Pheidippides did not cover the 42 kilometers of the Marathon: there were more than 500

If you participate in the Barcelona Marathon today, we wish you all the best so that you can successfully complete the 42 kilometers and 195 meters of the race.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
19 March 2023 Sunday 00:28
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Pheidippides did not cover the 42 kilometers of the Marathon: there were more than 500

If you participate in the Barcelona Marathon today, we wish you all the best so that you can successfully complete the 42 kilometers and 195 meters of the race. This extension would be the same one that the Greek hero Pheidipides ran to announce the Greek victory against the Persians in the first medical war, and which gave rise to one of the most prestigious events in elite sport. But, it seems, there is very little truth in all this.

The stories about this character are only known from the texts collected by Herodotus thirty years after the events, which occurred on September 12, 490 BC. C., and by several quotes by Pausanias (110-180 AD) a few centuries later, in which he referred to the runner's anniversary.

What is narrated there is, precisely, the main focus of controversy about the veracity of the facts. And it is that, according to Greek historians, Pheidippides did not only cover the 42 kilometers between Marathon and Athens, but more than 500.

Herodotus collects in book VI of his History the details that are known about the corridor. It is, specifically, a few paragraphs in which he describes the mission that was entrusted to him when the Persians landed in Marathon.

Pheidippides was sent by the Athenians to Sparta to ask for military support at a time when, judging by the strength of both sides, the war seemed to be turning in favor of the Persians. The distance he traveled from Marathon to the center of the Peloponnese was neither more nor less than 246 kilometers.

And he did it, according to Herodotus, in less than two days. When he arrived at his destination, he found the Spartans in full celebration of the Carneas Lacedaemonian festivities, a sacred event that prevented them from participating in any armed conflict before the next full moon. Although Sparta finally reached the battlefield, it did not do so until several days later. In fact, the texts indicate that the appearance of her army took place when the conflict had already ended.

Faced with this situation, Pheidippides returned to Marathon to communicate Sparta's decision to the Athenians, which meant that he had to travel another 246 kilometers back. In the records of the Greek historian, it is recorded that Pheidippides, on the way back, experienced the appearance of the god Pan on Mount Parthenius, which was interpreted as a good omen for the victory of the Athenians.

Thus, in total, the feet of Pheidippides ended up covering nearly 500 kilometers in just three and a half days. Quite a milestone for any ultramarathoner of the current era. A feat so heroic that its veracity was questioned by a large part of the historians of the classical era.

Marathon Bay witnessed the arrival of the Achaemenid army, made up of more than six hundred ships and twenty-five thousand men ready to conquer Greece. The troops were led on land by Artaphernes, nephew of Darius I –third king of the Achaemenid dynasty, who inherited the Persian Empire at its peak–, and by Datis –one of the most important generals of the Empire in the 5th century BC. C.– as maritime admiral.

On the opposing side, the number of troops barely reached ten thousand hoplites – nine thousand Athenians and one thousand Plata – as these warriors were called, a clear disadvantageous situation that, paradoxically, ended up being resolved in their favour. Militiades, who had already fought against one of Darius' armies in the battle of the Scythians, was one of the most outstanding strategos –Greek commander-in-chief of a military corps–, seeing his military career catapulted after the end of hostilities.

The five days that the battle of Marathon lasted went down in history for the death of more than 6,500 Persian soldiers and only 192 hoplites - modern estimates put the casualties between 2,000 and 3,000 -, buried in a mound near the city that still remains. can be visited today.

The Hellenic victory came about thanks to a surprise attack that prevented the Persians from preparing their defense and depleted their forces to the point of causing their withdrawal. The rest of the Achaemenid army decided to set sail for Phalero, very close to Athens, to land there again, but the hoplites came running first. When the Persian ships appeared and their soldiers sighted the enemy, they decided to withdraw definitively and end the fight.

Pheidippides was one of the Hemerodromes, one of the most fascinating figures of classical Greece. Also called couriers or heralds, these were men prepared to travel great distances with the sole purpose of sending messages between the different polis. Its literal translation approximates the concept of "professional messenger runner", that is, athletes trained to spread messages as quickly as possible from one point to another, crossing superhuman distances.

But why didn't they use horses to get around? According to some theories, to go unnoticed by the enemy. That they could cross hundreds of kilometers is something that leaves no room for doubt – extreme ultratrails are an irrefutable example of the physical capacities that human beings can reach – since they were prepared solely and exclusively for it.

In addition, some altered their conditions based on certain substances of strange origin, which today would be considered doping in any elite sport, in order to withstand the hundreds of kilometers that they had to cross without pause.

A clear example of this is the appearance of the god Pan in the case of Pheidippides. The divine visit may be questioned, but it is not surprising that the hemerodromes came to have visions and all kinds of hallucinations during their journeys, the result of the combination of the physical effort to which they were subjected and the psychotropic effect of what they ingested.

The milestone of Pheidippides is collected in the texts of Herodotus and Pausanias, but not everything seems so clear when it comes to his death. The story that places his death just after covering the distance between Marathon and Athens to announce the Hellenic victory with the phrase "Nenikékamen" (we have won) could have been confused with that of another hemerodrome, or even not have happened, since, supposedly , it was the entire Greek army that covered the distance between Marathon and Athens to scare off the Persians at Phalero.

Beyond historical hesitations, those 42 kilometers and 195 meters continue to generate the same expectation in any marathon event worth its salt from all corners of the world, as will be demonstrated today in Barcelona.