The Significance of Marathon

Battle of Marathon: famous clash between a Persian invasion force and an army of Athenians in 490 BCE. Its signicance is greatly exaggerated.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus
Herodotus of Halicarnassus

It often said that the battle of Marathon was one of the few really decisive battles in history. The truth, however, is that we cannot establish this with certainty. Still, the fight had important consequences: it gave rise to the idea that East and West were opposites, an idea that has survived until the present day, in spite of the fact that “Marathon” has become the standard example to prove that historians can better refrain from such bold statements.

Presenting Marathon – Then and Now

The Spartans were the first to commemorate the battle of Marathon. Although they arrived too late for the fight, they visited the battlefield, inspected the dead, and praised the Athenians. The story is told by Herodotus, note the author of our main source for the fight. The very first question we ought to ask is why he chose to tell it. After all, his ambition was to record “great and marvelous deeds”, and the late arrival of the reinforcements was neither great nor marvelous. The Spartan presence at Marathon, however, served to present the battle that had been, or ought to have been, a fight by all Greeks.

That “Marathon” had been more than a normal battle, was hardly a new idea. Prior to Herodotus’ writing, monuments had already been erected, which presented the warriors as the equals of the heroes of the Trojan War. Other monuments, like the one mentioned by Pausanias, presented the dead as defenders of democracy: Pausanias mentions an Athenian “grave in the plain with are stones on it, carved with the names of the dead in their voting districts”.note A monument erected in Delphi presented the ten tribes and lauded the democratically elected Miltiades, but conspicuously ignored the polemarch Callimachus.

Framing the Battle

Herodotus chose not to present the battle in the same way. Knowing that the Persians had returned in 480 and had tried to conquer Greece, he interpreted the battle as a first attempt to do the same, which made the fight important for all of Greece. This is unlikely to be a correct judgment: the Persian army was too small for conquest and occupation, and most historians have rejected this.

What they did not reject, was the context in which Herodotus presented the violent actions. His Histories presuppose an elaborate model of action and reaction, which is Herodotus’ way to express historical causality: Cyrus conquered the Greek towns in Asia (action), they revolted (reaction), a war broke out in which Athens and Eretria supported the rebels (action), Persia restored order and decided to subdue the allies (reaction), the Persians came to Attica (action), where the Athenians defeated them at Marathon (reaction), so the Persians returned with a bigger army to avenge themselves.

This pattern of action and reaction is unlikely to correspond to historical fact. After all, the first action and the first reaction are separated by a considerable period, and the campaign of 490 was not aimed at the conquest of Greece. So, while Herodotus’ sequence of the events between 500 and 479 is probably correct, we may have some doubt about the causal connections. The Halicarnassian may in the end turn out to be right, but that is not now at issue: what needs to be stressed is that the framework in which we place the battle of Marathon, was created by Herodotus.

This framework also presents the struggle between the Greeks and the Asians as going back to times immemorial. The very first part of the Histories is a slightly ironic account of some ancient legends about women being carried away, but Herodotus continues by pointing at “the man who to the best of my knowledge was the first to commit wrong against the Greeks”, king Croesus of Lydia. The restriction “to the best of my knowledge” suggests that Herodotus believed that the conflict had started earlier. Herodotus is not just the father of history, he is also the father of the idea that East and West are eternal opposites.

Even more importantly, he is the first author to make this antagonism something more than a geographical opposition. The Asians were the slaves of the great king, and they went to war because the ruler ordered them to, while the Greeks were citizens of free cities, who obeyed the law and went to defend their liberty. This is borne out by the words of the Spartan exile Demaratus to Xerxes:

Over the Greeks is set Law as a master, whom they fear much more even than your people fear you”.note

This speech is, of course, one of Herodotus’ own compositions: not only are “tragic warners” in the Histories invariably speaking on behalf of the author, but the topic under discussion, the tension between the rule of a leader and the rule of the law, is typical for the political debate in democratic Athens.note

Herodotus’ framing of the Persian Wars as a struggle between a monarchical Asia and a free Greece explains his authorial choices. He might have mentioned the Spartan visit to the battlefield very briefly, but inserted a long digression, because the incident, although completely irrelevant for the battle, was useful to convert Marathon into a panhellenic event.

Nineteenth-Century Theories

Greece versus Asia: although popular in the classical age, this theme lost relevance in the Hellenistic age. Once Rome had seized power, the main opposition was that between the barbarians outside the Empire and the civilized Mediterranean city dwellers. When Christianity became popular, the main antagonism was between pagans and orthodox believers. In the Early Middle Ages, new self-identifications and oppositions arose: the scholars of Constantinople believed that Islam was the archenemy of the Byzantine Empire, whereas in the Carolingian Empire, scribes believed in an antagonism between Islam and those who were called “Europenses”. The first reference to Europeans as a cultural unity is the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754.

