Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pheidippides and the great Marathon myth

Ask most runners who are training for their first marathon or have run one or more 26.2 milers, they will readily tell you about how Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 21 or 25 miles (depending on whether one takes a northern or southern route back to Athens), announced the Greek victory and promptly fell dead, apparently from exhaustion.

How many of you know that this is a myth that has become legend now?

Pheidippides first came to the attention of the rest of the world in Herodotus's "The Histories". Herodotus, known as the "Father of History", wrote his seminal work (around 440 BC) as a means to record the Greco-Persian wars.

What brought about Darius's attempted conquest of Greece in 490 BC is the subject of a later blog. Suffice to say that his Persian army, under the command of Datis and Artaphernes, landed on the plains of Marathon.

As soon as the Athenians, pioneers of a new form of government (demoskratos or democracy), heard of the landing on the beach near Marathon, they dispatched an "expert" runner, one Philippides ("son of a lover of horses"), to Sparta. He was a hemerodromoi (alternatively imerodromou) or an "all day runner". Such runners were generally in their early twenties but Philippides must have been older, possibly in his late twenties, since he was labeled an "expert". While he was hurrying to Sparta, the Athenian army started the 20 mile tramp to Marathon.

John Foden and his team, after researching Herodotus's book, came up with a possible route for the run. The following passage appears on the Web site of the modern yearly race, the Spartathlon, run in memory of Philippides' run:

For twenty four consecutive years, the Spartathlon athletes have followed the route John Foden and his team defined in 1982 when they experimented in running from Athens to Sparta.

It is based on Herodotus’ description of the Athenian ‘Imerodromou’ or messenger who arrived in Sparta the day after he departed from Athens and also on well known historical events of that time. It has, therefore, been considered the nearest route to that which Pheidippides must have followed.

Briefly, Miltiades’ messenger started out of Athens on the ancient Iera Odos, or “sacred road,” up to Elefsis.

From there he followed Skyronia Odos, a military road on the slopes of the Gerania mountains, and traveled through Isthmia, Examilia and Ancient Corinth.

He went on to Ancient Nemea, thus avoiding the Epicratea of Argos, as it wasn’t in alliance with Athens, and he continued along the mountains between Argolida and Arcadia.

He climbed the Parthenio mountain (1200 meters), where he encountered the God Pan.

Descending the mountain, he continued in the direction of historical Tegea, one of the locations mentioned by Herodotus in his account about Pheidippides. He proceeded south toward Sparta.

Upon his arrival in Sparta, he completed 1140 “stadia,” which equaled 246 kilometers.

What a journey it must have been!! Armed with a short sword and courage, he covered the 150 miles in about 36 hours. His run was to be in vain though. The Spartans were in the midst of a 9-day religious festival, the Carneia, during which they were forbidden to go to battle. They promised to set out for Marathon as soon as the festival ended, 4 days after Philippides' arrival. They asked the Athenians to stall the Persians until they arrived.

The poor man returned to Athens as soon as he could, relayed the message to the disappointed Athenians, and proceeded the 20 odd miles to Marathon.

The Athenians and Persians had faced each other for 5 days before the historic battle broke out. The Persian army, according to various historical sources, numbered anywhere from 200,000 to 600,000. Current estimates, based on the number of ships used to transport the army and the presence/absence of cavalry, puts the number at between 18,000 and 25,000 soldiers. The Athenians probably numbered less than 10,000.

Again, suffice to say that the Athenians were victorious. The Spartans, who arrived a few days later as promised, counted the Persian dead on the battlefield. More than 6000 it was said while Athenian losses were only 192. That's right. Only 192.

The Persians, who had fled back to their ships, decided to sail down the coast to Athens and sack the city. The Athenian army, upon hearing this, ran, armor, shields, spears and swords and all, back to Athens and were there by dusk (the battle having ended around noon). It was this run that inspired Frenchman Michel Breal (on the Olympic committee for the first modern games in 1896 and a friend of Baron Pierre de Coubertin) to propose an event called the marathon for the 1896 games (fittingly it was a Greek shepherd, Spyridon Louis, who won that first race in 1896).

Coming back to Pheidippides (later Greek historians evidently did not like the association with horses and changed his name to Pheidippides), it is certain that he did not run back to Athens to announce victory nor did he die there.

It was Plutarch (46-120 AD i.e. almost 500 years after the famous battle) in his "On the Glory of Athens" who wrote about a runner, one he called either Thersippus or Eukles, making the fatal run to Athens. It was Lucius, a hundred years later, who associated that run to a runner named "Philippides".

Pheidippides was certainly one of the greatest runners we know of. He must have been an amazing athlete, for he ran 490 kilometers (more than 300 miles) in a span of 3 days.

The word marathon is classical Greek for fennel. The fields of Marathon, where the fateful battle took place, must have had an abundant growth of the fennel plant. It must have been a fragrant battle for sure!

The 1908 London Olympics had the marathon start outside Windsor Castle and finish in a stadium in front of the Royal box. This distance was 42.195 kms. or 26 miles 385 yards. In 1921 the International Amateur Athletics Association (IAAF) standardized this as the distance for a marathon race.

If you are interested in learning more about the struggle between the East and the West and how it goes back to the days of Darius, his son Xerxes, the Spartan king Leonidas and the Athenian statesman Themistocles, I highly recommend Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland.

Happy trails.


Anonymous said...

You write really well Rajeev! What is more amazing is I was reading this very portion of the book on the way to work today!!...great recap! - wonderful book..thanks for the recommendation.

Rajeev Char

Rajeev said...

Thank you buddy! I loved that book. I have to pick up his "Rubicon ..." when I get back to the Bay area (I'm in New Jersey this week, at client site). It's waiting for me in the Sunnyvale Borders.

anil said...

good writeup Rajeev. arey bhai sab yahin lik doghe tho book me kya ho hoga :)

Anonymous said...

Thank Rajeev for providing this background information after I was amazed about Jurek's win at Spartathlon less than three weeks ago. You are so knowledgeable and poetic!

Perhaps tell us how it is like running in NJ?