|Krentz's Book Provides Explanations for Controversial Aspects of Ancient Battle of Marathon
August 09, 2010
Contact: Bill Giduz
People everywhere will get a chance to hear about the cultural, intellectual and athletic legacy of the Battle of Marathon from Davidson's Professor Peter Krentz and seven other Hellenic scholars and sports historians in a series of online lectures commemorating the 2500th anniversary of the battle. "Marathon2500" is a cultural campaign initiated by the Reading Odyssey, a New York not-for-profit. The talks will be presented to live audiences, and webcast online and archived for viewing or listening on demand. Lectures will run from September 2010 to June 2011. Krentz's talk will be Tuesday, October 12, from 4-5:30 p.m. (eastern time). Click here for free registration:
Just in time for the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, a new book by Davidson College classical historian Peter Krentz is sure to enliven the conflict that modern historians continue to wage about it.
|Peter Krentz in the ruins of an ancient theatre while leading Davidson's semester abroad program in the Mediterranean region.
In 490 BCE, the Athenians defeated the first Persian attempt to conquer Greece. Though the Persians returned ten years later with much larger numbers, Marathon showed that their mighty army could be beaten. As a result, historians have long seen the battle as a pivotal moment in east-west relations. Sir Edward Creasy made it the first of his 15 Decisive Battles of the World (1851), and John Stuart Mill famously pronounced that "the Battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods."
But how did the Greeks manage to win? Historians are largely dissatisfied with the earliest and most detailed account, written by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus more than 40 years later. One respected scholar began his article about the battle with this blunt remark: "Everyone knows that Herodotus' narrative of Marathon will not do."
That's because Herodotus leaves the reader with more questions than answers. For instance, he writes that the Persians chose to land on the beach at Marathon because it was a good place to offload their horses. Yet he doesn't mention Persian cavalry in the battle at all. He also writes that the Athenians charged into the fight at a run for nearly a mile. Almost no one has believed that to be physically possible, or necessary.
The most common explanation, based on an obscure paragraph in an anonymous Byzantine encyclopedia compiled 1500 years after the battle, is that the Athenians took advantage of a Persian decision to re-embark their horses. This hypothesis is adopted in another Battle of Marathon book published this summer, Richard Billows' Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization.
In his new Yale University Press book, titled simply The Battle of Marathon, Krentz dismisses this theory and offers a version of events that amplifies rather than rejects Herodotus' account of the battle.
Krentz, the W.R. Grey Professor of Classics and Professor of History, has taught at Davidson since 1979 and written extensively about ancient Greek military history. He's well accustomed to controversies that arise from trying to get a clear vision of events hidden behind the fog of centuries passed. "Ancient history is fun," he said, "because you have to squeeze limited evidence hard to develop an idea about what actually happened."
The National Endowment for the Humanities funded Krentz's research on the Battle of Marathon, which he conducted during his sabbatical year in 2007-08. He twice visited the Plain of Marathon, where the battle occurred, spending a week each time hiking in and around the five-mile wide plain to understand the topography better. He also found value in rereading books written by 19th century British travelers, who saw the plain before vacation homes and a rowing center built for the 2004 Olympics altered its appearance.
Krentz believes his major contribution is his research on the Greeks' one-mile charge to attack the Persians. He discredits common estimates that Greek battle gear weighed about 70 pounds. Based on finds of ancient armor and reconstructions of the gear, Krentz argues that a full set of equipment weighed only 30-50 pounds.
He also got help from about 50 Davidson ROTC alumni who responded to his query about their experiences in running with weight. Their responses persuaded Krentz that Greek soldiers could have jogged a mile with their gear. (The author showed his appreciation for this help by dedicating the book to the memory of David Taylor '91, who was killed in Iraq only a few months their email exchange.)
Krentz believes the Greeks planned to reach the Persian infantry before the cavalry could disrupt their charge. He thinks the cavalry was camped north of a marsh in the eastern half of the plain, and had to traverse a narrow road between a spring and a mountain to get to the plain. When the Greeks saw horses starting to enter the plain, they began to jog. The horses, passing through the bottleneck single- or (at most) double-file, could not reach the plain in the 12 minutes or so that it took the Athenians to reach their enemies. In the close quarters of hand-to-hand combat where the Persian cavalry could not assist their infantry troops effectively, the Greeks prevailed.
"I think it's a pretty good story," said Krentz. "Any reconstruction of the battle involves a certain amount of speculation, but at least mine sticks to what our best source says."
The Greek victory became an even more glorious legend through the story of Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens and died as he announced the victory. Krentz, who ran the modern-day Marathon to Athens race in 2000, says that story is fiction. "It's not mentioned by Herodotus or any other source for 150 years after the battle," he said. "A messenger would probably have hopped on a horse."
The dust jacket of The Battle of Marathon includes laudatory comments from five historians. Barry Strauss, author of The Battle of Salamis, wrote "Before Marathon was a race it was a battle, one of history's greatest. Peter Krentz tells its true story in a brilliant blend of scholarship and common sense. His reconstruction is painstaking and often magical. From the force of Persian arrows to the weight of Greek armor, Krentz makes Marathon fresh and real."
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.