Victory At Marathon Saved A Lot More Than A Race

Richard Billows i i

hide captionAuthor Richard A. Billows reaches back 2,500 years to ancient Greece for his new book, Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization.

Overlook Hardcovers
Richard Billows

Author Richard A. Billows reaches back 2,500 years to ancient Greece for his new book, Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization.

Overlook Hardcovers

The story's a classic: An outnumbered band of Athenians pushes back the mighty Persian army. But the battle of Marathon, 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, left a legacy that extends far beyond the name of a famous race.

Historian Richard Billows explores the legendary battle in his new book, Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization. He writes that in a single day in 490 B.C., the Athenians managed to save their nascent democracy and change the course of civilization.

Billows tells NPR's Guy Raz that if the Athenians had lost the battle, the city of Athens would have been destroyed and democracy might never have flourished.

A Miraculous Victory

When the Persians arrived at the plains of Marathon, the Athenians took to the foothills and held off the Persians for two days.

"It was in a position where if the Persians had tried to attack them, they would have had to advance uphill against a force established in a defended position," Billows says.

The battle itself lasted just two hours and led to what Billows calls a "miraculous victory" for the Athenians. He says for two generations, the Persians had conquered empire after empire without ever seeing defeat.

"They were seen as this invincible juggernaut that really couldn't be stopped and yet this one tiny city state — the Athenians — dared to put its army of about 10,000 men up against these Persians. I think [they] themselves probably [were] not really thinking they could win, but determined not to go down without a fight."

How Democracy Shaped The Battle

Billows argues that the empowering sense of democracy could explain the Greek victory at Marathon.

Athenians saw themselves as participating members of their society, and the army was voluntary and egalitarian. Every soldier fought at his own expense, paid for his own equipment and upkeep.

"They felt that this community, because of the democratic system, was theirs," Billows says. "It was that sense of this is ours, this community, this political state that we've created is our thing."

The Speed March

The marathon — the race named after that battle — was inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, who is remembered for running 25 or so miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Persian defeat. But Billows says that story is a bit more complicated.

When the Persians arrived, he says, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for Spartan help, then he ran all the way back — a total distance of 280 miles.

Billows' research shows that it was the Athenian army itself that made the 25-mile trek back from Marathon to Athens. Without that "speed-march," he says, Persian ships could have swept into an unguarded Athens. And even though the Athenians won the battle of Marathon, they could have lost the war.

Excerpt: 'Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization'

Marathon: The Battle That Changed Western Civilization
Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization
By Richard A. Billows
Hardcover, 304 pages
Overlook Hardcover
List price: $30

The initial distance between the two armies, Herodotos tells us, was about eight stades, which is also about one mile. Apparently, therefore, the Persian forces that remained at Marathon had advanced into the open southern part of the plain at dawn, no doubt to cover the departure of the ships and counter any Athenian move. The Persian center, which was considered the place of honor in their army, was manned by the elite infantry of the expedition: Persians and related Iranian Saka infantry, with units drawn from subject peoples making up the two wings. Virtually all of the Persian cavalry were apparently aboard the ships, since no cavalry appear in accounts of the fighting; though the frieze of the Nike temple on the Akropolis may indicate that a few Persian cavalry did remain and fight in the battle.

Herodotos gives the impression that the Athenians covered the entire eight stades distance between the armies at a run, but this cannot have been correct. Though scholars have argued over whether it would have been possible for fully armored hoplites to run a mile to give battle, possibility is really beside the point: it would have made no sense to do it. Why should the Athenians exhaust themselves running hundreds of meters in full armor (and in heat of August!) and risking total disruption of their phalanx formation, when Persian bows were only effective at around 150 meters? Even historians who argue that the Athenians ran the last 200 meters, therefore, exaggerate: it is only the final 150 meters or so that will have exposed the Athenian and Plataian hoplites to seriously dangerous bow fire, and only the most necessary distance will have been run.

Assuming that the Athenian army began to leave camp and deploy into the plain at or very shortly after dawn—which will have occurred around 6:30 a.m. on August 11—the battle will likely have begun between eight and nine o'clock in the morning. The Athenian polemarchos Kallimachos will have ordered his salpinktes (trumpeter) to sound the signal to advance, and that signal will have been taken up successively by trumpeters along the line until it reached the left wing. Starting from the right, then, the entire mile-long line will have begun to march forward at a steady pace, line by line, the men doing their best to maintain the cohesion of the lines as they walked over unevennesses in the ground and negotiated minor obstacles.

As they walked forward, the entire army will have begun to chant the simple hymn in honor of Apollo as protector and bringer of victory called the paian. Every Greek state had its particular version of the paian. The effect was to foster among the men, as they advanced into the fearful act of battle, a sense of cohesion and common purpose, to still the fears and settle the nerves. One can imagine the sound of 10,000 men walking steadily forward chanting the paian by listening to a British football or rugby crowd singing together to urge on their teams—the fans of Liverpool F.C. singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for example, or the Welsh rugby fans at Cardiff singing “Land of my Fathers”—or in an American context, the fight songs sung by thousands of students at their universities’ football games.

As they drew closer to the enemy, the singing of the paian ceased and men took up the yelling of war cries—typically a wordless cry of “Eleleu! Eleleu!” for example—the purpose of which was to screw up one’s courage and strike fear in the enemy. As they yelled in this way, and as the first Persian arrows began to rattle down among them, Kallimachos will have ordered his trumpeter to sound the signal to run, and as the trumpeters down the line repeated that signal, the Athenians and Plataians increased their pace from a steady walk to a brisk run, shields held up and out to avoid banging against their legs and (hopefully) to protect against arrows, spears held high at the ready to thrust down at the Persian front rank as soon as they came within reach.

