- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Galloway's cheering villagers in 490 B.C. are illusory, apparitions of the idealized past. A messenger named Pheidippides never made the run that made him the most famous runner in history. Like Burfoot's ersatz abs, this legend has been stitched onto a battle that needs no embellishment.
Unfortunately for the legends of long-distance runners, someone in one of the many villages along the route undoubtedly jumped on a horse and swiftly outdistanced those on foot.
—FRANK J. FROST, from "The Dubious Origins of the Marathon," American Journal of Ancient History, 1979
If there were a historical BCS—Battle Championship Series—Marathon would be playing on or around New Year's Day. From a Persian perspective it was simply a skirmish in an extended campaign on its western border, says Caroline Falkner, a professor of Greek history at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., but the Eurocentric world long has kneeled at Marathon's sandaled feet. More than 150 years ago Sir Edward Creasy listed it first in his book The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, but the University of London historian was going chronologically. John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century British philosopher, also was a booster, writing, "The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods." Modern military historians view its significance similarly. Michael Lee Lanning, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, places Marathon 28th in his book The Battle 100. (Perhaps he thought the Athenians played a soft nonconference schedule.) But William Weir, author of 50 Battles That Changed the World, ranks it first because it preserved Athens's embryonic democracy, which in 490 B.C. was not yet two decades old.
The battle stats: A force of 10,000 but possibly as many as 18,000 Athenians, aided by 1,000 soldiers from the city of Plataea, repelled a Persian army with perhaps twice as many soldiers as the Greeks, although some of the wilder estimates of the invading force run as high as six figures. Some 6,400 Persians died, compared to only 192 Greeks, a ratio of 33 to 1. The bodies of the slain Athenian soldiers were cremated, and the ashes and charred bones were buried in the Soros, a mound on Marathon's plain that stands almost 30 feet high and is about three miles from the starting point of the race. The course leaves Marathon Avenue to loop the perimeter of the Soros, obliging runners to bob, if not nod, their heads to history.
Even if Pheidippides's run to Athens occurred precisely as in the legend—and you have to admit, death was a terrific move for his legacy—Peter Krentz, a Davidson College history professor and author of the book The Battle of Marathon, ranks it only third among the remarkable running tales associated with the military engagement. The battle has runners' footprints all over it. Krentz says that Athens's hoplites, heavily armed foot soldiers, prevailed that August or September day because they surprised the Persian forces after jogging eight Greek stadia (nine tenths of a mile). The hoplites' vigorous pace allowed them to hustle under the arc of Persian arrows and engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat before its cavalry could arrive. (Upon hearing this story Burfoot remarked, "So the marathon is actually about the mile? I really, really suck at the mile.")
The marathon actually is about the ultramarathon. There is another messenger, named, according to most accounts, Philippides—Krentz says there's a chance the two couriers are one in the same—whose name is attached to the Battle of Marathon. But he was not sent to Athens. A few days before the battle, Philippides was dispatched to Sparta, 150 miles to the southwest, to ask the rival city-state to send soldiers to help their fellow Greeks. Without benefit of an iPod, water stations or cheering crowds, Philippides covered the rocky route to Sparta in 36 hours. But because of a religious festival, Spartan soldiers would not be free to leave until the full moon. (Sparta eventually did send 2,000 men, but the fight was over by the time they arrived.) Generals inclined to dispatch a runner to Athens after the battle (ignoring Professor Frost's horse option, of course) would likely choose someone not fresh off a 150-mile run.
Pheidippides, or Philippides, becomes a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma tucked into phyllo dough. Herodotus, who wrote The Histories about five decades after the battle and likely interviewed some of the Athenian soldiers—he could have talked to Aeschylus, the playwright—never mentions a messenger hotfooting it to Athens. There is no contemporary source on Pheidippides. There is no defined route for his run. (A messenger could have attempted a punishing but direct 22-mile passage through the mountains or a gentler but circuitous 25-mile course—the length of the race when the marathon was introduced at the first modern Olympics, in Athens in 1896. The current marathon distance of 26 miles and 385 yards, or 42.2 kilometers, was first used at the 1908 Olympics in London, after Queen Alexandra requested that the race start at the east lawn of Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box in White City Stadium. The royal distance was standardized in 1921.) The logical conclusion is that there was no Pheidippides death run, which has not prevented his from being one of the stories from antiquity that burrows deepest into memory.
You can trace Pheidippides's run across the centuries, a mythic game of telephone to which writers and painters and poets and politicians have added grace notes. Roger Robinson, a historian of running and Switzer's husband, summarizes the legend as an amalgam of Greek history, Roman sensationalism (the messenger turns up in the late--second century A.D. works of Lucian), 19th-century romanticism (Browning's breathless poem), nascent Greek nationalism (pride in the Pheidippides myth led to its inclusion on the first Olympic program) and 21st-century running hype.
"All human cultures," Robinson says, "need a myth of origin."