The Battle That Inspired The Marathon

The Battle That Inspired The Marathon

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The Battle of Marathon was a pivotal battle in the Graeco-Persian Wars. During the battle, the Athenians and their Plataean allies successfully repelled the invading Persians, despite being outnumbered. The victory of the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon was significant as it brought an end to the first Persian invasion of Greece.

Additionally, the Persians did not return to Greece until a decade later. It is also thanks to this ancient battle that we have the marathon today. This sporting event is a modern invention that was inspired by an amazing feat performed by one of the Athenian soldiers who participated in the battle.

Preamble to the Battle of Marathon

The Graeco-Persian Wars broke out in 492 BC and the first Persian invasion of Greece was launched that year by Darius I. A year before that, the Ionian Revolt , which began in 499 BC, was finally crushed by the Persians. This was a revolt by the Greek colonies in Asia Minor that were under Persian rule .

The Greek rebels sought aid from mainland Greece and Athens, and Eretria responded by sending them a small fleet of ships. Thus, the involvement of these two city states in the Ionian Revolt was used by the Persians to justify their invasion of Greece once the revolt was put down. According to Herodotus, “These places [Athens and Eretria] were the ostensible targets of the expedition, but in fact the Persians intended to conquer as many Greek towns and cities as they could”.

The Persian expedition against the Greeks involved a combined land and sea force and overall command was given to Mardonius, the son of Gobryas, “a young man who had recently married Darius’ daughter Artozostra”. Using their fleet, the Persians conquered the island of Thasos, while the land army subdued the Macedonians. After this, however, the Persians experienced some setbacks.

Persian warriors, possibly ‘Immortals’, a frieze in Darius's palace at Susa. (Jastrow / )

From Thasos, the Persian fleet sailed westwards to the mainland where it hugged the coast and sailed up to Acanthus. As the ships set out to round the headland at Athos they were caught in a storm and many were destroyed. Herodotus reported that about 300 ships were destroyed and over 20,000 men lost their lives.

The ancient historian even spares a few lines to report the ways in which the shipwrecked men lost their lives, “The men died in various ways: some were seized by the sharks that infest the sea around Mont Athos , others were dashed onto the rocks, others drowned because they did not know how to swim, and others died of cold”. The Persian land army did not fare so well either.

According to Herodotus, while the Persians were encamped in Macedonia the Brygi, a Thracian tribe, launched a night attack against them. Many men were killed and Mardonius himself was wounded. The Persians responded by subduing the Brygi. Once this was accomplished, however, Mardonius pulled his forces back to Asia thus bringing the Persian expedition of 492 BC to an end.

In the following year, Darius sent heralds throughout Greece with orders to “demand earth and water for the king”. This was meant to see if the Greeks would submit to the Persians or resist them. At the same time, instructions were sent to the coastal states which were already part of the Achaemenid Empire to build long ships and transport ships for horses, so as to prepare for another invasion.

Many of the Greeks submitted to Darius’ demands, including one of Athens’ rivals, Aegina. The Athenians accused the Aeginetans of being traitors of Greece and used it as a pretext to start a war with them. While this war was being fought, Darius’ forces were ready.

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Answer of the Athenian Aristides to the ambassadors of Mardonius: "As long as the sun holds to its present course, we shall never come to terms with Xerxes”. ( पाटलिपुत्र)

Mardonius was relieved of his command and two new commanders, “a Mede called Datis and Artaphrenes, the son of Artaphrenes, who was Darius’ nephew” were appointed. Their mission, according to Herodotus, was to “reduce Athens and Eretria to slavery and to bring the captives before him [Darius]”.

Unlike the previous expedition, the land and sea forces were not separated. Instead, it was an amphibious operation and the land forces boarded the ships at Cilicia. Herodotus reported that a fleet of 600 triremes was sent against the Greeks.

This fleet first sailed to the island of Samos, off the Ionian coast, and thence across the Aegean Sea by sailing from island to island. This was different from the route taken by Mardonius whose fleet sailed along the Ionian coast to the Hellespont, so as to join up with the land army at Thrace.

The first place that Datis and Artaphrenes planned to attack was the island of Naxos. Instead of staying to fight the islanders fled into the hills. The Persians razed the sanctuaries and the town to the ground and enslaved anyone they caught. The next stop for the Persians was the neighboring island of Delos.

The Delians, having heard of the Persian approach, fled to another island, Tenos. Herodotus reported that Datis had no intention of destroying the island. Instead, after finding out where the Delians were hiding the commander sent a herald to inform them that he would harm neither the island nor its inhabitants and urged them to return to their homes. Before leaving the island, Datis “heaped up 300 talents of frankincense on the altar and burnt it as an offering. Datis then sailed away with his army”.

The next target of the Persian invaders was Eretria. When the Eretrians received news of the Persian fleet they requested for assistance from Athens and received it. Unfortunately, the Eretrians were divided into two factions, those who wanted to abandon the city, and to flee to the Euboean hills on the one hand, and those who wanted to surrender the city to the Persians on the other.

One of the Eretrian leaders, Aeschines the son of Nothon, saw that there was no way to save the city, explained the situation to the Athenians who arrived and begged them to leave. The Athenians heeded Aeschines’ advice and left Eretria, thus saving themselves. In the meantime, the Eretrians resolved not to abandon their city and prepared to be besieged.

After several days of intense fighting, the city fell to the Persians through treachery. The city was plundered, burnt to the ground, and the population reduced to slavery. A few days after the destruction of Eretria, the Persians left for Attica, and were confident that they would be able to deal with the Athenians easily too.

The Persians Head for Marathon

Following the advice of Hippias, the son of Pisistratus (the former tyrant of Athens), the Persians chose to land at Marathon, as it had “terrain that was admirably suited to cavalry maneuvers” and was close to Eretria. Herodotus’ claim of the former, however, has been contradicted by a scholium (a marginal comment made by an ancient commentator) found in Plato’s Menexenus, which states that the terrain of Marathon was “rugged, unsuitable for horses, full of mud, swamps and lakes”.

