Monday, October 10, 2011

Myth and Memory at Marathon


In Herodotus' narrative of the Battle of Marathon, Miltiades tells the wavering polemarch Callimachus, "It lies in your hands, Callimachus, whether to enslave Athens or keep her free and thereby leave a memorial (mnêmosuna lipesthai) for all the life of mankind, such as not even Harmodius and Aristogiton left behind them" (6.109; Grene 453). In Herodotus' version, Miltiades already conjures up the image of a battle at Marathon as a monument to freedom, and puts it even above the popular Harmodius and Aristogiton, the tyrannicides who killed the Pisistratid Hipparchus and died for their attempt to strike a blow for Athenian freedom. Miltiades is referencing some heady stuff, and it works: Callimachus agrees to vote to join battle with the Persians, and the rest is, well, history. Except that Callimachus dies in the battle, leaving Miltiades as the living hero.

We always feel nervous of course when reading stirring pre-battle speeches written long after the events described (see Evans 1993; Hammond 1968). Herodotus' account of the battle itself has been long criticized, but its interest lies in that he worked from vibrant oral traditions that show us how this event was being spun a generation or two after the first victory over the Persians. For example, there is the testimony of the veteran Epizelus, who went blind during the battle after seeing a huge phantom warrior kill the man next to him. Though unwounded, Epizelus remained blind all his life (the poor fellow is sometimes cited as an early case of PTSD). Herodotus spends a great deal of time defending the aristocratic family of the Alcmaeonidae against rumors of treason (6.121-31), which shows how contemporary political gossip (in this case, against the family of the great Athenian statesmen Pericles, the historian's contemporary) is woven into this account. The heroic speech of Miltiades may be an attempt at political rehabilitation, particularly after the ignominious end the general meets (which Herodotus does indeed recount, 6.132-40). So even admitting its distortions, Herodotus' account remains fascinating for what it conveys of the emerging significance of the battle to the Athenians.

But what kind of "memorial" is Herodotus' Miltiades getting at? In a way, Marathon was very quickly a place to be seen, literally. When the Spartans arrived too late for the battle, we are told, "they were nonetheless anxious to see the Medes; and so they went to Marathon and saw." Here we find the key to the memorial: "Thereafter, praising the Athenians and their action, they went home again" (6.120; Grene 457). The Spartans came and saw, and the glory of Athens was plain for all to see. From the start, the site of Marathon became a kind of center for military pilgrimage.

By Herodotus' reckoning, it was certainly an asymmetrical victory: 6,400 died on the Persian side, versus 192 on the Athenian. For their exceptional valor, according to Thucydides, the Athenians were buried on the battlefield, and not in Athens (2.34.5). The dead of Marathon became a constant topic in Athenian political oratory, which deployed the victory more and more as the prime instance of Athenian leadership, where the noble Athenian hoplites fought alone (sic) against the Persian hordes for the sake of all Greece. (See Loraux 1986: 155-171) So Marathon was both a topographical place and a topos of political rhetoric. We get a taste of this already in Herodotus' later account of the Battle of Plataea, when the Tegeans and Athenians bicker over who gets the place of honor on the wing before the battle. The Athenians cite various ancient and mythical exploits to their own credit, but then end by saying: is from what we did at Marathon that we are worthy to have this honor and others on top of that; for we are the only ones of the Greeks who have singlehanded fought the Persian, and, having attempted so great a deed, we triumphed and conquered forty-six nations. Is not this action alone en entitlement to this post in battle?  (9.27, Grene p. 624)
The Spartans shout in approval, and the Athenians get their way.

The dead heroes of Marathon were given a heroic burial on the battlefield; but "heroic" in what sense? There is a tumulus on the site of Marathon which for centuries has been identified with the 192 Athenians, though it is a strangely archaic and unlovely mound. James Whitely (1994) argued very interestingly that this was because the Athenians wanted to give them the grandeur of epic heroes, and so heaped up a burial mound over them like the ones described in Homer (you might recall the "grand, noble tomb" for Achilles built up on a headland in Odyssey 24.87-91 Fagles). So even as the Athenians buried the dead, myth and Marathon were intertwining.

