12 September 490 BC: A legend is born at Marathon

Athens claims victory against the mighty Persian army and a new sporting tradition is created


Traditionally dated to 12 September 490 BC, the battle of Marathon has gone down as one of the most celebrated clashes in world history. On one side were the Persians, then by far the greatest power in the eastern Mediterranean; on the other, the little democracy of Athens.

For years, the Athenians had supported Greek rebels in Asia Minor against their Persian overlords. So the Persian king, Darius, decided to teach them a lesson, sending his fleet towards the bay of Marathon. There his troops disembarked, preparing to march on Athens.

What followed became part of Athenian legend. Aided by only 1,000 men from the city of Plataea, the Athenian force faced a Persian army at least twice the size. Should they attack? The Athenians were divided, but were finally swayed by a speech by their general Miltiades. If they fought and won, he declared, their country would “be free – and not free only, but the first state in Greece”.

So it was that on the dusty plain of Marathon, the Athenians advanced into legend. According to Herodotus, they actually ran at their Persian adversaries, singing their battle hymns. The Persian wings broke, and at last, stunned by the Athenians’ courage, Darius’s troops ran for the safety of their ships.

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Tradition holds that afterwards the fleet-footed Pheidippides ran for almost 26 miles to bring the good news to Athens. It was this that inspired the invention of the modern marathon. It is a great story – but it is almost certainly untrue. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

12 September 1811

Painter and poet William Bell Scott was born in Edinburgh. After training in fine art at the Trustees Academy, Scott moved to London in 1837. His growing artistic reputation led to his appointment in 1844 as master of the government school of design in Newcastle, a post he held for 20 years. His own work includes eight large paintings in Wallington Hall depicting incidents in Northumbrian history supplemented by 18 pictures illustrating the Ballad of Chevy Chase. Scott was closely involved with the artistic and literary circles of his time and was a close friend of Rosetti – and a bitter enemy of Ruskin.

12 September 1812

Birth in New York of Richard March Hoe, inventor and manufacturer of the world's first successful rotary printing press. With typeset on a revolving cylinder it was much quicker than the existing flat-bed presses.

12 September 1846: Lovers Barrett and Browning elope in secret

The two poets' clandestine marriage enrages relatives

As the poet Elizabeth Barrett sat down to write to her beloved on Saturday, 12 September 1846, she could barely contain her surging feelings. “It all seems like a dream!” she scribbled. “When we drove past that church again… there was a cloud before my eyes.”

The church in question was the parish church of St Marylebone, London, where earlier that day Barrett (pictured below) had married her fellow poet Robert Browning. Their courtship, one of the most famous in literary history, had been unconventional to say the least. They had first become acquainted when Browning wrote her a fan letter. They became regular correspondents and fell in love, but there was a problem. Elizabeth knew that her autocratic father was dead set against a match with Browning.

Indeed, he even proposed moving to the country to escape “that man” forever.

On the morning of the 12th, accompanied by her faithful maid, Wilson, Elizabeth slipped away from the family home in Wimpole Street to St Marylebone, where she and Browning were quietly married. There was only one other witness: Browning’s cousin. Then she returned home – though to suggest that everything was entirely normal, she took a carriage ride with her sisters to Hampstead first.


A week later, Barrett left home for good, fleeing with her new husband to Paris to begin their honeymoon. Her father immediately cut her off. They never saw one another again. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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