In this history post, we’re going to learn about the Battle of Marathon—and how it’s been remembered. (It’s not just the name of a long foot race, but running does have something to do with the story!)
To begin our story, a Persian king named Darius I – who was of the Achaemenid (uh KEY muh nid) dynasty – was ambitious. He was so ambitious that he had his eye on conquering several countries surrounding Persia. One of those countries was Ionia on the coast of Turkey (or Asia Minor).
Darius managed to conquer Ionia but not without a difficult fight. The nearby Greeks from Athens tried to help the Ionians fight Darius. Naturally, Darius was threatened by these outsiders who allied with his enemies. The Greek historian Herodotus says this of Darius’s reaction to the Athenians:
The Great King asked who the Athenians were, and then on being told, called for his bow. He took it, set an arrow on the string, shot it up into the air and cried: “Grant, O God, that I may punish the Athenians.” Then he commanded one of his servants to repeat to him the words, “Master, remember the Athenians,” three times, whenever he sat down to dinner.As quoted in Don Nardo, The Persian Empire (San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998) p. 54
So this is where the trouble started between the Persians and the Greeks. It started with Darius wanting to punish the Athenians. With some careful planning, Darius and his army marched over to Athens, Greece to start a fight against them. In 490 B.C., the two armies met on the plain of Marathon, which is about 25 miles from Athens. It’s important to remember that distance.
The Persian army under Darius I was not prepared for the fight they found in Greece. Though the Persians greatly outnumbered the Greeks, the Greek army charged on them aggressively. In fact, they successfully ran the Persians back to their ships! Darius, seeing his defeat, actually withdrew from the fight. The Persians lost as many as six thousand men while the Athenians lost only two hundred. It was an incredible victory for the Athenians, and it showed the world that the strong and mighty Persians could be defeated. They had been on a real winning streak up until then.
While there was great reason to celebrate in the Greek army camp, it occurred to the Athenians that the Persians who sailed off in their ships might try to sneak into Athens on their way home. Since there were no telephones or news networks back then, the people in Athens would have no way of knowing that the Greeks had beaten the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The Persians might act as if they had won and try to sack the city of Athens itself.
Pheidippides Runs to Athens
According to Plutarch and Lucian (Greek writers of the second century), the Athenians came up with a great idea. They would send one man as a messenger on foot all the way to Athens to tell the people there of the victory. They chose the fastest runner around, whose name was Pheidippides (fye DIP
uh deez). Allegedly, Pheidippides had already been running messages to and from Sparta and was undoubtedly tired. Nonetheless, Pheidippides took off and ran the 25 miles to Athens.
When Pheidippides got there, he bravely shared the news of the victory at Marathon. Worn out and breathless, he stated, “Rejoice, we conquer!” And with those last words, he fell down dead from exhaustion! In honor of the long run that Pheidippides made, which cost him his life, the term marathon came to mean a long race of 26 miles. Sometimes we use the term to refer to anything that is long and difficult.
Now, as fascinating as this story may be, some believe it is laced with legend and that the mythical story was kept popular by an English poet named Robert Browning. (In 1879, Browning wrote a poem titled “Pheidippides” in honor of the legendary runner.) It may be that there was indeed a special runner named Pheidippides. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Pheidippides running all the way to Sparta and back to ask for reinforcements. But Herodotus gives a different version of who ran the distance that we call a “marathon.” He reports that Athenian soldiers ran all the way from Marathon to Athens “with all possible speed to save their city and succeeded in reaching it before the arrival of the Persians.” If that were the case, the event would have looked much more like a modern marathon, with hundreds of soldiers running together about 26 miles!
Remembering the Victory!
Regardless of who ran the distance, the Athenians wanted their countrymen, and those they traded with, never to forget who won the Battle of Marathon and who fled. So they decided to add a crescent moon to the tetradrachma (teh truh DRACK muh), one of their favorite coins that was used far and wide in the region. Why a crescent moon? Well, the tetradrachma was already decorated with an owl on it (as a symbol of the goddess Athena) and some olive branches (to represent their wealth). The reason for adding the crescent was that Darius was defeated on a night when the moon was waning. A waning moon is in the shape of a crescent. (What a clever way for the Greeks to keep the memory of their victory alive!)
So, that’s the famous story of the Battle of Marathon and how it’s been remembered.
Need some family-friendly activities for all ages?
Younger Students—Footraces. Do you like to run? Hold a footrace today and see who is the fastest runner in your family or school group. Good marathon runners learn to pace themselves and not run too fast in the beginning. Sprinters run as fast as they can through a whole race because it is for a shorter distance. With your teacher, talk about what it means to “pace yourself.”
Middle Students—Waxing and Waning. Do you know the phases of the moon? Find and write out definitions for the following terms: new moon, crescent moon, first-quarter moon, gibbous moon, last-quarter moon, and full moon. A moon is called “waxing” as it progresses from a new moon to a full moon, and it is called “waning” as it moves from a full moon back to a new moon. Though the Battle of Marathon happened thousands of years ago, we know from their records what the moon was doing on that significant night.
Older Students—Modern-Day Hero. To the people of ancient Athens, Pheidippides was a hero. Running from the plain of Marathon to the city of Athens, he gave his life to announce the Greek victory at Marathon (and warn the Athenians of possible retaliation from the Persians). For inspiration, search through world news this week to find a modern-day hero. Look for someone who gave his or her life for another person or for a cause. Write a paragraph or more about what you find and title your paper “Modern-Day Hero.”