Common Errors (12): Marathon

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

In 490 BCE, Hippias, a former tyrant of Athens, attempted to return to his native city, which was, by now, in the hands of the democrats. His interests matched those of the Persian king Darius I the Great, who liked the idea of a pro-Persian regime among the Yauna-across-the-Sea. The expedition turned out to be an epic failure: the army was defeated at Marathon. After the Athenian victory, a man named Thersippus of Eroeadae ran to Athens to announce the outcome; having told his compatriots that they were safe, he fell down dead.

At least, that’s what Plutarch says in his treatise The Glory of Athens. But the reliability of this anecdote is about zero. Plutarch lived about six centuries after the events. Worse, he adds that other sources report that the runner was called Eucles, and that he covered the distance while wearing his panoply, which is physically impossible. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived shortly after the famous battle and could interview the survivors, knows nothing about the Marathon runner, although he does mention a long-distance runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcement.

Whatever the reliability of the story, Plutarch’s anecdote inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, to invent an athletic contest of epic dimensions: the marathon run. It was repeated on later occasions, and since the Olympic Games of London (1908), the distance has always been 42 kilometer. Many people now believe that it’s also 42 kilometer from the battlefield to the Athens, but that is not the case. It is in fact about 35 kilometer, depending on your route. I once covered it in a little over seven hours. Without panoply.

<Overview of Common Errors>

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One Response to Common Errors (12): Marathon

  1. Bill Thayer says:

    Plutarch isn’t quite as vague as that: he names his preferred source, Heraclides Ponticus (about a hundred years after the battle); he then loosely adds that “most historians” tell the tale with another name attached, so technically that’s multiple sources. Still, it’s not exactly compelling, and I agree with you if on somewhat different grounds. How much of what we know, as Mark Twain once said, ‘just ain’t so”!

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