A picture reconstructing the beached Persian ships at Marathon before the battle. (Dorieo / )

Instead, it is speculated that the site, being a relatively poorer region of Attica, was more sympathetic towards Hippias, hence the former tyrant’s choice for the Persian landing. When they heard of the Persians’ arrival the Athenians marched to Marathon as well.

Before leaving for Marathon, however, the Athenian commanders dispatched a professional courier by the name of Philippides to Sparta in order to request their aid during the upcoming battle with the Persians. Although the Spartans agreed to provide assistance to the Athenians, they “could not do so straight away, because there was a law they were reluctant to break. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said that they would not send an army into the field then or until the moon was full”.

From this passage, scholars were able to determine the date of the Battle of Marathon, i.e. on the 12th either of August or September 490 BC in the Julian calendar. In any case, the Spartans did not make it to the Battle of Marathon and the only Greeks who came to Athens’ aid were the Plataeans.

Meanwhile, the Athenian commanders were divided as to how to proceed. On the one hand, there were those who wished to avoid fighting, arguing that they were outnumbered by the Persians. On the other, there were those in favor of engaging the enemy. Both sides were supported by five commanders and it was up to the War Archon, Callimachus of Aphidnae, to cast the deciding vote.

In Herodotus’ account, a rousing speech was made, at the mouth of Miltiades, by one of the commanders who favored engaging the Persians, which won Callimachus over. The Athenians, however, did not engage the Persians immediately.

Herodotus reported that “when each of the commanders who had inclined towards engaging the enemy held the presidency of the board of commanders for the day, he stood down in favor of Miltiades. While accepting the post each time, Miltiades waited until the presidency was properly his before giving battle.” Although not reported by Herodotus, other ancient historians wrote that on the day of battle, the Athenians learned that the Persian cavalry was away and therefore seized the opportunity to attack the invaders.

The Day of the Battle of Marathon

Herodotus reported that the right wing of the army was under the command of the War Archon, which was in accordance with Athenian customs at that time, while the Plataeans were placed on the left. Between the two, the Athenian tribes were arranged one after another in their usual order. Herodotus also tells his readers that the Athenian army was extended over the same length as the Persian army.

Although the center was only a few ranks deep and therefore the weakest, the two wings were at full strength. After the battle lines were drawn and favorable omens obtained from the sacrifices, the Athenians attacked by charging the Persians at a run. This was a remarkable feat and Herodotus asserted that “They were the first Greeks known to charge enemy forces at a run, and the first to endure the sight of Persian dress and the men wearing it”.

Initial disposition of forces at Battle of Marathon. (Master Thief Garrett~commonswiki / GNU FDL )

During the battle, the Athenian center was broken by the Persians, who pursued them inland. The left and right wings of the Athenians, however, were victorious in their battle against their respective opponents. Therefore, they combined into a single fighting unit and attacked the Persians who had broken through the center.

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Map showing the armies' main movements during the Battle of Marathon. (Warden / GNU FDL )

The Persians were defeated and retreated back to their ships anchored along the coast. The Athenians gave chase and killed any Persian they were able to overtake. In addition, seven Persian ships were captured by the Athenians. Herodotus does not give the strength of the Athenian and Persian armies that fought at the Battle of Marathon, but reports that 6,400 Persian soldiers were killed, while the Athenians lost 192 men.

The Soros, a burial mound to the fallen of the Battle of Marathon. (Jacopo Werther / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Although the Athenians won the Battle of Marathon, the Persian army had not been completely defeated and their fleet was still a threat to Athens. In fact, following the defeat at Marathon the Persian fleet began to sail around Cape Sounion, hoping to arrive at Athens before the army returned.

According to Herodotus, “The Athenians raced back as quickly as possible to defend the city, which they managed to reach before the Persians got there…. The invaders hove to off Phalerum, which was Athens’ naval harbor in those days, but then after riding at anchor there for a while they sailed back to Asia.” The Persians didn’t returned to Greece until 10 years later.

The First Marathon Runner

Finally, a popular legend that has survived till this day is that it was a messenger, Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon back to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians. Right after he delivered his message, Pheidippides died of exhaustion. Although the story is commonly attributed to Herodotus, it is not actually found in his writings.

Painting of Pheidippides as he gave word of the Greek victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon to the people of Athens. (Themadchopper / )

Herodotus does report that a herald by the name of Philippides was sent by the Athenians to seek aid from the Spartans and the two stories might have been conflated. In any case, the story inspired the creation of the marathon. In 1896, the first modern Olympics was held in Athens and the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Pierre de Coubertin, organized the first official marathon.

This race started from the Marathon Bridge to the Olympic Stadium in Athens, a distance of about 24.85 miles (40 kilometers) and was won by Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker, who finished the race in 2 hours 58 minutes. During the 1908 Olympics, which was held in London, the marathon began at the lawn of Windsor Castle and finished in front of the royal box at White City Stadium. The total distance between the two points was 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers). Although this would become the standard distance for future marathons it was only formally adopted in 1921.

Learn about the history of the Battle of Marathon, 490 B.C.

NARRATOR: 490 B.C. - The Battle of Marathon is about to take place. The Greeks get their men in position. Their army, estimated at 10,000 soldiers, is well equipped and sure of itself. They stop the Persians from advancing, with soldiers coming from all walks of life. The result: a stalemate, with the Persians outnumbering the Greeks eight to one. A shroud of dismay hangs over the small Athenian army, who have but a tiny window of opportunity to strike. They send Athens's greatest runner to ask the Spartan army to come to their aid. The runner has nearly 140 miles of ground to cover, and time is of the essence.

At Marathon, the Persian camp begins to lose its focus. The army sends its horsemen back to the ships, while the rest of the soldiers holding the position seem unfazed by the Athenian army and take it easy. Meanwhile, the Athenian messenger arrives in Sparta in just two days and asks the army for assistance. The Spartans agree to help, but require several days before they'll be able to march on Marathon. Back at the Athenian camp, the army is getting restless. The Persians are clearly fatigued and seeing as they have no horsemen - they don't have the advantage after all. The Athenians see their moment to strike.

