Today is the conventionally-accepted anniversary of the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C., nearly 2,500 years ago). As the legend goes, a professional long-distance runner named Phidippides was dispatched from the field at Marathon, running the 42km over rocky and mountainous terrain to Athens to announce the Greeks' victory over the invading Persians. (The Battle of Thermopylae, recounted in historic fantasy in the movie 300, took place ten years later).
The irony of Phidippides's tale is that it probably never took place. The original historian Herodotus notes that Phidippides ran from Athens to Sparta (about 250km, or 150 miles) in two days to request their help. On the way, Herodotus says, he encountered the god Pan in the mountains who asked why the Athenians had forgotten him. Upon Phidippides's return to Athens, the Athenians built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis -- and Pan fought alongside the Athenians to hold off the Persians until the Spartans arrived after the full moon a couple weeks later.
The inspiration for the modern Olympic "marathon" is a 19th-cent. poem by Robert Browning:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried, "To Acropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!" He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, - the bliss!
The Spartathlon, a 152-mile ultramarathon between Athens and Sparta that has been held annually since 1983, will be held later this month.
Today, September 12th 2007, also marks (at sundown) the beginning of both the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah (starting the Ten Days of Repentance that end on Yom Kippur), and also the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.