Battles that saved Western Civilization

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. Changed… saved… Western Civilization.     

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Vienna in 1683, leading to the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary.  Changed… saved… Western Civilization.

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.   Indeed there are.  I read about it some years ago.

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.

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  1. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Dear Reverend Father,
    you surpass yourself. I have learnt two things today. Firstly that Our Lady was 72 at her Assumption (from the Norbertines of Chelmsford), a tradition of which I was wholly unaware, and now, from you, that the modern race was named after this battle after a poem from Browning. Via a frenchman to boot.

    O felix Dies!

    I retire to my bed happy!

  2. Gaetano says:

    September 11th also marked the 455th Anniversary of the relief of the Great Siege of Malta.

  3. Semper Gumby says:

    “I’m all for that, given who is running Persia now.” *chuckle* And thanks Fr. Z for the poem.

    Charles E. Flynn: That sounds interesting, I’ll have to take a look.

    Victor Davis Hanson, classicist and military historian, wrote a book in 2001 titled “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power.” Hanson’s thesis is that citizen-soldiers are more important than geography or technology when fighting totalitarian armies- though that over-simplifies his thesis, and Hanson is well aware of the importance of technology. Hanson looks at nine battles:

    1. Salamis 480 BC: a naval battle where the outnumbered Greeks defeat the Persians

    2. Guagamela 331 BC: Alexander the Great

    3. Cannae 216 BC: Hannibal delivers a sharp lesson to a large Roman Army

    4. Tours 732: Christian army defeats a Muslim army in France

    5. Tenochtitlan 1520-21 Conquistadors and Aztecs

    6. Lepanto 1571

    7. Rorke’s Drift 1879: Courage is not identical with Discipline (to expand beyond Rorke’s Drift: the Discipline of Western armies is not identical with the Obedience of totalitarian armies. An important exception: National Socialist Germany and “Blitzkrieg”).

    8. Midway 1942: A small U.S. Navy fleet defeats a superior Japanese fleet. (Also, this battle is called “the Miracle at Midway” for good reason.)

    9. Tet Offensive 1968: Victory on the battlefield does not automatically result in Victory at war.

  4. Semper Gumby says:

    A chef chimes in about the Battle of Marathon and fennel. No, not Gordon Ramsay, his vociferous comment would never make it out of moderation here, but Georgina the Baker:

  5. Semper Gumby says:

    Thomas Sowell: “If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism.”

    Ronald Reagan: “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.”

  6. Grant M says:

    I wonder if a certain manufacturer of running shoes was thinking of Nenikekamen when he branded his product.

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    @Semper Gumby:

    Thank you.

    Victor Davis Hanson has quite a body of work, including the introduction to The Landmark Thucydides.

    Victor Davis Hanson’s page

  8. JonPatrick says:

    I would add the battle of Vicksburg Mississippi 1863 which gained the Union control over the river and split the Confederacy on half thus dooming their prospects. If the Confederacy had won the US would likely have been balkanized like Central America rather than becoming one strong country able to fight for freedom in so many places in the 20th Century e.g the 2 world wars.

  9. Semper Gumby says:

    Charles E Flynn: Thank you for the reminder about VDH and Thucydides, no doubt VDH says something interesting about Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

    JonPatrick: An excellent point. Perhaps one could add Gettysburg and Antietam.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    In recent decades there have been many instances of cooperation between the West- the heritage of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome- and the Muslim countries of the Middle East.

    Though, the conflict between the West and Islamism- as evidenced by the battles of Tours and Lepanto mentioned above- will extend until the end of time. This conflict is an expression of the eternal, internal struggle: spiritual warfare.

    One day during May 2005 in Mosul, Iraq, a photojournalist and former Green Beret, Michael Yon, witnessed the stark nature of this conflict. The “Little Girl Photo” and the story behind it:

  11. Antonin says:

    @ Semper

    Though, the conflict between the West and Islamism- as evidenced by the battles of Tours and Lepanto mentioned above- will extend until the end of time. This conflict is an expression of the eternal, internal struggle: spiritual warfare.

    At one time it was the conflict between the West (the Church) and the Jews.

