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The 'Clash' At Marathon Shaped Greece, And The West

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The 'Clash' At Marathon Shaped Greece, And The West

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The 'Clash' At Marathon Shaped Greece, And The West

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Jim Lacey is just back from a trip to Afghanistan, which is, of course, the most recent conflict between Western and Asian forces. He's also just out with a new history of the first, the Battle of Marathon, where 10,000 Athenians savaged a much larger Persian army, then ran all the way home to preserve their victory.

Along the way, he asks a number of questions: Does history give the wrong commander credit for the victory? Why didn't the Athenians wait for their Spartan allies? How did an outnumbered militia defeat seasoned professionals? Can infantrymen really run 26 miles in armor after a battle? And maybe the most important of all: Did the fate of Western civilization really hinge on one day's battle?

Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review on questions of fact in nonfiction, and Marie Colvin will join us with an update from Misrata.

But first, Jim Lacey, professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. His new book is "The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory At Marathon And Its Impact On Western Civilization." He joins us here in Studio 3A.

Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Lieutenant Colonel JIM LACEY (Professor of Strategic Studies, Marine Corps War College; Author, "The First Clash"): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And you know the argument that even had the Persians gone on to destroy Athens, the forces that created democracy and Western culture would have emerged anyway.

Lt. Col. LACEY: I find that hard to believe. I don't see how forces -you know, maybe Socrates would have been born, maybe Aristotle would have been born, but they would born under a tyranny. The entire structure of their society would have changed.

I cannot possibly believe that democratic institutions such as those that had been developed in Athens in the generation or two generations prior to the Persian invasion could possibly have survived. And, you know, to believe that, you'd have to say it would have infected the Persian Empire.

Tyrannies have a way of stomping out that kind of opposition. That it formed in Greece is pretty much a miracle in itself. It was basically a combat between tyrants and one tyrant trying to outdo the other, gave a lot of people who previously had not had the right to vote a right to vote.

Plus they created an economic system where a whole bunch of farmers suddenly had their own plots of land. The great nobles had their land taken away, the original Athenian nobles, and it was given to basically an underprivileged class, bringing them into I guess the ancient equivalent of the - of a middle-class system, put them into the hoplite class, where they had something to lose.

This would have been inimical to anything that the Persians would have brought.

CONAN: Of course history being written by the victors, the Athenians and then the historians of Athens did not paint a pretty picture of the Persian Empire, but was it really so tyrannical? Was it so bad?

Lt. Col. LACEY: Defining bad, I mean, there's the normal state of any nation for the past 3,000 years of history has been a tyrant, a king or a dictator, somebody in charge at the beginning. In that respect, probably not, not as bad as some empires or some tyrannies in the past, but it was not conducive to the creation of democratic institutions or a market economic system.

In fact, the founder of the Persian Empire held both in contempt, and said as much when he found out what - how the Greeks governed themselves and how they traded, that he would never have any truck with that.

Could democracy have come along 500 years or 1,000 years later? Possibly. The human will to be free is pretty strong. It's shown itself over periods of time. What you would not have had is the flowering of Greek culture and Greek civilization that fed right into the Roman civilization and became the basis of our political philosophy and our regular philosophy today.

Most of that would have been lost or extinguished. Would it have been created by someone else 500 or 1,000 years later? Maybe, but we're not -obviously it would not have been the same.

CONAN: OK. The other questions that linger about Marathon, one of them is the Persian army that conquered everybody it had ever met in Asia, including Greek city-states who fought with hoplite soldiers, the heavily-armored infantry that Athens featured at the Battle of Marathon.

And this army that was sent to conquer Athens and punish Athens for its part in supporting some of those Greek city-states in Asia Minor, well, this was the wonder of the world at the time.

Lt. Col. LACEY: It pretty much was. This was a veteran army they had sent. First - you know, over the years, because the Persians got beat by the Greeks on a regular schedule almost it seemed, 10 years later at Salamis, Plataea, you know, eventually Alexander the Greek reckoned the entire Persian Empire, a tradition.

It started by the Greeks themselves. I mean, the writings of Xenophon made the Persian Empire seem a bit effete, you know, no one has to answer the question: How did - in the most warlike area of the world, how did - you know, where the Assyrians were the previous masters of that region - and the Assyrians have gone down in history as the most bloodthirsty and violent, vicious empire ever - how did they not only survive but conquer?

