March 10, 2010: Marathon's 2,500th Anniversity Celebration

Tom AuSenior Analyst IIMarch 10, 2010

BEIJING - AUGUST 24: Samuel Kamau of Kenya celebrates the gold medal in the men's marathon during the Closing Ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games at the National Stadium on August 24, 2008 in Beijing, China.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

No, this article is not about any marathon race. But it is about the origins of the marathon itself, some 2,500 years ago, on March 10, 490 B.C.

The locale was Athenian Greece, the home of a then-novel concept called "democracy." This was due as much as anything else to an accident of geography.

Unlike most other lands to the north, east, and west, which are basically flat, Greece is hilly. That meant that the land leant itself well to small, family-owned farms, rather than large estates held by wealthy landowners.

The climate and soil proved especially suited to growing wine grapes and and olives for oil, meaning that such high value-added products could be traded profitably for cheaper staples such as wheat and cloth.

Thus, Greek ships visiting the far Mediterranean shores of "Marsalia" (France's Marseilles) and even Spain with Greek wares, made for prosperous, fiercely independent, and relatively "equal" yeoman farmers. In such a country, one free (male) farmer was as good as any other, hence the notion of "one (free) man, one vote."

Far to the west, a small city-state blessed with similar geographical characteristics named Rome, was about to begin an interesting experiment with a "Republican" form of government, complete with a Senate and "Praesidents" thereof.

But just across the Turkish "straits" from the Greeks was the despotic Persian Empire, which originated in Iran, but covered most of the Middle East and West Asia, all the way to India, and parts of North Africa.

Trouble began when the Athenians gave refuge to the Ionian rebels (islanders in the Aegean Sea), that captured and burned the city of Sardis on the west coast of modern day Turkey before being defeated.ย  Persia's King Darius retaliated by invading Greece with 20,000 men.

The Persians could have fielded 200,000 (and later did against Alexander), but in Darius' mind, he had more than enough for his purpose. The embattled Athenians mustered 10,000 troops, a not-inadequate force considering the respective natures of the two armies.

The Persian army was made up of very different men, local levies from all parts of the Persian Empire. These were peasant conscripts who used their own weapons and were commanded by their own officers.

There was no standard Persian unit size or formation. A rough count of troops was made by stuffing them into rooms of predetermined size.

On the other hand, no Athenian could serve in his army unless he could purchase his own spear and shield, meaning that these items were particularly well cared for, and then used liberally in battle.

Moreover, the Greeks fought in a tight, serried formation called a phalanx, that could not be defeated by an equivalent number of non-Greek enemies (until the arrival of Rome and its "legions").

Not far from Athens were the plains of Marathon, close enough to the city to serve as the Persians' "Normandy." Benefiting from surprise, they landed without opposition, but the vigilant Athenian army hurried to the hills commanding the beaches, leaving the Persians unable to exploit their initial advantage.

The two enemies observed each other warily for several days. The Greeks extendedย  flanks of their lines, in the manner of later great commanders such as the Dukes of Marlboro and Wellington, while the Persians reluctantly did the same in self-defense.

This counteraction prevented the Athenians from overlapping the Persian army on both flanks and surrounding it, a maneuver called a double envelopment, that Hannibal used with great effect at the later battle of Cannae.

But the Athenian generals decided that a similar result might be obtained by a frontal attack of flank-on-flank on both sides. They strengthened their flanks one last time, deliberately weakening their center do so.

This was a risky move because a Persian cavalry probe, supported by injections of infantry, might have split the Greeks in two, leaving each part outnumbered four to one.

Shortly after mid-day on March 10, 490 A.D., the battle flags were hoisted, giving the signal for the assault. Columns of Greeks debouched from the hills on both flanks, charging the Persians at a brisk march, almost a run.

With less than a mile separating the two armies, it took less than ten minutes to make the initial contact. The Persians were surprised, but it almost didn't matter.

Wave after wave of tough, hill-bred, infantry smashed into poorly guarded flanks manned by lowlanders serving a Persian tyrant against their will. Yeoman volunteers hurled down sharecropper draftees like toy soldiers.

Reforming their lines on the beaches, an Athenian shieldwall bristling with spears overran the disorganized and lightly-armed (with swords, "scimitars," slingshots, bow and arrows), men of the Persian king, who broke and headed for their ships.

Only in the center of the line did the Persians make some headway, inflicting most of the Greek casualties, using cavalry. But there was no supporting infantry to exploit these limited successes.

Instead, the collapse of the infantry on both sides, threatened to allow Athenian infantry behind the Persian horsemen, which would have left them surrounded, so the cavalry also backpedaled to the ships with Greek footsoldiers in hot pursuit.

Finally a combination of ships' oars, horsemen with lances, and hurriedly deployed archers, created a viable Persian beachhead, preventing the rout from becoming a massacre. The Persians re-boarded their ships with a majority of their original force, but badly beaten.

(The proud Persian fleet was later defeated at the battle of Salamis, despite a two-to-one numerical advantage, because Persia's galley slaves were no match for free Greek rowers, but that's a story for another day).

Counting those of the Athenians' allies, Greek casualties were slightly over 200. On the Persian side, some 6400 men lay dead or dying on the cold winter plain of Marathon.

This more than offset the fact that the Persians still had a four to three numerical advantage (over 13,000 men to about 10,000).

A runner was sent back to the city of Athens with the joyous news. The distance between the edge of the battlefield and the city was yes, 26.2 miles.

Tragically, the runner overtaxed his strength in the effort and expired soon after reaching the city. But he managed to blurt out the news of the victory before he died.

The marathon race is celebrated as a feat of athleticism. But in reality, it commemorates a victory for democracy. Had the battle gone the other way, the world might now be living under Persian despotism.


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