"And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner."¹
Not much is known about Pheidippides, the Athenian soldier despatched by his generals to Sparta to enlist the help of the Spartans in the Athenians' quarrel with the Persians. Even his name is disputed. No-one seems to really know exactly where he ran, how far he ran, or how long he took.
What is known is this: It's 490BC. The Athenians and the Persians aren't getting on. The Spartans are miles away (mainly in Sparta), in the middle of a religious festival, and aren't particularly involved. The Athenians and the Persians are squabbling at or near a plain called Marathon, not far from Athens. Athenian generals send a soldier in the direction of Sparta to cajole the Spartans into lending a hand. Some days later, he returns, sans Spartans, who would have loved to have been there, but it would have been bad luck to leave the city before the full moon several days hence. Nevertheless, the Athenians are spoiling for one, and battle ensues. The Persians turn out to be a bit rubbish on land, and retreat to their ships, figuring they're better off nipping round the coast to sack Athens. At this point, the Athenian army marches the 25 or so miles from Marathon back to Athens, arriving before you could say "Night stopped the battle in the market-place. I will have freed the slaves."²
Crucially, they arrive before the Persians, who smell embarrassing defeat and bugger off home. The heroic Spartans then arrive, with the peculiar skill of people wanting to appear helpful without wanting to actually help. Everyone celebrates.
Search for long enough, though, (you don't have to look hard) and you'll find any or all of the following versions:
- Pheidippides was called Philippides.
- Pheidippides ran to Sparta in 1 day
- Pheidippides ran to Sparta in 2 days.
- Pheidippides ran to Sparta in 3 days.
- Pheidippides met Pan on the way to Sparta, who moaned a bit about the Athenians neglecting him, which Pheidippides reported on his return, and the Athenians started loving Pan again.
- Having run to Sparta, Pheidippides ran back, and then to Marathon, to announce the victory to the city-folk, before collapsing heroically.3
- On his journey, Pheidippides was protected by Thessily Thessilonikki, an ancient Greek Vampire Slayer. A sort of Generation ξ Buffy Summers, who slayed many vampires (unseen by Pheidippides) en route. It turns out that the Persians were Vampires, and the Spartans were Werewolves, which explains the full moon story. Or it would if it wasn't utter tripe4.
I leave it to the reader to decide which versions to trust. I'm in the Herodotus camp, though.
Read more at:
1. Herodotus, The Persian Wars, 6.105
2. If my Greek language classes were anything to go by, the entire Greek lexicon consisted of exciting phrases such as this. Sometimes, messengers and tables would be involved.
3. If anyone ran to Athens to shout victory, it was more likely another runner, by the name of Eukles.
4. Dreamed up by Greg Rucka for Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Tales of the Slayer, Vol. 1; Pocket Books; ISBN: 0743400453; (October 2001), and explained at http://www.geocities.com/lancelet78/thessily.htm