The Idea of Marathon: Battle and Culture

Review by David Stuttard.

On an August morning just over two and a half millennia ago in 490 BC, a numerically inferior army of democratic Athenians, their liberated slaves, and Plataean allies won an overwhelming victory over Persian invaders on the plain of Marathon. The battle has been seen as a defining moment in Greek and Western history, but, as this wide-ranging book reveals, with changing values and expectations, views of Marathon’s significance have shifted over time.

Sonya Nevin divides her study into two main parts. The first concerns the battle, its context, and the cultural differences between its combatants; the second traces its reception from the moment when, just days after the victory, the Athenian dead – buried beneath a mound of Homeric proportions – assumed heroic, superhuman status. Nevin’s account continues through the 5th century BC, when Athens justified imperial ambition by propagandising her achievement in saving Greece ‘single-handedly’ (ignoring Plataea’s role); the 4th century, when opposing Athenian politicians weaponised the battle in point-scoring ideological debate; and the Roman period, when Plutarch used Marathon to praise ‘ambition, cooperation, honesty and bravery’ but lamented the infighting that soon spoiled the fruits of triumph; to more modern times, when archaeologists first dug the plain and travellers such as Lord Byron first visited. Having considered the battle’s role in modern children’s fiction (where Thermopylae enjoys more kudos), she concludes by observing (correctly, if depressingly) that most people today associate Marathon not with the battle but with a race whose origins are far from clear.

Throughout, Nevin employs a forensic approach, and readers will applaud the range of evidence on which she draws – from Greek orators and Persian inscriptions to modern archaeology and graphic novels. Yet even non-specialists will notice errors that mar this otherwise useful volume. Some are factual: for example, Nevin (twice) refers to Aristophanes’ Acharnanians (it should be Acharnians); she claims that the 6th-century BC Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was a wonder of the world (that status belonged to its later 4th-century incarnation); she mistakes Herodotus and Artemisia for Ionians (they were Carians); she notes that Alaric’s sack of Athens ‘in 500 CE’ was a millennium after Marathon (a neat anniversary were it true, but Alaric sacked Athens around 395). Others are grammatical and spelling mistakes. And, with the style veering from didactic to informal (a Pindaric praise poem shows ‘fantastic sass’), it is difficult to gauge Nevin’s intended readership. Which is a pity, since the idea of The Idea of Marathon is a good one, and for the most part it pays off.

THE IDEA OF MARATHON: BATTLE AND CULTURE, Sonya Nevin, Bloomsbury, Hardback, £75 & Paperback, £24.99, ISBN 978-1350157590.