The battle at Marathon took place in 490 BC. A Persian invasion of Greece, led by the mighty king Darius was repulsed by a small Athenian army. Legend has it that at the successful conclusion of the battle a runner called Philippides ran back to Athens to spread news of the victory. The approaching larger Spartan army would not be needed to oppose the invaders. Apparently Philippides dropped dead of exhaustion at the end of his run.
There is confusion over the legends for there is another account that a runner with the same name was despatched to Sparta with a call for help when it was realised the Persians were approaching. Hence, the march of the Spartans to the rescue.
Whatever the story the fact remains that the Persians suffered a great loss. Greek civilisation entered into a flowering cultural period which formed the basis of what we call Western civilisation. It was one of history’s great turning points.
Now in the modern Olympics the distance that Philippides apparently ran has become the classic event.
We had a jubilant email recently from Kathrine who had just run in the Athens classic marathon. In her words, ‘to finish in the great Panathenaic Stadium on the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon was an ultimate running experience. For me, it was my first road marathon in 34 years (I did an off-road marathon in March in New Zealand) and was extremely validating from the point of view of being able to just finish a marathon at the age of 63 on an unforgiving road surface after 50 years of running.’ Her time was 4 hours 48 minutes.
Kathrine is world-renowned for being the first woman to run a marathon. She crashed the Boston marathon to do this. She describes this and a life devoted to running in her autobiography 'Marathon Woman'. (I’ve always had a scholarly interest in athletics, a highlight was to see the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh 40 years ago but Anne is one of the least sports-intersted people I’ve ever met. Kathrine’s book gripped her). Katherine's blog is www.katherineswitzer.com. She and her husband, Roger Robinson have written another excellent book ’26.2 Marathon Stories’ about that distance race. His blog is www.roger-robinson.com
I’ve got a different take on Marathon. I wrote this poem when I worked as an aide to David Lange. It was the height of the feud between him and Roger Douglas There had been a stormy press conference, even disrespectful I thought in that the media had on the whole swallowed the Douglas line. [It was partisan times] In my bitterness I penned the outline of this poem. History is about the lessons of the past and the present.
Darius would have summoned a press conference
cameras pan entrance, egress
recorders click on & off.
disrespectful like this lot
quoting unreliable sources & the spin-doctor’s latest handout.
the disintegrating army streaming back to the departing ships
laptop copy to be faxed back to Sardis
hacked corpses videoed for deadline viewing
they’d have questioned more robustly.
In the end the other side did little better
Miltiades prosecuted because the polls went down
those who fall by the sword have one advantage
they remain courageous – those left behind
linger, fodder for pen, pulpit & processor.
In time bleached bones reveal the arrowheads.