Five books on the Battle of Marathon

Book Reviews by Josho Brouwers

In 2011, it was exactly 2500 years ago that the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) was fought. In this battle, the army of the Athenians defeated the larger army of the Persian Empire on the field near the village of Marathon. The battle plays an important part in the story of the wars between the Greeks and Persians of the first quarter of the fifth century BC. As a result, much has been written about it. In this article I want to review, as concisely as possible, five books that have appeared on the subject since 2011.

These are: Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization (2010) by Richard A. Billows, The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization (2011) by James Lacey, Marathon: The Battle and the Ancient Deme (2010) edited by Kostas Buraselis and Katerina Meidani, The Battle of Marathon (2010) by Peter Krentz, and The Battle of Marathon in Scholarship: Research, Theories and Controversies since 1850 (2014) by Dennis L. Fink.

One volume that I will not be reviewing is the Ancient Warfare magazine special of 2011 that also dealt with the Battle of Marathon. As the current editor of the magazine – though not involved in the special in any capacity – I think it would be disingenuous to review it. However, having said that, I will say that the special offers a wide range of different articles all touching on the Battle of Marathon that are worth a read. Jona Lendering’s introduction, in which he touches on much that I think is important as regards the interpretation and historical importance of the battle, is worth the price of admission alone, in my humble opinion.

Of the books under review, the one that is perhaps the most intriguing is Dennis Fink’s The Battle of Marathon in Scholarship. The book is a detailed treatment of the scholarship on the Battle of Marathon since 1850, and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in this battle and the Persian Wars in general. Different chapters deal with the major sources (mostly Herodotus), the Persian and Greek armies, the emergence of the Persian Empire, the Ionian Revolt, the situation in Greece and Persia between 492 and 490 BC, the actual battle, and finally the historical importance of the battle. In the course of this book, the reader is shown, as stated in the book’s final chapter, that there is “limited consensus, lots of controvery”, and that because of the reliance on Herodotus and the limited sources for the Persian side of the equation, “the topic is open to many interpretations and wide speculation” (p. 190). Fink, in this final chapter, makes clear that many scholars believe the Battle of Marathon to have been of great historical significance, despite the fact, as mentioned by other scholars, that the Persian defeat at Marathon didn’t actually change much.

Marathon as a pivotal event

Two of the books under review make clear that the authors believe that Marathon was a pivotal moment in history: the subtitle of Lacey’s book refers to a “miraculous” victory that had an “impact on Western civilization”, and Billows’s subtitle is even more dramatic, suggesting that Marathon “changed Western civilization”.

Let’s start with Lacey’s book. This is probably the weakest of all the books currently under review and I do not intend to devote too much time to it. For the most part, the book is a fairly traditional reading of Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Marathon. Chapter 14, which deals with the Persian army, starts with a generalized introduction about Mesopotamia, before creating an image of the Achaemenid forces that relies almost entirely on Herodotus. Chapter 15, which deals with ‘hoplite warfare’, is largely a defence of Hanson’s Western Way of Way, and, as is common in books of this type, again claims that the hoplite’s shield was called a hoplon (it wasn’t, as has been known for decades now: hoplon is the general Greek term for a piece of kit, while the shield proper was called aspis, largely irrelevant of type). Most interesting, perhaps, is chapter 21, ‘The Great Debates’, in which Lacey attempts to justify some of his decisions in reconstruction Marathon. It’s a general introduction, built on a false premise (i.e. that Marathon had some ‘impact on Western civilization’), and one that I would not recommend.

Billows’s book partially reads like a general history of Archaic Greece. The introduction (‘The legend of Marathon’) deals with how Marathon was perceived, both in ancient times and today. It gives a decent overview, but I wonder if placing this at the beginning was a good idea, especially since chapter 6 (‘The consequences of the Battle of Marathon’) is a little bare as far as content is concerned. I think it would have been better to have rolled the introduction and the final chapter together as either a single, beefier introduction or as some sort of postscript. As it is, it seems like two halves that shouldn’t have been used to bookend the main content of this monograph.

The first chapter focuses on the ancient Greeks of the seventh and sixth centuries BC and opens with the platitude that Classical Greek civilization started with Homer. What follows is a potted history of Archaic Greece. I have to question the inclusion of this chapter here. Much of it seems superfluous, and the chapter as a whole – which takes up fifty pages or a little over one-sixth of the book as a whole – seems too long for what it is. The points raised – regarding the competitive spirit of the Greeks and the development of hoplite warfare – could have been made more succinctly.

