Re-Running Marathon

By Baldwin, Barry | History Today, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Re-Running Marathon


Baldwin, Barry, History Today


The mountains look on Marathon,

And Marathon looks on the sea.

And musing there an hour alone,

I dreamed that Greece might still be free,

For standing on the Persian's grave,

I could not deem myself slave.

(Lord Byron, The Isles of Greece)

To Greeks and Romans, the battle of Marathon in 490 BC tended to be the ultimate proof of courage, patriotism, and that the gods (despite Napoleon) are not always on the side of the big battalions. Traditionally it has been seen as a turning-point, not just in ancient history. Had Marathon gone the other way, classical Greek civilisation would have been stifled, and we would not have the pleasures and profits of Greek art, literature and thought.

In his Histories, written a generation or so after the Persian Wars, Herodotus produced the classic account of the campaign, but, in the words of the classicist and novelist Frederic Raphael, `Herodotus contributed hugely to the swelling of Greek heads. He enjoyed a breakthrough success when he recited his work at Athens. Paid ten talents and made an honorary citizen for his PR work on behalf of the Athenians, he was the first man to prove that history had a market, if you told the right stories.'

Herodotus traced the origin of the Graeco-Persian conflicts back to the Trojan War. We shall not here follow him all that distance, but to the reign of Cyrus, founder and first ruler (559-530 BC) of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. After his conquests of Lydia (in western Asia Minor) and Babylonia and the capture of their respective capitals Sardis (546 BC) and Babylon (539 BC), Cyrus had within twenty years acquired an empire the largest the world had yet seen. He spent his last eight years organising these new possessions into an efficient working order. He carved the empire into twenty provinces, each governed by a local plenipotentiary known as a satrap. Two of these districts contained Greek subjects: Lydia subsumed the Ionian coastline, whilst Phrygia embraced the Dardanelles, the Propontis and the Black Sea's southern littoral -- all areas colonised by Greek cities. For many Greeks, rule by Persia rather than Lydia made no difference to their lives. Herodotus reports Cyrus' death with brisk neutrality and never assails him as a despot. By the fourth century, he was idealised by the pro-Spartan military adventurer Xenophon, who had sold his own mercenary sword to a later Cyrus in a dynastic civil war.

Nevertheless, when Cyrus attempted to drive a wedge between the powerful Miletus and the other Ionian islands, the latter Greeks appealed to Sparta for help. Not for the last time, the Spartans refused assistance to their overseas compatriots. But they did send a single ship to see what was going on; also an ambassador was dispatched to Sardis to warn the king to keep his hands off the Greek cities or risk Spartan displeasure. An astonished Cyrus asked who these impudent Spartans were and how many men did they have to back up such a demand. Upon being informed, he made a crisp response: `I have never yet been afraid of men who have a special meeting-place in the centre of their city where they swear this and that and cheat each other'. Herodotus took this to be scorn of the free market and barter systems of the Greek agora; but it may also reflect a king's suspicion of incipient democracy.

The short reign (530-522 BC) of Cambyses was mainly concentrated on the Persian conquest of Egypt, but when Cyprus and Phoenician states submitted to him the Persians inherited a much-needed navy. It was the ambition and drive of his successor Darius I (522-486 BC) that generated the conflicts that would lead to Marathon. He had in mind the conquest of the Pontic-Caspian steppes from the Danube to the river Jaxartes. The execution of Polycrates, tyrant of the Ionian city of Samos, was followed by a large Persian army crossing the Danube in 513 BC, invading the northern steppes of Scythia. …

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