For centuries, the inhabitants of western Europe associated their culture with Rome and Christianity. In the eighteenth century, however, the famous German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann created the modern paradigm that Rome had merely continued Greek culture, and that Athens was the real origin of western civilization.

This new idea was successful, and in the early nineteenth century, the belief that Athens was the cradle of a freedom-loving, rational European civilization, was fully accepted. It was freedom, philosophers argued, that had at Marathon been defended by the Athenians. Because their victory had inspired other Greeks to resist Xerxes, Marathon had been an important battle: in Marathon, the foundations of western civilization had been laid. The British philosopher John Stuart Mill judged that “the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings”.

That bold, often repeated statement, is based on three assumptions. The first is that the Athenians were fighting for the independence of Greece. The pre-Herodotean monuments prove that this was not the perspective of the participants: Athenian democrats fighting against a Persian army that wanted to bring back the tyrant (sole ruler) Hippias. As indicated above, it was Herodotus who introduced the panhellenic element.

The second assumption is that the political independence of Greece guaranteed the freedom of its culture. In 1901, the great German historian Eduard Meyer wrote in his Geschichte des Altertums (“History of Antiquity”) that the consequences of a Persian victory in 490 or 480 would have been serious.

The end result would have been that some kind of religion … would have put Greek thought under a yoke, and any free spiritual life would have been bound in chains. The new Greek culture would, just like oriental culture, have been of a theocratic-religious nature.

The argument is, more or less, that the great king would have replaced democracy with tyranny, so that the free Athenian civilization would have vanished in a maelstrom of oriental despotism, irrationality, and cruelty. Without democracy, no Greek philosophy, no innovative Greek literature, no arts, no rationalism. In this sense, the Greek victory in the Persian Wars was decisive for Greek culture.

The third assumption is that there is continuity from ancient Greece to nineteenth-century Europe. This sociological statement has never been properly tested, even though there is an obvious counterargument: after the fall of Rome, people did not recognize this continuity. The “Europeans” were not recognized as a cultural unity until 754, and when they were, they were Frankish Christians fighting Iberian Muslims, not Greeks fighting Asians. Some scholars (e.g., Anthony Pagden) have tried to solve this problem by arguing that, in spite of the fact that nobody had noticed it, the spirit of freedom had always been there, just like the spirit of monarchism had always remained alive in the East, influencing individual behavior. This type of argument is called “ontological holism”, and is better known from Marx’ idea that history was forged by the struggle between classes, or the notorious idea that history was a war between races. Class struggle, race war, or the clash between free Europe and tyrannical Asia are abstractions that do not really exist.

A more sophisticated way to refute the counterargument is the idea, best known from Jacob Burckhardt’s famous Geschichte der Renaissance in Italien ("Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy", 1867), is that the Renaissance was a rebirth of Roman civilization and that Winckelmann was the first scholar who understood that Roman civilization had been a continuation of Athenian civilization. This cannot be discarded out of hand, because social scientists have never developed the tools to test such bold statements about continuity.

Meyer’s View Assessed

Today, the German scholar Max Weber is best known as the father of sociology, but he started his career as an ancient historian. In 1904/1905, he published the two “Critical Studies in the Logic of Cultural Sciences”, in which he investigated the epistemological foundations of the study of the past. The second essay deals with “Objective Possibility and Adequate Causation in Historical Explanation”, and has become rightly famous. As it happens, one of Weber’s examples is Meyer’s analysis of the meaning of Marathon, which is shown to be the result of a counterfactual argument: if the Persians had won, the preconditions would not have been met for the rise of Athenian civilization. But, Weber argued, this was nothing but speculation. Counterfactual arguments are usually fallacious.

For example, how did Meyer know that the Persians, after a victory in the Persian Wars, would have put an end to democracy? We must pause for thought when we read that Herodotus explicitly states that the Persian commander Mardonius supported Greek democracy.note Another point is that very few historians, right now, will accept that the ancient Near East was “of a theocratic-religious nature”: it was in Persian Babylonia that astronomers developed the scientific method. Plato and Aristotle might have lived in a Persian Athens. Likewise, Eric Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) meant the end of the idea that Greek culture represented a more rational view of life.

So, Meyer’s reading of the Persian War has been decisively challenged. We cannot make bold statements about the meaning of Marathon. Unfortunately, not everybody is aware that there are limits to what we can understand about the past: over the past years, several books have appeared that pretend that there is a direct continuity from Marathon to our own age. Historians and social scientists have something really important to discuss.

[Originally published in the Marathon Special of Ancient Warfare (2011).]