Long Reads

Marathon And The Military – The Battle Behind The Famous Race


Running a marathon’s 26.2 miles is a difficult feat, and for anyone frustrated by its distance, while training for or running it, might put some of the blame on the British Royal Family.

It was apparently Queen Alexandra who proposed that the 1908 Marathon, part of that year’s Olympic Games, be extended so that it start at Windsor Castle and end at the royal box at the Olympic stadium in London.

Yet this only added an additional 1.2 miles (albeit a gruelling 1.2 miles coming right at the end of such a long race.)

The other 25 miles is the distance between Athens and the town of Marathon in Greece, a journey allegedly run by an exhausted messenger in full armour following an enormously important battle on September 11, 490 BC.

What follows is the story of that battle, and the role the messenger may have played in it.

Greece Versus Persia In Anatolia

The battle that took place on the plains of Marathon was, in reality, a battle for the city of Ancient Athens, one of two major powers within Greece during the period, the other being Sparta.

At the time, the Greeks lived within independent city states, although Greek people everywhere shared a language and culture.

Unlike today, Greek peoples were not confined to the borders of today’s Greece since they had spread around and colonised the Mediterranean region in the centuries before the battle.

Some of these Greek colonies were established in the west of Anatolia (Turkey today), and then came to be part of the Persian Empire (or more precisely, the Achaemenid Empire) under Great King Darius I.

These were known as Asiatic or Ionian Greeks, and between 499 and 494 BC they rebelled against Persian rule, and were assisted by their fellow Greeks in Athens.

As Nicholas Sekunda explains in ‘Marathon 490 BC’, the revolt eventually reached the city of Sardis and an isolated fire started by a Greek soldier accidentally spread out of control and burnt down the city. This, he says, soon set Darius and his Persian Empire up for a campaign of revenge aimed right at Athens.

Additionally, in ‘The Spartans’ and ‘Thermopylae’, Paul Cartledge argues that Darius probably aimed to secure the right flank of his empire by invading Greece so that events like the Ionian revolt could be avoided in future.

The Battle of Marathon then was meant to be a stepping-stone to take not only Athens, but also Greece more generally, though it was not the first attempt.

The Persians began by invading Macedonia to the north of Greece with a combined land and coastal sea force, but this invasion was frustrated when the Persian fleet was shipwrecked by a storm off the coast of Mount Athos.

Great King Darius soon tried again.

In 492 or 491 BC, he sent envoys to both Athens and Sparta to demand earth and water, the symbols that, in the Persian diplomatic customs of the time, meant submission. The Athenians and the Spartans both killed the messengers, the latter by knocking them into a well (an event depicted in the film ‘300’ as taking place almost a decade later, before the Battle of Thermopylae.)

This, of course, meant war.

Map of the Marathon campaign
A map of the Marathon campaign showing the route taken by the Persian fleet (image from ‘Marathon 490 BC’ by Nicholas Sekunda © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Invading Greece, Take 2

Nicholas Sekunda points out that the rationale behind this second expedition to Greece is not entirely clear, though sailing for Athens (after an invasion of Eritrea, which was allied with the Athenians) makes sense in terms of avoiding the treacherous waters further north.

Sekunda also points to an argument made by the scholar J.A.R. Munro that the plan may have been to draw the Athenian army away from the city of Athens. The Persians had allies within the city and they may have hoped they would seize control of it with the army gone.

Sekunda also points out that this hope was far-fetched, though it apparently worried at least one of the Athenian commanders enough to influence his thinking.

The commander in question was a man named Miltiades, and he was one of 10 strategoi, or commanders of battalion-sized units called lochoi that were based around tribes. The Greeks were organised into 11 of these units (10 from Athens and one from an allied city state, Plataea), each one containing 900 men and commanded by a strategos.

Miltiades was one such strategos and Sekunda explains that each one of the 10 within Athens voted on military strategy.

In the case of the imminent Persian arrival at Marathon, this supreme military council was evenly split, with five of the strategoi voting to remain in Athens and await support from the Spartans, and the other five voting to attack the Persians the moment they landed at Marathon.

The tie breaker vote would come from the overall commander of the Athenian army, the Polemarch Kallimachos of Aphidna. Miltiades apparently tried to influence him by arguing that there were in fact elements within the city sympathetic to the Persians, but rather than remaining to check their influence, he feared that the longer they waited the more likely these men were to ‘Medize’ (the Greek term for turning to the Persian side.)

In other words, he favoured a pre-emptive strike before Persian influence, and the prospect of the Persian victory brought about by its larger army, grew any more in people’s minds.