They were a superior force in the environment they had to fight in: open steppes, open plains, in the deserts with their cavalry and their archers, nothing could stand up against them. They were a highly professional force, and they knew how to fight in that kind of environment.

They had beaten the Ionian cities, but there's really no evidence that they had ever taken on a hoplite army. They may have fought one hoplite battle against the - one of the Ionian cities during the revolts just prior to Marathon, but even then they managed to - it wasn't a big army, and they managed to catch it out on the open.

And those guys, the Persians who had actually fought that battle were pretty much massacred a little later on in their invasion of the - by the Carians.

So there wasn't a lot of experience in that army on how to fight hoplites. And then in Marathon, you were fighting in an area where the hoplites were dominant. It was a closed-in box. There wasn't a lot of room for calvary(ph) to maneuver, assuming the Persians had calvary there. I do. That's still a matter of dispute.

CONAN: A lot of debates about who was exactly there and who was exactly where.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Right. Herodotus didn't leave us a lot of information. Some things you have to assume. Since the Persians never fought without calvary, it's - and we know they took calvary on the expedition - I think it can safely assumed they had calvary on that battlefield.

Herodotus may not have mentioned it because everyone just assumed they had calvary on the battlefield, but in a tight box, a phalanx of fully, heavily-armored men coming at you like a steamroller, where you have no room to get on their flanks, would just crush everything before it. There were not heavily-armed infantrymen in front of them.

CONAN: So the Persians had wicker shields.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Wicker shields, as opposed to...

CONAN: And these are the Greeks with heavy wooden shields, sheathed in armor, in metal, and then of course the Greeks wore the greaves and the breastplate and the helmet, too, very heavy, very awkward to wear in battle but very - protected you pretty well against instruments of that period.

Lt. Col. LACEY: It does protect you very well, and there was - once the Greeks had made contact with the Persian line, it was almost a foregone conclusion.

CONAN: Well, once they made contact with the Persian line. The principle Persian instrument was the archers, and they would fire over their frontlines, you know, arching fire and fall on the other guys' troops. And why didn't the archers make a difference in this battle? The Athenians didn't have any.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Well, the Athenians may have had a few but not many. First of all, the archers had never seen an attack like this. This has been a matter of historical debate since Herodotus wrote it, probably, but he says they ran eight stades(ph), which is almost a mile.

I don't really believe anybody can run with 35 pounds of armor and a shield for an entire mile, but you can move pretty quickly. Most historians have tended to discount this, but, as I said, I was an infantry guy, and I remember doing a lot of physical fitness stuff when I was a young man in full body armor, full rucks(ph), going on rucksack runs for five, six miles at a time.

I remember Colonel Frank H. Akers thought that was one of his favorite things to do. Every Friday, all of his officers would form up, put on rucksacks and run for five or six miles. You're not going very fast, but we still called them runs.

They were going fast enough to force the Persians to mistime their arrow shots. Persians probably figured they'd get three or four shots off. They probably only got one before the phalanx was on top of them, and even then, most of the arrows would have hit shields or armor or breastplates. If they took down 10 guys, I would - 10 or 20 guys out of the 192 the Greeks lost that day, I would assume they were doing well.

And then this armored steamroller hit the Persian line. Even if they had calvary, there's nothing calvary can do against - especially before stirrups, they didn't have shock action - the calvary could do against a phalanx.

A horse will not run into a wall of spears. It doesn't matter how brave the Persian on top is. It's the bravery of the horse that counts. Horses just won't do it.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Paul(ph) in Grand Rapids: By this writer's logic, does the same argument apply to any other single threat that Athens or democracy ever faced? For example, could a figure like Socrates have been born in a Spartan society had the Peloponnesian War been lost? Could a figure like Thomas Jefferson have been born in a constitutional monarchy had the American Revolution been lost? Why the focus on the Battle of Marathon?

Of course, both Socrates was born before the Peloponnesian War and Thomas Jefferson before the Revolution. But anyway, I think you get the point.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Yes, maybe all these gentlemen would have been born. And I mean we're not going to solve the great-men-of-history argument today. It still wages - rages everywhere, in academia, everywhere you turn. Did the great make circumstances and make history, or did they take advantage of circumstances in history? Is the tides of history too strong for any one man to make any kind of difference?

Thomas Jefferson, if he was born in a non-revolutionary period, would he have been a great man? He may have been. But, you know, if a - how many Thomas Jeffersons survived Stalin's regime? How many great - you know, how many great democrats were alive in 1933 to '40 in Hitler's regime?

