

It must be concluded that for the expedition of 480 BCE the normal strength of the Persian fleet in time of war was doubled; the six admirals who usually commanded 100 ships each were put in charge of 200. This would explain the odd figure of 1207 triremes. There were seven extra triremes, six for the admirals and one for the King. In the army, too, the entire infantry was under the command of six corps generals, except for the 10,000 Immortals that formed a separate unit. Under the six corps generals there were thirty division generals who normally commanded a myriad or 10,000 men each, but on this occasion commanded 20,000.

Tarn continued his forced argument by adding that 600 triremes was only the "paper strength" of the Persian navy and that this number was never filled, with the result that at the battle of Salamis the Persian force was inferior to the Greek one, for which nobody questions in a significant way the total of 380 triremes mentioned by Herodotus (VIII 48, 82).

A large number of scholars have preferred the figure of 800 triremes, because they feel that they can justify it by the aforementioned questionable interpretation of Aischylos. Eduard Meyer, without submitting any argument, asserted that the figure of 1000 ships mentioned by Aischylos included the transport ships; the Persian fighting strength would have been between 400 and 500 warships, including warships of lesser size than triremes. (77)

Among the more recent writers Wilcken grants that the Persian ships were 1,000 out of which 207 were fast going, (78)

Berve reduces the total figure to 700 warships, and Giannelli estimates the total number of ships at 1,000 of which 207 were triremes. (79)

According to this last writer the Persians had fewer triremes than the Athenians alone possessed. But the majority of scholars agree that since the Greek fleet was outnumbered in the battle of Salamis, it must have engaged about 600 Persian triremes.

The Persian navy suffered substantial losses before Salamis because of storms and because of engagements. Herodotus specifies that the destruction caused by storms was high, and nobody questions him on this point, since the fleet had to follow the army along the coast for five months. The fleet was so large that it was not always possible to find a good shelter for all its units. Herodotus' declaration (VIII 66) that the losses were made up and that he is inclined to believe that replacements kept the fleet at full strength, is dismissed by Macan as "a fresh extravagance." But it is reasonable to assume that the Persian navy operated as any rational military organization in which forces are divided between first line contingents and reserves to be used as replacements.

Marg grants that the Persian triremes were 1207 at the beginning of the campaign, but twists the interpretation of the text of Herodotus (VIII 66) to meen that the losses due to storms and battles were made up only as far as crews were concerned, not for ships.

The reason for denying that the losses of the Persian fleet were made up by replacements is that critical historians feel compelled, for reasons that I shall explain, to reduce to a minimum the number of the Persian triremes that reached Attika on the eve of the battle of Salamis. Munro, who had put forward a solid argument for conluding that the Persian triremes mustered at Doriskos were 800, twenty years later gave in to the general tendency of scholarship. Without submitting any new arguments he reduced the initial strength to 600 triremes, of which 250 would have been destroyed because of storms, so that only 350 reached Attika. (80)

Some sort of inference about the original size of the Persian fleet can be drawn from the information that 674 triremes and penteconters were tied together as pontoons for the bridges across the sea at the Hellespont. Many of these ships were wrecked by a storm before the crossing of the army started. Since a storm could have made even a total wreck of 674 ships held together by cables and by a causeway, it follows that the Persians could afford to risk such a force. Since Herodotus reports that one bridge was built by the Phoenicians and the other by the Egyptians and also that their contributions to the fleet were 300 and 200 triremes respectively, it would follow that these two national groups used all their triremes for the bridges of 360 and 314 "triremes and penteconters". The bridges had to be formed with the biggest ships available.







  1. The Great Persian War, p. 95.

  2. J. A. R. Munro, "Some Observations on the Persian Wars," Journal of Hellenic Studies XXII (1902), pp. 299f.

  3. W. W. Tarn, "The Fleet of Xerxes," Journal of Hellenic Studies 28 (1908), pp. 202ff.

  4. Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, Vol. III (Stuttgart, 1901), pp. 375f.

