Daily Archives: September 5, 2017

The uncertain origins of the modern marathon



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The modern marathon distance comes from the 1908 London Olympics.
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James Kierstead, Victoria University of Wellington

Last November, I ran my first marathon, the “Athens Authentic”. I did it mainly because I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the world’s first marathon runner – the ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippides.

The story, as I knew it, went as follows. After their victory over a Persian invasion force at the border village of Marathon, the Athenians sent a messenger called Pheidippides to deliver the news to the city authorities. After running the 42 kilometres back to Athens, Pheidippides gasped “we’ve won!” (nenikēkamen) and promptly died of exhaustion.

It’s a great story, but was it true? The more I looked into it in the weeks leading up to the race, the less certain I was. Was I about to run 42km for a lie?

Different sources and different stories

Our best source for the events of 490 BC, the fifth-century historian Herodotus, doesn’t mention a messenger being sent from Marathon after the battle. He does say, though, that a runner called Pheidippides (or Philippides, in some manuscripts) was sent to Sparta to ask for help before the battle.

This trip is commemorated in the Spartathlon, a 246km event that I haven’t run – and never will.

Our next-oldest source is the fourth-century-BC intellectual Heraklides Pontikos. He apparently did mention a Marathon runner, but gave his name as Thersippos – at least according to the first-century-AD moralist Plutarch.

Plutarch himself is the earliest author to tell the story of a messenger from Marathon dying from exhaustion after proclaiming victory. But his messenger is called Eukles – and his dying word is nikōmen (we win).

The first time we hear this story with a messenger called Pheidippides (or Philippides) is in Lucian, and by that time we’re in the second century AD, around 600 years after the Battle of Marathon. The runner says nikōmen in that version too.

What to make of the different sources

Herodotus was closest in time to the events. And since he does tell the story of Pheidippides’ run to Sparta and back, he would surely have added in the story of the runner’s death if he had known about it.

But if Pheidippides didn’t run the first marathon, did someone else?

Our next candidate is Eukles, the name Plutarch tells us is given to the Marathon runner by the majority of historians. But here there’s an important detail: Eukles, according to Plutarch, ran from the battle “warm, with his weapons”.

If that’s right, Eukles would have run the first marathon after fighting for three hours or so in a desperate battle for his city’s survival. Not only that, but he would have done so bearing the traditional arms and armour of a Greek hoplite (heavy infantryman): spear, shield, helmet and (if he could afford it) breastplate. The whole panoply would have weighed ten or 20 kilograms, up to about one-third of the body weight of the average classical Greek.

Needless to say, this is something else I haven’t done.

Where does this leave Thersippos, the name given by Heraklides Pontikos?

It’s possible, as the Greek historian Christos Dionysopoulos has suggested, that there was a second runner, sent out the morning after the battle when the Athenians realised the Persians that they had pushed back onto their ships could simply use them to sail down the coast and attack Athens through its traditional harbour. That second runner may have been Thersippos.

But the strategic situation they were in was probably clear to the Athenians even as the battle ended. Someone would have to get to Athens before the Persians did, to reassure the populace that the Athenian army was still standing – and hence that there was no reason to surrender the city to the Persians.

They also needed to signal to any would-be defectors to the Persian side that it was the Athenians who were still calling the shots in Athens.

Eukles’ announcement of an Athenian victory – perhaps with his final breath – would have gone part of the way to achieving these goals.

But to really reassure people, and send a strong signal to potential “Medizers” (Persian sympathizers), the army would need to make an appearance in person. So, the Athenian hoplites, fresh from the most important battle of their lives, marched the 40km or so back to Athens, just in time to scare off the Persian fleet, which finally headed back to Persia.

Like Eukles, the Athenian hoplites would have had to bring along their weapons, both because these were valuable possessions and because they needed them to intimidate the Persians. Unlike Eukles, the Athenians probably didn’t run.

