Did Pheidippides Run a Marathon?

To many of the general public any road race from 10km upwards is called a "marathon". The word "marathon" has permeated everyday language to such an extent that any long drawn-out activity is now colloquially described as a "marathon". All this because a runner in Ancient Greece ran from Marathon to Athens and then collapsed and died. Or did he?

The famous legend that gave rise to the idea of the modern marathon is that a runner called Pheidippes was said to have run from Athens to Sparta to ask for help against the invading Persians armies. It was the year 490BC and the Persian king was determined to crush the Greek city states that had been supporting Grecian enclaves within his empire in resisting his rule. The Spartans were unwilling to help the Athenians for religious reasons so Pheidippides returned to Athens before joining the Athenian army on its journey to Marathon. The Athenians won the Battle of Marathon against the Persian host and Pheidippides was sent to carry the message back to Athens. On reaching the city the exhausted runner could only gasp out the words, `Rejoice, we conquer,' before he collapsed and died. It was this legend that inspired Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, to include a race from Marathon to Athens in the first Olympics in 1896.

So much for the myth. But what is the truth? Was there really a Pheidippides? Who was he and what did he actually do?

The runner seems to have been a real person, but his name was probably not Pheidippides at all, but rather Philippides, which in ancient Greek means "the son of a lover of horses." Later Greek writers may have thought such a name was unsuitable for one of Greek's greatest heroes and changed it slightly.

The great Greek historian, Herodotus, records some details about the runner. He says that the Athenian generals, before setting out for the Battle of Marathon, sent for "a herald, Philippides, an Athenian, a hemerodromes and an expert at it…After being sent at this time by the generals, this Philippides reached Sparta on the second day out from Athens."

Philippides was therefore a hemerodromes or hemerodromos, which in ancient Greek means a day runner, a runner who would run for a day or more. Such runners were used as messengers over the mountainous terrain of Greece.

They were "young men but recently out of their childhood, like those that wear their first downy growth of beard. Nought take they with them save bow and arrow, spear and sling, for these things are found to be of great service to their course." Such weapons would have been essential to ward off the wolves, wild bears and robbers that inhabited the Grecian mountains. It would seem likely that Philippides was older than most hemerodroi because he is described as being an expert.

He is said to have arrived at Sparta on the second day, that is within 48 hours. The two cities were said by various ancient Greek sources to be some 1,200 stades apart (a stade being about 200 yards,) which would make the distance about 136.3 miles/ 219.3km Prior to a run from Athens to Sparta by a group of Royal Air Force runners, John Foden, aided by Colonel N. Hammond, a former Cambridge history professor, studied the possible routes taken by Philippides. (It was this RAF run which inspired the present day Spartathlon race over the same course, beginning in 1983.)

Foden and Hammond took account of the writings of near contemporaries like Herodotus, and of the political relationships of the various states, for several were allies of the Persians.

Their scenario for Philippides' run went something like this: He left Athens at daybreak and ran along the undulating Sacred Way to Eleusis, and then by way of the Coastal Scironian Way from Megara to Corinth. His journey would then have led him through fairly flat, fertile country and thence along the river through the Zapartis Valley. Rocky, stony paths followed which would have led eventually to the top of the Pathenian mountain range. The remainder of his run is uncertain. He might have run across the hostile territory of Argos but this would have meant taking in six ranges of foothills and five rivers, or perhaps taking a flatter but still undulating route before the final downhill to Sparta. Such a journey is reckoned by modern-day measurements to be some 155 miles/250km. Philippides is reputed to have completed his run in less than 48 hours, probably in less than 41-42 hours - the time from sunrise on the first day to sunset on the second. That is far from impossible for an expert long distance runner, for all the 15 finishers in the first Spartathlon, unfamiliar with the course, finished inside 36 hours.

So Philippides' run from Athens to Sparta would seem to be a matter of historical record. But the same cannot be said for the dramatic tale of the runner's last journey on foot from Marathon to Athens and his subsequent death. Modern Greek scholars, having examined the various sources, have come to the conclusion that this is a later addition to the story.

Herodotus, a near contemporary of Philippides, who lived from 484 to 425BC, would have been able to get information from elderly veterans of the Battle of Marathon. He does not mention Philippides or anyone else running from Marathon to Athens. Not until five hundred years later is the second run added to the story, and then only one of the writers says that it was Philippides who made the journey; others mention a Eucles and a Thersippus! It was not unknown for long distance runners to collapse and die after an arduous run. Woolley Morris and Gryffydd Morgan, two of the best British 10 mile runners of the eighteenth century, were two such fatalities. However the demise of a runner after reaching his goal was not an uncommon addition to earlier Greek stories by writers re-telling them in the Roman period. As well as the famous Marathon to Athens episode, one Euchidas was also said to have collapsed and died after a run from Platea to Delphi and back.

Thus it looks very much as if the whole story of the run from marathon to Athens is just a late invention to add dramatic interest to a notable ultramarathon run, and that the first run from Marathon to Athens took place not in 490 BC but in 1896 AD.

Andy Milroy

The Hemerodromoi : Victor J. Matthews
The Marathon Footrace : Roger Gynn and David Martin
The Long Distance Record Book : Andy Milroy
The Pheidippides Route : Mike Callaghan