Richard A. Billows
|Overlook Duckworth, New York, 2010, 304 pgs., illustrations, index, chronology, bibliography, glossary, genealogies, no footnotes but endnotes listing sources|
|I am delighted to read in the preface that the author immediately notes that the run of a messenger from the Marathon battlefield to Athens is a legend and a very late one, because I have never been able to find mention of this in Herodotus. Rather, the messenger was sent from Athens before the battle to Sparta asking for the Spartan assistance and completed that 150 miles in about 48 hours, quite a feat in itself. But immediately after the battle the Athenian army marched the 24-26 miles back to Athens in a few hours. The battle was a brief affair not well described by Herodotus and easily explained in a few pages, which it has been in numerous books. Thus, this book is mostly about the subtitle - the significance of Marathon for the development of Western Civilization. In this respect it bears comparison with the recent book on the later battle at Salamis, which is also claimed to be the decisive event saving Western Civilization. The author does give us his interesting extrapolation on the sketchy description of the battle as well as his strong claim that if the Athenians had lost the entire course of Western Civilization would have been altered totally. See references for discussion of alternate sources.|
|Introduction - the
Legend of Marathon - 27 pagesThe author elaborates on and supports his
thesis - stated in the book's subtitle. If the Athenians had lost at Marathon,
Athens would have been destroyed, the Persians would have conquered all of
Greece and there never would have been democracy, poems, plays, philosophy and
the flowering of Greek and hence Western culture as we know it. He depicts a
decidedly disastrous result for Athens and Greece - not merely temporary
destruction such as the city suffered in 480 but total subjugation of all of
Greece and then potential Persian expansion well into Europe. Without the
victory at Marathon Salamis would not have occurred. But not only that, without
Marathon there would have been no Western Civilization as we know it. So in
evaluating the rest of his book we must not only consider his description of
the battle alone but also most importantly consider if he adequately supports
this rather drastic thesis.
Dr. Billows then describes in detail the manner in which Marathon was celebrated by contemporary and subsequent generation Athenians - as an example of Athenian courage, no more. He then traces the 'legend' of Marathon into its expansion by Roman authors. He then shifts the scene to the "modern legend of Marathon". The battle again was seen at first as an example of Athenian courage. He credits a major shift in the appraisal to Edward Creasy's work, "The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World" published in 1851. This was among the very first books of military history I owned as a teenager in the 1940's and it indeed had an important impact. I used to set my model soldiers on a table and try to recreate the battle. Dr. Billows then includes the currently mandatory apology for Creasy's ( and general) European imperialism and eurocentricism before quoting at length Creasy's rationale for selecting Marathon over Salamis and Arbela as the first example of Western victory over 'Asia' enabling the entire subsequent development of Western Civilization. But Creasy did not elaborate on his opinion. Billows agrees with Creasy on the battle's significance, but has to interject again that this by no means indicates he wants to assert the value judgment that the subsequent Western civilization was superior or that its world-wide expansion was so great. Like it or not the view of the 'legend' of Marathon prevalent in Enlightenment and Victorian society had its influence on the advent of 'liberal' political and cultural ideas and policies.
He sets against this view the currently fashionable intellectual idea that battles and wars are not the decisive events of history. I agree with him that warfare has played a much more important role throughout history than many current academics like to imagine.
He then turns to the 'legend of the Marathon race' - a subject that has been of interest to me for years. This started in the philhellinism surrounding the development of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. This included interest in increased athletics and in reduced international military conflict. The author credits Michel Breal with suggesting to Baron Pierre de Coubertin the idea of staging a 'reenactment' of the legendary run of Philippides from Marathon to Athens as a centerpiece of the new games as a way to generate increased popular interest. He even provides two photos of the initial race and its winner. He stresses that the current expansion of 'marathon runs' has nothing to do with the real battle or the subsequent march home of the Athenian army. But he longs for a proper Hollywood treatment of this most significant battle.
|Chapter One - The
Ancient Greeks - 51 pages The longest chapter in the book - it describes
Greek society from the time of Homer and especially notes the impact of Homer
on Greek culture. Professor Billows stresses the warlike ethos in Homer's poems
and the competitive Greek culture. He continues with Hesiod whose heroes were
small farmers. He notes, "On the one hand, the extraordinary military,
political, and cultural achievements for which the ancient Greeks have been
admired through history were motivated by mutual competition. On the other
hand, the constant violence that marred Greek history - endless warfare between
Greek cities and frequent civil strife within Greek cities - came from that
same intense competitiveness." Further, he notes, "By the time the
Persian Empire arose in the middle of the sixth century B.C. and began to
encroach on and try to subject the Greeks and Greek lands, the Greeks had more
than 150 years of mutual warfare behind them, inuring them to the hardships and
dangers of battle and teaching them a very effective military system. On the
other hand the mutual hatreds of the Greeks were a weakness the Persians could
and did attempt to exploit, in the classic strategy of 'divide and rule'.
