Miltiades’ Speech before the battle of Marathon is a significant event for ancient Greek history. The Persians landed an invasion force which threatened all of Greece. Athens faced the choice to submit to Persian rule or fight. The Athenians were outnumbered. Their allies did not contribute forces. And even if the Athenians won the battle at Marathon, subsequent Persian invasions could have destroyed Athens.

The Athenian generals held a vote to decide on their course of action. According to Herodotus, the vote was split evenly. Half of the generals decided to fight at Marathon, and half decided against. Miltiades gave a speech to win over the cautious generals by arguing that their strategy was actually riskier.

This topic is from Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

Miltiades gave this speech before the Athenian generals about properly measuring the risks of their situation:

“Never, since the Athenians were a people, were they in such danger as they are in at this moment. If they bow to these Medes, they are to be given up to Hippias, and you know what they then will have to suffer. But if Athens comes victorious out of this contest, she has it in her to become the first city of Greece. If we do not bring on a battle presently, some factious intrigue will disunite the Athenians, and the city will be betrayed to the Medes. But if we fight, before there is anything rotten in the state of Athens, I believe that, provided the Gods will give fair play and no favour, we are able to get the best of it in the engagement.”

Miltiades made an appeal to the generals to reconsider the risks and expected utilities of their decision.

Hesitatation would only increase “factious intrigue” as more and more Athenians would willingly surrender to the Persians. This would erode the Athenian military position and make future engagements even riskier.

Miltiades also rules out surrender and slavery, but praises the possible fruits of victory. He accurately foresaw that a victory at Marathon would secure Athenian independence from the Persians and primacy among the Greeks.

What the cautious generals initially viewed as a less risky strategy was actually a more risky strategy with an even lower expected utility. Miltiades appealed to these generals to reconsider their views on a rational basis. A few generals reconsidered and voted to attack the Persian landings at Marathon. After the vote, the Athenian hoplites made their famous charge at the beaches and drove off the Persian invaders.

Herodotus tended to embellish history a little bit, so the speech cannot be considered historically accurate, and the first vote may not have even been a draw. We do know that the Athenians must have carefully weighed their courses of action.

The balance of risk and utility is a major element in decision making. Individuals have different tolerances of risk. Some are risk acceptant, risk neutral, or risk adverse.


For instance, suppose there is a game of chance. A player has a 100% chance of winning $1, a 10% chance of winning $10, and a 1% chance of winning $100. A risk neutral person would have no preference. Each has the same expected utility – $1.

Expected utility can be calculated with simple formulas that weigh utility and risk. So
Expected Utility = 1.0 (1) = 1
Eu = 0.1 (10) = 1
Eu = 0.01 (100) = 1
A rational person who is risk neutral will have no preference. Each option offers equal expected utility. However, not many people are perfectly unbiased and risk neutral.

Many are risk adverse. They require a highly expected utility before taking a risk. He would take the risk-free dollar but refuses to gamble for the $10 and $100. A risk adverse person will only take a risk if the utility is higher than the neutral amount. They may consider a 10% chance of winning $20.

A risk acceptant person will be most willing to gamble for the $100. He will even risk a 10% chance of winning $5.

Military and Political leaders should be as close to risk neutral as possible. Reckless and cautious leaders can be equally dangerous. Uncertainty is the greatest problem for leaders. They must manage extreme uncertainty in a limited amount of time. No strategy can be 100% perfect, so there is a large margine of error.

Leaders must rationally handle risk. When considering Presidents and Generals, for instance, we must eliminate candidates who are risk adverse, as they rule out otherwise rational strategies because they are emotionally afraid of unknowns.