Miltiades, one of the most important figures of ancient Greece, served as the general of the army of Athenians which defeated the Persians in the famous Battle of Marathon. Naturally, the discovery of his helmet in the late nineteenth century is one of the most important archaeological findings in world history.
Visitors to the Archaeological Museum of Olympia stand in awe in front of the well-preserved artifact, which could tell stories that a thousand books wouldn’t be enough to contain.
The magnificent helmet was recovered from the ruins of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. Its dome is missing, but the rest of the Corinthian-style helmet is almost intact after 2,500 years.
On the side are the words “ΜΙΛΤΙΑΔΕΣ ΑΝΕ[Θ]ΕΚΕΝ [Τ]ΟΙ ΔΙ,” which means “Militiades offered his helmet to Zeus.” Historians argue that the helmet was found in the temple for one of two reasons: The great warrior wanted the support of Zeus for an upcoming battle, or the offering was to thank the god for a battle won.
If the latter is true and Miltiades wanted to express his gratitude to Zeus for defeating the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, then the discovery of his helmet is of even more importance. And the priceless artifact itself becomes even more awe-inspiring.
Based on the writings of Plutarch and Herodotus, there are historians and archaeologists who indeed believe that Miltiades offered the helmet to Zeus after he returned victorious from Marathon, thus saving the great city-state of Athens from the hands of the Persians. And, of course, preserving the course of history and Western Civilization as it is today.
Miltiades and the Battle of Marathon
Miltiades (550-489 BC) was born an aristocrat, the son of Cimon Colelamos, a famous Olympic chariot racer who won in three Olympic Games. He received a good education which not only helped him become an able politician but a great general as well.
When he became the ruler of Athens, he defended the city’s freedoms against Persian despotism, showing his resolve and determination when he put to death the Persian heralds who came to demand the surrender of the city. Then Miltiades struck out from the city with his outnumbered army and beat the Persians at Marathon.
The Battle of Marathon is one of the most famous ancient battles in the entire world, generating numerous legends and stories over the millennia based on the writings of ancient historians such as Plutarch and Herodotus.
The two armies clashed on the Plain of Marathon in 490 BC, in an area located some 42 km (about 26 miles) north of Athens. It was Miltiades’ idea to fight the Persians far from the city, knowing that a siege would be disastrous. With his clever strategy he positioned his troops so that they dealt a heavy blow to the Persians, forcing them to retreat.
From the writings of Herodotus, modern historians assume that he must have spoken to old veterans who had known and fought under Miltiades, as he reported several details of the battle. But what stands out most, perhaps, is a speech Miltiades made to Callimachus, a general with an important role in the Athenian army.
The inspiring speech, which seems real and based on an eyewitness account, must have changed the mind of some of the generals who wanted to face the Persian army in Athens and not in Marathon, and raised the morale of the hoplites who fought with great discipline and bravery:
“With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations. For never since the time that the Athenians became a people were they in so great a danger as now. If they bow their necks beneath the yoke of the Persians, the woes which they will have to suffer… are already determined. If, on the other hand, they fight and overcome, Athens may rise to be the very first city in Greece. We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided: half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle before any unsoundness shows itself among our citizens,…we are well able to overcome the enemy. On you therefore we depend in this matter, which lies wholly in your own power. You have only to add your vote to my side and your country will be free – and not free only, but the first state in Greece. Or, if you prefer to give your vote to them who would decline the combat, then the reverse will follow.”
Miltiades believed in the greatness that was the democratic city-state of Athens and wanted to preserve it for generations to come. He may be lesser-known than Pericles, but his contribution to ancient Greece, and consequently Western Civilization, is invaluable.