This chapter, however, is an example of the book as a whole: despite the dramatic subtitle, this is very much a relatively innocuous and unambitious summary of the centuries leading up to Marathon and the battle itself. Chapter 2 offers a similar potted history of the Persian Empire, chapter 3 turns to a discussion of Athens, and chapter 4 deals with ‘the growth of conflict between Persians and Greeks’. Chapter 5 is devoted to the actual battle at Marathon, but is similarly unspectacular. Exactly what was the point that the author wanted to make with this book?

In chapter 6, the author included a ‘What if?’ scenario. What if the Athenians had lost Marathon? His own conclusions are pithy (p. 260):

In short, we can see that, beyond any reasonable doubt, the impact of an Athenian defeat at Marathon, not just on Athenian history, not even on classical Greek history, but on the history and culture of all of Western civilization would have been huge: everything would have been different.
Billows claims that if the Athenians had lost at Marathon (to a relatively small Persian force), the following would have happened: the Athenians would have been deported, Athenian democracy would have been killed off, all of Greece apart from the Peloponnese would have come under Persian dominion (and the Spartans would eventually have been conquered by the Persians, Billows says), and classical Greek culture would not have flourished. Philosophy, art, and architecture would have been effectively killed off. This is, by far, the most negative reading I have yet seen about the possible effects Persian rule over Greece would have had and one, I think, that is undoubtedly too negative. It assumes a certain malice on the part of the Persians that I don’t believe is borne out by the evidence. They could be ruthless, certainly (most ancient peoples were), but they were not overly destructive.

I must admit to my own bias here, in case that isn’t obvious, yet: I don’t believe, as stated elsewhere, that the dichotomy between East and West is very useful, nor do I believe that history depends on the outcome of a single battle. Much has been written on the Persian Wars that depicts them as an epic struggle between the ‘free’ West and the ‘despotic’ East (even if the source for this distinction can be found in Herodotus, if not earlier), but much of it can be dismissed as hyperbole. There is no reason to believe that democracy would have been abolished by the Persians if they had managed to conquer Athens, for example. In fact, little might have changed in the everyday life of a Greek conquered by the Persians, as shown by the Greek cities in Asia Minor.

Of course, an even greater point of controversy is regarding Greek civilization as ‘Western’ in the first place: it has become a commonplace to treat the ancient Greeks as the ancestors of Western civilization, but, as Jona Lendering has pointed out, continuity from ancient times to the present is something that must be proved, rather than simply assumed. Any Western commentator who claims direct descent from Pericles or Plato blithely ignores the Roman occupation of Greece, the history of the Byzantine Empire, the European middle ages, the renaissance and enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, universal suffrage, and so on.

Peter Krentz’s book on Marathon

Contrasted with the works of Lacey and Billows, Peter Krentz’s The Battle of Marathon does not proclaim that Marathon was of great importance to Western history at large, but rather as the first battle in which the Achaemenid Empire had suffered a defeat at the hands of the Greeks. The foreword by Donald Kagan and Dennis Showalter give a brief summary of what to expect and make clear the central thesis of Krentz’s book: namely that the infamous long charge of the Athenians, often dismissed as implausible, actually happened, because hoplite warfare was different from what is often assumed by writers such as Victor Davis Hanson. Krentz’s lively introduction, which starts with a short treatment of the start of the battle as seen through the eyes of Miltiades, sets the stage and pulls the reader in.

The remainder of the text is divided into nine chapters, organized chronologically. The first chapter deals with the alliance between Athens and the Persian Empire. In chapter 2, Athens, now allied with Persia, managed to put a halt to an invading Peloponnesian army and then proceeds to take the fight northwards, to Boeotia and Chalcis. This chapter will be of considerable interest, as Krentz here details his own ideas as regards the nature of hoplite warfare, which he considers to have been much more fluid and open than authors like Hanson have suggested.

The Ionian Revolt follows in chapter 3, as it must, since the support that Eretria and Athens lent to the rebels is the direct cause of the Battle of Marathon. After all, Athens’ support was in direct violation of their treaty with the Persians. The relationship between the Greeks and the Persians is the subject of chapter 4, with particular attention devoted to the Persians and the campaign across the Aegean. Chapter 5 sets the stage, with the armies arriving at Marathon, in an area that Herodotus says was good for cavalry (even though the Persian cavalry disappear entirely from the narrative).

Chapter 6 is a study of the plain at Marathon, and Krentz attempts to locate where the Persian and Greek camps were located, where the battle took place, and so forth; it is in large part an answer to Whatley’s comments (in an article published in 1964 and discussed in detail by Krentz) on the difficulties one encounters when trying to reconstruct ancient battles. The actual battle is dealt with in chapter 7. Krentz suggests that how the battle unfolded was carefully planned beforehand by the Athenian general Miltiades.

