Current EventsBook ReviewsFun and GamesCulturesTeaching Resources

Scholars Aim to Change Date of Historic Marathon Run

July 20, 2004

On this Site

The Persian Wars: Greece's Finest Hours
Ancient Greece Links

The Battle of Marathon was fought in August, not September, as has been previously thought. That is the conclusion of a group of astronomers who base their conclusions on research incorporating the writings of Herodotus and the lunar charts of Sparta.

The marathon run that we have today commemorates the 26-mile run that Pheidippides did from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to announce the great victory over the invading Persians in 460 B.C., during the Greco-Persian War. The second part of his message was that the Persians were defeated but still attacking, with another attack to come by sea. The story of Pheidippides and his run is detailed in historical writings of Herodotus, the great Greek historian; Plutarch, the great Roman historian; and other ancient sources.

The problem, if there ever was one, with the story has been the time of year that this marathon run supposedly took place. According to German historian August Boeckh, writing only in the 19th Century, Pheidippides' famous run took place on September 12.

What's the problem? Well, at that time of year in Greece, the temperature tops out at 83 degrees. Pheidippides was an excellent runner, which was why he was chosen for the important task. He had already completed an even longer run earlier. He had run from Athens to Sparta, a distance of 150 miles (not in one day, of course), and back. He had been sent with an urgent plea for Sparta to join the Athenians at Marathon. But Sparta had refused, saying that its soldiers were in the middle of a religious festival and couldn't be spared until the next full moon, which was six days away. (This is, of course, why the odds were stacked so heavily against the Athenians at Marathon.)

Boeckh assumed that the religious festival in Sparta was Karneia. Then, inexplicably, he consulted the Athenian calendar in order to come up with the date for the battle and ensuing victory run. And since no one had a conflicting assessment, Boeckh's conclusion, for better or for worse, became accepted. Modern researchers now conclude that the calculations should have been conducted using the Spartan calendar, which was a bit different from the Athenian one.

The Spartan calendar began with the new moon after the fall equinox, a date that was technically later in the season than the Athenian "new year." In fact, researchers have concluded, the Spartan calendar was almost a month ahead of the Athenian calendar. So, rather than September 12, the battle and subsequent victory run took place in August.

The significance of this, of course, is that temperatures in the month of August are traditionally much hotter than temperatures in the month of September. In Greece in August, the high temperature can routinely be over 100 degrees. Even the best-conditioned runners would have a difficult time running in such heat. So if Pheidippides ran his historic marathon in the heat of an August day, then it is perfectly plausible that he collapsed and died of heat stroke or of heat exhaustion.

Graphics courtesy of ArtToday

Custom Search

Follow SocStudies4Kids on Twitter


on this site

Social Studies
for Kids
copyright 2002-2014,
David White

Sites for Teachers