2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, reenacted, sort of, at Marathon

According to one reckoning, today, 12 September, could be the anniversary of the Battle of Marathon (490 BC).  They are probably wrong, but… who cares?

Marathon is, of course, a Greek word (Mάραθον or modern Greek Μαραθώνας and ancient Μαραθών, Latin marathrum) meaning “fennel”.  The famous battle (related by Herodotus +425 BC) was likely fought in a fennel field, which grows wild in the in the eastern part of Attica.

This was one of the most significant event of ancient history.

You would have had to guess that if there are, 150 years after the fact, Civil War reenactors, then there are Marathon reenactors, 2500 years after the fact.

History brought to life as Battle of Marathon re-enacted

By John Hadoulis (AFP)

MARATHON, Greece — Sweating beneath heavy armour, a group of die-hard archaeology fans [Gotta be, at this time of the year.  But the Greeks don’t have jobs, for the most part, so that have some extra time.] brought the Battle of Marathon to life this weekend on the coastal plain where the fate of Europe dramatically changed 2,500 years ago.

Gathering from Europe, North America and Australia, [Hmmm… not Greeks after all.] the re-enactors staged a three-day event of combat, archaic culture revival and commemoration at Marathon Bay never before seen in Greece despite its rich archaeological heritage.

For many of the participants, it was also a personal pilgrimage after long years of arduous preparation and unfulfilled hope.

“It’s a dream come true after 10 years,” said Hywel Jones, a printer from Wales who came to Marathon with his wife Stephanie to fight as a Greek hoplite, the heavily armed infantry soldier of ancient Greece.

Most of the re-enactors had spent thousands of euros (dollars) on travel expenses just to get to this small town 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Athens that is better known for the long-distance race held here every year.

They brought with them family members as well as hand-made armour and kit crafted over the years at great personal cost.

“I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say that standing around is $1 million in kit and travel fare,” said Christian Cameron, a Canadian novelist and former US navy career officer who headed preparations for the event.

“What you see today is the product of 11 years of work,” added Andy Cropper, a university lecturer from England’s Sheffield region and member of a British historical revival association who arrived with several sets of Greek, Persian and Scythian armour in tow.

“It was worth spending the money because it’s such a unique event, as a Greek re-enactor, to be able to be on the field of Marathon,” he told AFP.

The re-enactors initially had to persuade their hosts in Greece that this was the correct moment to commemorate the 2,500-year anniversary of the 490 BC battle in the bay of Marathon.

“Originally everybody thought it was last year, and of course it wasn’t, as there’s no year ‘zero’,” Cropper noted.

Few in number but no less determined, the group showed they meant business from the start, setting up camp near the presumed battlefield, sleeping on straw-filled mattresses and serving up a simple diet of vegetables, fruit, cheese and water in wooden bowls and cups.  [I think I would have preferred a hotel and airconditioning in which to polish my greaves.]

Spare armour was quickly put to good use among the combatants as a set of last-minute cancellations and the loss of a large contingent from Bulgaria left the event badly short of Persian adversaries[Bulgarians!  PAH!]

“We would have had 15 more hoplites but what we really missed is that the Bulgarians were Persians, and that would have helped us a lot,” Cameron said.  [It still takes two to have a battle, I think.  Though if they are going for the PC outcoming, they wouldn’t be keeping score this time.]

Organisers had initially hoped for a turnout of 200 but had to settle for 50 battle-ready Greek hoplites and a handful of Persian archers[Reminds me of that scene in Gladiator: “The barbarian hoard!“]

They were also refused permission from the Greek culture ministry to access archaeological sites such as the tomb of the Athenian warriors slain in the battle, and the ancient Agora and Acropolis in Athens. [First question.  Was that because it would have required a government worker to, I dunno, work?]

But the municipality of Marathon was more amenable, providing logistical support [and open shops and restaurants and hotels] and allowing the group to hold a memorial ceremony to honour the Greek and Persian fallen at the battle’s victory monument.

