In 480 BCE, the Greeks defeated Xerxes’ Persian forces at sea in the Battle of Salamis. This strike turned into a one-two punch, when the Greeks followed up their success by defeating the Persians on land at the Battle of Plataea. Although the Greco-Persian Wars were in no way over, Plataea was such an overwhelming victory for the Greeks that it prompted the Persians to start withdrawing from Greece, and they would not launch another major invasion into the Greek heartland for the remainder of the conflict. After winning the battle at Plataea, the Greeks knew how significant a victory they had won, and several altars and temples were planned to commemorate and celebrate the blessed fortune that the Greeks had received that day. The people of Plataea and other Greeks sponsoring the altars consulted the Oracle of Delphi for advice on what should be done to set up the new religious sites. In response, the Plataeans were told that their city needed to be purified—to do this, Delphi encouraged the Plataeans to send someone to fetch a torch of fire from the Delphic altar and bring it back to ignite a sacred fire on the newly-built altar of Zeus in Plataea.
For this holy task, a certain Euchidas was chosen to retrieve the torch from Delphi and transport it back to Plataea. Eager to complete the auspicious task in an honorable and timely manner, Euchidas set off at a run, refusing any horses or other forms of transportation. He reached Delphi in record time, giving himself leeway to carefully observe any rites of purification that he needed in order to be qualified to carry the holy torch. With firebrand in hand, he sprinted back toward Plataea, making such good time that he was able to reach the city by sunset on the very same day that he had originally left Plataea. With his mission complete, Euchidas succumbed to the fate shared by all too many runners of folklore and legend—he collapsed to the ground and died.
Plutarch (c. 50-120), the great Greek-Roman biographer, recorded the tale of Euchidas in his biographical essay on Aristides. His account of the tale was as follows:
“Euchidas, a Plataean, promising to fetch fire, with all possible speed, from the altar of the god, went to Delphi, and having sprinkled and purified his body, crowned himself with laurel; and taking the fire ran back to Plataea, and got back there before sunset, performing in one day a journey of a thousand furlongs; and saluting his fellow-citizens and delivering them the fire, he immediately fell down, and in a short time after expired” (Plutarch, Life of Aristides, section 20).
Euchidas’ collapse and death was not the end of his story. Due to his impressive athletic feat and the great religious service he had done for Plataea, Euchidas’ body was reverently brought to a local temple of Artemis and interred with great honors. According to Plutarch, his tomb featured an account of his deed, which stated, “Euchidas ran to Delphi and back again in one day” (Life of Aristides, section 20).
Written by C. Keith Hansely
Picture Attribution: (Image from page 87 of “The antique Greek dance, after sculptured and painted figures” (1916), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.