Thursday, November 11, 2010

Long distance running, ancient history, and stupid myths.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm currently working on a travel book on Greece. This involves writing the odd historical-interest sidebar or perhaps a little feature here and there on the local culture and events. When writing about the area around marathon I decided I'd combine these two and write about the history of marathon running.

Now, being a person with a near pathological fear of running long distances (with good reason, see here) I can't say I know a great deal about marathons. I was aware, however, that they were inspired by a classical myth but I couldn't remember the details. I opened one of the travel guides I'm using as an occasional reference and there it was--the story of Pheidippides. He was, the book said, a soldier who fought at the Battle of Marathon then ran all the way back to Athens to inform the Athenians of their victory. It's one of those tragic/glorious stories though, because he gets back to the city, delivers the message, and promptly dies. In addition to the marathon, this story has inspired some pretty crappy art, like this.(related side note, why was it decided in the 19th century that hardly anyone in ancient Greece owned any clothes?)

This story set off some pretty powerful bullshit alarms in my head when I read it. I mean, why the urgency? and more to the point, since when has a 26 mile run been enough to kill a fit young soldier? With most of these myths, I wouldn't have cared---if they say Artemis demanded a daughter-burning, who am I to question that assertion?---but this one was routinely phrased as if it was a historical fact, tied in with events that are known to have happened.

Being of curious bent, and having access to the internet, I decided to go a-googling. There dozens of repetitions of the same stupid sounding story. Interestingly none of these seemed to agree on the details, it looked like each one had been tweaked slightly because the writer, halfway through telling the story he'd been told, got self-conscious about the fact that it made no sense. They added in extra details like Pheilippides had already run to athens and back that day, or that he'd been wounded in the battle, or something like that. None of these changes made the essential flaw of the story--why?--go away. Among all these repetitions, however, I found one account that not only made more sense, but also cited its sources.

The source, it turns out, was none other than big-daddy Greek historian Herodotus (the same guy mentioned the other day). Now in most regards Herodotus is about as reliable a source of information as a sugar-crazed ten year old (see here), but when it comes to this period of history his account seems plausible enough. He was, after all, writing about things that had happened close to his home town and within living memory. The anedotes-heard-in-the-pub method he typically used is more reliable when there's a reasonable chance that the bloke in the pub was a eyewitness. Rather than attempt to summarize it, I'll just quote it here. Picture the scene, the Persians have invaded, there's a lot of them, and they need to be repulsed at their beachhead or everyone's royally buggered. The Athenians have put together an army, but it's not big enough...
And first, before they left the city, the generals sent off to Sparta [a distance of about 150 miles] a herald, one Pheidippides, who was by birth an Athenian, and by profession and practice a trained runner. This man, according to the account which he gave to the Athenians on his return, when he was near Mount Parthenium, above Tegea, fell in with the god Pan, who called him by his name, and bade him ask the Athenians "wherefore they neglected him so entirely, when he was kindly disposed towards them, and had often helped them in times past, and would do so again in time to come?" The Athenians, entirely believing in the truth of this report, as soon as their affairs were once more in good order, set up a temple to Pan under the Acropolis, and, in return for the message which I have recorded, established in his honour yearly sacrifices and a torch-race.

On the occasion of which we speak when Pheidippides was sent by the Athenian generals, and, according to his own account, saw Pan on his journey, he reached Sparta on the very next day after quitting the city of Athens- Upon his arrival he went before the rulers, and said to them:-

"Men of Sparta, the Athenians beseech you to hasten to their aid, and not allow that state, which is the most ancient in all Greece, to be enslaved by the barbarians. Eretria, look you, is already carried away captive; and Greece weakened by the loss of no mean city."

Thus did Pheidippides deliver the message committed to him. And the Spartans wished to help the Athenians, but were unable to give them any present succour, as they did not like to break their established law. It was then the ninth day of the first decade; and they could not march out of Sparta on the ninth, when the moon had not reached the full. So they waited for the full of the moon.
So there you have it. Pheidippides wasn't a tragically unfit soldier, he was a professional long-distance runner, and the job was urgent because the Athenians urgently needed to know if they'd be getting any reinforcements.

It has to be said though, if you didn't know which was from the more authoritative source, you'd definitely assume that the 26 miles story was the more authentic one. I mean, look at the details-- A man running about 300 miles in 2-3 days? The God Pan appearing to him and having a little chat? The Spartans turning down the opportunity for an ass-kicking? None of these seem plausible.

Despite these anomalies, however, I think this may actually be one of the few cases where Herodotus got the story dead right.

While it sounds crazy, the distance Pheidippides covered and the time that he did it in isn't impossible. In 1982 a group of RAF officers (who, being handlebar-moustached British officers, were of course familiar with their classical history) asked local historians to draw up the most likely route Pheidippides would have taken to Sparta. Surprisingly the paths and roads Pheidippides would have taken have changed very little in the last two and a half thousand years. The three officers managed to run the course in 36 hours. A feat that is doubly impressive when you consider that they had no decent maps, spoke no Greek, and spent most of the trip being attacked by village dogs. Since then, the race has become a fixture in the ultra-marathon community, called the Spartathlon. The record for Pheidippides' route is held by the Greek runner Yiannis Kouros, who covered the distance from Athens to Sparta, over hills and across rivers, in just 20 hours and 25 minutes.

As for Pan appearing to him, this doesn't seem implausible to me at all. Ultra-endurance athletes are no stranger to Mr Hallucination, or even Mr Full-Blown-Psychosis, as is described in fascinating detail here. It may have actually been a confused goatherd standing by the side of the road, but I don't doubt that Pheidippides thought he saw Pan.

As for the last one, well, this is a minor error on Herodotus' part. He had a tendency to ascribe strange ritual motivations for all sorts of decisions, when he actually just didn't know why things had happened the way they did. The most likely explanation is that the Spartans just weren't logistically ready to march a huge army halfway across Greece at such short notice. It is interesting to note that they did mobilize a week or two later, as Herodotus describes:
After the full of the moon two thousand Spartans came to Athens. So eager had they been to arrive in time, that they took but three days to reach Attica from Sparta. They came, however, too late for the battle; yet, as they had a longing to behold the Medes, they continued their march to Marathon and there viewed the slain. Then, after giving the Athenians all praise for their achievement, they departed and returned home.
I love the way that the Spartans were willing to march 26 miles out of their way just to poke some corpses and marvel at all the gore. Truly, there has never been a manlier culture... "Duude, look, that guy's been cut in half!, that's totally badass..."

So there you have it. The real story of Marathons, in which we learn that marathons should be 150 miles long.
 I doubt as many people would be up for that though.

P.S. If you were wondering where the more commonly recounted story came from, it's generally thought that it was invented by a Roman historian a few centuries after the event. He'd probably read the account in Herodotus, but mixed up the story of Pheidippides with the actions of the Athenian army after the battle---anxious to get back and defend their city against a possible secondary attack, they made the march home in just a few days.