Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Marathon

Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization
by Richard A. Billows

It will come as no surprise how many people, academics and scholars in particular, brim with enthusiasm for their work. Indeed the lifelong dedication toward mastering a specific field, often highly specific, demands a great deal of confidence in the importance of the material. So the music theoretician is aghast you cannot recognize the overture to The Magic Flute, the art historian confounded you don't see the philosophical dimensions of Rembrandt, and so on. Classicists are no different and indeed I know no Classicist with a lukewarm attachment to the Greek and Roman world. Yet the Classicist occupies a slightly different position in justifying his affinity, the difference being that the Greek and Roman world, especially the former, was the birthplace of Western Civilization. Many no doubt bristle at the term, "Western Civilization" which today has, somehow, become déclassé. Without probing the depths of that phrase's evolution, or devolution, "Western Civilization" ought to be a particularly valid term for describing the fruit of the Classical world for the reason of common cultural, political, and social ancestry alone.

Like it or not, Western Civilization is, and like it or not, the Greeks made it and changed it. Yet it was never guaranteed, and at one point, in Mill's words, "it hung trembling in the balance." [1]

Richard A. Billows', Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, explores and commemorates this seminal event of the Battle of Marathon, whose 2500th anniversary is approaching. The 490 B.C. defense of Greece by 9,000 Athenians and their allies from an invading Persian force had been considered by the 18th and 19th century philosophers and in particular the 19th century "philhellenic" Romantics, as a critical moment of Western Civilization. Today, though, the influence not only of the battle but of Classical Greece, and the concept of a "Western identity" are, incredibly, no longer settled matters. To any student of history, such is pure rubbish, and Billows deserves credit for saying as much in no uncertain terms, "Some contemporary historians deride the idea of classical Greece as the cradle of Western civilization. They seem to me to be, quite simply, factually wrong; wrong not so much about classical Greece, as about the modern development of Western culture." Billows takes pains to say several times though, to emphasize that he's not making a qualitative assessment of the Greek influence and Western Civilization, but rather simply that the Greek influence was a significant one.

It is a general principle about making movies that a battle on the screen is only as good as the buildup to the action. In laying out the histories of Greece and Persia immediately preceding the battle at Marathon, Billows follows this principle and the result is effective. This is no small feat considering the quantity, significance, and complexity of the events in discussion. Yet the opening chapters do not simply recap history, but set the stage for 490 BC. What comes across most strongly are the many changes, none of them inevitable, which the Athenians underwent in the time preceding Marathon which made victory possible.

We begin, both customarily and properly, with Homer, who introduces the first of two concepts that we will see play out throughout Greek history. The concept of aristea, or "bestness" is at the heart the Greek enthrallment with being the best and the best at absolutely everything. This focus on being the best and demonstrating it, seen in the very aristocratic nature of early Greek warfare and the Iliad and Odyssey, which focus on great, famous men, goes hand in hand with the concept of eris. First laid out by Hesiod and usually translated as strife, eris is the intense competitive ethos, which can be good, encouraging a warrior or artisan to do the best work possible, or bad, causing disarray and disunity amongst a citizenry. These two concepts will underscore all Greek history, here enriching, there bedeviling.

Moving on from the Archaic times we see Greece grow and mature. We see its alphabet, around 800 BC., the first simple one which one could read and spoken completely from the text as written. We see the birth of trade and the rise of a middle class, one which would challenge the old aristocratic order. We see the tyrants, more properly understood not as malicious rulers, but as rulers who usurped the power from the traditional sources, the aristocratic families. In art we find songs which also criticize society and the status quo, but not with the claim of being prophets or aristocrats, but with the only authority of being a fellow citizen in a free society. This growing egalitarianism manifested itself in the Athenian military too, which transitioned from a system focused on rich, powerful, and well-equipped aristocrats to what we have come to know as hoplite warfare, of citizens tightly formed in ranks, supporting each other.

