BMCR 2010.11.02

The Battle of Marathon. Yale Library of Military History

, The Battle of Marathon. Yale Library of Military History. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2010. xx, 230. ISBN 9780300120851. $27.50.

Table of Contents

Give or take a few days, I write this review exactly 2500 years after one of history’s greatest upsets, the Persian defeat at the Battle of Marathon. Due to such a well-publicized anniversary, there is much talk of Marathon about, though there has always been an acute fascination with this most evocative of battles. In his new book on the subject, Peter Krentz aims to provide an account that is at once comprehensive, critical, and accessible to the scholar and general reader alike. The result is the best treatment of the battle now available.

Krentz’s most important argument is that Herodotus was right after all about the Greeks’ mile-long charge against the Persian line, that the charge was part of a carefully formulated plan of the Athenian general Miltiades, and that it was undertaken to minimize the effectiveness of the Persians’ deadliest arm, their cavalry. This thesis is supported by a number of scholarly excursuses, from a debunking of the standard view of the weight of hoplite equipment, to evidence that a charge of such a distance was well within the physical capabilities of 5th century Greek soldiers.

After an introduction in which he outlines the place of Marathon in Western culture and champions the possibility that the battle can be reasonably reconstructed, Krentz begins his account some twenty years before the battle itself. The situation in Athens following the expulsion of the Peisistratids is described in some detail, as are the threats faced by the fledgling democracy, notably Sparta and its interventionist king Kleomenes. Next, Krentz discusses Persia, the Mediterranean’s only “superpower” at the time, providing useful details about the Persian army, particularly the kinetic power of Persian arrows and the fighting tactics of the cavalry. The crux of this discussion is the Athenian embassy to Sardis in 507/6 that offered the traditional tokens of submission, earth and water. According to Krentz, it was only the alliance gained by this submission that saved Athens from an invasion by Sparta and its allies in 506. Athens was thus in Persia’s debt. At this point, Krentz embarks on a lengthy digression about Greek warfare in the late Archaic period, placing special emphasis on the evidence for the weight of hoplite equipment and what Greek writers actually meant by the word othismos, the apparent mass-shove of phalanx battle. The Ionian Revolt is then sketched, with the upshot being that by their participation in the burning of Sardis, the Athenians effectively reneged on their alliance with Persia in 506. A Persian assault on Athens thereby became inevitable.

Krentz devotes the next section to describing the plans undertaken by Darius to bring the Greeks to heel, beginning with Mardonios’s preliminary invasion of Europe and culminating in the naval expedition of Datis and Artaphernes and the attack against Eretria. The next chapter describes the deliberations at Athens once the Persians arrived at Marathon, and Krentz speculates as to which route the Athenian army took to reach the plain. Before reconstructing the battle itself, Krentz weighs in on the much debated locations of key landmarks on the plain, from the Greek camp near the Herakleion to where the two armies initially clashed. As Krentz himself states, the climax of the book comes finally in chapter 7 with a reconstruction of the battle proper. This is preceded by an analysis of the Athenian generals’ debate and a fascinating excursus on the feasibility of the infamous charge of eight stades. The next chapter deals with the aftermath of the battle, from the supposed shield signal to the Persians’ voyage to Phaleron only to be faced by the waiting Athenian army. Krentz ends the book with a short counterfactual section in which he surmises what might have happened had the Athenians lost the battle.

Let us explore some of Krentz’s central arguments. He proclaims himself to be an “unrepentant heretic” with respect to the supposedly orthodox view of the heavily armed Greek hoplite and the dense phalanxes in which he fought (45). For twenty pages (43-62) he presents his heretical take on the nature of Greek warfare at the time of Marathon, directly challenging some of the most tightly held notions of modern military historians. He is at his best in deconstructing the myth of a hoplite’s seventy-plus pounds of equipment, which can be traced not to any archaeological evidence, but rather the conjecture of German scholars in the mid-19th century. This conjecture was repeated by enough subsequent scholars that it achieved the status of hard fact. But closely examining the evidence from sources as varied as vase painting, the caches of armor and weapons at Olympia, and the equipment used by modern historical recreationists, Krentz estimates that a Greek hoplite in 490 BCE carried at most fifty pounds, and usually substantially less.

