The tangled story of the wars between the Greeks and the Persians is too complex to be described here. Let us start, however, with the Athenian raid on Sardis, when the defenders were taken by surprise and the city sacked and burned. Infuriated by this, the Persian king ordered his servants to remind him of it every dinner time with the words thrice repeated, “Master, remember the Athenians”.
Shortly thereafter Darius, having conquered all the rebels in his own kingdom, ordered his army to prepare to invade Greece. The subject tribes of Anatolia were ordered to provide horses, the Phoenicians and others to bring their ships while the Medes and Persians themselves provided the bulk of the army. Six hundred triremes sailed from Cilicia and made landfall on the Greek island of Eretria.
The men of Eretria refused to surrender, but after a six day siege the city was betrayed to the Persians by two of its citizens and the people were carried away captive, eventually ending up in Susa (the Biblical Shushan) where they were forcibly settled, though they retained their language and customs for many generations.
Bouyed up by this easy success, the Persians then sailed for the mainland and came to rest in a lovely bay bordered by a little plain called Marathon. There they camped, with their ships drawn up on the beach, and made ready for the short march to Athens.
Meanwhile the Athenians, having heard of the Persian plans, were desperately preparing to defend themselves. Their first step was to summon the aid of their formidable neighbours, the Spartans. They dispatched Pheidipppides, who, according to Herodotus, was “by profession and practice a trained runner”. This man ran the 150 miles to Sparta in just two days and was brought before the rulers. His appeal for help was favourably received, but according to Spartan custom, the army could not march before the full moon and this was only the ninth day of the month. Pheidippides therefore ran all the way back to Athens, bringing not only the bad news about the Spartan delay, but also moral boosting news of an encounter with the god Pan, who, he claimed, had met as he ran and promised to aid the Athenians.
Led by their ten generals, the Athenian citizen army marched out to face the formidable Persians. They camped at the head of the plain, a mile from the Persian army, in a sacred enclosure dedicated to the god Hercules. While they delayed, they were joined by the small army of Platea, a city that was allied to them and which they had helped twenty-nine years previously. This brought the Greek army up to about 11,000 men.
The generals were divided: some were in favour of an immediate attack while others, looking over the huge Persian host, considered it wiser to return to Athens and take refuge behind its walls. Eventually one of them, a man called Miltiades, persuaded the army chief, who also had a voice in their council, to vote for action. This gave him a majority of one and he could have urged immediate action, but he chose to delay. According to custom, each general took charge of the army for a day and as soon after the vote as it was Miltiades turn, he formed the army up for battle.
Miltiades arranged his army in a long line, but in order to extend it long enough to match the Persian line, he kept ordering detachments from the centre to go out to the wings. The result – whether intended or not – was that in the centre there were only a couple of ranks of men but out on the wings the lines were six or seven ranks deep.
As was customary, Miltiades called for the soothsayers and priests, who offered up sacrifices and inspected the entrails of the animals in order to discover whether the gods would favour the battle. It was also customary to keep on offering sacrifices until either the gods were favourable or the supply of victims ran out.
As soon as the omens were favourable, Miltiades gave the command and the Greek army began to run across the plain towards the Persians – who couldn’t believe that a mere band of men on foot, unsupported by either cavalry or archers, was coming to attack them. What they did not realise was that these were the most famous infantry in the world, well-trained men who were protected by bronze armour and full of self-confidence.
The battle was short and sharp. The Persians had their best troops in the centre and these punched forward against the weak ranks of the Greek centre, breaking through it and pursuing the survivors as they scattered away across the plain. This left a vacuum in the Persian centre and the irregular troops on the wings fell back into it as the Greek left and right wings bore in on them. In the confusion as they lost ground, the Persians more or less disintegrated and were slaughtered by the steadily flashing swords of the hoplites.
When there was no more organised opposition, the two wings of the Greek army formed up and ran again, this time back up the plain in pursuit of the Persian centre, which now found itself isolated from its support and scattered and disorganised. Within a short time the plain was dotted with fleeing Persians, racing to get back to their ships.
Greeks and Persians arrived on the beach almost simultaneously, the Persians tumbling incontinently aboard their ships, the Greeks seizing the sternposts of the triremes to prevent them launching and at the same time yelling for someone to bring fire. In and out of the water the struggle raged, with desperate sailors hacking at the clutching hands with axes and anything else that they could find. In the end only seven ships were captured, but it was a shaken and demoralised force that put to sea. 6,400 Persians had been killed against a Greek loss of only 192 men, many of whom had lost their lives in the struggle around the ships.
