The Long Run

English: Painting of Pheidippides.

English: Painting of Pheidippides. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of the Μάχη τοῡ Μαραθῶνος (Battle of Marathon) has long drawn writers and poets. The ancient epic pits the outnumbered Athenians against the mighty Persians, and since the actual event took place over 2500 years ago, many writers have played with the facts to suit their various needs. The outcome is always riveting, no matter if the date of battle is set on August 12th, 490 BC, or September 12th. Some historians estimate the Persian force numbered 25,000 men; others put it at 60,000, not including cavalry and ships. Either way, they greatly outnumbered the 10,000 Athenians waiting their arrival.


Not in dispute is that one of Western civilization’s most storied military events took place in a field roughly twenty-six miles from Athens, near the town of Marathon, in what would be the first of many attempts by the Persians to subjugate the Greeks. The Athenians, desperate for reinforcements, sent word to their ferocious Spartan neighbors 140 miles away. The only way was by foot, and so professional military messenger Pheidippides  covered the rough, mountainous terrain in two days, and by foot. The Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival and wouldn’t commit troops at that time, so Pheidippides ran back to Athens (again, in two days) with the sober news.


Undaunted, the Athenians (aided by tiny neighbori
Bust of Plutarch of Chaeronea, a Greek philoso...

Bust of Plutarch of Chaeronea, a Greek philosopher and author (46-c.122). The statue is located at the Archaeological Museum of Delphi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ng city-state Plataia) planned a fierce, early morning attack, surprising the Persians and engaging in hand-to-hand combat, successfully (if momentarily) driving the invaders off shore. There would be more running, this time by the entire Athenian army, back to their undefended city to meet the Persians, now under sail and headed that way. Pheidippides ran to Athens with his fellow soldiers, where, at the foot of the Acropolis, he famously announced victory,(
νικῶμεν!) then promptly expired.


Still, over 400 years would pass until the historian Plutarch wrote about the battle in his collection of essays called Moralia.  His “In what were the Athenians famous?” (Κατὰ τί ἔνδοξοι Αθηναῖοι;), cites a lost work of fellow Hellenic writer Herodotus, who had written an account of the battle thirty to forty years after it happened. Herodotus did not bind himself to the truth - he likely exaggerated the Persian death toll, for starters - but his is the only surviving account from that era, and the one from which Plutarch wrote his own essay.  


Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photographed Septe...

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, photographed September, 1859, by Macaire Havre, engraving by T. O. Barlow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1800s Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning composed a poem dedicated to that ancient battle.  Notable among young lovers for penning “How do I love thee? Let me Count the Ways...,” Browning also wrote, at the tender age of fourteen, no less, a four-book epic narrative poem recounting the battle at Marathon. Handwritten on medium-weight paper with iron-gall ink, the 1819 manuscript, eventually ended up at the Harry Ransom Library at the University of Texas, where it underwent repair in April 2013. Adding to the already difficult challenge of conserving century-old paper, Browning would revise portions of her manuscript by sewing pieces of paper onto the existing larger document. Archivists managed to save the work by removing the original threads during restoration. Then, the document was restitched together by using a combination of archival thread alongside the original. Like those who compete in the race named in honor of the ancient battle, the story of Marathon trudges on, undaunted, persevering against the odds. 


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