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.”
Pheidippides and The Origins of The Marathon
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Pheidippides and The Origins of The Marathon

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23 Comments

  • 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.

  • This was a good article that gives you just enough detail and back story to know what is going on. I have several family members that enjoy running marathons, but I never knew its origins were from the ancient greeks. I learned alot from this article that will apply you my classes this semester. It was written very well and detailed and the storyline of Pheidippides was a good eye catcher.

  • This article told a story about a piece of history that I had never heard of before. Never would I have guessed that the beginning of marathons or of running large amount of miles was to communicate. Phedippides, the Greek messenger had an amount of Valor that was unbeatable. Although now thanks to the technology we have, there is no need to run in order to communicate, we now run for a cause. Consequently, his remembrance and honor is well preserved and will continue to be

  • I find it so interesting to learn the background and how a word comes to be. I was not aware at all that the word marathon came from this event. It is incredible how one man ran 150 miles. This type of physical endurance and dedication makes me feel like there is nothing than I cannot do. This is truly one of the most incredible stories I have read from this time era. It is also fun to think about what the word marathon means and how it is involved in our world now, just because of this event.

  • This story is so hard to believe! Not that I am doubting your research at all, it is just an amazing story, and even though it is factual it sounds like the stuff of mythology. Thank you for sharing your findings. I no longer see marathons in the present day as just long runs, rather a historic feat of human strength honoring the greatest runner of all, Pheidippides.

  • This article gave me great insight to the history behind the marathon. I had heard that a runner from the ancient world died after giving great news pertaining to a war, that the Persians had been defeated in battle. I really like how this article gave the history behind the marathon, explained the feud between the Persians and Greek-city states but also tied it into today’s world.

  • It is crazy to think that Pheidippides was literally a man on a mission to deliver news about the victory would spark the start of one of the most vigorous challenges in sports. I know athletes after running a marathon feel dead tired but unfortunately for Pheidippides he would literally die after running a marathon. I love how this story told a great story about an event that is still relevant today. Great job articulating this origins story.

  • Sprinting 150 miles, with the technology they had in that day is mind blowing. a marathon runner and triathletes are the most cardiovascular athletes we can think of in 2017, and in 490 BCE a guy ran 150 miles is pretty mind blowing. Its hard to imagine even being able to physically do so. Very interesting article, enjoyed the read!

  • This was a very interesting article, and very engaging from beginning to end. I find the origin of the modern marathon event very interesting because of the historical background it has and because it portrays the bravery and effort of Pheidippides. The historical event was very different to current marathons though because Pheidippides first ran to ask for help and then to give news about a victory, and current marathons serve as a sport event and sometimes to raise funds.

  • Like many of the other commenters have mentioned, I too used to run track and it is interesting to me to see such a rich history associated with modern athletics. Being a huge fan of ancient Greece and Rome, I have always loved films like 300 that portrayed the epic battle of Thermopylae. Reading about the actual logistics of the event provide me with a greater appreciation of the subject. I am glad to know that some of our myths today still have some credibility rooted in History.

  • I have always wondered how marathons came about but never actually tried did any research. I had figured considering the Olympics were also originally Greek that marathons were as well. Still the story behind it was epic in tale. What other events can claim its origin was involved in historic battles between ancient Greeks and ancient Persians. This was a great article on an interesting topic.

  • It’s amazing how marathons today respectively signify honoring the Greek army. Prior to reading this article, I wasn’t aware of the Olympic events’ roots. I thought they were just a way to bring in money for organizations while promoting health. I wasn’t aware of the ancient runner Pheidippides who ran 150 and then 25 miles two days later, just to deliver news. Reading this article left me wonder how and if that is humanly possible.

  • As I read the article I noticed the structure of the article itself is quite well thought. The author was able to chronologically follow the story of Pheidippides and how the Greeks were able to go through and hold off the Persians. His transition from one event to another was easy to follow and I was engaged the whole time. Honestly, I never knew much about the Greeks other than the common mythology stories. It’s quite extraordinary how one individual has impacted history and was the start of something that requires dedication and so much heart.

  • This is a Greek battle that I’ve never heard of, and wish I would have before now. Information like this would have actually kept my interest during school. Not the American and World history that the teach, and leave stuff out of. But information of how things started, why we call marathons, marathons. Information like this would kept kids focused and want to learn more about history than the information that they’ve been learning since the 1st grade.

  • Honestly, I had no any idea about Pheidippides but after reading this article I got to know about many new things. I was fascinated to know about the history and background of Marathon. Furthermore, I somewhat got the chance to know something about the Ionian revolt as well. I am amazed that runners were used as a source for communication back then. It was sad to read that Pheidippides managed to convey the message but couldn’t survive. I like the way how the article is well written and managed.

  • I ran the Big D Marathon in Dallas two years ago, and I’ll tell you one thing for sure I wanted to die once I finished and crossed the finish line. Your article was very informative and gave me more information about the origins of the Marathon. I knew that it was named after the run near the town of Marathon, but I did not know the whole story. You used great pictures, and your article flowed well when reading.

  • I already new who Pheidippides was and a little about his story before reading this but not the full version. It was well though out, and amazing use of the entire background story to show off how hard you worked doing research. It kept me interested and wanting to read more about Pheidippides and other stories of ancient Greece and their heroes.

  • I was intrigued at how marathons today are reminiscent of the ancient Greek runners. Very interesting to see people replicating the running that Pheidippides did prior to and during the battle of Marathon. It was amazing how Pheidippides managed to deliver his message in Athens just before collapsing dead. The article was very insightful, as it kept me engaged the whole time. Fantastic job on the article!

  • This is such an interesting article. I personally love to run but have never done a marathon myself because that is a little bit too much running for me. I now feel silly for saying that after reading that Pheidippides actually ran for days. They would run for days just to go to battle, these men must of been extremely strong not only physically but mentally. It is very interesting to learn the violent origin behind the marathon as now it has such a positive use and has helped do so many great things for people.

  • Hey Eric, your article reads like an epic movie, I tried pronouncing the title for a moment, it scared me for a minute but your prose it is very good that it hooked me all through, I love how your writing helps one visualize this Pheidippides runners running from one end to the other for days as battles raged. I watched a movie called 300 when I was younger and I thought it was made up but reading your article I think aspects of what the Spartans went through in that film was true, now I know one of this revolts against the Persians was known as the. Ionian revolt. I also have learned of a central player in all making the victory of the Greek come true and this is Pheidippides, also I was surprised to learn that the Spartans did not participant in the Great War against the Persians. Great courage lives on for a life time and the fact that marathons are run to this day for good purposes is really a sign of how good things keep on giving isn’t it? Thanks for this.

  • I liked your title and featured image it really caught my attention to read your article. It’s hard to believe that the people of that time could run for days. I like how if you just look at the pictures in your article it goes from war to a friendly race. The origin of the marathon is incredible and violent. I wonder how many people who run marathons know of its origins.

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