What can anyone here tell me about Marathon? (Athenians and Plataians defeated Persians here in 490 BC, the Spartans arrived too late to fight, the story of the runner who expired upon reaching Athens probably an invention since it's not mentioned by any contemporary or near-contemporary.)
The plain of Marathon lies on a broad bay with long sandy beaches, perfect for landing an ancient invasion force. The water here is shallow. In the north the Kynosoura (dog's tail) peninsula bounds the bay, where the remains of fortification walls have been identified: the hills of the Pentelikon border the plain in the west. The land has changed much here since antiquity: where once there were marshes, now there are well-drained plains.
This is what Herodotos has to say about the battle - although the scholarly consensus on Herodotos' account is that he leaves much to be desired as a war correspondent.
"112. The lines were drawn up, and the sacrifices were favorable; so the Athenians were permitted to charge, and they advanced on the Persians at a run. There was not less than eight stades in the no man's-land between the two armies. The Persians, seeing them coming at a run, made ready to receive them; but they believed that the Athenians were possessed by some very desperate madness, seeing their small numbers and their running to meet their enemies without support of cavalry or archers. That was what the barbarians thought; but the Athenians, when they came to hand-to-hand fighting, fought right worthily. They were the first Greeks we know of to charge their enemy at a run and the first to face the sight of the Median dress and the men who wore it. For till then the Greeks were terrified even to hear the names of the Medes.
113. The fight at Marathon went on for a long time, and in the center the barbarians won, where the Persians themselves and the Sacae were stationed. At this point they won, and broke the Greeks, and pursued them inland. But on each wing the Athenians and the Plataeans were victorious, and, as they conquered, they let flee the part of the barbarian army they had routed, and, joining their two wings together, they fought the Persians who had broken their center; and then the Athenians won the day. As the Persians fled, the Greeks followed them, hacking at them, until they came to the sea. Then the Greeks called for fire and laid hold of the ships.
114. At this point of the struggle the polemarch [Callimachus] was killed, having proved himself a good man and true, and, of the generals, there died Stesilaus, son of Thrasylaus. And Cynegirus, the son of Euphorion, gripped with his hand the poop of one of the ships and had his hand chopped off with an axe and so died, and many renowned Athenians also.
115. In this fashion the Athenians captured seven of the ships. With the rest of the fleet, the barbarians, backing water, and taking from the island where they had left them the slaves from Eretria, rounded Cape Sunium, because they wished to get to Athens before the Athenians could reach it. There was a slander prevalent in Athens that they got this idea from a contrivance of the Alcmaeonidae, in accord with a covenant they had made with the Persians, showed a signal, the holding-up of a shield, for those barbarians who were on shipboard.
116. They rounded Sunium, all right; but the Athenians, rushing with all speed to defend their city, reached it first, before the barbarians came, and encamped, moving from one sanctuary of Heracles – the one at Marathon – to another, the one at Cynosarges. The barbarians anchored off Phalerum – for in those days that was the harbor of Athens – and, after riding at anchor there for a while, they sailed back, off to Asia.
117. In this battle of Marathon there died, of the barbarians, about six thousand four hundred men, and, of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two. Those were the numbers of the fallen on both sides."
The victory of the Athenians over the Persians here played a key role in establishing Athens' position as one of the, if not the premier poleis in Classical Greece. This is what we actually understand of the battle: The Athenians held the centre and the right wing, while the Plataians anchored the left wing. The Persians, deceived by a feigned retreat of the centre of the Athenian line, were drawn out of position and flanked by the wings of the Greek line. Surprised by the speed and force of the counterattack, they broke and ran for their ships, beached in the north of the bay. We should not be surprised that a numerically inferior force overcame a larger one: throughout history, the feigned retreat followed by a rapid counterattack has been frequently successful in breaking the momentum and the spirit of an unwary attacker.
After the battle, the fallen Greeks were buried in two tumuli. The 192 Athenians were buried together with mortuary gifts in a tumulus close to where the battle-lines were joined, while the Plataians were buried further west, at the point where they anchored the left wing of the battle-line. (An aside here: the right wing on the battle field is the place of honour and greater danger, because the opposing line has a tendency to sidle left if not rigidly dressed. Why left? Because the sharp pointy things are carried in the right hand of the opposite line, and sensible people prefer not walking into them. So the weight of the enemy attack often lands on the right wing.)
