The Great Marathon Myth
by Ian Kemp
NOTE: This article is the highest-read and most reference article on the Cool Running web site. The original was written in 2002, and I have finally got round to updating it, in 2013, due to the transient nature of the links and sources quoted within. This version is dated 27 September 2013. I encourage school students to study this example to understand how a compelling story can completely displace the historical evidence.
Being of a curious nature I have always been interested by the legend of the Marathon - you know, the story that a Greek runner was sent to Athens to announce the Athenian victory at the battle of Marathon. As one who is keen to run marathons myself, what interested me most was our hero's alleged death from exhaustion on completion of his run. Why did this hardy soul die when so many ordinary people today can quite evidently complete a marathon run with little more than a few blisters? My curiosity was heightened by the fact that there seem to be differing versions of the story, and I had even seen it suggested in various email forums and web sites that the the run in fact never took place!
So I resolved to investigate the great marathon mystery. But where to start - well, where better than today's standard port of call for all things trustworthy and untrustworthy put on an equal footing: http://www.google.com/ !
Let's start with the simple version of 'the myth' - as stated by US running author Jeff Galloway, writing of the Athens Marathon:
In 490 BC, the first battle for democracy was fought at the Greek village of Marathon. Though overwhelmingly outnumbered by an invading Persian horde, the citizen-soldiers of Athens won and preserved the classical Greek way of life. Legend has it that the Athenian messenger Phidippides ran twenty-five miles to Athens, carrying news of that stunning victory. The modern marathon commemorates his feat.
The version I was brought up on came from TV commentators at the 1968 & 1972 Olympics. This was as Galloway said, but also had Pheidippides (or Phidippides or Philippides) calling "victory" (Greek: "Nike") before dying at the completion of his run. This British Olympic Commentator verions of the story is recounted on the Ancient Olympics FAQ Page:
The traditional origin of the marathon comes from the story how a herald named Phidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory and died on the spot.
Algis' Timelines of History has a rather different variation on the story - in this one Pheidippides runs a double marathon, but this time his run is BEFORE the battle of Marathon not after it:
490BCE Sep 2, Phidippides of Athens set out on his 26-mile run that inspired the Marathon. Phidippides was sent to seek troops from Sparta to help against the invading Persian army. The Spartans were unwilling to help, until the next full moon, due to religious laws. On Sept. 4th, Phidippides returned the 26 miles to Marathon without Spartan troops.However this source hedges his/her bets by then repeating the Olympics Commentators version:
Pheidipiddes, a hemerodromi or long-distance foot messenger, was dispatched to run 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory. He reached Athens and proclaimed: "Rejoice! We conquer!" Then he dropped dead.http://timelines.ws/0D499_1BC.HTML. My question... why?
An even more embellished telling from Wood Middle School has Pheidippides running from Marathon to Sparta (140 miles), then back (140 miles), then to Athens (25 miles) at which point he collapsed and died after gasping 'rejoice'.
In 490 B.C. Persia's fleet of 600 ships loomed off the Greek Shores not far from Athens. According to legend, the general of the Athenian troops sent his fastest runner, Phidippides to ask for help from Sparta.
Phidippides ran for two days and two nights to reach Sparta, about 140 miles away. He gave the message to the Spartans. The Spartans agreed to send troops, but not until after their religious festival was completed in nine days.
"Phidippides ran back to Athens, but the general couldn't wait that long, so he ordered his troops to advance on the Persians. The Persians were no match for the Athenians and 6,400 Persians were slain. The general then ordered Phidippides back to Marathon to spread the good news. The distance between marathon and Athens was approximately 25 miles. Phidippides made the distance, managed to gasp "Rejoice!" then he collapsed and died…. The first marathon completed."
This text was online at the Wood Middle School web site back in 2002 but has subsequently been removed. Which is a shame, because they showed more awareness of history than many professional writers :-) However I'm prompted to wonder, after the two 140-mile ultras the 25 mile might have been considered a light recovery run, so why would he cark it? Maybe the pace got away with him?
So what is the truth? Was there a Pheidippides? Did he run before the battle of Marathon, or after it, and did he stage a heroic death scene as a touch of tragedy to temper the Athenian's victory?
The level of confusion over the story is perhaps not surprising as we are dealing with events well over 2000 years ago. So the only option is to consult the primary sources. In this case the primary source is the writer Herodotus (born 484 BC - 6 years after the battle of Marathon) - who's 'Histories' is the authoritative account of the Battle of Marathon (among many other things).
Herodotus of course didn't have access to the web, but the authoritative translation of his 'histories' (translation by George Rawlinson in 1942) has been placed on the web - I used the plain text version published by MIT http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.mb.txt
Sections from the English translation are included as the appendix to this page. The basic facts from Herodotus are as follows:
The Athenian generals sent Pheidippides, a professional runner,
to Sparta to ask the spartans to help fight the Persian army, who had arrived by ship at
Marathon. Pheidippides completed the 145 mile journey and arrived in Sparta the day
after he left Athens. He delivered the Generals' request, then returned to Athens with
the Spartan's reply - which was that due to observances they could not leave Sparta until
the full moon. Upon receiving this news the generals decided to attack the Persians anyway,
the result being an Athenian victory against seemingly overwhelming odds.
