Book Review: Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization


by Richard A. Billows

New York, Overlook Duckworth, 2010. Pp. 304+. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN:159020168X

In this work, Prof. Billows (History, Columbia),  author of Antigonos the One-Eyed and the Creation of the Hellenistic State(1997), argues cogently that the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC had a profound impact on the subsequent two and a half millennia of Western civilization.

Bucking the trend among many contemporary historians, who are hesitant to describe any single development or event as decisive or pivotal, and try to paint in broad social and economic terms,  Billows makes a strong case that a Persian victory at Marathon would have ended the new Athenian democracy as well as the subsequent Greek contributions to philosophy, law, art, drama, and architecture.  While the victory at Marathon in 490 BC was not sufficient to end the Persian threat, Billows argues that the defeat of the Persian advance party was necessary to ensure the continued survival of Greek culture.

Despite the title, this work is less a history of Marathon and more an overview of the period in which the battle occurred,  anlooking at developments in Greek -- and notably Athenian -- society and the internal politics of the Greek city states.  For Billows, an appreciation of the peculiarities of the Greek military and political system is essential for understanding their successes and failures in confronting the Persians.  Echoing Victor Davis Hanson?s, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, Billows suggests that the effectiveness of the Greeks was based on the fighting spirit, flexibility, and cohesion of the Greek hoplites, a set of traits that uniquely reflected their society.  Unlike some authors, Billows is careful not to caricature the Persians, but he insists that the Greek creativity and an uncommon trust in the intelligence and loyalty of their citizen-soldiers allowed them to adopt the novel double envelopment tactics than won the day at Marathon.

In short, this work succeeds in sparking the imagination and causing readers to ask deep questions about the importance of history and culture.  While many may wish for more details on the actual battle, Billows succeeds in both providing a portrait of a civilization and making a compelling case for why modern historians should still study this ancient battle.  Because of its accessible style and griping narrative, this work is recommended for military historians as well as general readers.        


Reviewer: J. Furman Daniel, III   

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