Sep 122013


Today is the date customarily assigned to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. The Battle of Marathon was a decisive battle in the first wave of the Greco-Persian wars. It was fought between the citizens of Athens (aided by Plataea), and a Persian force commanded by Datis and Artaphernes. The battle was the culmination of the first attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The Greek army decisively defeated the more numerous Persians, marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.  I am going to give a little background to provide context, but mostly I want to talk about the story of the runner Pheidippides and how this story became the founding legend of the Olympic marathon race.  Chances are that if you have heard anything about Pheidippides (I learnt about him from my 6th grade reader), it isn’t true.  No matter, it’s a good story.

The Battle of Marathon was the culmination of an attempt by Persia, under King Darius I, to subjugate Greece. The first Persian invasion was a response to Greek involvement in the Ionian Revolt, when Athens and nearby Eretria had sent a force to support the cities of Ionia (across the Aegean Sea in what is now Turkey), in their attempt to overthrow Persian rule. The Athenians and Eretrians had succeeded in capturing and burning Sardis, but were then forced to retreat with heavy losses. In response to this raid, the Persian king Darius I swore to burn down Athens and Eretria.  From the map below you can see what Greece was up against.  The Persian Empire (in brown) was vast and extremely powerful, and Greece (in green) was a tiny region bordering the empire, divided into fractious city states.  Athens was a fledgling democracy at the time, overshadowed by Sparta but starting to flex its muscles.


Once the Ionian revolt was finally crushed by the Persian victory at the Battle of Lade, Darius began his plan to conquer Greece. In 490 BCE, he sent a naval task force under Datis and Artaphernes across the Aegean, to subjugate the Cyclades, and then to make punitive attacks on Athens and Eretria. Reaching Euboea in mid-summer after a successful campaign in the Aegean, the Persians proceeded to besiege and capture Eretria. The Persian force then sailed for Attica, landing in the bay near the town of Marathon. The Athenians, joined by a small force from Plataea, marched to Marathon, and succeeded in blocking the two exits from the plain of Marathon. Stalemate ensued for five days, before the Athenians (for reasons that are not completely clear) decided to attack the Persians. The Persians outnumbered the Greeks nearly three to one, but despite the numerical advantage of the Persians, the Greek hoplites (citizen-soldiers) proved devastatingly effective against the more lightly armed Persian infantry, routing the wings before turning in on the center of the Persian line.


The date of the battle is not really clear because of rather confusing methods of dating used at the time.  Herodotus, described the battle in detail in Book IV of The Histories, and is our best surviving source of information.  He was writing several decades later (he was not even born at the time), but it is reasonably certain that he used contemporary accounts, no longer extant.  Herodotus mentions a date in the lunisolar calendar, of which each Greek city-state used a variant. Astronomical computation allows us to derive an absolute date in the proleptic Julian calendar which is often used by historians as the chronological frame. Philipp August Böckh in 1855 concluded that the battle took place on September 12, 490 BCE in the Julian calendar, and this is the conventionally accepted date.  But his dating relies on a key festival that occurred at the same time in Sparta, and it is possible that the Spartan calendar was one month ahead of that of Athens. In that case the battle took place on August 12, 490 BCE.

According to Herodotus, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides was sent to run from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance before the battle. He ran a distance of over 225 kilometers (140 miles), arriving in Sparta the day after he left. Here is the original:

Before they left the city, the Athenian generals sent off a message to Sparta. The messenger was an Athenian named Pheidippides, a professional long-distance runner. According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides’ story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection.

On the occasion of which I speak – when Pheidippides, that is, was sent on his mission by the Athenian commanders and said that he saw Pan – he reached Sparta the day after he left Athens and delivered his message to the Spartan government. “Men of Sparta” (the message ran), “the Athenians ask you to help them, and not to stand by while the most ancient city of Greece is crushed and subdued by a foreign invader; for even now Eretria has been enslaved, and Greece is the weaker by the loss of one fine city.” The Spartans, though moved by the appeal, and willing to send help to Athens, were unable to send it promptly because they did not wish to break their law. It was the ninth day of the month, and they said they could not take the field until the moon was full. So they waited for the full moon, and meanwhile Hippias, the son of Pisistratus, guided the Persians to Marathon.