Again, therefore, I want to emphasize that the Homeric value system and the
competitive and martial society and values it fostered were both a source of
strength and a source of weakness for the Greeks, and it was very much open to
question whether the strength or the weakness would prevail."
The author's point of course is that subsequent to a loss at Marathon the Greek 'weakness' would have prevented the development of Western Civilization. The description is very true, but the conclusion drawn from it is doubtful. For one thing, note that the Romans exploited the very same Greek disunity and ended Greek independent political life - for that matter Philip of Macedon had done likewise centuries earlier. But neither ended Greek cultural expansion, rather they both copied it. There is no reason to imagine that Greek warlike nature and desire for independence would have ended with a loss at Marathon. Considering the number of Greeks at the Persian court and the increasing numbers both at court and in the Persian army after Marathon, one might imagine that Greek values might have gradually had an influence even in Persia - just as the Greeks themselves, as the author notes, assimilated cultural developments from Persia and Egypt.
In this chapter the author also includes an excellent summary description of the development of Greek 'hoplite' warfare. In this section he also notes that Greek heavily armed hoplites already served in Egyptian and Babylonian armies long before Marathon. He also expands on the topics of Greek economic and cultural developments. He notes the rather widespread and lengthy development of major elements of Greek culture well before the ascendancy of Athens or Marathon battle. But I am amazed to read his comment that it was Xenophanes who first espoused a monotheistic theology that was 'borrowed' by the Jewish religion. He continues with a discussion of the uniqueness of Sparta. It is an excellent and relatively lengthy discussion, but I think rather tangential to the book's topic.
All in all I think this chapter rather disproves rather than supports the author's purpose.
|Chapter Two - The
Persian Empire - 32 pages This is a straight forward narrative of the
development and expansion of the Persian Empire giving attention to the role of
Cyrus. The empire was multi-ethnic and composed of a heterogeneous mixture of
peoples having different religions, economic systems and local political
traditions. The Greek cities along the Aegean coast were a relatively new
acquisition and a rebellious one by nature. The author notes the rebellions
that Darius faced. He describes Darius' campaigns into Thrace and across the
Danube against the Scythians. He notes the important role the Ionian Greeks
played in this campaign. He supplies Herodotus's listing of the 20 provinces
paying tribute to the Persian throne. He also gives a clear description of the
The author's unstated theme in this chapter is the military and political strength of the Persian Empire. But I am not convinced. Both the manner in which this empire was created by Cyrus and others and its history subsequent to 490 BC lead me to believe that a Persian victory at Marathon would not have prevented its fragmentation and especially the growth of Greek culture both within and outside whatever territories the Persian king of kings managed to control.
|Chapter Three - The
Athenian State - 32 pages This chapter is an excellent summary of the
development of democracy in Athens. On the surface this appears to be a
digression. But the author's purpose is to show that Athenian democracy was of
very recent vintage in 490 B. C. and was fragile as well as unique. The
unstated point is to support the contention that if Athens had lost at Marathon
there would have been no Western Civilization as it came to be. in this sense
the chapter is central to his argument. It was recent and fragile indeed, but
not so unique as Billows writes. There were over 1000 Greek cities -
communities - stretched all over the Med basin and into the Black Sea. And
Grundy wrote that 'democracy' itself as a political concept and policy came
from Sicily. Billows makes a big point out of the 'reforms' instituted by
Kleisthenes, and also writes that he "deserves to be much more famous in
Western civilization than he is" for instituting democracy. But it seems
to me that he is well discussed in the standard books on Greek history. For
instance, de Selincourt notes "but the real architect of that democracy
was Kleisthenes". Grundy and others view Kleisthenes likewise. It appears
that this emphasis on Kleisthenes is due to a desire to indicate that Athenian
'democracy' and political organization was new.
