Air University Review , July-August 1980

The Battle of Marathon

or What’s a 2500-year-old battle got to do with me?

Major General I.B. Holley, Jr., USAFR

We quote the philosopher Santayana to the effect that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it with all its mistakes, its agonies, its false turns. Another often quoted aphorism has it that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history! In short, we should learn from history but, alas, we seldom do. And why not?

For one thing, we seldom read history—because we are so busy mastering tech manuals, so busy dredging up data to compile staff papers, so busy meeting suspense dates that we just don’t very often get around to reading that historical account which, if we bust knew it, might make our understanding of today’s job much easier. Moreover, when on occasion we do manage to read a little history, a retrospective account of something that has taken place in the past, we all too often look for the wrong things. Unless one has been educated to read history, there is a perfectly normal human tendency to look for answers, solutions for our current problems drawn from supposedly parallel cases in the past. This is folly. History doesn't provide "answers," that is to say, solutions to the problems of today. At best, history can offer us no more than insights, and then only if we approach it in the proper frame of mind.

So we must learn how to approach history, how to get into that all important frame of mind. The technique is not really very esoteric; in fact, it is quite simple. One must learn to read actively rather than merely passively; one must learn to formulate questions before one begins reading and to perfect these questions while one is reading. One formulates questions that actively engage the subject matter at hand. In short, to read history effectively is to engage in a kind of dialogue with the written page. Soaking up information like an intellectual sponge is not enough; one may learn a lot of facts that way, but so what? Insight comes when the reader begins to make those facts work at answering the questions he propounds as he goes along.

Now let's try to use this technique when reading about the Battle of Marathon. What possible use can there be to an Air Force officer in reading about a battle that took place in 490 B. C.? What can it say of interest to Air Force officers discussing strategy, tactics, and the art of maneuver in this last quarter of the twentieth century? A great deal, providing we look for insights and not answers; you can scarcely expect a battle fought with hacking blades and hurled spears to give us many specific answers of pertinence today. As Moltke has reminded us, the past has little to say to the present generation where matters of materiel are considered; but for questions of morale and where we are dealing with the realm of ideas, even the remote past may sparkle for us with a freshness and a compelling clarity.

If you have not read about Marathon, you can easily do so in Creasy's Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, where Sir Edward gives the essentials in a scant 30 pages. The main details are readily grasped. The great Persian emperor, Darius, determined to punish those upstart Greeks to the west, sent an expedition of some 100,000 men by sea to do so. This force landed at Marathon, a coastal plain encircled by a crescent of mountains some 24 miles northeast of Athens.* The Greeks, somewhat over 11,000 strong, stationed themselves in the hills at the center of the crescent.

*The precise distance from Marathon to Athens remains in doubt. One source says 22 miles, another gives 24 miles; both vary from the traditional racing distance of26 miles. Thus we compromise on 24 miles. These disparities help underscore my point that one shouldn't look for precise "answers" in history because different sources give different facts.

After extended debate (remember, Athens was a democracy, and policy evolved from free discussion) the eleven officers comprising the Council of War voted to attack the Persians assembling on the plain below them and agreed on an appropriate tactic. The disparity in numbers between the Persians and the Greeks accurately reflected the relative size of the contesting states: on the one hand, imperial might drawn from two continents; on the other, two tiny city states endowed by nature with only meager resources. Nevertheless, the decision of the Greek leaders was to attack.

The story of the battle can be quickly told. The Greek line, extended to present the widest possible front, charged down upon the Persian forces camping on the plain. We are informed that they covered the mile between the two armies on the run. By approaching on the run, the Greeks caught the Persians off-balance. The hordes of Darius had to take up their positions in haste, but the obvious thinness of the advancing Greek line deceived them into anticipating an easy victory. When the clash occurred, the Persians, by sheer weight of numbers, forced the weak Greek center to fall back. According to plan, the Greek forces in the center retired slowly, contesting each step. Their left and right wings, heavily reinforced in anticipation of what was to come, gradually pivoted inward to face the advancing Persian center and attacked from both flanks in a classic double envelopment. In the panic that followed, the Persians fled to their boats and were cut down by the thousands.

What, then, can this battle tell us? We can see at a glance that a skillful deployment, thinning out the center of the phalanx and strengthening the wings, made possible a successful tactical maneuver. But what other factors were involved? Greek morale was high. The Athenians knew they were fighting for the survival of their nation, their city state. Their homes, their wives and children, their future hopes were all at hazard. Desperation can make men braver than they know. Further, Greek military intelligence was efficient; the Athenians knew that for all his numbers, Darius's army was made up of a motley array of many tribes and nations whose diversities in language could scarcely fail to impede effective military operations. Moreover, who could say with assurance that all these tribesmen, so recently subjugated by the Great King, were willing to give their best effort and lay their lives on the line for Persia? (Will Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, and Rumanians all fight for the U.S.S.R with that last full measure of devotion that wins battles? Is U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5 really so far off the mark when it admonishes "fight outnumbered and win"?)