Part of the significance of the story lies in the Athenian belief that the encounter of Pheidippides with Pan was a good omen meaning that Pan would fight on their side.  Apart from his other powers, Pan had the capacity to induce irrational, overwhelming fear in people, from which we get the word “panic.”

Then, following the battle, the Athenian army marched the roughly 40 km (25 miles) back to Athens at a very high pace (considering the quantity of armor, and the fatigue after the battle), in order to head off the Persian force sailing around Cape Sounion. They arrived back in the late afternoon, in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, thus completing the Athenian victory.

Later, in popular imagination, these two events became confused with each other, leading to a legendary, but inaccurate, version of events. This legend has Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens after the battle, to announce the Greek victory with the word “???????????” (“We were victorious!”), whereupon he promptly died of exhaustion. Most accounts incorrectly attribute this story to Herodotus; actually, the story first appears in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century CE, who is quoting from a lost work of Heracleides of Pontus, giving the runner’s name as either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century CE) gives the same story but names the runner Philippides (not Pheidippides).


It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus’ time and Plutarch’s, the story of Pheidippides running to Sparta had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon (particularly the story of the Athenian forces making the march from Marathon to Athens in order to intercept the Persian ships headed there), and some fanciful writer had created the story of the run from Marathon to Athens because of the mix up.

In 1879, Robert Browning wrote the poem Pheidippides. The composite story in Browning’s poem of Pheidippides running to Sparta and back, fighting in the battle, then running to Athens to proclaim the victory, became part of late 19th century popular culture and was accepted as an historic fact. That’s the story I read in the 6th grade. When the idea of a modern Olympics was shaping up at the end of the 19th century, the initiators and organizers were looking for a great popularizing event that would recall the ancient glory of Greece. The idea of holding a ‘marathon race’ came from Michel Bréal and the idea was heavily supported by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, as well as the Greeks. This race would echo the legendary version of events, with the competitors actually running from Marathon to Athens. On April 10, 1896, Spiridon Louis of Greece won the first Olympic marathon in a time of 2:58:50.  The event was so popular that it quickly caught on, becoming a fixture at the Olympic games, with major cities subsequently staging their own annual events. The distance eventually became fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 km, though for the first years it was variable, being around 25 miles (40 km)—the approximate distance from Marathon to Athens.

1896 Olympic marathon

1896 Olympic marathon

To celebrate Athens and Marathon I have chosen a reconstructed ancient Athenian recipe for lentil soup.  I chose it in large part because I am a huge fan of lentil soup, and it seems as if the basic recipe has probably not changed all that much in 2500 years.  This is hardly surprising given the nature of the soup.  The recipe here is adapted from Meals and Recipes from Ancient Greece by Eugenia Salza Prina Ricotti who used a combination of detective work from classic authors and later Roman cookbooks to piece things together.  This recipe, rather fancifully, is attributed to the philosopher Zeno of Citium. It is really quite standard except for the addition of ground coriander and honey whose proportions can be adjusted to taste. It does, however, lack the modern use of a ham bone or similar, but more often than not I make a meatless version.  I have also seen ancient recipes using cilantro and fresh mint.  I do not doubt that if we ate lentil soup in an ancient Athenian home or military mess it would be instantly recognizable as a flavor we know. It would have been common army food because of the ease of storage and transportation of lentils.


Zeno’s Lentil Soup


1 lb (500g) lentils
8 cups beef broth
1 large leek coarsely chopped
1 carrot, diced
1 stalk celery, sliced
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp honey
extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
coriander seeds, ground


Rinse the lentils thoroughly and put them into a pot with the broth to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for one hour.

At the end of the hour, skim the top, add the vegetables, and simmer until cooked through, about 30 minutes.

If the soup seems too watery, pass some of the lentils through a sieve, or use an immersion blender on a small portion. Add the vinegar and honey.

Pour into serving bowls and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil per serving.

Guests may add ground coriander seeds, salt, and pepper to taste.

Serves 4-6

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