The Battle of Marathon

The Classics Department held its fall 2010 picnic on Thursday, 7 October 2010, and this year we celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. In mid-September (or mid-August) 490 BCE, a force of 10,000 Greeks (mostly Athenians) defeated a much larger army of Persians, who had landed from the sea near Marathon, about 26 miles northeast of Athens.

That battle really was a pivotal one in Greek and world history, as it preserved Greek independence. Who knows what would have happened to Western civilization if the Persian Empire had smothered Greek independence just at the moment it was entering the Classical period?

But the Battle of Marathon is also one of what French historian Pierre Nora calls lieux de mémoire, events or persons which occupy an important position in collective memory, as generation after generation remembers in its own way, constantly reinventing the past as a model or talking-point.

A new archaeological discovery sheds light on the Battle of Marathon: it comes from a year or two after the battle and supplies us with hard historical information; but it also illustrates the beginning of Marathon’s status as a lieu de mémoire.

“Hard” history. A stone stele inscribed with a casualty list of men who died in battle. There are twenty-two names, all from, as the heading indicates, the Erechtheid tribe, one of the ten Athenian tribes, each of which supplied one division to the Athenian army. Multiply 22 x 10, and, assuming equal numbers of casualties from the other nine tribes, you get 220—pretty close to the 192 Athenians Herodotus says were killed at Marathon.

Lieu de mémoire. Between the heading and the list is a four line (two couplet) elegiac poem which helps us see how the Athenians started to think about the battle as they had traditionally thought of mythic heroism. Lines 2-4 are very clear; line 1 is partly effaced
and some of its readings are not clear. Here is the text as it appears in the first serious epigraphical publication (G. Steinhauer, Horos 17-21 (2004-2009) 679-92):

An inelegant literal translation:
Good report indeed, as it reaches always the furthest ends of
well-lit earth, will report the aretê of these men, how
they died fighting against Medes and crowned
Athens, a few having awaited the attack of many.

The stele  measures 0.68m high, 0.558m wide, and 0.265m thick. Cuttings on the sides indicate this piece was slotted into a row beside others. One assumes each of the ten tribes had one stele, and the ten formed a wall, as was the case with later Athenian casualty lists (and our Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC). If each stone had a four-line epigram,
the whole monument contained forty lines, by far the longest epigram known
until the fourth century.

As to literary quality, it seems as high as the best archaic private metrical epitaphs and the few known public ones. “Well-lit” may echo the Athenian epigram for the Tyrannicides, whose act in 514 BCE brought “light” (same Greek word) to Athens. The Marathon epigram also shows clear relationships to late archaic praise poetry: “fame” carrying men’s glory afar is paralleled as a beginning in two epinician odes of Bacchylides and exists in Pindar too; the image of “crowning” the city again echoes an important theme in epinician
poetry. The juxtaposition in the final line (“few:many”) is striking. It is likely that a professional poet was commissioned to compose this epigram, and it takes its place proudly among the Persian War epigrams known to us from both stone and transcriptions in literature.

It is not 100% certain that this stone commemorates the Battle of Marathon. The lettering looks like early fifth-century script, and “Medes” is the way contemporaries spoke of Persians (who included allied Medes in their armies). But the same could be said of any Persian Wars memorial. What really suggests Marathon are the circumstances of survival. The stone was found in a villa of the prominent early second-century CE Athenian aristocrat Herodes Atticus at Loukou near Kunouria in the northern Peloponnese. Latest thinking is that Herodes, who had another estate at Marathon, had the old monument there renovated; the famous grave mound still to be seen probably dates to his day,
and the casualty list seen there by Pausanias (1.32.3) was presumably Herodes’
replacement inscription. After the renovation, he took the old inscriptions down to Loukou and had them installed in his villa there.

While we celebrate in the tradition of Wabash and Greek commensality, others are holding academic conferences. Recently, Emory University hosted a symposium, followed by a 2.62 mile race to celebrate the original “Marathon.” There was a conference at the University of the Peloponnese in Kalamata, Greece. There is also an international Internet conference being held all this year, and you can listen to the lectures as they occur or at any time (podcasts are already up for the first lecture, by Paul Cartledge of Cambridge). For more information about the battle, you might have a look at two books published this year: the more scholarly is Peter Krentz’s Battle of Marathon (just released from Yale University Press), and the more popular is Richard Billows’ Marathon: The Battle that Changed Western Civilization (Overlook Hardcover; Lilly Library DF225.4 .B54 2010).

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One Response to The Battle of Marathon

  1. Joseph Day says:

    Corrections by the original author:
    (1) The stele shows a cutting only on its right surface, so it stood at the left end of some kind of larger structure. Tiny fragments of two other casualty lists were found nearby.
    (2) Pausanias probably saw the monument and inscribed name lists at Marathon before Herodes removed them to his villa. Scratch the comments about renovation.