I suspect many of us have heard the story of the Battle of Marathon. Maybe not as many as have heard of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae because Marathon has not been popularized in a Frank Miller comic book and a big budget movie featuring mutants and ninjas – but Marathon was probably an even bigger deal than Thermopylae.
Marathon took place about 10 years before Thermopylae, in late summer or early autumn of 490 BC. At that point, the Persians, led by King Darius I, were the Masters of the Universe with holdings stretching from Egypt and Lybia in the south to Macedonia and Thrace in the north and all the way east to the Indus river (westernmost India).
But all was not well in the Persian Empire. The city-states in Ionia (present-day southwestern Turkey and some of the Greek isles) were dissatisfied with their governors and they began revolting. These rebellious Persian colonies asked for and received help from the Athenians (a beacon of Democracy in the west).
Needless to say, Darius was miffed. According to the historian, Herodotus, Darius had a servant whose job it was to say, “Remember the Athenians,” three times before each meal. And remember he did! Darius started making plans not only to re-subjugate Ionia, but to punish and then subjugate Athens.
Darius’ revenge campaign was going swimmingly. He crushed the resistance in Ionia and then destroyed some of Athens’ allies in Eritrea, then turned his full attention towards Athens with a fleet of almost 200 ships carrying almost 200000 infantry, cavalry, and armed sailors.
The place itself, Marathon, is a swampy plain about 26 miles from Athens. The name comes from the fennel plants that grew on that plain (The Greek name for fennel is μάραθον or marathon.)
When Darius’ fleet showed up and began unloading in the fennel swamp, the Athenians hurriedly sent a messenger named Pheidippides to fetch the Spartans since they were known to be the greatest military state in proto-Greece.
Pheidippides ran 150 miles from Athens to Sparta in less than two days but the Spartans said, “Sorry, it’s a holiday. We can’t come fight for you this week but if you can hold out a few days, we might show up to clean up your mess.” So, then poor Pheidippides had to run 150 miles back to Athens to tell them that no help was coming.
The Greeks still hold a 150-mile Spartathalon run each year, celebrating Pheidippides’ magnificient 2-day run, and half of the cities in the world hold an annual 26-mile marathon run celebrating the ensuing battle that occurred 26 miles from Athens.
Even though the Athenians were known for their philosophy and their democracy – not their fighting prowess, they rallied their own army and moved to bottle up the two exits from the Marathon plain.
The Persians could not unload their full army and had trouble moving cavalry in the swamp, but the Athenians didn’t want to fight without the Spartans at their side. This standoff lasted 8-9 days before the Athenian general, Miltiades, decided that they were not going to get a better chance so he launched a full attack!
And to everyone’s surprise, the Athenian army crushed the Persians back into the swamp and decimated them!
After the battle was over the Spartan army showed up, fresh from their holiday and ready to whip some Persian buttocks but the Athenians told them, “Sorry, we’ve already killed them all.”
The Spartan warriors could not believe that the Athenian eggheads had actually fought their own fight and won. They had to tour the battleground and see it to believe it.
The surprise victory at Marathon was so outstanding that it basically made a name for Athens and established the Athenians as a real city-state with a real military power that could actually actually handle their own troubles.
Within about 50 years, this change in the power structure would lead to a World-War of sorts, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta!
At the time of Marathon, it was common practice for a victor to strip the armor off of a defeated enemy and nail it to a tree on the battleground as a memorial, but the battle at Marathon, where the Athenians whipped the Persian Masters of the Universe, was SUCH a huge deal that the Athenians set up a memorial column on the battlefield.
The Tribute of Marathon was a 10-meter tall, un-fluted white stone column with a statue of Nike, the winged goddess of Victory on top of it. In the ensuing 2500 years, the column toppled and the statue was either broken into gravel or carted off by someone. The fragments of the original column are in the Marathon museum at Vranas and the column has been replaced by a copy.
The Battle of Marathon was SUCH a big deal to the Athenians, that 2500 years later, people are still laying flowers and wreaths on the base of that Tribute column!