Tag Archives: Sparta

Battle of Thermopylae

During our recent trip to Greece, on the way back from Meteora to Marathon we decided to make a short stop at the Thermopylae. Many battles have been fought at that place, but perhaps, the most known today is the one fought in 480 BC between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I. I was curious to visit the place.

That is the battle in which the movie “300” was inspired (*). We saw the movie again right after returning from the trip.

As it usually happens, the movie puts some more drama to the story. In the movie the battle field is a tight pass close to a cliff, whereas the Thermopylae are not such tight, and certainly there are not cliffs, rather plains from the mountains to the sea.

The movie has Leonidas as the very last Spartan to pass by in the fight, whereas in the explanation panels at the Thermopylae it is stated that he died in the very first phase of the battle, far from Kolonos hill (reading the Wikipedia article it seems that he could have survived to the last day).

Description of the battle.

Description of the battle.

That Kolonos hill is a small promontory where the last Spartans retreated to fight the Persians till death. Several arrow heads were found in the hill-top in a 20th century expedition. Today, there is an epitaph by Simonides which reads as follows:

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”
Kolonos Hill.

Kolonos Hill.

In the place there is a statue of king Leonidas, with the now famous inscription ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ (“Come and get them!”) which was Leonidas response when he was asked to turn their weapons. Today those words are used as a motto in several armies.

Statue of King Leonidas.

Statue of King Leonidas.



There are many other sentences supposedly used by Leonidas that are repeated today, if only by the impact of the movie 300.

Leonidas: Spartans! What is your profession?
Spartans: HA-ROO! HA-ROO! HA-ROO!
Persian Emissary: […] Our arrows will blot out the sun!
Stelios: Then we will fight in the shade.
Leonidas: Spartans! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty… For tonight, we dine in hell!

I expected to have found some more merchandising or tourism-related business created around the battlefield but we only saw the epitaph and statues, not a single selling post. Possibly in high season, during, summer time there are some, but not in late Autumn. I searched through the web and there are indeed Greek businesses which sell memorabilia related to the movie and the battle, it is only that they sell online and we didn’t encounter them at the place (compare that with the setting up of a food franchise business out of the movie “Forrest Gump“).

I encourage anyone travelling through the Greek A1 on holiday to make the brief stop, as it doesn’t require a long detour from the highway and lets you quietly (and free) contemplate a place charged with History. 

(*) A sequel of that movie will be released in 2014, “300: Rise of an Empire“.

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Καλημέρα, Marathon!

Καλημέρα, Marathon!

(Good morning, Marathon!)

At the time this post is being published, two friends (Jose and Juan), my brother and I are starting the Athens Classic Marathon; the marathon starting in the town of Marathon, in the East of Attica region, and finishing in Athens.

Today, there are hundreds of marathon-distance (and longer) races organized around the globe all along the year. The trend is growing. The numbers of people running such races is increasing year by year. But it all started here, in Attica.

Pheidippides, the legend

The basic traces of the legend are widely known: a courier named Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the result of the battle and perished after the arrival. However, there are some confusions in relation to the legend, as it is well explained in the respective Wikipedia article.

The first record from the legend comes in a text from Lucian:

… The modern use of the word dates back to Philippides the dispatch-runner. Bringing the news of Marathon, he found the archons seated, in suspense regarding the issue of the battle. ‘Joy, we win!’ he said, and died upon his message, breathing his last in the word Joy … – Lucian Pro lapsu inter salutandum (translated by F.G. and H.W. Fowler, 1905) 

Statue of Pheidippides along the Marathon Road (picture by Hammer of the Gods27).

What is less known is that according to the story Pheidippides (530 BC–490 BC) was first sent to Sparta to request help from the Spartans when the Persians landed at Marathon. Thus, he already had run 240km to Sparta (and back). Right afterwards, he was sent from Marathon to Athens (another 40km) to announce the victory in the battle.

To the ones having completed a marathon race this makes sense, as: how it can be that it all started with the one supposed gifted runner collapsing after completing the 40km if thousands (about half a million) people each year complete a marathon? The catch is that Pheidippides had come from twice running what today is known as the Spartathlon, a 246km ultramarathon race which is also organized yearly in Greece, between Athens and Sparta.

Thus, the feats of Pheidippides have yielded two modern running race distances and hundreds of events.

The Olympic Games

Spyridon Louis entering the Panathinaiko stadium at the end of the marathon (public domain image, author Albert Meyer).

More than two thousand years passed until the sport of marathon was established on the occasion of the first modern Olympic Games held in 1896 in Athens.

The idea of including such a race in the programme of sport events was from Michel Bréal, a friend of Pierre de Coubertin. The proposal was accepted by the Olympic committee and that first marathon race had a distance of 40,000m (the current 42,195 distance for marathons was established years later, in 1924 , based on the distance of the 1908 London Games).

That first marathon was run on April 10th of 1986.  Only 17 runners took part in that race; of which only 9 of them finished, one being disqualified after his arrival (as he had completed part of the race on a carriage) and the other 8 retired at different points of the route. The race was won by the Greek Spyridon Louis with a time of  2:58:50.

Athens Classic Marathon

From 1972, the Athens Classic Marathon is organized yearly following the route of that first marathon race in 1896 and the legend of Pheidippides (490 BC).

Today in 2013, 117 years after those first 17 runners and 2503 years after Pheidippides, the 4 of us will try to cover the distance between Marathon and Athens, to say ‘Joy, we win!’ at our arrival and this time, not to collapse.


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