Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Running Through History
Many, many congratulations to my fabulous sister Chantel for running the Disney World Marathon this past weekend! (And happy birthday to her today!) This was her first marathon -- what an achievement!
You'll never catch me running a marathon, but as a classicist, I can appreciate the roots of the race in ancient history, specifically the battle of Marathon, which witnessed an overwhelming and surprising victory of the Athenians over the Persians in 490 BC, after the forces of Darius I invaded Greece. According to legend, Pheidippides, the swiftest of foot among the Athenians, ran from Marathon to Athens (26 miles) to announce the victory. "We have won," he said and dropped dead from exhaustion. (He hadn't trained.) Today you can still visit, and I have, the burial mound of the Athenian dead at Marathon.
The marathon was not an event in the ancient Olympics or other festivals -- it was instituted for the 1896 Olympics in Athens -- but ancient games did have footraces, both sprints and longer runs. Women were not allowed to compete in the games in which men competed, but they had their own festivals. The festival of Hera at Olympia, for instance, included footraces for unmarried girls. The winners received olive crowns and the right to dedicate statues with their names on them (a big honor). And in Sparta, athletic training for girls was considered natural. The lovely bronze figurine here (image from the British Museum website, click to enlarge) was probably made in Sparta. She's about 11 centimeters tall, dates from ca. 520-500 BC, and probably decorated a bronze vessel. Her short tunic was the costume for competing female runners, with one shoulder bared to the breast.
Today when people think of ancient Greek athletics, they tend to think of male athletes. But modern running girls share in that history too!