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The true course run
by the Marathon messenger
by Ion P. Ioannides, Ph. D.,
adviser on physical education
at the Greek Ministry for Education
Athens, March 1976
Before proceeding to the
content of my theme, it is
necessary to go back to the
story of Marathon. It was
towards the end of August 490 BC
when the Athenians were informed
that vast Persian forces had landed
on Attic soil, at Marathon. The
moment was most critical and a messenger named Pheidippides was sent off
to Sparta to ask for help, while the Athenian army marched in haste over the Pentele heights to meet the enemy.
The messenger, who was back at Athens after
having covered the 450 km. distance in four days¹,
set out without delay to Marathon to carry the
answer to the headquarters.
The Marathon messenger
When the Athenian generals received the
negative words of Sparta, they decided to
face the enemy by themselves², and the next
day, before daybreak, they lined up their men
and moved against the foe.
Any reasonable voice would have said that
this action of so few against so great a
multitude of yet unbeaten Persians was an
insane march to suicide. And yet, the Athenians ventured upon it; it was the spirit of
the free man’s inborn dignity and the thought
that they were fighting for their homes and
their temples that gave them the will for this
From the ancient victory...
When the Athenians came within range of the
Persian arrows, they started advancing at a
run³. The enemy was caught by surprise; the
appearance of the men charging from the
hill-tops, with shields and lances clashing,
was more than the Oriental soldiery
could stand. They thought their opponents
were possessed by demons.
Soon in panic and confusion they started
running back to the shore, where those who
had escaped the slaughter were picked up by
those on the ships.
So the violent, hand to hand fighting, where
the free man’s courage, the well trained body
and the mighty force of the long lance had
the decisive word, lasted only a few hours.
Before noon the great battle was over.
I have paused over the Marathon episodes for
two reasons: firstly, it is worth knowing the
circumstances of a battle which represents
the triumph of freedom and dignity over
despotism and tyranny, and, in Bury’s
w o r d s4 , is a turning point in humanity’s
Secondly, in the details of this battle one can
trace the background of the Marathon race.
History always looked on Marathon as
marking an era: the feat of the ten thousand men running a distance of over 1500 m
to attack the enemy; their courage in
engaging in such an uneven fight; the story
of Pheidippides 5, the heroic messenger
delivering the tidings of the victory from Marathon to the Athenians 6, all manifestations of
an unusual human power and will, must have
fired the imagination of men in later times
very vividly, and thus created the ideological
climate which gave birth to the Marathon
The author, Mr. Ion P. loannides (66), talking
to the keeper of the Tymbos.
The new athletic event of the Marathon race
was introduced into the programme of the
Olympic Games in 1896, after an appeal by
the scholar Michel Bréal of the Sorbonne, a
friend of Coubertin, to commemorate the
historic battle and at the same time to revive
the memory of the legendary messenger.
... to the contemporary race
Prof. Bréal, deeply impressed by the spirit of
Marathon, wished to link its memory with the
newly-revived Olympic Games 7 . The appeal
was readily accepted by the Organising Committee, and the Games’ technicians drew up
the plans, made the village of Marathon the
starting place, measured the road to Athens,
and on the given day the Marathon race
took place becoming the greatest success of
the Games. The memory of the historic battle,
the beauty of the surroundings and the idyllic
country road gave a special charm to the
As time passed, the humble village of Marathon grew into a regular small town, the
surroundings and the road to Athens lost
their beauty, and with the development of
high athletics 8 and the ever growing urge for
records a change came over the character of
the Marathon race; it became exclusively an
athletic event.
Efforts have been made by the Hellenic
Olympic Committee to restore Prof. Bréal’s
original vision of the race by issuing pamphlets about its origin and by calling it
“classical”. The efforts, however, have so far
been ineffective, and it remains the general
belief that the Marathon race has come to
be considered as no more than a stop-watch
event. No serious interest has been given to
its cultural background, and this becomes
more evident from the fact that the starting
place of the race
continues to be the entrance
of a village 9 instead of the Tymbos, the
burial place of the Athenian soldiers 1 0, and
that the athletes run on a road which is not
the actual route taken by the ancient 11
The marathon’s cultural background
This last thought somehow attracted my
interest, and two years ago, at the Seminar of
the HISPA in Vienna, in giving a paper on
the Cultural Background of the Marathon
Race 1 2 I also refered to the probable route
taken by the messenger to Athens.
In response to a more specific question of
colleagues I recently set out to study further
all the evidence related to the battle of
Marathon, the camping grounds of the
armies, the topography of the area and, more
extensively, the various pathways leading to
Athens. Often in the company of Prof. E.
Vanderpool, the prominent scholar of Marathon studies, and with veteran Marathon
race champions 1 3 , I walked all these paths,
to get a direct personal perception of the
My conclusion is that the most probable
route must have been the road which, starting
from the Tymbos, passes near the Temenos
of Herakles Sanctuary, crosses the ruined
Vrana settlement, ascends past the monastery
of Agios Georgios and along a narrow pass
between the heights of Agriliki and Aphorismos, and arrives at the Dionysos stream 14 . It
then continues its ascent through a dense
pine-forest and joins a forest road which
leads to the famous Dionysos Sanctuary. At
this point the distance from the Tymbos is
9 kilometres and the altitude about 350 m
above sea level 15 .
