The 'Clash' At Marathon Shaped Greece, And The West Military historian Jim Lacey says the battle of Marathon, where the vastly outnumbered Greeks defeated the Persian army, had a profound impact on Western civilization, and opened an East-West political and cultural divide that shaped the ancient and modern worlds.
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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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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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.

S: 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.

CONAN: Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

JIM LACEY: 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.

LACEY: 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?

LACEY: 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: 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.

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.

LACEY: 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.

LACEY: 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.

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.

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.

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

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


CONAN: 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: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, Michael.

MICHAEL: 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.

LACEY: 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...

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.

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

LACEY: 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.


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

KEN: Good afternoon, gentlemen.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KEN: 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?

LACEY: 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.

LACEY: 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.

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

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?

LACEY: 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.

P: 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.

LACEY: 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: 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?

LACEY: 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.

LACEY: 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?

LACEY: Sure.

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


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

MIKE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MIKE: 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?

LACEY: 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.

LACEY: 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: 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?

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

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