He appears to have won the argument, because Kallimachos voted along with Miltiades and the other four Strategoi who felt that a pre-emptive battle was better.

They set off, marching the 25 miles to Marathon and meeting their allies the Plataeans there.

The Spartans And The First Messenger

Meanwhile, the first of three very long runs associated with the Battle of Marathon was already taking place.

The Athenians dispatched a ‘day-runner’ named Philippides to Sparta to ask for assistance.

The Spartans and Athenians were competitors and would later end up at war with each other, but for now both were sufficiently concerned about Persia to work together.

At this point, Sparta was the top military land power in Greece (while Athens would become the prime naval power) and it wanted to remain that way. Helping its rival Athens was not ordinarily in its best interests, but if Athens and then Greece were taken over by Persia, the Spartans would find themselves facing an even more formidable rival in the form of the Persian Empire.

However, they were not enthusiastic in their response to the request Philippides ran 150 miles to bring to them. The Spartans had a reputation for being deeply religious and they were committed to participating in the Karnea (or Carneia) festival that was going on at the time.

This, at least, is what they claimed. Sekunda points out that there is, in fact, evidence that they were busy putting down a revolt by Messenian slaves. The Spartans had enslaved the Messenians in the centuries before Marathon, and having made them into an entire labouring underclass known as ‘helots’, they had to periodically deal with uprisings.

So Philippides then began the second long-distance run of the campaign, heading back to Athens with this disappointing news.

A 3D map showing the Greek lines and camp on the left in white, and the Persian lines and fleet on the right in purple (image from ‘Marathon 490 BC’ by Nicholas Sekunda © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
A 3D map showing the Greek lines and camp on the left in white, and the Persian lines and fleet on the right in purple (image from ‘Marathon 490 BC’ by Nicholas Sekunda © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Field Of Battle

As Sekunda explains, given the lack of clear or complete historical or archaeological information on Marathon, each interpretation of the battle differs, sometimes considerably.

By his reckoning, the Greeks established camp within a grove of trees just outside the ancient village of Marathon (the location of which is also not definitely known today.)

The reasoning here was likely a defence against the Persian cavalry. The numbers of Persian soldiers also vary by account, though Sekunda reckons that their commander Datis likely split his ground forces, leaving some aboard the Persian ships for a later flanking move against Athens, while the rest faced the Athenians ashore at Marathon.

He puts this force at around 12 to 14,000 (so roughly 2,000 more than the 10,000 Greek hoplites, or heavily armoured Greek infantry, facing them.) Though they were also supported by cavalry, and it was this contingent of the Persian force that the Greeks would have sought refuge from within the grove.

Sekunda’s assessment is also that both sides would have lined up about 1,500 metres from each other in lines perpendicular to the shoreline.

At the time, Greek hoplites fought in phalanxes, which were formations of tightly bunched or lined men with their large shields locked together. These formations would have been several ranks deep and at Marathon Sekunda says their lines was likely about 1,400 ranks wide and eight men deep on either side, with a thinner line of about four ranks deep in the middle.

The commander Kallimachos was on the far right of the formation, as per the usual practice which was almost certainly the result of the tendency of phalanx to drift to the right. The reason for this was that each man carried his shield in his left hand, which meant that his right side was left partially exposed and therefore unprotected.

It was normal, therefore, for men to lean to the right to seek protection behind the overlap from the shield of the next man along. By having a Greek army commander on the right, there was more chance of them being able to control this rightward drift, although at Marathon the shoreline to the right of the Greeks presumably also would have helped discourage too much of a rightward drift.

The Persians, meanwhile, were similarly tightly packed, but with a line 10 men deep, and their archers lined up behind the shield wall in front of them formed by their comrades.

The Greek charge at the Persian line (image from ‘Marathon 490 BC’ by Nicholas Sekunda © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
The Greek charge at the Persian line (image from ‘Marathon 490 BC’ by Nicholas Sekunda © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Battle Begins

Archers were the other element of the Persian army that dictated Greek tactics and strategy. The Greeks advanced at a walk, but as they closed in, they dashed the last 200 to 300 metres to close with their enemies as quickly as possible.

The reason for this is that this was about the maximum effective distance the Persian archers could fire their arrows and so the Greek hoplites wanted to get out of this danger zone as quickly as possible.

The obvious problem, of course, was that sprinting 200 to 300 metres, just like jogging a marathon, is exhausting enough – doing either or both in fully, bronze hoplite armour must have been that much more tiring.

