Marathon – The Story, The Drama, The Vegetable.

Marathon – The Story, The Drama, The Vegetable.


About 38 km from Athens, amidst the silver olive trees, the black cypresses and the green vineyards, a twelve meter high hill rises up in the plain. This Soros stands at the exact point of contact between Athenians and Persians during the Battle of Marathon in September 490 BC and harbours the remains of the 192 hoplites (heavily armed but scarcely dressed foot soldiers) who lost their lives during this battle between David and Goliath.


The almighty Persian king Dareios (Darius) had something to settle with these Athenians. They had helped the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, a region in the twilight between Grecity and the Persian mammoth, during the revolt of 499. The Athenians had burned down the mighty city of Sardes in Lydia and since that raid of utmost bravery, Darius had been wondering: ,,Who are those Athenians?” Before every meal a slave stood beside him and repeated time and again: ,,Sire, think about the Athenians…”


Well, that’s one hell of a grudge for ya. Who could withstand the powers of the Great King of Persia anyway? The Greeks hated him, not for being an exceptionally bad neighbour, but because they loathed the rule of one man, any one man, the Athenians having single handedly invented a thing called ,,democracy”, while this ruler could not even be approached by his own satraps (governors) without the degrading proskynesis, as the Greeks called it: throwing yourself down, flat out on the ground, not daring to look at the king while addressing him or hearing his orders.


So when Darius decided to go to Greece, it wasn’t for sightseeing. It wasn’t for conquering either, at least not the bulk of the country. His son Xerxes, upset by the defeat of his father, would have the intention to conquer and maybe destroy everything, but that’s another story, and that’s ten years later. In 492 a first mission of vengeance, led by the unfortunate Mardonios, had ended, far from its objective, with the destruction of almost the complete Persian fleet. So in 490 Darius sent the brilliant admiral Datis with Darius’ half brother Arthaphernes and the Greek traitor Hippias, an able commanding team for a formidable fleet and army.


The Athenians saw it coming. So they sent their best messenger, Pheidippides, to Sparta in search of aid. This runner didn’t mind the 300 km mainly mountain stretch separating Greece’s two main cities (at that time and until the advent of Philippos II of Macedony and his son Alexander the Great, Greece was’t one country but a conglomerate of some 150 city states, only united by their language, mythology and the Olympic games, and quarreling most of the time) This Athens-Sparta run is still held yearly, but Pheidippides ran it in three days, but also ran back to Athens, if only with bad news.


The Spartans knew Darius’ grudge wasn’t on them, but grasped the seriousness of the situation. A religious event prevented them to send troops on the spot, but actually they did so, albeit after the battle. Their two thousand hoplites only came in to greet the Athenian dead in silence, but proved their worth ten years later, in 480 BC, at the Thermopyles where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans blocked the complete Persian army for several days, before succombing to the great number of enemies, being betrayed by a certain Ephialtes who showed the Persians the back entrance to the mountain trace (the word ,,ephialtis” still means ,,nightmare” in modern Greek and no one in present day Greece bears this traitor’s name… Remember Judas!)


Democracy went a long way in Athens. Thus even the army’s command changed daily, giving each of the polemarchs (army commanders) of the ten demes (a voting district, each made up from one part of the three different regions of Attica, the triangular peninsula whereupon Athens lies), alternatively the chance to prove themselves. The day of the battle the old and wise polemarch Kallimachos was in charge, but he cleverly decided to give the honour and the burden to the young, vital and very capable Miltiades, a stroke of genius in itself (see further!)


Meanwhile Athens mustered a poor 6000 hoplites (some sources say 9000, but this has to be compared with the Persian army consisting of some 100.000, some say 200.000 soldiers) was expecting support…But who would grant this? The other city states had decided not to interfere, understand: not to thread on the toes of the Persian king. They would await the result of the clash before deciding what to do next. But the small commune of Plataeae singularly and bravely sent some 600 (other sources say 1000) soldiers through the ravines of the Attic mountains, straight to the expected battle front.