    So the godlessness of the Jews and the pagans is on a par. [?] But the Jews practice a deceit which is more dangerous. [?!?] In their synagogue stands an invisible altar of deceit on which they sacrifice not sheep and calves but the souls of men. [?!?!? Sorry… but I can’t let by. See ya.]

    As the saying attributed to Voltaire goes, “if you want to find out who rules you, find out who you can’t criticize.”

    To be clear we are not at war with either a Jews or Muslims. VII was clear on that point !we are at war powers and principalities of the underworld. [Paul to the Ephesians, not Vatican II.] The larger jihad is the internal one for holiness and submission. On that point we agree with the Muslims

  12. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks, Padre. If I could, a word with Antonin.

    Antonin: Take a breath, calm down, please read my comment again.

    “Jerusalem” is mentioned in the context of our heritage. You’re probably aware that “Typology” is the study of people and events in the Old Testament as precursors of people and events in the New Testament. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once made the reasonable point, “Salvation is from the Jews.”

    In my comment notice the distinction between “Muslim” and “Islamism.”

    This brings us to the news. Recently, there are reports of warming relations in the Middle East between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. No doubt you’d agree this is a positive development (it is also quite entertaining watching Libs, now that Pres. Trump is nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, book flights for Mars. But I digress).

    One last remark, returning to Muslims and Islamists. Here is a paragraph from the Michael Yon post from 2005 linked above:

    “One thing seems certain; the people in that neighborhood share our feelings about the terrorists. We are going to go back there, and if any terrorists come out, the soldiers hope to find them. Everybody is still very angry that the insurgents attacked us when the kids were around. Their day will come.”

    Grasp that point, Antonin, and young Farah will not have died in vain.

  13. Charivari Rob says:

    I wonder how many battles (in larger wars) the title could be applied to. Critical cogs in the wheel, “For want of a nail…”, etc…. Also, paths not taken – battles that didn’t happen, failures, overreach, choosing the correct/incorrect battles, shaping later landscapes….

    WWII Europe – technically, the Axis powers were western nations, but Western Civilization certainly needed saving from them. The British Empire hanging on in Battle of Britain, the war in the North Atlantic – supplying Britain and building up forces for invasion, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s decision to fight a two-front war, the partitioning of Germany, the Berlin Airlift…

    WWII Pacific – Pearl Harbor (overreach, waking a sleeping (well, maybe not giant then)), Midway, how the atomic bombs led to Japan’s surrender and precluded Russian participation in a land invasion and therefore precluded a Germany-style partitioning…

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  15. Semper Gumby says:

    Three more important battles for Western Civilization and, with our host’s permission, a lengthy look at one particular “citizen-sailor.”

    1. Zama 202 BC and Persistence after Defeat: After Hannibal defeated the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, the Romans landed in North Africa and defeated Hannibal. Rome began its rise to power in the Mediterranean and Europe.

    2. Milvian Bridge 312 AD and Constantine: In Hoc Signo Vinces

    3. Dunkirk 1940: Citizen-Sailors and Fortitude in the Face of Calamity

    In May 1940 the British, out of time and resources, used BBC radio broadcasts and telephone calls to quickly gather a flotilla of about 800 yachts, motorboats and fishing boats to help evacuate over 300,000 soldiers back to England.

    One skipper of a small boat answering the call was 66-year old experienced sailor Charles Lightoller.
    With his 58-foot motor yacht he rescued 130 soldiers while evading Luftwaffe fighter aircraft. Lightoller knew something about persistence and is a sterling example of a citizen-sailor.

    Born in 1874, he went to sea as a boy of 13. On his second voyage his ship was damaged in a storm in the South Atlantic and put in to Rio de Janeiro for repairs, at a time that the port city was undergoing a revolution and a smallpox outbreak. After leaving Rio the ship ran aground in the Indian Ocean, Lightoller and crew were rescued after being stranded for a week on a small, uninhabited island. On his next voyage, Lightoller’s ship successfully fought a fire at sea, but soon after he nearly lost his fingers while trying to pet a captured shark.

