For most Americans, this date is a milestone in self-reflection and picking up pieces, a flag in the sand for how we react to tragedy shortly after something loud and terrible blindsides us. And for most of us, it is simply the day after the worst attack on American soil.
Yet millennia ago, East and West clashed bitterly on the 12th of September, 490 BCE in the field of Marathon north of Athens. And the battle that ensued was a meteoric victory for the Western World, which Persian despots were threatening to snuff in its very cradle.
I recently had the privilege of reading The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, by defense analyst and embedded war journalist James Lacey. This little gem fits into my ongoing enrichment on Hellenistic culture for which I have set this year aside. So when I am not delving into Torah or the Prophets, you can probably find me somewhere in classical history, art, myth, and philosophy. In the antique lays, art had discipline, myth lent meaning, and the philosophy was plucky and optimistic, yet to be tainted by the dismal nihilism and cold scientism of later eras. And yet at the same time, the Greek way of war was traumatic and brutal, seemingly out of place to exist alongside an Athens that would produce Socrates, sophists, mathematicians, stylish porticos, and higher mind. It was as though all the prodigies of freedom such as commerce, debate, and education required – demanded – austere readiness, armed citizens, and human grist for the giving harvest of liberty. Liberty and its costs were minted on obverse sides of the same silver drachma.
Lacey’s book is about a decisive victory, but most of its ink (if you are still into print) is not devoted to the battle itself, but instead the culminating political and geographic tensions leading to the engagement and the ensuing significance emblazoned in the Greek imagination for generations to follow. In meticulous and somewhat weedy detail, Lacey rebuilds for the readers the Persian Empire and lays bare the sources of its great strength, and exposes its hidden weaknesses. He then turns his attention to the social soul of an emergent Athens as it rose to its commercial heyday in pottery, silver, and olive trade. Taking stock of the preludes to war, Lacey weaves a tight yarn of causality and mishap that led to the eventual collision of both powers.
So let me disabuse you of some common misconceptions.
The Spartans were not the freedom doves we saw in the film 300. The majority of their Laconian population were slaves, and they actually conquered and enslaved their Peloponnesian neighbors in Messenia and subjected them to a brutal overwatch. Spartan society was structured so that neighbors worked the fields under the lash, enabling Spartan citizens to train full-time and cementing a dependency culture on their own helots. In fact, in order to absolve themselves spiritually of the institutional example-making on Messenia, Sparta would annually declare war on their unfortunate slaves. The strict and paranoid Spartan state hunkered their society into constant readiness to mobilize and put down slave revolts, dampening their political will to send their army on distant expeditions and leave their land unsupervised. This abiding fear of losing all their gains chained them geographically, and I’ve come to see the Spartan army less as defenders and conquerers and more as a corps of overseers for this very reason.
The Athenians were more than educated, boy-loving fops. While Sparta’s claim to the best infantry in Greece was undisputed even by her enemies, Athens could hold their ground on land as well. For example, the Spartan army of Cleomenes marched on Athens in the Spring of 507 BC aided by Thebians and Chalcidians. Regardless of the scant details we have of how this situation resolved, we do know that the Athenian army managed to stare down the Spartans and send them marching back to Sparta, perhaps anxious that heavy losses would incite a slave revolt back home. This ongoing slave dependency would continue to play out as a hobbling weakness for the totalitarians abroad. After the main invasion force departed, the Athenians immediately turned on Sparta’s opportunistic allies with a vengeance and delivered them a chastening defeat on the open field. The formidability of Athens was manifest on that day; one does not simply send Sparta packing and dash its allies with a city of dandy aristocrats. Even in the battle for which this book is concerned, Athens fought at Marathon alone and outnumbered without Sparta’s tardy reinforcements, claiming the first victory in the epic war to come.
Yet for all that landlubberin’, Athens enjoyed a peerless naval supremacy. Equipped with swift and slender triremes beaked with battering rams and manned with archers and marines for amphibious assault, the Athenian navy dominated the tradewinds and waterways, capable of circumventing enemy defenses entirely and dropping attack forces deep into their hinterlands. This far-reaching mobility reminiscent of airborne parachute infantry stands in sharp relief with insular Sparta, an army of obligated slave overwatch.
There was more to the Persian army than sheer numbers. While it is true that Persia’s sprawling land empire and deep coffers allowed them to draft what would seem to the Greeks as silos of endless reserves, many battle-hardened veterans from the Ionian Revolts constituted the invasion force. The Persians marched with a professional army.
If there were a weakness to be found in Persia, it would be this: to the horse cultures of the eastern steppes, infantry was merely a final mop-up crew after archers and flanking cavalry scattered the foe, while to the scrappy Greeks infantry was paramount.
Lacey joins the likes of Victor Davis Hanson in hailing this era for its adumbration of a definitive “Western way of doing war,” as I would paraphrase it.
According to Hanson, the Western way of war rests on five principles that first manifested themselves at Marathon:
1. The use of superior technology to compensate for inferior numbers.
2. The exaltation of discipline, which turns individuals into organized units capable of unified action and sustaining horrendous levels of punishment.
3. An aggressive military tradition that seeks decisive battle.
4. The ability to change, adapt, and innovate over time and as required by changing circumstances.
5. The creation of dynamic financial systems able to accommodate the expense of this type of technologically intensive and highly destructive warfare.
Lacey, Jim. The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization (Kindle Location 2808). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The First Clash achieves what it set out to do: to contextualize, narrate, and cast meaning over a momentous battle scarring and bedazzling the memory of a people finding themselves in that all-too-familiar nightmare of when killing fields come home. This victory tested the mettle of the West, pitted democracy against monarchy, and pushed the limits of human endurance to punishing extremes with no respite between a day of vicious fighting and a 26-mile hell march that became the namesake of a sacred race.
I could go on, but I won’t. I hope my crumb trail of intriguing insights is enough to pique your interest. For those of you unfamiliar with Greek history, absorbing half of the information herein can be daunting. And so to get you up to speed, I recommend Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times by Thomas Martin as a crash primer, along with an engaging Athens documentary by Bettany Hughes. The First Clash can be a bit mired at times in the lead-up, but when the Greek generals force the crisis to a head the payoff is well worth the read, if you find yourself up to it.
Featured image courtesy of 300: Rise of an Empire