Having been beaten in the field, the Persians returned to their ships and set sail for Athens - to attack it while undefended. However the Athenians marched the 25 miles overland and succeeded in reaching Athens before the ships, at which the Persians thought better of their plan and beat a retreat by sea.
Note that there is no mention of a messenger being sent to Athens after the Battle.
After it was all over, 2000 Spartan troops arrived at Marathon and were much impressed by the Athenian victory. Their hasty journey along Pheidippides' 145 mile route took them three days.
So there you have it - Pheidippides was more than a mere marathon runner - according to the nearest historical account we have, he completed back to back ultramarathons each of over 200km in extent.
In 1982 John Foden and four other RAAF officers decided to run the REAL Pheidippides course - 147.2 miles along a route agreed
by a consortium of Greek scholars to the most probable route taken by our Bronze age
This led to the establishment in 1983 of the International Spartathlon race over
the Pheidippides route. The inaugural run marked the emergence of one of the top runners of our age -
Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, who won the event with a margin of more than 2½ hours over
some of the world's top 24-hour runners. Kouros is a very well-known name among the ultra
running fraternity world wide, as he has since gone on to set records and
win events all over the world - including a massive course record at the Taupo 100-mile
race in 2002.
There is more about Kouros' win and his subsequent career at the UltraOz web site:
Meanwhile, the Spartathlon is still being staged annually in September - you can read all about it
at the official web site
By the way, for those interested in the military and historical significance of the Battle of Marathon, I can recommend these two web sites:
Finally, we should ask: where did the Great Marathon Myth originate?
Well according to Nigel Kennell, writing on the ancien-l forum in 1996,
The story of a victory run from Marathon to Athens first appears in Plutarch's Moralia (347C) over half a millenium later than the Persian Wars; he gives credit to either Thersippus or Eukles. Lucian, in the second century AD, says that a PhiLippides ran from Marathon.How Plutach's version arose and morphed into today's myth is a study I will leave to future investigators.
Source: The Internet Classics Archive: http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.mb.txt
Translated by George Rawlinson
And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner. This man, according to the account which he gave to the Athenians on his return, when he was near Mount Parthenium, above Tegea, fell in with the god Pan, who called him by his name, and bade him ask the Athenians "wherefore they neglected him so entirely, when he was kindly disposed towards them, and had often helped them in times past, and would do so again in time to come?" The Athenians, entirely believing in the truth of this report, as soon as their affairs were once more in good order, set up a temple to Pan under the Acropolis, and, in return for the message which I have recorded, established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.
On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens - Upon his arrival he went before the rulers, and said to them:-
"Men of Lacedaemon, the Athenians beseech you to hasten to their aid, and not allow that state, which is the most ancient in all Greece, to be enslaved by the barbarians. Eretria, look you, is already carried away captive; and Greece weakened by the loss of no mean city."
Thus did Pheidippides deliver the message committed to him. And the Spartans wished to help the Athenians, but were unable to give them any present succour, as they did not like to break their established law. It was then the ninth day of the first decade; and they could not march out of Sparta on the ninth, when the moon had not reached the full. So they waited for the full of the moon.
Nevertheless the Athenians secured in this way seven of the vessels; while with the remainder the barbarians pushed off, and taking aboard their Eretrian prisoners from the island where they had left them, doubled Cape Sunium, hoping to reach Athens before the return of the Athenians. The Alcmaeonidae were accused by their countrymen of suggesting this course to them; they had, it was said, an understanding with the Persians, and made a signal to them, by raising a shield, after they were embarked in their ships.
The Persians accordingly sailed round Sunium. But the Athenians with all possible speed marched away to the defence of their city, and succeeded in reaching Athens before the appearance of the barbarians: and as their camp at Marathon had been pitched in a precinct of Hercules, so now they encamped in another precinct of the same god at Cynosarges. The barbarian fleet arrived, and lay to off Phalerum, which was at that time the haven of Athens; but after resting awhile upon their oars, they departed and sailed away to Asia.
There fell in this battle of Marathon, on the side of the barbarians, about six thousand and four hundred men; on that of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two. Such was the number of the slain on the one side and the other. A strange prodigy likewise happened at this fight. Epizelus, the son of Cuphagoras, an Athenian, was in the thick of the fray, and behaving himself as a brave man should, when suddenly he was stricken with blindness, without blow of sword or dart; and this blindness continued thenceforth during the whole of his after life. The following is the account which he himself, as I have heard, gave of the matter: he said that a gigantic warrior, with a huge beard, which shaded all his shield, stood over against him; but the ghostly semblance passed him by, and slew the man at his side. Such, as I understand, was the tale which Epizelus told.
After the full of the moon two thousand Lacedaemonians came to Athens. So eager had they been to arrive in time, that they took but three days to reach Attica from Sparta. They came, however, too late for the battle; yet, as they had a longing to behold the Medes, they continued their march to Marathon and there viewed the slain. Then, after giving the Athenians all praise for their achievement, they departed and returned home.
Ian has run a few marathons and a couple of ultras but is very unlikely to ever complete a 220km run. But then again, maybe one day...
Acknowledgement: The coin image at the page header is from the official Spartathlon web site http://www.spartathlon.gr/en.html