    Lightoller transferred to steamships, where he nearly died from malaria. Taking a break from the sea, he went to Canada and worked as a cowboy and gold prospector. But the sea was in his blood. He worked his way back to England as a cattle wrangler on a cattle ship.

    In 1900 Lightoller joined the White Star Line. On the night of April 14, 1912 Lightoller found himself in the mid-Atlantic as Second Officer onboard the Titanic. In charge of launching the lifeboats on the port-side of Titanic, he drew a pistol at one point to enforce the Captain’s order of women and children first. Lightoller stayed at his post and went down with the ship- literally.

    As the Titanic sank beneath him, Lightoller tried to swim for it but the suction pulled him under and pinned him against the grill of a ventilator shaft. Then, apparently cold seawater hit a boiler, there was an explosion, and Lightoller was promptly propelled back to the surface.

    Looking around, Lightoller noticed some men in the water nearby struggling to right an overturned collapsible boat that had floated free. Unsuccessful at this task, Lightoller and thirty other men stood on the overturned boat until rescue the next day, Lightoller calling out commands “Lean left! Lean right!” to prevent the boat from swamping as waves began hitting the boat.

    In 1914 WW I broke out and Lightoller was First Officer onboard the ocean liner Oceanic, which the Royal Navy promptly converted to an armed vessel to patrol the English coast. Within weeks, near the Scottish coast, the Oceanic ran aground and sank, Lightoller once again loading the lifeboats.

    In 1916, Lightoller was given his first command, a motor torpedo boat patrolling the English coast. Lightoller was on patrol one night near the mouth of the Thames River and observed a dark shape slowly moving through the night sky. Lightoller maneuvered his patrol boat and then opened fire on a German zeppelin on its way to bomb London. Instead of exploding, the zeppelin, with a damaged rudder, turned around and returned to Germany.

    Lightoller was given a medal for patrolling both sea and night sky, then promoted to captain of the Falcon, a destroyer patrolling the Dover Straits. One night in April 1918 while Lightoller was asleep in his cabin, the officer on watch ran the Falcon into a trawler and sank both ships. Lightoller was exonerated at court-martial and given command of the HMS Garry.

    In June off the English coast Lightoller detected a German U-boat, depth charged it, and when the U-boat rose or broached to the surface, Lightoller rammed the U-boat and sank it. At war’s end the Royal Navy gave Lightoller another medal, promoted him and placed him in the Navy Reserves.

    Lightoller and his wife now turned to innkeeping and chicken farming. In 1929 he and his wife purchased a 58-foot motor launch.

    In 1940 the 66-year old Lightoller, one of his sons and another sailor responded to the Royal Navy’s call for boats. Crossing the Channel, they evaded Luftwaffe aircraft and brought back 130 soldiers on a boat that had never held more than about twenty. After WW II Lightoller ran a small boatyard in London, building patrol boats for the London river police, and died in 1952.

    True, Charles Lightoller’s experiences are a bit above-average, but God bless Citizen-Sailors.

  16. Semper Gumby says:

    1979: St. John Paul II and Nine Days in Poland- not decisive, alot remained to be accomplished in the 1980s, but a landmark event in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union a decade later.

    1920: The Miracle of the Vistula- the Polish Army defeats the Soviet Army’s western advance into a weak post-WW I Europe.

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    The “culture war” continues:

    “Caviezel’s latest movie Infidel, directed by his friend Cyrus Nowrasteh, tells the story of an American journalist who is imprisoned by the Iranian regime after speaking out against the government’s Islamic totalitarianism.”

    “If we really have the freedoms we proclaim, that we have our inalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which are being taken from us right now — then that requires people to push back on an agenda,” he says. “When people sit back and do nothing, that’s when evil prevails.”

    “Is Caviezel worried that the film might offend Muslims? Not really, as he sees it. In fact, he believes the film could empower them. “While the rest of the world panders to extremists, the real victims are peaceful Muslims. The ones who aren’t extreme — they’re the group most oppressed by Islamic regimes, such as Iran.” He continues, “You’re not harming Muslims by taking a stand against radicals. You’re helping them.””

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