The circumstances in which these people were born and raised has a lot to do with it. Revolting against a civilized power, country like England is completely different than revolting against the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Thomas Jefferson, if he was found, he would have been tried, maybe put -maybe even hanged. It would have ended there. Stalin would have wiped out entire cities to get at the culprits and their supporters.

CONAN: Our guest is James Lacey. His new book is "The First Clash," about the Battle of Marathon 2,500 years ago. We'll have more with him in a moment, also hear more about his recent trip in Afghanistan. So stay with us. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us,

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

As the fifth century BC began, the Persian Empire was the world's dominant power, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, to India. But the Persian king did not control Athens.

Taking it on seemed a relatively small matter, though. So when Persian troops confronted a vastly outnumbered Athenian army at Marathon in 490 BC, the Persians assumed the Athenians were bluffing or just plain mad.

You can read James Lacey's account of the raging battle in an excerpt from the book, "The First Clash," on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you questions for James Lacey about the Battle of Marathon, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us:

Let's see if we can get some callers back in on the conversation. And let's go to Michael, Michael with us from Sacramento.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: Well, I'm a professor of world history at Sacramento State, and one of the things that is striking me about this conversation is the really Eurocentric and teleological view of Athenian democracy.

Athens was a city-state where, what, maybe 15, 20 percent of the population were citizens, vast numbers of slaves, extremely unjust treatment for women. It was really not a golden age by any standards of social justice.

And if you contrast that with the thriving multiculturalism of the Persian Empire, I would have rather lived in the Persian Empire. And this view of evil Persia and glorious Athens really just seems like some sort of Frank Miller, Orientalist fantasy.

CONAN: Frank Miller, the author of "300." But go ahead, Jim Lacey.

Lt. Col. LACEY: I never said and never intended to say and will never say that the Persian Empire was an evil empire, by any means. It was an empire. There's many cases in my book where we talk about the Athenians not being a truly representative democratic society.

What they were was a forerunner of what became a truly representative democratic society. The Spartans, who did not get credit of much democracy, were much more liberal in how they treated women and letting them own property, letting them read and teaching to read and write, letting them remarry if their husbands were away at war at any one time(ph). numerous places that they were far superior to Athens, where if you even mentioned an Athenian woman's name outside of the family, it was considered a mortal insult. From puberty on, they were locked away from society.

Having said that, we - Athens provided the fertile soil on which the ideas of democracy can grow. This is - you know, we can argue about multiculturalism and the multicultural Persian Empire. Is wasn't - the word empire is the nominative word. If most of those other cultures within that empire were given a choice, they would break away and go their own way. They were kept in line by a Persian army. When Darius took the throne, he spent his entire first year conquering - re-conquering cities and crushing revolts.

MICHAEL: Yeah, absolutely. Although the Athenians, after they win the battle, start building their own empire as the Delian League, and...

CONAN: Not after that battle. That was after the second...

Lt. Col. LACEY: That was 10 years later.

CONAN: That was 10 years later, yeah.

MICHAEL: I'm sorry...

CONAN: That was 10 years later, after the second Persian invasion. But go ahead.

MICHAEL: Right, right, but they - the Athenians, once they have power, start creating their own empire and won't tolerate any defections, as we go from the Melian Dialogue.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Absolutely true. Once again, I'm not here carrying the Athenian Empire.

MICHAEL Well, I apologize. I was reading too much into the intro, then.

Lt. Col. LACEY: OK. What you - but what you do see is Athens established a soil, or planted the first seeds of what could truly become a democracy, or - and a philosophy that still underpins most of Western civilization today.

Now, say, is Western civilization better than the Eastern brand of civilization? That's an argument you could have all day. But I'm writing about the - yeah. The other thing that's important here is that we do not have a - you know, we had the Cyrus Cylinder, which people say shows religious toleration and other things. But we don't have a lot of material leftover from the Persian Empire on which to make any basis, you know, that have become the forming or building blocks of our society today. We do have that from Greece, as sloppy as it was.

No one's going to say Rome was not a brutal military empire, but it provided a - underpinnings for a lot of what is best about Western civilization today. And, of course, gave a lot of examples on how to really mess things up if you wanted to be brutal about affairs.

MICHAEL: Patriarchy and slavery and the rest. Okay, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call.

