Pheidippides by Robert Browning

[Greek: Chairete, nikomen]

First I salute this soil of the blessed, river and rock!
Gods of my birthplace, daemons and heroes, honour to all!
Then I name thee, claim thee for our patron, co-equal in praise
--Ay, with Zeus the Defender, with Her of the aegis and
spear! 4
Also, ye of the bow and the buskin, praised be your peer, 5

Now, henceforth, and forever,–O latest to whom I upraise
Hand and heart and voice! For Athens, leave pasture and flock!
Present to help, potent to save, Pan –patron I call! 8
Archons of Athens, topped by the tettix, see, I return 9
See, ’tis myself here standing alive, no spectre that speaks! 10
Crowned with the myrtle, did you command me, Athens and you,
“Run, Pheidippides, run and race, reach Sparta for aid!
Persia has come, we are here, where is She?” Your command
I obeyed, 13
Ran and raced: like stubble, some field which a fire runs through,
Was the space between city and city: two days, two nights did I burn
Over the hills, under the dales, down pits and up peaks.

Into their midst I broke: breath served but for “Persia has come!
Persia bids Athens proffer slaves’-tribute, water and earth 18
Razed to the ground is Eretria. –but Athens, shall Athens
sink, 19
Drop into dust and die–the flower of Hellas utterly die, 20
Die with the wide world spitting at Sparta, the stupid,
the stander-by? 21
Answer me quick,–what help, what hand do you stretch o’er
destruction’s brink?
How,–when? No care for my limbs!–there’s lightning in all and some–
Fresh and fit your message to bear, once lips give it birth!”

O my Athens–Sparta love thee? did Sparta respond?
Every face of her leered in a furrow of envy, mistrust,
Malice,–each eye of her gave me its glitter of gratified hate!
Gravely they turned to take counsel, to cast for excuses. I stood
Quivering,–the limbs of me fretting as fire frets, an inch from dry
“Persia has come, Athens asks aid, and still they debate? 30
Thunder, thou Zeus! Athene, are Spartans a quarry beyond
Swing of thy spear? Phoibos and Artemis, clang them
‘Ye must’!” 32

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No bolt launched from Olumpos! Lo, their answer at last! 33
“Has Persia come,–does Athens ask aid,–may Sparta befriend?
Nowise precipitate judgment–too weighty the issue at stake!
Count we no time lost time which lags thro’ respect to the Gods!
Ponder that precept of old, ‘No warfare, whatever the odds
In your favour, so long as the moon, half-orbed, is unable to take
Full-circle her state in the sky!’ Already she rounds to it fast:
Athens must wait, patient as we–who judgment suspend.” 40

Athens,–except for that sparkle,–thy name, I had mouldered to ash!
That sent a blaze thro’ my blood; off, off and away was I back,
–Not one word to waste, one look to lose on the false and the vile!
Yet “O Gods of my land!” I cried, as each hillock and plain,
Wood and stream, I knew, I named, rushing past them again,
“Have ye kept faith, proved mindful of honours we paid you erewhile?
Vain was the filleted victim, the fulsome libation! Too rash
Love in its choice, paid you so largely service so slack!

“Oak and olive and bay,–I bid you cease to en-wreathe
Brows made bold by your leaf! Fade at the Persian’s foot, 50
You that, our patrons were pledged, should never adorn a slave!
Rather I hail thee, Parnes,–trust to thy wild waste tract! 52
Treeless, herbless, lifeless mountain! What matter if slacked
My speed may hardly be, for homage to crag and to cave
No deity deigns to drape with verdure?–at least I can breathe,
Fear in thee no fraud from the blind, no lie from the mute!”

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Such my cry as, rapid, I ran over Parnes’ ridge;
Gully and gap I clambered and cleared till, sudden, a bar
Jutted, a stoppage of stone against me, blocking the way.
Right! for I minded the hollow to traverse, the fissure across: 60
“Where I could enter, there I depart by! Night in the fosse?
Athens to aid? Tho’ the dive were thro’ Erebos, thus I obey– 62
Out of the day dive, into the day as bravely arise! No bridge
Better!”–when–ha! what was it I came on, of wonders that are?

There, in the cool of a cleft, sat he–majestical Pan!
Ivy drooped wanton, kissed his head, moss cushioned his hoof;
All the great God was good in the eyes grave-kindly–the curl
Carved on the bearded cheek, amused at a mortal’s awe
As, under the human trunk, the goat-thighs grand I saw.
“Halt, Pheidippides!”–halt I did, my brain of a whirl: 70
“Hither to me! Why pale in my presence?”! he gracious began:
“How is it,–Athens, only in Hellas, holds me aloof?

