Press Release

Astronomers Unravel Marathon Mystery

By SpaceRef Editor
July 25, 2004
Filed under , ,

Note to Editors/Producers: This release, which is being simultaneously issued by
Sky & Telescope and Texas State University, is accompanied by two
publication-quality illustrations.

On August 29th a field of runners at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens,
Greece, will retrace one of the most famous runs in history. Half a world away,
a team of researchers in Texas is shedding new light on the origins of the
legendary race.

In “The Moon and the Marathon,” appearing in the September 2004 issue of Sky &
Telescope magazine, Donald W. Olson, a physics and astronomy professor at Texas
State University, and his San Marcos colleagues Russell L. Doescher and Marilynn
S. Olson present astronomical evidence that the commonly accepted date of the
famous Battle of Marathon and the ensuing run may need to be reconsidered.

The legend was born in 490 BC, when a lone runner raced some 26 miles from the
battlefield to Athens to bring word of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at
Marathon and to warn the city of an impending invasion from the sea by the
Persian fleet. His mission accomplished, the runner collapsed and died.

This melodramatic death has proved problematic for historians over the
centuries. Why would an experienced long-distance runner collapse when thousands
of amateur runners successfully compete in marathons worldwide? The answer,
according to Donald Olson and his colleagues, lies in the phases of the Moon.

“The Greek historian Herodotus provides precise descriptions of the phase of the
Moon near the time of the Battle of Marathon,” said Donald Olson. “These are the
key to dating the battle and the Marathon run using astronomy.”

When the Athenians first learned of the Persian army’s landing at Marathon, city
leaders dispatched a messenger to Sparta, 150 miles away, to plead for military
aid. The Spartans promised to help, but they explained that because of a
religious festival their army could not march before the next full Moon — six
days away. Judging that the festival was the Karneia, 19th-century German
scholar August Böckh carried out a series of astronomical calculations to
determine the date of the Karneian full Moon and determined that the Battle of
Marathon took place on September 12th. Böckh relied on a reference from Greek
scholar Plutarch that equated the Spartan month of Karneios with Metageitnion,
the second month of the Athenian year.

“We realized that Böckh’s method of dating, using the Athenian calendar, had a
serious flaw,” Olson said. “The Karneia was a Spartan festival, so the analysis
should be done using the Spartan calendar.”

Although the Spartan and Athenian calendars were similar in that they were both
lunisolar — following the lunar cycle, but making adjustments to stay in step
with the solar year — they were not identical. The Athenian year began with the
first new Moon following the summer solstice, but the Spartan year apparently
began with the first new Moon after the fall equinox. Further, in 491-90 BC, 10
new Moons occurred between the fall equinox and summer solstice instead of the
normal nine, resulting in the Spartan calendar’s running a month ahead of the
Athenian. If the Texas State researchers are correct, the Battle of Marathon
actually took place on August 12, 490 BC.

Previous writers have noted that the average maximum temperature in Athens
during September is approximately 83 deg Fahrenheit. Moving the Marathon date up
just one month has a dramatic effect. The average August afternoon temperatures
along the marathon route range from 88 F to 91 F, with temperatures as high as
102 F possible near Athens. The astronomical calculation therefore suggests an
explanation for the death of the runner: such conditions could lead to heat
exhaustion and heat stroke in even a trained athlete.

The September 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope will be available on newsstands on
August 3rd. Reporters and editors who would like to obtain a PDF of the article
“The Moon and the Marathon” before that date should contact Jayme Blaschke at
jb71@txstate.edu .

SpaceRef staff editor.