Marathon the site of a decisive battle of the Persian Wars in 490 B.C. Here, on a plain about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Athens, Greece, the Athenians defeated a Persian army and forced Darius the Great, the Persian emperor, to abandon his invasion of Greece. The battle was the first in which Greeks defeated Persians on land. It gave Athenians confidence in the future of their city and civilization.

The Persian invasion was intended to punish Athens for having aided Greek cities in Asia to revolt against Persian rule. A Persian force of between 15,000 and 30,000 landed at Marathon. Its goal was to lure the Athenian army away from Athens so that another force, landed near the city, could take Athens with the help of a group of Persian sympathizers. About 10,000 Athenian hoplites (heavy infantry) and 1,000 hoplites from Plataea marched to Marathon. Pheidippides, an Athenian runner, was sent to ask the Spartans for aid, but Spartan troops arrived after the battle was over.

Miltiades, one of the Athenian commanders, persuaded his colleagues to attack. Under his direction the hoplites charged the enemy at a run, to avoid the arrows of Persian archers. The Persians stopped the weak Athenian center, but were then crushed by the wings. The survivors fled to their ships in disarray. According to Herodotus, the Persians lost 6,400 men, the Athenians only 192. The hoplites, marching quickly back to Athens, prevented a landing by the other Persian force, which returned to Asia.

According to legend, Pheidippides ran from the battlefield to Athens to inform the citizens of victory. After crying “Rejoice! we conquer!” he died from exhaustion. A long distance race called the marathon was included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. In 1924 the distance of the marathon was standardized at 26 miles, 385 yards (42.195 km).