BMCR 2005.07.80

Marathon: Siedlungskammer und Schlachtfeld – Sommerfrische und Olympische Wettkampfstätte

, , Marathon : Siedlungskammer und Schlachtfeld : Sommerfrische und olympische Wettkampfstätte. Sonderbände der Antiken Welt. Mainz am Rhein: Von Zabern, 2004. 142 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 31 cm.. ISBN 3805333781 €41.00.

The title of Goette and Weber’s Marathon seems to align it with a number of other books devoted to a single ancient battle published in the last few decades. Of the battles of the Persian Wars, Marathon itself has been treated in accessible books by Alan Lloyd and Nicholas Sekunda, while Salamis has received attention from Barry Strauss and Thermopylae from Ernle Bradford.1 It is in its subtitle that G. and W.’s book stands out. Subtitles such as Lloyd’s The Story of Civilizations on Collision Course, Bradford’s The Battle for the West, and Strauss’s The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece — and Western Civilization follow a grand historiographical tradition by stressing the importance of the material contained by the book (with an orientalist frisson, or guilt-trip, thrown in). The subtitle of G. and W.’s Marathon promises a more eclectic treat: a vision of Marathon in ancient times as settlement and battlefield and of Marathon in modern times as seaside resort and site for Olympic competitions. It also differs from the works mentioned above in that it has the feel of a ‘coffee table’ book: the pages are glossy, generously sized (A4), and beautifully illustrated (there are 178 illustrations in all, more than half of them in colour). But while the book is evidently aimed at a popular audience (it was published in the year of the Athens Olympics), and could even be taken as an advanced guidebook for visitors to Marathon and its museum, it may still be of interest to ancient historians. And at another level the approach taken in the book raises some intriguing questions about the sort of diachronic history that can be written about a site like Marathon.

The opening chapter contains some brief reflections on the changing significance of Marathon in the aftermath of the World Wars of the twentieth century. Marathon, G. and W. point out, has become more famous for a race than for a battle, and its renown as a battle has been further dimmed by shifting cultural approaches to warfare and Achaemenid Persia and by scepticism as to whether it was as important as the Athenians claimed it was (see, for instance, George Cawkwell’s recent treatment in his significantly titled The Greek Wars: The Failure of Persia (Oxford, 2005)). The positive associations that Marathon has enjoyed are nicely caught through a glimpse at three moments from the late eighteenth, early nineteenth, and mid twentieth centuries: the renaming of a French town as ‘Marathon’ in honour of Marat; the English view of the Battle of Waterloo as a modern Marathon; and the invocation of the Marathon-fighters in the splendid address from the English people to the Greeks that stands at the front of the 1940 volume of the Journal of Hellenic Studies. There follows a discussion of the modern town’s attraction to Athenians as a weekend retreat and of the controversy over the building of a rowing course at Marathon for the 2004 Olympics; and a summary of the archaeological investigation of Marathon. This introductory chapter treats a lot of rather different issues in a slightly cursory manner. The interest in reception does prepare for one of the themes of the later chapters, where the story of Marathon is told in a more linear way, but with a number of scattered glances ahead to the later fame of Marathon (a nineteenth-century French painting of the Marathon messenger is reproduced, for instance, but not discussed or related to any other nineteenth-century portrayals of the runner). It also turns out that this chapter contains the only discussion of Marathon as Sommerfrische und Olympische Wettkampfstätte — two phrases of the subtitle that do not pull their weight.

The second chapter gives a helpful overview of the topography of the plain of Marathon, as well as an explanation of the name (any seedy excuse for a photograph of a fennel plant!). The third chapter sets out the mythological associations of Marathon for the Athenians. Marathon in prehistoric and Mycenaean times is then covered in seven pages (contributed by Walter Gauss), while Marathon in the Geometric and Archaic eras receives four pages. The sparse coverage is evidently the result of a lack of evidence, but it does beg the question: what is there distinctive to say about Marathon in these eras? Is it only because of the great fame of the battle that the general reader is expected to be interested in the earlier history of settlement near the battlefield?

