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The Battle Of Marathon: How An Attack On Tyranny Changed The Future of Civilization
“Two thousand three hundred and forty years ago, a council of Athenian Officers was summoned on the slope of one of the mountains that look over the plain of Marathon, on the eastern coast of Attica [a historical region of Greece]. The immediate subject of their meeting was to consider whether they should give battle to an enemy that lay encamped on the shore beneath them; but on the result of their deliberations depended, not merely the fate of two armies, but the whole future progress of human civilization.”
So wrote the English historian Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy (1812-1878), in the year 1851, in his famous book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo. By today’s reckoning, the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC, was 2,500 years ago this year.
The Battle of Marathon was a cataclysmic confrontation between the armies of the city-state of Athens, and a roughly ten-times-larger invasion force sent by King Darius of Persia to subjugate Greece and burn Athens to the ground. In that battle, a much smaller Athenian force successfully defeated the Persian invaders.
Winning the Battle of Marathon saved Athens, allowing 200-plus years of flowering of Athenian art, science, politics, philosophy and education which, through Rome and other means, came to be the very core of what we know as Western civilization.
Sir Edward chose this battle, and most of his “fifteen decisive battles”, because they helped preserve Europe from incursions by non-Europeans. The popular European view of the time was that “civilization” only existed in Europe – all others were barbarian. Had the Persians won, he is saying, it would have been the end of Athens, and therefore the end of “progress of human civilization.”
Today, in our more enlightened world-view, we don’t agree with Sir Edward’s view of civilization – Europe is certainly not the only civilization. The Battle of Marathon certainly was pivotal, however, for the future of Western civilization – arguably more than any other battle or event in history.
The Battle of Marathon tells us something more valuable than historical facts. It teaches us a vital personal lesson in courage and survival. There can often be a time when one must take a stand against tyranny – whatever is holding us back, keeping us down or stopping our lives from progressing.
It’s that nothing-to-lose, everything-to-gain moment when we must recognize that if this battle can be won, our life can change and our future reshaped as we want. If we lose, well, we’re already dying here.
This is how it all happened. Some years earlier, Athens, and the Greek city of Eretria, sent their armies to help the Greek city of Ionia in its uprising against Persian rule. They failed – but caused so much damage that Persia’s vengeful King Darius sent a massive naval task force, estimated by some historians at 600 or more ships and 100,000 or more archers and cavalry, to punish and destroy Eretria and Athens.
On their way to Athens, the Persian forces besieged and defeated Eretria as planned. They sailed on, and landed at the Bay of Marathon, near the town of Marathon, just 25 miles from Athens. To reach Athens, they would have to go through one or another of two narrow passes through mountains that ringed the plain.
The Athenians, learning of the invasion in advance, quick-marched their army to Marathon in time to blockade the two passes through the mountains. It is estimated that Athens could have mustered no more than 9,000 soldiers. Another 1,000 volunteers from the Greek city of Palataea brought the Greek force to perhaps 10,000 at most.
But this comparatively small Greek force was able to stop the Persian advance, at least temporarily. The Persians couldn’t attack in force through the narrow passes. For five days, the two armies were stalemated, neither advancing nor retreating.
Meanwhile, a runner (or runners) had set off for Sparta, the second largest Greek city-state after Athens, to send their armies immediately to Marathon. Without Sparta, the Athenians appeared lost, whatever current advantage they held.
But under cover of night, the Persians dispatched a portion of its fleet up the coast to attack Athens directly. Seeing this, the Athenians realized they were in a terrible situation. No force remained in Athens to defend against a Persian invasion. And as long as the remaining Persians threatened to pour through the passes, they could not be left unguarded.
Now we have come full circle, back to Sir Edward’s quote at the beginning of this article. The Athenian generals gathered their officers and laid out a desperate plan. Since the Spartans had still not arrived, the Athenians had no choice but to go it alone. In spite of being outnumbered, they must attack the Persians full on, and defeat them no matter what. But then, exhausted from this battle, they yet had to march quick-time all the way back to Athens, to intercept and defeat those thousands of Persians, now resting comfortably in their ships on their way to burn Athens to the ground.
In their favor, the Athenians had superior armor, shields and weapons, and fought in a deadly closed formation called the phalanx. The Persians had apparently dispatched their cavalry on the ships to Athens, and mostly archers, wearing nothing more protective than tunics, remained.
With nothing to lose, and everything to gain, the Athenians made their choice, and charged the Persians down through the passes. Screaming their blood-curdling war-cry and running at full speed, protected from the dense hails of arrows by their shields, they terrified and dispersed the Persians. Their heavy bronze armor and shields shattered Persian bone and flesh, driving the enemy back into the plain.
The Persian army was routed up the beach, and chased back to their ships or into swamps, where countless Persians drowned. The historian Herodotus records that 6,400 Persian bodies were counted on the battlefield. It is unknown how many more were lost in the swamps. The Athenians lost 192 men, and the Plataeans 11.
A small force stayed to guard the battlefield, and the rest of the army, as tired as it was, marched quick-time back to Athens, and arrived in time to prevent a Persian landing. Seeing they had lost, the Persians set sail for home.
The next day, the Spartans arrived at Marathon. They had covered 140 miles in three days – in other words, they ran all the way, and in full armor. Spartan troops and officers toured the battlefield, and agreed that the Athenians had won a great victory indeed. It is thought they greatly regretted missing the action.
An interesting sidelight is the somewhat apocryphal legend which tells of a messenger named Pheidippides, who runs the 25-plus miles to Athens bringing news of the battle, and then collapses and dies of exhaustion. True or not, the alleged feat has captured the imagination of students of history – and athletes – down through the ages.
To commemorate this accomplishment, the very first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, introduced “the Marathon race” – 25 or so miles, non-stop, from Marathon to Athens. From that, all long races have since been dubbed “marathons”.
On December 8, 2010, the United States House of Representatives honored the Battle of Marathon as one of the most significant battles in human history. They were not so much honoring Sir Edward’s Eurocentric view of civilization, but rather the always terrifying, but always crucial, life-changing, life-affirming decision to attack, to risk all for victory, and the preservation of everything that really counts.
At Novus, we help our patients fight what is often the most important battle of their lives – the conquest of substance abuse. These battles have always begun earlier, when each patient bravely makes that essential decision to take a stand and attack the tyranny of addiction and dependency.
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