One day in 495 BC, a seemingly ordinary suppliant, dressed in the homespun clothing of a farmer, visited Apollo’s temple in Delphi. But when he entered the temple’s opulent receiving chamber, the oracle got the surprise of her life. Pulling back the hood that had obscured his face, he revealed himself to be King Cleomenes of Sparta. “I have no direct business with your god today,” he whispered. “I wish to meet with you personally, away from the temple.”
The oracle was uncomfortable with the idea, but felt unable to refuse such a powerful city’s monarch. So, she went to the grove outside of town which he described, at the nighttime hour which he chose. She was all alone; he was accompanied only by two of his most loyal guards.
“In just a few days,” said Cleomenes, “a delegation will arrive in Delphi from Sparta with an urgent question for the god. It is vital that he answer a certain way.”
The oracle stared at him incredulously. “Nine years ago, you tried to convince all of Greece that Athens had curried corrupt influence over my god’s pronouncements as a condition to finishing the rebuilding of Apollo’s temple. And yet now, here you are. What exactly is it that you are saying to me tonight?”
“I am merely saying,” said the king in a steely voice, “that Sparta too has done much for Delphi. Long before the Athenians finished rebuilding your temples so ostentatiously, Sparta protected your city and maintained its independence. Without such an ally, Delphi would long since have been occupied by some upstart city looking for the prestige that would come with having the most respected oracle in Greece at its beck and call. Now, if you wish our support to continue, we need the god’s help in a certain matter.”
The oracle thought she knew what Cleomenes was driving at — and she liked it not at all. “The god will not choose sides between Sparta and Athens,” she said. “He serves all Greeks equally, without fear or favor.”
“Fair enough,” answered Cleomenes. “My request has nothing to do with Athens. It deals with an internal matter.”
“If you care to elaborate,” said a visibly relieved oracle, “perhaps I can put the matter to the god.”
“A question of… legitimacy has arisen with regard to our King Demaratus.”
The oracle’s tension level promptly increased again; she already knew something of this matter as well. Demaratus was the counterpart to King Cleomenes under the city’s odd dual monarchy. In fact, he had rather overshadowed Cleomenes in the past; he was a renowned charioteer in addition to a king, having won races all across Greece. Perhaps because of this, Cleomenes had never gotten along with him, and of late their feud had split Spartan society down the middle. Already the oracle suspected where this conversation was leading, but she remained silent.
“As you know,” continued Cleomenes, “Demaratus’s supposed father was King Ariston, who saw him born only after years of struggle to provide an heir. He had already married and divorced a woman when she failed to become pregnant, only to have the same problem with his second queen.
“Ariston’s best friend was named Agetos, and the latter’s wife was widely recognized as the most beautiful woman in Sparta. Ariston, seeing her beauty every day, unhappy with both the way his own wife’s beauty paled in comparison and his lack of issue with her, devised a plan to steal Agetos’s wife away.
“He told Agetos that the two of them should celebrate and cement their friendship by giving gifts to one another. Each could choose any gift he wished from the other’s possessions, and his friend would be honor-bound to give it to him. Agetos readily agreed, and the two men swore a mutual oath to that effect. Agetos chose first; for his gift, he picked a splendid suit of armor from the royal collection. Then Ariston chose: he picked Agetos’s wife, saying he would divorce his own forthwith in order to marry her. Agetos raged bitterly about this skulduggery, but the oath he had sworn left him no option. Thus Ariston married his now-former friend’s wife. Soon she was visibly pregnant.
“But here is the key detail: this son was born less than nine months after the two were married. Several courtiers have said that King Ariston himself, when he was given the news that a son had been born to him, counted out the time on his fingers and muttered, ‘He cannot be my own child!’ Immediately afterward, however, he greeted the boy’s arrival with all the fanfare of a military victory. He named him Demaratus because, as he said, all of Sparta had been praying for an heir to his throne. But the fact is that Demaratus is no legitimate king of Sparta! The fact is that when King Ariston died fifteen years after these events he left no children of his blood behind, which means that the counterpart to myself as king ought to be Leotychidas, the son of Ariston’s brother.
