The Marathon Story: The Battle that Changed Human History

By Paul Ostapuk

Setting the Stage

The first two decades of the fifth century B.C. marked one of the great turning points in world history. These were the years of the Persian and Greek wars. The powerful Persian Empire in 546 B.C. extended from Asia to Egypt to the Ottoman Empire, which is now Turkey. This great empire built the first Suez Canal, which linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Greece on the other hand, consisted of a scattering of independent city-states, called polies. These early city-states spawned the democratic ideas that have persisted into modern times. Athens eventually became the largest and most prosperous polis. Another Greek polis, Sparta, was not so democratic. They kept their kings and maintained a conservative, regimented society built around military training and the art of war.

The Persian/Greek War

The Persian Empire over the years expanded to the Mediterranean Sea. In the process some Greek settlements were conquered. Ionia was one such settlement. After many years, they tried to revolt against the Persians but the uprising was immediately squashed by the powerful Persian Army. By the year 490 B.C., the Persian Army was ready to expand their territory and move into Europe. They landed a large force just outside of Athens on the plains of Marathon and prepared for attack.

The Role of Phidippides

The Athenians, vastly outnumbered, desperately needed the help of Sparta’s military base to help fend off the attack. Time was short, so the Athenian generals sent Phidippides (or Philippides), a professional runner, to get to Sparta as swiftly as he could travel, to urge the Spartans to help. The 140 mile course was very mountainous and rugged. Phidippides ran the course in about 36 hours. The Spartan generals agreed to help, but said they would not take the field until the moon was full, due to religious laws. This would leave the Athenians alone to fight the Persian Army. Phidippides ran back to Athens (another 140 miles) with the disappointing news. Immediately, the small Athenian Army (including Phidippides) marched to the plains of Marathon to prepare for battle.

The Battle of Marathon

The Athenian Army was outnumbered 4 to 1, but they launched a surprise offensive thrust which at the time appeared suicidal. But by day’s end 6,400 Persian bodies lay dead on the field, while only 192 Athenians had been killed. The surviving Persians fled to the sea and in their vessels headed south to Athens, where they hoped to attack the city before the Greek Army could re-assemble there.

The First “Marathon”

Phidippides was again called upon to run to Athens (26 miles away) to carry the news of the victory and the warning about the approaching Persian ships. Despite his fatigue, after his recent run to Sparta and back and having fought all morning in heavy armor, Phidippides rose to the challenge. Pushing himself past normal limits of human endurance, he reached Athens in perhaps 3 hours, delivered his message and then collapses from exhaustion, dying shortly thereafter. He had run more than 306 miles in a few days time.

Sparta and the other Greek polies eventually came to the aid of Athens and together they were able to turn back the Persian Empire’s attempt to conquer Greece.

Concluding Remarks and Beginning of Olympic Marathon Races

The Greek victory marked one of the decisive events of world history because it kept an Eastern power (the Persians) from conquering what is now Europe. The victory gave the Greeks incredible confidence in themselves, their government and their culture.

In the two centuries that followed, the Greek culture spread across much of the known world. It made Europe possible and in affect won for civilization the opportunity to develop its own economic life.

Modern European-based nations such as the United States and Canada can trace their growth straight back through an unbroken chain of Western historical events back to the Greek Victory at the Battle of Marathon.

phidippides 1

Centuries later, the modern Olympic Games introduced a “marathon” race of (40,000 meters or 24.85 miles).  The winner of the inaugural race was Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker from village of Marusi and veteran of several long military marches. His time was 2 hours, 58 minutes, 50 seconds for the 40 kilometer distance (average pace of 7:11 minutes per mile).

At the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance was changed to 26 miles in order to cover the ground from Windsor Castle to White City stadium, with 385 yards added on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII’s royal box. After 16 years of extremely heated discussion, this 26.2 mile distance was established at the 1924 Olympics in Paris as the official marathon distance.

sterling roof

Footnote: The urban legend is that the rooftop ventilator shaft at the Sterling Library at Yale University is covered with a replica of Windsor Castle. The timing is off, anachronistically, but the story is that University wanted to honor Frank Shorter (Yale class of 1969) for running the world’s fastest 26 miles in the 1976 games. And those extra 385 yards (0.2 miles) around the castle were added to the marathon for extra credit.

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