Air officers sometimes ask, Do the principles of war (more properly the "principles of battle," for war is a larger political phenomenon) still have any validity? See for yourself whether they do. It is doubtful if any military commander ever sat down and planned his strategy and tactics with the list of principles before him as an inspiration. But after he has drawn up his plan, it makes good sense to test one's handiwork by checking a proposed course of action against the conventional principles. To be sure, not everybody agrees on precisely what these principles are. And even within a given enumeration of 9 or 10 or 12 principles, it not infrequently turns out that two or more seem to contradict in a given situation. Does that mean the principles are worthless, dangerously deceptive, or unsound? Not at all.

The principles of war are not mandates speaking with the authority of a law of nature. Most certainly they do not operate with the inexorable quality of gravity; they are, rather, a convenient checklist. They are prods to thinking, not cookbook ingredients to be spooned in routinely. The justification for having a list of principles is their use in stimulating thought, no more.

So let's go down the line and think about the decisions of the Athenian polemarch (the term for war ruler--note the kinship to our word "polemics") as he laid out his plan for attacking the Persians. We have no trouble spotting the principle of the objective. If the Greeks failed to whip Darius's army, the fate of Athens was sealed. Clearly the proximity of the Persians to Athens ruled out any strategy of delay and retreat, trading space for time. Only by taking the initiative could the Greeks hope to win. Is that what we mean by the principle of the offensive? Then there is the principle of mass. The Greeks might, in the name of prudence, have left a large portion of their force back home to man the city walls, but they relegated that task to the elderly and ineffectives in order to concentrate their mass at the critical point. Again, the principle of economy of force is discernible in the thinning down of the Greek center, well below the conventional formation eight spears deep customarily employed in the Greek phalanx. By reducing depth, men were freed to extend the line so it would reach across the entire Persian front, leaving no flanks to be turned.

As for the principle of maneuver, this has already been identified. The Greeks did not simply hurl their mass at the Persians but relied on a carefully planned maneuver to make up for the disparity in size between the two armies. So, too, surprise and simplicity have already been addressed. The tactical recoil of the center, which was virtually inevitable given the numerical weight of the Persians, was turned into an asset. The inevitable retirement of the thin center was converted to an advantage by using it as the basis for a tactical surprise as the two wings, while seeming to recoil, were in fact only obeying a preplanned maneuver to position themselves for a double envelopment of the Persian flanks in their disordered pursuit of the retiring Greek center. Above all, this stratagem was simple; everyone involved could readily grasp its essentials with ease.

Unity of command has also been addressed already in discussing the process by which the Greeks' decision to attack was reached. In the camp of the tyrant, the word of the Great King or his viceroy was law. His most skillful subordinates would hesitate before they dared suggest that his tactical scheme was in the slightest respect defective. As a consequence, while the Persians might seem to have achieved unity of command centered on Darius or his surrogate, in fact, no such unity did exist. Subordinate commanders, persuaded against their will in the absence offree discussion, "were of the opinion still." And men who doubt the wisdom of a given course of action are little likely to perform with the utmost zeal. By contrast, the Athenian plan, hammered out in open council, could count on the adherence, freely given, of every Greek commander.

But what about the principle of security? As almost invariably happens, here we encounter a contradiction. By obeying the principle of mass, the Athenians must, perforce, neglect the principle of security. By concentrating their effectives at Marathon, they all but denuded the walls of Athens. This violated the principle of security; but the violation was taken knowingly, a calculated risk. Under the circumstances, it seemed the wisest choice.

HAVE I neglected your favorite principle drawn from some other list, authoritative or otherwise? No matter, my purpose is most certainly not to imply infallibility. I only wish to demonstrate that if one will but read history, the record of past human experience, there is much to be gained. And if one will read actively, aggressively, searchingly, with questions in mind and propounded as one goes, then that reading can become exceedingly productive.

Read Sir Edward Creasy's Marathon for yourself. If you disagree with my interpretation, my commentary, so much the better. Such disagreement, if well-founded on evidence, only serves to suggest that you are thinking seriously about the enduring problems of strategy and tactics. The object of this exercise is not to prove me right and you wrong, or vice versa, but to get able young Air Force officers to reflect deeply on problems of strategy and tactics. Read history first to sharpen your intellectual tools; then try to determine if the principles of war or battle actually do apply to air weapons. There's a task fairly crying to be done. No one has ever really effectively determined whether the principles do indeed apply to air warfare with or without exception. Any takers?

Durham, North Carolina


Major General I. B. Holley, Jr., USAFR (B.A., Amherst; M.A., Ph.D., Yale) has taught in the Duke University Department of History since 1947. He has been a visiting professor at the National Defense University and serves as mobilization assistant to the Commander, Air University (ATC). After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he taught for two years at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces; he has also been visiting professor, Department of History, U.S. Military Academy, 1974-75. Professor Holley is chairman of the advisory committee on history to the Secretary of the Air Force. His publications include Ideas and Weapons (1953), buying Aircraft: Air Materiel Procurement for the Army Air Forces (1963), and articles on military doctrine.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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