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Ken, and Ken with us from Greenwood, in Missouri.

KEN (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KEN: I hope you had a happy Easter. Anyway, I got a few questions about this Battle of Marathon. Wasn't there a Greek navy heavily involved in this? And also, wasn't there another Greek army a little bit north of where Marathon happened at that drew some of the pressure off of them?

Also, wasn't the Greek navy action, with their fleet of ramming ships, didn't that really kind of turn the whole deal around as to where the Persians couldn't resupply their troops on shore?

And another thing I had a question about, too, is: After the Battle of Marathon, who was the real leader of the country? Because there was a navy person, you know, involved in this, and was the senator somebody the overall...

CONAN: I think, Ken, you're confusing, again, the first Persian invasion and the second Persian invasion. The battle you're talking about, I think, is Salamis, which was critical in the second invasion, Persian invasion. Of course, it wouldn't have been necessary had the Persians won at Marathon.

KEN: I see.

Lt. Col. LACEY: The Athenian navy was probably 70 ships strong at the Marathon time, no match for anything the Persians could throw at it. And we're not even sure they had those 70 ships.

But 10 years later, as was just told, the Persians came back under Xerxes. They brought a gigantic land army. They fought two major naval battles, the biggest of them being Salamis. They lost that. Half their army marched home, and the other half was defeated the following year at Plataea by a combined Athenian-Spartan force.

KEN: Oh, I thank you gentlemen very much for clearing my head about that.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much.

KEN: You have a good day.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

It's interesting: We should not forget, we say the Athenian hoplites at Marathon. They did have some allies. The Plataeans sent, what, three, 4,000...

Lt. Col. LACEY: A thousand.

CONAN: But one of the great questions: Sparta vowed to send -Sparta, the best - acknowledged by everybody to be the best, including the Athenians, to be the best army in Greece. And they vowed to send forces to participate with the Athens, to defend Athens against the Persians. Why didn't the Athenians wait for them?

Lt. Col. LACEY: First, they would have loved to have waited. They watched the Persian army for nine days, waiting for the Spartans to come. The Spartans were waiting for their religious festivals to end, something with the moon and the lunar calendar.

A lot of historians said no. They just didn't want to come help Athens. That misreads Sparta. Sparta took religion very seriously. During the Battle of Plataea, they stayed under an arrow barrage while the priests killed animal after animal, waiting for positive omens. Spartans did nothing that would offend the gods if they could avoid it.

So - but on the eight - seventh or eighth day, the Spartans were coming, and they were coming hard. Their first 2,000 men actually arrived the following day, after an all-day, all-night, 150-mile forced march nonstop to come and help the Athenians.

My contention - because we don't know why exactly the Persians - the Athenians did not wait. They would have loved to have had those 2,000 Spartans, plus the whole rest of the Spartan army one day behind if they could have done it.

The only thing that could have made them attack was the Spartans - if the Persians were moving. After nine days in a closed environment with 30,000 soldiers, probably 1,000 to 1,500 horses and maybe 30,000 more sailors, and they didn't stay on their ships, they would have had to come ashore: One, living conditions would be about as unsanitary as they come, and disease would have started taking a toll very quickly.

Food had to be short. Fifty to 60,000 men cannot carry enough food on those boats to last even three or four days. The Persians had to move.

The Greeks - the Athenians couldn't let them move. If they moved, they could come up on any part of the Greek shore anywhere they wanted, get ashore and move inland before the Athenian army can get there.

So here they had them trapped in a box, plus getting back on ships causes an incredible amount of chaos. The Athenians would have looked at it and said: We can't let them move, and look how disorganized they are. It would have invited attack.

I think the - those two in combination pretty much decided that they couldn't wait for the Spartans, and they had a fair chance of winning it without them.

CONAN: And finally, on Marathon, we've read in history books that all the credit goes to Miltiades.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Yeah. I'm one of the few, maybe the first - I'm not the only. There's a Polish history professor I saw that has come out on my side on this who might not even known I wrote it. The actual commander of the Athenian army was a guy named Callimachus. Unfortunately, Callimachus was killed during the battle. And he may have been from a -one of the tribes - one of the families that was not well-looked upon in Athens at that time. At the same time, when Herodotus was writing this history, Miltiades' son, Cimon, was probably the most powerful man in Athens, maybe sharing that with Pericles.

