Pheidippides: The Origins of the Marathon

external image MarathonMan.jpgOne might notice when discussing the ancient Greeks that many students often have trouble understanding Greek culture. Some feel that there is too large of a time gap between our societies to really understand the thought processes of the characters. Some attribute the lack of interest to the language barrier. Even the translated copies of Greek works often use language in a different manner than most students would. Sadly, even though the works are currently in English, it seems most lessons are lost in translation.This leads to a lack of appreciation, and a lack of acceptance. The loss of the lessons is certainly a shame, especially given the how little we have changed since the days of ancient Greece.

Our culture is certainly different, there is no question about that. Yet we still struggle with the same conflict of virtues that many famous Greeks have. We still have Power Hungry families, revealing shades of the House of Atreus in their actions. We still celebrate the wily, cunning hero. A model Odysseus seems to serve as the archetype for. There are fundamental ways we still relate to the Greeks.

More specifically, the most basic attribute we share, on the most simple of levels is that of movement. While our notions of justice have progressed as well as definitions of art, physiologically we are perfect matches to our Greek counter parts. Two feet, large lungs and the ability to sweat, these are the anatomical traits that make us phenomenal distance runners. Many evolutionary biologists believe distance running to be an exclusively human trait. It’s no surprise there are many famous stories involving running throughout history. It is as innate in us as dance. To see more on the importance of movement in greek society see sports.

One of the most famous and most referenced tale in this vein, is that of Pheidippides. The story of Pheidippides is the the birth of the modern marathon as we know it. It is a testament to the capabilities of the human body. But as you look more into the story, there are a number of impressive feats.

The Legend of Pheidippides from divan on Vimeo.

The story of Pheidippides takes place around 490 B.C.E. and like so many famous Greek battles, is set in a grand war. This
particular was was between the Persians and the Athenians. The myth of Pheidippides took place during the battle of Marathon. The Persian army had landed in Marathon in the fall of 490 BCE. The Persian force was far larger than the Athenian force. Some estimates out the Persian force at 60,000 men, plus cavalry, plus ships. [1] The Athenians were frightened, and in a desperate attempt to prevent the loss of their city, they dispatched Pheidippides to ask the Spartan's for their help.

As the map illustrates Pheidippides' run was not going to be a short one. He had to cover 140 miles. This is the equivalent of running from SUNY Sullivan to Syracuse[2] . Pheidippides did this in under two days. You may think this is unbelievable, or that it is an impossible tasks.That is not the case, this event was recreated in 1982 three Royal Air Force officers tried the likely route and did it in 35 hours.[3]

Pheidippides Route

external image mara-pheidippides-run.jpg

Sadly Pheidippides run was for naught. The Spartans were engaged in a festival, and would not raise arms to help protect the Athenians. This was a battle they would have to fight for themselves. It was important that the Athenians knew that they would not be getting any assistance. Pheidippides now had to make the return journey and bear the bad news to his fellow soldiers. By the time Pheidippides returned he had run over 240 miles.[4]

No one is certain of the exact amount of time it took him to return, but most think it took him no more than 10 days to do the trip in it's entirety. This remarkable feat is only the first that took place throughout the battle of Marathon.

Knowing that their fate was in their own hands, the Athenians decided to take the initiative and engaged in a surprise attack against the Persians. This was a brave choice, and there must have been a great deal of desperation that fed into the decision. If you had to predict the outcome of this battle, a smart man would have put him money on a slaughter of the Athenians. Yet, just as the Spartans force of three hundred beat back the massive Persians force, so too did they Athenians. Maybe their loss had something to do with the spear sized holes the Persians had designed into their own shields.

Persians, perpetually overrated?
Persians, perpetually overrated?

The surviving Persians had escaped, leaving about 6500 dead. The Athenian dead numbered under 200.[5] It was a stunning victory, but the Greeks knew this was not the end.
external image Phidippides.jpg
The Persians had a plan B. They loaded into the ships and began to sail around the tip of Greece and attack the undefended Athens. This when Pheidippides come back into the picture. After running to Sparta and back, after fighting in full armor to defend the city of Marathon, he then get's the task of running to Athens. This is the run that has been immortalized and recreated around the globe. The journey was 26 miles, roughly the same distance marathons are today. Pheidippides was running for two purposes, to tell the city of Athens about their great victory, but also to inform them of the impending doom that was sailing their way. This was one of the first recorded instances of "Well, I have good news, and I have bad news". It is here that many believe Pheidippides collapsed from exhaustion and later died. After reaching Athens and delivering his message, he collapsed on the spot. His body no longer able to function after all the exerting it self so completely.


He was not the only one running however. The entire Greek army was making their way to Athens. They knew they had to beat the Persians ships, or all their hard work would be lost.Michael Clark, Professor of Defense Studies at University of London describes they feat as such "The Athenians who were freshest set off as fast as they could to cover the distance back to the city. The rest gathered themselves up, some in formal units, others as groups of friends and neighbors, with their shields and equipment slung on their backs, and ran and trotted back as best they could in the August heat."[6] This massive herd of soldiers made their way to Athens at a break neck pace.

Remarkably, the Greek Army made it, on foot mind you, before the Persian fleet could sail around. The Persian Army saw the sweaty, bloody, delusion Greek army and was terrified. They were completely demoralized, and had no intention of fighting another battle. The geeks unbelievable feat sucked the spirit of battle right out of the Persians. With this act they had elevated themselves to super human levels in the psyche of the Persian soldiers. The citizens of Greek were ecstatic with this turn of events. They figured that the defeat of the Persians was an endorsement of their very way of life by the gods.

All of this success rests solely at the feet of Pheidippides. People have looked up to Pheidippides since his day of him monumental actions. The Poet Robert Browning payed tribute to him in his poem.

Pheidippides by Robert Browning[7]

Such my cry as, rapid, I ran over Parnes' ridge
Gully and gap, I clambered and cleared till, sudden, a bar
Jutted, a stoppage of stone against me, blocking the way.
Right! for I minded the hollow to traverse, the fissure across:
"Where I could enter, there I depart by! Night in the fosse?
Athens to aid? Though the dive were through Erebos, thus I obey—
Out of the day dive, into the day as bravely arise! No bridge
Better!"—when—ha! what was it I came on, of wonders that are?

Pheidippides would be an ideal hero by American standards. A supreme athlete, and dedicated soldier. The Ideal of physical fitness and patriotism. He is Jesse Owens with a dash of Rambo. He exemplifies many attributes we idealize today. When it comes to picking heroes it seems we aren't so diiferent than our Ancient Greek counterparts after all.
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