The author continually refers to Greek 'city-states' and uses the term ''state' repeatedly. But I believe this term, which is indeed in common usage for ancient Greece and Rome, is misleading for the modern reader. It connotes a form of polity that is modern. The Greek communities are better designated as 'societies' and their local governments were closer to what we call a 'home owner's association' today than to the modern state. The modern state is an abstract concept first thought of in the late 15th century after which it went through several developmental transformations before becoming the 'nation-state - or welfare state' we have today.
|Chapter Four - The
Conflict between Persia and Greece - 28 pages The author describes the
immediate causes of the conflict and how Athens became involved in the revolt
of the Ionian Greek cities against the Persian empire. He begins with a brief
description of the first Persian contact with the Ionian Greeks during the
reign of Cyrus. He writes that Cyrus's general, Harpagos, captured each of
these by use of siege ramps. But many of these Greeks chose to emigrate rather
than become Persian subjects. Others served as mercenary soldiers either in the
Persian army or in its opponents (Babylonian and Egyptian). The author's
narrative continues through the reign of Darius, the gradual Persian conquest
of the islands, and then the Ionian Revolt. It was the Athenian assistance to
this revolt that brought on the Persian decision to attack Athens and Eretria.
The first campaign was in 492 BC - a crossing of the Hellespont and marching
along the coast of Thrace and Macedonia toward Greece. This campaign was
aborted after the Persian navy (Phonencian and Ionian Greek) was destroyed in a
Note that in the course of this expedition Mardonios (the Persian commander) established locally governed, more-or-less democratic regimes in the Ionian Greek towns. A point that I believe contradicts the author's thesis. The second campaign was in 490. This time the Persian army was taken on board ships and sailed directly to Naxos and then Eretria. This force was led by Datis and Artaphernes. Professor Billows describes this campaign in detail. He notes that Herodotus's estimate for the size of the Persian army is greatly inflated. His reasonable estimate is about 25,000 infantry and several thousand cavalry. He describes the Persian siege of Eretria and notes that the city was captured after days of unsuccessful assault due to treason, when Euphorbos opened the city gates. This is not a strong showing by the Persians. The chapter ends with the Persians preparing to cross from Euboia to Attica.
We learn too, that Miltiades was an Athenian governor in Chersonnese who had extensive personal experience with the Persian army and who fled back to Athens when the Persians first occupied the northern regions of Thrace, Macedonia and Greece.
|Chapter Five - The
Battle - 30 pages - The only full ancient account of the battle is in
Herodotus and it is insufficient to answer some important questions. As usual
Herodotus' estimates of strength figures are doubtful. Dr. Billows provides his
answers and explains them well. Among these questions are the following:
Why did the Persians land at the plain of Marathon rather than directly on the coast adjacent to Athens city? The author notes that Herodotus indicated that Hippias, who remembered the campaign nearly 60 years prior, recommended this site. But Dr. Billows discounts this and states that the decision was strictly that of Datis and Artaphernes. Well, of course the decision was that of the Persian commanders, but they surely took consideration of local sources of intelligence since they had no prior personal knowledge of the terrain. Moreover, the plain was more ideal for their cavalry than any other potential landing place. And it was about half way down the channel from Eretria, thus affording a close connection to logistics base on Euboia.
Why did the Athenians deploy where they did prior to the battle? The author notes the two alternative courses of action open to the Athenians - remain in the city and defend the walls while awaiting re-enforcements from Sparta and other cities - or march out toward Marathon and hope to give battle in the field. He gives us Miltiades' recommendation - to march out - and the cogent reasons for it. Miltiades knew from experience the right decision and apparently the Athenians trusted in his experience. We don't know what the actual strength of the Athenian city fortifications were at this point nor how effective a Persian siege might have been during the limited time before the expected arrival of Spartan and other Greek troops would seriously endanger a besieging army.
Why did they decide to launch an attack when they did?
Why is there no mention of a significant role for Persian cavalry during the battle? The author believes the cavalry was already re-embarked prior to the battle. This seems to be a logical answer. Others guess the horses may have been at some distance foraging.
Did the Athenian army actually 'run' a mile or more in their attack on the Persians? No, they did not, could not while wearing heavy armor and maintaining formation, and did not need to as the range of Persian archery was no more than 200 yards. They could and did advance at something approaching a run for this final distance.
How did the Persian fleet ( or some of it) reach Athens on the late afternoon of the same day? A portion of the Persian army (including the cavalry) was embarked on ships early in the morning and therefore at standard rate of rowing could reach Athens by nightfall.