Tumulus and (Modern) Stela at Marathon

It was customary for a victorious army to raise a trophy on the site of a victory; but this was a wooden stump with a panoply of armor on it, not meant to last forever. This was a common and ritualized aspect of military life. But at some point in the fifth century BCE, the Athenians raised a marble "trophy," and turned the battlefield into an official memorial of Athenian glory (Vanderpool 1966; West 1969). Scholars argue that this is a reworking of the Marathon story to serve Athens' imperial agenda: by claiming to have once saved Greece from the Persians, they assert their right to lead their alliance and collect their tribute. And of course at Marathon, the Spartans were not a part of the fighting, a point that loomed more and more important as the Athenians and Spartans became bitter enemies during the Peloponnesian War.

The mystique of Marathon remained long after Greece had fallen victim to the Macedonian and then the Roman Empire. Many centuries after the battle, the Greek geographer Pausanias visited the site and recorded these intriguing observations: 
[1.32.3] On the plain is the grave of the Athenians, and upon it are slabs giving the names of the killed according to their tribes; and there is another grave for the Boeotian Plataeans and for the slaves, for slaves fought then for the first time by the side of their masters.
[1.32.4] Here is also a separate monument to one man, Miltiades, the son of Cimon, although his end came later, after he had failed to take Paros and for this reason had been brought to trial by the Athenians. At Marathon every night you can hear horses neighing and men fighting. No one who has expressly set himself to behold this vision has ever got any good from it, but the spirits are not wroth with such as in ignorance chance to be spectators. The Marathonians worship both those who died in the fighting, calling them heroes, and secondly Marathon, from whom the district derives its name, and then Heracles, saying that they were the first among the Greeks to acknowledge him as a god.
[1.32.5] They say too that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquiries at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honor Echetlaeus (He of the Plough-tail) as a hero. A trophy too of white marble has been erected. Although the Athenians assert that they buried the Persians, because in every case the divine law applies that a corpse should be laid under the earth, yet I could find no grave. There was neither mound nor other trace to be seen, as the dead were carried to a trench and thrown in anyhow.
Here we see how effective the memorial has remained for six centuries: the fallen of Marathon are now on a par in hero cult with both the eponymous hero of the district and the great Heracles! Miltiades gets his own statue, while the Athenian soldiers' names are recorded by tribe, as indeed their contingents were organized in battle. What is even more interesting is this myth of the plowman Echetlaeus, now also a figure of hero cult, and the phantom battle at night that does neither good nor harm to anyone who witnesses it. While the marble trophy is mentioned, you'll also notice: the Persians cannot be found. 

In Athens, Pausanias was able to see the great illustrated cycle inside the Painted Porch (or Stoa Poikilê), done in the fifth century BCE, in which we see Marathon arrayed alongside the mythological battles of Theseus against the Amazons and the Greek army at Troy. Notice here how the native Athenian hero Theseus and Athena herself have joined the battle of Marathon:
[1.15.3] At the end of the painting are those who fought at Marathon; the Boeotians of Plataea and the Attic contingent are coming to blows with the foreigners. In this place neither side has the better, but the center of the fighting shows the foreigners in flight and pushing one another into the morass, while at the end of the painting are the Phoenician ships, and the Greeks killing the foreigners who are scrambling into them. Here is also a portrait of the hero Marathon, after whom the plain is named, of Theseus represented as coming up from the underworld, of Athena and of Heracles. The Marathonians, according to their own account, were the first to regard Heracles as a god. Of the fighters the most conspicuous figures in the painting are Callimachus, who had been elected commander-in-chief by the Athenians, Miltiades, one of the generals, and a hero called Echetlaeus [...]
Since the Athenians had camped in the precinct of Heracles at Marathon (Herodotus 6.108), that hero's inclusion is understandable. But now Theseus is seen rising up to assist his people in their great hour of glory. As for Athena, since the mid-fifth century BCE, a colossal bronze statue of this patron goddess had stood on the Acropolis, a work of Pheidias financed by a share of the Persian spoils at Marathon. This formidable statue was so huge the top of it was visible at sea once one rounded Cape Sounion (Pausanias 1.28.2). It loomed over Athens for a thousand years, until it was later removed to Constantinople.