DR. WOLFGANG HAMETER: "They went for it and marched in on the Persians. They refused to surrender."

NARRATOR: The Athenians begin to attack. They march forward irrespective of casualties. The Persians are caught off guard. So much so, they can't even manage to draw their bows. Despite their extreme numerical advantage, the Persians are overpowered and surrounded by the Athenians. Those that can, run back towards the ships. The battle is long over by the time the messenger returns from Sparta, but the soldiers are nonetheless pleased. They have emerged from combat victorious, even without the pledged aid of the Spartans.

DAVID SCAHILL: "We only have the numbers to go by that were given and that is that 6,400 Persians were killed and only 192 Athenians. So in the end, this is a real route for the Athenians.

NARRATOR: What happened next is the stuff of legend. The messenger is said to have run another 26 miles to Athens to warn his people of a Persian counterstrike. The Athenian army had begun to march back home, doing its best to get there before the Persians. As the story goes, the messenger was the first to arrive and announced to his people: "Rejoice! We were victorious!" whereupon he promptly died of exhaustion.

In all likelihood, the Athenian army did indeed arrive before the Persian armada, just in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens. To this day, running a marathon is considered a great feat of endurance, perseverance and inner strength.

Battle of Marathon

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Battle of Marathon, (September 490 bce ), in the Greco-Persian Wars, decisive battle fought on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in which the Athenians, in a single afternoon, repulsed the first Persian invasion of Greece. Command of the hastily assembled Athenian army was vested in 10 generals, each of whom was to hold operational command for one day. The generals were evenly divided on whether to await the Persians or to attack them, and the tie was broken by a civil official, Callimachus, who decided in favour of an attack. Four of the generals then ceded their commands to the Athenian general Miltiades, thus effectively making him commander in chief.

The Greeks could not hope to face the Persians’ cavalry contingent on the open plain, but before dawn one day the Greeks learned that the cavalry was temporarily absent from the Persian camp, whereupon Miltiades ordered a general attack upon the Persian infantry. In the ensuing battle, Miltiades led his contingent of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans to victory over the Persian force of 15,000 by reinforcing his battle line’s flanks and thus decoying the Persians’ best troops into pushing back his centre, where they were surrounded by the inward-wheeling Greek wings. On being almost enveloped, the Persian troops broke into flight. By the time the routed Persians reached their ships, they had lost 6,400 men the Greeks lost 192 men, including Callimachus. The battle proved the superiority of the Greek long spear, sword, and armour over the Persians’ weapons.

According to legend, an Athenian messenger was sent from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles (40 km), and there he announced the Persian defeat before dying of exhaustion. This tale became the basis for the modern marathon race. Herodotus, however, relates that a trained runner, Pheidippides (also spelled Phidippides, or Philippides), was sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle in order to request assistance from the Spartans he is said to have covered about 150 miles (240 km) in about two days.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.

Battle of Marathon

The Battle on the plain of Marathon in September 490 BCE between Greeks and the invading forces of Persian king Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE) was a victory that would go down in folklore as the moment the Greek city-states showed the world their courage and excellence and won their liberty. Although in reality the battle only delayed the Persians in their imperialistic ambitions and greater battles would follow, Marathon was the first time that mighty Persian Achaemenid Empire had been shown beatable and the battle would be represented in Greek art - literature, sculpture, architecture, and pottery - as a crucial and defining moment in the history of Greece.

The Persian Empire

Persia, under the rule of Darius I, was already expanding into mainland Europe and had subjugated Ionia, Thrace, and Macedonia by the beginning of the 5th century BCE. Next in King Darius' sights were Athens and the rest of Greece. Just why Greece was coveted by Persia is unclear. Wealth and resources seem an unlikely motive other more plausible suggestions include the need to increase the prestige of the king at home or to quell once and for all a collection of potentially troublesome rebel states on the western border of the empire. The Ionian rebellion, the symbolic offering of earth and water in submission to the Persian satrap in 508 BCE, and the attack by Athens and Eretria on the city of Sardis in 499 BCE had not been forgotten either.


Whatever the exact motives, in 491 BCE Darius once again sent envoys to call for the Greeks' submission to Persian rule. The Greeks sent a no-nonsense reply by executing the envoys, and Athens and Sparta promised to form an alliance for the defence of Greece. Darius' response to this diplomatic outrage was to launch a naval force of 600 ships and 25,000 men to attack the Cyclades and Euboea, leaving the Persians just one step away from the rest of Greece. However, the invaders would meet their match in 490 BCE when the Greek forces led by Athens gathered at the plain of Marathon to defend their country from foreign subjugation.

The Persian Army

Overall command of the Persian army was in the hands of Datis as Darius did not lead the invasion in person. Second-in-command was Artaphernes, Darius' nephew, who perhaps led the Persian cavalry. The total strength of the Persian army is unclear, but judging by the number of ships there may have been some 90,000 men. The actual number of fighting men may have been two baivarabam units or 20,000-25,000 men. Most of these were archers with perhaps another 2,000 strong cavalry force. The Persian army actually came from various states across the empire but the Persians and Sakai were acknowledged as the best fighting units.


The Greek Army

The Greeks were led by either the Athenian Polemarch Kallimachos (also spelt Callimachus) or Miltiades who had actually fought under Darius in the latter's campaign in Scythia and so had valuable military intelligence of Persian warfare. The 1,000 Plataeans were commanded by Arimnestos and the Athenians fielded some 9,000 hoplites. The total force is estimated between 10,000 and 20,000 but was probably nearer the lower figure.

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Hoplites v Archers

The two opposing armies were essentially representative of the two approaches to classical warfare - the Persians favoured long-range assault using archers followed up with a cavalry charge, whilst Greek warfare favoured heavily-armoured hoplites, arranged in a densely packed formation called the phalanx, with each man carrying a heavy round bronze shield and fighting at close quarters using spears and swords. The Persian infantry carried a lightweight (often rectangular) wicker shield (spara) and were armed with a long dagger or curved sword (kopis), a short spear, and composite bow. Typically, those with shields (sparabarai) formed a defensive barrier whilst from behind the archers fired their arrows. The Persian forces also included a couple of 1,000-strong units (hazarbam) of elite spear-bearers (aristabara). They had lighter armour than the hoplite, usually wearing a tunic (with perhaps bronze scales attached or a leather cuirass for some), colourfully patterned trousers, boots, and a soft hood.

