Myths of Marathons: Herodotus, Lucian, Plutarch and Us

If one were inspired to ‘research’ the origin of our modern Marathon on the Internet, one might find it possible to escape the story that it comes from Pheidippides’ run to Athens after the battle against the Persians in 490 BCE. As the story goes, as he arrived before the assembled citizens, Pheidippides announced “we have conquered” (nenikêkamen) and then then expired.

The problem is that this story is total hogwash. There was no Pheidippides (except in Aristophanes, and he was obsessed with horses). No one is ever recorded saying in ancient Greek “we have conquered” after the battle. I know where some of this comes from (Plutarch and Lucian, see below) but I don’t know where the rest does. Altough some authors do have a messenger announcing the victory, the present form of nikâo is used. And the name changes.

Furthermore, the message of the story changes radically from its different context. In the first account of running and Marathon, Herodotus tells of an Athenian Philippides who ran 140 miles to Sparta and back to try to get help:

Herodotus, 6.105-6

“First, the generals who were still in the city sent the herald Philippidês[1] to Sparta, an Athenian man, a long-distance runner [hêmerodromên[2]] who made a career of it. Pan appeared to him—as Philippidês claimed and reported to the Athenians—around the Parthenian mountain past Tegea. He claimed that Pan shouted out the name of Philippidês and ordered him to ask the Athenians why they were paying him no attention even though he was well-disposed toward them and was often helpful to them and would be again in the future. And because they believed these things to be true, since their affairs were going well, they established a temple to Pan on the akropolis and they honor him for that message with annual sacrifices and a race by torchlight. 

When Philipiddes was sent by the generals, that time when he said that Pan appeared to him, he arrived in Sparta on the next day.[3] He went straight to the officials and said “Spartans, the Athenians need you to help them and not tolerate that one of the oldest cities among the Greeks fall into slavery at the hands of Barbarian. Eretria has already been enslaved and Greece has become weaker by the loss of a significant city.” He announced what he had been ordered to announce and it was to their taste to help the Athenians but they were incapable of doing so immediately because they did not want to violate the custom: for it was the ninth day of the current month, and they said that on that day they could not leave until the moon was full.”

Καὶ πρῶτα μὲν ἐόντες ἔτι ἐν τῷ ἄστεϊ οἱ στρατηγοὶ ἀποπέμπουσι ἐς Σπάρτην κήρυκα Φιλιππίδην, ᾿Αθηναῖον μὲν ἄνδρα, ἄλλως δὲ ἡμεροδρόμην τε καὶ τοῦτο μελετῶντα. Τῷ δή, ὡς αὐτός τε ἔλεγε Φιλιππίδης καὶ ᾿Αθηναίοισι ἀπήγγελλε, περὶ τὸ Παρθένιον ὄρος τὸ ὑπὲρ Τεγέης ὁ Πὰν περιπίπτει· βώσαντα δὲ τὸ οὔνομα τοῦ Φιλιππίδεω τὸν Πᾶνα ᾿Αθηναίοισι κελεῦσαι ἀπαγγεῖλαι δι’ ὅ τι ἑωυτοῦ οὐδεμίαν ἐπιμελείην ποιεῦνται, ἐόντος εὐνόου ᾿Αθηναίοισι καὶ πολλαχῇ γενομένου σφι ἤδη χρησίμου, τὰ δ’ ἔτι καὶ ἐσομένου. Καὶ ταῦτα μὲν ᾿Αθηναῖοι, καταστάντων σφι εὖ ἤδη τῶν πρηγμάτων, πιστεύσαντες εἶναι ἀληθέα ἱδρύσαντο ὑπὸ τῇ ᾿Ακροπόλι Πανὸς ἱρόν, καὶ αὐτὸν ἀπὸ ταύτης τῆς ἀγγελίης θυσίῃσί τε ἐπετείοισι καὶ λαμπάδι ἱλάσκονται. Τότε δὲ πεμφθεὶς ὑπὸ τῶν στρατηγῶν ὁ Φιλιππίδης οὗτος, ὅτε πέρ οἱ ἔφη καὶ τὸν Πᾶνα φανῆναι, δευτεραῖος ἐκ τοῦ ᾿Αθηναίων ἄστεος ἦν ἐν Σπάρτῃ, ἀπικόμενος δὲ ἐπὶ τοὺς ἄρχοντας ἔλεγε· «῏Ω Λακεδαιμόνιοι, ᾿Αθηναῖοι ὑμέων δέονται σφίσι βοηθῆσαι καὶ μὴ περιιδεῖν πόλιν ἀρχαιοτάτην ἐν τοῖσι ῞Ελλησι δουλοσύνῃ περιπεσοῦσαν πρὸς ἀνδρῶν βαρβάρων· καὶ γὰρ νῦν ᾿Ερέτριά τε ἠνδραπόδισται καὶ πόλι λογίμῳ ἡ ῾Ελλὰς γέγονε ἀσθενεστέρη.» ῾Ο μὲν δή σφι τὰ ἐντεταλμένα ἀπήγγελλε, τοῖσι δὲ ἕαδε μὲν βοηθέειν ᾿Αθηναίοισι, ἀδύνατα δέ σφι ἦν τὸ παραυτίκα ποιέειν ταῦτα οὐ βουλομένοισι λύειν τὸν νόμον· ἦν γὰρ ἱσταμένου τοῦ μηνὸς εἰνάτη, εἰνάτῃ δὲ οὐκ ἐξελεύσεσθαι ἔφασαν μὴ οὐ πλήρεος ἐόντος τοῦ κύκλου.

