The traditional story relates that Pheidippides, an Athenian herald, ran the 42 km (26 miles) from the battlefield by the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) with the word "Νενικήκαμεν!" (Nenikèkamen, We were victorious!) and died on the spot. Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to the historian Herodotus, who wrote the history of the Persian Wars in his Histories (composed about 440 BC).
Robert Browning gave a version of the traditional story in his 1879 poem Pheidippides.
- So, when Persia was dust, all cried, "To Acropolis!
- Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
- Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!" He flung down his shield
- Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the fennel-field
- And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
- Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay,
- Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died - the bliss!
("Fennel-field" is a reference to the Greek word for fennel, marathon, the origin of the name of the battlefield.)
It was this poem which inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin and other founders of the modern Olympic Games to invent a running race of 42 km called the Marathon.
Sadly for historical romance, the story is probably a myth. It is inherently improbable, since if the Athenians wanted to send an urgent message to Athens there was no reason why they could not have sent a messenger on horseback. In any case, no such story appears in Herodotus. The relevant passage of Herodotus (Histories, 105...106 [ 1 ]) is:
- "Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheiippides, a professional long-distance runner. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides's story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection.
- On the occasion of which I speak - when Pheidippides, that is, was sent on his mission by the Athenian commanders and said that he saw Pan - he reached Sparta the day after he left Athens and delivered his message to the Spartan government. "Men of Sparta" (the message ran), "the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and subdued by a foreign invader; for even now Eretria has been enslaved, and Greece is the weaker by the loss of one fine city." The Spartans, though moved by the appeal, and willing to send help to Athens, were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full. So they waited for the full moon, and meanwhile Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, guided the Persians to Marathon."
The significance of this story is only understood in the light of the legend that the god Pan returned the favor by fighting with the Athenian troops and against the Persians at Marathon. This was important because Pan, in addition to his other powers, had the capacity to instill the most extreme sort of fear, an irrational, blind fear that paralysed the mind and suspended all sense of judgement - panic.
Herodotus was writing about 50 years after the events he describes, so it is reasonably likely that Pheidippides is a historical figure. If he ran the 246 km over rough roads from Athens to Sparta within two days, it would be an achievement worthy of remembrance. Whether the story is true or not, it has no connection with the Battle of Marathon itself, and Herodotus's silence on the subject of a herald running from Marathon to Athens suggests strongly that no such event occurred.
The first known written account of a run from Marathon to Athens occurs in the works of the Roman writer Plutarch (46-120), in his essay On the Glory of Athens. Plutarch attributes the run to a herald called either Thersippus or Eukles. Lucian, a century later, credits one "Philippides." It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus's time and Plutarch's, the story of Pheidippides had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon, and some fanciful writer had invented the story of the run from Marathon to Athens.
While the marathon celebrates the mythical run from Marathon to Athens, since 1982 an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta, known as the Spartathlon, celebrates Pheiddipides's at least semi-historical run across 250 km of Greek countryside.
- Aubrey de Sélincourt & A.R.Burn: Herodotus - The Histories. Penguin Classics,1954, 1972
- F J Frost "The Dubious Origins of the Marathon", American Journal of Ancient History, 4 (1979) 159-63