The Persian cavalry were armed as the foot soldiers, with a bow and an additional two javelins for throwing and thrusting. Cavalry, usually operating on the flanks of the main battle, were used to mop up opposing infantry put in disarray after they had been subjected to repeated salvos from the archers. Although the Persian tactic of rapidly firing vast numbers of arrows into the enemy must have been an awesome sight, the lightness of the arrows meant that they were largely ineffective against the bronze-armoured hoplites. At close quarters, the longer spears, heavier swords, better armour, and rigid discipline of the phalanx formation meant that the Greek hoplites would have all of the advantages, but the Persians could field superior numbers and their reputation was formidable.


Opening Positions

The Persian force first landed at Karystos and then Eretria in northern Euboea, sacking both cities before moving across the strait to the eastern end of the bay of Marathon on the 1st and 2nd of September. Marathon was chosen as a suitable landing point for the Persians because it provided ideal terrain for the cavalry units indeed, the very name Marathon may derive from the wild fennel (marathos) which still grows on this exceptionally fertile plain. In addition, the site also had a nearby lake offering a plentiful supply of water for both men and horses. The advantages of the site are probably why Pisistratus also chose the spot to land c. 546 BCE on his way to establishing himself as tyrant of Athens. Here then, in the shelter of the Kynosoura peninsula, the Persians set up camp.

When the Greeks discovered the invasion point, there was some discussion amongst the Athenian strategoi or generals whether to stay or meet the invaders, but the latter was the option decided upon and on arrival at Marathon on the 3rd or 4th of September, they set up camp near the sanctuary of Hercules at the western end of the bay, to be shortly joined by the Plataeans. The Spartans, celebrated as the finest fighters in Greece, were unfortunately delayed in their mobilisation because they were involved in the sacred Karneia festival and may well have been preoccupied with a local revolt by the Messenians. In fact, the Spartans would miss the battle by a day.

The details of the battle, as with most early 5th-century BCE battles, are sketchy and contradictory between ancient sources. However, on the 11th of September, it seems that the Greeks drew up their battle lines in the centre of the bay whilst the Persians had embarked only half of their infantry. Forming a front eight men deep, the Greeks lengthened their lines to match the Persians and thinned out their centre group to four men deep. The Plataeans were positioned on the right flank whilst the Athenians were in the centre and on the left. The best Persian and Sakai troops commanded from the centre, perhaps as many as ten men deep. This was a common Persian tactic, so the thinning of the Greek hoplites in the centre may have been a deliberate tactic by Miltiades or Kallimachos to allow the flanks to envelop the Persians as they made progress in the centre. On the other hand, the Greeks could not afford a narrower front than the Persians as this would allow them to get behind the Greek lines at the wings and render the phalanx formation hopelessly exposed to attack. The two lines of men - invaders and defenders - stretched 1,500 metres long and they now stood just 1,500 metres apart.



The Persian cavalry is mysteriously absent from the battle scene, and once again ancient sources and modern historians reach no consensus. It may have been that Datis could not use them to good effect because of the sporadic trees which dotted the plain, or that he had in fact sent them (or was planning to send them) with other troops towards Athens, either in an attempt to take the city while the Greeks were at Marathon, or perhaps their very absence was to tempt the Greek army to engage in battle before the Spartans arrived.

Eventually, though, the infantry on both sides engaged in battle. Moving towards each other and perhaps with the Greeks running the final 400 metres whilst undoubtedly under fire from the Persian archers, the two armies clashed. A lengthy and bloody struggle ensued with eventually the centre of the Persians, perhaps predictably, pushing the weakened Greek centre back. However, both the right and left flank of the Greeks got the upper-hand of the Persians, driving them back. The lines were, therefore, broken and a confused melee was the result. The Persians, now routed on the left and right, fled back to their ships, but to reach them they had to cross a wide marshy area. In the confused retreat the Greek wings closed into the centre and attacked both the Persian centre and pursued the fleeing Persian flanks, inflicting heavy casualties. Fierce fighting continued around the Persian ships, and it was in this action that Kallimachos was killed. The Greeks captured seven ships of the enemy, but the rest of the fleet escaped with any Persians who had managed to climb aboard.

The Greeks had won a great victory. According to tradition 6,400 Persians were dead, for only 192 Greeks. The first figure is reasonably accurate but the latter is likely a great underestimate for propaganda purposes. The Persians were not finished though, as Datis now sailed for Cape Sounion in an attempt to attack Athens whilst the Greek army was away. The Greeks may have been alerted to this development by a traitor's shield signal from Mt. Pentelikos which was, perhaps unfairly, accredited to the Alkemeonidai clan. No doubt exhausted, the Greek army was, nevertheless, compelled to march back at the double to Athens to defend the city. Their arrival at night of the same day seems to have been enough to discourage the Persians anchored off Phaleron and the fleet withdrew back to Asia. At this point, 2,000 Spartans finally arrived but they were unnecessary for victory was complete.


The Aftermath

Back at Marathon, the dead were cremated and buried at the site (an unusual step and the burial mound is still visible today), and a commemorative column trophy was erected (fragments of which are now in the Archaeological Museum of Marathon). Sacrifices were made in thanks to the gods, notably 500 goats to Artemis Agrotera, and each year thereafter, a sacrifice was performed at the site, a ritual continued for another 400 years. The Athenians set up a column and statue of Iris (or Nike) on their acropolis in honour of Kallimachos, and his role in the victory and statues and war booty were dedicated at the great sanctuary of Delphi. The victory was also commemorated in Greek sculpture by the renowned sculptor Phidias - a bronze group at Delphi which included Apollo, Artemis, and Miltiades, and a colossal bronze Athena on the Athenian acropolis. A temple to Artemis Eukleia was built in Athens, and the battle was also the subject of the sculpture on the south side of the Temple of Athena Nike c. 425-400 BCE in Athens.

