We all know Marathons as long-distance races where people race/walk for hours or even days to complete a traject of many kilometers. We all know this, that’s nothing new …
But what most of us don’t know, is that this word, like “Democracy” and “Narcissism”, originates back from the ancient Greek world, more specifically from the battle of Marathon that took place between the Greeks and the Persians in the year 490 BC during the first Persian invasion of Greece. But Why does an Olympic race was named after a battle? Let us find out.
Our story starts when the Persian Achaemenid Empire successfully invaded Babylon, Egypt, Macedon, Lydia, and many other territories annexing some Greek city-states in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) in the process. Despite this tremendous expansion, king Darius the 1st, known as Darius the Great, was eager for more!
The problem here was that the Greek city-states of western Anatolia were democratic and refused to be ruled by Persian-appointed tyrants. This led to a massive uprising in these city-states known as the Ionian revolt in 499 B.C. This uprising was supported by the mainland Greek city-states of Athens and Eretria which submitted man and ships to the cause. Yet, the rebellion was eventually put down by 493 B.C and the city of Miletus was heavily punished as the chief and the igniter of the uprising. Still, King Darius, wisely, agreed to let the other Greek city-states under his domain keep their democracy.
Well, Democracy has won! and everyone is happy! … of course except for Athens and Eretria who need to get a proper punishment for defying the mighty Persian empire.
Seeking vengeance and new territories, King Darius led his army into mainland Greece. Many Geek cities decided to surrender regarding the very convenient peace terms offered by the Persians and lacking the man and power needed to repel them. Yet, some of them refused. With no surprise, Athens and Eretria replied in blood by executing the Persian ambassadors. While Spartans famously threw them down a well because “THIS IS SPARTA!”
War began! The Persians successfully subdued some city-states and sacked the city of Eretria. The next item on the list was Athens. The army landed at a field called Marathon, some 42 km northeast of Athens and a large portion was sent by sea to loot the city of Athens in an attempt to outflank the defending forces. But, a 12 thousand strong army from Athens and Plataea has come to face them at Marathon and against all odds, a legendary bold Athenian charge, and reinforcements from Sparta led to an unexpected great Greek victory. Yet, there was no time to celebrate since the victorious army had to march back to Athens to defend it from the other portion of the invading army.
This time we can really say Democracy has won and Greece is saved!
Hold on! the question was “Why an Olympic race was named after a battle?”. And the answer is a man called by the name of Pheidippides.
The legend says that Pheidippides interfered twice with our story. First is when the Athenians faced the Persian army and realized they are heavily outnumbered, they sent Pheidippides to ask Sparta for help. Our man ran for 36 hours completing the distance of 250km to fulfill his mission and Spartan reinforcements were able to join the battle just in time. This was the reason behind the initiation of the “Spartathon” in 1983, an annual race that goes from Athens to Sparta. But, that wasn’t enough, as Pheidippides has to save Greece once again after the battle by running from the battlefield back to Athens before the Persians could reach it. As he reached the city, he announced the defeat of the Persian army with his famous word “Nenikekamen!”, “We are victorious” before immediately dying of exhaustion. Thus, preventing the people of Athens from surrendering the city upon seeing the Persian fleet.
And this was the reason why each year, athletes from all over the world compete in a 42km race in the Olympics called “Marathon”.
So next time you compete in a race, or you have the simplest of tasks to do, make sure to get it done! this way history may remember you as it has done with Pheidippides. Because if that single man failed to finish the race until the end, Athens would have never got the power and the prestige to become the major Greek city-state for centuries to come and it won’t be the capital of modern-day Greece (if there would be a Greece). Maybe the Persians would have successfully conquered mainland Greece and we wouldn’t have “Marathons”, “Philosophy”, or “Democracy” … at least not the names.
That was our story for today, you can find a very detailed historical description of the battle of Marathon, its outcomes and why it’s considered a critical moment in ancient history in this link: http://turningpointsoftheancientworld.com/index.php/2017/07/09/marathon-490bc-athens/