“Leotychidas has prosecuted Demaratus before the Senate to claim what rightfully belongs to him. He has produced those aforementioned courtiers, who have testified to what King Ariston said when he first learned of the birth of his son. After much deliberation, I have convinced the Senate to let the god Apollo decide this matter. It is very important to Sparta that he decide correctly.” The menace in his voice as he said these last words was scarcely veiled.
“And if he should decide in favor of Demaratus?” asked the oracle quietly.
“Then those of us who know what is best for Sparta will not be pleased. We will withdraw our protection from Delphi, withdraw our support for the Amphictyonic League. For why should we protect and support what is obviously a false oracle?”
“But who is this ‘we’ of yours?” asked the oracle. “You do not rule Sparta alone. Do you really have the support in the Senate to do these things — presumably over King Demaratus’s objections?”
“I have the support,” said Cleomenes. “I would advise you not to test me on the matter.”
The oracle made no guarantees that night. She promised only that she would address the matter carefully with her god, ensuring that he paid full heed to its importance.
In truth, she was in an awful quandary as she walked back to her lodgings, and hardly slept over the next few days as she awaited the Spartan delegation’s arrival. She knew that the Spartans, for all their proud code of honor, could intrigue as well as anyone when push came to shove. She knew as well that the dispute between Demaratus and Leotychidas over the kingship had deep personal roots; Demaratus had in fact taken for his queen the woman whom Leotychidas had hoped to marry, and the latter had never forgiven the former. And she knew that babies — even healthy ones — sometimes arrived before the full term of nine months thanks to the whims of the gods. In short, what Cleomenes had told her about Demaratus’s ancestry might well be correct, but it might just as easily be a knowing or unknowing falsehood. Either way, the political implications — not just for Sparta but for Delphi and, indeed, all of Greece — were enormous. She prayed long and hard in her inner sanctum, surrounded by the sacred vapors, but struggled to divine her god’s will.
When the Spartan delegation which Cleomenes had predicted came to her and told her a story she already knew all too well, she asked them just one question. “If the god should judge in favor of Leotychidas, what will be the fate of Demaratus?”
“He will not be harmed,” they promised. “He is, after all, blameless in this matter so far as we know. He will receive another position of honor in the government.”
The oracle nodded, and retired to her inner sanctum to consider the question with her god one last time. An hour later, the delegation left the temple bearing with it Apollo’s pronouncement that Demaratus was an imposter — albeit an unknowing one — and Leotychidas was the legitimate king.
The Spartan Senate made a good-faith effort to treat Demaratus with the respect its delegation had promised the oracle, making him an important minister in the government. And Demaratus himself, while naturally far from pleased by his change in status, initially seemed to accept his political defeat with as much grace as anyone could be expected to muster. But the newly crowned Leotychidas was still bitter, and proved unable to accept his political victory with the same grace. He sent a minion to join the audience when Demaratus held a question-and-answer session in his new ministerial post. “How does it feel,” asked this man, “to be a mere government functionary when you used to be a king?”
Stung to the quick by this public effrontery, knowing who its source must be, Demaratus answered guilefully. “Like any good Spartan, I endeavor not to think of myself at all, but rather to think of Sparta as a collective,” he said. “Thus I can only be pleased because now I can serve my city in my subordinate role with the wisdom born from having been a king. But I do worry that we now have a king with no experience in either role. This may mark the beginning of a multitude of evils for Sparta.”
Still burning with indignation, Demaratus went to his mother that evening with the direct question which he had heretofore managed to avoid asking her. “I beseech you to tell me the truth: who is my real father?”
“Your father is King Ariston, as I have always said,” replied the old woman. “He did make the comment attributed to him when he learned of your birth, but only out of ignorance of these womanly things. Not all women carry their babies for a full nine months. Some women give birth at eight months, or even six. As soon as I explained this to him, King Ariston accepted you for what you are: his son by blood and his rightful heir. This is the whole truth.”
Satisfied that he had been grievously wronged thanks to the simple jealousy of the two men who now called themselves the twin kings of Sparta, Demaratus considered his options. His pride made it impossible to remain in Sparta as an object of his replacement’s ridicule. So, he told everyone that he was leaving for his own consultation with the oracle in Delphi, taking his wife with him. In reality, though, the former king and queen went no further than Corinth, whence they took a boat in secret to the lands of Darius the Great. There Demaratus asked to serve the Persian king against his own countrymen. Seeing his value immediately, Darius gave him the position asked for; he joined Hippias as Darius’s second advisor on the strengths and, more importantly, the weaknesses of the Greeks.