From the Persian perspective, the sight must have been fearful: a vast mass of bronze-clad men, made seemingly taller and more fearsome by the tall crests waving above their helmets, their heads entirely covered by those gleaming bronze helmets, their bodies hidden by huge bronze-faced shields, charging towards them at a run, yelling at the tops of their voices. Arriving at the Persian front line at such speed, the Greeks must have literally crashed into the lightly armored and wicker-shielded Persians with a terrible impact, and the initial harm to the Persians, in men knocked over and/or wounded or killed by spear thrusts, must have been great—especially on the wings. It seems likely, in fact, that the Athenian center, only half the depth of the wings, was held back somewhat: the Athenian strategy, after all, was for the wings to defeat the Persians in their parts of the battle first, while the Athenian center tried to hold its ground against severe odds. In the center, therefore, the fight likely began a little later than on the wings, and there it was the Persians who piled pressure on the Athenians.

It’s certain that the Persians fought well, in spite of the initial shock of the Athenian charge. The Persians were a proud military people who had conquered a great empire and rightly enjoyed a reputation for valor and invincibility. They stood their ground in spite of heavy initial losses and fought back hard. In the center, indeed, the battle seemed to be going their way, as their superior numbers told, and they began to push back the thin line of Athenians. The two tribal regiments in the Athenian center had a terrible time of it, in fact, giving ground and, according to our sources, very nearly breaking. Legends arose around this desperate fight in the center: according to one, a huge warrior in archaic equipment appeared out of nowhere right where the pressure on the Athenians was greatest, wielding a club rather than a spear, and rallying the Athenians to stand and hold their line. This was supposed to have been the great Athenian hero Theseus, rising from his grave to defend his people at their hour of greatest need. This legend indicates to us how desperate the fight was for the thin ranks in the Athenian center.

But telling the story of the battle in this way, the armchair historian’s way of calm, rational, bloodless, almost antiseptic narrative, can’t possibly give a full and fair sense of what the battle was really like. We should try to imagine how it will have seemed to an Athenian hoplite as it happened. Awakened in the hour before dawn with news he must prepare for battle—if indeed he hadn’t awakened even earlier from the buzz around the camp of important news come in and the generals debating what to do—he had to take an early breakfast and check and strap on his armor. Many men must have found it hard to choke down their food, nerves unsettling their stomachs in anticipation of risking their lives, but the older men and officers will have been encouraging everyone to eat and drink properly. Strapping on his cuirass; snapping on his greaves; slinging the strap of the short sword across his torso, the sword hanging neatly against his left hip; placing the helmet on the crown of his head, ready to be pulled down over his face once the march towards the enemy began; hefting up the huge shield to slide his left arm through the central grip, grasp the hand grip, and settle the rim of the shield on his left shoulder; and finally taking up the eight-foot-long spear and settling his grip in just the right spot to hold it nicely balanced; his nerves must have been jangling the entire time as his imagination worked on the thought of facing the dreaded Mede. Around him was the bustle and hubbub of nearly 10,000 fellow Athenians preparing in the same way. Then he had to find his place in his line and file of his tribal regiment, and as the pre-dawn dark and chill gave way to the light and warmth of an early August morning, he marched down into the plain.

The mass of men around him, marching in the same rhythm, wearing the same equipment, ready to fight for the same cause must have been a comfort, and no doubt the sheer act of marching in unison, of moving, will have settled his nerves a bit. Then came the trumpeting and shouting of orders as the regiments wheeled from column of march into line of battle, and with it the front-rank hoplite will have gotten his first clear sight, through the eye-holes of his now pulled-down helmet, of the massed Persian ranks. Thousands upon thousands of strange-looking men, wearing trousers rather than tunics, and other exotic gear, must have started up the nerves again.

A crowd, especially a hostile crowd, is apt to seem bigger, more numerous than it really is; and in this case the Persians undoubtedly outnumbered the Greeks, perhaps by as much as two to one. The steadying influence of the paian, the uplifting sense of thousands of fellows around one, moving with one, united in purpose, and of a god being called on who would stand by one if one showed oneself worthy: all this must have played its part in keeping our hoplite calm enough and focused enough to march steadily forward towards the danger in front of him. Then came the rattling of arrows dropping from the skies amongst his ranks, the occasional grunts or cries of a man being hit, the trumpet signal to start the run, and the lung-searing run itself with sixty or more pounds of equipment strapped to the body or held in the hands to make it more difficult. That run forward, likely a clumsy, at times stumbling run, over less than even terrain, must have started the adrenaline pumping, and it may have been with surprise that our hoplite would have noticed that he was yelling at the top of his voice as he charged.

The crash into the Persian ranks began the battle proper, and the concern amidst the panting, the din, the commotion, was to stab at and into any Persians one glimpsed, while keeping the shield well up and in front to ward off enemy blows. It’s hard for modern Western man to imagine what battle in the days of thrusting and cutting weapons, of hand-to-hand combat in massed formations, will have been like. It involved all the senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch—and those senses were sharpened by fear, by exhilaration, by adrenaline. The nearest modern man may get to that experience is not modern battle, with its small units, dispersed formations, and firearm weapons causing death or injury to come unseen from almost any direction and often from great distances. It is rather the experience of being in a huge crowd that gives way to commotion: a demonstration crowd, perhaps, confronting a formation of police and surging to and fro under police baton charges, or the water cannon, or charges of mounted police.

Excerpted from Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization by Richard A. Billows. Copyright 2010 by Richard A. Billows. Excerpted by permission of Overlook Hardcovers. All rights reserved.

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