Battle of Marathon — Origin of Marathon race
Have you ever wondered, ‘Why a certain sprint race called ‘Marathon’? or ‘Why Marathon race is always 42km?’
Well, today, we’ll explore these questions about the history & origin of Marathon races.
It was a bright sunny day in 490 BCE. The City of Eritrea was burning. Smokes filled the sky, men screaming to escape the burning houses, children crying, blood on the streets. Indeed it was a feast for crows & hooded demons with scyth. Foreign invaders were scorching the temples & buildings, looting & abducting whatever they could touch, including civilians, to sell them into slavery. The City of Eritrea was brutally destroyed, and rampant invaders were thirsty for more blood. Soon they had pointed their spears and swords towards the City of Marathon.
Today, at a glance, the Battle of Marathon is majorly seen as a victory of Greek democracy over Persian tyranny. But when we deep dive into the chronology of events, we understand that it was a lot more complicated than that.
‘Darius-I’, the ruthless tyrant of the Persian empire, was itching to have his revenge for a recent rebellion he had crushed. He believed Greek democratic elements had flammed the rebel actions, challenging the Persian authority directly. That is when he decided to pursue an ambitious campaign of capturing the Greek mainland.
An army of 26,000 travelled in 600 ships across the Mediterranian sea intending to capture several Greek islands, the City of Eritrea & Athens, the heart of Greek democracy. Darius had believed that these were the two cities that sent several troops & subjugated the rebellion in various parts of the Persian empire, especially in Sardis. Two Generals, ‘Datis’ & ‘Artaphernes’, commanded Persian forces, which consisted of light infantry & heavy cavalry.
Before starting the primary campaign, Persian forces started capturing small islands in the Aegean sea to secure their supply lines. That showed Persians were planning for a very long war campaign.
Soon the forces reached on shoars of Eritrea, and we all know how it ended. Message to Greek Democracy was clear, ‘Surrender or resistance would be crushed’. After a decisive victory over Eritrea, Persian forces sailed south to the plains of Marathon, a city northeast of Athens. It is here the fate of Athens’s future, freedom & independence would be decided.
In Response to Persian advances, Athenian’s hastily dispatched their army to avoid Persians getting a foothold on the mainland. The Athenian army consisted of 11,000 strong men, 10,000 from Athens & 1000 provided by their ally ‘Plataea’. The General of the Greek forces, also called Polemarch, was ‘Callimachus’. He was accompanied by an infamous Greek warrior named ‘Miltiades the Younger’.
When Greeks arrived at the Marathon, they quickly blocked the Persian army, advancing further inland. As soon as they camped south to Marathon, they realised they were at a grave disadvantage. Their army did not have heavy cavalry or skilled archer troops. Also, they were outnumbered by more than two to one.
Looking at the situation, Athenians sent a runner to Sparta, requesting reinforcements. As they were allies, Sparta agreed to send troops. But then came the catch. Spartan’s were ready to send troops, but only after 10 days. They were celebrating a religious ritual and couldn’t interrupt it to go to war.
At this point, both armies were reluctant to engage. Though Persians had superior numbers & flexible army compositions, Greeks had camped at the strong defensive position. They were in the hills, with both of their flanks secured. Also, due to the superior skills of the Greek army in spear warfares, Persian generals were against direct assault. On the other hand, widely feared heavy cavalry & highly skilled arches on the Persian side made the Greek generals equally reluctant to mount an assault across the plain.
A strategic retreat to the safety of Athens’s fortified walls could have been an excellent strategic move, but politically it was a suicide. Miltiades and Callimachus — Greek Generals — were well aware of powerful support to Persia by some factions of Athenian society. These people wanted to hand over the city on a platter to Persians in exchange for mercy & political power for themselves. So, the retreat was not an option.
The two armies waited and waited. How long did they wait? They waited for 8 straight days staring down at each other. Greeks waited for Spartans to show up and Persian waited for Greeks to leave their advantageous position in hills. This wait only benefited the Greeks. Each passing day would bring Spartans closer & Persians had only so much food to sustain their large army.