  5. Ulrich Wilcken, Griechische Geschichte ninth ed. (Munich, 1962), p. 140.

  6. Giulio Giannelli, Trattato di storia greca 4th edition (Rome, 1961), p. 212.

  7. J. A. R. Munro, "The Deliverance of Greece," in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. IV (1926).





The Battle of Salamis



Kynosura is the promontory that closes the bay of Marathon and Keos is an island at the very tip of Attika off Cape Sunion. In the eighteenth century the distinguished Hellenist Pierre-Henri Larcher understood that the Keos and Kynosura mentioned by Herodotus were the places generally known by these names; but in 1829 William Martin Leake asserted, without any textual evidence, that the name of Kynosura applied to a promontory of the island of Salamis and that Keos was some island thereabout. (82)

Later Stein added the further gratuitous contention that Keos was the common name of Kynosura. When J. W. Blakesley objected to Leake that the text of Herodotus itself indicates that Keos and Kynosura must be the places known by these names, (83) he was treated with ridicule. Only Grote was considerate enough to admit that no other meaning can be given to Herodotus' account, but subjoined that Herodotus must have been totally mistaken. (84)


The theory of Leake continued to be accepted as dogma until 1935, when Henri Gregoire (who was a famous specialist of Byzantine culture and as such could read Greek, but was not used to begin with the assumption that the authors he read were fools, impostors, or madmen) having noticed how Herodotus' text is intepreted by critical historians, expressed his surprise and indignation in an article entitled "La Legende de Salamine, ou comment les philologues ecrivent l'histoire." (85)

He observed that the text indicates that only a part of the Persian fleet fought at Salamis, while the rest formed a line extending from Munichia to the coast of the Peloponnese. In 1952, followers of Gregoire, G. Smets and A. Dorsinfangs-Smets, reviewed carefully not only the evidence provided by Herodotus, but also that provided by other sources, and conluded: "the very evidence itself indicates that the entire Persian fleet was not at Salamis and that only its western wing was engaged in the battle." (86)

When confronted with the arguments of Gregoire, some scholars decided to ignore them and some decided to rehash some old discarded contentions. The first choice is that of the commentary on the The Persians by E. D. Broadhead. (87)

The other course was chosen by Legrand, who as a specialist of Herodotean studies tried to reply to Gregoire by repeating the argument of Grote: what Herodotus relates cannot be taken seriously because it is full of "incoherences"; "Herodotus has gathered together anecdotes that are more or less tendentious and which he picked here and there, from the right and from the left." (88)

But Legrand grants by implication that if Herodotus' statements about the second section of the Persian fleet are not taken at face value the entire narrative becomes preposterous and the entire Persian strategy becomes erratic. His position is that it is better to classify the events of Salamis as an "enigma" than to assume the impossible, namely that Herodotus provided a reasonable account. That a ferry operation had been started is indicated by the statement of Herodotus that the second division of the Persian fleet moved "to hold the entire ferry line up to Munichia" (VIII 76). This passage is usually disregarded, but Macan who, though doggedly partisan in his interpretation of the evidence, did not ignore it, observed: "It is curious that the roadstead up to Munichia should be described as a porjmos, a term properly used of a ferry, a strait, or narrow waterway." Of course it is not Herodotus who gives a "curious" meaning to Greek terminology. In the tragedy Agamemnon by Aischylos, the body of water between the peninsula of Attika and the Peloponnese, across which a signal is sent by fires, is called porjmos (line 306). The old commentary of J.C.F. Boehr does less violence to Greek usage when it tries to explain the word porjmos of Herodotus by assuming that in peacetime there used to be a ferry service between Munichia and the island of Salamis.