Who wants to tell me about hoplite warfare? No one? Okay, go look up the works of Phillip De Souza. UCD folks, you should be familiar with him. Stand up for the honour of your college and tell me who aren't remembered at Marathon.
Right. Light troops. Lightly armoured skirmishers. Anyone who didn't wear bronze armour. You know why, right? They weren't citizens, or if they were, they weren't part of the hoplite class. They might have been here, too, but if you ain't rich, you ain't nothing.
The Plataian grave mound lies on the road to the Museum. Both grave mounds have been excavated, and the mortuary offerings mostly consisted of weapons and pottery. The Athenian mound had marble stelai on it with the names of the fallen: the stele there at present is a modern imitation of a grave stele found in Athens dating from 510 BC.
The Greeks set up a trophy, a tropaion (turning-point) at the place where the enemy broke and ran. Or as close to it as they could guess, anyway. The remains of the Marathon tropaion are built into a medieval tower, which stood roughly in the middle of the plain, by the church of Panaghia Mesosporitissa (today off the road to Rhamnous).
The Athenian grave-mound at Marathon is not one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture ever. But it is not simple in its significance. It looks forward to the citizen-centred Athenian democracy of Perikles, and at the same time, back to the elite aristocratic ethos of the Archaic period. It commemorates a battle and a burial place, and in later times was a focus for hero-cult. But it is, no less than monuments to the dead of the World Wars, the Cenotaph in London, the Washington monument, a political monument, intimately connected with Athenian self-image. As a hero-cult, it also partook of the elements of ancestor-cult and of tomb cult: the dead of Marathon - and indeed the living: it is said of the tragedian Aeschylus that he would have no other memorial inscribed on his grave-marker than the fact he served at Marathon, and the veterans of Marathon, while they lived, were objects of an extraordinary amount of respect as a class - became the beau ideal of the Athenian polis: they fought for self-determination, eleutheria, the virtues of the new democracy against the tyrannical, barbarous Persian enemy. They beat the dirty foreigner, essentially.
And from at least the 1st century BC they received heroic honours and the attendant offerings. We may see the increased attention to the heroising of the Marathon dead as a response to Athenian national trauma: in 86BC, the Roman general Sulla sacked the city, and the streets, as I told you yesterday in the Kerameikos, ran red with blood.
If you want to know more about the tombs themselves and their relationship with hero cult, I direct your attention to James Whitley's 1994 article in the American Journal of Archaeology, available on JSTOR: "The Monuments That Stood Before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica."
But before we shuffle along to the museum exhibits, and thence to Gla and Osios Loukos, let's talk a little bit about the memory of Marathon. Anyone want to share their thoughts on that?
And please don't get Marathon confused with Thermopylae and the battle at Plataia. Those happen ten years later, in 480/479. This is the Persian emperor Darius, not Xerxes.
But Marathon is, in memory, intimately connected with those events. Its 2500-year anniversary occurred in 2010, and there was much analysing and talking and commemorating. Marathon, like Salamis, like Thermopylae, like the last days of Constantinople and the burly, moustachioed rebels of the Greek War of Independence and the fall of Mesolonghi, is part of the national self-image, the national myth of Greece. "We few, we lucky few, we band of brothers," turned back the attack of the evil empire. It is impressed into the public consciousness as a clash between the rational democratic Greek west and the superstitious, tyrannical, cruel Persian east - certainly until the latter half of the 20th century, it was consistently analysed even by scholars and academics in those terms. The Greeks won, and SO THE WEST WAS ENLIGHTENED...
That's a very rosy view of the Greeks and a very biased view of the Persians, so bear in mind, when you come across Grand Simple Historical Narratives like this, that the reality's much more complicated, and much less black-and-white. Robert Graves has a poem which probably represents the view from the Persian side of things. It's called "The Persian Version."
Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece - they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.
Edited Aug 2, 2012