When I was a child, a Marathon was a chocolate bar with peanuts inside. Nowadays it’s called a Snickers. A marathon is also an endurance race covering a distance of 26 miles. But have you heard of the Battle of Marathon? It was fought 2,507 years ago possibly to the very day. It shaped the future of our continent, Europe.
At the time, the mighty Persian Empire was the world’s superpower and it had designs on Greece. Persia’s king, Darius I, amassed a fleet of ships to carry his forces across the Mediterranean. They landed just outside Athens, near the small town of Marathon.
The Athenians managed to muster about 10,000 men to face a Persian force some 25,000 strong. They marched to Marathon where they faced the enemy and awaited reinforcements from their ally, Sparta. But help was more than a week away – could they hold off the larger Persian force for so long?
When five days had passed someone noticed that the Persian cavalry was missing. Whether it had moved to a higher position or had boarded the ships in order to assault Athens is unclear. Whatever the reason, it had gone. The Greeks decided to attack.
They marched slowly until they were in range of the Persian bows. Then the Greeks charged with most of their forces in their flanks. They may have been outnumbered 2:1 but the Greeks did have one advantage – their armour. It protected them from arrows and made their advance hard for the Persians to cope with.
The two lines met and the Persians broke through the Greeks’ centre. But the masses of Greeks at both ends of the line overcame their foes and surrounded the Persians. The invaders panicked and ran back towards their ships. Many drowned in the ensuing chaos. 6,400 Persians died that day yet only 201 Greeks fell. Against all the odds, the Greek underdogs had won!
To spread word of this heroic victory the Greeks sent a messenger to Athens. Pheidippides ran the 26 miles so quickly that he died as soon as he got there. The modern marathon race is based on Pheidippides’ feat.
We don’t know the exact date of the Greek victory but tradition holds that the day was won on September 12th 490 BC. So today we celebrate an event which led to the flourishing of Greek philosophy, mathematics, literature and art – all of which have shaped Europe’s culture and made it the centre of learning for a thousand years and more.
If, like me, you find ancient history fascinating then take a look at Education Quizzes. We have history quizzes for all ages from KS1 to GCSE, with quizzes on eras from the Stone Age to the modern world. Why not take a journey into the past and find out how well you know your history?