Chapter 8 deals with the immediate aftermath, including Philippides’ famous run back to Athens. Chapter 9 offers an interesting bit of historical speculation: what if the Persians had won at Marathon? Krentz suggests that Greece would eventually have submitted to the Persians, but maybe not much would have changed overall. The significance of Marathon was that it showed that the Achaemenid army could be bested in battle. In Krentz’s words, ‘Marathon made Salamis conceivable and Plataea possible.’

Appendix A offers an overview of important ancient sources on Marathon, ranging from Aeschylus and Aristophanes to Thucydides and Xenophon; if you want to delve into the ancient sources on Marathon, you can start here. Appendix B deals with the date for the battle: a brief discussion fixes the year for the battle (490 BC), after which there is a lengthier treatment regarding the precise day and month. Nothing about Marathon is straightforward, and here too we simply do not know precisely how long the conflict at Marathon lasted. Krentz suggests somewhere in August, but it may also have been September.

All in all, this is an excellent resource on the Battle of Marathon, and should perhaps be your starting point if you have never read a modern book on Marathon before. It does contain a fair amount of reasoned conjecture, but Krentz explains why he chose a particular interpretation at every step of the way, making it valuable even if you disagree with his view on the subject. I cannot recommend this book enough.

A bilingual, edited volume on Marathon

The last book under review is the edited volume by Kostas Buraselis and Katerina Meidani. The book has a mix of papers written in either Greek or English. Those who do not read Greek need not fret, as each article has a summary written in English (and vice versa). The papers deal not just with the battle itself, but also with the ancient village (Athenian deme) of Marathon. The first paper, by Kostas Bursalis, deals with Marathon as “a landmark in Greece and world history”, and briefly (perhaps too briefly) summarizes some present research. It is essentially, and disappointingly, a defence of the importance of Marathon. The remaining papers in the volume can be divided more or less in half.

The first half is essentially archaeological, with papers that deal with subjects such as use of the site in prehistoric (Heleni Banou) and Classical times (Ioanna Tsirigoti-Drakotou), the location of the ancient deme (Thomas Weber), the burial mound (Panos Valavanis), the stele of the fallen of Marathon from Cynouria (George Steinhauer), and so forth. The second half focuses more on ancient texts, such as the role of Marathon in fifth-century epigram (Ewen Bowie), Herodotus (Kurt Raaflaub), Aeschylus’ Persae (Maria Dimopoulou), and so on. One minor point I would like to raise is that paragraph headings are printed in the exact same font as regular paragraphs and with no vertical spacing, which is occasionally confusion and makes the text difficult to scan where you are looking for something in particular.

Of all the papers in this largely interesting volume, I think two are particularly noteworthy. Christoper Tuplin’s ‘Marathon: in search of a Persian dimension’ deals with a thorny issue: for the most part, we have to rely on Greek sources to reconstruct the Persian Wars. Where, he asks, can we get a better idea of how the Persians experienced them and Marathon in particular? Tuplin deals briefly with Persian documents and why these are generally unsuited for recording events such as the Battle of Marathon, before exploring other avenues to get a glimpse of the Persian side of things.

One point he raises is that Marathon was not an insignificant skirmish, but a major encounter of central importance to both the Greeks and Persians. However, I don’t believe this was the case at all, for reasons stated earlier. Burkhard Meissner’s ‘War as a learning-process: the Persian Wars and the transformation of fifth-century Greek warfare’, posits that the Greeks changed in some respects because of the Persian Wars. This in and of itself is perhaps not particularly surprising, and some of his conclusions are not original, but the overview itself is nevertheless interesting and worth a read.

Closing remarks

To sum up, these five books are each interesting in their own way. If you are interested in the Battle of Marathon, I can recommend Fink’s and Krentz’s books with no reservation. The books by Lacey and Billows are more problematic, because they espouse a particular viewpoint as regards the importance of the Battle of Marathon in particular, and the historical significance of ancient Greece in general. The edited volume on Marathon offers a large number of papers that cover a wide range of aspects, ranging from the topography of Marathon and the history of the village to the actual battle and texts. It is an interesting collection, not always especially inspiring to read, but certainly a worthwhile addition to your library.

Of course, this being the twenty-first century, I would be remiss to omit mentioning the material available on Jona Lendering’s website Livius.Org, which gives a good overview of the sources and their problems. His website offers a reliable summary and comments on Herodotus’ treatment of the Battle of Marathon. He also gives details as regards the expedition of Datis and Artaphernes and the fact that the Persian expedition to Athens wasn’t a punitive one: the Persians were, in fact, preparing to withdraw from Marathon when the Athenians attacked, having already achieved what they had set out to do, such as the conquest of Naxos and Delos and the subjugation of Euboea.

Dr Josho Brouwers is editor of Ancient Warfare magazine

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