There were a group of Greek exiles accompanying the Persian army and these now suggested to its commanders it would be a good idea to sail straight to Athens, which was virtually empty and defenceless, and attack it. The victorious Greeks were dismayed to see the Persian fleet turn and head west; it didn’t take a genius to guess what their enemies intended.
In this crisis Miltiades turned again to Pheidippides and asked him to run as fast as he could back to Athens and warn the people and, at the same time, reassure them that the Greek army was on its way to the rescue. Fully aware of how much depended on him, Pheidippides set off.
The distance from Marathon to Athens, as has been later measured with great accuracy, is 26 miles and 385 yards. The day was hot, Pheidippides had spent the morning fighting and had not had a chance to eat or drink. Nevertheless he ran as fast as he could, his chest heaving as he stumbled along the uneven track.
Today, runners commonly complete the Marathon in little over two hours. We do not know how long Pheidippides took; all we know is that he ran his heart out. He staggered into Athens, gasped out his message to the anxious people who crowded round and then collapsed and died.
The people of Athens ran to shut their gates while women, children, old men and the infirm crowded onto the walls to defend themselves and to gaze anxiously eastwards towards Marathon. Fortunately the wind was light and the Persian ships had trouble rounding the cape, while the Greek army marched at full speed. By the time the Persians arrived off Piraeus the Greeks were already drawn up in a long line, ready to receive them as soon as they disembarked.
For perhaps half an hour the Persian ships lay-to off the coast, bobbing on the blue sea and holding station with their oars and then a trumpet sounded and the fleet turned and sailed away to the east. Not until the last mast had sunk below the horizon did the Greek army lower its guard and disburse through the gates into the city.
Two days later the Spartan army swung into sight and came to a halt outside the city. Eager to prove that it was religion and not fear which had kept them from coming to the aid of the Athenians against the terrible Medes, the Spartan army had covered the distance in a mere three days! The generals disappeared into the city where they heard the news of the Athenian victory and then came out again and ordered their men to march. It would do them good, the Spartan generals decided, to see that the much feared Medes were merely men and could be killed just like anyone else.
On their way back to Sparta the generals once more halted outside Athens, this time to make speeches praising the Athenians for their achievement, and then the army returned to its rugged homeland. Ten years later some of those who had viewed the Persian dead on the plain of Marathon gave their lives gloriously in the narrow pass of Themopylae.
The Greeks commemorated their victory by raising two burial mounds on the plain of Marathon, a small one over their own dead and a larger one over the defeated Persians. Down through the ages, however, the story of Pheidippides’ last race continued its hold on men’s imagination. When the Olympic Games were re-established in 1896, one of the events proposed was a re-enactment of Pheidippides’ famous run, the Marathon race.
There have been many famous marathons since then. There was the Italian runner, Dorando Pietri, who came in first in the 1908 London Marathon by a long lead. By the time he arrived at the stadium, however, he was so exhausted that he blundered round the track the wrong way, heading away from the finishing line. Officials and the crowd yelled at him but in his exhaustion he did not hear or understand them, indeed, he collapsed four times and each time staggered to his feet again and tried to run onwards. Eventually two of the marshalls – one of them the author Arthur Conan Doyle – took him by the arm and half guided him, half supported him across the finishing line.
The crowd went wild, believing that he had won, but the race officials had to disqualify him on the grounds that he had been assisted and the gold medal went to someone else. However the following day Queen Alexandra presented him with a gold medal minted especially for him, which must have been some compensation.
Today, of course, we better understand the physiology of the human body. Refreshing water is offered to the runners all along the route, together with high energy drinks and even snacks. The marathon race has become popular entertainment and thousands of people enter for events such as the London Marathon or the Sydney Marathon. There are even half- and quarter-marathons when time is pressing or other considerations impinge.
The record for running a marathon – 26 miles and 38 yards – now stands at just over two hours, but today’s greatest feats are accomplished by different runners, such as the American woman in last year’s London marathon who ran the course on crutches and finished two days after the rest of the competitors had gone home!
As the queues form and the athletes train for this year’s crop of races, I wonder how many of the runners recall that they are commemorating a man who ran himself to death in order to save his country?
Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income