Herodotus got his - made his living by writing these histories, reading them in public. He would not have done anything to offend the man who was probably his number one patron. But we know, after the battle, that the Athenians did put up a monument or a stele to Callimachus as the great hero of the battle. They did not do that for Miltiades. We know before the battle that Miltiades was on trial for his life as being a Persian supporter and just barely escaped that, which would lead me to believe they may not have put him in charge of their entire army. And we know he was put on trial for his life soon after the battle because of failure of other attacks post-Marathon.

Now the Athenian population was fickle. They were known to prosecute generals on a regular basis for the slightest infractions or signs of -or failures. Smallest failures could get you executed or banished. So I don't want to read too much into it, but there's a lot of - lot to say that Miltiades was not - we know he wasn't the guy in charge that day. And we know there was a sizeable amount of Athenians who did not trust him. Very unlikely they would have given him his - the entire army.

He did have a lot of experience with the Persian army, so he may have been a top advisor. He may have been there to help make decisions. He may have been the most dominant personality after Callimachus died and had quite a bit to do with the forced march back from Athens to the other side of Greece, basically, to stop the Persians, the defeated Persian army, from landing there.

CONAN: Jim Lacey's new book is called "The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and its Impact on Western Civilization." He joined us here in Studio 3A.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And, Jim Lacey, writing in the National Review, just before you left for Afghanistan, you said your analysis after all that time there, the numbers of years, 12,000 American men and women killed or wounded, however many billions of dollars, 350 billion expended, that it was time to think about cutting our losses and give it up and come home. Did anything you see on your recent trip change your mind?

Lt. Col. LACEY: No, but I wanted to change my mind. Listen, the soldiers there, Marines, these Marine soldiers and even the civilians that are there are doing an absolutely fantastic job. But I've been to Iraq a number - numerous times, seen a lot of people and talked to a lot of people. And it's so radically different, the country. Iraq had an educated population, a relatively decent infrastructure, oil wealth that it could - probably is going to bring them in $100 billion this year. They had everything they needed to build a stable and functioning society.

Afghanistan has none of that. It's a landlocked country. It's poor. There's nothing we can do. We've doubled their GDP. We've doubled the size of their economy in 10 years. If we double it again at this tremendous course, hundreds of billions of dollars and, you know, 5,000 more casualties, we would have created a per capita GDP equal to Chad. They're not going to build - we'll never be able to build Switzerland there. And we may - you know, we can build Chad, but do we want to put this much time, effort, resources and American soldiers, Marines on the line to build Chad in Afghanistan?

One of the things I noticed on this trip was it works. If we left today, Afghanistan would continue to work. You know, I flew over Kandahar, and it's a city of 800,000 people, and everyone gets fed every single day. Food moves in from the farmlands, and everyone makes - everyone has some sort of a living. Is it - are they up to Western standards? Absolutely not. But the country works, and it will continue to work long after we leave. We could spend 30 more years nation building, but we have other priorities.

The world will not become less dangerous in the next 10 years. It may become conservatively more dangerous. We're watching the upheavals in the Arab world now. That can get really ugly. It can get ugly for America. Saudi Arabia is a fragile country. Iran has its tentacles into a lot of this, a lot of this.

Now, I'm not advocating we go to war in - against Iran. I'm not advocating that we involve ourselves in Saudi Arabia. But we have to have options, and options are limited when you've got 140,000 soldiers tied up in a landlocked country in the middle of Central Asia.

CONAN: Some people would argue that the conflict in Afghanistan is just as much about Pakistan as it is about Afghanistan, and that losing a conflict to release forces that would then overrun the country next door, a country with nuclear weapons, that is something you need - you really need to think about.

Lt. Col. LACEY: The - Pakistan is the thing that keeps strategists awake at night. An Islamic takeover there would be an incredibly dangerous thing. But there's a couple of things we have to think about. One, China and India are on their borders. They have just - they have a strong interest in the area. We have seen no sign that Pakistan has become less - more stable since we've been there. We - they - a matter of fact, in many cases, we may say it's less stable.

Pakistan has a strategic problem. They still want to keep all of their forces facing India, and they don't necessarily want to keep them facing - to - fighting an Islamic threat, which many of them don't want to recognize to begin with.

But us being in Afghanistan, I do not know. This is Jim Lacey speaking, and no one else. I don't believe it is helping to stabilize Pakistan in the least. And if Pakistan goes, I would love to have available the 140,000 soldiers we have in Afghanistan now to do other things.

