After the death of his brother Stesagoras (some time in the last quarter of the 6th century BC), Miltiades the son of Cimon was sent out by the Athenians to lead the colony in Chersonese (roughly modern Gallipoli) which had been founded by their uncle (also called Miltiades). En route for Chersonese he tried to annex the island of Lemnos for Athens, but the islanders just laughed at him and said they would voluntarily surrender if he ever sailed to Lemnos from home with a wind blowing from the north — totally the wrong direction if he was coming from Athens. The colony was such a success that Miltiades was able to marry Hegesipyle, the daughter of King Olorus of Thrace.

When King Darius of Persia invaded Scythia, he left the bridge by which he crossed guarded by leaders from the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Miltiades tried to persuade them to destroy the bridge and thus maroon Darius in Scythia, which would give the Greek cities the opportunity to revolt from Persian control. The Greek captains were willing to go along with this plan until Histiaeus of Miletus pointed out that they owed their positions to Persia, and without the backing of the Persians they would most likely be sent into exile by their political opponents. The majority agreed with Histiaeus, which left Miltiades in an awkward position since his ploy would obviously be reported to Darius and he could not hold the Chersonese against the Persians.

Miltiades was able to claim the Chersonese was now his home, and thus fill his end of his bargain by sailing to Lemnos from home with the north wind. The Carians, who were living on the island and who were pro-Persian, handed it over and migrated. Darius now had another score to settle against Miltiades, who realised his position was becoming untenable and left for Athens. Miltiades’ eldest son, Metiochos (we know his mother was not Hegesipyle, but we don’t know who she was), was captured by the Persians, but Darius treated him with respect, giving him a Persian wife and lands and houses.

When the Persian invasion of Greece came (490), the Persian forces soon reached Marathon, a bay about twenty-five miles from Athens (hence the distance of the marathon race). Not surprisingly the Athenians were in a panic, and sent a runner called Phidippides to Sparta to ask for help. In the meantime they appointed ten generals, among them Miltiades. The generals could not agree on whether to stay in the city in the hope of withstanding a siege or to meet the enemy in battle outside. Miltiades persuaded them to leave the city and prepare to fight at Marathon, arguing that this would boost their own morale and decrease the enemy’s.

Although in theory the ten generals were equal and were supposed to take it in turns to act as commander-in-chief, the other generals deferred to Miltiades. His strategy at Marathon was to fight with strong wings and a weak centre in order to beat back the Persian wings and then wheel round and attack the Persian centre from behind. Although the flat plain was favourable ground for cavalry, the Persians do not appear to have used their cavalry for some reason. The Athenians won a resounding victory (192 Athenians dead as opposed to 6,400 Persian dead), and the Persians were driven back not just to their camp but to their ships, which hastily sailed off.

After Marathon, Militiades was put in charge of the Athenian fleet of 70 ships to carry the war against the islands in the Aegean which had supported the Persians. While he was besieging the town of Paros, his night-time operations against the town were interrupted by flames shooting up from the mainland, which was clearly visible from the island. Miltiades thought it was a signal that the Persian fleet was on its way and retreated.

When he got back to Athens Miltiades was accused by Xanthippus of deceiving the people and having been bribed by the Persians to lift the siege. During the trial he was still ill from the wounds he had suffered during the siege, and so his defence was mounted by his brother, Stesagoras. Miltiades was found guilty, more because his power from his former position in the Chersonese was said to be a threat to the infant Athenian democracy than because he was guilty of the actual charges, but because of his previous services to Athens the death penalty was commuted to a fine of 50 talents. Because he was unable to pay, he was sent to prison where he died from his wounds (489 or 488). Nevertheless, his son Cimon still had to pay the fine.