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Marathon, Democracy and Western Civilisation

June 29, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 228

In the centuries before 500 BC, Greek civilisation had not taken firm roots. Greece was more a collection of city-states like Athens, Sparta, Macedonia, Ionia etc., than an organised country. It lay spread overfrom the Aegean Sea, to the shores of the Black Sea, South Italy and Turkey. These states and their colonies reached great levels of cultural prosperity. Classical Greece excelled in architecture, drama, science, mathematics and philosophy. Though the city states did not share an identity, they partook in a common culture and spoke the same Greek language.

There were frequent skirmishes. The states alternatively allied with or fought one other. In 508 BC, when Athens was threatened by Sparta, the Athenian aristocrat Cleisthenes proposed to his fellow citizens that Athens undergo a revolution: that all citizens share in political power, regardless of status: that Athens become a "democracy". Athenians responded enthusiastically and succeeded in repulsing Sparta. The advent of the democracy cured many of the ills of Athens, leading to a 'golden age' for the Athenians.

Democracy also taught Athenians to be the physical guardians of their city-state. Almost everyone served in the army one time or the other and could be conscripted up to the age of sixty. These citizen fighters were called hoplites. Hoplites were armed with a long spear and fought in a 'phalanx formation.' They wore steel helmets and held a huge shield in front. During battle, men stood so close to each other that the shield to shield phalanx formation proved a formidable moving barrage of steel. The phalanx was anywhere between five to fifty men deep.

Though the city-states squabbled amongst themselves, Persia (today's Iran) was a common enemy. Persia was a very dominant power those days and had proved invincible. When Ionia rebelled against Persia, Athens supported the former. So in BC 490, Darius I, the King of Persia sent his navies to Greece, with an avowed aim to burn down Athens. In September of that year, the Persians landed in the Bay of Marathon and planned to march on to Athens which was about 40 km away. The Bay led to the Plain of Marathon, which was surrounded by hills.

When news of the Persian invasion reached Athens, a large enthusiastic volunteer group of hoplites,led by the warrior Miltiadesset march towards Marathon. Hiding in the mountains above the Plain of Marathon, they surveyed the Persians. To their dismay, the latter far outnumbered them. They then decided to seek the help of Sparta, by despatching a runner - messenger named Pheidippides.

Pheidippides ran the 240 km to Sparta, seeking Spartan support. For the Spartans, the omens were not right to send an army immediately. So they asked the Athenians to stall the Persian army for some time till they could join the battle. But Athenians came to know that the Persians were ready to march on to Athens in another five days. They decided to pre-empt.

Even as the sun rose on the 10th September 490 BC, the Persians were astounded to see huge reflective walls of steel descending on to them from the surrounding mountains.

Singing their paeanes or battle hymns, the Athenians were hurtling down the hill sides.

Taken by surprise, the Persians retreated to the centre of the Plain of Marathon.

The hoplites stopped singing and fiercely charged towards the enemy.

The Persians drew out their swords and fire-throwing missiles and attacked the Athenians and massacred the front-liners at the centre of the phalanx and triumphantly moved forward.

But that was a bait to draw the Persians to the middle of the battle ground. Very soon the right and the left flanks of the Athenian phalanx which was several men deep, closed in like a massive can crusher.

The hoplitestrampled on to them with savage force, raising ear-shattering war cries of 'elelelelef! elelelelef!!'

The promachoe or the battle-hardened front-liners rained rapid, repeated spear thrusts on the startled Persians like arrows shooting out of steel barricades.

When the spears broke, the front-liners ducked into the phalanx, and the next row took over the carnage.

Trapped on the left and the right by the rapidly advancing Greeks and the sea at the rear, the Persians desperately fought back with their light armour.

But before the swords could pierce the steel blocks, long, sharp spears homed in on their targets.

In matter of hours, the Persians lay mercilessly butchered.

Athenian hoplites, though outnumbered thirty-three to one, had won decisively against the Persians for the first time. History would record the fact that superior armour, in terms of large shields and long spears scored the day for the Athenians.

