The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Marathon’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

There are a number of myths about the word ‘marathon’ and its origins. Let’s take a closer look at the story of how an ancient battle gave us the word for a long-distance race.

A marathon is a race run over a distance of 26 miles and 385 yards. The 385 yards are a curious detail and one I’ll return to later in this article. But let’s start with the reason why such a race is known as a ‘marathon’.

It all goes back to the Battle of Marathon, which was fought in 490 BC between the Athenians and the Persians. Marathon was the name of a deme (a division or township) of Attica on the north-east coast of Greece.

During the battle, a messenger witnessed a Persian ship preparing to sail for Athens just as the Athenians were about to defeat the Persians in battle. This shrewd messenger saw this move as a propaganda offensive: the Persian ship was going to rush to Athens and declare the Persians, rather than the Athenians, the victors in the battle and stake their claim to Greek land.

Determined to get in there first and announce the correct victors, this messenger is said to have run all the way from Marathon to Athens without stopping, racing there as quickly as he could, and even discarding his weapons (and, in some accounts, his clothes) so they wouldn’t slow him up. When he reached Athens, he declared ‘we have won!’ before collapsing from exhaustion and dying. The identity of this messenger is known in the popular consciousness as Pheidippides.

This is the name given in the historian Herodotus’ account (in History vi) of the incident. Herodotus tells us that Pheidippides ran the 150 miles from Athens to Sparta (not from Marathon to Athens) to secure aid before the battle (not afterwards). So Pheidippides probably wasn’t the one Herodotus had in mind for the after-battle run. Presumably he’d still be sleeping following his 150-mile run to Sparta.

So, if the event ever happened, the messenger’s name may not have been Pheidippides at all. The earliest surviving account of the run from Marathon to Athens is Plutarch’s On the Glory of Athens, written in the 1st century AD, but there the runner’s name is Thersipus. Or, possibly, Erchius. Or even Eucles. All three names are given, but Pheidippides is not.

Indeed, even in the nineteenth century, the artist Benjamin Haydon painted Eucles Announcing the Victory of Marathon.

The story of the runner racing his way back to Athens to announce an Athenian victory first turns up in the writings of the 2nd-century satirist Lucian, in his A Slip of the Tongue in Greeting. There, the messenger is named as Philippides (literally ‘sparing a horse’), rather than Pheidippides. However, it is in Lucian that the idea that the messenger dropped dead after announcing the victory first appears.

But it’s worth remembering that Lucian was a satirist, not a historian, and he may have had his tongue in his cheek when he wrote this ‘account’. He was also writing some five centuries after the battle took place. It’d be like us purporting to write an accurate account of what happened in Elizabethan England. Without written records, we’d be relying on word of mouth and that has a tendency to embrace exaggeration and embellishment.

So the most complete account of the story we have, which features almost all of the elements which are widely known about the incident, is found in the work of a writer who was famous for writing satire rather than history. And even he doesn’t call the courier Pheidippides.

There’s another myth worth addressing, and that’s the precise distance between Marathon and Athens. This is not 26 miles and 385 yards, but around 22 miles. So why, then, is the length of a marathon race fixed at 26 miles and 385 yards?

In the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the marathon was run over 40 kilometres, which is around 25 miles. Then, in 1908 at the London Olympics, the organisers decided on a course of 26 miles from the start of the race at Windsor Castle to the royal entrance to the White City Stadium in central London. This would then be followed by a lap of 586 yards and 2 feet around the track, finishing in front of the Royal Box where King Edward VII would greet the winner. This plan was modified in time for the games, with the marathon ending with a partial lap around the stadium, coming to 385 yards.

The distance of the modern marathon, 42.195 kilometres (26.219 miles) was set by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in May 1921, and the distance of the marathon at the 1908 London Olympics was used to determine the official distance for all future marathons. So we have the British royal family to thank for the precise distance of the modern-day marathon.

The word ‘marathon’ has inspired a whole slew of new words, with the suffix ‘-athon’ providing the basis for ‘telethon’ (a long televised broadcast), ‘walkathon’ (a long walk, especially for charity), and numerous others.