CONAN: Jim Lacey, can you stay with us, take a couple of more questions on Marathon?

Lt. Col. LACEY: Sure.

CONAN: We've got some callers on the line. And we also hope to talk with Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times Book Review about the process of nonfiction and fact-checking - this, of course, after questions raised about "Three Cups of Tea," even questions raised about "Travels with Charley" and John Steinbeck.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: In a few minutes, we'll talk with Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times Book Review on the process of fact-checking and nonfiction. But first, let's continue our conversation with Jim Lacey about his new book "The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and its Impact on Western Civilization."

And we have some callers on the line. Let's go to Mike, and Mike with us from Jefferson in Wisconsin.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: This is a really fascinating topic. I just - I wanted to get your guest's opinion of, you know, the - you made a point of the fact that the cavalry in this terrain was - much less useful than it would be on an open plain battlefield.

And I guess my question is is do you think that the decision by the Persians to move forward - and you alluded a little bit to the fact that they needed to keep moving, as if they had already made land - that it was - that the tactical failure was either due to their arrogance, that they just believed that they could overcome the hoplite army? Or was it more or just an infamiliarity(ph) with the terrain?

Lt. Col. LACEY: At Marathon, I don't think they - they got ashore, but they didn't move very far inland. Marathon itself is surrounded by mountains. It's only one or two ways out, and only one good way out along the shore - the coastal road.

And the Athenians were sitting on that, probably behind some sort of fortification, probably hastily built. The Persians were stymied. That's why they had to get back on their boats and find a new place to land when the Athenians attacked. So the Athenians did the attacking.

Now, if the Persians had managed to find the Athenian army in an open area where they could have maneuvered - their cavalry could have maneuvered, it could easily have been a different story. And that may only have been because the hoplites had really no experience fighting cavalry on an open plain.

Later on, they did. You know, Alexander the Great, with his own Thessalian cavalry and his companion cavalry, did wonders - you know, destroyed the Persian army at Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, one battle after another.

CONAN: And, again, in similar numbers, way outnumbered by the Persians.

Lt. Col. LACEY: Yes, way outnumbered. But he had a highly professional force, well-trained, been fighting together for years, first combined arms army, really, in history that we know of. Maybe the Assyrians might have had something similar, but we're not sure.

And Xenophon managed to get his 10,000 hoplites home, marched them across the better part of the Persian Empire under constant threat and serious attack. So they - the hoplites could survive, but it would have been more difficult.

I mean, the Romans never found a good answer to - against the Persian cataphract cavalry, as Mark Anthony almost lost an army and - his name forgets me. The first triumph - Crassus (unintelligible). Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mike.

Which raises a question: Some people said, wait a minute. The Athenian army, this was not a professional army. These were farmers called out from their fields to don their armor and assemble in the phalanx. How could, essentially, a militia defeat a professional army like the Persians?

Lt. Col. LACEY: As my book points out, I firmly - I do not believe that the Athenian army was anything close to an amateur force. It was about as a - if it wasn't as good as the Spartans, it was near as good.

They had - in just a couple of decades before they have been in - how should I say this? They were the Israel of the time period, surrounded by enemies, constantly at war or preparing for war.

And previous to this, many of the Athenian hoplites at Marathon had destroyed one army from Thebes. Not - destroyed another Chalcedean army, destroyed a second army from Thebes. There's evidence that the - that they took on Aegina and wiped out their army just a year prior to Marathon.

What Herodotus this tells us is 1,000 Argives join the Aeginians and never returned, or very few of them returned, leading us to believe that they suffered a massive defeat at the Athenian hands.

This was an army that had been fighting for years, was very good, very well done. They had a population in Attica between 150 and 200,000. They only needed 15,000 hoplites. There was plenty of time to train them. There was evidence they did train them. And there's evidence on two separate occasions, they stood out - stood down the Spartan army. Spartan's army lined up against them and did not come on.

If the Spartans have seen any sign of weakness, whatsoever, there's no doubt they would have attacked. For the Spartan army to line up against an enemy and then march away - virtually unheard off in the Greek world, especially after the Spartans had destroyed the entire army, the Argive army. Argos just prior to this.

CONAN: Jim Lacey, thanks again for your time. Jim Lacey's new book is "The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory At Marathon And Its Impact On Western Civilization." He's a professor of strategic college studies at the Marine War College.

Coming up in just a moment, we'll be talking about fact and non-fiction.

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