Pheidippides statue, Pheidippides state rafina, Phidippides statue
Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
The statue of Pheidippides along the Olympic marathon route in Rafina, Greece.

The Myth of Pheidippides and the Marathon

November 04, 2011 12:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
As estimated 47,000 people will run 26.2 miles Sunday in the New York City Marathon. The marathon race was created in 1896 to honor the legendary run of Greek messenger Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens. Though the story is almost certainly a myth, it is based on an even more impressive feat of endurance.

The Myth and First Marathon

In 490 B.C., the Athenian army defeated the invading Persian army in a battle in the plain of Marathon, located roughly 26 miles north of Athens. According to legend, the Athenians then ordered the messenger Pheidippides to run ahead to Athens and announce the victory to the city.

Pheidippides raced back to the city in intense late summer heat. Upon reaching the Athenian agora, he exclaimed “Nike!” (“Victory!”) or “Rejoice! We Conquer” and then collapsed dead from exhaustion.

During plans for the 1896 Olympics, the first modern Games, organizers wanted an event to celebrate Greek history. French historian Michel Breal suggested a long-distance race from Marathon to Athens to honor Pheidippides’ run. Greek runner Spiridon Louis won the race—winning Greece’s only gold medal of the Games—and the local excitement over the race ensured that it would be included in later Games.

The first marathon was 39.9 kilometers (24.8 miles), according to the Boston Athletic Association, but the distance was changed to 42.195 kilometers (26.2 miles) at the 1908 London Olympics. It was based not on the distance from Marathon to Athens, but rather the distance from Windsor Castle to London’s Olympic Stadium, the route of the 1908 marathon.

The Evolution of the Marathon Myth

The myth of Pheidippides (also referred to as Phidippides or Philippides) is likely based on other stories with stronger historical foundations.

Fifth century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, the “father of history,” made no mention of Pheidippides running to Athens in his account of the Battle of Marathon. He did write that before the battle Pheidippides was sent to Sparta to ask the Spartans for assistance. He completed the run (estimated to be between 140 and 153 miles) in two days and then immediately raced back to Marathon.

Herodotus also wrote that after the battle the Athenian army hurried back to Athens so that the Persians, who had escaped on their ships, could not attack the undefended city. According to Dutch ancient historian Jona Lendering, creator of the Web site Livius, the Pheidippides myth is a combination of his epic run and the Athenians’ march to Athens.

The first account of Pheidippides running to Athens did not appear until the second century A.D., when Greek writer Lucian wrote in his “True History,” “Philippides the hemerodromos, reporting the victory from Marathon to the archons, Who were seated anxiously awaiting the result of the battle, said, ‘rejoice, we have won,’ and saying this, died at the same time as his report, expiring with the salutation.”

Lucian, however, was a satirist, not a historian. “His True History contains nothing of any historical value whatsoever, but he had a great time making fun of the serious writers of his day,” writes archaeologist Jim D. Muhly, former director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

The myth also appeared in Plutarch’s 347 A.D. work “Moralia,” though Plutarch said the runner was named Eukles or Thersippus.

The story of Pheidippides was popularized in the 19th century. In 1834, French sculptor Cortot completed a sculpture in Paris’ Tuileries Palace of Pheidippides dying as he announced victory. In 1879, English poet Robert Browning wrote the poem “Pheidippides,” which stated:

“Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried ‘To Akropolis!
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 thro’ clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!”

Nineteen years after the poem, the marathon race was created. “It is probable that this poem, and not the actual historical facts, would have been in the minds of those, who not twenty years later, would be concerned with the revival of the Olympic Games and the formation of any possible events which could provide a link with the past,” wrote R. Grogan in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The Spartathlon

In 1982, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden organized a race from Marathon to Sparta to see if Pheidippides’ run could be repeated. He and four other RAF members attempted the race, and three of them completed it in under 40 hours. The 246-kilometer (152.85-mile) “Spartathlon” has become an annual race; the current record is held by Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, who ran the race in 20 hours and 25 minutes in 1984.

Reference: New York City Marathon

Learn the history of the New York City Marathon and track the entrants in this year’s race at the official site of the NYC Marathon.

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