In fact, precisely because it was so challenging, the Greeks trained specifically for it.

Sekunda points out that they established an athletic event (the hoplitodromos) for the 520 BC Olympic Games designed specifically to prepare them for this. It was essentially a running race, but one in which they would sprint 360 metres while clad in armour, albeit only their greaves (which covered the shins), their helmet and their shields. The cuirass, which protected their torsos, was left off during this event, though possibly kept on at Marathon.

The preparation appears to have helped, because the Greeks swarmed through the danger zone of Persian arrows and smashed into their enemies’ line, at which point a huge melee erupted.

In the middle of the battle zone, it was the Persians who got the upper hand, since this was where the Greek line was thinnest as well as where the Persian troops strongest, with the least archers and most elite Persian and Saka regiments. These had spearmen equipped with better weapons and who had more intensive training in close-quarters combat.

Though the opposite happened on both flanks. Here, the well-armoured and deeper lines of Greek hoplites overcame the more lightly armoured Persians, pushing them back even as the Greek line sagged (and possibly broke) in the middle.

Eventually though, the Greek push won out and sent the Persians fleeing to the marshland behind them, where many, being unfamiliar with the terrain, fell over and drowned.

They were also pursued back to their ships on the shoreline, where a follow-up battle soon erupted as the Persians scrambled back aboard their vessels and the Greeks pursued them.

Unfortunately for the Greeks, their commander Killamachos, the Polemarch, was killed during this melee that erupted around the ships in the shallow water. Sekunda says it was an epic fight, and one that the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus compared to fighting depicted in Homer’s epic bronze-aged poem ‘The Iliad’, upon which the film ‘Troy’ was loosely based.

One Greek soldier named Kynegeiros is said to have had one hand and then the other chopped off as he attempted to clamber aboard one of the Persian ships, but continued to fight on with his teeth. This of course sounds like an exaggeration, although the Spartans are said to have been similarly relentless during the Battle of Thermopylae ten years later. In both instances, small Greek forces were defending their homelands from much stronger Persian ones, and it is certainly likely that Greece and the culture it passed on to Western Civilisation would have been radically altered if they had lost.

The Second Greek Messenger

Large numbers of Persians also died as they scrambled for their ships, but the battle was not quite over, despite this headlong retreat.

It seems a number of the Persian ships not only rowed out to sea but did so heading for and around the Greek coastline.

In a section of his book entitled ‘The Race to Phaleron’, Sekunda explains that the Persian aim now was likely to reach Athens via Phaleron, on the western side of the peninsula of Attica (Marathon lies on the eastern side.)

It was at this point that the Greeks sent a messenger back to the city to announce that they had won the battle and that the Greek army would soon return to defend it.

Just who this messenger was, though, is unclear. One account has the aforementioned Philippides running the 25 miles back to Athens (in full armour) and announcing “Joy to you, we’ve won” and then dying.

Other accounts feature a man named Eukles dashing back to the city and saying “Hail, we are victorious!” before similarly dropping dead of exhaustion.

Sekunda points out that one scholar, F Frost, has also pointed out there may not have been a messenger at all.

The Legacy Of The Battle

Whatever the true story, the Battle of Marathon and the story of the messenger became legendary. The Olympics in Ancient Greece did not feature a marathon of their own, though having been ended when Greece was part of the Roman Empire, the Games were revived in 1896.

When they were, a 25-mile run based upon that said to be undertaken (either by Philippides or Eukles) after the battle was established.

And from there, the 1.2 extra miles that make up today’s standardised marathon distance were added in 1908, according to the story outlined above, at the behest of the Royal Family.

For members of the Forces who have or will run the race, it is worth reflecting on the military history behind the event. 192 Athenians are said to have died during the battle (not counting Plataeans or slaves on the Greek side), and Sekunda points to figures ranging from 500 to 2,000 Persians.

Had the Persians won, ‘Western’ culture might be very different to what it is today.

Of course, one could argue that it would very likely be just as interesting, perhaps being some blend of Greek, Roman (i.e. Graeco-Roman) and Persian influences.

Marathon was also not the only occasion when Persian expansion was stopped in Greece (another Persian invasion was defeated in 479 BC), but either way, it is certainly fascinating to think that history as we know it was significantly shaped by the Greek victory at Marathon in 490 BC.

And so too was the race we run today.

For more on the Battle of Marathon, read ‘Marathon 490 BC: The First Persian Invasion of Greece’ by Nickolas Sekunda, and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Marathon runners in a city (picture: shutterstock 634556102)
Marathon runners in a city (picture: shutterstock 634556102)

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