Did Pheidippides invent the marathon?

Published

Claim

Pheidippides ran from the battlefield at Marathon back to Athens to declare victory, dying in the process. This run was the inspiration for the modern marathon race.

Rating

False

Explanation

The tale of Pheidippides (also commonly rendered as Philippides), the messenger who ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians, is an evocative and romantic story from the ancient world. Not only that, he has inspired many men and women since because of his demonstration of endurance, fortitude, and sense of duty. His story has since become the aetiological myth for the modern marathon race, originally fixed at 25 miles (40 km) long to replicate the run he undertook.

Unfortunately, the primary evidence suggests that this story is not exactly true.

Pheidippides first appears in the sources when Herodotus of Halicarnassus describes a messenger sent out before the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The Athenians were aware that the Persians were coming to attack the city, and intended to call upon the Spartans to aid them in the coming battle (Herodotus 6.105):

While still in the city, the generals first sent to Sparta the herald Pheidippides, an Athenian and a long-distance runner who made that his calling.

This run was approximately 140 miles (225 km) long, an incredible feat of endurance over difficult and mountainous terrain. This feat was made all the more impressive by the fact that he is said to have accomplished it in less than two days (Herodotus 6.106). Amazingly this run was not the most impressive to ancient authors: the Roman writer Pliny the Elder mentions both a Spartan courier, Amystis, and Philonides, a courier for Alexander the Great, both of whom are said to have run 150 miles (241 km) in a single day (Pliny, Natural History 7.20)!

While these distances and times appear fanciful to the uninitiated, the modern records for the further distance run in 24 hours are held by Yiannis Kouros at 188 miles (303 km) and Camille Herron at 162 miles (261 km) – so Pliny’s claims are well within the bounds of what is humanly possible.

As for the Battle of Marathon – or indeed any other part of Herodotus’ Histories – Pheidippides gets no mention. In fact, the aftermath to the battle gives no account of a messenger at all (6.116):

the Athenians marched back to defend the city as fast as their feet could carry them and got there ahead of the foreigners.

So where does this story come from, if not our main source?

Plutarch, writing more than 500 years (!) later, mentions Pheidippides in his De Herodoti malignitate, but makes no claim that Pheidippides should have been included in the post-Marathon narrative by Herodotus. Indeed, to Plutarch, the story of a messenger running to Athens from Marathon with news of the battle was a true one, but it was not about Pheidippides (De gloria Atheniensium 3):

Again, the news of the battle of Marathon Thersippus of Eroeadae brought back, as Heracleides Ponticus relates; but most historians declare that it was Eucles who ran in full armour, hot from the battle, and, bursting in at the doors of the first men of the State, could only say, “Hail ! we are victorious!” and straightway expired.

Heracleides Ponticus was writing in the fourth century BC, and – according to Plutarch – suggested that there was a runner. Notably, other historians, who are left unnamed, did not agree on the name. So here we can see the elements of the modern story, but the name of Pheidippides is never mentioned.

The story that we’re all familair with finally appears about a century later in the works of the second-century-AD satirist Lucian of Samosata. In his work A Slip of the Tongue in Greeting, he seems to take the tradition relayed by Plutarch and assign it instead to the most famous messenger of the classical Greek world (4, trans. Kilburn):

Philippides, the one who acted as courier, is said to have used it first in our sense when he brought the news of victory from Marathon and addressed the magistrates in session when they were anxious how the battle had ended: “Joy to you, we’ve won,” he said, and there and then he died, breathing his last breath with that.

It is Lucian’s story that became the inspiration for poets like Robert Browning, who wrote the poem Pheidippides in honour of the runner in 1879. By 1896, the first modern Olympic Games featured a marathon race in honour of Pheidippides, which measured 25 miles (40 km). The modern distance of 26.2 miles (42.195 km) has little to do with ancient Greece, and everything to do with the race that was part of the 1908 Olympics in London.

According to our sources, Pheidippides did not run from Marathon to Athens after the battle, nor did he die while delivering a message. Our earliest evidence for such an event comes 500 years after the fact and suggests two names for the man in question, neither of which were Pheidippides. The story evolved in the second century AD, and Lucian assigns the name which has since become legend. The modern marathon may have been established to honour Pheidippides, but it bears no relation to any account of his running in the contemporary source material. The only race that accurately reflects his legacy is the ultra-marathon event, the Spartathlon.

It is for this reason that we have rated the claim to be false.

Related claims

References

  • Frank J. Frost, “The dubious origins of the ‘Marathon’”, American Journal of Ancient History 4.2 (1979) pp. 159–62.
  • Dennis L. Fink, The Battle of Marathon in Scholarship: Research, Theories and Controversies since 1850 (2014).
  • James Kierstead, “The uncertain origins of the modern Marathon,” The Conversation (2017).