The political tension in Sparta was not eased by Demaratus’s departure; if anything, it was exacerbated. The fault lines running through the body politic split wide in 491 BC, when one of the guards who had been present at Cleomenes’s fateful meeting with the oracle decided that he could no longer keep his king’s shameful secret. Standing at the speaker’s podium in the town square, he repeated every word that had been said at that furtive meeting. The Senate had no choice but to demand that the other guard confirm or deny the accusation; put to the test this way, his sense of honor too left him unable to lie.
This was a crisis in government such as Sparta had not known since the time of Lycurgus. Questioned directly, Cleomenes admitted what he had done, but Leotychidas insisted that he was innocent of the plot that had made him king — that he had always presumed the oracle and her god to be truly neutral arbiters. The Senate lacked any firm evidence that disproved this assertion, and thus could do nothing to punish Leotychidas. But it could punish Cleomenes for his admitted malfeasance. As the Senate debated what to do with its guilty king, it left him in leg chains on the town square, where anyone who wished to could throw filth at him and excoriate him for his shameful conspiracy. The question before the Senate now was whether this form of mortification would be sufficient to redeem him, or whether still more drastic measures must be taken. But as it happened, Cleomenes himself relieved the senators of the burden of this decision.
Kneeling there in his leg chains, the king suddenly lunged out and grabbed a dagger from the belt of the guard standing next to him. “I refuse to live with this humiliation!” he shouted, and plunged the knife into his abdomen. He wrenched it from side to side, ripping and tearing at his bowels until he fell to the ground face-forward, dead.
Truly, nothing good came to anyone who was at that secret meeting in Delphi. The two guards were stripped of their citizenship for having come forward so belatedly, and were forced to serve their betters as slaves for the rest of their lives. The Spartan Senate publicized the oracle’s part in the conspiracy all across Greece, much to Delphi’s chagrin. Concerned about the damage to their town’s sacred standing, Delphi’s elders removed the current oracle from her post and ordered her to shave her head and join the lowest ranks of Apollo’s priestesses for a lifetime of penance.
Cleomenes left no sons behind, and so was succeeded by a brother named Leonidas, a middle-aged dilettante who had never expected to become king.
This, then, was the situation in Greece in 490 BC. Sparta was weaker than it had been at any time since the reforms of Lycurgus; one of its kings lived under a cloud of suspicion, while the other had been thrust into his role unprepared when already well into the summer of his life. Meanwhile the rest of Greece was shaken by the most convincing evidence of corruption at Delphi’s temple of Apollo ever to have emerged in the long history of that holy place. And all of the cities were feuding and skirmishing with one another more lustily than ever. It was at this worst possible time that Darius, having prepared patiently for his revenge against Athens and the rest of Greece for the last eight years, finally struck.
Darius brought to bear an awe-inspiring force for his initial strike, assembled from across his vast empire. Its 100,000 soldiers sailed over the Aegean Sea in 600 ships. A thousand horses, mounts for the now-famed Persian cavalry units, accompanied the army in specially outfitted vessels. Hippias, still every bit as bent on revenge as his adopted Persian king, also traveled with it. King Darius himself and his second Greek advisor Demaratus elected to remain in Sardis to prepare the additional invasion and occupation forces that must follow this first one.
The fleet swept westward across the ocean with the same inexorability as the sun on its march across the heavens. The Persians landed first on the island of Naxos, whose people had so rudely repelled them almost a decade before. But this time, the invaders gave them no warning, no time to prepare. Acting on the advice of Hippias, the Persian generals kept their plans secret even from their own soldiers until the last minute, when the fleet suddenly veered toward the island. It routed the islanders before they could take refuge behind the walls of their central city.
Next the Persians came to the island of Delos, home to the most famous temple to Apollo outside of Delphi. The peaceful folk who lived and worshiped there surrendered without a fight. But just as the main Persian force was about to sail from the island, leaving only a small troop of occupiers behind, a violent earthquake shook the place to its foundations, shattering the temple and causing much destruction and loss of life. Delos’s oracle proclaimed it to have been a portent of the evil about to befall Greece: “It shall shake that which was unshakeable before.”
