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Mare Nostrum

Ancient Marathon

by A.T.

The Role of Running in Ancient Greece

The role of running in ancient Greece was not just a contest. Before it was a competition, running was a necessity. Running had many uses. It was used in battle and to bring news. It was also used in sport, to honor gods, and for self-honor. Running then, has some similarities and some differences to running now.


Running was an important factor in battle. Besides the obvious uses of running in battle (attacking and retreating), it was used to send messages. If an army had just come out of a battle, and lost a lot of men, they would need reinforcements. If they knew the enemy was near, they would dispatch a trained long-distance runner with their position, and a request for reinforcements (Lloyd 3). It was also used after battles, as it was after the Battle of Marathon. Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens (an estimated twenty-six miles) to give the news of the Greek victory over the Persian Army to the Athenians (Ancient Olympic Games).


Running was also used in sport. There were contests held in Olympia once a year. These contests were called the Olympic Games. In the beginning of the Olympic Games, athletes from all over Greece would computer. As the Games became more and more popular, athletes started coming from all over the world. They came from as far away as the African continent to prove themselves (Swaddling 83). The Olympic Games were first traditionally held in the year 776 BCE (Roebuck 227). The winner of a race did not receive any money or anything of value. Instead, he received an olive wreath to be worn on his head (Roebuck 228). Women were allowed to run in a certain foot race if they were virgins. They had to run barefoot, wearing a dress that came up over the left shoulder, and competely exposed the right breast (Swaddling 74). Men usually ran naked. There was one race, however, that the men had to run wearing full combat armor (Gould 490).


Running was a very effective and popular way to honor one’s self. If a male runner won a race in the Olympic Games, it was the custom for him to erect a statue of himself in the middle of his city. He was allowed to write his name, the event(s) he won, and a short quote on the base of it (Swaddling 85). This was a very big deal because the ancient Greeks did not really believe in a pleasant after life. If someone died with honor, they would live on in the minds of other people. But people wouldn’t remember someone who died dishonorably or without honor (Swaddling 86). It was also a custom for the victor to write an ode about himself, or have someone write one for him. This was another way that the runners could live on forever.


Running was used for exercise, especially in Sparta, where being physically fit wasn’t only expected, it was demanded. People of both sexes, and all ages would run to become stronger ( Roebuck 225). During the course of the year, when the Olympic Games weren’t being held, athletes would be training. In the month before the Olympic Games were scheduled to begin, all athletes that were competing had to be training in Olympia, under the supervision of the judges of the Games. This was so the judges could exercise their control over the athletes and the Games (Swaddling 62).

Effects on Modern Running

Running in ancient Greece has greatly affected modern running. Today, people run for fun, and they run to stay in shape. In 1896, a Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Couberlin revived the Olympic Games, which until then, had not been held for almost fifteen centuries. Today, runners compete in them more for publicity and fame, than honor (Roebuck 230). There are races called marathons. They are a distance of twenty-six miles, three hundred eighty-five yards. They were modeled after Pheidippides’ run from Marathon to Athens (Swaddling 71).

Running Today

Running is a major sport today. High Schools and colleges all across the United States offer such running sports as:

  • Cross-country
  • Track
Cross-country in high school is a race of three miles, and in college, the runners race five miles. Track is basically the same in high school and college, except that the times are better in college. Both these sports originated in ancient Greece (Roebuck 227).

Running Over Time

The role of running in ancient Greece was not just a contest. It started out as a necessity, and evolved into a competition. Running was used in battle, to bring news, and for exercise. It was also used in sports, for entertainment, and for self-honor. Running in ancient Greece has greatly affected modern running.

Works Cited

  • Ancient Olympic Games FAQ 10. 17 Mar 1997. Online 21 Oct 1999
  • Gould, A. J. “ Again-The Olympic Challenge.” National Geographic Magazine. Volume 126 (Oct 1964).
  • Lloyd, A. Marathon: The Story of Civilizations on a Collision Course. New York: Random House, 1973.
  • Roebuck,C.The World of Ancient Times. New York: Scribner, 1966.
  • Swaddling, J. The Ancient Olympic Games. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1980.

History and Thought of Western Man
Rich East High School * Park Forest, Il 60466

This page was created by A. T. last revised 03/29/00

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