In 1953, Myers replied to Gregoire by granting that there was a second section of the Persian fleet which was stationed at Keos and Kynosura, but tried to discount the importance of this second section; it would have been composed of triremes that had arrived late or had remained behind because of the need for repairs. (89)

A similar argument had been used by Munro in 1926 when he claimed that the second section was composed of the 100 triremes of the Pontic Greeks which according to Herodotus were absent at the time of the muster of Doriskos. This contingent would not have caught up with the rest of the fleet in about four months. (90)

Myers tries to explain Herodotus' statements about the position of the second section by some sort of optical illusion that he describes in these cryptic words: "With the Phenicians on the western wing now on converging courses the gulf (porthmos) outside the straits [of Salamis] seemed indeed 'filled with ships.'" (91)

In truth, the porjmos (outside the sound of Salamis where the first section of the Persian fleet was stationed), that went from Munichia along the island of Aigina to the Peloponnese, was filled with ships. Aristeides (VIII 81) who arrived at Salamis on a small boat to report on the Persian movements, related that he had great difficulty in crossing over from Aigina because he had to slip through the blockading enemy fleet. The enemy of which he speaks was somewhere between Aigina and Salamis. Aigina is close to the coast of the Peloponnese and relatively distant from Salamis and the coast of Attika. If the entire Persian fleet had been lined up between the harbors of Athens and Salamis, the line of communication between Aigina and the southern shore of the island of Salamis would have been unimpeded. Aischylos (line 368) speaks clearly when he mentions "the other (Persian) ships that were all around the island of Aiax," that is, Salamis.

According to Aischylos (The Persians) and to Herodotus, the Persian force that attacked at Salamis suffered disaster, but in spite of it the Greeks were expecting a new attack by the Persian fleet (Herodotus VIII 97) and were surprised when this fleet was withdrawn (VIII 107, 108). After they learned that the Persian fleet had withdrawn, the Greeks considered pursuing it and attacking the bridges at the Dardanelles. This means that the Persian fleet had still so many ships that it could be expected again to form the two bridges.

The fact that the Persian fleet remained all-powerful even after Salamis indicates that only a part of this fleet was engaged in this battle; but critical historians, by denying this, are forced to discount the Greek accounts of a great victory and reduce the outcome of the battle of Salamis to something close to a draw.

My interpretation of the Persian strategy at the time of the battle of Salamis is the only one which is in agreement with the summation of the events presented by Thukydides (I 73):

It was the battle of Salamis that prevented the Persians from attacking the Peloponnese by sea in order to destroy the cities one by one; given the number of the Persian ships, the cities could not have found a way to organize a common resistance. The best proof of it is provided by the conduct of the Persians themselves: once they suffered a naval defeat, they realized that their forces were no longer adequate to their plan and, hence, they promptly withdrew the greater part of the army.

The authoritative commentary of W. W. Gomme, in following the current interpretation of the events, totally distorts the clear meaning of the words of Thukydides, asserting that he spoke of "the danger that if the Greek fleet retreated from Salamis it would disperse each to its own home."

From Aischylos (The Persians, 366) it may be inferred that at the battle of Salamis the Persian fleet consisted of three squadrons. Herodotus (VIII 85) mentions the Phoenicians as forming the left wing and the Ionian Greeks as being on the right wing. According to Herodotus, the Ionians with the Dorians of Asia Minor and the Karians contributed a squadron of 200 triremes to the original strength of the fleet, whereas the Phoenicians had contributed 300 triremes. Possibly the Persian formation at Salamis consisted of a squadron of 200 Phoenician triremes on the left and of an Ionian-Dorian-Carian squadron of 200 triremes on the right, with a mixed squadron of 100 Phoenician triremes at the center, plus 100 more contributed by sundry Greek allies. It may be concluded that the Persian force consisted of 600 triremes. Munro recognized that the Persian fleet consisted of 3 squadrons, but irresponsibly placed the Phoenicians at the center, the Ionians at the right, and the Egyptians at the left. It is certain that the Egyptian squadron of 200 triremes did not participate in the battle.

In conclusion, it is difficult to doubt that the Persian fleet as a whole had a force of 1200 triremes. In 1956 Hammond, although he tried to refute by some obscure argument the contention that on the eve of the battle of Salamis part of the Persian fleet was stationed at Keos and Kynosura, granted that it is no longer possible to ascribe a smaller figure to the Persian fleet. But a fleet of 1200 triremes required about 240,000 men as crews, without counting the embarked marines, so that it is reasonable to presume that the Persian naval units, including transports, required the service of about half a million men, as indicated by Herodotus. But if Persia, which was not a naval power, mobilized such a naval force, the land forces must have been much larger. Hammond tries to avoid the issue by mentioning only a comprehensive figure: "the total of combatants and non-combatants in the army and navy was probably in the range of 500,000 men." (92)

Thereby he continues the practice of treating quantitative data in a flippant manner.

