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Billows, Richard A.: Marathon

Overlook Press, 304 pages
1st published: 2010
4 stars

Note: Review copy received from publisher. Amazon affiliate: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price.

In 490 B.C.--2500 years ago next year--a Persian army landed at Marathon, about 25 miles northeast of Athens. The King of Persia, Darius, was intent on punishing the Athenians for their involvement in the burning of the Persian capital Sardis some years earlier. But against all odds, the army he sent to subdue Athens wasn't up to the task. The Athenians were significantly outnumbered. The Persians were a formidable war machine. And yet some 10,000 Athenians and fewer than a thousand of their staunch allies, the Plataeans, managed to send the Persians limping back to Asia. The score card in the end: an astonishing 6400 enemy dead against 192 Athenian and 11 Plataean losses. In his book Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, Richard Billows argues--and he's right, to my mind--that the battle of Marathon was a a turning point in western history: had the Athenians lost that day, Greek history, and western civilization, would have developed very differently.

Billows makes his case for Marathon as a decisive battle in his introduction, where he further discusses the three "legends" of Marathon: how the Athenians themselves held the victory up as a defining moment in their history; how, beginning in the mid-19th century, Marathon came to be appreciated by modern scholars as a pivotal event in world history (although in academic circles nowadays the notion of the "decisive battle" is unfashionable); and finally, how Marathon came to be associated with the modern "marathon" race.

After beginning his book with this focus on Marathon, Billows spends the next 150-odd pages discussing the background to the battle. In chapter one he gives readers a thumbnail history of Greece from the time of Homer to the eve of the Persian Wars, including discussions of hoplite warfare, Spartan society, and lyric poetry. Chapter two is an introduction to Persia, its geography and religion, the creation of the Persian Empire and its expansion and organization under its first three kings, Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius. Chapter three focuses on Athens: the reforms of Solon in the early 6th century B.C., the tyranny of Pisistratus and his son, Cleisthenes' democratic reforms, and so on. In chapter four Billows discusses the Ionian Revolt, when the Greek states on the coast of Asia Minor attempted--with the help of the Athenians--to free themselves from Persian control.

Having set the stage in his first four chapters, Billows finally returns to Marathon in chapters five and six. In the former he discusses the battle itself, and in his concluding chapter he provides a quick overview of what happened after Marathon--the political, military, and intellectual developments of the rest of the 5th century and some of the 4th. In closing, Billows returns to the subject of his introduction, arguing again that Marathon was a decisive battle by considering what would have happened had the Athenians lost:

  • The Athenians who survived the battle would have been deported and resettled somewhere near the Persian Gulf
  • The Persians would have subjugated the rest of Greece
  • The Athenians' various intellectual achievements--the great tragedies of the 5th century, the comedies of Aristophanes; the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato; Thucydides' History--would not have existed to inspire subsequent playwrights and intellectuals
  • Athenian democracy would have ended a mere 15 years after its creation, a failed experiment:
"What that would have meant for the later history of democratic theory and democratic governing systems can only be guessed at; but it is obvious that without its most successful model, the story of democracy in ancient Greece would have [been] very different and likely much poorer; and the concept of democracy as a viable governing system, indeed the whole vocabulary of democratic politics, would have been radically different."

Billows's Marathon is a sober, competently written book. I think there is some potential, however, for readers to be disappointed with it: the book's title and subtitle suggest that the focus of the book will be squarely on the battle of Marathon and its consequences. What one gets, however, is slightly different, an introduction to Greek history as a whole that culminates in the battle of Marathon while making a case for the battle's importance. Billows provides much more background information than is really necessary for a book aiming to introduce readers to Marathon (the nitty-gritty of Solon's economic reforms, for example). One may contrast this approach with Barry Strauss's The Battle of Salamis, which, while by no means leaving the reader in the dark about the context of the naval battle, is much more focused on Salamis than Billows is on Marathon. So the title of Billows's book feels a bit like false advertising. It is, however, a very good (if not very exciting) introduction to Greek history that will be accessible to the general reader and to undergraduates. 

Comments

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