It took place on 12th September, 490 BCE.
I had planned to commemmorate the event on the day, but personal events overtook me.
Still, this is still the anniversary year, and it would be a shame to let it pass unmarked. Better late than never, and all that.
The Battle of Marathon is probably most famous today for giving its name to the long-distance running race. This use dates to 1896, and the first ever Olympics, when the legendary run of the Athenian messenger Pheidippides to Sparta to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians.
But while there is no doubt that the battle took place, a question mark hangs over whether Pheidippides ever really did make that “marathon” run.
The battle witnessed the Greeks first successful repulsion of an invasion by the then all-but invincible Persians, led by King Darius I. The victory by the Greeks was something of a miracle; the bulk of the force was made up of Athenians, noted for their prowess at sea, not land.
In the lead-up to the battle, the Athenians begged the Spartans — Greece’s crackest troops — to join them. But the Spartans were celebrating a festival at the time; Athens must hold the Persians until they’d finished, and they’d potter over to help them then.
So when, against all the odds, the Athenians were victorious, they felt entitled to gloat; hence Pheidippides’s run to tell the Spartans that they’d won — without Sparta — and their help was no longer required.
It’s a great tale, but it is notable in its absence from Herodotus’s account of the battle, written within the lifetimes of those who fought at it, appearing only in the work of the first centuryhistorian Plutarch.
The 2007 film 300, which dramatized another battle between the Greeks and Persians — Thermopylae — in 480 BCE, saw Leonidas, the name of the Spartan general, enter America’s top 1000 in 2008. To commemmorate Marathon, I thought I’d take a look at some of the names of its heroes.
First, of course, is the legendary Pheidippides himself. His name combines the Greek pheidos “sparing,” “thrifty,” with hippos “horse” and the suffix -idês, which originally carried the sense of “son of,” but as time went on came to be used pretty indiscriminately just as a popular name suffix. The name is occasionally turned into English as Phidippides, and a shorter form, in use in the Greek world, was Pheidias/Phidias, most famously borne by the fifth century BCE sculptor who made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, ranked one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Hero of the battle itself was Miltiades, an Athenian general. His name combines the suffix -iadês (essentially a variant of -idês) with miltos “red earth,” “red ochre,” and “red lead.” It is an interesting word, which in some contexts has magical connotations, being used as a magical term for “blood.” Sadly, following a failed expedition to Paros the year after Marathon, he was imprisoned, where he died.
Themistocles, later an important Athenian politician, commanded one of the “tribes” that made up the Athenian troops. His name combines themis “that which is laid down,” i.e. “law,” “custom,” etc. with klês an archaic form of kleos “glory,” “reknown.” Themis, however, is also the name of a Goddess, one of the Titans, so the name could also be interpreted as “glory of Themis.”
Aristides, another Athenian statesman as well as a soldier. He commanded another of the Athenian tribes. His name combines aristos “best” + -idês.
Aeschylus, one of the most famous of all Greek literary figures, author of The Oresteia, also fought at Marathon as a young man. His is an interesting name, deriving from aiskhos “shame” and “disgrace,” combined with a diminutive ending, thus “little disgrace.” It seems at first glance to be an odd name, but may be indicative that the Greeks, like many cultures past and present sometimes used names with “undesirable” meanings to persuade malevolent supernatural beings that the bearer was worthless, and thus not worth taking from this world.
Aeschylus’s brother Cynaegirus also fought at Marathon. His name is even more peculiar, seeming to combine kuôn “dog” with egeirô “to waken,” and “to stir up.”
And while I’m on the subject of writers, I ought to include Herodotus. He was born the year after Marathon, but his account of the war is regared as the first “history” in history, earning him the sobriquet, “the Father of History.” His name means “gift of Hera.”
And lastly, there is the one the Greeks were fighting, King Darius I. Darius is actually the Latin form of the king’s name in Greek, which is Dareios. And this, unsurprisingly, is the way the Greeks rendered the king’s real name — Dārayavahush, from the Old Persian dāraya “to hold” and “to possess” + vahu “good.” This is still a popular name in modern Iran, in the form Dariush.
Although Marathon is now so firmly associated with the race that the battle is neglected, it was not always so. It long captured the imagination of writers, poets and artists, most famously Lord Byron, and it is with a snippet of his famous, rousing poem, The Isles of Greece, I’ll end today, in homage to those who fought and died at Marathon, two and a half thousand years ago — give or take a month or two:
The Mountains look on Marathon–
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave
I could not deem myself a slave.