This story is all about the Spartan failure to help the Greeks and the origin of a certain shrine to Pan. (In fact, in most authors who even mention this tale, it is the later aspect that draws attention). There is running from Marathon to Athens. But in Herodotus’ story, the entire Athenian army goes on a fast-march from the battle to defend the city against the Persian fleet:

Herodotus, 116

“The Persians sailed around Cape Sounion, but the Athenians went to help the city as fast as their feet were able; they arrived before the barbarians did and made their camp as soon as they appeared in the temple of Herakles, the one in Kynosarges. The barbarians, who had been at anchor near the Athenian port at that time, Phaleron, retreated and sailed their ships back toward Asia.”

Οὗτοι μὲν δὴ περιέπλεον Σούνιον· ᾿Αθηναῖοι δὲ ὡς ποδῶν εἶχον τάχιστα ἐβοήθεον ἐς τὸ ἄστυ, καὶ ἔφθησάν τε ἀπικόμενοι πρὶν ἢ τοὺς βαρβάρους ἥκειν, καὶ ἐστρατοπεδεύσαντο ἀπιγμένοι ἐξ ῾Ηρακλείου τοῦ ἐν Μαραθῶνι ἐν ἄλλῳ ῾Ηρακλείῳ τῷ ἐν Κυνοσάργεϊ. Οἱ δὲ βάρβαροι τῇσι νηυσὶ ὑπεραιωρηθέντες Φαλήρου (τοῦτο γὰρ ἦν ἐπίνειον τότε τῶν ᾿Αθηναίων), ὑπὲρ τούτου ἀνακωχεύσαντες τὰς νέας ἀπέπλεον ὀπίσω ἐς τὴν ᾿Ασίην.

This tale is actually more impressive and meaningful than the apocryphal one. The entire army ran the distance of 26 or so miles as a group to defend their homes. This isn’t about individual sacrifice or excellence, but rather about the collective will and glory of a city ruled by the people and for the people (to wax poetic a bit). This is, I think, a much more interesting and inspiring tale if it is taken seriously.

But sometime between the Peloponnesian War (421-404 BCE) and the Early Roman Empire (1st Century CE), the story changes. It takes on some of the elements of the false tale circulated widely. The two most well-known accounts are from Plutarch and Lucian. Plutarch, in typical style, distances himself from the tale by saying that one guy alleges that another guy says that…:

Plutarch, On the Glory of Athens, 347c (2nd Century CE)

“Heracleidês of Pontikos writes that Thersippos the Erkhian reported back about the battle of Marathon; but most say that it was Eukles who ran hot from battle in his arms and who, just after entering the gates could say only “Greetings” and “we are rejoicing” and then die.”

τὴν τοίνυν ἐν Μαραθῶνι μάχην ἀπήγγειλεν, ὡς μὲν ῾Ηρακλείδης ὁ Ποντικὸς (fr. 81) ἱστορεῖ, Θέρσιππος ὁ ᾿Ερχιεύς· οἱ δὲ πλεῖστοι λέγουσιν Εὐκλέα δραμόντα σὺν τοῖς ὅπλοις θερμὸν ἀπὸ τῆς μάχης καὶ ταῖς θύραις ἐμπεσόντα τῶν πρώτων τοσοῦτον μόνον εἰπεῖν ‘χαίρετε’ καὶ ‘χαίρομεν,’ εἶτ’ εὐθὺς ἐκπνεῦσαι.

