As I ambled along Marathonomáchon road, which translates as Marathon battle, I imagined the event that took place here 2,500 years ago. At the junction I turned right to reach the carpark for the Marathon Archaeological Site and to the left of its entrance was a bronze statue of Miltiades, the Greek commander who brought victory at the Battle of Marathon. On the grounds of the archaeological site was the tumulus (burial mound) of the Marathon warriors, also known as ‘Soros’, who died on the battlefield.
Let’s roll back the time to 490BC and imagine the Persian fleet of 600 warships advancing across the Aegean Sea. Under the leadership of two commanders Datis and Artaphernes (who was the nephew of Darius, King of Persia) the ships sailed into Eritrea and completely decimated it before making their way into the Bay of Marathon and onto its shores. According to modern historians the Persian army consisted of approximately 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry far outnumbering the Athenian army of 9,000 and the 1,000 Plataeans who aided them.
The Persians disembarked on the beach of Schinias next to the Great Marsh, whilst the Athenians took up defensive positions across the marsh blocking the exits. The Athenians’ intent was to hold off any advancement from the Persians while they waited for the Spartans to arrive (they arrived after the battle finished). Without their own cavalry the Athenians were at a great risk against the large numbers of Persian cavalry. However, due to reasons unknown the Persian cavalry was absent on the day the Athenians at the behest of their commander, Miltiades attacked.
Taking up a phalanx formation (a tightly packed rectangular formation), each Athenian was armed with a thrusting spear between 4.9-8.2ft (1.5-2.5m) in length, a wooden shield covered in bronze and a short sword approximately 24in (60cm) long. The commander, Militiades, extended the phalanx formation to the length of the Persian one weakening its centre by reducing its depth but maintaining full strength on the flanks.
Advancing at a steady pace to close the one mile (1.6km) gap between the two armies, the Athenians accelerated their pace when the Persian’s arrows rained upon them. Charging at full speed into the Persian army the flanks of the Persians crumbled and the archers with no armour or shields had no other means of protecting themselves. With no hand-to-hand combat experience the Persian flanks retreated and escaped back to their ships.
The centre of the Athenian formation fared less well. Being weaker at the centre they were up against the elite Persian units. Having to cross scrub vegetation their advancement was slowed down, exposing them to Persian archers for much longer than the Athenians in the flanks. The Persians successfully broke through the centre and for a brief period they thought they had won the battle.
However, the Athenians on the flanks abandoned their charge and turned to attack the Persians in the centre. The Persians gave up the fight and before they could be surrounded, they fled back to their ships. The Athenians gave chase and continued attacking on the beach as the Persians attempted to re-embark their ships.
The Athenians captured seven Persian ships and killed approximately 6,400 Persians whilst they sustained a loss of 192 Athenians and 11 Plataeans.
It was at this point that Pheidippides was deployed to run his marathon to Athens and declare victory at Marathon prior to collapsing from exhaustion and dying. To be fair to the legend himself he did run to Sparta return prior to this and wouldn’t have had much time for recovery.
The tumulus 32ft (10m) high mound was built at the end of the battle where the cremated remains of the 192 fallen Athenians were buried. Black-figure vases were dedicated to the fallen at the tumulus by their families which today are housed in the town’s archaeological museum two miles (3.4km) east of the tumulus. Near the museum is the smaller tumulus of the 11 fallen Plataeans.
The journey here was a circular route around the tumulus then back on Marathonomáchon to the main road. Turning left back onto the main road, I continued on a straight and flat section for the next 2mi (3.25km).
Famished, I pulled into a restaurant. Greek cuisine is scrumptious, filled with deep and tantalizing flavours from dips such as tzatziki (yoghurt, cucumber and garlic) and taramasalata (fish roe dip) to moussaka (layered aubergine with mince lamb topped with a bit of bechamel sauce and cheese). However, my all-time favourite is the Spanakopita, made of crispy layers of filo pastry filled with spinach and feta cheese and a nice side salad of chilled green bean salad with tomatoes and dill. I paired it with a glass of retsina, a Greek wine that “derives part of its flavour from exposure to tree resins, most generally pine resin” and is complementary to the strong flavour of feta cheese.