From the Dionysos Sanctuary onward the
road is asphalt, still steep for about half a
kilometre and then it descends gently through
the beautiful suburbs of Ekale, Kephisia,
Marousi 1 6 and Psychiko to the Panathenaic
Stadion. The total distance is about 34 kilometres, ca. 8 less than the distance of the now
official Marathon route 1 7.
The arguments in favour of this route over
the Pentele heights are the shortness of the
race at its classical birthplace; the event
could be held very fittingly on the day of the
lighting of the torch at Olympia. And to stay
true to the spirit of the ancient contests,
have in the race no stop-watches, no second
or third places, but mention only the runner
who came first, along with his home town.
This change would certainly give a still
greater significance to the Marathon race
and contribute to the promotion of the
Olympic ideal.
I. P. I.
Various sites of Marathon.
distance and, above all, the safety which it
secured for the messenger, a safety not
afforded by the route along the coast.
Particularly in favour of the path leading
from the Tymbos to Dionysos is the fact that
it is an easier ascent and that it passes by the
great Sanctuary; this last alone makes it
almost sure that this path was the one most
used and consequently the shortest of the
As for the difficulty that this route might
present, the opinion of champion athletes,
who ran along the path from the Tymbos
t o t h e D i o n y s o s S a n c t u a r y 1 8, is that
the fresh air and the passing over beautiful mountain sides and through shaded
forests greatly diminish the strenuousness of
the effort.
Besides, the ascent is only on the first third
of the route, while the remaining two-thirds
are all downhill. Furthermore, the distance of
the ancient route is shorter and this makes
the race more human.
* *
In closing my paper I would like once again
to urge the view that the significance and the
beauty of the Marathon race will be fully
revealed and appreciated, and thus link the
spirit of classical Greece with the modern
Olympic Games more strongly, when this
race, held in memory of the ancient Marathon messenger, follows the true route run by
him and when it has its starting line at the
Tymbos, the actual spot of the great battle.
With these thoughts in mind, I dare to add
that a bold but very justified decision of the
International Olympic Committee would be,
in future Olympiads, to hold the Marathon
¹ Herod. VI 105-108.
² Isokr. Panegyrikos, 86.
³ Herod. VI 112.
J.B. Bury: A History of Greece, 243.244. — N.G.
Hammond: A History of Greece, 217. — LL. Snyder:
Turning Points in History, 5-9.
Ploutarchos: On the Fame of the Athenians, C 347.
—Loukianos: A Slip of the Tongue in Greeting, 3. —
F.G. Allinson: The Original Marathon Runner, Clas.
Weekly XXIV 152. — K. Romaios: The Marathon
Runner of 490 BC, Gymnastiké Anagennesis, 4/5
(1962) 63-65.
There is no clear historical evidence about this
messenger. However it was very natural, after such
a critical battle, for someone to run to Athens.
Messengers who ran to their home cities to carry the
news of victory are often mentioned, even in earlier
times, i.e. in the 28th Olympiad, 668 BC, when the
Eleans were engaged in war with the Dymaians and
the decisive battle took place on the day of the
Games. The Eleans won and a hopletes ran to
Olympia to tell the news to the archons.
We have a similar case in Delphoi during the first
Holy War (Philostr. Gymnastikos, 7).
Eusebios: Cronicle, 113th Olympiad, “Argeus, winner
of the Dolichos race, announced his own victory in
Argos on the same day.”
Pierre de Coubertin: The Olympic Idea, 1966, 116117. — Carl Diem: Olympische Flamme, 2 (1942)
In 1896 there were 13 nations participating in the
Games and 285 athletes.
Today the participating nations are more than 122
the athletes about ten thousand.
It is a modern village, bearing the name Marathon.
1 0
The Peloponnesian War, II 34, 5.
1 1
J.B. Bury: A History of Greece, 238-239.
1 2
I.P. Ioannides: Track and Field Quarterly, 75/4
1 3
Stelios Kyriakides, the winner of the 1946 Boston
Marathon race and Chr. Varzakes, the 60 year old
ex-Marathon champion.
1 4
In an article about the Marathon Messenger b y
Prof. A. Katsouros, analysing the local folklore tale,
the track is located between Aphorismos and Kotroni
heights, that is in the next pass which leads to
Stamata village.
I have been informed that Emil Zatopek, in search
of the trail of Pheidippides, ran from Tymbos along
same pass.
1 5
The greatest altitude of the official route is 250 m.
1 6
The home village of Spyridon Loues. the Marathon
winner of the first Olympic Games in 1896.
1 7
The distances and the altitudes have kindly been
calculated on special topographical maps and air
photographs by the engineer Nikos Donkakes of the
of Public Works.
1 8
They were student athletes of the Academy of
Physical Education, Athens.