Everyone knows the original story of the marathon, right? This runner whatsisname ran 26 miles back from the Plain of Marathon to Athens, bringing news of the Athenian victory over the Persians, and he died of exhaustion after he gasped out his story. I have to say that Ive always found this an improbable tale, even when I was told it in school. Why should anyone run themselves to death to bring good news? And can you kill yourself by collapsing at the end of one 26-mile slog?
In fact, the real story is better than the legend, and much more of an inspiration to todays runners. For the Greeks won the Battle of Marathon as much by their running as by their fighting.
In 490BC a Persian army of over 25,000 men (some accounts put the figure as high as 60,000), plus cavalry and some 600 ships, invaded Greece and began to ravage the coast of Attica. The target was always the city state of Athens and their plan was simple: to land at Marathon, 26 miles north of Athens; beat the small Athenian army; then sail round the coast to invade the city from the south, where they hoped the gates would be opened to them by traitors within.
The Athenians could only put up an army of 10,000 men, with no cavalry and no ships. Their allies from the tiny city state of Plataia sent 1000 soldiers. The Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered, but when the Persians landed, the Athenians and Plataians marched out to Marathon, a narrow plain by the sea where they could block the road to Athens. It was then about August 5 or 6.
This is where the running epic began. The Athenians needed help from Sparta the Peloponnese city near the present-day town of Argos. Before they marched to Marathon the Athenians had sent the runner Pheidippides to beg the Spartans for assistance. He was a professional military messenger and must have been quite an athlete; able to cover dangerous ground alone, look after himself, commit accurate messages to memory and answer questions when he arrived.
If the situation was so desperate why didnt he use a horse? Because the quickest route to Sparta was too rough. It had to be done on foot. The distance from Athens to Sparta is 140 miles and Pheidippides apparently did it inside two days. This is feasible in 1982 three RAF officers (including a 56-year-old) tried the likely route and did it in 35 hours.
The Spartans would not send forces immediately. It was a religious festival in Sparta and they refused to set out until the full moon this would have been August 11-12. They could not have reached Athens sooner than August 20-21. It was vital that the Athenians knew the bad news as soon as possible, and Pheidippides must then have run another 140 miles back to Athens with the dire news. We dont know how long he took, but by August 11 the Athenians and Plataians certainly knew they were on their own.
Pheidippides had covered 280 rough miles in, at most, 10 days. He might have ridden some of the time, near to the Athens road, but he still covered almost a marathon a day, allowing for the time he spent fruitlessly in Sparta.
Faced with Pheidippides news, the Athenians decided that their best chance was a rapid attack of their own. At dawn, probably on August 12, they formed a phalanx and, to the astonishment of the Persian host, ran at them in a fierce assault. The Greeks deliberately left their centre weak and allowed it to fall back, but their strong flanks broke through the Persians and then wheeled inwards to trap the main body of the enemy in the centre of the plain. Once the Persians had been broken up in this way, they were routed and the Greeks pursued them over the three miles back to their ships at the north end of the plain.
The Persians rallied at the ships and a second battle developed which lasted several hours. It was here that the greatest of the Greek losses occurred, including that of Kallimachos, the commander. By noon it was all over. The surviving Persians had escaped, leaving about 6500 dead. The Athenian dead numbered under 200, the Plataians about 600. It was a stunning victory, but the Greeks knew this was not the end.
Now came another astonishing feat of running. The Persian fleet was already at sea, in the second phase of the plan, sailing round Cape Sounion to arrive on the beach at Phaleron and march against an undefended Athens. It would be 8-10 hours sailing. An advance fleet, probably with cavalry on board (for the dash into the city) had already set off before the battle had begun. Almost certainly, this is what accounts for the legendary 26-mile run of Pheidippides. He was running back to announce the victory, but also to warn the Athenians that the Persian fleet was even now on its way. Quite possibly he did die at this point, perhaps from long-term exhaustion, perhaps from wounds. One of the walls of the Acropolis is named after him, to mark the place where he was said to have collapsed.
More to the point, the Athenian army at Marathon had endured a fierce hand-to-hand battle, a running pursuit of almost three miles, and a second battle around the ships and the marshes. Now they had to race back to Phaleron before the Persians could land their cavalry. Its hard for us to imagine how people feel after such a battle. Modern research suggests that hysteria, numbness, multiple minor wounds and, above all, sheer exhaustion form a complex set of reactions that send some soldiers into acts of casual cruelty, others weeping for their mothers, most into dumb lethargy.
But there was no time for any of this. The Athenians who were freshest set off as fast as they could to cover the distance back to the city. The rest gathered themselves up, some in formal units, others as groups of friends and neighbours, with their shields and equipment slung on their backs, and ran and trotted back as best they could in the August heat. We could say it was the first mass marathon not exactly a fun run but all runners will understand the sort of help and support they must have been giving each other, and the reception of the Athenian populace who came out onto the Phaleron road to bring food and supplies to them.
By late afternoon it had become a straight race; the Persian fleet rounding Cape Sounion as the fastest Greek soldiers ran south through Vrana, Kephista, into the city and out again towards the coast. The first Athenians at Phaleron made it in five or six hours, only an hour ahead of the advance ships of the Persian fleet. Their victory in this race was critical.
The Persians couldnt believe their eyes when they saw the troops, filthy, bloodstained, hollow with exhaustion, lining up on Phaleron beach ready to repel the landing. The Persians hesitated, fatally, waiting for the main fleet to arrive during the night. And as night fell, the rest of the Athenian army came limping into the Greek camp. They began to cook their food and, as the night wore on, the Persians saw more fires springing up on the ground behind the beach. By dawn, their worst fears were confirmed. The Athenians were there, over 9000 of them, ready to fight again. The Persians were still overwhelmingly stronger, but now the Greeks seemed superhuman, and Persian nerves failed. The Persian fleet hung around for a few days in the vain hope of an opening, and then sailed away.
The campaign was over and the Men of Marathon were celebrated across generations for their running as much as for their fighting. They were the saviours of the city, and to have performed such prodigious feats it was assumed that they must have been the instruments of the gods. The legend of Pheidippides came to symbolise both the greatness of the soldiers and the role of the deities. There is a neat irony, however, in all this. The Greeks would have regarded our modern marathon as a grotesque contest, too specialised, requiring too much training not what a gentleman should spend his time doing. Perhaps that is why they could only explain what Pheidippides and the other Men of Marathon achieved by regarding it as somehow divine.
Michael Clarke is Professor of Defence Studies at Kings College, University of London