The Medieval Messenger

In ancient history, runners, homing pigeons and riders on horseback were used to deliver timely messages. Before there were mechanized courier services, foot messengers physically ran miles to their destinations. To this day, there are marathons directly related to actual historical messenger routes. In the Middle Ages, royal courts maintained their own messengers who were paid little more than common labourers.

Marathon

The name Marathon comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger. The legend states that he was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon (in which he had just fought), which took place in August or September, 490 BC. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming "we have won", before collapsing and dying.

Shooting the messenger

"Shooting the messenger" is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of lashing out at the bearer of bad news. Plutarch's Lives states: "The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus' coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him."

The advice "Don't shoot the messenger" was expressed by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2 (1598) and in Antony and Cleopatra: when told Antony has married another, Cleopatra threatens to treat the messenger's eyes as balls, eliciting the response "Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match." Prior to that, a related sentiment was expressed in Antigone by Sophocles as "No one loves the messenger who brings bad news."

An analogy of the phrase can come from the breaching of an unwritten code of conduct in war, in which a commanding officer was expected to receive and send back emissaries or diplomatic envoys sent by the enemy unharmed. During the early Warring States period of China, the concept of chivalry and virtue prevented the executions of messengers sent by opposing sides.

The term also applied to a town crier, an officer of the court who made public pronouncements in the name of the ruling monarch. This often included bad news, such as tax increases. Harming a town crier was considered to be treason.