Marathon isn’t just a word for a ridiculously long foot race that gives you red nipples, poop-filled shorts and a silly cellophane robe as a trophy.
For the small band of Greeks on September 12, 490 BCE, Marathon was a game-changer.
On this day, the 10,000 valiant Greek hoplites of Athens and Plataea, led by the brilliant general Miltiades, defeated a Persian army at least 30 times their numbers. In response to the victory, the great Olympic champion Pheidippides raced 26.2 miles (who knew Herodotus had a tape measure) back to Athens, announced the victory, and promptly died of exhaustion.
Then again, the main source was never really that reliable.
The only real source about the Battle of Marathon comes from the “Father of History,” the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus was, indeed, among the few people of his time to record the history of the Greeks, and their wars with Persia in particular.
Yet the problem with being among the few is that no one’s around to fact-check when you take liberties.
Old Herodotus loved to spin a good yarn and play fast and loose with the facts when it suited his narrative, and no better thread was spun than that on the dusty plains of Marathon.
Let’s take the numbers, for example. Here, Herodotus gets it partly right. The estimate of about 10-11,000 Greeks is even today considered reasonable and probably fairly accurate. It’s not surprising since he was around to possible interview veterans of the battle.
The Persians were another story. Herodotus never really claims a number, only that 600 triremes (warships) packed with infantry and cavalry landed ashore. A contemporary estimate was about 200,000, and later estimates range even over half a million. There’s no modern consensus to the size of Darius’ army, though the general average is about 25,000 infantry and 1000 cavalry–far lower than the traditional estimates.
Even so, that low number was still an over 2-1 advantage.
Then came the tactics. Miltiades supposedly arranged the Greek forces to be thin at the center and thicker at the flanks in order to force weaker Persian flanks to collapse and surround the center of the enemy. The problem is that according to most historians, Greek military tactics were not that sophisticated yet. It wouldn’t be until well after the Peloponnesian War–over a century after Marathon–when ground tactics would reach that level of development. More likely, Miltiades stretched his middle lines to match the Persian lines and to prevent himself getting surrounded.
The fact that the weaker Persian flanks–manned mostly by provincial subjects forced into service–collapsed under the Greeks was probably due to dumb luck.
Finally, we come to Pheidippides. Sorry, distance runners–the first marathon never happened.
In fact, when you see the story in totality, it’s even more ridiculous.
Herodotus’ story goes like this: Pheidippides was sent from Athens to go ask for help from its old enemy Sparta. He would run about 140 miles and arrive in Sparta a day later (Now THAT’s a foot race). At the same time, the victorious Greeks ran about 25 miles back to Athens to head off a possible Persian counter-attack as their fleet attempted an end run around the Achaean Peninsula. From an already rough morning, the heavily armored, exhausted and profusely bleeding Greeks arrive in Athens in the LATE AFTERNOON (Again, that’s some foot race) to catch sight of the Persians sailing away.
Over time, the Pheidippides run and the Greek army‘s run would get confused, with Pheidippides becoming a hero for running the approximately 25 miles from Marathon to Athens. When the Olympic Games were revived in 1896, the organizers rediscovered the story and re-staged the “marathon” as an Olympic event. The distance was never fixed, but usually around the 25 mile mark. Eventually, it would be fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or the traditional 26.2 mile number we use today.
Even with the embellishment, the Battle of Marathon remained a history-turning event in Greece. It sent a message throughout the Mediterranean that the mighty Persians could indeed be beaten. The subsequent final defeat of the Persians a decade later would signal the beginning of Greece’s golden age, when its art, literature, philosophy, government and commerce would bestride the known world like a colossus.
See, no need to mess up the facts…it’s a great story as it is.
Attached is a really cool video about the Battle of Marathon. It’s in that 300 style that I detest, but at least they didn’t dress the hoplites in ridiculous clothes and have them fight ninjas and monsters. Enjoy.