Bloomsbury (2022) p/b 236pp £24.99 (ISBN 9781350157590)

N. (Affiliated Lecturer at Cambridge University) has made it quite clear from the title and subtitle that this is to be a cultural history of an idea, of how Marathon has been received and represented—and not merely or only yet another blow-by-blow reconstruction of the original battle on the plain of Marathon in late summer 490 BC. Readers seeking for that sort of account are spoilt for choice, in terms both of scholarly articles and of a wide range of books (for children as well as adults), for example two from 2010 by academics Peter Krentz and Richard Billows; but they should take due note of N. Whatley’s salutary warning—JHS (1964)—that reconstruction of any such ancient battle is a ticklish business.

The first five chapters plus Introduction (pp. 1-72) set the scene, the narrative part beginning on p. 51 with the Ionian Revolt. Chapters 6 and 7 reconstruct and discuss ‘the fight’ (pp. 73-96). The remaining five chapters cover the idea (or variety of ideas) of Marathon during the whole period from 490 BC to near our own day, broadly divided into a Greek reception (pp. 97-154), a Roman-early Byzantine reception (pp. 155-172), and a post-Antique reception (pp. 173-84). A very useful brief Afterword (pp. 189-92), really a summary of the book as a whole, provides a fitting conclusion.

This, then, is a well thought out and organised treatment, clearly and economically written, the text enhanced by its eleven figures (the drawings and maps credited to Steve Simons). N. is especially strong on the religious dimensions of Marathon and its idea(s). Another general feature particularly worthy of commendation is her account of the sources, and indeed scrupulous attention to historiography throughout, both ancient and modern—with the one rather puzzling omission, George Grote’s History of Greece (1846-56). (Reviewing Grote, John Stuart Mill famously if controversially opined that Marathon ‘even as an event in English history’ was more important than the Battle of Hastings. Discuss!)

Here are some particular instances of where the memorialisation theme is really well worked and pays off. Herodotus is rightly foregrounded as ‘the person who did more to shape the way these [sc. Graeco-Persian] wars have been thought about over the last 2,500 years’ (p. 2). (2011, not 2010, was the actual 2,500th anniversary of Marathon.) Throughout, the Persians—and their Parthian and Parsi descendants—are accorded the equal respect that is their due. The slaves freed before Marathon and their treatment in death are given unusual attention (Index s.v. ‘slaves … freed’). Aeschylus’ extant 472 BC Persians, financed by the young Pericles, is nicely assessed, as is the reworking of many of its ideas in the Marathon painting hung in the Stoa Poikile some years later. ‘Athens in the face of Macedon’ (pp. 146-53) brings in the Athenian democratic orator-politicians Aeschines and Lycurgus. Greece under Rome saw the development of the so-called Second Sophistic literary movement, and with it Plutarch’s Marathons—the battle’s many mentions by the 1st/2nd-century polymath in a slew of works of differing genres with varying ambitions. Likewise handsomely explored are the contributions to the Marathon story of local patriot Herodes Atticus. Early modern travellers to and later excavators of the monumental soros (‘heap’) tumulus are more briefly mentioned (pp. 174-5). Lord Byron’s ‘Isles of Greece’ poem within a poem (Don Juan, 1821) famously linked Marathon and Greek freedom both ancient and modern (pp. 176-8, 180). Among much more modern, indeed recent receptions given their place in the sun—or the shade—by N. are the ill-advised machinations of the Shah of Iran (Persepolis extravaganza, 1971) and those of the infamous Greek colonels’ regime (1967-74). The book concludes with a roundup of recent movies (e.g., the egregious 300) and other productions aimed not at specialist or indeed adult audiences.

In short, this is a good and worthwhile book. ‘There was never a time when the Battle of Marathon was forgotten’ (p. 171). Or, as N. sums up it all up in the Afterword: ‘Marathon shows us how we shape our past, or how people might use the past to manipulate us. It has been used to persuade. It has been used to teach generations of young people the techniques of persuasion. It confronts us with the question of what stories about the past modern identities are based on; what values we attach to them; what values we pass on through them’ (p. 191). It also shows that the Battle has been and indeed is still a ‘story-magnet’ (p. 146).

But it must alas be added that it is far too error-prone to be a truly excellent book (e.g., Attic demes were not ‘areas’, ‘Histiaeus’ appears as ‘Histaeus’ throughout, Aeolians did not speak Arcado-Cypriot, Herodotus was not Ionian, Sparta’s territory’s classical name was Lacedaemon, not Lacedaemonia, and so distressingly on and on). The battle of Salamis too is rather slighted (contrast Herodotus 7.139), and the otherwise very full Index strangely omits any entry for Sparta.

Paul Cartledge