After the defeat at Salamis the ferry operation was no longer possible, so that the grand plan to clean up Greece from top to bottom had to be abandoned. Because the season of equinoctial storms, dreaded by all ancient navigators of Greek waters, was at hand, the fleet was withdrawn in a great hurry to the waters of Asia Minor. In the month of October the Persian army withdrew from Attika to Thessalia. There a decision was reached to split the army into two parts. The King withdrew to Asia Minor, leaving his general Mardonios in Greece. The King took with him half of the army plus a contingent under the command of Artabazos drawn from the other half.

Since the winter was approaching the retreat had to be accomplished in forty-five days from Thessalia to the Dardanelles. At this speed the army could not be followed by supply trains, so that the retreat turned into a disaster because of famine, plague, and dysentery. The development of the plague and dysentery must be explained by the use of polluted sources of water by the undernourished troops. The army was so large that it could not rely on the ordinary sources of water, whereas during the advance provisions had been made for an orderly supply of water. Aischylos stresses the lack of food and water. According to Herodotus, many soldiers died upon arriving at the Dardanelle, where there were abundant supplies of food and water, because of overeating, "combined with the change of water" (VIII 117). Perhaps from the Persian point of view the fact that the King was able to return quickly to Asia Minor with a part of his army was a positive achievement, since it squelched the danger of revolts within the Empire.

Among the recent writers Richmond Lattimore takes a rather moderate position by stating that "This terrible retreat has been exaggerated by Aischylos and Herodotus alike, though want of supplies may have created serious difficulties and distress." This much can be granted, but I would not accept Lattimore's contention that whereas Aischylos may be believed as an eyewitness to the battle of Salamis, what he said about the retreat of Xerxes may be false. One can argue that both Herodotus and Aischylos because of national pride ascribed to the enemy army a size that had no relation to reality, but they would hardly have invented a version of the events by which the Persian army fell under its own weight. The positive result of the King's retreat with the army was that he was forced to realize that he could not keep more than 300,000 land-fighters in Greece, a force that the Greeks could hope to match once they were able to gather together 100,000 of their own soldiers.







  1. "Die Perserkriege," in Vortraege ueber alte Geschichte, Vol. I, p. 407f.

  2. On the Demi of Attica (London, 1829), pp. 144-146.

  3. Herodotus (London, 1854), vol. II, pp. 400-419.

  4. George Grote, A History of Greece (London, 1862), Vol. III, pp. 470-471, n. 2.

  5. Les Etudes Classiques, IV (1935), pp. 519-531.

  6. G. Smets and A. Dorsingfang-Smets, "La Bataille de Salamine: Les Sources," Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie det d'Histoire Orientale et Slave, (Brussels) 12 (1952), p. 426.

  7. Aeschylus, Persae, ed. by E. D. Broadhead (Cambridge, 1960).

  8. Ph. E. Legrand, "A Propos de l'enigme de Salamine," Revue des Etudes Anciennes, XXXVIII, (1936), pp. 55-60.

  9. John L. Myres, Herodotus, Father of History (Oxford, 1953), p. 274. See also Paul W. Wallace, "Psyttaleia and the Trophies of the Battle of Salamis," American Journal of Archaeology, 73 (1969), p. 300.

  10. J. A. R. Munro, "The Deliverance of Greece" in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. IV (1926), p. 305. Munro accepted Keos and Kynosura as the localities known by these names today; he postulated that the second fleet was waiting at a distance and was summoned by Xerxes when the battle began.