Billows' sections on early Athenian lawmaking and political life are especially good. The early conflicts among powerful aristocratic families like the Alkmaionids, the middle class, and tyrants, some of who wanted simply to usurp power and some planning actual reform, come across appropriately as unpredictable: no one knew the direction the government of Athens would take. Aside from the reforms of Solon, the most famous Athenian reformer and one of the "Seven Wise Men" of early Greece, Billows calls needed attention to two facts. First is the incredible civic participation of the early Athenian democracy. He points this out by way of comparison: The 500 councilors of Athens represented a body of about 30,000 to 50,000 men; The USA has a total of 535 members in the bicameral congress, representing over 200 million citizens. The Athenian system was designed to achieve in representation as random a sample of the people as possible, both by its size and by apportioning to localities. Billows' second point is the obscurity of the creator of this system, Kleisthenes. Mainly, why has he been largely forgotten? Billows traces this to the re-creation of the democracy following the overthrow of the "Thirty Tyrants" who ruled after Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian War. In re-creating their democracy, they needed to establish legitimacy and continuity and thus the reformers like Ephialtes and Kleisthenes were too recent to draw on as authoritative. They needed to reach back farther, to an older tradition, and thus turned to Solon as the great founder of their traditions. This argument persuades.

Documenting the rise of Persia presents a different challenge, mostly because of the dearth of details on them. We rely heavily on Herodotus out of necessity. Billows strikes a good middle ground in citing the oft-fanciful and highly narrative stories Herodotus gives us about the rise of the Persian Empire, neither reporting them uncritically nor following the contemporary trend of disparaging him. (In the Suggested Reading section, Billows refers us to the recent scholarship on this debate.) Nonetheless, the story of the Persian Empire has an undeniable epic sweep: the fall of the Assyrians to the Medes, the Median King Astyages' fall to his grandson, Cyrus, who conquers and pulls together the many disparate lands to forge the first Persian Empire. When we finally meet Darius, he is one of several aristocratic conspirators attempting to seize the throne upon the deaths of Cyrus' sons, Cambyses and Smedris. Billows tells this tale quickly and soberly without the usual flash and drama that usually attend this "scandal" of succession. We see that when Darius finally encounters the Greeks, he has spent years fighting to re-unite the empire, which was plagued by rebellions when he took the reigns. He wasn't going to take any nonsense from these small, relatively poor, and quarrelsome people on the western border of his finally-secure empire.

In the years immediately preceding the battle of Marathon, the Athenian democracy was still fragile. It survived threats in part by the Corinthians and Plataians standing by their alliances to Athens. Thus the Athenians now were united with Sparta in resisting the Persians, who were now demanding the traditional tribute of submission, earth and water, after crushing the Ionian Greeks who revolted. Well, they were sort of united. The Spartans were still, and would remain, primarily concerned with the Peloponnese, which they seldom wandered far from out of fear the neighboring peoples they had enslaved and bullied would rise up. Athens itself, though burgeoning and increasing in "bestness" still faced the problem of disunity, both internally on account of rival factions and amongst other cities.

The Battle on the Plain of Marathon, Summer 490 BC.

It is a bit of a tradition to describe "Great Battles" in terms of columns, flanks, weapons, and armor. The image of generals moving figures over giant table-top maps comes to mind. Indeed this sort of analysis is both helpful and necessary. Billows accomplishes this aspect of understanding the battle efficiently and clearly but he does not dwell there, rather he brings out the many unique aspects of the battle as a whole. First, an astounding [about] one-third of the Athenian population, essentially a full call to arms, came out to fight.
Such an enormous mobilization of national manpower, percentage-wise, is virtually unparalleled in the history of warfare: only the fundamentally democratic and participatory nature of the Greek city-states, and especially of Athens, which made the city-state, in all important respects, the same as the citizen body and thus made the citizen feel the state was his state and his business, can explain the kinds of mass mobilization of which Greek city-states were routinely capable. [Billows, 209]
Indeed, as Aristotle would go on to say, thanks to those who fought at Marathon, "the salvation of the community is the common business of all. This community is the constitution [emphasis mine]" [2] and referencing the fight between Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad, "he is a citizen in the highest sense who shares in the honors of the state. . . he who is excluded from the honors. . . is no better than an alien." [3] Thus what made the Athenians uniquely able to prevail in this struggle vividly comes across here.

Billows also makes a few necessary corrections to the Marathon legend. First, it is not likely the Athenians would have run the entire mile between the armies, both on account of the fatigue which would ensue, and that it was only necessary to run whilst in range of the Persian archers, i.e. the final 150 meters. Second, Miltiades deserves more credit for his tactics. At at time before extensive and strategic generalship, when armies more or less walked at each other and started fighting, Miltiades' perceiving that the threat was of being outflanked and subsequent strengthening of the Greek army's wings at the expense of the center ought not to be underestimated as achievements.