The British historian N.G.L. Hammond reckoned they could have walked the distance in six or seven hours – which is not that much longer than it took me to run it.

How long was it, really?

Speaking of the distance, what was it exactly?

I ran 42,195 metres, the standard length for a marathon, and I felt every metre afterwards. But if that was the distance that Eukles ran, why does the modern race make you run a 2km diversion around the burial monument of the Athenians?

The answer is because the modern marathon distance is only loosely based on the distance Eukles ran. The modern distance comes from the 1908 London Olympics, where competitors ran from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, and then a bit further along the track to finish in front of the royal box.

The 1908 race was thus longer than the first Olympic marathon run in 1896. That course was 40km, the distance between the village of Marathon and the Panathenaic Stadium, where I finished my race.

The annual Athens “authentic” marathon didn’t begin until 1972. By that point 42,195 metres had long become the standard distance. That’s why I had the wonderful opportunity of running 2km extra around the tomb of the Athenians.

So, where did this all leave me as I trudged up the road from Marathon to Athens? (“Up”, by the way, is very much the right word.)

I wasn’t following in the footsteps of Pheidippides – thankfully, since his run to Sparta and back was much longer than the one I was doing. I might have been following in the footsteps of a man named Thersippos, but I was most likely retracing the steps of one called Eukles, albeit without carrying one-third of my body weight in armour.

But something else occurred to me as I eventually slowed to a walk for part of the course. I may have been doing so because I was tired, but I was also making my journey more similar to that of the Athenian hoplites in 490 BC. They walked briskly, after defeating an absolutist invasion force that was seeking to crush their nascent democracy.

The ConversationSome 2,500 years later, I run-walked slowly over the same ground, unarmed and without a worry on my mind except the next research deadline. And that was good enough for me.

James Kierstead, Lecturer in Classics, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Monumental errors: how Australia can fix its racist colonial statues



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Aboriginal dancers from Pinjarra perform at the unveiling of the counter-memorial in Esplanade Park, Fremantle, April 9 1994.
Courtesy Bruce Scates

Bruce Charles Scates, Australian National University

War memorials are a feature of the Australian landscape. Obelisk and arch, broken pillar and stone statue remind us of the crippling loss a young nation faced in campaigns overseas. But where are the monuments to conflicts fought in our own country – a brutal war of dispossession that left deep and enduring scars on countless communities?

As the recent debate over Australian statues demonstrates, sanitised symbols of violence and dispossession have long stood unchallenged in the heart of our towns and cities. By occupying civic space they serve to legitimise narratives of conquest and dispossession, arguably colonising minds in the same ways white “settlers” seized vast tracts of territory.


Read more: The politics of public monuments: it’s time Australians looked at what, and whom, we commemorate


Stan Grant has called for a Sydney statue of James Cook that claims Cook “discovered” Australia to be corrected. Others have called for the renaming of buildings and public spaces named after Lachlan Macquarie and people associated with Queensland’s slaving (known as “blackbirding”) history.

In response, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with other politicians and commentator Andrew Bolt, have labelled these calls to alter monuments “Stalinist”.

In debating the place “explorers” or “blackbirders” might occupy in civic space, Australians face a choice in how we engage with a past that is painful, multivocal and complex. White Australians raised such memorials as tributes to their colonial pasts; other than as subjects, there was no place for Indigenous peoples.

Should politicians, bureaucrats or the apologists for our country’s racist past decide the fate of these memorials today? Or can this debate empower previously displaced voices? These monuments have maligned and marginalised first nations’ peoples from the first day they were erected. And they stand, after all, on land whose sovereignty was never surrendered.

Indigenous communities have confronted such challenges before. And they have acted with courage, wisdom and generosity. In Fremantle, Western Australia, a monument that celebrated the racism that mars Australia’s past has today become a symbol of dialogue and reconciliation.

Susan Carland and Bruce Scates discuss Australia’s frontier conflict.