The events leading up to the battle of Marathon and the battle itself are covered in two chapters that together make up a quarter of the book. Much of the material will be familiar to most classicists, and the material does not seem to be organised in the most gripping way possible. It is not clear what is gained by including some background on Darius and his reform of the Persian empire in the same chapter as an account of Miltiades that also looks ahead to his post-Marathon disgrace and to his later fame and an account of Herodotus that also glances at later sources such as Cornelius Nepos. The most valuable part of these chapters for many classicists will probably be the extensive discussion of the burial of the dead and the commemoration of the battle. Here textual and archaeological evidence are fruitfully brought side by side and a range of scholarly opinions surveyed. The material in the previous chapter on Miltiades’ subsequent fate would perhaps fit better at this point.

In the following chapter, the classical and Hellenistic ages are treated in 11 pages, and here the material does again become a bit disconnected. On p. 96, for instance, the heading ‘Ein Makedonenfeind und ein Philosoph’ is followed by two paragraphs on the politician Aristonikos of Marathon and by one paragraph on the philosopher Boethos of Marathon. The impression is that the authors are simply including anyone with a Marathon connection. The material in the next chapter on Roman Marathon is much richer, with a good discussion of the estate of Herodes Atticus and several texts and photographs of inscriptions. The Byzantine and Frankish periods, by contrast, fill a mere six pages — largely a description of the various churches in the Marathon area.

The final chapter traces briefly the origins of the Marathon race and the famous story of Spyridon Louis, the Greek victor of the first Marathon. The authors follow the widespread romanticization of Louis’ victory by calling him ‘ein Naturbursche’. More surprisingly, they claim that Louis was turned down by the Greeks and in fact running for the more tolerant Americans. They do not give a source for this claim; standard accounts (e.g. David C. Young’s The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival (Baltimore and London, 1986), which is excellent on the development of the Louis legend) state that he was accepted for the Greek team at their second trials.

The final illustration in the book (Abb. 178, p. 137) is said to show Louis standing next to the runner-up, his fellow Greek Charilaos Vassilakos. In fact the illustration’s own wording reveals that it shows ‘Les Olympioniques de la Course de Marathon, 1896-1906: Sp. Louis (Grèce) — M. D. Sherring (Canada)’, and even without the help of those words the second runner’s maple-leaf vest is a bit of a give-away. The Canadian is holding a medal while being congratulated by Louis (in his trademark Greek clothes) and crowned by a winged figure of Victory. And he is paired with Louis because he was the winner of the Marathon race at the games held in Athens in 1906 — games that were regarded at the time as ‘Olympic Games’, but now tend to be written out of the Olympic story.2 They were in fact meant to be the start of a regular four-year cycle of games in Greece, but these Greek Olympics were abandoned in 1910 owing to the political situation in Greece. The Marathon race held at the ‘Olympics’ of 1906 does at least suggest that the story of this chapter could have been taken beyond 1896.

The mistaken description of the picture of Louis and Sherring is not the only instance of sloppy editing. On p. 4, a quotation on Waterloo as the English Marathon is attributed to Thomas Gransow, and an endnote cites a website as the source. The passage is in fact taken (as Gransow’s website makes clear) from Ian Jenkins, “‘Athens Wiedergeburt in der Nähe des Pols’ : London, Athen und die Idee der Freiheit”, in C. Fox (ed.), Metropole London: Macht und Glanz einer Weltstadt (Bongers 1992), 143-54 (a German edition of the exhibition catalogue available in English as London – World City: 1800-1840). On p. 9 (and cf. p. 79), W. M. Leake is said to have been the first person to identify the large mound at Marathon as the burial place of the Athenians in ‘1849 erstmalig erschienenes topographisches Werk über die Landschaften Griechenlands’. The title of Leake’s work is given neither in the notes nor in the bibliography. Leake wrote several topographical works on Greece, almost all of them published before 1849. Did the authors mean to refer to his 1829 On the Demi of Attica, a volume hard to find nowadays?3 Or to his Travels in Northern Greece, first published in 1835, where Leake again identified the mound as the Athenian burial place? Whatever the intended reference, the mound had been identified with the tomb of the Athenians long before 1849. The singer of Byron’s ‘Isles of Greece’ may speak of ‘standing on the Persian’s grave’; but in the second canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (published in 1812) Byron wrote of ‘the violated mound’, and asked in a note: ‘what then must be our feelings when standing on the tumulus of the two hundred (Greeks) who fell on Marathon?’ And Leake’s 1835 volume was itself based on notes on a journey made three decades earlier. Besides these mistakes, the scholarly standards of the book are a bit slack: it is pleasing that references for inscriptions, illustrations, and primary texts are generally given in what is meant to be a popular work, but there are several places where references are missing. There are also a fair number of typos and mistaken references, especially in the (otherwise very useful) bibliography and in the notes at the end of the book.4