Billows' step-by-step narrative of the details of the battle also gives a much-needed human perspective on the trial of battle:
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 tit 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. [Billows, 222]
Lastly, Billows offers some clear alternatives to some of the post-battle incidents. First, it is quite unlikely Philippides, who had just run 140 miles from Athens to Sparta and back again, would have dropped dead after running, one way, the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens. Second, the real feat of the immediate aftermath of the battle was the fact that the whole Athenian army, desperately hoping to out-run the rest of the Persian force which was making its way to Athens by ship, marched from Marathon to Athens. They did so, according to Billows, via the two roads back to Athens, the young and more able taking the rockier, uphill path, and the rest taking the longer but less-strenuous path. The Persians, arriving and finding this army trickling in at Athens, wisely departed, probably grudgingly impressed. The Spartans, arriving a few days later, certainly were.

Billows rounds out the story with the conclusion of the Persian Wars, but duly emphasizes it was what happened there, then, at Marathon, that enabled a complete victory later. Had the Athenians faltered, failed, or simply left, the fates of the Greeks would have been different. The busy and bustling city of Athens, the city of Plato and Sophocles, the culture and world in which they lived and thought, would not have come to be. This city of garrulous and quarreling peoples, this city which fostered and required civic and cultural engagement, became a hot-spot of creation, experimentation, and inquiry. It is unlikely a town on the Persian Gulf, where the people of a defeated Athens would have been relocated, would have had a climate that would have inspired The Clouds or The Republic. If you were to ask  a Classicist, "what are the influences of the Greeks on Western Civilization" you would probably get a bit of a chuckle. If the ways are not innumerable they are near it.

I'll close with what Dr. Billows begins with, that the lesson of Marathon "is that on some non-trivial level, humans can take charge of and affect their destinies: if ten thousand men had not made the stand they did on the plain of Marathon, history as we know it would not have come about."

N.B. Gladly, Dr. Billows' book is not laden with footnotes and excessive scholarly minutiae. Someone, even a non-expert and non-Classicist, can actually pick it up and read it and enjoy it. The "Further Reading" section at the end addresses some issues of contention and points readers toward a variety of sources on more specific issues.

Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization
by Richard A. Billows
Overlook Duckworth, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2010.
Amazon | Barnes & Noble

[1] Hegel, G. W. F. Philosophy of History. 2.2.3
[2] Aristotle, Politics, 1276b
[3] ibid. 1278a


  1. Thanks for the interesting post--sounds like a book I want to read.

    I agree with you about current academic rethinking about history--a lot of it is an attempt at full employment by the academics--when you've written all there is to writea about how Greek culture formed a basis of western civilization, you can start all over writing about how it didn't!

    But it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if the Persians had won. I understand that they were Zorastrian and historically were very tolerant conquerors. The system of government might have been an issue but if Greece had been assimilated, the history of the Middle East might have been very different.

  2. I can't resist a little speculation either. Aside from the battles of conquest themselves Cyrus was indeed quite restrained. He was remembered as a paternal figure, while Cambyses, his son and successor, was not remembers nearly so fondly.

    Darius, who Herodotos reported the Persian nobles thought of as something like a book-keeper or administrator, was brutal toward potential usurpers but it is really most likely the conquered Greek would have been deported.

    Of religion, as I understand it the kingly court had been more or less pagan, though not deliberately so. Cyrus drew on certain Zoroastrian imagery to help craft his image as a ruler and Darius amplified this and created the image of him as the "true" and "chosen" ruler. He followed Cyrus' example regarding foreign gods until 520BC when the Elamites revolted and, invading, condemned them as "faithless" and worshipers of false gods. He likewise promised "divine blessings" to those who fought against them. Holy war, but not really "conversion by the sword" as we might think of it.

    Of interest also was the birth of the concept of a universal moral and political order, of other lands trading humility for security and order. Tom Holland's "Persian Fire" goes over these internal Persian matters quite nicely.

    If, though, the Greeks became what we know them as and then were then conquered and their culture "exported" indeed the change would have been momentous, and such is what happened under Alexander the Great. (Alexander, who of other religions had views similar to Cyrus'.)