Statue of Pheidippides alongside the Marathon Road.
|Born||circa 530 BC
|Died||circa 490 BC
Pheidippides (Greek: Φειδιππίδης, more correctly given as Philippides, by Herodotus and Plutarch, since Pheidippides, 'sparing a horse', is a jocular name for a character in a play by Aristophanes) is the central figure in a story that was the inspiration for a modern sporting event, the marathon race. Pheidippides is said to have run from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of a military victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.
The first recorded account showing a courier running from Marathon to Athens to announce victory is from within Lucian's prose on the first use of the word "joy" as a greeting in A Slip of the Tongue in Greeting.
... 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 the words "Joy to you". – Lucian translated by K.Kilburn.
... The modern use of the word dates back to Philippides the dispatch-runner. Bringing the news of the victory at Marathon, he found the archons seated, in suspense regarding the issue of the battle. 'Joy, we win!' he said, and died upon his message, breathing his last in the word Joy ... – Lucian Pro lapsu inter salutandum (translated by F.G. and H.W. Fowler, 1905)
The traditional story relates that Philippides (530 BC–490 BC), an Athenian herald or hemerodrome (translated as "day-runner" (Kyle 2007), "courier" (Larcher 1806), "professional-running courier" (Sears 2003) or "day-long runner" (Miller 2006)), was sent to Sparta to request help when the Persians landed at Marathon, Greece. He ran about 240 km (150 mi) in two days. He then ran the 40 km (25 mi) from the battlefield near Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) with the word νικῶμεν (nikomen "We win!"), as stated by Lucian chairete, nikomen ("hail, we are the winners") and then collapsed and died.
Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to the historian Herodotus, who wrote the history of the Persian Wars in his Histories (composed about 440 BC). However, Magill and Moose (2003) suggest that the story is likely a "romantic invention." They point out that Lucian is the only classical source to which all the elements existed of the story known in modern culture as the "Marathon story of Philippides": a messenger running from the fields of Marathon to announce victory, then dying on completion of his mission.
Robert Browning gave a version of the traditional story in his 1879 poem Pheidippides.
So, when Persia was dust, all cried, "To Acropolis!
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 through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, - the bliss!
("Fennel-field" is a reference to the Greek word for fennel, marathon, the origin of the name of the battlefield.)
In any case, no such story appears in Herodotus. The relevant passage of Herodotus (Histories, Book VI, 105...106 →) is:
Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheidippides, a professional long-distance runner. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Philippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Philippides's story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection.
On the occasion of which I speak - when Philippides, that is, was sent on his mission by the Athenian commanders and said that he saw Pan - he reached Sparta the day after he left Athens and delivered his message to the Spartan government. "Men of Sparta" (the message ran), "the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and subdued by a foreign invader; for even now Eretria has been enslaved, and Greece is the weaker by the loss of one fine city." The Spartans, though moved by the appeal, and willing to send help to Athens, were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full. So they waited for the full moon, and meanwhile Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, guided the Persians to Marathon.
The significance of this story is to be understood in the light of the legend that the god Pan returned the favor by fighting with the Athenian troops and against the Persians at Marathon. This was important because Pan, in addition to his other powers, had the capacity to instill the most extreme sort of fear, an irrational, blind fear that paralysed the mind and suspended all sense of judgment – panic.
Herodotus, writing about 30 to 40 years after the events he describes, did, according to Miller (2006) in fact base his version of the battle on eyewitness accounts, so it seems altogether likely that Philippides was an actual historical figure, although the same source claims the classical author did not ever in fact mention a Marathon-Athens runner in any of his writings. Whether the story is true or not, it has no connection with the Battle of Marathon itself, and Herodotus's silence on the subject of a herald running from Marathon to Athens suggests strongly that no such event occurred.
The first known written account of a run from Marathon to Athens occurs in the works of the Greek writer Plutarch (46–120), in his essay On the Glory of Athens. Plutarch attributes the run to a herald called either Thersippus or Eukles. Lucian, a century later, credits one "Philippides." It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus's time and Plutarch's, the story of Pheidippides had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon (particularly the story of the Athenian forces making the march from Marathon to Athens in order to intercept the Persian ships headed there), and some fanciful writer had invented the story of the run from Marathon to Athens.
Based on this account, British RAF Wing Commander John Foden and four other RAF officers travelled to Greece in 1982 on an official expedition to test whether it was possible to cover the nearly 250 kilometres in a day and a half. Three runners were successful in completing the distance: John Foden (37:37), John Scholtens (34:30) and John McCarthy (39:00).
Since 1983, it has been an annual footrace from Athens to Sparta, known as the Spartathlon, celebrating Pheidippides's at least semi-historical run across 246 km of Greek countryside.
- Course records
In popular culture
Steve Reeves played Pheidippides in the 1959 film The Giant of Marathon. In 1991, Yiannis Kouros starred as Pheidippides in the movie The Story of the Marathon: A Hero's Journey, which chronicles the history of marathon running.
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