Tuesday, July 26, 2011

#45: Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization by Richard A. Billows

Overlook Duckworth, 2010: 304 pages

Richard Billows is a professor of Greek and Roman history at Colombia. In this text, he considers the listing of the battle of Marathon in 490 BCE as what saved Western Civilization. This is a distinctly modern idea, and Billows supports it very well. I do not know much about Greek history, and learned much from this book.

The three things I knew about Greek history before I read this book:
1. Sparta was this land of Men With Abs of Steel who would fight anything at the drop of a hat. They then would go back to their Warrior Wives and have sweaty, hot, light-the-mattress-on-fire filthy sex. The next day, they would eat 14 raw cows for breakfast, make fun of effeminate Athenians, and then go back to their Warrior Wives and.....you know.

2. In the words of Socrates, "I drank what?"

3. Thucydides and Herodotus are to blame for what I do for a living, part of which is subject high schoolers to essays by Thucydides and Herodotus. God Damn Bastards.

My slightly amended knowledge of the above is now this:
1. Spartan men were taken from their homes (if they survived being a baby without being judged unfit) at the age of 7 to live with other boys. They would then get the shit beat out of them for 11 years, making them "tough". Hence the Abs of Steel and the fearlessness. If they completed the agoge (training) successfully, they became citizens. If not, they were chopped into small bits and fed to the donkeys.

2. The men "ate with a military dining group, called a syssition" (95). They did this for the rest of their lives. They lived in a barracks with the other men, even if they were married, until they were 30 years old. So much for what I knew, but what this leads to is the fact that "there was no room in Spartan life for inventive cultural activities." (96) Hence the Spartan lifestyle, which roundly sucked.

3. For all their toughness, Spartans were, by and large, jack asses. At Marathon in 490, it was the Athenians and the Palatians who won the battle. The runner, Philippides, covered the 140 miles from Athens to Sparta in two days, a route which included "several quite demanding mountain passes". (206) Why did he go there? To ask the Spartans for help. What was their response? "It was not Spartan custom to march out to war during the second week of the Karneian moon." They would leave in six days. Well, fuck you too.

4. Marathon gets kicked to the curb in popular culture (in large part because of 300) and Thermopylae gets all the attention. This makes sense, as we are best known for "celebrating" setbacks or defeats in American culture (The Alamo, Pearl Harbor, U.S.S. Maine, Tila Tequila) and overlooking a fight actually won against long odds. As Billows points out, "The plain truth is that the Athenians had been badly let down by the Spartans at Thermopylae." (243) The defeat necessitated the abandonment of most of Attica to the Persians, who raped and pillaged.

5. Why were there only 300 at Thermopylae? Where were the men who could eat steel and shit a Buick? "The 300 were only an advance force, and the rest were delayed by religious commitments." (242) They really did not want to leave the Peloponnese, as it was against their custom to do so. They only allied with the Athenians in 480 because the Spartans realized they would get their collective heads handed to them without naval power. This, they did not have. In any event, the rest of the Spartan army never showed up.

In any event, I liked this book for the wrong reasons. The last two chapters felt rushed, but the Spartans-under-the-bus trope made my heart happy. Pop culture likes them because they look good in the fighting. Of course, we would not have tragedy or comedy without Athenians. This book should have been called Sparta Sucks: Why you should not buy the hype.

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