Pheidippides and The Origins of The Marathon

Pheidippides falls to his death after delivering the good news | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Pheidippides, a Greek runner, received orders to travel from the plain of Marathon to the city-state of Sparta in 490 BCE to seek help from the Spartans in an upcoming battle against the Persian Army. As he sprinted the 150 miles, 11,000 Greek infantry men waited near the approaching 30,000 Persian invaders that had landed on the coast of Marathon. Ancient Greeks often used runners such as Pheidippides as messengers; these men were in the best of shape and training, and were able to run for days.

Map of the Battle of Marathon | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In 550 BCE, sixty years prior to these events, the Persians, under Cyrus I, began to expand throughout Asia Minor in an attempt to control the western end of their enormous empire. As the Persians conquered the lands in Greek Ionia, along the coast of the Aegean Sea, Persian rulers were placed in each conquered Greek city-state. These rulers were unable to keep the Greeks who were subject to the rule of the Persians happy. The unhappy Greeks joined together and rebelled, sparking the beginning of the Ionian Revolt. The mainland Greek cities of Athens and Eretria knew of the Persians and their desire to conquer all of Greece. They knew it was only a matter of time before the Persians would turn their attention to them. In an attempt to slow the Persians, they chose to aid the Ionian cities fighting the Persians during the Ionian revolt. These actions would be the cause of a long feud between the Greek city-states and the Persian empire.

When Persian King Darius learned of the aid being given to the Ionian cities, he commanded his generals to attack and conquer Athens and Eretia. Darius was determined to incorporate Athens and Eretia as well as all of Greece into the Persian Empire. The Persians struck first against the Eretrians, who at the time were considered highly noble and very formidable on the battlefield. After only three days, the Eretrians fell to the Persians, who then turned their attention to Athens. Athenian citizens knew what awaited them, and were sure of their demise. Defeat was almost guaranteed; many Athenian generals did not want even to attempt a fight, but after a close vote among the generals, the decision to defend Athens was made.1

Greek Army, 490 B.C.E. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Persia was the greatest empire the world had ever seen up to that time. Athens and its surrounding supporters gathered in preparation for the coming Persian assault. The best 11,000 men from eleven Greek city-states joined together, each commanded by their own general, with the prominent Athenian general Miltiades in overall command. The Greek forces knew that they were greatly outnumbered, so Miltiades wisely sent the runner Pheidippides to Sparta, the home of the foremost fighters of the Greeks, to ask for Spartan assistance in battling the Persians. The message back to the Athenians was that they were unable to give their assistance at the moment, given their religious restrictions against taking the field of battle until the next full moon. Athens and its Greek-allied army marched twenty-five miles to Marathon to await the nearing 30,000 Persians without the help of Sparta. The Greek army was composed of neighbors and brothers who joined to fight for their freedom and homeland, while the Persian army was composed of various groups of people, many of whom often spoke different languages. This would come to benefit the Greeks who would prove to have more heart and determination than the Persians. The Persians landed in a perfect area for combat, directly near the plain of Marathon. This large plain was six miles long and two miles wide. The Persians stood on the plain and along the coast and waited as the Greeks stood above the plain, looking down upon them from a mountain directly above. This standoff lasted for four days, and then the Battle of Marathon began.2

Commanader Datus of the Persia army devised a plan during the four-day standoff. He loaded up the majority of his men and horses back to their boats, sailed around the coast headed for the unprotected city of Athens, hoping that the Greeks would remain at Marathon. He waited until night-time to set sail, in an attempt to catch the Greeks by surprise, but the ruse was spotted by Greek scouts. Miltiades, leading the Greeks, saw this as his opportunity. He and his men wisely marched down to the plain to face the 12,000 Persians that remained at Marathon. After only three hours of battle, the Persians began to retreat and headed back to their ships, as they were unable to defeat the Greeks. Miltiades and his men rejoiced in their victory and sent the same runner, Pheidippides, to Athens to share the good news. Pheidippides sprinted the twenty-five miles from the Battle at Marathon to Athens, shouting “rejoice, we have victory!” He then fell and died of exhaustion. The city cheered with great joy at having defeating the Persians, but Miltiades knew that Datus and the rest of his men were still headed for Athens. He gathered his exhausted and battle-weary troops and marched the twenty-five miles to Athens in full armor in a race against the Persians. Miltiades knew he and his men would would face defeat if the Persians already awaited them in Athens. The Greek army had to reach Athens first but were already three hours behind. Militades arrived just in time to set up his troops and await the Persians. As commander Datus neared Athens, he could see the Greeks ready to continue the fight. He and his men were left shocked and completely demoralized. Instead of attacking Athens, he forced their ships to return directly back to Persia.3

