Myths & Legends

From the Marathon Battle to the Marathon Race

Every year over 500 Marathon races take place all around the world with the participation of thousands of athletes. What is the story, though, behind this great race? Why is the Athenian one called “authentic” or “classic”? What happened that was so important so as even participation in this great race to be considered an honor?

Marathon is a small plain by the seaside with a long history, situated on the northeast of Athens, about 10 km in length and 5 km in width, and which, as we are told by Aristophanes, is a very pleasant place filled with olive trees and vineyards spanning from antiquity till today. Along the shore, there is a wonderful pine forest leading towards a beach, busy in the summer called Shinias. It truly seems that Zeus must have chosen this small plain so that its name would be remembered and glorified.

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The story which marked this place, justifying its immense reputation, is the following:

We are in 490 BC, at a time when Persia was the known world’s superpower consisting of, among others, all Greek cities of Ionia in modern day Turkey, Thrace, Macedonia as well as many Aegean islands. A few years prior, the Persian King Darius, who had stopped the revolution of the Greeks of Ionia, decided to punish Athens and Eretria (a small city of the big island of Euboea) because they had helped the revolutionaries. After having assembled massive military strength, with Dates and Artafernes as leaders, the Persians campaigned occupying the Cycladic and the Aegean islands, later conquering and destroying Eretria, leaving Athens for the end. Marathon is located some half way in between and was the ideal place for landing an army from ships and, naturally, they disembarked and camped there. Meanwhile, the Athenians, in a desperate attempt to find help, sent the soldier runner Pheidippides to Sparta. The Spartans replied that though they would come, for religious purposes, they would only be able to make it after the full moon, which wasn’t for another 6 days. The only ones who ran to help without fear were the residents of Plataea, a town near Thiva, who sent 1,000 soldiers without delay or hesitation. The Athenians were heavily outnumbered with 10-11,000 hoplites for the Greeks against 80-100,000 strong for the Persians. There was no time to wait for the Spartans and so, at some point on the 13th of August 490 BC, the battle begun.

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The Greek leader was Miltiades, who first applied the strategy of “tweezers” taught today in military academies: he reinforced the flanks of his deployment, weakened the centre and lured the Persians in so as to end up fighting engulfed in an area too narrow and too marshy for their numbers. And that’s when the miracle happened! According to Herodotus, the historian of that time, the squashed army of Darius abandoned the battlefield with 6,400 casualties versus the 203 dead Athenians and Plataeans! The end result was that the Persians found themselves forced to flee back to their ships, 7 of which the Greeks managed to destroy. The great tragic poet Aeschylus was among those who fought and saw his comrade Kynaigyros loose his life, by having his hands cut with an enemy axe before being slaughtered, in his attempt to keep control of an enemy ship. As for the Spartans, they arrived the following day upon which they couldn’t but salute the great Athenian success.

As accepted by eminent historians, this great Athenian victory against the Asians, as well as the victories which followed soon thereafter, offered the Greeks a time period of around three centuries to focus on the growth and development of their culture, effectively laying the foundations for the entire Western civilization. The glory of Marathon, however, wasn’t going to cease there. All the Persians who could return to their big and bulky ships set off immediately to sack Athens. The Athenians, though, anticipating this move, had done the same and got into a race in order to make it back first and defend their city. Before beginning their journey, they sent Pheidippides (according to some historians Eucles) to inform the Athenians of the joyful news of victory, and, in running from Marathon to Athens he became, unbeknownst to him, the very first Marathon runner in history! Only that he, running through rough muddy paths and without having the means possessed by modern athletes, dropped dead from exhaustion as soon as he uttered the words “we won”…

Let us consider the recent era. During the 19th century, one of those who was touched by this heroic race of 42,195 km was the French Hellenistic-linguist Michel Breal, who was friend to the person responsible for the revival of the Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin. He was the one to recommend the insertion of this race as one of the Olympic contests under the category MARATHON RUN, something which did happen from the very first games which took place in Athens in 1896. Today, there are marathon races all across the globe in which thousands of professional as well as amateur athletes take part in order to somehow share Pheidippides’ experience.

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In Marathon, a plethora of archaeological findings have been unearthed, from the Neolithic Period to the post Roman era, all of which are kept at the archaeological museum there. The main monument is the tomb, a man-made hill under which the Athenians laid their dead. This tomb is 9 meters tall and has a diameter of 50 meters. There used to be a lion statue on the hill top where 10 columns with the names of the fallen had been carved and where flower wreaths were laid by the younger. One may also find the remains of the Tombs of the Plataeans as well as those of the slaves who fought in the battle. It is worth mentioning that after the battle, the Greeks, and in accordance to their traditions, burnt the dead and scattered their ashes in the ground. The remnants of the great deathly symposium which took place in honor of those fallen for the motherland have been found! As for the general Miltiades, he expressed his gratitude towards the Gods by offering them his helmet at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia.

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Some years later, to commemorate this great victory, the Athenians erected a trophy close to the point of the final outcome of the battle. Parts of this trophy, you can see if you visit the archeological museum of Marathon. At the same spot as the original one, a new trophy made of marble, has been constructed.

In concluding the narrative around Marathon and its glamour, we must accept that very few places nowadays have achieved such fame and glory that through athleticism they are referred to by millions of people all over the world…

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Something little extra: The glory and fame of the battle of Marathon, however, does not end here!

The battle of Marathon was the motive for yet another great race. In the early 1980s, a student of ancient Greek history, the British R.A.F colonel and great distance runner John Foden, after having read the texts of Herodotus, came to the conclusion that in order to confirm the writings of the great ancient historian in relation to the course ran by Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta in two days alone to warn the Spartans about the necessity to rush to the aid of the Athenians at Marathon to avert her complete destruction, the best way would be for him to run that same distance himself. Indeed, in 1982, he came to Athens, and, together with another 4 colleagues who were also runners, ran the distance of 245.3km finishing at the statue of Leonidas in Sparta in approximately 36 hours! After this triumphant proof that Herodotus was absolutely right and was not exaggerating, Foden, in commemoration of that incredible deed, recommended a new contest in which the athletes would run from Athens to Sparta! As of 1983 the contest has been established; it is held annually in honor of the finish line city which is why it has been named the Spartathlon.