March has come in like a lion, and we hope that you're just as excited as we am to celebrate March 25, the Greek holiday that marks their 1821 war for independence from the Turks. Opa! "Greece" is the word! In honor of Greek independence, Ken Jennings from Jeopardy! is here all month to correct a lot of Greek mythology—things we thought we knew about the ancient land that gave us democracy, logic, and nude wrestling. It turns out a lot of this Socratic wisdom is all Greek to us.
The Debunker: Did a Messenger Run 25 Miles After the Battle of Marathon?
Today, all a marathon will get you is orange slices, chafed nipples, and a smug bumper sticker for your car, but in 490 BC, Marathon saved western civilization. At that battle, the outnumbered Athenians successfully fought back a larger Persian army, ending Darius the Great's dreams of conquering Greece for the next decade.
Marathon is located about twenty-five miles northeast of Athens, and about six hundred years after the battle, a legend grew up about the Greek messenger Pheidippides, who is said to have covered the full distance back to Athens at a run to tell the polis about the great victory. In 1896, that legend inspired the organizers of the modern Olympics to hold a footrace from Marathon to Athens, and the modern marathon was born. (The distance wasn't standardized to 26.2 miles until the 1908 London Olympics, since that was the distance between Windsor Castle and the Olympic stadium.)
The idea of a breathless Pheidippides reaching Athens with the good news—and perhaps collapsing, lifeless, upon arrival—was irresistible to nineteenth-century writers and artists, and Robert Browning's poem "Pheidippides," about the herald's run, was probably what was most inspiring to the modern Olympic movement, rather than any actual history. In fact, there's good evidence from contemporary sources that the legend of Pheidippides is a mishmash of two different stories. The real Pheidippides, says Herodotus, ran to Sparta before the battle, to request military aid. (Herodotus mentions no post-battle herald at all.) By Plutarch's time, centuries later, this story appears to have been conflated with one about the Athenian army's hurried return march to Athens after Marathon, in case the Persian navy struck there. The legend of the return of "Pheidippides" (who Plutarch calls Thersippus or Eukles) was thus born. Modern-day runners should be glad that we commemorate Pheidippides' fake run from Marathon rather than the real one to Sparta. Sparta and Athens are about 150 miles apart. There's no amount of orange slices that would get me at the starting line for that.
Quick Quiz: What was unusual about Rosie Ruiz's win in the 1980 Boston Marathon?
Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.