“Athens, she only, rears me no fane, makes me no feast!
Wherefore? Than I what godship to Athens more helpful of old?
Ay, and still, and forever her friend! Test Pan, trust me!
Go bid Athens take heart, laugh Persia to scorn, have faith
In the temples and tombs! Go, say to Athens, ‘The Goat-God saith:
When Persia–so much as strews not the soil–Is cast in the sea,
Then praise Pan who fought in the ranks with your most and least,
Goat-thigh to greaved-thigh, made one cause with the free and the
bold!’ 80

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“Say Pan saith: ‘Let this, foreshowing the place, be the pledge!’”
(Gay, the liberal hand held out this herbage I bear
–Fennel,–I grasped it a-tremble with dew–whatever it bode),
“While, as for thee…” But enough! He was gone. If I ran hitherto–
Be sure that the rest of my journey, I ran no longer, but flew.
Parnes to Athens–earth no more, the air was my road;
Here am I back. Praise Pan, we stand no more on the razor’s edge!
Pan for Athens, Pan for me! I too have a guerdon rare!

* * * * *

Then spoke Miltiades. “And thee, best runner of Greece, 89
Whose limbs did duty indeed,–what gift is promised thyself? 90
Tell it us straightway,–Athens the mother demands of her son!”
Rosily blushed the youth: he paused: but, lifting at length
His eyes from the ground, it seemed as he gathered the rest of his
Into the utterance–“Pan spoke thus: ‘For what thou hast done
Count on a worthy reward! Henceforth be allowed thee release
From the racer’s toil, no vulgar reward in praise or in pelf!’

“I am bold to believe, Pan means reward the most to my mind!
Fight I shall, with our foremost, wherever this fennel may grow,–
Pound–Pan helping us–Persia to dust, and, under the deep,
Whelm her away forever; and then,–no Athens to save,– 100
Marry a certain maid, I know keeps faith to the brave,–
Hie to my house and home: and, when my children shall creep
Close to my knees,–recount how the God was awful yet kind,
Promised their sire reward to the full–rewarding him–so!”

* * * * *

Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried “To Akropolis! 106
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 109
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through, 110
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine thro’ clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died–the bliss!

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So, to this day, when friend meets friend, the word of salute
Is still “Rejoice!”–his word which brought rejoicing indeed.
So is Pheidippides happy forever,–the noble strong man
Who could race like a god, bear the face of a god, whom a god loved
so well,
He saw the land saved he had helped to save, and was suffered to tell
Such tidings, yet never decline, but, gloriously as he began,
So to end gloriously–once to shout, thereafter be mute:
“Athens is saved!”–Pheidippides dies in the shout for his meed. 120


The story is from Herodotus, told there in the third person. See Herodotus, VI., 105-106. The final incident and the reward asked by the runner are Browning’s addition.

[Greek: =Chairete, nikomen=]. Rejoice, we conquer.

4. =Zeus=. The chief of the Greek gods (Roman Jupiter). =Her of the aegis and spear=. These were the emblems of Athena (Roman Minerva), the goddess of wisdom and of warfare.

5. =Ye of the bow and the buskin=. Apollo and Diana.

8. =Pan=. The god of nature, of the fields and their fruits.

9. =Archons=. Rulers. =tettix=, the grasshopper, whose image symbolized old age, and was worn by the senators of Athens. See the myth of Tithonus and Tennyson’s poem of that name.

13. =Persia= attempted a conquest of Athens in 490 B.C. and was defeated by the Athenians in the famous battle of Marathon, under Miltiades.

18. To bring earth and water to an invading enemy was a symbol of submission.

19. =Eretria=. A city on the island of Eub[oe]a, twenty-nine miles north of Athens.

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20. =Hellas=. The Greek name for Greece.

21. The Greeks of the various provinces long regarded themselves as of one blood and quality, superior to the outer barbarians.

32. =Phoibos=, or Ph[oe]bus. Apollo, god of the sun and the arts. =Artemis= (Roman Diana), goddess of the moon and patroness of hunting.

33. =Olumpos=. Olympus. A mountain of Greece which was the abode of Zeus and the other gods.

52. =Parnes=. A mountain on the ridge between Attica and B[oe]otia, now called Ozia.

62. =Erebos=. The lower world; the place of night and the dead.

80. =Miltiades= (?-489 B.C.). The Greek general who won the victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C.

106. =Akropolis=. The citadel of Athens, where stood the court of justice and the temple of the goddess Athene.

109. =Fennel-field=. The Greek name for fennel was [Greek: ho Marathon] (Marathon). Hence the prophetic significance of Pan’s gift to the runner.

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