Marathon history

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(Host) Sunday is the Vermont City Marathon, and in honor of that event, commentator Peter Gilbert tells us about the origins of marathons – and running shoes.

(Gilbert) Many people know something of the origins of marathons — that they commemorate an Athenian messenger’s running from some battlefield all the way back to Athens. He brought word of their great victory, warned of a possible attack from the sea — and then, exhausted, he died.

The messenger’s exciting news was Athens’s upset victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The year was 490 B.C. — 2,494 years ago; that means the big 2,500th anniversary is coming up in six years, in 2010.

The Battle of Marathon is probably the most important battle in Greek history. Had the Athenians lost, Greece would have been conquered by the Persians, and Greek culture — drama, art, architecture, political theory (including that ancient Athenian invention, democracy) — would not have developed as it did.

Leadership of the Athenian army rotated among ten generals. The general who led the troops on the day of the battle was acquainted with Persian strategy. He planned his attack to minimize the damage from the Persian archers and the enemy’s superior numbers. Using the classic strategy of a collapsing center and encircling flanks, he won the day.

While Athens owed its very survival to its victory at Marathon, for Persia, an empire that controlled most of the world, their defeat was just a minor setback. The rematch didn’t happen for nearly ten years.

By then Persia had a new king, Xerxes (that’s with two X’s, like the photocopiers). Xerxes gathered his army of 150,000 men and navy of six hundred ships. Athens was outnumbered, but fortunately, in the intervening decade, a Greek politician named Themistocles had persuaded Athens to build a great navy. Themistocles understood that the Persian army was as vulnerable as its navy. The Greek ships were outnumbered 3 to 1, plus they were slow and clumsy. And so, using a novel tactic, the Greeks, and their allies, Sparta and Corinth, used their ships as fighting platforms, filling them with soldiers who engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. That evened the odds, most of the Persian ships were destroyed, and the Persian army retreated.

But in victory were the seeds of future defeat. The alliances that victorious Athens then formed with other Greek city-states made Athens the center of the Greek world. That ascendancy soon made Sparta feel threatened, and Sparta eventually conquered Athens.

There’s another reason to celebrate Athens’s victory at Marathon. It just wouldn’t do to have had that messenger run over 26 miles to proclaim “hetta”, (which is the Greek for defeat). Nobody would buy running shoes called “Hetta.” Instead he gasped, “Nike!”, and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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