The Marathon – 2500 years since

April 25, 2010
The battle of Marathon was one of the most crucial battles in history. At the time Athens was a fledgling democracy, the world´s first, and the golden age of classical Athens had not yet ensued. A Persian victory would have radically changed the course of history and the history of Greece would have probably been very different. It was a battle for freedom as crucial as any since. The historian Edward Creasy counted the battle of Marathon among “The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World” while 18th C philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill famously suggested that “the Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings”.

In 490 BC king Darius I sent 600 ships with a Persian force to punish Eretria and Athens for their support of the Ionian revolt, a rebellion of Greek cities in Asia Minor against Persian rule. The Athenian and Eretrian troops had boldly succeeded in 496BC in capturing Sardis, the capital of Lydia then under Persian control, which they burned. In the summer of 490BC, the Persians in turn captured Eretria, an ancient city that had taken part in the Trojan war, destroyed the city and took many of its people as slaves.

The Persian force next landed at the bay of Marathon, some 40km from Athens. The Athenians marched with a force of 9000 hoplites, joined by 1000 soldiers from Plataea. The Persians had deployed in the plains, presumably so they could use their cavalry, which however, never took part in the battle. The Greeks had taken positions in the upper ground blocking the passes to Athens. A face-off continued for several days with neither side committing to battle. The absence of the Persian cavalry from the actual battle has made historians to think that the Persians one morning began to embark onto their ships, possibly with the intention of sailing to Athens. The Athenians at that point charged the Persian army and it appears that a great victory was achieved, with the Greeks losing 203 hoplites while Herodotus alleges the Persians lost some 6400 men.

An enduring legend has been associated with the battle of Marathon. Plutarch, writing in the first century AD, drawing from a lost work by Heracleides of Pontus, claims that a messenger ran from Marathon to Athens after the battle to announce the victory. Though his name is given as Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles, Lucian of Samosata writing in the 2nd C AD calls him Philippides. This legend has been considered by many as the inspiration for the marathon run. The first marathon race was ran in the 1996 Athens Olympics and the marathon race has become an increasingly popular event. Some 500 marathons are organized every year around the world. The London marathon now attracts over 125,000 applications. Other major marathons around the world such as the Boston, New York, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo marathons, regularly attract tens of thousands of participants every year and their popularity is only increasing.

What some ignore are some other feats of endurance surrounding the events of the battle of Marathon. Three remarkable feats of endurance are mentioned by the near contemporary historian Herodotus. If true, these feats would dwarf even the run of tired warrior over a distance of 42km. The first event was the decision by the Athenians to send a messenger called Pheidippides to Sparta in request for aid. The name Pheidippides is an epithet that means “sparing horses” or more periphrastically “one who does not use a horse”. According to Herodotus, Pheidippides was a professional long-distance runner and he covered the distance of 246 km between Athens and Sparta on foot in two days. He then returned to Athens, indeed went as far as Marathon another 42 km, possibly also on foot, with the Spartan news that they would march to join the Athenians at Marathon with an army as soon as the important Spartan festival of Apollo Carneios was over and the moon was full.

In the event, the battle was fought before the Spartans had arrived. When the Persian fleet began to sail around Cape Sounion with the intent to burn Athens while the Athenian army was still at Marathon, 6 Athenian regiments force-marched with their full equipment the 42 km back to Athens and another 5 or so kilometers to the wide bay of Phaleron, the most likely place where the Persians might land. The Persian fleet found the bay occupied by the Athenian phalanx and left for home. That this is a historical event is almost certainly true. Some 6000 men clad in armour, having fought a battle in the morning against a numerically superior enemy, used their remaining strength to cover a distance of some 47 km to the other side of Attica to save Athens from destruction. But even this remarkable feat was perhaps exceeded by another. Two thousand Spartan hoplites arrived in Athens a few days later, having covered the 246 km from Sparta to Athens on foot and in full armament in just 3 days.

This year marks the 2500th anniversary from the historic battle. The Greek 2010 calendar is suitably dotted with several long-distance races to mark these ancient feats. On the 27th and 28th of March, the Marathoners’ Club (Syllogos Marathonion) of Macedonia together with the Cultural Association “Prometheus Pyrphorus” celebrated the historic battle of Marathon with a Marathon race, the 53rd Macedonian Marathon, starting at the ruins of the ancient Macedonian city of Philippi and finishing in the modern city of Drama. According to the announcement by the Marathoners’ Club, the Greek participants were “reminding us of the mythos of this battle when their ancestors sacrificed themselves to protect the customs of the Greeks and to ultimately shape the future of Europe and of all mankind”. The festivities in Drama included a ceremony with libations at the monument of Liberty at the central park of the city of Drama.

A week ago, another Marathon took place in Macedonia. The race began at Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia since the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great, and ended in the modern capital of Macedonia, Thessaloniki. The Marathon race, called the “Alexander the Great Marathon” by the organizers, was an official Bronze Label road race of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The men´s race was won by Ethiopian runner Mahari Gebre Baraki, while Ukraine´s Svitlana Stanko won the women´s race with a personal best of 2:41:18.

The two most evocative events are yet to come. On the 24-25th of September, around the time when the battle of Marathon was unfolding 2500 years ago, the Spartathlon association is staging for the 24th time a 246 km race in commemoration of the runner Pheidippides who run the distance from Athens to ask for Spartan aid. Unlike Pheidippides, the modern athletes do not have to run the distance from Sparta back to Athens. However, the race organizers enforce a time limit of 36 hours which would be prohibitive for most people.

The Greek marathon calendar ends on the 31st of October with the Athens Marathon, a historic commemoration of the legendary runner who brought the announcement of victory to the citizens of Athens and also of the 6000 Athenian hoplites who marched after the battle from Marathon to Athens to save the city from destruction. The race finishes at the Panathenaikon Stadion, built for the 1896 Olympic Games out of white marble on the exact location of the ancient stadium of the Panathenaic Games. The ancient Panathenaic games were held every four years, much like the Olympic games. In addition to the standard events, they included a torch race from Piraeus finishing at the Acropolis, which has inspired the Olympic torch relay. This year the marathon runners will have the opportunity to run from the old battlefield at Marathon with 2500 years of history under their steps.

Official Athens Marathon website:

Official Spartathlon website:


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