BMCR 2023.01.09

The idea of Marathon: battle and culture

, The idea of Marathon: battle and culture. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781788314206



This reader-friendly book provides more than it claims. It offers a handy overview of (Athenocentric) ancient Greek history and historiography from the 6th century BCE to its ancient and modern reception, focusing on the Battle of Marathon. The twelve chapters are preceded by a brief Introduction, where the author sets the stage at the twilight of the Persian Wars, elaborates on the influence of the name “Marathon”, and sets the book’s goals, namely, to explore the circumstances that led to the battle, the battle itself, and its cultural influence. Next, Nevin briefly introduces Greek historiography, (not surprisingly) highlighting Herodotus as the primary source of evidence—for herself as well as others—along with other literary texts, archaeological finds, and inscriptions.

The first five chapters are devoted to the events that led to the battle and to introductory information on Greece and Persia before the war. Chapter 1, “Athenians at a Turning Point”, offers an overview of Athens before the Persian Wars. First, the author emphasizes the changes of regime from oligarchy to tyranny to the shaping of democracy. She then draws attention to the elite families of the city and their role in politics. Finally, the chapter closes with general information on the Greek military, especially the hoplites.

Chapter 2, “The Greek World”, moves swiftly from Athens to Sparta, Boeotia, and Asia Minor. Nevin provides an excellent overview of Greek identity’s shared attributes during the Archaic Period, namely origin, language, customs, and religion. The interaction of the other Greek cities and areas with Athens is thoroughly explored. Especially in the case of Ionia, relations between Greeks and non-Greeks are discussed. The chapter ends with the Persians in Ionia, an ideal way to smoothly transition to the third chapter.

Chapter 3, “Persia”, discusses the Persian Empire, providing the historical context of its creation and expansion. It deals with various subjects, such as Persian identity, cultural characteristics, and economy. In addition to the historical overview and the presentation of crucial personalities, Nevin analyses Persian weaponry, drawing comparisons between the Greek and Persian militaries. The author handles her source material with care, also drawing from Persian evidence, which is important given that “we are disproportionately dependent on Greek sources” (p. 33), as she rightly points out.

Chapter 4, “Revolt in Ionia”, explores the events and the cause of the Greek-Persian Wars, stressing the importance of the Ionian Revolution. Nevin takes a fresh look at how Darius’ shifting from his predecessors’ manner of governing triggered the Revolt. She demonstrates how Aristagoras’ unfortunate attempt to take over Naxos in favor of Persia resulted in Miletus’ revolt against Persian authority. She then provides an overview of the formation of the Ionian League and the Ionian Revolt itself. Nevin uses some archaeological finds, in addition to the historical sources, “as evidence of siege [that] can be seen in the archaeology of Paphos” (p. 57), referring to a Persian siege of Cyprus, but unfortunately does not cite her archaeological sources, a practice which is not helpful for convincing the reader. This is a problem throughout the book.

Chapter 5, “The Plain of Marathon”, primarily deals with Hippias, Datis, Artaphernes, and Miltiades, while only two pages discuss the plain (p. 69–70). Some basic information on the topography of the Marathon plateau is given. Note 14 cites some of the main publications on the subject, but the omission of Dionysopoulos’ monograph is a serious one,[1] as many topographical issues have been reconsidered since the most recent publication mentioned, that of van der Veer in 1982.[2]

The following two chapters pursue the battle and the events immediately after it. In Chapter 6, “The Fight”, after briefly discussing the mythical stories of gods and heroes who contributed to the fight, Nevin presents the various theories and interpretations of the battle formations and the role of the Persian cavalry. The narrative continues to follow Herodotus, as does the whole book, but especially here more space given to modern scholarship. This chapter is a good sample of the author’s excellent knowledge of the subject and her critical approach to literary texts, as she challenges the sources, e.g., on the numbers of combatants, and she also notes possible anachronisms.

