Feats of sport and physical activity have inspired poets and writers from Walt Whitman to Norman Mailer. But rarely has a work of literature ignited or inspired a new sporting event.
Such was the case with Robert Browning's 1879 poem, "Pheidippides."
Browning was 67 years old when he alloyed myth and historical fact to create a 118-line-long poem about an obscure character of Greek antiquity named Pheidippides. The narrative that would help spark the emergence of the modern marathon movement is recounted in the new film "Spirit of the Marathon" as well as in Benjamin Cheever's recently published book on running, "Strides: Running Through History With an Unlikely Athlete" (Rodale).
Browning borrowed from an account by the Greek historian Herodotus about a professional courier who, in 490 BC, had been dispatched from Athens to Sparta to ask for assistance against an imminent Persian invasion. The messenger, named Pheidippides or Philippides (depending on the source), covered the 130 miles between the two cities in one day, to relay his message that "the Athenians beseech you to hasten to their aid and not allow that state to be enslaved by Barbarians."
The Spartans, in the midst of a feast, took their time in responding to the messenger's request. Luckily for the Athenians, they didn't need the Spartans' help in beating the Persians on the plains of Marathon.
At the end of the battle, the later historian Plutarch wrote, two other messengers were dispatched with news of the victory. One of them, named Eucles, had been wounded in the battle. Yet, he managed to cover the approximately 25-mile distance from Marathon to Athens on foot, barged into the first house he came upon, proclaimed, "God save you, we are well," and dropped dead.
Browning combined the Herodotus story with accounts from both Plutarch and yet a third chronicler named Lucian, then threw in a side plot about the runner's run-in with the Greek god Pan on the way to Sparta. In Browning's version it is Pheidippides who takes the message after the battle and, upon reaching not a dwelling but the court of Athens, collapses after a more pulse-pounding exit line: "Rejoice, we conquer!"
The poem appeared as part of a popular collection of Browning's poems called "Dramatic Idylls." Twenty years later, inspired by the revived and dramatic legend of Pheidippides, organizers of the first modern Olympics in Athens included an event that was never part of the ancient Greek Games; a 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) run from the site of the battle to the city.
The run became known as the "Marathon."