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Though I'm certain I learned, or at least read, more about it at some point, like most all that I recall of the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) is the sides--Athens vs, Persia--and the legendary 26 mile run of Pheidippides to announce the victory of the former, upon which he reputedly dropped dead. But with the 2500th anniversary of the great battle upon us, Professor Peter Krentz has written a marvelously clear and concise account of not just the battle but of all the many historical controversies that have surrounded it. Now, if, like me, you aren't a specialist in the field nor an enthusiast as regards the topic, you're likely to be unfamiliar with such raging debates as that over how much weight hoplites carried into battle or how far the Athenians ran to get into position on the day of the battle. But even we armchair historians occasionally stumble upon the odd argument about such matters as whether the Marathon run ever happened or not.

Not being steeped in the historiography of Marathon, I don't feel qualified to judge the decisiveness of the author's arguments, but, not having a dog in the fight, I was easily persuaded by the logic of them. For instance, the claims of Herodotus about the distances covered and speeds attained by the Athenians have apparently long been discounted because it was supposed that the soldiers carried an absurd 70-80 pounds of gear with them. Mr. Krentz offers a compelling technical case for why this was not so, but the simple notion that it would have made them ineffective by the time the battle began is enough to persuade that they probably hauled something closer to 40 lbs. Rather than just flail around amongst the sources to try to settle controversies like this, the author uses genuine results from modern army training. These reveal, for instance, that the Greek army could certainly have advanced as far and as quickly--eight stadia at the run, or about 0.9 miles, before the Persians could fully deploy--as Herodotus alleged, provided that they carried half the load that was previously assumed. And Professor Krentz offers a compelling reason for them to have done so, that they needed to get across the field of battle before the Persian cavalry was brought into play. Likewise, first RAF officers and now distance runners have completed Philippides 150 mile run from Athens to Sparta in less than 36, as he was once doubted to have done. That such things are now shown to be possible does not necessarily mean that they occurred, but it does mean that we can not dismiss the possibility that they did.

One might reasonably wonder why this battle is so celebrated in Western history and still argued about to this day. Here the book leaves no question that the decision of the Athenians to fight the mighty Persians, with virtually no allies, and then the decisive victory over a much stronger force--let's say 10,000 vs. 30,000--punctured forever the myth of the latter's invincibility and made possible later battles and victories, where a refusal to fight or a loss might have led to Persian domination of Greece. that makes it a battle worth knowing and this a book well worth reading.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Peter Krentz Links:

    -FACULTY PAGE: Peter Krentz (Davidson College)
    -BOOK SITE: Battle of Marathon (Yale University Press)
    -LECTURE: The Battle Itself (Peter Krentz, October 16, 2010, Marathon2500)
    -ESSAY: The 2,500-year-old Man: Pheidippides probably didn't make his heroic run after the Battle of Marathon, but that didn't stop thousands of people from celebrating its anniversary—and the classic test of endurance it inspired—by racing from Marathon to Athens (MICHAEL FARBER, 11/15/10, Sports Illustrated)
    -Marathon 2500: Commemorating the 2,500-year anniversary of The Battle of Marathon. Free phone/web-based lectures, reading groups & more
    -REVIEW: of The Battle of Marathon by Peter Krentz (Peter Jones, The Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Marathon (PAUL CARTLEDGE, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Marathon (Matthew Sears, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Marathon (John Trikeriotis, HellenicComServe)
    -REVIEW: of Battle of Marathon (N.S. Gill, )

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