Monday, August 23, 2010

Marathon: "Nike" (Just Do It)

Close to 2500 years ago, a small army of Athenian Greeks and their plucky Plataian allies took a bold stand against an invading army. It was at a place called Marathon that the outnumbered Hellenes achieved total victory against the might Persian Empire. This victory is still known today by almost everyone, thanks to a young runner named Philippides who practically flew the 26 mile distance between Marathon and Athens to report the stunning win. Once he arrived in the city, Philippides used the last of his strength to shout "NIKE!" (victory) and immediately dropped dead. The modern Marathon race is in his honor.

Writing a book about the Battle of Marathon is an excellent idea, and Professor Richard A. Billows is smart to release this book on the eve of the battle's 2500th anniversary. Unfortunately, Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization wasn't quite what I was hoping for. Rather than a detailed account of the battle with an array of new theories to offer, the entire first half of the book is simply a broad overview of Archaic Greece. That's great for those just starting to dip their toes into the world of ancient history, but for those of us who are a bit more advanced, it's kind of a let down.

To be fair, the author has some imaginative insights. He stresses what it was like to actually be there. The sights, the sounds (or lack there of), the smells; even the feel of what it must have been like to be a phalanx hoplite. When trying to capture a sense of the ancient experience for a modern audience, Billows smartly compares phalanx warfare not to modern warfare, but that "...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 canon, or charges mounted police." Professor Billows also offers a strong case for which route the Athenians took to return to Athens after the battle (some think a mountain pass and some think the main road; according to the author, it was probably both). Yet even with this insight I was disappointed there wasn't more.

Like many battles in history, most of the time spent at Marathon was a waiting game. The Greeks and Persians waited for days before anyone actually made a move. This gave the Athenians a lot of time to think. Not just about the Persians, but about their surroundings. What did the Ancient Greeks think when they saw the eerie marsh lights flickering above the swampy marshland that surrounded Marathon? What did the local sanctuary dedicated to Herakles possibly look like? Would the Greeks have made sacrifices at this sanctuary along with any other local shrines in the hopes of being granted victory in battle? What would it have been like to cut down local trees and use them as a barrier against a cavalry charge? Didn't the Persians SEE this happening? How long would it have taken? How many men could the Greeks afford to spare from patrol duties in order to finish the project? I would love answers to these types of questions.

That said, it's pretty apparent that this book isn't really aimed at more advanced students of Ancient Greek history. It's really a guide for those who might be curious about why a modern Olympic even is named after a long forgotten battle. Thus, I can't object to any book that teaches people history. :)

3.5/5 Stars