During the 34th “Authentic” Athens Marathon a group of runners, dressed a bit like the Spartans of the movie “300,” (but with modern running shoes and socks) made heads turn. The Polish runners belong to a group called “Spartans for the children” and often take part in races or other events in order to raise money for ill and disabled children.
It is a commendable initiative, but what I found funny (besides the ridiculous outfits) was that these Spartans arrived on time. You see, though invited to Marathon by the Athenians, the real Spartans of old arrived too late to take part in the battle.
The Persian campaign
In 490 BCE, a Persian campaign was launched against Greece. The Persian king Darius meant to punish the Greek cities of Athens and Eretria for helping the Greek states of Asia Minor when the latter revolted against the occupying Persian Empire.
Of course, the real reason for the campaign was the Persian desire to expand to the west. This was their second campaign against Greek territories; the first, a few years earlier, had failed when the treacherous seas around the Athos peninsula destroyed a good part of the Persian fleet.
Occupation of Greek cities
The expeditionary force of 490 BCE is said to have been vast; all ancient sources agree to that, despite giving different estimates. In any case, it must have been sufficient to overcome the resistance of the Greek cities it aimed to conquer.
Crossing the Aegean Sea, the Persian force took the Cycladic Islands under their control and moved on to Euboea, where they conquered the cities of Karystos and Eretria. Then their fleet landed in Attica and camped in the small plain of Marathon.
Athenians ask for help
The Athenians immediately dispatched a runner to seek help from the Spartans. However, the latter were prohibited, for religious reasons, from leaving Sparta before the full moon. They promised to run to the aid of the Athenians as soon as they could.
If the Athenians hoped that their runner would return accompanied by a Spartan force, they must have been disappointed. Yet he brought with him the promise of divine intervention, claiming that while running through the mountains of Arcadia the god Pan appeared to him and promised to help. The battle took place in Marathon soon after and the Athenians won against enormous odds.
The Spartans had not deceived the Athenians; they did send a force of 2,000 men immediately after the full moon. Unfortunately for them they arrived a full day after the battle.
It is said that they visited the battlefield, thus becoming the first ever “tourists” to the site. Herodotus, the historian, claims that they were impressed by what they saw. Whether they did or not is irrelevant. Yet I cannot help thinking that they must have felt a pang of envy that others could lay exclusive claim to a victory as glorious as this.
Indeed, the battle of Marathon was one of the most important events in the history of Athens and Greece. That was the first time that the Greeks managed to overcome a Persian force. Others were to follow.
It comes as no surprise that such an important event is accompanied by a host of legends, such as that of the runner who brought the news of the unexpected victory to the civilians gathered expectantly back in Athens. Sources cannot agree on what his name was, but it is indisputable that his story inspired the modern Marathon races, run all over the world.