Excerpted from Olympic Marathon, by Charlie Lovett
In 490 B.C. and army from Persia landed on the plain of Marathon, about twenty-five miles from Athens, with the intention of capturing and enslaving that city. The Athenians prepared for a battle that would determine the course of history for centuries to come. A victory for the powerful Persian Empire could destroy the independence of the Greek city-states and effectively end Greek civilization and culture.
While the massive Persian army landed, the Athenians sent a messenger named Philippides (his name was corrupted in later texts to Pheidippides) to Sparta to enlist the aid of the Spartans in the upcoming battle. He covered the distance of about 150 miles in less than two days, a remarkable accomplishment by any standard.
Back at Marathon, however, the decision was made not to wait for the Spartans. The Athenian army fell upon the vastly larger Persian forces while they were still preparing for battle. Against great odds, the Greeks prevailed. Though historians writing close to the time of the battle make no mention of the event, writers some 600 years later claim that a runner was dispatched to Athens to carry the news of the great victory. According to legend he reached the city, said, "Rejoice, we conquer," and fell to the ground dead. Though one source gives the runner's name as Philippides, it is highly unlikely that he would have made such a run after having just run to Sparta. If he had, contemporary historians would surely have noted it.
Whether any messenger at all was sent to Athens with the news of victory is a matter of some doubt, but certainly Philippides was not the messenger. Still, in the centuries that followed, the legend of Pheidippides (as he began to be called) and the legend of a runner who died to bring news of victory to the Athenians merged, and many later writers gave the name Pheidippides to the ill-fated runner. In the nineteenth century Robert Browning wrote in his Dramatic Idylls of Pheidippides' dash to Athens, his announcement of victory, and his death. Though Pheidippides was certainly not the runner who carried the news of Greek victory to Athens, and though it seems unlikely that any professional foot courier of ancient Greece would have perished after such a run, the legend took hold, and out of that legend grew the modern marathon race.