In Plutarch’s tale, the name of the runner is Eucles and he says χαίρομεν instead of anything about victory before dying. The full kernel of our modern canard can be found in the work of Lucian, a well-known fabulist.

Lucian, On Mistakes in Greetings (2nd Century CE)

“First, Philippidês the day-runner is said to have run from Marathon reporting the victory to the archons who were seated and awaiting news about the end of the battle, saying “Rejoice, we are victorious” and after saying that he died with the news, expiring with his greeting.”

Πρῶτος δ’ αὐτὸ Φιλιππίδης ὁ ἡμεροδρομήσας λέγεται ἀπὸ Μαραθῶνος ἀγγέλλων τὴν νίκην εἰπεῖν πρὸς τοὺς ἄρχοντας καθημένους καὶ πεφροντικότας ὑπὲρ τοῦ τέλους τῆς μάχης, Χαίρετε, νικῶμεν, καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν συναποθανεῖν τῇ ἀγγελίᾳ καὶ τῷ χαίρειν συνεκπνεῦσαι.

What are we to make of this story? The Byzantine Suda has no patience for either Plutarch or Lucian. This encyclopedia, whose authors certainly knew of both, provides an account drawn entirely from Herodotus:

Suda (Byzantine Encyclopedia)

“Philippidês, an Athenian; day-runner: he ran 15 thousand stades in a single night and day (140 miles) as he traveled to Sparta. But the law did not allow them to go to war before the full-moon.”

Φιλιππίδης, ᾿Αθηναῖος, ἡμεροδρόμος· ὃς χίλια πεντακόσια στάδια ἤνυσε διὰ μιᾶς νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας, πρὸς Λακεδαιμονίους ἀφικόμενος. ὁ δὲ νόμος οὐκ εἴα στρατεύειν αὐτοὺς πρὸ πανσελήνου.

What does it say about our culture and that of the second sophistic (the period of Plutarch and Lucian) that the individual tale is so much more attractive or that the Herodotean account is so quickly discounted? I bring this up for a few reasons. First, I always have students who think they know things question the Herodotean account. And, insanely or not, I am running a Marathon this weekend.

I know that the founding legends of modern sporting events often have little to do with truth, but I wonder about the individualistic and extreme versions popularized to the detriment of other possible stories. By Herodotus’ account, Philippides was a professional runner who could cover 140 miles in two days. Isn’t that impressive enough? By his account, we should memorialize the extraordinary battle of Marathon through collective acts of sacrifice. (Which happens to an extent, but modern amateur Marathon culture is not exactly altruistic and noble).

But it is probably the pedant in me who protests at the faked Greek online, the complaining students, and the favoring of something newer (you know, recent like Lucian) over something truly old.

Whatever the reason, I will probably be cursing the names Eukles, Pheidippides, Philippides and Lucian on Sunday morning.


Some Notes:

[1] How and Wells’s commentary on 6.105.1 “Φιλιππίδης, though only found in the second family of MSS., is supported by the other authorities (Paus. i. 28. 4, viii. 54-6; Plut. Herod. Malign. 26, &c.), and almost certainly right. It is a common Athenian name (C. I. A.), whereas Pheidippides is a witticism of Aristophanes (Nub. 67), which he would hardly have dared to make had the name been consecrated in the tale of Marathon.”

[2] Literally: “day-runner”

[3] How and Wells: “According to Isocrates the distance traversed was 150 miles.”

10 thoughts on “Myths of Marathons: Herodotus, Lucian, Plutarch and Us

  1. Have fun running!
    As for marathons…well…students always pay more attention if I can compare something the ancients did or supposedly did, to today. In this case, if I have runners in the audience they always get engaged and want to write about Pheidipides, then I gently guide them to Philipides and Herodotus. Interest will only breed passion when the latter is kindled by the brushfire of belief, and only a good myth can give you that kind of fuel. Burn it properly, and the long burning love of historical process won’t be lost in the finding of the truth.
    As for Plutarch, who knows what Plutarch was thinking…all I know is that he always sought to ‘correct’ good ol’ Herodotus.

    1. Good point about the spark of passion. And better point about Plutarch’s beef with Herodotus.

      I guess I don’t usually care about the “right story”. With this one though, I think I am just a bit surprised by the ubiquity of the more apocryphal one.

      1. Donald Kagan once claimed that he believed every single thing written in ancient Greek or Latin, unless he couldn’t. I think that he called it the “higher naivete.”

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