The Persians next made landfall near the small city of Carystus, on the southern tip of Euboea. Never before had an invasion force come this close to mainland Greece; the inhabitants of Euboea were actually considered mainlanders by tradition. The people of Carystus put up a brave fight, but they hadn’t a chance against the Persian horde. Their city soon fell, and the Persians marched overland northwestward toward Eretria — the largest city on Euboea, and the one which had helped Athens to prosecute its foolish invasion of Persian territory eight years before.
Eretria fell into panic as word reached the city of the Persian army bearing down upon it. Many of the people fled northward; others advocated an immediate surrender, combined with a posture of supine collaboration to blunt the force of the invaders’ anger. Still others sent a plea to Athens for help. And to its credit, that city, not willing to leave its erstwhile ally in the breach, sent a fleet with 4000 soldiers sailing around the southern tip of Attica and up to Eretria before the Persians arrived by land.
But one particularly brave and wise citizen of Eretria, whose name was Aischines, met the Athenian fleet in his city’s harbor. “The situation here is hopeless,” he said. “Eretria could not withstand the Persian assault even if it was indomitable of will, which it manifestly is not. Our city is already lost. Don’t squander your strength here; return to Athens so that you may have a chance of saving the rest of Greece.” And the Athenians, seeing the wisdom in his words, did as he told them to, taking with them to fight another day as many of his city’s soldiers as their ships could carry.
Those of the people of Eretria who remained held out behind their walls for six days after the Persians arrived. But on the seventh day, they surrendered their city to save themselves further hardship, just as Aischines had predicted they would.
Pausing hardly at all to revel in their victory, the Persians discussed their next move. So far, they had suffered more losses at the hands of the Greek gods than mortal Greek men, in the form of the earthquake on Delos. Based on what they had seen to this point, they were confident that the cities of mainland Greece would fall to them as easily as had the islands. Their next target was to be the most satisfying of them all: Athens, the very wellspring of Darius’s ire. Hippias had long since been promised that he would once again become tyrant of his home city as soon as it fell. (Demaratus had, naturally, been given the same promise with regard to Sparta.) The Persian fleet sailed to Eretria and transported the Persian army across the narrow strait separating the city from mainland Greece.
Meanwhile the Athenians mustered the biggest army they could on such short notice: about 20,000 men in all, including those soldiers recently returned from the abortive expedition to Eretria and the additional soldiers of that city who had joined them there. As these hasty preparations for defense were being made, the Athenian Council of Archontes met to draft a message for Sparta.
“Although Sparta and Athens have had their differences in recent years,” it read, “a force of Persian invaders is now come to Greece which imperils all of us equally. Eretria, and along with it the entire island of Euboea, has already fallen, and now the invaders have turned their greedy eyes upon us in Athens. All of Athens begs you not to look on passively as we too fall into barbarian slavery. Please, leave your differences with us for another day and come to our aid on this one! For one thing is guaranteed: the barbarians will not stop with us. If Athens falls, another Greek city will fall soon thereafter, and another, and another, as we Greeks with each defeat grow steadily less able to defend our remaining territory. By the time the barbarians reach Sparta — which they will if Athens falls, as surely as the sun will set this evening — it will be too late for you. Your best way of protecting yourself tomorrow is to stand with us today.”
The Council of Archontes sent their city’s swiftest courier to Sparta bearing this message. But when he delivered it to the Spartan Senate, it provoked discord rather than unity. Some saw the existential threat for what it was and argued for rushing to Athens’s aid, but at least as many dismissed the danger to the rest of Greece and argued for letting Athens reap the consequences of its earlier foolishness; how many times were they to be expected to rescue a city whose philosophy of life they loathed? And some were so busy feuding with their political enemies inside Sparta that they simply had no attention to spare for anything else. Nor was either of the weakened Spartan kings in any position to provide guidance. At last, the Senate agreed to ask a local prophet what should be done. He said that the Spartans shouldn’t march to Athens until the moon was full — an event which was almost three weeks away — and even then should only send a modest force, keeping the bulk of their army at home to protect themselves. So, Sparta — a city which had never before backed down from a fight — uncharacteristically did nothing as armies girded for war elsewhere in Greece.