How did the Athenian army also reach the coast near Athens on the same afternoon as the battle? The battle took place in early morning. It was over before noon. Two units were left on the battlefield to police up and eight walked briskly back using two roads through mountain passes to reach the city just as the Persian fleet appeared. While the author does note in his description of the initial Athenian army move to Marathon that there would have been some thousands of light infantry, servants, and slaves along with the warriors, he does not think to mention the likelihood that these servants would have assisted the hoplites, as they always did, during this march by helping to carry the armor and equipment when the army was out of contact. He does note that individual researchers confirm that this move can be made in 6 or 7 hours.
Of course these questions beg the main question - could the Persians have actually won the battle anyway? It appears to me that the entire history of battles between the heavily armored Greeks and the unarmored Persian archer infantry shows that at a ratio of 2.5 to 1 in a battle on a plain where the Greeks could not be easily surrounded the Persians didn't have a chance.
|Chapter Six - The
Consequences - 26 pages - Finally we come to the author's effort to
state his thesis fully and justify it. He believes that if the Persians had won
the Marathon battle they would have quickly captured Athens and then deported
all or a majority of its citizens. This is despite the fact that the exiled
Athenian former tyrant, Hippias, accompanied the Persians and theoretically was
seeking merely to be re-established as ruler. Moreover, he claims, the defeat
of Athens at that particular stage would have inexorably resulted in the defeat
of all other Greeks. Dr Billows then gives an extensive listing of the famous
Athenians (sculptors, poets, dramatists, philosophers, authors of every kind,
et cetera) whose names we recognize as important founders, originators or
creators of various genre fundamental to Western Civilization. Thus Q.E.D.
Western Civilization could not have become what it became without these seminal
We can grant him all this. This means that the specific ideas mentioned could not have come from any other human brains. But he does not discuss in any way the subsequent reality or potential varieties of history. First, the Persian Empire, as he describes it himself, was fragile, full of rebellions (especially by Greeks) and highly diversified and localized. Thus, while subsequent flowering of all these elements of civilization would not have been associated with these specific names, he does not prove that they could not have been the product of other geniuses. Second, he ignores the information he provides himself about the widespread notions of democracy and independence in the thousand and more Greek societies. Third, he does not consider the potentials existing in other European peoples, Romans, Celts, Teutonic tribes. Surely the ideas described cannot be ascribed as exclusively Greek in the full course of human development. Fourth, he does not mention that democracy, for instance, was snuffed out in Greece and the Hellenistic world for centuries and did not flourish. Yes, when democracy was again tried by Italian cities and northern Europeans many centuries later, it was of interest to them to recall what they gradually learned about Classical Greece, but this knowledge was not essential to their experimentation.
Among his many assertions this one may be the most radical.
"It can be seriously doubted whether Europeans and Americans would live under governing systems called democracies today." Well, this might be technically correct from a linguistic point of view in that both 'demos' and 'cracy' are Greek roots so 'democracy' might not be the name if what we know as democracy today stemmed from other linguistic sources as does for instance 'republic' but it seems the author is indulging in word manipulation by the inference he seeks to draw that our form of government itself could not exist.
He continues, "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 just on classical Greek history, but on the history and culture of all of Western civilization would have been huge: everything would have been different." Well, yes, the events of every year set a course that is followed by the subsequent year. But this generalization, in my opinion, is stretching determinism too far. We might just as easily imagine that if the mass of Greeks developing within the Persian region had expanded they might have altered the course of history by bringing their ideas to flourish there and altered the course of history in the Middle East. We can realize that Professor Billows is a hellenophile but he also seems to have a rather negative view of the rest of mankind.
To be fair, other students of Greek history have written the same general view. For instance, de Selincourt wrote, "Marathon, Salamis and Plataea can be numbered amongst the decisive battles of the world, if only because they gave to the subsequent course of western civilization a direction which in spite of many hesitancies and deviations we are still trying to follow." And "If Darius or Xerxes had succeeded in overrunning Greece, the subsequent history of the west would have been very different."
Finally, Professor Billows' thesis rests on two assumptions that he does nothing to prove or disprove, namely - that no other Greeks residing in the thousands of other cities, even those under the relatively loose Persian hegemony, could have conceived the brilliant ideas which we ascribe to Athenians and others now. And likewise that these ideas, especially freedom, self-government, and the role of individuals could not have been developed by non-Greek western societies. It seems to me that the history of the several hundred years following Marathon indicates that there would have been more revolts, more opportunities for 'democratic' thinking even if Persia had maintained some control, which I doubt it could have.