While this work may not solve — or set out to solve — all the mysteries of what happened at Marathon in 490 BC, it will be interesting to anyone keen to look beyond the events of that year both to the subsequent commemoration of the battle in antiquity and beyond, and to the earlier and later history of the site of the battle; and it is here, in illuminating the valuable archaeological discussions, that the book’s rich illustrations prove their worth. Paradoxically, it is the fame of the battle that has prompted this unusual focus on the longer story of Marathon. But G. and W.’s Marathon may also suggest broader questions about how the story of Marathon relates to the story of other rural parts of Attica and neighbouring regions; but it is not the aim of this book to answer those questions or even to raise them explicitly.


1. Alan Lloyd, Marathon: The Story of Civilizations on Collision Course (New York, 1973); Nick Sekunda, Marathon 490 BC: The First Persian Invasion of Greece (Oxford, 2002); Barry Strauss, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece — and Western Civilization (New York, 2004); Ernle Bradford, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (New York, 2004; 1st edn. 1980). These books pose a curious number of bibliographical problems: the British edition of Strauss’s book is entitled Salamis: The Greatest Battle of the Ancient World 480 BC (London, 2004); the British edition of Bradford’s book was entitled The Year of Thermopylae (London, 1980), while the 1993 and 2004 paperback reprints reversed the title and subtitle of the original 1980 US edition; and a new US paperback of Lloyd’s book has the subtitle The Crucial Battle that Created Western Democracy.

2. A query: why does the illustration call the runner ‘M. D. Sherring’ when in fact his name was ‘William J. Sherring’? And why is the same mistake found in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, iii. 849, s.v. ‘athletic sports’?

3. I have seen only the second (1841) edition of this work, when it was combined with Leake’s 1821 Topography of Attica. The 1841 edition does contain a discussion of Marathon (with an appendix on the battle); part of the discussion is explicitly marked as an ‘Additional Note of 1837’, so presumably the rest is unaltered. I am not sure why J. H. Marsden, A Brief Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late Lieutenant-Colonel William Martin Leake (London, 1864), 38, writes that ‘in 1841 the “Topography of Athens” came to a second edition, and a second volume was added to the “Demi of Attica”‘.

4. Most are fairly trivial, e.g. 4 ‘Perserkürnig’: read ‘Perserkünig’; 11 ‘Disseration’: read ‘Dissertation’; 77 and 78 ‘Eukleas’: read ‘Eukles’; 83 ‘Aemilianus’: read ‘Aelianus’. Note also that the Xenophon reference on p. 68 should be ‘III,3,12’, not ‘II,2,12’. In the bibliography, for ‘Baille-Reynolds’, ‘Doenger’, ‘Merrit’, and ‘Secunda’, read ‘Baillie-Reynolds’, ‘Doenges’, ‘Merritt’, and ‘Sekunda’; the dates of the Badian and Bury articles are 1979 and 1896, not 1977 and 1986; ‘Classical Revue’ (bis) should be ‘Classical Review’; Gomme’s initials are ‘A. W.’, not ‘W.’. In the notes: 140 n. 8 ‘Blunt’: read ‘Blount’; 141 n. 1 ‘K. Walter’: read ‘U. Walter’; 142 the date of Linton, Scenery of Greece, is 1869 (as on p. 13), not 1829 (though there was an earlier edition in 1856).