He then tackles phalanx battle itself, questioning especially the modern conception of the othismos, the mass-shove that has been compared to a rugby scrum. Krentz argues that this noun is actually quite rare in the major historians, and when it is used, along with the related verb otheo, it denotes countless instances of individual hand to hand combat that led to a gradual withdrawal of the losing side, rather than a rout in which one army completely collapsed under pressure from the tightly packed opposing force. For Krentz, factors such as the broken nature of Greek terrain and the less than uniform nature of soldiers’ equipment would have rendered the phalanx less densely arrayed than usually thought. He is right to assert that the ancient evidence is far more ambiguous than it is generally interpreted, but it is unlikely that he has had the last word in this debate. For example, how does a gradual withdrawal account for the seeming disparity in casualties between the winning and losing side in many hoplite battles? At any rate, Krentz’s work will compel many a scholar to reevaluate hoplite warfare.

The topography and monuments of the Marathon plain have been studied by numerous explorers and scholars for well over two centuries. Virtually the only landmark that has been identified to anyone’s complete satisfaction is the Soros, the giant mound in the center of the plain marking the burial spot of the Athenian dead. Krentz offers a fascinating overview of the relevant evidence and scholarship concerning the entirety of the plain. It has usually been assumed that the Soros was erected at the spot of the fiercest fighting, which has dictated most previous reconstructions of the battle. Krentz, on the other hand, argues that the fighting took place some distance to the northeast, roughly where the remains of the Greek trophy have been found and reconstructed. This trophy, argues Krentz, would have marked the point at which the Persian line was turned, literally the trope, and thus the true location of the battle.

As the Greeks would have crossed the widest part of the plain to reach this location, something had to be done to protect their army from the mobile Persian cavalry. Krentz, by the way, argues that the Persian cavalry was indeed present at Marathon, despite Herodotus’ silence and a note to the contrary in the Suda. Under the direction of the Miltiades, who had previously seen the Persian army in action, the Athenians charged for nearly a mile in order to reach the Persians before the cavalry could become engaged. We can accept the truth of this charge, the single most controversial aspect of Herodotus’ account, in light of Krentz’s earlier arguments as to the true weight of hoplite equipment. For good measure, Krentz adds some physiological data, including personal emails from soldiers in the modern American military, as to how far infantrymen could be expected to run and still be able to fight afterwards.

The book is throughout illustrated with images of Greek vase painting, Persian relief sculpture, maps, and even etchings of the plain made by early European travelers. There are two helpful appendices comprising an outline of the major primary sources for the battle and a discussion of the battle’s date, which are followed by a section of endnotes and impressive bibliographical essays for each chapter. All of this makes for an account that is fast-paced and exciting without coming up short in scholarly rigor.

I must note one curious omission. Having challenged the very foundations of Greek hoplite warfare, Krentz offers little description of the actual fighting once the Greek and Persian lines clashed. If the phalanx really was more loosely organized than traditionally thought, and if the Athenian army was made up of a ragtag band of fighters, including slaves, that brought along whatever equipment available, how did it contend with the Persian infantry? In other respects Krentz’s reconstruction of the battle is wonderfully imaginative. This reviewer, at least, would like to know how he imagines the countless individual combats taking place across a kilometer and a half of battlefront. Furthermore, if the Greeks charged so as to reach the Persians before the cavalry could be deployed, why then did the formidable Persian horsemen not engage the Greeks at a later point in a battle that Krentz himself agrees lasted a considerable amount of time? Finally, Herodotus’ description of the Persian breakthrough in the Greek center and subsequent flanking maneuver on the part of the Greek wings is sorely inadequate and has sparked contentious debate. Krentz addresses this issue only briefly. A map reconstructing this later stage of the battle would have been helpful. In short, once the battle lines had been set, once the charge had begun, and once Greek spear met Persian shield, why did the Greeks prevail?

These criticisms, though, ought not to take away from the importance of Krentz’s achievement. It seems that the volume of ink spilled over Marathon is in accordance with how large the battle looms in Western consciousness. Krentz carefully sifts through this copious material to produce an account of the battle and its context that is as engaging as it is useful. This stimulating book will be essential reading for anyone desiring to learn more about Marathon, from the geo-political background of the campaign and the lay of the land itself to the scholarly debates that have raged for over a century.