Chapter 7, “Surviving Marathon” continues this inquiry, examining the events immediately after the battle. Nevin convincingly characterizes as symbolic the Athenian army’s two visits to sanctuaries of Heracles on its way home. She investigates the original Marathon road, concluding that we must not rely on the details that could be fictional. The author continues with the treatment of the wounded and a brief note on the spoils, which either benefited the Athenian treasury or became offerings to the gods. Alongside Miltiades’s helmet, a reference to a second helmet dedication, taken as booty, is omitted.[3] The chapter concludes with the treatment of the dead. In respect to the tumulus, we shall note that Antonaccio first stated the idea that it was adapted from an earlier tomb.[4] Also, a mention of the cenotaph at Kerameikos would have been welcome.[5]

In the remaining five chapters, Nevin investigates the battle’s impact from antiquity to modern times. Chapter 8, “Events after Marathon”, touches on numerous topics  in a few pages. First, the author explores the effects of this battle on the Persian Empire, concluding that they were insignificant. Then she proceeds with the significance of Marathon in shaping Athenian identity, concluding that this battle eventually became its cornerstone. Next, the author presents an overview of the commemorative monuments and of festivals established in honour of the event. She continues with Miltiades’ decline and death to the formation of the Delian League. Finally, the chapter closes with Aeschylus’ Persians; Nevin shows that this tragedy signifies the beginning of the process of shaping Greek (Athenian) identity through reference to the Persian Wars.

In the first part of Chapter 9, “Memories of Marathon in Fifth-Century Art and Literature”, she stresses the importance of the Athenian Treasury and other Cimonian monuments at Delphi. Again, only Pausanias is mentioned, although the monuments themselves have been excavated and published.[6] She proceeds with more discussion of material culture, the Stoa Poikile, pottery, and the Temple of Nemesis. The chapter closes with an examination of historiography and theatrical plays.

Chapter 10, “Marathon beyond the Fifth Century”, surveys the presence of the battle in the oratorical speeches, philosophy, and historiography from the 4th to the 2nd centuries BCE. The author shows how Athenian rhetoric and propaganda kept using the battle in various circumstances. Conversely, she demonstrates how and why Alexander did not use Marathon in his symbolic anti-Persian gestures. This chapter offers a summarized overview of Greek history; it deals more with the Greek-Persian Wars’ impact in general rather than Marathon in particular.

Chapter 11, “Marathon under Rome”, proceeds from the Hellenistic to the Roman Imperial Period. After discussing relevant passages from Pausanias, Lucian, and especially Plutarch, Nevin convincingly concludes that these authors did not emphasize who fought (as was the case in Classical/Hellenistic Athens) but rather the virtues connected with the battle.

Chapter 12, “Marathon after Antiquity”, brings together much interesting material. It opens with an 11th century CE Persian epic, Wamiq u ‘Adrha, which follows Miltiades’ son, Mentiochus. Then it outlines Marathon’s survey and excavation history, from the original antiquarian projects (Chandler, Fauvel, Leake) to the formal excavations (Schliemann, Philios, Stais). Probably Fink’s monograph deserved to be consulted here.[7] Finally, Nevin’s narrative reaches the modern era, with the development of the Soros into an archaeological site. More elaboration or a reference was needed on the long debate concerning the Soros’ identification as the Athenian Tumulus.[8] Next, the author notes the erection of the Marathon Archaeological Museum, for which a citation is also needed.[9] Nevin mentions the copy of the Aristion monument next to the Soros, but she fails to mention the marble replica of the Trophy set near its original site after Korres’ comprehensive study.[10] Finally, a book dealing with the reception of the Battle of Marathon would greatly benefit from a reference to the 1929 copy of the Athenian Treasury of Delphi, constructed by Ulen next to the Marathon Lake’s dam, and ideally a discussion of its symbolism.[11] Next, Nevin deals with Byron’s poetry and its resonance. A sub-chapter follows on 19th-century European youth’s classical education and an excellent overview of the modern Marathon run, demonstrating the influence that Browning’s poem may have had on its shaping. Again, a reference to the Marathon Run Museum is missed.[12] Then the author jumps to the use of Marathon in the propaganda of the military dictatorship in Greece and sketches the situation in 1930s Persia-Iran. The chapter ends by focusing on 21st-century novels on Marathon.

A short afterword sums ups the book conveniently, highlighting that “Marathon is also a story of how events are remembered” (p. 191). A concluding  index, as well as opening lists of Illustrations and Abbreviations are provided.

Throughout the book, Nevin provides a helpful overview of Greek history, to which she incorporates the presence and the use of the Battle of Marathon. The structure is clear and easy to follow. Some translated ancient texts, mainly Herodotus, contained in the text are useful to the reader, and translations are generally accurate. The book is also commendably readable and virtually without misprints (exceptions: p. 19 Aeolians from Aeolus, not Aeolis, p. 131 Acharnians, not Acharnanians) or inconsistencies (the three citations to Inscriptiones Graecae are inconsistent p. 205 note 13: IG I31472; on the same page note 28: IG ii 1.47I and on page 209 note 46: IG I3 435). In contrast, the publisher did not pay attention to the quality of the few illustrations (11): the line drawings are faint, the legends on the maps are barely readable, and the only vase photograph (fig. 11) does not meet publication standards.

