Pheidippides: is the ancient Greek marathon runner remembered for the wrong run?

Every marathon that takes place today recalls the feats of a heroic messenger in ancient Greece, who ran not just 26 miles but 300 and accomplished this remarkable feat of endurance running in only three days. Pat Kinsella tells the legendary story of Pheidippides...

Greek soldier Pheidippides arrives in Athens with news of the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon, only to die on the spot

Mythologised by the writings of poets and historians, the alleged deeds of a fleet-footed messenger in ancient Greece called Pheidippides inspired the creation of the world’s most popular mass participation running race – the marathon. But how far did this athlete really run? And in which direction?

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There are two stories associated with Pheidippides. He is most well known for being the character in ancient Greece who is said to have run non-stop from a battlefield in Marathon to the citadel in Athens in 490 BC, bringing news of the Athenian army’s victory over the Persians in battle, before dramatically dropping dead.

This tale, immortalised for the modern audience in Robert Browning’s 1879 poem Pheidippides, inspired a member of the Olympic committee, Michel Bréal, to propose that the distance of the run between the battle site and the Greek capital should be used as the benchmark length for the inaugural marathon when it was launched at the first modern Olympics in 1896. And that is why, each year, thousands of people put themselves through 26.2 miles of hell in marathon-length running events all around the world.

The actual distance between Marathon and Athens is closer to 25 miles, but the extra heartbreak mile became part of the official distance – 42.195km – at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. Here the course was extended, partly to ensure the race finished in front of the royal box.

Yet the principal historic source for the Greco-Persian Wars, the Greek historian Herodotus, makes no mention of the famous original run. Instead, he describes Pheidippides making a much longer journey prior to the battle, all the way to Sparta and back, a distance of more than 300 miles. It was an attempt to enlist extra military support ahead of the imminent conflict with the technically superior Persian invaders.

Herodotus makes no mention of the original run. Instead, he describes Pheidippides making a much longer journey all the way to Sparta and back, a distance of more than 300 miles

A number of writers have blended the two tales, claiming that Pheidippides did both runs and even took part in the battle in between; other scholars consider both stories to be apocryphal. Accounts of his heroic actions were already cloudy by the time they were first written about, some 50 years after the events were supposed to have taken place. Unsurprisingly, 2,500 intervening years have done little to separate fact from legend.

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Who was the first marathon runner?

Most historians agree that Pheidippides was a real person, born around 530 BC, who worked as an Athenian hemerodrome, meaning herald, messenger or courier. The word is variously translated as ‘day-runner’ or ‘day-long runner’, but essentially his primary role was to run long distances overland to convey important messages.

In Greek society, a job such as this was often handed down from father to son. It was typically a young man’s game, with most messengers being in their 20s. Pheidippides is described as an ‘expert’, however, and is generally thought to have been older, possibly in his 30s.

The route taken by Pheidippides and the Athenians

1 | Athens

Pheidippides takes the ancient Iera Odos (sacred road) up to Eleusis, from where he follows a military road, Skyronia Odos, across the flanks of the Gerania mountains.

2 | Nemea

He traverses the mountains between Argolida and Arcadia, travelling through Isthmia, Examilia and ancient Corinth, before arriving at Nemea. This carefully chosen route avoids the territory of Argos, which is not in alliance with Athens.

3 | Mount Parthenion

On this 1,200-metre-high mountain peak just above ancient Tegea (now the village of Alea, close to Tripoli), Pheidippides has his legendary encounter with the god Pan, who laments that the Athenians fail to acknowledge him as much as they should. Following their subsequent victory over the Persians, the Athenians build a temple dedicated to Pan.

4 | Sparta

Within 36 hours, Pheidippides has covered 153 miles to reach the powerful city state, where hopes of enlisting extra military support are dashed by the discovery that the Spartans are observing a religious festival.

5 | Athens

Pheidippides returns by the same route, carrying the news that the Athenians will have to face the forces of King Darius I alone. All the fighting men march to meet the enemy at Marathon.

6 | Marathon

After a deadlock lasting five days, Athenian forces seize their best chance to take on the numerically superior invaders in the fennel fields, while the notorious Persian cavalry are temporarily absent. Using briliant tactics, the Athenians achieve a decisive victory.

7 | Athens

Fearful of a secondary Persian attack on the defenceless city, nine of the ten tribes immediately march back from Marathon, covering a distance of 25 miles in full battle gear within one day.

Herodotus describes Pheidippides (or Philippides in some versions) running from Athens to Sparta and back again within the space of three days. His mission was to rally support from the Spartans to help repel the Persian army, which was preparing to invade.

According to this account, barefooted and armed only with a short sword, he ran 1,140 stadia (around 153 miles or 246 kilometres) to Sparta in around 36 hours, travelling via Eleusis, the Gerania mountains, Isthmia, Examilia, ancient Corinth, ancient Nemea and Mount Parthenion.

