Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MARATHON: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization

Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, by Richard A Billows
Review by George Pasley
Marathon is a newly written history book that doesn’t get bogged down in details (as so many history books do). Billows, a professor of Greek and Roman History at Columbia, takes the reader through an accounting of the famous battle of Marathon between armies of the city-state of Athens and the Persian Empire in August, 490 B.C.E.. His account includes a summary of how it has been viewed through the centuries since, a summary of the progress of Greek culture up to that time, a brief history of the Persian Empire, a history of conflict between Persia and the cities of Greece, a history of Greek democracy, a closer look at Sparta, the history of the battle, and a chapter devoted to explaining an assortment of things likely to have been ‘lost’ to western culture if Athens had lost the battle.
Having said that the book does not bog the reader down in details, I do need to say that the unavoidable use of large numbers of Greek and Persian names is a difficulty. They don’t need to be pronounced, but their strangeness to American readers makes it difficult to remember and distinguish them form one another.
The aside on Sparta was very insightful. The Spartans had a very deserved reputation as soldiers, a reputation that survives to this day, and use of the word “Spartan” to describe meager rations and lifestyle has its roots in fact- the Spartans ate their evening meal at ‘mess” and it was not much more than beans. But enlightened modern readers will be dismayed to know that the entire Spartan military complex was devised as away of keeping slaves in check, so that Spartan citizens would never have to work. In terms of military matters, that meant Sparta was very reluctant to send their soldiers out of their immediate region, for fear of not being able to put down a slave revolt back home.
It is especially helpful to know the exact nature of Athenian Democracy, its origin in issues of property ownership, its principle authors (Solon and Kleisthenes), and its layered features. In light of current American politics, I found it fascinating to know that the Athenians did not trust elections. Instead, they chose office holders by lottery- and had a process for sending citizens into exile if they seemed to be gaining too much influence. Billows makes the argument that the way that Athens knit military service to citizenry made their citizen soldiers more willing to fight to the death, as they were fighting for THEIR freedom.
Billows explains the Athenian strategy that won the battle for Athens, and then makes his case as to why the battle affected the flow of history. Unlike many other events, he argues that we do know what would have happened had Persia won: the surviving citizens of Athens would have been led into exile on the Persian Gulf, meaning that they would not have remained free in Greece, later to create drama, perfectionist art, and philosophy. Most importantly, the victory of Athens meant the survival of democracy (less than two decades old at the time of the battle). But Athens won, democracy survived, and millions enjoy its privileges today.

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