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Friday October 13 2006

I will soon be posting, on Samizdata, a review of Persian Fire by Tom Holland, which is about the war between the ancient Persians and the ancient Greeks, and which I think is a terrific book, easily my book of the year so far.  And what better way to describe a book than to make a sizeable chunk of it available for sampling.  So, although I may be flirting with the laws of copyright (and if there is even the hint of a complaint from the publishers or from the author, down this will come – so if you want to read it, read it soon) here is my favourite chunk of all, which is Holland’s description of Marathon.  Want to know how Marathon fits into the bigger picture?  Are there things in the following which are not wholly clear?  If you want such questions answered and such confusions cleared up, then, as we bloggers say, read the whole thing.

A day passed, then another, and another. Four days now until the Spartans were due to arrive, and still the deadlock held. The Persian ships remained where they were, menacing but motionless, beached on the sand. The sun sank behind the mountains that rim the plain of Marathon. The moon, at last, shone full in the August sky. Far off in Lacedaemon, the men of Sparta would be preparing to march to war. And in the Persian camp? Illumined a ghostly silver the plain may have been, but it was hard, miles from the invaders’ ships, to track what might exactly be happening within the shadow of the Dog’s Tail. Something, certainly: for a great commotion, the sound of thousands upon thousands of tramping feet, could be heard faint, then louder, nearing the Athenian lines. The invaders, it appeared, were advancing in force at last. But was this a full assault or a diversion? The answer would come soon enough. Datis was not the only commander to have realised the vital significance of intelligence. Someone – and one can only assume that it was Miltiades, experienced as he was in all the Persian arts of war - had recruited spies from among the invaders. That night of the full moon, some Ionian conscripts, sneaking across the plain, crept into the grove that screened the Athenian camp. The news they brought could not have been more urgent. Hurriedly, it was conveyed to Callimachus and the ten tribal generals who together constituted the Athenian high command. The horsemen are away!’

Here was the moment that Miltiades had been waiting for. Clearly, if his spies’ intelligence was accurate, the Persian task force had been split, with a holding force advancing to distract the Athenians’ attention while far to the rear the cavalry was being clandestinely embarked. A council of war was hurriedly convened; Miltiades implored his fellow generals to vote for immediate battle. Never, he urged, would there be a better chance of victory: the invaders’ army was divided and all but a skeleton force of its cavalry had gone. Four of Miltiades’ nine fellow generals agreed; five, appalled at the prospect of attacking the Persians on open ground, without archers, without cavalry, and still overwhelmingly outnumbered, did not. The casting vote now lay with the war archon, Callimachus, who had consistently shown that he felt it no shame to bow to the superior expertise of Athens’ most famous Mede-fighter. He did so again now, and sided with Miltiades. The order was given. Battle would be joined at dawn.

Throughout the Athenian camp men were woken with the news that within the hour they would be advancing against an enemy who had never before been beaten by a hoplite army in open combat, ‘and whose very name, when spoken, was sufficient to send a shiver down the spine of any Greek’. Yet if, by summoning every last reserve of physical and moral strength, and by screwing their courage to a truly excruciating pitch, there was a chance of averting their obliteration, and that of their families and their city, then the Athenian hoplites had to brace themselves now to seize it. Slaves, charged with the care of their precious armour, duly brought out the burnished panoplies. The naked Athenians were transformed into fearsome automata of bronze. Then, sheathed within their breastplates and their greaves, their shields and spears in their hands, their helmets propped back upon their heads, the hoplites took their places in the battle line, standing alongside their fellows from their demes, their thirds, their tribes. It was the custom among the Athenians to serry their phalanx in ranks eight deep; but Miltiades, fearful of being outflanked by the Persians’ more mobile light infantry, and by what remained of their cavalry, ordered the centre to be thinned out so that the Athenians’ line exactly matched that of the invaders, now increasingly visible a mile away through the early glimmerings of the dawn. With the first rays of sun touching the grey Euboean hills in the distance, sacrifices were offered to the gods; the omens proving favourable, the generals then took up their positions directly in the foremost line. Callimachus, as was customary for the war archon, took command of the right wing; the Plataeans were stationed on the left; Themistocles and a fellow rising star of the democracy, Aristeides, led their tribes in the centre of the phalanx, at its perilously weakened heart. Miltiades himself, allotted overall command for the day, stood where all could hear him, and at length raised his arm, pointed to the Persians, and yelled out: ‘At them!’

A shimmering of metal all along the line as the hoplites lowered their helmets, hefted their shields, shouldered their spears. Here, at last, was the moment of no return. His head encased now almost entirely within metal, every member of the phalanx found himself frighteningly cut off from the sights and sounds of the battlefield, barely able to see the enemy ahead of him, barely able to hear the braying of trumpets that instructed the Athenians to start their charge. Only the sudden jolting of his fellows on either side and the surging of the weight of men behind him appeared real. Downwards, into the open expanse of the plain, the phalanx began lumbering, keeping its formation, not once threatening to break. All were borne on the dread and the intoxication of the moment - for while it was true that the faint-heartedness of a few within a shield wall might prove fatal to the many, then so too was the converse, that even a hoplite shaking with terror as he advanced, wetting himself uncontrollably, streaking his cloak with shit, could know himself strong for being one with his friends and relatives, one with a mighty body of armed and free-born men. How, indeed, without the self-consciousness of this, would any Athenian have dared to do what all in the phalanx did that August dawn: to move against a foe widely assumed to be invincible, to cross what many must have dreaded would prove to be a plain of death.