In truth, the Athenians were almost as divided about how to proceed as were the Spartans. Their army of defense consisted of ten divisions, each under the command of a different general. In typically democratic fashion, there was no overall leader; the generals voted to decide on a strategy, with a tie-breaking vote being given, if necessary, to an older general emeritus. The most outspoken and aggressive of all the generals was named Miltiades. He begged his counterparts to march north right away and engage the Persians in the countryside rather than trying to weather a siege in Athens proper. But many of the others believed his strategy to be foolhardy in the extreme. Far better to stay behind the walls of Athens, these generals said, and wait for reinforcements from Sparta; witness what had happened to the last Athenian army that had met the Persians in the open without Spartan support.
“Such a timid strategy as the one you advocate will never succeed,” countered Miltiades. “The Spartans may never come, and even if they do, they will likely find it impossible to break the Persian siege of Athens once it has begun. We should meet the Persians on the open field of battle and take our chances rather than let ourselves be slowly starved into submission. It is the last thing they will expect; we will at the very least have the advantage of surprise.”
But his impassioned rhetoric was sufficient to convince only four of his counterparts; when a vote was taken to decide whether to attack the Persians now or wait for them to come to Athens, it stood five to five. So, it fell to the general emeritus, an aged man named Callimachus, to cast the deciding vote. Before he did so, Miltiades took him aside for a talk.
“It is now up to you, Callimachus,” he said. “Now, when we face the greatest danger we have ever confronted. Your vote today may very well decide whether Greece as a whole remains free or is enslaved. Already there are voices in this city, as there were in Eretria, saying that we should surrender to the Persians. If we are trapped inside these walls for weeks on end like rats in a cage, those voices will grow louder and louder, until their cowardly claim to reasonableness overwhelms our resolve. We must join battle now, before that rot infects us.”
His words convinced the old man. Moments later, Callimachus voted to march out of the city to meet the Persians. Seizing an opportunity when he saw it, Miltiades immediately made a second proposition, to give to himself supreme command over the Athenian army for the duration of the battle to come. That too was approved, by the same vote of six to five.
So, the Athenian army marched to war early the next morning. It was not so splendid or orderly as the Persian or Spartan legions; the Athenian formations were as ragged as some of their soldiers’ armor. But Miltiades had delivered a rousing speech before they set off, describing just what they were fighting for, and the face of every man among them wore a look of grim determination. The Athenians had lost their democracy once before to Hippias. They did not wish to lose it to him again. They loathed him more than ever now for turning traitor against his people.
One of the Athenians’ greatest strengths was their scouts, who were numerous, skilled in the arts of observation and evasion, and most of all fleet of foot; Athenian runners were consistent victors at the Olympic and Pythian Games. Miltiades used them wisely now, sending them ranging far ahead to report on the movements of the Persians. In contrast to the Athenians, the Persians were methodical but unhurried, so confident that they paid little attention to scouting the territory around them or even to setting proper watches at night.
Knowing that a Persian cavalry charge on open terrain could cut his army to pieces, Miltiades wanted to join battle at the time and place of his own choosing. He decided to attack at dawn, when the Persians were just breaking camp for the day’s march. The ambush would be mounted near the coastal town of Marathon, in a place of hills and marshes — terrain where the Persian cavalry would be less effective even if they managed to mount their steeds.
Thus it came to pass that the Persians looked up from their breakfast campfires one morning to see a chaotic swarm of soldiers pouring over the nearby hillsides, rushing toward them as quickly as they could sprint over the boggy ground, with swords, clubs, and spears bobbing in time with their footsteps, with voices raised in cries of battle and war drums beating out a deafening cacophony behind them. In defiance of all of the accepted ways of war, the ragged Athenian assault was supported by neither cavalry nor archers; the Persians thought their assailants must have gone mad.
But, whether mad or sane, the Athenians fell upon the Persians with overwhelming fury. The Persians’ own cavalry and archers were unable to disentangle themselves from the melee to deploy their strength, just as Miltiades had planned it. Fighting hand to hand, man against man in this maelstrom of flashing blades and splattering blood, the Persian soldiers, whose personal stake in the war their leaders had elected to wage was limited at best, were trampled under the sheer fury of a people fighting for their way of life. The Athenians scythed through the very middle of the Persian ranks. One of their number felled Hippias with a mighty blow, shouting as he did so that it was a just recompense for all of the decades of trouble which he and his father had brought to Athens. The battle turned into a one-sided rout, a mirror image of the one that had taken place between Persians and Athenians eight years before in Lydia. This time, it was the Persians’ turn to run pell-mell toward the coast, where the fleet that had taken them across the Aegean Sea had been marking their progress southward.