Pheidippides Statue, along the Marathon Road | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This victory allowed the Greeks to prepare over the next ten years before the Persians made another attempt to invade. The Persians would gather and grow to make many more attempts to defeat the Greeks. Even though the Persians, under Xerxes (King Darius’ son), assembled one of the largest ancient armies ever, they would never be able to accomplish their goal of conquering all of Greece. It was not until around 451 B.C.E that the Persians had been completely removed from Greece. This removal of Persia would allow Athens to be left free from foreign tyranny and would soon enter its Golden Age. This Battle of Marathon was one of many events that had a large influence on the future of Greece as a whole. This was also a crucial victory that helped the rise of Athens as a prominent city of Greece.4

The Greeks and their great battle is celebrated to this day. Marathon is now the name of the long-distance foot-race held in honor of the legendary Athenian runner Pheidippides, who ran twenty-five miles without stopping to give the Athenians the message of their dramatic victory over the Persians. Pheidippides also ran 150 miles to Sparta in two days only a few days prior, leaving him so exhausted from that run that he dropped dead immediately after delivering the news to the Athenians. When the Modern Olympic Games were revived in 1896, in Athens, this running event, called the Marathon, was introduced as a celebration of the glory of ancient Greece. None believed the Greeks would be able to stop the Persian empire, but this victory sparked hope among all of the Greek city-states.5

Pheidippides, in his time, had no idea he would have such a large impact on people today. Marathons have become a successful means of raising money for various children’s organizations, as well as cancer organizations and other very beneficial groups. Preparing for a marathon requires rigorous training and is no easy feat. Much like Pheidippides, the people who choose to run encounter many obstacles along the way, but through determination and will are able to reach the finish line for a great cause. Running a marathon is no easy accomplishment, but is a justifiable means of honoring the Greek army. This event has remained in the summer Olympics to this day, as well as the hundreds of marathons that are conducted each year in cities like Boston, New York City, Berlin, Chicago, and London to name only a few. The Greeks were successfully able to defeat the Persians against great odds, and it is for that victory that we continue to honor their deeds.

Annual Air Force Marathon | Courtesy of Air Force News
  1. Doug Marsh, “The Battle of Marathon: The Stunning Victory and Its Contribution to the Rise of Athens,” Studia Antiqua, vol. 5 (2007): 29-30, 34-39.
  2. Jim Lacey, “Marathon Attack on the Run: Persia’s Mighty Army Proved No Match for the Fired-Up Athenian Veterans in their Epic Close-Quarters 490 B.C. Battle,” Military History, vol. 28 (2011): 60-64.
  3. Jim Lacey, “Marathon Attack on the Run: Persia’s Mighty Army Proved No Match for the Fired-Up Athenian Veterans in their Epic Close-Quarters 490 B.C. Battle,” Military History, vol. 28 (2011): 66-67.
  4. Doug Marsh, “The Battle of Marathon: The Stunning Victory and Its Contribution to the Rise of Athens,” Studia Antiqua, vol. 5 (2007): 30-35.
  5. Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Marathon.”
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26 Comments

  • This article was very interesting and detailed. It was also very well written and a little humorous. I could not image running 25 miles without stopping. That is extremely impressive. It is also quite amazing that the greek army managed to get back to Athens after fighting an exhausting battle. The runners’ job was very important and the army probably relied on them to send information “quickly”. Great article.

  • I enjoyed the way that the article was formatted. The transitions between the battle and the history of the Greek and Persians combat flowed well. I was familiar with the Battle of Marathon, so it was refreshing to read an article about it. The article does a great job of putting all the information together and still make it enjoyable to read.

  • This article was super interesting to me. I always knew as marathon to be this popular running event, but I never knew that it was based off of a Greek figure fro thousands of years ago. I was never aware of Philippines and what he was famous for. The fact he ran over 100 miles straight without stopping to declare the good news to Sparta is astonishing to me. And the fact that he ran out of steam and literally died due to exhaustion is sad, but also legendary. This was a great accomplishment in not only Greek history, but also in human histrionic as well.

  • I really enjoyed reading this article! It is amazing how something we do today, goes all the way back to 490 BCE. These men were called, “Pheidippides” and it is mind-blowing how they were used as messengers and were able to run for days. These men were brave and honorable. It truly is amazing how people now use these marathons to raise money for special causes.

  • I really enjoyed reading this article. I would have never thought that marathons came from trying to send a message to people. It also surprised me how people were fit enough to run for days without stopping to rest. This shows how much pressure was on the runners back then and how important it was to deliver a message. Overall, this article was very interesting and does a well job of telling the story of Pheidippides.

  • I like background information, it gives the article context. I like the Greeks heart, they saw and injustice and wanted to change that. They were get out that situation one way or another. They came together and eventually drove out the Persians. It amazing how much Greek influence is in America. I enjoyed learning of the history behind the modern-day era marathon.

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