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Run, Pheidippides!

Posted by: | September 17, 2009 | No Comment |

Demosthenes, the Greek orator (and quote-machine), wrote in the First Philippic that Athenians were obsessed with news by word of mouth. “Thus we all go about framing our several tales,” he said.

Almost 150 years earlier, this obsession was on display for all to see. The courier/messenger Pheidippides ran from the Greek city Marathon to Athens, the Greek capital, to announce that the Athenian army had defeated Persia in their long-running war. After bounding 25 miles, Pheidippides collapsed and died from exhaustion. Earlier in the war, according to legend, he ran 150 miles to request help from the Spartan army before the Persian troops moved in on Marathon.

A statue of the Greek messenger Pheidippides. Photo used with permission of author, Wikipedia user Hammer of the Gods27.

--- A statue of the Greek messenger Pheidippides. Photo used with permission of author, Wikipedia user Hammer of the Gods27. ---

While his first trip proved fruitless in the beginning – according to one account, the Spartans said they could not send help, citing tradition – his second trip spawned a legend.

After reaching Athens, he uttered the word “nenikikamen” (we have won) and died on the spot, according to one popular view. Others, citing the rejection by the Spartans, said that he was able to enlist the help of the Greek god Pan on his original trip to Sparta, greatly turning the tide of war in the Athenians’ favor.

Poet Robert Browning wrote his own account in his pre-1900 poem, “Pheidippides”:

So, when Persia was dust, all cried “To Akropolis!
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 thro’ clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died, the bliss!

What isn’t debated is the legend that Pheidippides’ long distance run left behind. Many historians point to this occassion as being the origin of what we know today as the marathon.

One such competition, the Spartathlon, aims to retrace the exact steps of Pheidippides’ run from Athens to Sparta (the looooong one). This year’s Spartathlon runs on Sept. 25 and 26, and it is sponsored by the International Spartathlon Association.

All this came about just because someone deemed it important to spread the news.

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