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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

RETURN TO MARATHON

The Battle Field of Marathon


This is an old post from July 2006 when I made a return trip to Marathon, the site of the famous battle between the Greeks and the Persians in 490 BC  and the place where the race called 'the marathon' began.

 
June, 2005
I had a busy, eventful day today starting early this morning when I headed off on a day trip to Marathon. Last night as I lay in bed I had some uneasy thoughts about these plans, but after analyzing the reasons why I felt these trepidations, I recalled the details of my first trip there back in May 1984 just after I'd come to live in Greece. I'd always come to Greece in the autumn so I was not prepared for the climate of May and didn't realize that, though the day was overcast, the sun is very penetrating here. Consequently, I ended up having the worst sun-burn of my life, so serious I was sure my back would be scarred from the blisters.
Tumulus

How it happened was, I'd gone to Marathon to see the tumulus of the Greeks who had died at the battle of Marathon, and later gone to Marathon beach to enjoy the afternoon. After a few hours on the beach I stood on the highway waiting and waiting for the bus back to Athens. By this time I was feeling the affects of sun-stroke. The bus didn't come. But a nice looking man in a van stopped and asked if I'd like a ride. Without hesitation, because I simply had to get off that highway, I said yes. I realized later how risky it was, that my guardian angel must have been on high alert. When he turned off the highway onto a mountain road I got real scared. He stopped the van and I waited, trying not to panic. What the heck would I do anyway? Well...it all turned out okay. He'd only stopped to change into his shorts. He must have realized how frightened I was as he was quite kind to me and later drove me around to show me the home of Papandreaos, the Prime Minister, and other posh mansions in the area where he lived. Then he dropped me off so I could get the trolley home. (note: Later,  I was sick for days from sunburn and sunstroke. It taught me to respect the Greek sun, always wear sun-screen, carry water and wear a hat!)

Well, today sure wasn't going to be a repeat of that day! I set off covered with sun-screen, carrying water, food, and a hat, necessary equipment in this hot country. Got the bus at 11 a.m. for Marathon which is 42 k. NE of Athens. The road passes along the coast to the plain of Marathon which extends in a crescent around the Bay of marathon, skirted on the landward side by stony mountains. I explained to the ticket boy that I wanted to get off at the 'tombs and museum' which are on a side-road before you get to the town. It's an hour and half ride out to the east coast of Attika, past the various small coastal towns and resorts. I noticed we were passing the plain that is marked as the famous battle site, then the sign of the tumulus went whizzing past. Next I see we are entering Marathon and the boy told me it was here I should get off. (How in heck was I going to get back to where I wanted to be?) There was a museum where I was let off, but it turned out to be the new "preservation of the Marathon" museum. Across the street is the Olympic stadium entrance with the starting gate for all marathons run in Greece.
New Marathon Museum

The new museum was actually interesting. They were just setting up for some event tonight so the young lady was apologetic but showed me around. It is mainly a record in photos and writing of all the marathon since the first modern Olympics in 1896 when a Greek shepherd, Louis Spiridon, who was known for his powers of endurance won his first marathon and in a show of indescribably enthusiasm, 60,000 spectators and the King of Greece welcomed him in the Panathenaic Stadium as if he was the new Pheidippides, the runner of the original 40 miles from Marathon to Athens back in 490 BC.

There was a gallery of women runners too. The first woman to run a marathon was from Syros. She was known as "Melpomene" and she ran 40 k. of the 1896 marathon the day after it was officially run. She had been denied permission to run in the official race so she decided to run alone. She asked a priest to pray for her protection but he refused, saying he would only bless official athletes. Her finishing time was 5.30 hrs.


I was told I could get a bus to the tombs at 2 p.m. and I went to wait on the corner. Two buses passed and I visualized another incident like had happened back in '84. So I decided when the bus finally came (right at 2 pm as the schedule said!) that I'd go straight back to Athens. It turned out that the bus detoured around by the tombs and the beach. The tomb is in the middle of an olive grove, the dome of it rising above the trees. It's like a big upturned bowl with sod covering it. Nothing seems to have changed since I first saw it so I wasn't missing anything new.

The beach though had been built up with tavernas and hotels. I wouldn't have minded stopping.

Persian boatsThe Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC, is one of the most celebrated battles in history. It was here that an army of 9000 Greeks and 1000 Plataeans defeated the massive 25,000 strong Persian army, proving that the Persians were not invincible. The brilliant Greek general Miltiades' ingenious battle strategy saved the day when he altered the conventional battle formation so fewer soldiers were in the centre, more in the wings. This tricked the Persians into thinking the Greeks could be easily overcome. They broke through the centre but were ambushed by soldiers in the wings. The Greeks had sacrificed earlier to Pan and when the Persians retreated in disarray, they knew Pan had heard their prayers. That's how the word Panic got it's meaning. At the end of the day 6000 Persians and only 192 Greeks perished. After the battle a runner named Pheidippides was sent to Athens to announce the victory. After shouting "Nenikekame!" ("We won!") he collapsed of exhaustion and died. This is the original of today's "Marathon" foot race.

Statue in memory of Pheidippides, the messenger
In ancient Greece, bodies of those killed in battle were returned to their families for burial. But as a sign of honour, the 192 men who fell at Marathon were cremated and buried in a collective tomb. This is the burial mound I went to see. The top of the  gravemound commands a view of the battlefield. At the foot is a marble bas-relief copied from "The Warrior of Marathon". The tomb stone had the names of the fallen arranged according to tribes, but this no longer exists.
According the the historian Pausanias, the Persian dead were flung into an open trench.
The Tumulus where the Greeks are buried.

I've just been reading Steven Pressfield's excellent book "Gates of Fire" about the war at Thermopylea, when the 300 Spartans led by their king Leonidis, and an allied army of about 6000 men faced the formidable forces of the Persians at the "Hot Gates". His descriptions of this battle, which happened only 10 years after the one at Marathon, are so vivid, it helped me to visualize exactly what it must have been like for the Greeks in both battles.
The Greek Phalanx

"One felt as if he were facing men from the underworld, from some impossible country beyond Oceanus where up was down and night day. Did they know something the Greeks didn't?"

(I recommend, if you like historical fiction, you read this book as it is truly outstanding!)

This September was the anniversary of the Battle of Marathon and the yearly marathon race will be run from here on November 13. It starts at the battlefield of Marathon and ends at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.  If you're a marathon runner, you should make it a point some time to participate.  After all, this is the 'real' thing!

Photos from Wikipedia

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