Extraordinary stories were later told of this advance. It was said that the Athenians ran the whole mile, as though men bold enough to attack the Persians for the first time must have been somehow more than human. In truth, no man wearing the full panoply of a hoplite, some seventy pounds of bronze, wood and leather, could possibly run such a distance and still have energy left to fight effectively. Even in the relative cool of the early morning, sweat rapidly began to mingle with the dust kicked up by ten thousand pairs of feet, half-blinding the advancing hoplites and stinging their blinking eyes, so that their vision of the enemy ahead of them - the outlandishly dressed archers reaching for their arrows, the slingers for their shot, the expressions of glee and disbelief in the Persian ranks - grew ever more obscured. Soon, as the Athenians crossed deeper into no man’s land, the first arrows began to hiss down upon them; then, raising the monstrous weight of their shields to protect their chests, the hoplites did at last begin to run. Simultaneously, as though the phalanx were ‘some ferocious cornered creature, stiffening its bristles as it turns to face its foe’, those in the front three ranks lowered and aimed their spears, in preparation for the coming collision. By now, with some 150 yards still to travel, a storm cloud of arrows and slingshot was breaking over them, thudding into their shields, bouncing off their helmets, striking the odd hoplite in the thigh or through the throat, but still the Athenians, braving the black rain, only quickened their pace. Those of the enemy directly in their path had already begun scrabbling to erect wicker defences, as they realised, to their horror, that the wall of shields and iron-tipped spears, far from providing easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had at first imagined, was not going to be halted. A hundred yards, fifty, twenty, ten. Then, as the Athenians’ war cry, a terrifying ululation, rose even above the thundering of their feet upon the dry earth, the cacophony of clattering metal and the screams of the panic-stricken enemy, the phalanx crunched into the Persian lines.

The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of warfare in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze. Now, though, in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverising crash of metal into flesh and bone; then a rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering, as invariably happened when one phalanx crashed into another, could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze. Soon enough, on the wings of the Persian army, men were breaking in terror, streaming back across the plain, as the Athenians, skewering and hacking, continued their deadly work. Only in the centre, where the force of the phalanx’s impact had been much weaker, did the invaders have the better of the fight, withstanding the collision and then slowly pushing the hoplites back. Here was where the invaders’ best troops had been stationed: the Persians themselves, more heavily armoured than most of the other levies, and the Saka, those brutal fighters from the far-off eastern Steppes, their axes perfectly capable of cleaving a hoplite’s helmet or smashing through his chest. Yet already the Athenian wings were wheeling inwards, attacking them on their flanks, reinforcing the hard-pressed tribesmen of Aristeides and Themistocles, so that soon the Persian centre too began to crumple and the slaughter grew even more incarnadine. It was then that the few Persians and Saka who were left joined the general rout, and fled for their ships, some miles back across the plain, stumbling in the sands. They were pursued by the Athenians, exultant in their triumph, but half disbelieving it too, thoroughly dazed by the manner in which Pan had kept his word.

Yet, if the battle was won, the victory was still far from decisive. The necessity of the two Athenian wings to finish off the battle in the centre had given plenty of time to the sailors manning the Persian fleet to prepare their ships for departure, and to start hauling aboard the panic-stricken levies as they milled among the shallows. True, many of their comrades had been crushed in the general stampede, or else had floundered in a great marsh that stretched northwards from where the Persian ships had been beached, drowning there in such vast numbers that it was estimated later ‘to have been the site of the deadliest slaughter of all’. Yet, while Datis and Artaphernes kept control of their fleet, they remained a menace; and Miltiades and his men, powerless to deal with those ships that had already embarked, were naturally desperate to capture or burn any still remaining on the sand. The fighting on the beach, then, was as ferocious as at any stage in the battle, and, for the Athenians, just as fatal: one hoplite, reaching up to seize the stern of a ship, had his hand hacked off by an axe, and fell back spraying blood from the fatal wound; Callimachus, the war archon, was also killed; so too one of the tribal generals. Seven ships were ultimately secured; but all the rest succeeded in pulling away, The road to Athens may have been blocked to the Persians - but not the sea.

And what of the ships containing the cavalry that had embarked before the battle? The question haunted the Athenian high command. Even as they waded back past the corpses bobbing in the shallows and gazed across the plain in the direction of their city, the weary hoplites could see, glinting from the slope of Mount Pentelikon, the flashing of a brightly polished surface, deliberately angled to catch the rays of the morning sun. It was clearly a pre-arranged signal, and one that could only have been intended for the Persian fleet, somewhere out to sea. It was impossible to know its precise meaning - but every Athenian guessed at once that it spoke of treachery.