With their backs against the ocean, the Persians finally mustered some measure of battle discipline and set up a line of defense. The Athenians, having spent most of their fury and being still badly outnumbered despite it all, were largely content not to press their luck further; they allowed the remainder of the Persian army to board their ships and escape. In all, the Athenians managed to capture just seven ships of the immense Persian fleet. Still, it had truly been a banner day, for Athens and for all of Greece.
A story would be passed around in later centuries, telling of a single Athenian messenger who raced all the way back to his city at breakneck pace to inform his fellow citizens of the victory, only to die at the feet of the Council of Archontes after delivering the news. The distance he ran, your people have long been told, was equal to the distance of a long-distance footrace that goes by the name of “marathon” in tribute to this final run of his life. Actually, though, that story was made up much later, well after these times of Greece’s greatest glory.
For even as he watched the Persians sail away from Marathon, Miltiades realized that he needed to send more than just one messenger back to Athens. The Persian soldiers aboard those ships would still constitute a powerful force once they regrouped and girded themselves for revenge. And he had left Athens all but undefended when he ordered the march to Marathon.
Thus the real first marathon involved all of these soldiers of Athens, who, despite having just fought a savage battle, must now march as quickly as possible back to their city to prevent the Persians from taking it without a fight while they celebrated elsewhere. This marathon became a race between the Athenian army, marching overland, and the Persian army, sailing around the southern tip of Attica. Through sheer force of will and, some said, inclement winds cast against the Persians by sympathetic gods, the Athenians won the race, just as they had won the battle that preceded it. The soldiers on the Persian ships arriving in the harbor of Athens were dismayed to see the city’s ramparts packed with the same enemy warriors who had so recently chased them to the sea.
There was a tense standoff for several hours, but then the Persians sailed away again; they had no stomach left for battle against these men who could defy all the principles of war and still win, who could seemingly fly like eagles from one battlefield to another. So, the Persians went meekly home, stopping only to fetch the comrades they had left on Euboea along the way. The first-ever concerted invasion of Greece by a foreign power had been turned away by Miltiades’s Odyssian audacity and unpredictability, combined with the furious Achillian bravery of his soldiers. For a long time afterward, no title in the land would be greeted with more respect than that of Veteran of Marathon.
Some days later, 2000 Spartan soldiers arrived in Athens, the underwhelming response to the Council of Archontes’ desperate plea for help. The Athenians were as shocked by their tardiness as they were by their small numbers; was this truly the best that the foremost military power in Greece could do? As for the Spartans, they could only congratulate the Athenians on their stupendous victory and march home again. The military savior of Greece had been Athens rather than Sparta. Who would have imagined it?
To celebrate their victory and advertise their status as the leading city of Greece, the Athenians built themselves a grand new treasury on a hillside just above Apollo’s temple at Delphi. It was smaller than said temple, but was if anything even more splendid to look at. The Athenians imported huge quantities of their own Attic marble, widely recognized as the finest in the world, to serve as its material; because they couldn’t transport the marble in pieces large enough for the carving of monolithic columns, they devised clever ways of fusing segments together, thus sealing their claim to being the most skillful architectural engineers in Greece. The walls of the treasury, both inside and out, were covered with intricate reliefs showing heroic incidents in Athens’s history from the Ages of Gods and Men alike, giving pride of place to that most recent of them all, the Battle of Marathon. In the forecourt were statues of Athenian heroes old and new, including life-sized depictions of Miltiades and Callimachus, while captured Persian shields on poles encircled the complex.
Some worried about the open affront to the Persians which this display represented. Athens had undoubtedly won a great victory, but perhaps it was better not to go back to poking the Persian beehive. For even as the Athenians acted as if they had nothing else to fear from the power to their east, many at Delphi and elsewhere still believed Greece to be living on borrowed time. The Persians were not wont to suffer defeat quietly. “Mark our words,” these wiser if more pessimistic souls muttered. “They will be back.”
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)