The Battle of Marathon took place in August or September 490 BC, the combatants being the city-state of Athens and the Persian Empire under King Darius. The details are quite well known thanks to the Greek historian Herodotus, although the battle happened several years before he was born. That said, the reason why the battle is best known to history is one of the less trustworthy parts of the account.
Darius was determined to bring the city-states of Greece under his control, having already conquered Turkey and Macedonia, and to that end he landed an army of 20,000 men on the shore of the Bay of Marathon, 25 miles from Athens. The Athenians sent a force of 10,000 “hoplites” to meet them. These were infantry troops, armed with a large shield and a long stabbing spear.
With the armies in full view of each other, nothing happened for five days as each side waited for the other to make the first move. Eventually it was the Greeks who attacked, advancing at a run and being met by a hail of arrows.
The Persians were astounded that the Greeks could hope to win given that they had no cavalry nor archers, and at first it looked as though they would be proved right. However, when the battle turned to hand-to-hand fighting it was the Greeks who triumphed.
The Persian ranks broke and they fled back to the safety of their ships, having lost about 6,000 casualties. By contrast, the Greek losses – according to Herodotus – were around 200.
And did Pheidippides run all the way to Athens with news of the victory, dying after his mission was accomplished and bequeathing the “Marathon” to the world of athletics? Well, not according to Herodotus, who described Pheidippides as taking the news to Sparta, which he reached two days later before returning to Athens and not expiring when he did so. It was the much later writer Lucian who gave voice to the generally believed myth.