Saturday 27 November 2010

Marathon in History

Well, after the deafening silence engendered by the last two weeks worth of blogging (is there anyone out there?) I’ll resort to something a bit more abstract this week.

I’ve now read Peter Krentz’ new book on Marathon, which is pretty good. There are no startlingly new insights; after all, pretty well everything that can be said about Marathon has been said, but it does make an interesting read.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of the book is the first chapter, where Krentz discusses how the battle has been viewed over the centuries. People, from the Athenians, who viewed the battle as a miraculous gift of the gods (especially Pan) to the Persians, for whom it was just a minor set-back in a distant province, have always constructed or reconstructed the meaning of the battle.

Among the most determined and resolute reconstructors were the Victorians, in this, as in so many other things. From Byron to Browning, Marathon was the victory for democracy and freedom. The newly liberated Athenians defeated the invader and the prospective tyrant of Athens.

Freedom and slavery, democracy and tyranny, liberty and civilisation are all still potent political slogans of our age. Yet no-one invokes Marathon today as a symbol of freedom. Why not?

Krentz suggests that the backlash against such ideas started after the Great War. The civilization that started with Athens showed it destructive power, its capacity to commit collective suicide. The courage and virtue that won at Marathon was no match for the technological slaughter which the civilisation that Athens engendered had created.

A few other items assisted in this re-visioning of Marathon. Firstly, Marathon changed nothing. It was a sideshow for the Persians, a punitive expedition that achieved most of its goals. Ten years later, the serious invasion got going and was defeated by both land and sea. Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea sealed the fate of the Greek world, not Marathon.

Even so, the output of writing about Marathon goes on. Aside from Krentz’ book, I know of at least one more published this year on the battle. The output seems unstoppable, the speculation endless. Amazon lists at least 4 recent books on the subject. Our fascination with this battle, the earliest that we are able to even try to reconstruct, seems endless. Marathon studies are alive and well, in military history if not anywhere else.

Plataea gets a worse press, for some reason, even though it was the decisive battle. Marathon gets strap lines such as ‘civilisations in conflict’, while Plataea gets a few books published a hundred years ago and still in print (or brought back into print). How odd.

Perhaps part of the answer to our interest in Marathon lies in modern geopolitics. As I’ve mentioned before, western civilisations have an uneasy relationship with ‘the east’ and I don’t suppose that the events of the last decade have made that any better. At least at Marathon the “good guys” won, the battle was decisive and everyone neatly went home. Even Datis, the Persian commander, seems to have returned safely to Asia and not been punished. Apart from those unfortunate enough to have been killed in the battle, everyone else got away without damage. Is Marathon then the perfect ‘civilised’ battle?

I suppose the other aspect of Marathon is that it gave the Greeks, Athenians and the late arriving Spartans, confidence that the superpower could be defeated. Perhaps without Marathon Plataea and Salamis couldn’t have happened. Marathon would then be a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the Greeks winning the Persian wars.

If the Athenians had lost Marathon, what would have happened? Krentz devotes part of his conclusions to such an outcome. If the Athenians had not resisted, history, he claims, would not be too different. The chances are that Athens would simply have continued to develop as it did, with a tyrant imposed by Persia to start with, then as Persian rule lightened, its own mix of tyranny and democracy. Perhaps then, the only real outcome of Marathon was to prolong the Persian wars, and to ensure the destruction of more lives.

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the good work! We are out here! I just rarely comment - but read all your posts.