The victory was a great morale booster for the Greeks and all kinds of legends grew out of the events in September. Visions of the mythical Athenian hero Theseus during the battle and the intervention of Pan were just some of the stories which helped to explain how the Greeks had managed to defeat the mighty Persian army. Also, veterans of the battle carried a bull of Marathon (from the Hercules myth) device on their shield thereafter to proudly show their participation in this great victory.

Despite the Greek euphoria at victory, however, Persian ambitions were not dampened by defeat at Marathon, for within a decade King Xerxes continued his predecessor Darius' vision, and in 480 BCE gathered a huge invasion force to attack Greece, this time via the pass at Thermopylae. In August 480 BCE a small band of Greeks led by Spartan King Leonidas held the pass for three days, and at the same time, the Greek fleet managed to hold off the Persians at the naval Battle of Artemision. Together, these battles bought Greece time and allowed for the victories to come, first at Salamis in September 480 BCE where the Greek fleet manoeuvred the Persians into shallow waters, and at Plataea in August 479 BCE where the Greeks, fielding the largest hoplite army ever seen, won the battle which finally ended the Persian Wars in Greece.

The Marathon Race

One final legend of Marathon and one which has carried its name up to the present day is Herodotus' account of a long-distance messenger (hēmerodromos) named Phidippides. He was sent to enlist the help of the Spartans before the battle and he ran to Sparta, first stopping at Athens, a total distance of 240 km (a feat repeated by an athlete in 1983 CE). Later sources, starting with Plutarch in the 1st century CE, confuse this story with another messenger sent from Marathon after the battle to announce victory and warn of the Persian fleet's imminent arrival in Athens. In any case, it was from this second legend that a race - covering the same distance as the 42 kilometres between Marathon and Athens - was established in the first revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 CE to commemorate ancient Greek sporting ideals and the original games at Olympia. Fittingly, the first marathon race was won by a Greek, Spiridon Louis.

‘Who Really Won the Battle of Marathon?’ Book Review

In this reappraisal of one of history’s most decisive battles Greek scholars Constantinos Lagos and Fotis Karyanos have done admirable research. Almost a third of the book is taken up by the bibliography and notes, while the illustrations are impressive.

Herodotus devoted only a dozen or so lines to the pivotal events that September 490 BC—after all, he was a cultural rather than military historian. Yet the resulting paucity of firsthand information hardly inhibited subsequent writers from placing their own interpretation on events that day.

The six miles of gently curving shore at Marathon, on the east coast of mainland Greece, is where the Persian fleet landed. As to the Persian army—of which Herodotus only writes the “foot soldiers were many and well supplied”—its size has occasioned much conjecture across the centuries. Authors Lagos and Karyanos suggest between 20,000 and 25,000 men, facing a similar number of Athenians and Plataeans.

Thanks to a wealth of new information, it is known the Persians controlled the greater part of the plain, while the Greeks occupied the slopes of Mount Agrieliki. The mount remains largely untouched, the authors noting that “a visitor is able to go where one of the brightest pages of world history was written 2,500 years ago.”

If the Greeks were to triumph, it was essential they first neutralize the formidable Persian cavalry. This they accomplished by luring the horsemen onto marshland. Though by late summer the marsh looks to be dry land, the Persian horses churned up the ground, dissipating the charge, before coming under attack by Greek archers. The Persian dead numbered some 6,400, and the Athenian dead just 192.

The legendary runner who carried news of the battle to Athens at the close of that fateful day was most likely named Pheidippides, whom Herodotus mentions only as a “day-runner.” According to Plutarch and Lucian, he spoke the words, “Joy, we win!” and promptly collapsed, his feat later commemorated by the Greek marathon of athletic events.

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The Real Pheidippides Story

Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes visits his ancestral homeland for the truth about the original &ldquomarathoner.&rdquo Think you can handle it?

Many runners are familiar with the story surrounding the origins of the modern marathon. As the well-worn legend goes, after the badly outnumbered Greeks somehow managed to drive back the Persians who had invaded the coastal plain of Marathon, an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides was dispatched from the battlefield to Athens to deliver the news of Greek victory. After running about 25 miles to the Acropolis, he burst into the chambers and gallantly hailed his countrymen with &ldquoNike! Nike! Nenikekiam&rdquo (&ldquoVictory! Victory! Rejoice, we conquer!&rdquo). And then he promptly collapsed from exhaustion and died. Turns out, however, the story is bigger than that. Much bigger.

The whole idea of recreating an ancient voyage was fantastic to me. Looking for an excuse to visit the country of my ancestors, I signed up for the little-known Spartathlon in 2014, an ultramarathon from Athens to Sparta that roughly follows the path of the real Pheidippides. It felt like the right way to tell his story&mdashthe actual story of the marathon. Here&rsquos what I discovered:

Pheidippides was not a citizen athlete, but a hemerodromos: one of the men in the Greek military known as day-long runners. What they did was considered beyond competition, more akin to something sacred. Much is written about the training and preparation of Olympic athletes, and quite detailed accounts of the early Greek Games exist. Comparatively little is recorded of the mysterious hemerodromoi other than that they covered incredible distances on foot, over rocky and mountainous terrain, forgoing sleep if need be in carrying out their duties as messengers.

Like Pheidippides, I run long distances&mdashultra-marathons. Years ago, on my 30th birthday, I ran 30 miles, completing a celebratory mile for each one of my unfathomable years of existence. That night forever altered the course of my life. I wanted to go farther, to try 50-mile races even. And so I did. Training and life became inseparable, one and the same, intimately intertwined. Running these long distances was liberating. I felt a closeness to Pheidippides and I resolved to learn what really took place out there on the hillsides of ancient Greece.

The story that everyone is familiar with is that of Pheidippides running from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce Greek victory, a distance of about 25 miles. But first he ran from Athens to Sparta, to gather Spartan troops to help the Athenians in combat against the Persians. The distance was much more than a single marathon, more like six marathons stacked one upon the other, some 150 miles.

