The Sacrifice Dilemma At The Battle Of Marathon


By 490 BCE, King Darius I of Persia had brought Ionia, Thrace and Macedonia under his influence and began his presumptive next phase of subjugation by sending an expeditionary force into Euboea. The Persian expeditionary force (estimated to have numbered anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 troops) crossed over to Attica, where they were intercepted by an army of around 10,000 Athenians and Plataeans on the plains of Marathon. Herodotus claimed that the Greek forces gave sacrifice to the gods before the battle and watched for omens, which, when found, were interpreted as signs of a good outcome. Although not mentioned by Herodotus, Athenian tradition and future historians (such as Xenophon and Plutarch) claimed that one of the religious actions taken by Athens before the Battle of Marathon was a vow to the goddess, Artemis, that, if Greece should prove victorious, they would sacrifice to her a number of animals equal to the number of Persians killed in the battle. When they made this sacred vow, they likely did not know just how big a task they were arranging.

According to Xenophon and Plutarch, Athens promised to sacrifice young goats (kids) to Artemis. Yet, in the scholia to Aristophanes’ The Knights, it was claimed that the Athenians actually promised oxen to the goddess. Whatever the case, promising either goats or oxen, the Greeks charged against the Persians, hoping that their vow of a future sacrifice would bring the gods over to their side. The ensuing Battle of Marathon would become one of the most famous engagements of the ancient world and a key point in the development of a panhellenic Greek identity—it would also, unfortunately, lead to the deaths of untold numbers of livestock.

The Greeks won a major victory at Marathon, and, despite being greatly outnumbered, they reportedly only lost 192 men in the battle. In contrast, Herodotus claimed that 6,400 Persians were killed, which was seemingly calculated on the assumption that a hundred Persians were slain for every three Greek deaths. Although Herodotus gave the Greeks a favorable statistic for the number of Persian dead, many the of historian’s ancient Greek peers apparently believed Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon was maliciously unembellished. For instance, Plutarch wrote in his essay, The Malice of Herodotus, that the statistic of Persian dead should be increased from Herodotus’ claim of 6,400 to one in which “the number of the dead [is] appearing infinite” (section 26).

In any case, whether or not the number of Persian dead was closer to six thousand or infinity, the Athenians owed Artemis an incredible number of sacrificial animals. Although the account from the scholia of Aristophanes claimed the Athenians had originally promised oxen, the story went on to propose that Athens downgraded to goats after they discovered just how many Persians they had killed. Faced with the challenge of rounding up and sacrificing thousands of goats, the Athenians decided to make a pragmatic emendation to their vow with Artemis. Instead of sacrificing the goats in bulk, they made the decision to offer the sacrifices in yearly increments. Writing around a century or more years later, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE) commented on the subject, claiming, “They had made a vow to Artemis that they would offer her in sacrifice a goat for every enemy soldier they killed, but they couldn’t find enough goats and so they decided to sacrifice five hundred a year, and they are still carrying out this annual sacrifice” (Anabasis, Book 3, section 2). Most ancient sources agreed with Xenophon that the sacrifices were in increments of 500, but Aelian, in his Various History, claimed that the yearly sacrifices amounted to the favored Greek number of 300.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Pheidippides giving word of victory at Marathon, painted by Luc-Olivier Merson (1846–1920), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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