March 17, 2011


The true heroes of the Battle of Marathon: The Athenian victory put the fledgling democracy beyond any threat of challenge or coup (Peter Thonemann , 3/16/11, TLS)

[A]s Peter Krentz argues in The Battle of Marathon, Billows’s picture of the classical Greek hoplite as a kind of bronze-clad human Panzer is untenable. The full hoplite panoply may have weighed as little as twenty-eight pounds, and most of the 22,000 Athenians at Marathon would have carried only part of the full kit: spear, shield and maybe a helmet. The Athenian democratic army at Marathon probably looked little different from any Greek military force of the preceding three centuries: a loose formation of poorly trained, variously equipped farmers and fishermen, with the odd flash of aristocratic bronze among a lot of leather and cornel-wood. Greek hoplite forces of the early fifth century had not really evolved far from the rag-tag armies of Homer’s Iliad; certainly not enough to inspire a political and cultural revolution.

Krentz’s disencumbering of the Athenian hoplite seriously undermines Billows’s military determinism, and incidentally goes a long way towards vindicating Herodotus’ account of the Athenian charge at Marathon. Indeed, in most respects, it is hard to imagine that Krentz’s account of the events of that sweltering day can be improved on: the maddeningly elusive topography of the Marathon plain, in particular, has never been better treated. If only he had taken the democratic character of the Athenian army a little more seriously. Both Krentz and Billows credit the victory over the Persians to the generalship of an unattractive Athenian aristocrat by the name of Miltiades. “Miltiades had developed a uniquely innovative and complex plan of battle”; “Miltiades decided to take the risk of thinning out his phalanx”; “Miltiades deserves to receive more credit as a brilliant general and leader than he generally gets”.

I disagree. Miltiades was not in command of the Athenian forces. In his account of the lead-up to the battle, even Herodotus (no detractor of Miltiades and his family) makes it quite clear that the army was run on strictly democratic lines. Operational strategy was formulated by vote among the ten elected generals of the ten tribal contingents, Miltiades among them. The most that Herodotus claims is that when the ten tribal generals found themselves divided five against five over whether to force a battle, it was Miltiades who persuaded the overall commander of the army, Kallimachos the War Archon, to deliver his casting vote in favour. On the day of the battle itself, Miltiades held the presidency of the ten generals, but the army remained under the overall command of the War Archon, an elected official of the Athenian state.

We should insist on this radical dimension to the Battle of Marathon and its commemoration. This was a victory without a hero. No single individual, not even Miltiades, ever succeeded in claiming the victory as his own. The other nine tribal generals, democratically elected and exercising collective leadership by vote, were quietly forgotten. Despite a lavish monument in his honour on the Athenian Acropolis, even Kallimachos, who died in the course of the battle, never became a name to conjure with. At the unveiling of Kallimachos’ monument at the new Acropolis Museum at Athens in October last year, Pavlos Geroulanos, the Greek Minister of Culture, got it exactly right: “Today we are not unveiling the monument of just another ancient general, but rather a monument to a democratic decision, a democratic vote, that changed the course of history”.

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Posted by at March 17, 2011 6:14 AM

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