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Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Marathon, fought September 12th, 490 BCE between the Athenians and the Persians, the Athenians fielded between 9,000 to 11,000 foot soldiers against a Persian force of 50,000 to 100,000 composed of foot soldiers, archers and cavalry. The Persians dominated the know world, they had never been defeated in a major battle. The Persians had defeated Greek forces in Egypt, and Asia Minor, the Persians army was considered invincible. No one, not even the Athenians, thought a Greek victory possible, the Greeks were the going to die. This would become an epic legend of defiant heroism. The Greek soldiers would die free or be marched into a Persian slavery.
That is not what happened. The Persians were decisively routed. The Athenians lost 192 men while the Persians lost 6,400 men, in this battle between democracy and tyranny, for the first time democracy had won, and won big. The Athenians proved the Persians could be beaten. The Athenian generals tried a never before used maneuver, now known as the pinscher maneuver, the Athenians dropped the middle back and rolled up the flanks, this trapped the Persians against the sea. The Persians had no room for their own counter maneuvers, and it became a slaughter. The Persian army was composed of impressed levies from across the Persian Empire. The Persians had different languages, different commanders, a mismatch that relied on a brute force and sheer size. The Athenians had a well defined command structure with disciplined foot soldiers. The Greeks were free men, voluntarily fighting, the Persians were forced conscripts, many were slaves, and because of this the Athenians had superior motivation. One of the Athenian generals had been a forced conscript officer in the Persian army and well knew the strengths and weakness of the Persians, knowledge he used against the Persians with brilliance.
Historians generally consider the Battle of Marathon the first great battle of western culture. The idea presented is that, had the Athenians lost, Europe would have become a Persian outpost and democracy would have died in the cradle. This is a very inspiring story, based on an actual event, but I must disagree with the conclusion (you knew I would). The ancient Greeks were building city-states, any idea of a continental Europe was beyond their comprehension, they did not even know the size of Europe as we currently understand it. The Greek democracy would soon be destroyed by the short-term self-interest of Greek citizens (another great story with implications for America). The Greek ideas of self government and primitive science had already been incorporated into some upstart warrior tribes called the Roman Republic. The first time the Persians fought the Romans, the Persians lost. Indeed, before their Roman defeat, the Persians had already lost to Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King, for the Persians losing became something of a standard outcome. I purpose this was not a battle against western culture, but a civil war within western culture. The Persians are a part of western culture.
          The Greeks introduced three improvements; a disciplined and trained army; battle field maneuver; improved equipment. The Persians maintained the old fighting style, which was to assemble a large force of young men, charge straight ahead, and then begin hacking away. The Persian form of government was incapable of instituting the newer forms of warfare.
The news of victory at the Battle of Marathon was carried by a runner (a professional runner named Phidippides) from the battle field to Athens, 26 miles in 3 hours, he then died from exhaustion. This is the origin of our modern marathon run of 26 miles, 385 yards, and possibly the only uncontroversial result of the battle. All else is open to discussion. Well … on second thought. Where did the 385 yards come from?

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