Consternation swept through the ranks. Twenty-six miles away, their families and homes still lay wholly undefended. Exhausted, sweat-soaked and blood-streaked, they had no choice but to head back at once for Athens ‘as fast as their legs could take them’. It was not yet ten in the morning when they left the battlefield; by late afternoon, in an astounding display of toughness and endurance, they had reached their city. In the nick of time, too - for soon afterwards the first ships of the Persian fleet began to glide towards Phalerum. For a few hours they lay stationary beyond the harbour entrance; then, as the sun set at last on that long and fateful day, they raised anchor, swung around, and sailed eastwards into the night. The threat of invasion was over.

So it was that Athens escaped the terrible fate of Miletus and Eretria, and proved herself, in the ringing words of Miltiades, ‘a city fit to become the greatest of all in Greece’. At Marathon, her citizens had stared their worst nightmare directly in the face: not merely that the Athenian people might be transplanted far from the primordially ancient soil that had given them birth, from their homes, their fields, their demes, but, even worse, that their bloodlines, amid hideous scenes of mutilation, might be extirpated. Every hoplite fighting on that day must have known that the Great King, incensed by the Athenians’ oath-breaking, had ordained for them that ‘most terrible of all known acts of vengeance’: the castration of their sons. Had the Athenians, perhaps, in their darkest imaginings, dreaded that the gods themselves might uphold this ghastly sentence! Athens had indeed betrayed her promises of loyalty to Darius; and it was the habit among the Greeks when they swore an oath to stamp upon the severed testicles or a sacrificial beast, and pray that their progeny be similarly crushed if they went back on their word. By charging the enemy at Marathon, the Athenians had, in effect, steeled themselves to put this most terrible of all their fears to the test - and had resolved it spectacularly.

And much more besides. Whoever had sent the signal to the Persians from Mount Pentelikon kept his silence now. When the news was brought that Hippias, dashed of all his hopes, had expired of disappointment en route back into exile, it merely confirmed what everyone already knew: that no one after Marathon should stake his future on there being a tyranny in Athens again. Everyone was in favour of rule by the people now. Or at least in favour of rule by the people who had won the famous victory: the farmers, the landed gentry, the armour-owning stock. 192 of them, it was discovered, had died in the battle - and to these heroes of Athenian liberty a unique honour was accorded. No tombs in the Ceramicus for them; instead, for the first and only time in their city’s history, the dead were buried, ‘as a tribute to their courage’, on the very field where they had fallen. A great tomb was raised over their corpses to a height of more than of anything to compare. Mingled with the dust they had fought so courageously to defend, the dead were to lie buried together, without class or family distinctions of any kind. They were citizens – nothing less and nothing more. What prouder title than that of Athenian could possibly be claimed? Athens herself was all.

Even the Spartans, when they arrived there after their gruelling three-day march, regarded the men who had conquered the Mede unaided with a new and ungrudging respect. Marching onwards to inspect the battlefield, they found at Marathon, rotting amid the dust of the plain or half sunk into marsh-slime, evidence enough of the scale of the menace that had been turned bad so heroically. Six thousand and four hundred invaders lay there, fattening the flies - and that was only a fraction of the task force that Datis had led. How many teeming millions more the Great King might have at his command, breeding and swarming within the fathomless hinterlands of Asia, neither the Athenians nor the Spartans much cared to contemplate. Every Greek, looking upon the Persian dead and revelling in the great victory, must nevertheless have Felt just a tremor of apprehension, Yet the Spartans, methodically inspecting the battlefield, turning over the corpses, making notes, would have found much to reassure them as well. It was the first opportunity they had ever been given to study the armour and the weapons of the fabled masters of the East; and what they saw did not greatly impress them. Datis may have led a huge army to Marathon - but nothing that the Spartans would have recognised as their equal.

Meanwhile, even as they continued their tour of inspection, a great trench was being dug on the southern margins of the marshes. Into this makeshift refuse tip the invaders’ corpses were flung unceremoniously. No memorial for the slaughtered Persian hordes. Mute and inglorious as their grave was, what better was deserved by men who in life had known nothing of the comradeship of a city, or of liberty from royal diktats, or of the discipline of a phalanx, but had instead milled like the merest herd of beasts, their voices animal screechings, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? The Ionians had labelled the Persians ‘barbarians’; now, in the aftermath of their great victory the Athenians began to do the same. It was a word that perfectly evoked their fear of what they had seen that early morning on the plain of Marathon: an army numberless and alien, jabbering for their destruction, ‘gibberish-speakers’ indeed. Yet ‘barbarian’, especially on the tongue of a veteran of the famous battle, could also suggest something more: a sneer, a tone of superiority, or even of contempt - one, certainly, that few Creeks would have dared to adopt prior to that fateful August dawn.

Marathon had taught not only Athens but the whole of Greece a portentous lesson: humiliation at the hands of the superpower was not inevitable. The Athenians, as they would never tire of reminding everyone, had shown that the hordes of the Great King could be defeated. The colossus had feet of clay.

Liberty might be defended, after all.