At the modern-day Spartathlon, I&rsquod supposedly retrace those steps. It is a demanding race with aggressive cutoff times. Runners must reach an ancient wall at Hellas Can factory, in Corinth&mdash50.33 miles&mdashwithin nine hours and 30 minutes or face elimination. For comparison, many 50-mile ultramarathons have cutoff times of 13 or 14 hours to complete the race in its entirety.

At the start, I was surrounded by 350 warriors huddled in the predawn mist at the foot of the Acropolis of Athens. For me the quest was deeply personal. I&rsquod been waiting a lifetime to be standing in this place. I would finally run alongside my ancient brother, Pheidippides, albeit two and a half millennia in his wake. The starting gun went off, and away we went, into the streets crowded with morning traffic. Policemen were stationed at most of the main intersections to stop vehicles, but after crossing streets we runners had to run on the sidewalks, avoiding stray dogs, trash cans, and meandering pedestrians.

Ancient Greek athletes were known to eat figs and other fruits, olives, dried meats, and a particular concoction composed of ground sesame seeds and honey mixed into a paste (now called pasteli). Hemerodromoi also consumed handfuls of a small fruit known as hippophae rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn), thought to enhance endurance and stamina. This is how Pheidippides likely fueled during his run, and how I ran the race, too.

Every few miles in the Spartathlon, there were aid stations overflowing with modern athletic foods, but no figs, olives, pasteli, or cured meat were to be had. I was supplied along the way by my crew, but by the time I picked up a bag of food in Corinth (about 50 miles in), the once delectable pasteli now tasted like maple syrup mixed with talcum powder, chalky and repulsively sweet, and I could no longer tolerate the stuff like I had during my training runs. I tried gnawing on a piece of cured meat, but it was rubbery and the gristle got stuck between my teeth. I had several figs, which seemed to sit best in my stomach. About 50 miles later, after climbing Mount Parthenion and plummeting some 1,200 feet from the summit, I was eventually deposited in the remote outpost of Sangas, where my crew was waiting for me, asking me if I could eat. I shook my head no, too exhausted to answer. I kept running.

Dawn is the bewitching hour during an all-night run. Running through the Arcadian foothills, I fought to stay awake. Slowly, ever so gradually, my eyelids drooped downward. Still, I pressed on. When I reopened my eyes, I found myself in the middle of the road. What the heck? I thought. Then it happened again, and I realized I was sleep running. Given ancient Greek record, Pheidippides would have likely passed through this very same section of Arcadia in the early morning hours, just as I was doing then. To think that an ancient hemerodromos was running here 2,500 years ago fascinated me, and knowing that this was the land of my ancestors made the experience even more visceral. Just as I was fully realizing the depth of my connection to this place, a large diesel truck came barreling down the highway straight for me, thrusting me back into the present-day reality of the modern Spartathlon. It was a stark reminder that while some things hadn&rsquot changed since ancient times, other things had. I was gaining toward Tegea, which would mean about 30 more miles to go.

Pheidippides ran the distance in two days. I reached the end in 34:45:27. There is no finish line to cross, no mat to step over or tape to break instead you conclude the journey by touching the feet of the towering bronze statue of King Leonidas in the center of town. The mayor of Sparta places an olive leaf wreath upon the head of each finisher and you are handed a golden goblet of water to drink from the Evrotas River, similar to how Olympian winners were honored in ancient times. Exhausted as he must have been from the journey, Pheidippides&rsquos job was not complete. He needed to present a compelling case for why the Spartans should join the Athenians in battle. &ldquoMen of Sparta,&rdquo he reportedly said, &ldquothe Athenians beseech you to hasten to their aide, and not allow that state, which is the most ancient in all of Greece, to be enslaved by the barbarians.&rdquo

Apparently his plea was convincing, for it worked. But the moon wasn&rsquot full, and religious law forbade the Spartans to battle until it was, which wouldn&rsquot be for another six days&rsquo time. Pheidippides had to let his people know about the delay. So he did the unthinkable. After a brief catnap and some food, he awoke before sunrise and set out on the return trip&mdashabout 150 miles back to Athens. With his constitution fairly compromised, Pheidippides found himself trudging back over Mount Parthenion, when suddenly he had a vision of the god Pan standing before him. With the face of a human but the body and horns of a goat, Pan was an unsettling figure to behold. According to the historian Herodotus, Pan explained that while he was loyal to the Athenians, they must worship him properly in order to preserve the alliance. Pan had great powers that could unravel the enemy, and he would bestow the Athenians with these abilities, but only if they were to revere him as they should.

Again, Pheidippides made the trip in about two days&rsquo time. After he reached Athens, the city deployed 10,000 adult male Athenian citizens to Marathon to fend off 60,000 Persians. Despite being outnumbered, the Greeks were in an advantageous battle position, so General Miltiades, the leader of the Athenian troops, had the men hunker down to await the arrival of the Spartans. But the next day Miltiades got intelligence that the Persians had sent their cavalry back to their ships and were planning to split into two groups and surround the Greeks. The most prudent strategy would be to retreat to Athens to defend the city and wait for the Spartans to join the fight. But, thanks to Pheidippides, Miltiades knew the Spartans wouldn&rsquot come soon enough, and the Athenians would be hung out to dry. He decided that the Athenians would wake early the next morning and attack the current Persian position while their horsemen were absent and before they had time to carry out their plan.

If Pheidippides had failed in his 300-mile ultramarathon, what has been called the most critical battle in history might have been lost. Thus was the battle ultimately waged and won at Marathon. Eventually, the Spartans arrived in Athens and learned of the outcome. Before they got there, a messenger&mdashbut not Pheidippides, according to scholars&mdashhad run 25 miles to deliver the good news. So why do we run 26.2? Why are we not running some 300 miles, the distance Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta and back? Why highlight the shorter run when a much greater feat occurred? Perhaps because in that final jaunt from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, the mystic messenger supposedly died at the conclusion. To the ancient Greeks, nothing could be nobler than dying after performing a heroic deed for one&rsquos country.