When he arrived, the Spartans were five days into a nine-day religious festival, the Carneia, during which they were forbidden to fight. They agreed to come to the assistance of their Greek brethren when it was over, but it would be a week or more before their feared hoplites (citizen soldiers) would be in battle position where the Athenians needed them. Pheidippides was forced to run back along the route he had just taken, alone and carrying a heavy load of bad news.

The Spartans were five days into a nine-day religious festival, the Carneia, during which they were forbidden to fight. Pheidippides was forced to run back along the route he had just taken, alone and carrying a heavy load of bad news

After his extraordinary feat of endurance, the runner reported an encounter with the god Pan on the slopes of Parthenio, somewhere above the precinct of Tegea. Pan demanded to know from the messenger why his people had been neglecting him, “though he was well disposed to the Athenians and had been serviceable to them on many occasions before that time, and would be so also yet again”.

For many modern scholars, this is where the tale comes off the rails as a historical account and veers directly into the field of myth and legend. However, the encounter with Pan could be explained as a hallucination brought on by a mixture of heat and physical exhaustion.

Modern-day endurance athletes often report such visions, known as ‘sleepmonsters’, which can be fantastically realistic. Whether historians believe Pheidippides actually met with a god or not, the ancient Greeks certainly gave it credence, evidenced by a shrine below the Acropolis dedicated to Pan, built soon after the Athenians’ eventual victory over the Persians.

The battle of Marathon: what happened?

On his return to Athens, Pheidippides delivered the terrible news that no imminent support could be expected from the Spartans. He then joined the rest of Athenian army to march from Athens to Marathon to attempt to hold off the large Persian forces massing just off shore.

The invaders brought an estimated 18,000- 25,000 soldiers with them, including their much-feared cavalry. They vastly outnumbered the Athenians, who are believed to have had fewer than 10,000 men in their ranks. Yet, when fighting finally broke out after a tense five-day stand-off, it was the Athenians who emerged victorious, thanks to the superior tactics devised by Miltiades, one of ten generals operating under the polemarch (war-ruler) Callimachus.

After learning that the Persian cavalry was temporarily absent, Miltiades had managed to convince Callimachus to order a general attack against the enemy, before using reinforced flanks to lure the Persians’ elite warriors into the centre, where they were overwhelmed. Breaking in panic, the Persians fled towards their ships, with large numbers killed as they retreated. The Spartans, who honoured their promise but arrived only after the fighting had finished, allegedly found some 6,400 Persians dead on the battlefield, while in comparison, the Athenian casualties were reported to be as low as 192.

With the Persians beaten back to their ships, the concern for the Greeks was that an attack would be launched on Athens itself, left defenceless while the fighting forces were in action at Marathon. To avoid this, immediately after the battle, which ended around noon, nine of the ten phyla (clans) power-marched back to Athens, a distance of around 25 miles, with armour and weapons at the ready. They are said to have arrived before nightfall. The tenth tribe, Antiochis, stayed behind under the command of Aristides ‘the Just’ to look after the spoils of war.

Is Pheidippides famous for the wrong run?

While Herodotus doesn’t mention a solo runner going ahead of the main phalanx from Marathon to Athens, it is possible that a messenger was sent to inform the terrified citizens that the army was returning and to instruct them not to surrender.

Given his earlier efforts, it is less likely that Pheidippides would have been given this task, although if he was, it might explain why the exhausted herald is reported to have dropped down dead on arrival in Athens. It seems more feasible that the latter part of the Pheidippides story was embellished over time to give an already heroic tale a touch more pathos – a narrative technique much loved by the Greeks.

4.25 | The continual pace, in miles per hour, that Pheidippides would have had to maintain to cover the distance from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours.

Writing 500 years after Herodotus, the Greek scribe Plutarch, in his essay On the Glory of Athens, depicts a different messenger called Thersippus (or Eukles) making the run from Marathon to Athens. A century later, Greek satirist Lucian put Pheidippides’s name in the frame for the same run. The stories have become blurred ever since, leading to the myth that remains popular to this day.

It seems Pheidippides is remembered for the wrong run – a much shorter journey, completed (no less heroically) by the entire fighting force of Athens – while his really staggering achievement, a 300-mile ultra-marathon that turned out to be a waste of time, has been largely forgotten.

Perhaps modern-day marathon runners should be grateful that the legend that grew up around a shorter distance was the one that captured the imagination of the Olympic committee. Otherwise, they might be running more than 10 times the distance they do now.

Pat Kinsella is a freelance writer, photographer and editor specialising in travel and history 

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This article was first published in the February 2015 edition of BBC History Revealed