Will the real Pheidippides please stand up?


According to the Greek historian Herodotus, an Athenian soldier and long-distance runner named Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance in a battle against the Persians. It was a distance of 125 miles. And according to this story, Pheidippides ran back the very next day to bring the bad news to the Athenian warriors that the Spartans could not come, at least not yet. Sparta was in the middle of an important annual religious festival and they wouldn’t come until it was over. In the end, Athens won without the aid of the Spartans. When the Spartans finally got there, they were too late and the battle was over.

Herodotus was writing about 50 years after these events took place. So it is reasonable and likely that Pheidippides is a historical figure and that he ran to Sparta for help. But this was quite a feat! And the road from Athens to Sparta was a rough and rocky 125 miles – a distance he supposedly ran in two days. Certainly such a long distance run was indeed worthy of becoming a folk legend–which it most certainly became. Herodotus helped immortalize the story by putting it in his history book. But that is not the end…

Now, fast forward to 500 years later—

A Roman historian named Plutarch wrote about Pheidippides, too. But Plutarch’s account is different. Plutarch says Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens. According to this story, Pheidippides, an Athenian herald, ran 26 miles (not 125) from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. He arrived in Athens shouting, “We were victorious!” Then he dropped dead on the spot.

Since Plutarch’s account was written so much later, most historians think it is more likely that Herodutus’ version is the true one. They think Plutarch was recording a popular version of the story that had been altered through the years as it was told over and over. Remember, it was already 500 years old in Plutarch’s time. However, Plutarch was a widely read Roman historian. The Romans were not reading Herodotus much.  Thus it is Plutarch’s version that became the most well-known in the years that followed, through the Middle Ages, and then even down to our modern times. So his story is the one that lives on in popular culture today.

The Modern Marathon

Going by Plutarch’s better known account, The International Olympic Committee established the distance for a modern “marathon” race in 1924 at the Paris Olympics. They set the distance at 26.2 miles, roughly the distance from Marathon to Athens.

Pheidippides and his famous run were then immortalized forever. And even though the exact truth may not be what is popularly believed, we know that Pheidippides almost certainly lived and that he ran either 26 miles or far, far more! Whichever story is true, he deserves our accolades.

Other examples of how popular Plutarch’s version of the story is:

  • Downtown Atlanta has a store that sells running shoes and other athletic equipment. The name of the store is Pheidippides.
  • A recent Gator Aide ad claimed Pheidippides wouldn’t have died if he’d had Gator Aide.

Discussion question: Accuracy of a historical document is measured in part by how much time has elapsed from the occurrence of an event to the time when it is written down and recorded. How would the New Testament documents stand up to that criterion? Are they more like Herodotus account or Plutarch’s?