When Michael Phelps won his 13th individual Olympic gold medal last Thursday night, he eclipsed a 2,168-year-old record for the largest number of individual victories in the games, ancient and modern.
That prompted a burst of interest in the guy whose record he broke — Leonidas of Rhodes — and the events he dominated.
Leonidas wasn’t a swimmer. The ancient games weren’t into water sports. He was a runner, and his events involved sprints — specifically three sprints: the Stadion, the Diaulos, and the Hoplitodromos.
The Stadion was a sprint of roughly 200 yards. The Diaulos was the length of two Stadion. Runners ran to a pole, circled it and ran back to the start line.
The Hoplitodromos was the same length as the Diaulos, only it was run with the participants wearing helmets, armor, greaves, and carrying weapons and a shield. The gear came to something like 50 or 60 lbs.
Leonidas won all three races at four separate Olympics (164 B.C., 160 B.C., 156 B.C. and 152 B.C.).
The Hoplitodromos, which roughly translates as “the soldiers’ race,” deserves special mention, because the activity to which it pays homage — running in armor — played a central role in the first marathon.
Not the one run at the first modern Olympic games in 1896, but the one run on August 12, 490 B.C.. There were no gold medals or laurel wreaths handed out at the end of that one. But the participants were contesting for a prize infinitely greater than gold or laurels — personal and collective survival.
August 12, 490 B.C. is the date of the Battle of Marathon. It is commonly believed that the modern race of the same name was inspired by the run of Pheidippides, an Athenian herald who allegedly ran from the Plain of Marathon where the battle was fought back to Athens to report the Greek victory over the Persians — and then died on the spot.
Chances are much of the Pheidippides story is a legend. The earliest mention of Pheidippides’ name in connection with a run from the battle to Athens occurs in histories written several centuries after the battle. (The claim that he ran 140 miles from Athens to Sparta to solicit Spartan help is more plausible.)
Little matter. The real story of the first marathon is better.
Hoplitodromos-style running occurred twice in the battle, and both times it was critical to its outcome.
First, some military history.
In early August 490 B.C., a Persian amphibious expeditionary force landed 25,000 to 30,000 men at Marathon, a plain between the mountains and the sea approximately 26 miles northeast of Athens. An Athenian and allied force of around 11,000 armored hoplites, including most of the men of military age in Athens, marched out to meet them.
For several days, according to the British military historian Peter Green, the two armies faced each other at a distance of about a mile with both hesitant to start hostilities. The Persians hesitated because they knew the Athenian force was better armed, trained, disciplined and motivated. The Greek force hesitated because they were badly outnumbered, and because the Persians had brought two military assets that could be game-changers, cavalry and archers.
Then, on August 11, the Persians forced the issue. They started loading the cavalry’s horses back on their ships. Defectors told the Athenians that the plan was for the main Persian force to sail down to Athens and attack the largely undefended city, while a smaller Persian force remained to delay the return of the Athenian army.
So at about 6 a.m. on August 12, the Athenians launched a preemptive attack.
The Athenian plan was to place most of their forces on the left and right of their line of battle and thin out the center, inviting the Persians to attack them there and then enveloping them from the flanks. But for the plan to work, the Athenian force had to engage the enemy before it was shot to pieces by the Persian archers.
And the way it succeeded in doing so was to break into a double-time march when it got within range of the Persian archers — a disciplined “hoplitodromos” in other words.
The plan worked to perfection. According to Herodotus, after three hours of fighting the Persians had lost 6,400 men; the Athenian casualties were 192.
However, the battle wasn’t over. The remaining Persian forces had managed to get on their ships and set off for Athens.
And it was at this point that history’s first “marathon” was run — not by Pheidippides, but by the entire Athenian army.
And it was run Hoplitodromos-style — by men burdened with 50 to 60 pounds of armor and weapons who had just emerged from three hours of hand-to-hand combat on a hot August day.
Accounts vary as to the details of the run. Some say the runners “ran to the cry,” a description that suggests they were in some sort of formation and chanting as they ran. Historian Peter Green says it was every man for himself.
The pace could not have been more than a jog. The “winning time” in that first marathon was between six and seven hours — about 4 miles an hour to cover the 26 miles to Athens. (Modern marathon times by non-champion runners sans armor are around 4 hours, 20 minutes.)
They weren’t racing each other, of course. The real race was between them and the Persian fleet. And they won. They arrived less than an hour ahead of the Persians. Not long afterwards, the Persians sailed for home.
Ancient Olympiads were often ended with a Hoplitodromos. The International Olympic Committee could do worse than revive the event and make it a climactic act of the modern games as a way of paying homage to the race that saved Athens — and kept western civilization from being strangled in the cradle.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.