Yes, the Athenians had a fairly good idea of where the Persians were going to land, exactly on the spot where fifty years ago the then very young Hippias had landed with his father Peisistratos, who after this had succesfully taken power in Athens again, after a long exile. It was clear traitor Hippias was going to try to repeat the stunt. At least that was his firm intention.

The Athenians were guessing this. They knew that the region of Schiniàs, the tiny spot were the fleet was going to disembark, had pines on the beach but, much more importantly, was also covered with fields of fennel, a vegetable which is popular again in modern times. This variant called ,,marathon” or ,,maranthon” (also indicated with the same name in a few other regions of ancient Greece) had long and hard stalks which hamper horses and men alike in their movements (Moreover the fennel is said to contain a product that irritates horse feet … at least we read that somewhere long ago, but there’s little proof of this… In fact we have serious doubts) So Miltiades knew that the Persian cavalry could not operate as they would like to: it would come down to an infantry battle, wherein the Greeks were greatly superior.


Miltiades had a personal battle to wage. His father Kimon had been executed by…Peisistratos and his sons, amongst them, yes, him again, Hippias. He also knew… Darius personally, having fought under his command against the Scythes. He was convinced, though, that he would lose, a conviction probably shared by the rest of the world (if they had known), but still was prepared to give it a go. The Persians, although disturbed by their D-day problems, were lining up their troops, Miltiades and his men gave the impression not to care about any battle ahead. Instead of lining up, they were gathered loosely. It was a decoy. They were in fact readily armed and waiting for the order to attack.



The order came unexpectedly, at least for the enemy. The Athenians started their 1500 meter run, just like in the Olympic games, where this contest for hoplites was called the ,,dromos” (,,run”) There they were, charging, screaming, banging swords against shields, eyes and mouths wide open, oozing out a mixture of panic and exstacy… It must have been an impressive sight, but at first the Persians were not overwhelmed as is widely believed. Instead the Athenians were stopped and even driven back a little, completely according to Persian expectations. Bad hair day after all?


But then the peltastes (lightly armed and speedy foot soldiers) engulfed the Persians at both wings and this made the difference, as Lord Byron stated in his poetic account: ,,death in front, destruction in the rear: such was the scene”. Where the modern road now runs through Marathon the battle knew its fierce climax (at the chapel of Ayos Pandeleïmon) 6400 Persians died and also the 192 hoplites already mentioned, although most of these were killed while breaking through, running across the beach and trying to reach the Persian warships.


At that moment the Plataeans arrived, Stuka diving from the Charadra canyon (where now the magnificent and biggest marble dam in the world still hides), right into the plain. They charged straight into the Persian cavalry which could not be mounted properly, not only due to the fennel, but also due to the long yellow robes the Persian cavaleers wore (it was a bad idea to have these designed by Christian Dior!)


Meanwhile Kallimachos, the one who had passed on the command to Miltiades, had also arrived with an army of Athenian slaves, who had been promised freedom if they would help their masters out. Their thrust forced the Persians along the beach to the north. Having no faith in the happy end of the story and/or the Athenian promises, most of these slaves showed no fear whatsoever for their lives and perished, taking with them the lives of many enemies. Kallimachos died here too and so did most of the hoplites swimming towards the enemy ships, climbing on board and continuing the battle.


One of them was Kynegiros, brother of playwright Aischylos, who was going to write a moving tragedy on an episode of the wars, ,,The Persians”, in 472, with the veterans present at the première. Kynegiros had both hands chopped off. Still he kept on ,,fighting” on one of the Persian ,,longships” until he finally went down. The Persians had never seen such daring bravery and quickly lost all hope in ever winning from these combined Supermen, Spidermen, Batmen and Robins (Catwoman stayed at home)


The aftermath? Well, there’s a lot to tell. Miltiades offered his bronze helmet to Zeus in his temple at Olympia. The temple contained one of the seven ancient world wonders, namely the statue of Zeus by Phidias (he was the one who adorned the Parthenon with the famous bas reliefs and made the five meter high chryselephantine statue of Athena for that temple) When this Zeus temple was excavated the helmet was found again, flattened by the debris of a fallen column, but still bearing his name. It’s now a show piece at the Museum in Olympia.


