For me, this battle is Marathon, and this arises because one of the first reports of a wargame I ever read was by Charles Grant in ‘Military Modelling’, and was of this battle. It was a long time ago and I was very, very young, but it made a lasting impression on me. For years, at the back of my mind was the idea that someday, I would refight on the wargame table, the battle of Marathon.
For many years, of course, I did not even try to refight it. I have a limited time budget, and even more limited resources for buying, painting and researching figures. However, after a major effort in the last few weeks, I am now the proud possessor of a 21 base Persian army, suitable, so far as I can tell, for being the opposition to my Greeks at Marathon.
Now, of course, I should be rushing off in glee and be rolling dice. Perhaps, however, I have become too cautious, or elderly, in just plain suspicious of the historical accounts of battles to do so. I need some sort of idea as to what Marathon was about, how it happened, before setting figure to table.
This is, of course, where the fun starts. Herodotus’ account of the actual battle of Marathon is four paragraphs (6:112 – 115), just about a page in my Landmark edition. This is not really very much, although of course the build-up to the battle is much longer. The brevity has both upsides and downsides.
On the up-side, it does mean that, as a wargamer, I do not actually have to read very much before I have an idea of the action, its deployments, movements and outcome. It really is very simple. The Athenians and Plataeans lined up, charged the Persians, broke their wings and turned in on the hitherto successful centre, capturing a few ships on the way. What could be simpler?
On the downside, the record does not really tell us enough about the action. Lots of questions remain unanswered. For example, where were the Persian cavalry? The Persians landed at Marathon, we are told, because it was good cavalry country (6:102). But mounted activity is not recorded in the battle account itself. A puzzle, then.
Not only that, but the number of Persians in the army is not really recorded at all. Herodotus records 600 triremes in the Persian fleet, including horse transports. This might give some sort of figure for the maximum number of people in the force, but helps very little in determining the number of soldiers on the battlefield. Herodotus’ claim that there were 6,400 Persian casualties may, or may not, be correct. Even if it is correct, it does not help an awful lot. It gives a lower limit for how many Persians there were in total (6400, plus at least 1 trireme crew?), but that is really of little use.
From the information we have to hand, then, we can say that there were 10,000, or 11,000 Greeks, and some Persians. It is usually assumed that the Persians outnumbered the Greeks, but this is by no means certain. It is quite possible that there were fewer Persians on the field than Greeks.
There are further problems with the terrain of Marathon. While the general layout is well known, a plain with the sea on one side, hills on the other, and marshes at both ends, it is not actually recorded at what angle the Persians deployed to the beach. Some modern accounts have them with their backs to the sea, with their ships behind them. Some have them deployed at right angles to the sea, with the ships behind their left wing.
Neither of these accounts is wholly satisfactory. Only an idiot, perhaps, would fight with their backs to the sea. The advantage of this deployment, however, is that it is clear how the routing Persians could then attempt to launch their ships. In the other scenario, with their wings broken first, it seems a bit unlikely that the Persians would have all streamed to their left rear to get away. As Terry Pratchett once remarked, the whole idea of running away is to get away; routing troops are unlikely to think that the best result would be obtained by running through a bunch of disorganised but victorious hoplites.
So, even with such a simple appearing account of a fairly straightforward battle, we have some seemingly unsolvable problems. The size of at least one of the armies; the composition of that force itself. Even the deployment of the forces is by no means obvious.
In fact, were it not the case that it is impossible to read the account of the battle without trying to reconstruct it in some way, I would argue that we face an insurmountable obstacle. The account of Herodotus has sufficient detail to constrain what we can do in reconstruction, but insufficient to tell us exactly how the action happened.
Perhaps, at this point, turning to Phil Sabin’s Lost Battles might help. There are a large number of modern accounts of Marathon, all differing in detail. Sabin’s modelling for the battle suggests that the key factor is, in fact, the number of Persian infantry, not the location and actions of the cavalry or the angle between the armies and the sea. As he notes, the triumph of the Persian centre indicates that the Greeks had no unqualified superiority over their enemy (p 95).
So, in summary, we have not just a refight of Marathon, but a whole slew of considerations, estimates, guesswork and prejudice to work through before we can come to something that could even slightly be called a historical battle. That should not, of course, stop of from trying, but we do have to admit that the relation to history is, at best, irrecoverable.