Adapted with permission from The Road to Sparta, by Dean Karnazes. Published by Rodale.

Hear a conversation with David Willey and Dean Karnazes on &ldquoThe RW Show.&rdquo Available on iTunes, Stitcher, and other podcast platforms.

September 12, 490 BCE: Remembering The Battle of Marathon On The 2,506th Anniversary

Although astronomers have tried to move the date a full month earlier--to August 12--Prof. Rose noted that, "precise dating is impossible, but the battle was fought around the time of the full moon in either August or September." The Athenians commemorated the victory on 6 Boedromion (Plut. Cam. 19 Mor. 349F), a day that would normally fall in our September.

Ancient calendars and discrepancies within the classical sources make a definitive timeline difficult, but the arguments over the dates do demonstrate the import of astronomy to ancient civilizations. What I have tried to do below is give the best estimate of the timeline that can be made, but please remember that this is an educated conjecture.

The Persian King Darius had sent the generals Hippias, Datis and Artaphernes to defeat the Greek city states that had earlier supported the Greek uprisings in the area of Ionia in modern-day Turkey. The Persians had about 20,000-30,000 troops, versus the Athenians and Plataeans, who had about 10,000 in their phalanx, notably made up of both citizen-soldiers and slaves.

Ancient Sources:

We have no first-hand account of the battle (although the tragedian Aeschylus did notably fight in it), but we do have the words of the historian Herodotus (Histories 6.94-140), an Ionian Greek that published the account as many as 50 years after the Battle of Marathon occurred. Other historical sources include Cornelius Nepos, a historian from Gaul who died during the reign of Augustus, and a poet named Lucian (2nd century CE). We also have the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived in the early imperial period (c.50-120 CE), and the 10th century Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda.

Battle Timeline:

September 2: The Athenian runner-courier-soldier Pheidippides is sent to Sparta from Athens--a distance of about 150 miles.

September 3: Pheidippides likely reaches Sparta and entreats the Lacedaemonians to help Athens, lest the city be enslaved to Persia. Sparta refuses to do so (according to religious laws for the month of Karneios or maybe just because they didn't want to) until the full moon. Pheidippides presumably then runs back to Athens with the message that Sparta will send troops once the full moon allows them to, in six days.

September 4-5: Possible return day of Pheidippides. Athenian troops march to Marathon to wait for the full moon--and to stall until Spartan help can arrive. In the meantime, troops from Plataea arrive to help. Phalanx battles are best fought on a flat plain--as Marathon had--since the formation relies on brute, collective pushing. This played to the strength of the Greek forces, but the site had been determined largely by the Athenian tyrant Hippias, who had told the Persians the plain would be a good place for their cavalry.

September 10: Sparta begins the march for Marathon

September 12: Most common date for the battle itself, at least since August Boeckh's 1855 reconstruction of the events.

ca.6:00-6:30 a.m.: Just before sunrise, a favorable omen is received by Miltiades, the Athenian commander, and he takes this as a sign to start the battle.

On the Persian side, some of the Persian infantry and much of their cavalry may have been divided at this point and then sent on ships towards Phaleron. As Prof. Rose points out, Herodotus says that the Persians hoped “to arrive at the city of Athens before the Athenians could march there." This means that only about half the Persian troops remained at Marathon and thus the Athenians needed to strike while the iron was hot and the Persian numbers were decreased.

6:30 a.m.: Athenian troops initially rush in a phalanx double-march for 8 stades (1.7 km) at the Persian forces, working hard to avoid being hit by the famed Persian archers raining arrows down.

6:30-10:00 a.m.: The battle lasted about three to four hours. The center of the phalanx was kept weak, so that as the Persian forces pushed through the center, the wings of the Greeks could wrap themselves around the troops and encompass them. The Persians are defeated and suffer 6,400 casualties. Rose notes that "According to Herodotus (6.117), less than 200 Greeks lost their lives at Marathon. They were afforded the signal honor of burial on the field of battle. The Athens Classic Marathon course loops around the burial mound built over their mass grave."

10:00 a.m.-unknown: A signal is sent to the remaining Persian ships, telling them to alert the forces at Phaleron of the outcome of the battle. In response, an Athenian runner may have been dispatched to Athens, 26 miles away, to inform the leadership there of the Greek victory. Accounts conflict as to who this runner was. It may have been a man named Philippides [Φιλιππίδης] (according to the rather weak source Lucian, Pro Lapsu inter Salutandum , 3 ), whom Lucian may be confusing with the aforementioned Pheidippides. However, Plutarch notes that there was a different runner, " Eucles who ran in full armour, hot from the battle and, bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say, "Hail! we are victorious!" ( De gloria Atheniensium, 3). If it was Pheidippides, he would have run around 326 miles in the span of nine days and fought in battle--and thus it seems unlikely he was the runner sent.

Late morning to early afternoon: A small group of Athenians stays under the command of Aristides. The rest of the Athenians make the seven hour march back to Athens. Plutarch says (in agreement with Herodotus) that, “When the Athenians had routed the Barbarians [Persians] and driven them aboard their ships, and saw that they were sailing away, not toward the islands, but into the gulf toward Attica under compulsion of wind and wave, then they were afraid lest the enemy find Athens empty of defenders, and so they hastened homeward with nine tribes, and reached the city that very day" (Arist. 5). It has been alternately suggested that the march happened the next day, but it seems most probable that the Athenians marched there as soon as possible after the battle that day and then were able to head off the Persians, whose remaining forces ultimately chose to sail back home when it became clear they could not take the city.

September 13: The Spartans reach the plain at Marathon--one day too late, but when they do show up, they agree that the victory of the Athenians and Plataeans was truly exceptional.

Two burial mounds were eventually constructed on the plain, one for the deceased Athenians (called "the Soros") and another one, further to the west, for the Plataeans. A number of epigrams were written to commemorate the victory, which ultimately showed the Greeks that the Persians could be defeated a memory they would need just a few years later, when the Persians returned. The travel writer Pausanias later noted, " On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters" (1.32.3).