“I think the town would like us to come back every year,” Cameron said, though the cost to the participants makes an immediate re-run unlikely.

“I think it would be three years,” he notes. “They want to do it again, we’ll do it better. Fifty people is a start, 500 is an achievable goal.”  [Now that the word is out!]

One of history’s most famous military engagements, the Battle of Marathon is also one of the first to be recorded by chroniclers.

It gave its name to the world’s premier long-distance running event, inaugurated during the first modern Olympics in 1896 in honour of an Athenian messenger believed to have run back to the city to deliver news of the victory, and subsequently dying of exhaustion.  [What was it Pheidippides gasped before he died?  “Just Do It!”?  Something like that. Maybe that’s the lame-duck ICEL version of Νενικήκαμεν!.]

Although only the citizen armies of Athens and Platea fought against the Persian levies that day, the battle galvanised the warring Greek city-states and demonstrated that the Persian Empire, the superpower of the age, could be defeated.

“People argue that it is the battle where the Greeks saved Western civilisation. People can equally argue that it was the moment at which a great civilisation, the Persian civilisation, lost control of the West,” Cameron said.

Battle of Marathon.  Very cool.  A great maneuver was involved and great discipline by the Greeks.  To make a long story very short, just as the much large Persian forces were shifting their position and loading their cavalry back into ships, the Greek general Miltiades sent the Greeks on a frontal attack charging over a mile in a tight formation to sweep through the Persian flanks.  As they collapsed, the Greeks focused on the center and as the Persian wings retreated, the Greeks forced an envelopment.  The Athenians sent a runner Pheidippides to Athens. 21.4 miles away.  He ran the distance, gasped “Νενικήκαμεν! Nenikékamen! We were victorious!”, and died.

Robert Browning, by the way, wrong about Marathon in his 1879 poem Pheidippides.

So, when Persia was dust, all cried, “To Acropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
Athens is saved, thank Pan, go shout!” He flung down his shield
Ran like fire once more: and the space ‘twixt the fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died – the bliss!

One man’s bliss…

Note the reference to fennel. Also the reference to the God Pan, who instilled “panic”, they say, in the enemy Persians. I’m all for that, given who is running Persia now.

This was the poem which inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin and other founders of the modern Olympic Games to invent a running race called the Marathon.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JMody says:

    Not only was the casualty count something insane like 4500 to 7, and not only did a messenger supposedly get sent to die such a poetic death. Another basis for the “race” is the fact that the Persians DID embark a sizeable chunk of their host and did set sail for Athens – if the Athenians hoplites were at Marathon, surely Athens was undefended. The Athenians ALL ran back in a period of about 4-5 hours, in the middle of the day, after their crushing victory. The Persians arrived (presumably rowing against a midday current or something) to find the Athenian hoplites waiting for them, and chose to quit the field.
    Now THAT must have been a sight — thousands of guys in hoplite gear tramping down the road in “the airborne shuffle” …

  2. Supertradmum says:

    Very cool, Father, and you are helping remind all of our Western Heritage. When I was teaching Greek and Roman history, this battle was one of the favourite topics of the students–this and trireme diagrams. If we all studied such things, we would understand our Greco-Roman-Judaic roots better and be better people. Love this entry…and for fun, http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/war/images/TriremePlan1.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/war/Trireme.htm&h=742&w=990&sz=66&tbnid=jg8vIp3ERIR5bM:&tbnh=83&tbnw=111&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dtrireme%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=trireme&docid=IDnUDDGje4W_EM&sa=X&ei=UtltTtzwLMW38QOKlrUx&ved=0CEQQ9QEwBQ&dur=290

  3. Kerry says:

    ????? ????. Or, in American, “Nuts”.

  4. Kerry says:

    Oops, the ????? was the Greek, Molon Labe.

  5. Charles E Flynn says:

    Marathon: The Battle That Changed Western Civilization [Paperback], by Richard A. Billows. The book appear to be available now, despite Amazon’s claim that it will be released on October 25, 2011.

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