My main criticism of this volume would be its limited bibliography and the scarcity of references or citations within the body of the text, as has already been noted above. Be this as it may, Nevin offers readers many interesting observations that provide much food for thought. There are a few inaccuracies/overgeneralizations, e.g. (p. 6) the Panathenaea (from the context we get the Great Panathenaea) are mentioned as an annual festival, while they were in fact celebrated every four years (as opposed to the Lesser Panathenaea, which were annual) or (p. 65) the modern Marathon Run is not from east to west Attica, but central, still closer to the east.

The writing style is by no means academic, yet it is graceful. Accumulations of excessively short sentences (e.g., p. 86: “Narrow paths. Soft soil. Water. Plants. Panicked men.”) and informal vocabulary (e.g., p. 6 “‘Tyrant’ was not a dirty word”, [on Corinthian helmets] “they looked fantastic”, [on Spartans] “They were not super-soldiers”, “smaller players Plataea, Thespiae and Tanagra”, “Mission on”, “Fantastic sass”, etc.) show that the book targets a larger audience than just fellow classicists. That probably explains the scarcity of secondary sources. Given the intended readership, most of the issues mentioned above are also irrelevant; Nevin’s writing could be nothing but successful in attracting non-specialists. The book is straightforward to read and offers a short, concise, and informative overview of the Greek-Persian Wars and their reception. It therefore represents a welcome addition to the vast bibliography on Marathon and ancient history in general. Newcomers to the study of classics, undergraduates, or interested members of the public looking for an overview of the Battle of Marathon will find this volume very useful.




Antonaccio, C.A. 1995. An Achaeology of Ancestors. Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece. Lanham.

Dionysopoulos, Ch.D. 2015. The Battle of Marathon. A Historical and Topographical Approach. Athens.

Fink, D.L. 2014. The Battle of Marathon in Scholarship. Research, Theories and Controversies since 1850. Jefferson, North Carolina.

Korres, M. 2017. “Το Τρόπαιον Του Μαραθώνος. Αρχιτεκτονική Τεκμηρίωση.” In Giornata Di Studi in Ricordo Di Luigi Beschi / Ημερίδα Εις Μνήμην Του Luigi Beschi: Italiano, Filelleno, Studioso Internazionale. Atti Della Giornata Di Studi, Atene 28 Novembre 2015, edited by E. Greco, 149–202. Tripodes 17. Atene.

Petrakos, V. 1996. Marathon. Athens.

Raubitschek, A.E. 1940. “Two Monuments Erected after the Victory of Marathon.” American Journal of Archaeology 44 (1):53–9. doi:10.2307/499590.

Robinson, B.A. 2013. “Hydraulic Euergetism. American Archaeology and Waterworks in Early-20th-Century Greece.” Hesperia 82 (1):101–30. doi:10.2972/hesperia.82.1.0101.

Scott, M. 2010. Delphi and Olympia. The Spatial Politics of Panhellenism in the Archaic and Classical Periods. Cambridge; New York.

Steinhauer, G. 2009. Marathon and the Archaeological Museum. Athens.

Valavanis, P. 2010. “Σκέψεις Ως Προς Τις Ταφικές Πρακτικές Για Τους Νεκρούς Της Μάχης Του Μαραθώνος.” In Marathon. The Battle and the Ancient Deme, edited by K. Bouraselis and K. Meidani, 73–98. Athens.

———. 2019. “What Stood on Top of the Marathon Trophy.” In From Hippias to Kallias. Greek Art in Athens and Beyond. 527-449 B.C., edited by O. Palagia and E. Sioumpara, 145–56. Athens.

van der Veer, J.A.G. 1982. “The Battle of Marathon: A Topographical Survey.” Mnemosyne 35 (3):290–321.



[1] Dionysopoulos 2015.

[2] van der Veer 1982.

[3] Museum of Olympia no. B 5100.

[4] Antonaccio 1995, 118–9.

[5] Raubitschek 1940.

[6] See Scott 2010, 77–81 with previous bibliography.

[7] Fink 2014.

[8] For the debate see Valavanis 2010, 73–98.

[9] Petrakos 1996; Steinhauer 2009.

[10] Korres 2017; Valavanis 2019 with previous bibliography.

[11] Robinson 2013.