1879: Robert Browning writes the poem "Pheidippides" commemorating the runner as the one who ran to Athens from Marathon. This was a romantic and widely-read poem that inspired the later Olympic race.

March 10, 1896: The first modern Marathon race is run from Marathon to Athens. Charilaos Vasilakos wins. He completed the course in 3 hours and 18 min.

Ready for battle

For days, the two armies kept a wary eye on each other from a distance, engaging in nothing more than minor skirmishes. The Athenians were hesitant to march out onto the open plain, where the enemy horsemen could out-flank them and attack from the rear while the Persian archers shot at them from the front. For their part, the Persians did not dare attack the solid position taken up by the Greeks on the mountainside. The Persian leader Datis was mindful that the Spartan reinforcements would arrive soon to support the Athenians. He was losing time.

What Datis did next has puzzled historians: He sent his cavalry onto his boats and sailed them down the coast, presumably in a bid to try and take the undefended city of Athens. His withdrawal of such a vital component of his forces may also have been intended to lure the Athenians into battle with his infantry before the Greeks’ Spartan allies arrived.

Bronze vs. leather

Persian and Greek forces relied on different materials for defense. A Greek hoplite carried a large shield, called a hoplon (from which hoplites got their name), which was made of wood and coated with bronze. They also wore bronze greaves on their legs. Most donned Corinthian-style helmets, but some might have worn Attic helmets. The highly organized Persians used a large, light-weight shield made of reeds and leather, a straba, for protection. Some Persian soldiers wore padded linen breastplates, whereas others preferred cuirasses made of metal strips fixed to leather.

The Greeks convened a hurried war council at night. Some advocated returning to defend Athens, leaving thousands of enemies at their back. But Miltiades, whose turn it was to command that day, convinced the other nine generals that the best plan was to go out and fight on the plain even though the Spartans had not yet arrived. The Persians were known for their tactic of sending in their cavalry once their enemy had been weakened by repeated waves of arrows. With the cavalry off the scene, the Greeks believed they stood a much better chance of a hoplite-led victory.

The Marathon Story

Setting the Stage

The first two decades of the fifth century B.C. marked one of the great turning points in world history. These were the years of the Persian and Greek wars. The powerful Persian Empire in 546 B.C. extended from Asia to Eygpt to what is now Turkey. This great empire built the first Suez Canal which linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea.

Greece on the other hand, consisted of a scattering of independent city-states, called poleis. These early city-states spawned the democratic ideas that have persisted into modern times. Athens eventually became the largest and most prosperous polis. Another Greek polis, Sparta, was not so democratic. They kept their kings and maintained a conservative, regimented society built around military training and the art of war.

The Persian Empire over the years expanded to the Mediterrean Sea. In the process some Greek settlements were conquered. Ionia was one such settlement. After many years, they tried to revolt against the Persians but the uprising was immediately squashed by the powerful Persian Army. By the year 490 B.C., the Persian Army was ready to expand their territory and move into Europe. They landed a large force just outside of Athens on the plains of Marathon and prepared for attack.

The Role of Phidippides

The Athens, vastly outnumbered, desperately needed the help of Sparta's military base to help fend off the attack. Time was short, so the Athenian generals send Phidippides (or Philippides) a professional runner to Sparta to ask for help. The 140 mile course was very mountainous and rugged. Phidippides ran the course in about 36 hours. Sparta agreed to help but said they would not take the field until the moon was full due to religious laws. This would leave the Athenians alone to fight the Persian Army. Phidippides ran back to Athens (another 140 miles!) with the disappointing news. Immediately, the small Athenian Army (including Phidippedes) marched to the plains of Marathon to prepare for battle.

The Battle of Marathon

The Athenian Army was outnumbered 4 to 1 but they launched a suprise offensive thrust which at the time appeared suicidal. But by day's end, 6400 Persian bodies lay dead on the field while only 192 Athenians had been killed. The surviving Persians fled to sea and headed south to Athens where they hoped to attack the city before the Greek Army could re-assemble there.

Phidippides was again called upon to run to Athens (26 miles away) to carry the news of the victory and the warning about the approaching Persian ships. Despite his fatigue after his recent run to Sparta and back and having fought all morning in heavy armor, Phidippides rose to the challenge. Pushing himself past normal limits of human endurance, the reached Athens in perhaps 3 hours, deliverd his message and then died shortly thereafter from exhaustion.

Sparta and the other Greek polies eventually came to the aid of Athens and eventually they were able to turn back the Persian attempt to conquer Greece.

Concluding Remarks and Beginning of Olympic Marathon Races

The Greek victory marked one of the decisive events of world history because it kept an Eastern power (the persians) from conquering what is now Europe. The victory gave the Greeks incredible confidence in themselves, their government and their culture.

In the two centuries that followed, the Greek culture spread across much of the known world. It made Europe possible and in affect won for civilization the opportunity to develop its own ecomomic life.

Modern European-based nations such as the United States and Canada can trace their growth straight back through an unbroken chain of Western historical events back to the Victory at Marathon.

Centuries later, the modern Olympic Games introduced a "marathon" race of (40,000 meters or 24.85 miles). The winner was Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker from village of Marusi and veteran of several long military marches , His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance (average pace of 7:11 minutes per mile).

At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was changed to 26 miles to cover the ground from Windsor Castleto White City stadium, with 385 yards added on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII's royal box. After 16 years of extremely heated discussion, this 26.2 mile distance was established at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as the official marathon distance.

Commemorating long-distance runners

Herodotus version however was not lost and in 1982 a group of British soldiers took on the challenge to repeat Pheidippides’ run to Sparta. They succeeded and it took them a day and a half – just as described by Herodotus some 2,500 years ago.
This route was named Spartathlon and there is a popular long-distance race held every September at the historical season for Pheidippides’ run.

The Spartathlon race is probably closest to the events that happened 2,500 years ago. It commemorates the feat of Pheidippides and the profession of ancient long-distance runners.

Marathon Races as we know them today however, are a powerful motivation for many people to improve their lives by doing sport – regardless of the historical accuracy of the story.



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