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When did the marathon start?



Who nowadays still does not know the little greek town of Marathon  (Demotic Greek: Μαραθώνας, Marathónas; Attic/Katharevousa: Μαραθών, Marathṓn) ? It usually recalls an epic battle and an very long run.

The battle of Marathon took place in 490 BCE. The Athenian army, formidable and assisted by the gods, though lacustrine, succeeded in defeating the Persians, whose army was as always oceanic and mediocre.  This David-Goliath pattern is always regarded as inspiring and uplifting, but is not because of this that almost on a daily basis a huge amount of people run for kilometres the so called Marathons.

The name “Marathon” (Μαραθών) comes from the herb fennel, called maratho (μάραθο) or marathos (μάραθος) in Ancient and New Greek, and in fact  a lot of fennel plants grow in the fields around the town.

As we can learn from Plinius the Elder this vegetable had medicinal properties too:

The Snake, by lying still all the Winter, hath a Membrane growing over the Body; but with the Juice of Fennel she throweth 
off that Incumbrance, and appeareth fresh and elegant again. She beginneth to throw it off first at the Head ;
 and she is so slow as to occupy a whole Day and a Night in folding it backward, before the Inside of the Membrane 
can be turned outward. Also, when by keeping close all the Winter, her Sight is become dim, she rubbeth herself 
with the Herb Marathrum, and also anointeth and comforteth her Eyes. But if the Scales be hard and insensible, 
she scratcheth herself with the Prickles of the Juniper.

A quick check on Google trends about the search frequency of this term show an abnormal peak on the April 2013. 
What happened back then? Why the word marathon was searched so heavily?

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Pitifully at the root of this interest peak there is a terror attack. During the annual Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure cooker bombs detonated at 2:49 p.m. near the finish line of the race, killing three people and injuring several hundred other runners.

Let us come back to our investigation about the origin of the marathon. According to Herodotus, an Athenian runner named Pheidippides (later on named Philippides) was sent  to Sparta from Athens 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. Then, following the battle, the Athenian army marched the 40 kilometers (25 miles) back to Athens at a very high pace (considering the quantity of armour, and the fatigue after the battle), in order to head off the Persian force sailing around Cape Sounion. They arrived in the late afternoon, just in time to see the Persian ships turn away from Athens, thus completing the Athenian victory.

 Later, in popular imagination, these two events were blended, leading to the legendary version of events we all know. This myth has Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens after the battle, to announce the Greek victory with the word “nenikēkamen!” (Attic: νενικήκαμεν; we’ve won!); immediately after that he died of exhaustion. This version of the story first appears in Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens in the 1st century AD, who quotes from Heracleides of Pontus’s lost work, giving the runner’s name as either Thersipus of Erchius or Eucles.


Pheidippides in the Literature

Robert Browning gave a version of the traditional story in his 1879 poem Pheidippides.

So, when Persia was dust, all cried, “To Acropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!” He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, – the bliss!

We can trace back also in  Imaptience de la foule, a tale of the French romantic writer Villiers de l’Isle Adam, a reference to the messenger sent by Leonidas back to Sparta, to brief the Spartans about the outcomes of the battle. In this very particular interpretation a possessed people kill the messenger before he has the chance to express himself, driven by the prejudice he might have deserted.

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Alors, un ouragan de clameurs s’éleva. Les poings se tendirent vers le fuyard.
— Tu te trompes. Ce n’est pas ici le champ de bataille.
— Ne cours pas si vite. Ménage-toi.
— Les Perses achètent-ils bien les boucliers et les épées ?
— Éphialtès est riche.
— Prends garde à ta droite ! Les os de Pélops, d’Héraklès et de Pollux sont sous tes pieds. — Imprécations ! Tu vas réveiller les mânes de l’Aïeul, — mais il sera fier de toi.
— Mercure t’a prêté les ailes de ses talons ! Par le Styx, tu gagneras le prix, aux Olympiades !
Le soldat semblait ne pas entendre et courait toujours vers la Ville
On était vengé.
Pensif, appuyé sur son bâton, le soldat regardait fixement l’entrée ouverte de la Ville.
Sur le signe d’un chef, la lourde porte roula entre lui et l’intérieur des murailles et vint s’enchâsser entre les deux montants de granit.
Alors, devant cette porte fermée qui le proscrivait pour toujours, le fuyard tomba en arrière, tout droit, étendu sur la montagne.
À l’instant même, avec le crépuscule et le pâlissement du soleil, les corbeaux, eux, se précipitèrent sur cet homme ; ils furent applaudis, cette fois, et leur voile meurtrier le déroba subitement aux outrages de la foule humaine.
Puis vint la rosée du soir qui détrempa la poussière autour de lui.
À l’aube, il ne resta de l’homme que des os dispersés.
Ainsi mourut, l’âme éperdue de cette seule gloire que jalousent les dieux et fermant pieusement les paupières pour que l’aspect de la réalité ne troublât d’aucune vaine tristesse la conception sublime qu’il gardait de la Patrie, ainsi mourut, sans parole, serrant dans sa main la palme funèbre et triomphale et à peine isolé de la boue natale par la pourpre de son sang, l’auguste guerrier élu messager de la Victoire par les Trois-Cents, pour ses mortelles blessures, alors que, jetant aux torrents des Thermopyles son bouclier et son épée, ils le poussèrent vers Sparte, hors du Défilé, le persuadant que ses dernières forces devaient être utilisées en vue du salut de la République ; — ainsi disparut dans la mort, acclamé ou non de ceux pour lesquels il périssait, l’Envoyé de Léonidas.


The idea of organizing a “marathon race” came from Michel Bréal, who wanted the event to feature in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens.  This would recall the legendary occurrence, with the competitors running from Marathon to Athens. So popular was this event that it quickly caught on, becoming a constant part of the Olympic games, with major cities staging their own annual events (here you can find a list of many marathon races worldwide). The distance eventually became fixed at 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195 km, which is the distance from Marathon to Athens.



Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Impatience de la foule, Wikisource, https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Impatience_de_la_foule, last updated date: 21 september 2013, access date: 17 may 2019

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pheidippides, last updated date: 10 april 2019, access date: 17 may 2019

Plinius the Elder, Natural History, book 8, paragraphs 51-52 , from Archive.org, https://archive.org/stream/plinysnaturalhis00plinrich/plinysnaturalhis00plinrich_djvu.txt,  Access date: 17 may 2019

Google Trends, https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&geo=US-WI&q=marathon, Access date: 17 may 2019

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_Marathon_bombing, Last updated date: 16 may 2019, Access date: 17/05/2019

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon,_Greece, Last updated date: 10 may 2019, Access date: 17 may 2019

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Marathon,  Last updated date: 7 may 2019, Access date: 17 may 2019

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon, Last updated date: 14 may 2019, Access date: 17 may 2019

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_marathon_races, Last updated date: 9 may 2019, Access date: 17 may 2019


Written by Cosimo Palma, Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament (Luxembourg).