Revising the past

The Explorers’ Monument in Fremantle was unveiled in 1913 to commemorate three white explorers – Frederick Panter, James Harding and William Goldwyer – who were killed in the far northwest in 1864. For generations it stood unquestioned in the centre of the Esplanade Reserve in Fremantle, enshrining a pioneer myth writ deep in Australian history.

A series of plaques circling the monument claimed that the explorers were attacked at night and “killed in their sleep” by “treacherous natives”. The land where they died is portrayed as hostile and alien: a “terra incognita”. Aboriginal people are described as savages, the whites as “intrepid pioneers”.

The orignal plaque on the Explorers’ Monument.

Other features of the monument are stridently belligerent. An imposing bust pays tribute to Maitland Brown, “leader of the government search and punitive expedition” who carried the explorers’ remains back with him to Fremantle. Brown’s expedition ended in the massacre of around 20 Aboriginal people; mounted and well armed, none of his party were killed or wounded.

In 1994, the United Nations Year of Indigenous Peoples, a counter-memorial was set in the monument’s base. Elders from Bidyadanga (formally La Grange) unveiled a new plaque outlining the history of provocation that led to the explorers’ deaths. It was a striking instance of what scholars call “dialogical memorialisation”, where one view of the past takes issue with another and history is seen, not as some final statement, but a contingent and contested narrative.

The plaque added to the Explorers’ Monument in 1994.

Equally importantly, the plaque acknowledges the right of Indigenous people to defend their traditional lands and solemnly commemorates “all those Aboriginal people who died during the invasion of their country”. The dedication service ended as Aboriginal people scattered dust from the site of the massacre and two white children laid wreaths of flowers decked in Aboriginal colours.

The Explorers’ Monument carried the same inscription chiselled on war memorials the length and breadth of our country. “Lest we forget” was the chilling phrase chosen to commemorate Panter, Harding and Goldwyer in 1913, and those words back then were an incitement to racial hatred.

Over 80 years later, the people of Bidyadanga and the Baldja network in Fremantle added “lest we forget” to their counter-inscription. This invites us to widen the ambit of remembrance and recognise the common tragedies that attended the so-called settlement of Australia.

Authorised and unauthorised history

In the United States, symbols of the nation’s racist past have been the flash points of violent confrontations, such as in Charlottesville. Protesters demand the removal of statues that celebrate slave owners and white supremacists. Right-wing militia groups rally to their defence.

Similar debates have emerged elsewhere. Should great centres of learning like Oxford pay tribute to Cecil Rhodes, a man who pioneered the policies of apartheid?

Can a democracy enshrine the advocates of racial, sexual or religious discrimination, or peaceful communities honour those who carpet-bombed Europe? In each case, statues and memorials stand at the heart of these controversies. Once the meanings of monuments were thought to be set in stone; now they crumble in the relentless critique of history.


Read more: Fair Game? The audacity of Héritier Lumumba


Would those opposing the altering of Australia’s colonial statues have also opposed the demolition of the Berlin Wall, or the toppling of statues of Saddam Hassein? In monuments, as in written histories, some narratives are authorised, others denied or disputed.

And such critique raises deeper questions, interrogating the very nature of history as a scholarly discipline. Does history cease to exist when a memorial is removed from public view and civic sanction – or is that act of removal, a forceful repudiation of the past, itself an act of choice and agency in history?

Ray Minniecon was an Aboriginal student at Murdoch University who led the liaison with Indigenous communities. “Monuments,” he said on the day Fremantle’s counter-memorial was unveiled, “are not just a window into our past; they are a window into ourselves.” We can choose. We may cling to the racism and hatreds of the past or make our own commitment to what the constitutional convention at Uluru aptly dubbed “truth telling”.

The ConversationPerhaps, at this critical juncture in our history, Fremantle suggests the way forward.

Bruce Charles Scates, Professor of History, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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