Sunday, November 7, 2010


From The Sunday Telegraph October 24 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE BATTLE OF MARATHON, by Peter Krentz (Yale 230pp £18.99)

The second couplet of the Greek tragic poet Aeschylus’ epitaph reads: ‘The grove of Marathon could tell of his famous valour, and the long-haired Mede knew it well’. Being one of the Marathonomachai of 490 BC was the one thing the man who composed the Oresteia wished to be remembered for.

He was not alone. The Persian Empire stretched from western Turkey to India. Its king, Darius, ruled some 70 million people. Athenians may have been foolish to stir to revolt some of the Greeks living under this mighty empire, but that’s the Athenians for you: a freedom-loving lot. There was now a price to pay. The Persian general Datis, the expedition leader, was under orders to bring the Athenians back in chains.

The chains remained unoccupied. On that late summer morning, 6,400 Persians were killed, and 192 Greeks. A visitor to Athens 600 years later, surveying all the monuments, commented ‘I reckon this is the victory of which the Athenians were most proud’. Some have argued it saved Western civilisation. Those who think it was not worth saving are free to try president Ahmadinejad’s vibrant alternative.

Next year we celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of this encounter, dated in our calendar to September 13th. If the American academic Peter Krentz’s is the only book published on the subject—somehow one thinks not—it will make a fitting memorial. Written with commendable clarity and good humour, it submits all the evidence to careful scrutiny, and adds a good deal more, to present a pretty convincing picture of what happened and why.

Our primary source is the Greek historian Herodotus, writing some sixty years after the event. To take a few of the problems. Herodotus says the Greeks ran 8 stadia (.9 of a mile) before attacking: the first time that had ever been done. Was it possible in full hoplite gear? Assuming with Krentz that such gear weighed c. 40 lbs (not the assumed c. 60 lbs) and that the run was a jog at 4.5mph and not the assumed 7mph—Krentz demonstrates the likelihood of both—the answer is ‘yes’.

But why did they run? Herodotus does not say. But he had said that the Persians landed at Marathon because it was wide enough to deploy their cavalry. Krentz shows that the Greeks attacked at speed in order to anticipate that deployment, adding that, had it been the Persian archers they were worried about, running the last stadion would have sufficed.

Herodotus says the Greek centre was driven back, but the wings won and turned round to attack the Persians from the rear. Some have argued this was too sophisticated a manoeuvre. But it was surely an entirely natural thing to do, even if, as Krentz argues, it was not in strict phalanx formation.

And what about those famous ‘Marathons’, first (to no avail) to get Spartan help, and then to announce the victory, run by Philippides, or was it Pheidippides, or, er, Eukles or perhaps, um, Thersippos? Read this compelling book and find out.

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