What finally broke this stalemate is a curious case. The case is widely debated among modern historians about its details. But one thing they all agree on is that Greeks attacked first & Persian cavalary was not present. Scholars have had debates for centuries about where the Persian cavalry was! Some say they went foraging. Others say cavalry was loaded back on ships for a surprise attack on another city, probably Athens. Whatever the case, the cavalry was gone & Miltiades saw this as an opportunity.
Miltiades ordered his army in two formations. He stretched & spreaded his army to match the width of the Persian army, thinning the central range & concentrating forces on flanks. The long line & thickened flanks were to avoid getting engulfed by a superior Persian army. If Greeks get surrounded, they would be slaughtered like a herd of sheep. Having arranged his forces this way, Miltiades began his aggression.
The Greeks marched slowly & steadily for the first 1500 meters. Just when they were 200 meters from the Persian army, i.e., in Persian archers range, Greeks surprised Persians by breaking into a wild run towards the enemy line. Thanks to their heavy armours, large shields & momentum, they were able to suppress the effects of arrows & shrugged them off. Soon they entered in melee with an enemy.
For some moments, it appeared as Miltiades’s attack might fail, as Persians started pushing through the thin central line of Greeks. Persians were able to break the line, and they pushed forward. That posed a challenge as the Greek army might get separated into two parts, which they couldn’t afford. However, thicker Greek flanks succeeded in repelling Persian attacks on sides, allowing themselves to envelope Persians on sides & rear. Miltiades’s tactic to avoid the Greek army getting enveloped resulted in enveloping the Persian army. He had surprisingly hit two birds in one stone. That boosted the Greek army’s morale, and soon the entire Persian force started running towards the safety of ships on the beach. What followed was a mere slaughter of running & retreating Persian forces! The beach sand shortly turned blood red.
By the time all Persian forces were onboard ships, Greeks had slaughtered 6,400 of them. By comparison, Greeks lost only 192 men. But among the Greek dead was Polemarch, Callimachus. According to the legend, he was pierced by so many Persian spears that he remained upright after death.
Even though Greeks achieved a remarkable victory, they had no time to celebrate. There was a danger of Persian ships sailing towards Athens, which was defenceless. They had to march through the night to make it in time to protect it. They arrived in the nick of time to see Persian ships around the horizon. Finding the city adequately defended, Datis, the Persian General, ordered ships to turn back and abandon the campaign, ending the first Grecko-Persian war. The victory of Greeks in Marathon carried huge symbolic importance & helped to spread the idea of democracy. That also increased the prestige of Athens multi-folds.
But you may be still wondering what this battle has to do with a marathon race! The legend says, after the battle of Marathon, the Greek army needed to send a message to Athens about the victory of the Greek army. That would prevent the Pro-Persian faction from surrendering Athens to Persian generals. So they sent a runner back to Athens to announce the victory. Messenger ran the whole 42km back to Athens without food or time for rest. When he reached the city gates, he shouted, “Nike! Nike! Nike!”. Nike is the Greek goddess of victory. Messenger then collapsed there on city gates and died due to exhaustion. Today 2500 years later, planners of the first modern Olympics used this story as an inspiration for the Marathon race.
Aftermath the battle of the Marathon, Persians abandoned the campaign. ‘Darius-I’ never again pursued the Greek campaign. But his son ‘Xerxes’ was far more ambitious than him. After the death of Darius, Xerxes sat on the Persian throne. His wish was to complete his father’s dream. Once again Persian ships, sailed the sea to reach the Greek mainland. This time greeks were not so lucky & Xerxes captured the entire Greek mainland. Well, almost entire Greece, if not for Spartans. We all know what happened between ‘Xerxes’ & Spartan king ‘Leonidas-I’. If you don’t, then you should watch ‘300’ & ‘300-Rise of Empire’.