By then Pheidippides returned with his message from Sparta. Now the hoplites had a different need. They had to send word urgently to their home Assembly in Athens that they have won the war. Somehow Pheidippides was again chosen for the task, probably as he was the fastest runner-messenger they had.

Pheidippides set froth again, crossing two hills and forty kilometres towards Athens, carrying the good tidings. He ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming 'Nikomen', (We have won), before collapsing and dying, sprawled out naked. Thorns and scrubs on the way had torn off his clothes.

The Battle of Marathon was a watershed in the Greco-Persian wars, showing the Greeks that the Persians could be beaten. The following two hundred years saw the rise of the Classical Greekcivilization, culminating in the meteoric rise of Alexander the Great (323 BC). After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Greek cultural influence and power was at its zenith in Europe and Asia, till the final conquest of the Greek heartlands by Rome in 146 BC. Despite their military superiority, the Romans admired and became heavily influenced by the achievements of Greek culture, hence Horace's famous statement: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit ("Greece, although captured, took its wild conqueror captive")

Classical Greek culture, especially philosophy, had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, which carried a version of it to many parts of the Mediterranean region and Europe. Thus Greece is generally considered to be the seminal culture which provided the foundation for modern Western culture.

European history would have swerved on an entirely different course, if not for that decisive win in the Battle of Marathon. Acknowledging this, John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, famously suggested that "The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings".

Probably the Battle of Marathon would have been a forgotten chapter in world history, if not for the touching legend of Pheidippides. Most accounts trace Pheidippides to Herodotus, the Greek historian of the Greco - Persian Wars. Though Herodotus had accurately recorded historical facts alone, some doubts have been cast as to whether Pheidippides was real or a creation of poetic imagination.

Real or imaginary, this was the essence of Greek philosophy. The hero of an epoch-making war was not its general, or the man who took the maximum lives. A runner, a runner-messenger emerged the victor; an emphasis on fitness over-riding violence and valour. If Pheidippides had not been eulogised by Greek historian Herodotus, the world would have been poorer by a highly motivating and unifying sport, an activity that brings forth the competitive spirit in all humans in the most constructive, rather than destructive form.

Long after Herodotus immortalised Pheidippides, Robert Browning resurrected the character in his 1879 poem Pheidippides.

So, when Persia was dust, all cried, "To Acropolis!

Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!

Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!" He flung down his shield

Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the fennel-field

And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,

Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay,

Joy in his blood bursting his heart, - the bliss!

This poem brought back the memories of Pheidippidesinto sports events generally. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin was seriously contemplating a revival of the ancient Olympic Games tradition of Greece towards the end of the nineteenth century, his friend and French philologist Michel Bréal suggested to include a running event named 'Marathon' in the programme of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896. It was Bréal who first coined the word 'Marahton' to denote the classic run of Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens. The distance was then set at 42 kilometres, the actual distance from Marathon to Athens.

The winner in the first Olympic marathon was Spyridon "Spyros" Louis, a Greek water-carrier, clocking 2:58:50. Since the modern games were founded, it has become a tradition for the men's Olympic marathon to be the last event of the athletics calendar, with a finish inside the Olympic stadium, often within hours of, or even incorporated into, the closing ceremonies.

How then did the original 42 km race convert to 42.195 km? This happened in the London Olympics - 1908. The distance from the Windsor Castle where the race started, to the Olympic Stadium was 42 km. But the Royal box where the king sat was another 195 metres away. Runners had to cover this distance also to finish in front of the Royal box. It is a measure of the British influence those days, that in every subsequent Olympics, the same distance standard was maintained. Thus a standard marathon race became 42.195 km or 26 miles, 385 yards.

Anand Anantharaman, an editor and publisher by profession, has a passion for running. He has run full marathons in seven continents and in the North Pole, thus joining the exclusive "Marathon Grand Slam" Club, which has about 50 members worldwide as on 1st December, 2011. Currently, Anand is concentrating on Barefoot Running, having run full marathons barefoot in 4 continents, and hopes to complete 6 continents. His website has a database of 1500+ worldwide marathons. Runners can blog their experiences at the site.

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