The battle of Marathon is a symbol. It entered in the collective imaginary because, if the result of the fight had been different, the Western world as we know it nowadays would have never been born. However as a witness of that event, the helmet of Miltiades is still there, with his bronze eyes, proud and fierce gaze.
How did we get to Marathon?
Certain cities such as Eretria and Athens supported an uprising of Greek colonists on the Turkish coast, who were trying to get rid of the Persian domination. Everything ended up in shed blood and the city of Miletus, as a punishment, was destroyed. Darius the Great, Persian King, seeking revenge and willing to expand his already vast territories, laid his eyes on Greece. Some polis, terrified, bent to Persia but Athens and Sparta answered with a decisive reject. The great foreign army didn’t struggle at all with the tiny Greek Eretria then it was time to Athens and the Persian army landed in Marathon, approximately 41 km away from the capital (25 miles). This distance will become the one used for the Marathon race as a celebration of the deeds of Pheidippides, the Athenian soldier who ran back to Athens to bring the news of the victory over the Persians.
The village is a narrow flat area 30 minutes by car from Athens. The place is surrounded by hills and spread with plenty of olive trees with a noisy background of cicadae that chirrup.
Here, around 25,000 Persians faced 12,000 Athenians and Plataeans; Spartans didn’t arrive on time as they were intent on celebrating the festival of Carnea, or Carneia. The Greeks, although less in number were prevailing in battle techniques: the Greeks would follow a “coral” or “roman” way of battling, whereas the Persian army had a more individual fashion of fighting, closer to Celtic and Germanic tribes. The Greek were also advantaged in their equipment, with an armor which would cover them almost entirely which their enemies did not have. But besides all this, the most effective weapon they had was their commander:
In history not rarely the brilliance and ability of one man have decided the fate of wars. Von Manstein is a perfect example of this with his surprising campaign of France in 1940 as well as Napoleon in many of his battles.
“The Hero of Marathon”, used the same tactic that Hannibal utilised in the memorable battle of Cannae: he strengthened extensively the wings to avoid that the powerful rival cavalry would bypass it and lightened the middle part. Then, with determination he sent the order of attacking. He played of hazard, betting all on surprise and fear that the aggressiveness o such an outnumbered army would have provoked. The arrows did not cause any major damage and in the hand-to-hand combat, the tactic resulted of great help. The centre side stepped back but did not give up and the wings, as a vise, closed up towards the Persians. The brilliant strategy of Miltiades had great success.
The battle was not over yet though. The Persians, once reembarked, tried one last operation with the attempt to surprise an unprepared Athens. Miltiades though, grasping the ambush, led his army to Athens faster than the enemy at a forced march. At that point Darius, not wanting to face a new defeat decided to retreat in less than a day. Sadly though, the fate of Miltiades was bitter: a few years afterwards he died after being exiled due to a defamatory campaign set up by his political enemies.
This is the story behind the helmet of Miltiades, which after 2,500 years is still preserved to be admired by its audience. In Marathon it is possible to read on an exposition panel about the finding of an helmet in the Temple of Zeus in Olympia signed as “Miltiades offered his helmet to Zeus”.
The commander offered it to the King of the Gods as a thanks for the unexpected victory on the fearsome Persians as well as to underline that both him and the Athenians had been helped by the divine support.
One of the objects with the strongest historical weight, inspiring aesthetic contemplation. That helmet had been present along with all those warriors in Marathon during that battle and with them it had heard the shouting in Greek and Persian languages in that boiling day of 490 BC.
With a closer look, you can notice the dramatic hole which would frame the eyes, way more stressed out than a normal one, mighty cheek covers which would lengthen in a blade-like shape. The nose in particular, would look like a dagger coming out of the forehead ready to hit. The whole composition somewhat reminds of an Alien God to fear.
The Helmet of Miltiades is the last object left of that important battle which marked the destiny of Greece and that gives the chance to all the Classical Antiquity lovers to jump back to those days of glory with their mind and especially with their heart.