One Themistokles also survived the battle. As an ambitious politician he had seen Miltiades’ victory as a threat to his own career. The consequences of his jealousy would be devastating for the victor of the Battle of Marathon and at the same time would prove to be the life saver for Athens against Xerxes, ten years later at the sea battle of Salamis, where Themistokles’ carefully designed fleet and ambush worked wonders. But that’s another story, at least as baffling as this one.


Nowadays the Plataeans who lost their life at the battle are buried in several separate tumuli, on the very spot where they fell, and as they fell. You get the key in the small Museum of Marathon and visit the graves by foot. Inside you walk over the skeletons of men and horses, lying under glass and illuminated by spots. But watch out for the snakes that wander round the tumuli, happily more afraid of humans than vice versa: we have had this unnerving experience!


But one of the most memorable facts is this: after the battle, which could and even should have been lost, one Athenian hoplite ran euphorically from the spot where the Soros (the hill monument or tumulus mentioned at the beginning of this piece) would later be erected, all the way to Athens to report the news of the victory. The identity of the man is unknown. Some sources state it was Pheidippides, but he was the one who ran to and from Sparta and there’s no evidence that he did ALL the Athens express mail. Other sources (and not the least: Plutarch and Lucian) call him Diómedon, but that’s much later on and there’s no source inbetween to corroborate this.


Anyway, this runner went over the Pendèli mountain along a rough road we still know nowadays, some 37/38 km to the centre of Athens. Having arrived there he had just the strength to shout ,,Nenikèkamen!” (,,We have won!”) before dropping dead. It was indeed a drop dead news, but the man shouldn’t have taken this literally. They say it was a sunstroke. Others call it an early case of Nefos, the smog cloud that hangs over modern Athens and has earned a proper life and ,,popularity” in newspaper cartoons and columns.


Although the story is still uncertain, there was the idea to add a ,,Marathon” to the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896. Taking another route than the probable one, they found out this run would have had a length of 48 km, which was rightfully considered to be too much. A slightly shorter distance was agreed upon and the legendary Spyridon Louis (a water bearer by profession, in thirsty Greece a highly respected job!) won the first and only Greek gold medal in athletics in 1896! He performed the race in a stunning 2:58:50 on a regime of wine, milk, beer, orange juice and, no kidding…easter eggs, these last at the time not yet considered to be forbidden stimulating products.


The modern distance of 42 km and 195 m was first accepted at the third modern Olympics of 1908 in London. The theoretical distance of 25 miles was increased to 26 miles and the exact, practical distance was measured between Windsor Castle and the royal tribune at the finish line. This was to be the official length, but only from 1920 on, at the Olympics of Antwerp, Belgium.


One more detail: to commemorate the victory the Athenians made several monuments, one of the most impressive of these being the Stoa Poikilè or ,,Many Coloured” Columnated Gallery in the city, so called because of the colourful wall paintings by Polygnotos. This stoa was only rediscovered when the Athenian metro was built and part of it is still under the road along the Agora (,,market place”) of Athens.


We think eating fennel will never be the same for you again, dear reader!


Antoine Légat (May 21st 2009)


PS I admit having used several sources to write this piece, not in the least the brilliant recount of the facts to be found in still the best guide for Greece, despite the latest edition of this book being almost 35 years old already: Scholte’s Griekenland, by Henrik SCHOLTE, edited by Allert de Lange. Still no Greece lover knowing Dutch can do without!!!

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