Marathon in the 19th century
With so much emotional investment by the Athenians in both the Battle and site of Marathon, it is no wonder that in a later century, when the Greeks had long been subjected to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Byron should make of it a locus for musing about a possible Greek revolution:
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream'd that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians' grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
(The Isles of Greece, ll. 13-18)
Of course, we assume Byron uses poetic license to talk of the Persians' grave, which, as we have seen, was nowhere to be found even in Pausanias' day! After the Greek Revolution (1821-32), the site became a popular place to visit and plunder for artifacts—the odd spearhead or arrowhead. 

Today, the site has been converted into an archaeological park, the tomb mound placed in a manicured setting that reflects the natural location, but does not promise any ghostly nighttime battles.  It was constructed well ahead of time for the 2500 anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, which has generated a fair amount of scholarly reflection. And historians like Peter Krentz (2010) continue to walk over the battlefield to make sense of the victory and settle questions about how the Athenian hoplites could run a mile in all their armor.

It is hard to say why one place looms so large in the historical memory over others, but Marathon has indeed achieved the status of "pivotal moment" in history. Perhaps John Stuart Mill was just another victim of Athenian rhetoric when he proclaimed:
The true ancestors of the European nations (it has been well said) are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods. (Mill 1846: 343)

—Richard Armstrong

Works Cited

Evans, J. A. S. "Herodotus and the Battle of Marathon." Historia 42.3 (1993):279-307.

Hammond, N. G. L. 1968. "The Campaign and the Battle of Marathon." Journal of Hellenic Studies 88 (1968):13-57.

Krentz, Peter. 2010. The Battle of Marathon. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Loraux, Nicole. 1986. The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Mill, John Stuart. 1843. "Grote's History of Greece. Edinburgh Review LXXXIV (Oct., 1846): 343-77. Text available online.

Vanderpool, Eugene. 1966. "A Monument to the Battle of Marathon." Hesperia 35.2 (1966):93-106.

West, William C. 1969. "The Trophies of the Persian Wars." Classical Philology 64.1 (1969):7-19.

Whitley, James. 1994. "The Monuments that stood before Marathon: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Archaic Attica." American Journal of Archaeology 98.2 (1994):213-30.


  1. Thanks, Prof. Armstrong, for this really interesting post! I think, when I read of it, of the sometimes surprising ways in which Marathon echoes through western thought. Specifically, I am reminded of Plutarch's "life of Themistocles" in which he makes a great deal of Themistocles' envy of Miltiades. He would remark to his fellow Athenians that "Miltiades' trophy does not let me sleep." Plutarch is saying that Themistocles was spurred to his fine actions at Salamis by envy of Miltiades' accomplishment at Marathon.

    This story is raised a couple millenia later by Kierkegaard in his book "Fear and Trembling." He says that the person who speaks on Abraham (and, specifically, Genesis 22) must have as his aim to make the audience "sleepless." He remarks that all Athenians heard of Miltiades' achievements, but only one "was made sleepless by them." So also, he argues, must those who read the story of Abraham be.

    It is interesting how Marathon worked its way not only through the Greek consciousness, but into curious places like Danish Christian philosophers' encomia on biblical figures!

  2. Hey, thanks for the remarks! I'd forgotten about old Themistocles' obession, and didn't realize Kierkegaard was onto it too! Richard