Marathon (Demotic Greek: Μαραθώνας, Marathónas; Attic/ Katharevousa: Μαραθών, Marathṓn) is an ancient Greek city-state, a contemporary town in Greece, the site of the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, in which the heavily outnumbered Athenian army defeated the Persians. The tumulus or burial mound (Greek Τύμβος, tymbos, i.e. tomb) for the 192 Athenian dead that was erected near the battlefield remains a feature of the coastal plain. The Tymbos is now marked by a marble memorial stele and surrounded by a small park.
The name of the athletic long-distance endurance race, the “marathon”, comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek runner, who was sent from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been miraculously defeated in the Battle of Marathon. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping, but moments after proclaiming his message “Nenikekamen” (“We were victorious!”) to the city, he collapsed from exhaustion. The account of the run from Marathon to Athens first appears in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century AD who quotes from Heraclides Ponticus’ lost work, giving the runner’s name as either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD) also gives the story but names the runner Philippides (not Pheidippides). The Greek historian Herodotus, the main source for the Greco-Persian Wars, mentions Pheidippides as the messenger who ran from Athens to Sparta asking for help. In some manuscripts of Herodotus the name of the runner between Athens and Sparta is given as Philippides.
In Ancient Greece, the messengers (day-runners) who carried the news of war from one city to another, enjoyed great esteem and respect; the roads were problematic, they had to pass through hostile territory, and traveling posed great dangers at that time. The states would assign especially trained “messengers” or “runners” or “road-heralds”, with great stamina and strength of character to carry messages in times of war as well as peace.
The sport of Marathon was established during the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896. The idea to include the event in the program of the Olympic Games was of French philosopher and professor at the Sorbonne, Michel Breal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin, the man who contributed decisively to the founding of the modern Olympic Games. He proposed the introduction of an endurance road race under the name “Marathon” which would start from the region where in 490 BC the battle of the Greeks against the Persians occurred and would end at the Pnyx of Ancient Athens, where, presumably, the messenger arrived bringing the good news of victory to the Athenians. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) accepted his proposal. Michel Breal did not know exactly what the distance was and how difficult the sport would be – the first marathon was 40,000 meters long. In 1924, the 42,195 meters long Marathon became the standard that is today.