The quest to recover the fallen soldiers of Marathon
The battle of Marathon took place by the end of summer 490 BC just 42 km or 26 miles northeast of Athens on a plan surrounded by hills and the sea. It is one of the earliest recorded battles thanks to the efforts of Herodotus from Halicarnassus, known as the “Father of History,” who wrote a colorful description of the combat just a few years after it occurred.
The fighters involved in the battle were Greeks from Attica numbering about 10,000 citizen-soldiers from Athens aided by another 1,000 from Plataea, a small city 60 km or 37 miles to the northwest of Athens. This force faced 50,000 or even more than 100,000 Persian career-soldiers that disembarked on the Marathon sandy beach from 600 warships. Ten were the Athenian Generals, but during the day of the battle, Militades was appointed to have the command of the Greeks against the noteworthy Persian leaders, Datis and Artaphernes.
Map showing the armies' main movements during the Marathon battle. (Wikipedia)
For several decades, before this battle took place, a Greco-Persian conflict had been brewing and finally, in retaliation for the Hellenes support of their Ionian compatriots (today the coastal areas of Asia Minor – Turkey), because the Ionians revolted against the Persian Empire in 499 BC. Political tensions also fueled the confrontation as the monarchical Persians sought to destroy the democratic Greeks. The ultimate victory of the fledgling Hellenic part-states over the Persian behemoth gave the Greeks confidence in their ability to defend themselves and belief in their objectives. It was a defining moment in history. Worth mentioning herewith is also the fact that due to the Hellenes of Ionia, the name of Greece in the Arabic and Turkish languages is Yunanistan (an alteration in pronunciation of Ionanistan).
Persian infantry shown in a frieze in Darius's palace, Susa. (Wikipedia)
According to one of the most famous, oft-told legends, the runner Pheidippides brought the news of the Greek victory to Athens by running the 26 miles in about 3 hours. He entered the city shouting “Nenikekamen!” (We were victorious!). Strait afterwards he died of exhaustion. The story of this legendary event became so popular that the famous running event known as the “marathon” is an integral part of the modern day Olympic Games, with major cities staging their own annual events. The exact distance is currently set at 42,195 km or 26 miles 385 yards.
Painting of Pheidippides as he gave word of the Greek victory over Persia at the Battle of Marathon to the people of Athens. Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869. (Wikipedia)
It is reported that during the Battle of Marathon, approximately 6,400 Persians died, while the Greek defenders suffered about 200 casualties (192 Athenian and 11 Plataean). Greek commander in chief Callimachus, as well as General Stessilaos were killed. Another casualty was Cynaegirus, brother of the renowned classic playwright Aeschylus (who also fought in the battle but survived and indirectly claimed his participation was a greater achievement than his artistic endeavors).
After 2.5 millennia, a tomb containing the remains of the Athenian soldiers was excavated at the beginning of the 20 th century. Some of the remains were distributed to various collections, such as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and other skeletal parts were shamefully left in a nearby field where a residential house is currently located.
In the vicinity, was another tomb, as reported by the historian Pausanias, where the remains of slaves who joined the battle on the side of the Athenians to win their freedom were interred.
In 1970/71, the remains of the Plataean soldiers who died at Marathon were excavated during the military junta by the General Supervisor of Greek Antiquities, the late S. Marinatos, and delivered to the German anthropologist (and SS officer), E. Breitinger, for studies in Vienna (cf. Greek newspapers of June 22 nd 1972, and letter addressed on 22 nd September 2014 towards the Marathon Municipality). As incredible as it may seem, the Plataean skeletons remain forgotten in Austria.
Tomb of the Plataeans. (visitmarathon.gr)
It is this author’s personal opinion that professional duty should prevail and positive corrective action be taken to remedy this situation so that the remains of the Marathon warriors can be respectfully interred in the field on which they lost their lives in the Battle of Marathon defending democracy. To succeed in this endeavor, two or three professional personalities from organizations or agencies in each geographical area or continent need to take action to remedy this important issue. It is hoped they will come forward to contribute to the cause.
“Marathon is a source of inspiration to all Greeks. It is a symbol of democracy and peace and with its history, it teaches us the importance of these values to our country.” Karolos Papoulias, President of Greece.
Featured image: Relief depicting the Battle of Marathon. (Military-history.org)