  11. Myres, op. cit., p. 275.

  12. H. G. L. Hammond, A History of Greece (Oxford, 1959).





The Battle of Plataia



Mardonios had urged the King not to abandon the enterprise even after the debacle at Salamis. According to Mardonios there was a way to invade the Peloponnese even without a ferry and he argued with the King that he could proceed to that invasion the following year if he had 300,000 men, that is, half of the army that had come to Greece in 380 B.C.

Mardonios marched with the King's army up to Thessaly and there he went into winter quarters. The following spring he was joined by 40,000 men under Artabazos who had followed the King in his withdrawal with an original force of 60,000. According to Herodotus the forces of Mardonios were 300,000 infantry plus cavalry; of the infantry, 50,000 had been provided by the Greek allies. This means that Mardonios had under his command the normal full strength of the Persian army, even though the cavalry did not by far come up to the table strength of 50,000 horsemen. But Herodotus states that, at the battle of Plataia that closed the campaign of Mardonios, the cavalry was the part of the Persian army that proved the greatest challenge to the Greeks.


Mardonios had a table of organization requiring 300,000 infantry men and tried to fill it up by all means. Herodotus reports that he put in line Egyptians who had never been in an army and originally had served as embarked marines in the fleet. Mardonios hoped to succeed by combining political maneuvering with military action, since mere military impact had not succeeded. His plan was to force all the Greeks north of the Isthmus, mainly the Athenians, to desert the rest of the Greeks, with the result that even the Greeks of the Peloponnese who were defending the Isthmus would have collapsed. In the spring he made overtures to the Athenians, who wavered, but finally rejected Mardonios' enticing proposals. He tried to force them by invading Attika when the crops were about to be gathered, but the Athenians once again abandoned their city and withdrew to Salamis. By the end of the summer the Greeks had succeeded in producing an unexpected show of unity: they were able to gather an army of some 110,000 men. This army was so large that it was the Greeks' turn to have some difficulties with supply trains and with provisions of water.

The army of Mardonios, however, was still so strong that the Greeks kept avoiding battle until almost twelve months after Salamis, near the close of the military season, when the Persian army began to give signs of disintegration. The disintegration must have been unavoidable once it became clear that another year had passed without conclusive military or political results. Just before the Greek attack Artabazos, with 40,000 men under his command, deserted Mardonios and began to withdraw from Greece. When the Greeks finally attacked at Plataia the battle turned into butchery; Mardonios himself was not able to escape.

Herodotus' narrative of what happened after the battle of Salamis is clear and reasonable, but it is most obscure for the historians of the critical school, because they cannot account for the number of men engaged in the battle of Plataia, which was the only major land engagement in almost two years of campaigning and which sealed the fate of the war. According to Herodotus the Greek army consisted of 38,700 hoplites and of light armed men at the rate of one to each hoplite, plus 35,000 Spartan Helots. The hoplite force consisted of 10,000 Spartans, 8,000 Athenians, 5,000 Corinthians, and other lesser contingents from smaller cities which Herodotus enumerates in detail; the figures are perfectly consonant with what we know about the military power of each city.

Macan did not question the number of the hoplites, but reduced the rest of the army to one man to each hoplite. Eduard Meyer submitted a similar estimate, about 30,000 hoplites and as many light-armoured soldiers; the army of Mardonios would have consisted of 40,000 or 50,000 Asiatic and some thousands of Greeks. The lowest estimate, that of Obst, is 35,000 Greek soldiers; to the Persians Obst ascribed a force of 50,000 men. Beloch and De Sanctis settled for the figure of 50,000 Greeks, estimating the forces under the command of Mardonios as 50,000 Persians and 20,000 Greeks. Among the more recent writers, Berve estimates the Persians at 50,000 and the Greeks at 40,000, whereas Giannelli estimates the Persians at 100,000 and the Greeks at 70,000 of which half may have been hoplites.

There is no reason for doubting Herodotus' figure for the Greek forces, except for the fact that this affects the estimate of the Persian forces. As Glotz grants, one must assume that there were about three Persians to a Greek, since Persian soldiers were no match for Greek ones. Herodotus points out that even the very best of the Persian forces, the Persians themselves, although not inferior in courage and determination, were pitifully inferior to the Greeks in drill and in armor.

