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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Classical Weekly
Vol. 24, No. 19 (Mar. 23, 1931), p152.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p152 The Original 'Marathon Runner'

The confusion of the story of Pheidippides, the courier between Athens and Sparta, as told by Herodotus (6.105), with the tradition handed down by Plutarch (De Gloria Atheniensium 3), of the soldier who ran the twenty-six miles from Marathon to Athens to bring the first tidings of the defeat of the Persians, has cropped up again.

The contaminatio was, apparently, due to Lucian (Pro Lapsu 3) who, however, like Pausanias, spells the name Philippides, and it was perpetuated by Robert Browning, in his poem Pheidippides.

About 1908 or 1909 there was published in the <New York> Nation a running discussion as to the name and even the existence of the 'Marathon Runner'. One writer, in fact, ventured to dismiss the story as a 'fake' and denied the occurrence in Greek literature of any trustworthy tradition concerning him. The undersigned closed the discussion (though for the time being only) by printing in The Nation the passage from Plutarch. Plutarch gives the story and adds that, while most authorities give the name of the runner as Eucles, Heraclides Ponticus calls him Thersippus.1

In The New York Times, in the summer of 1927, this perennial conundrum appeared, as if de novo, and very recently Mr. E. F. Benson, in his charming book of reminiscences, As We Were, relying upon Browning's poem, again rehearses the same error, in his chapter on Athens.

There seems to be little reason to doubt the authority of Plutarch, who bases his story on a plurality of sources and is detailed enough to give us our choice of names for the soldier (not a courier), who was despatched to Athens from the battlefield at Marathon. This minor treatise, De Gloria Atheniensium, was perhaps unknown to Lucian, who, indeed, was not always as careful about acquiring facts as he was about the quality of his acquired Attic style.a

Robert Browning, with his intimate, first-hand knowledge of the Greek texts, was well aware that this Marathon event was not included even by the discursive Herodotus in his story of Pheidippides. By poetic license, however, or perhaps misled by Lucian, he tacked it on as an appendix to his poem. This is less surprizing than his distortion of Greek geography in his elaborate remodelling of the story of the real Pheidippides. He details at length how the courier had his famous interview with the god Pan as he 'ran over Parnes's ridge,' thus transferring the meeting from the Peloponnesus to northeast Attica. Herodotus carefully locates the scene on the 'Parthenion ridge overhanging Tegea', on the boundary mountain between Argolis and Arcadia.

A pedestrian to‑day might still take the short mountain path if he were hoping for another epiphany of Arcadian Pan and were willing to desert the picturesque railroad, which, by clever engineering, winds circuitously, around and above a high valley and through the mountain side into Arcadia.

The long detour via Mt. Parnes, on the northeast border of Attica, would have been, for the courier en route from Athens to Sparta, comparable to making a 'short cut' from Liverpool to London by way of Edinburgh!

Francis G. Allinson

Rhode Island

The Author's Note:

1 A summary of this is given in a footnote to page 159 of Greek Lands and Letters, by Francis G. and Anne C. E. Allinson (1909, 1922, 1931). <The third edition of this book was published by the Houghton Mifflin Company. For the first edition see The Classical Weekly, 3.147‑148. C. K.>

Thayer's Note:

a My own opinion — I know you were dying to ask, gentle reader — is that strictly speaking there's not enough information to ascertain the truth; but I'm inclined to disbelieve it on psychological grounds. Considering how central the battle of Marathon was to Greek history, if the epic run actually happened, the man's name would surely have been remembered, and enough Greek literature has survived that I'd expect us to read about it in more than two authors. In fact, Herodotus himself would be a very likely candidate among them: discursive, and never above a good story, as long as he could introduce it by "They say. . . ." This isn't to deny that Plutarch was careful and is doubtless accurately and honestly reporting multiple sources, but other ancient writers — almost any long section of Diodorus will do as an example — peddle the most incredible tales with equally precise reporting, complete with citations, and thus much the same flavor. Add the sharp drama of the story, its implausibilities — once out of javelin range, I don't know about you, but I would have ditched my armour and settled into a faster and more comfortable run — and would no one lend the man a horse? and we have a classic urban legend.

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Page updated: 9 Jun 09