This Day in History: September 12, 490 B.C: Battle of Marathon, Greece
Updated: Jun 8
On this day in the year 490 B.C., on a beach just outside of the present-day Greek town of Marathon a coalition of Greek forces defeated a much larger force of invading Persians, kicking off an era of Greek democracy that helped to shape much of the institutions that we live under today.
In the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. democracy in the Greek world was beginning to evolve. Athens was one of the first movers in adopting a democratic system of government and from 594 until 510 B.C. the city-state fought over whether the system would stay in place or whether it would return to the autocratic dictatorships of its past. By 510 B.C. the Athenian Democratic experiment was fully underway and many other Greek city states would soon begin to declare themselves democracies.
A major example of this occurred during the Ionian Revolt of 499 to 493 B.C. During this time a number of Persian territories in the Aegean Sea revolted. These territories included Ionia, Aeolis, Doris, Caria Athens, Eretria, Cyprus and a number of them ultimately declared themselves democracies in the process.
In doing so, they requested the support of Athens, whose young decmocratic system they had emulated. Ultimately, by 493 B.C., the Persian Empire, led by Darius the Great, would be successful in putting down the revolt but the Athenian’s actions in support of it was another matter for the Persians to deal with. Prior to the battle the Persians would offer the Greek cities an opportunity to submit to their authority by making their signature demand for “earth and water”. While many states knelt to the Persian’s demand, Athens and Sparta refused to, and this refusal would ultimately set the stage for the Battle of Marathon just three years later and the better known Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.
Following the Athenian and Spartan’s refusal to submit to Persian rule, King Darius the Great sent an army of 25,000 to invade the Greek mainland. This force chose to land at Marathon. Because the Persian decided to sail down the Greek coast prior to landing, the Greek army, consisting of roughly 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans, was able to march to block the Persian’s exits from the beach at Marathon.
During this period of time a young messenger named Pheidippides had been sent to Sparta to request their aid in the battle against the Persians. When he arrived the Spartans were engaged in a tribal festival called Carneia and they could not provide the Athenian’s aid for at least 10 days.
Ultimately, the battle ensued without the Spartans and resulted in an Athenian and Plataean victory over the vastly larger Persian army. The accounts of the battle differ somewhat but ultimately the larger Persian force was taken by surprise and were unable to mobilize their cavalry in defense. The victory was an enormous accomplishment for the newly formed democracy and it helped to bolster the confidence of the Athenians and other Greeks for centuries to come. Had it not been for their success in this decisive battle of the Greco-Persian wars, it is difficult to imagine what the world would look like today.
Following the battle, legend has it that the messenger Pheidippides sprinted roughly 25 miles from the battlefield to Athens to report the news of the victory to the people there, and ultimately dying on the spot where he presented the news. This legend was ultimately the inspiration for the modern marathon race in which athletes run a stretch of roughly the same distance. The modern world record for the marathon for men is held by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge 2:01:39 (2018) and for women is held by Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei 2:14:04 (2019).
The next time you think or have a discussion about democratic / republican forms of government, be sure to take appreciation of the Battle of Marathon as well as all of the people who have sacrificed to refine the concept of self governance over thousands of years so that we can enjoy the freedoms that we do today.