Herodotus' figures about the forces engaged at Plataia do not contain any element that can be questioned on specific grounds. The list of the cities that contributed to the Greek forces, as given by Herodotus, is confirmed by the inscription on the serpent-column that was dedicated at Delphoi shortly after the battle and which is still extant today. A similar list is quoted by Pausanias (V 23) as having been seen by him inscribed on the pedestal of a statue of Zeus erected at Olympia. As I have said, the size of each Greek contingent as given by Herodotus corresponds to what we know of the military capabilities of each city.

Hammond, retreating from the extreme positions of the critical school, estimated the Greeks at 100,000 and the Persians at 300,000, but did not explain how Mardonios could marshall an army several times larger than that which had invaded Greece about two years earlier.

Critical historians are bound by their low estimate of the size of Xerxes' army at the beginning of the campaign. In order to justify in some way the size of Mardonios' army, all these scholars must follow Niebuhr in claiming that the entire Persian army was left with Mardonios and that the disastrous retreat of King Xerxes, described by Aischylos and Herodotus, is sheer fabrication. For Meyer only the contingent commanded by Artabazos escorted the King, returning later to join Mardonios. According to De Sanctis "the bulk" of the army remained with Mardonios. Glotz agrees with Meyer, but he tries to soften the wording, though not the substance, of the contention that the disastrous retreat of the King's army is the product of mythological imagination.

If these scholars were right, Aischylos' Persians should be read as a comedy rather than as a tragedy. Perikles, who put this play on stage as a political gesture in favor of a rapprochement between Athens and Persia, must have been in truth putting forth his candidacy for the position of jester at the court of Susa.

But even granting that all the Persians forces were left with Mardonios, the accounts of the battle of Plataia indicate that the Persians had a most substantial army. Beloch and De Sanctis try to evade the issue by a further revision of the historical tradition: there was not much of a battle of Plataia. For once, they accept one of the figures cited by Herodotus: the 40,000 men who, according to Herodotus, deserted Mardonios' army on the eve of the battle, in reality were the number of Persians who were able to withdraw after the battle. Since the Persian army would not have been much larger than 40,000 men, it follows that it went away unscathed. According to Beloch the Greek losses were small, not because the Greeks were able to cut to pieces the disorganized Persians, but because the Persians slipped away.

All told, the history of the events of 480 and 479 B.C. should be rewritten as follows: a rather small Persian expeditionary force was able to invade Greece, to ravage, undisturbed, the country for two years, to destroy several cities among which was Athens, and to withdraw with limited losses.

The conclusion that the most important military campaign of ancient history was a rather modest affair was used to question all ancient information about great military actions. The current approach is well summarized by a scholar of Carthaginian history, Pierre Hubac. In analyzing the wars between Carthaginians and Greeks and between Carthaginians and Romans, he declares that sources that mention Carthaginian armies of 50,000 men can be completely disregarded, since Europe did not see armies of this size until recent times. According to him the figures provided by ancient historians would be valuable only as a subject for a psychoanalytic investigation. His remarks can be abstracted as follows:

Should we say that every number used by ancient historians must be presumed to be false? . . . We should rather be aware of the use that the ancients made of numbers. The real value of these numbers does not correspond at all to its true value; it does not correspond at all to the value and the use that we give to numbers in our age. For us, to quote a number means to exhibit precision, to give the result of a mathematical operation . . . Scientific method compels us to submit precise figures only with prudence and with respect for exactness . . . the mania for numerical data is a recent one in which neither the Orient nor Antiquity would have liked to compete with us . . . Antiquity plays with numbers as with sparkling stones, making them shine . . . The Orient and Antiquity never knew how to distinguish dream-states from wakefulness. They did not find the real attractive; the dazzlement of dreams was considered much preferable. Could we ask a storyteller to act like a scholar: to have method, to respect documents, to be obsessed with numerical precision, to be concerned with statistics? (93)





  1. Pierre Hubac, Carthage second ed. (Paris, 1952), pp. 122f.