Marathon by Richard A. Billows

This will be different!

I do often read outside of a World War II theme.  Of course the subject of this site keeps me pretty tightly focused on that particular war.  But I really enjoyed this book on the key battle of the First Persian War, so I thought it would be fun to share a few thoughts here.

The author, Richard Billows, makes the bold assertion that Marathon is the most decisive battle in the timeless conflict between Eastern and Western civilization.  I’d mention Salamis and Lepanto as having major claims to that title; but Marathon really has a solid claim.  It is the battle that ensured Greek independence including the rise of Democracy, Classic Greek Art, Philosophy and Architecture.

This book starts with a detailed description of the rise of Greek civilization to the 5th Century BC.  That means the Dark Age that followed the Trojan War, the rise of the Greek city-state and the development of distinctive Hoplite warfare.  This last element is critical, and the most interesting to students of military history.  The Hoplite Phalanx was a product of the geography and politics of Greece.  It meant heavily armored infantry in tight formations that would not have worked in a country with more open topography.

The book next spends significant time on the growth of the Persian Empire.  As autocracies go it was pretty liberal and tolerant in its policies (compare Persian practices to Assyrian or Babylonian!); but as an autocracy it was sure to be anathema to Greek sensitivities.

The long run up to the Persian wars is fascinating and dramatic.  The Persians conquered or absorbed most of the Greek world, but rather famously, Athens and Sparta not only rejected Persian overtures but killed the emissaries.  Remember the exciting moment in 300?  That is more or less what happened, but it happened more than a decade earlier than that movie would have you think (it happened prior to the First Persian War, not the Second).

There are several interesting issues with the battle itself.  First, it was almost entirely fought by Athens (plus a small contingent from Platea).  Sparta withheld troops for a combination of practical and religious reasons.  Ancient authors (that mainly means Herodotus in this case) liked to exaggerate numbers; but it seems likely around 30000 Persian troops landed at the Marathon plain and were opposed by 9000 mostly Athenian Hoplites.  The two armies stared each other down for a few days; with Persians camped on the plain and the Greeks blocking access to the mountain passes that would allow the Persians to march on Athens.  When the Persians moved, they dispatched their light forces (cavalry and infantry, probably 1/3 of the total force) to make an end run in their ships back to Athens while their heavy units kept the Greeks pinned down.  This route by sea is about 70 miles, and we all know the overland route from Marathon to Athens is 26 miles.

So the Greek commanders considered their options and chose boldly.  Their 9000 Hoplites attacked perhaps 20000 Persian infantry.  They used innovative tactics like charging the last 150 or so yards at a run (a Hoplite soldier with 70 pounds of armor and weapons might have had some other words for it!) and thinning the center of their lines to improve their frontage and put a heavier weight on their flanks.
This was a shocking moment.  Elite heavy infantry of the world’s greatest empire was destroyed by a smaller force from a minor nation.

And then it gets better.  The victorious Greeks, in heavy armor, double timed it on the overland route back to Athens to greet the Persian light troops before they could disembark from their ships.

This such an amazing story.  I think its actually more amazing than the story we often hear today associated with Marathon runs.  Apparently the actual contribution of Pheidippides was that he delivered the message to Sparta that the Persians had landed; then, when the Spartans informed him they wouldn’t send troops for six days he ran that message back to Athens.  That was 140 miles each way, done in about a week.  The author here suggests leaks of this news have spurred the Persians into action.  Traditionally, he had then joined with the troops at Marathon and was the first dispatched back to Athens again with news of the victory.  But 9000 armored troops who had just fought a battle (in Greece, in August) followed at an only slightly slower pace.

I do recommend this book, it is an interesting and exciting story.  Of course many movie watchers will know the Persians returned a decade later for an even bigger and more decisive show down.  Please be aware that Frank Miller’s 300 series is not actually good history (do I need to say “duh?!”).  I would recommend The Battle of Salamis – The Battle That Saved Greece by Barry Strauss as a better source for those events.

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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