It’s a tough place to go to school, but somebody has to do it.
A smaller, less-highly regarded force of Athenians faced a larger, better trained, more experienced army of Persians. Sparta’s promised reinforcements had not yet arrived.
And yet the Greeks triumphed over the Persians at Marathon. How?
Two Greek generals followed the dictates of Santayana, whose ghost couldn’t exist because his corporeal existence was nearly 2,500 years in the future — they studied history, and they made plans to avoid the errors others had made in the past.
The two Athenian commanders, Callimachus and Miltiades (the latter having fought in the Persian army himself), used their knowledge of Persian battle tactics to turn the tide further in their favor. As the clatter of spears, swords and shields echoed through the valley, the Greeks had ensured that their best hoplites (heavily armed infantry) were on the flanks and that their ranks were thinned in the center. Persian battle doctrine dictated that their best troops, true Persians, fought in the center, while conscripts, pressed into service from tribute states, fought on the flanks. The Persian elite forces surged into the center of the fray, easily gaining the ascendancy. But this time it was a fatal mistake. The Persian conscripts whom the Hellenic hoplites faced on the flanks quickly broke into flight. The Greeks then made another crucial decision: Instead of pursuing their fleeing foes, they turned inward to aid their countrymen fighting in the center of the battle.
By then, the Persians were in a state of utter confusion. Their tactics had failed, their cavalry was absent and their archers were useless. Their more heavily armed and armored opponents, who could sense that victory was close, were attacking them from three sides and pushing them into the sea. The Persians fled back to their ships. Many of the Athenians, buoyed by their success, dragged several of the Persian vessels to shore, slaughtering those on board.
When the day was over, the Greeks had won one of history’s most famous victories, claiming to have killed about 6,400 Persians for the loss of only 192 Athenians. The Spartans eventually arrived, but only after the battle was long over. To assuage their disbelief in the Athenians’ victory, they toured the battlefield. To their amazement, they found the claim of victory was indeed true. The Athenians had defeated the most powerful empire in the Western world.
It was a great victory. The Athenians had been so certain of defeat, however, that they had made plans to burn Athens and have Athenians left behind commit suicide rather than be captured by the Persians. In order to prevent the plans from going through, they needed one more tremendous piece of history, and they called on their runner:
With time of the essence, the Athenians dispatched Pheidippides to inform Athens’ populace of their victory before the troops arrived. The tale goes that after running the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, Pheidippides exclaimed: “Rejoice! We conquer!” then died from exhaustion. Whether true or not, that is the source of the modern-day marathon race; the distance of the modern race reflects the distance Pheidippides ran.
I opened world history this year asking how many had seen the movie “300.” It produced some excitement, which I was glad to see. Not enough students knew that it was based on a real battle. We recounted the story of the victories at Thermopylae and Salamis, and then told the story of the set up for that war, the Greek victory at Marathon. It was just after the Olympics closed — tying the battles to the last event of the Olympics, in honor of Pheidippides, made for a great class, for me. For the students? I hope so.
One of my intended learning points was that history is about the stories, not about memorizing dates and places. Stories, they like. Dates and places, not so much.
Another point: History is all around us, even when we play couch potato and just watch the Olympics.
I knew I’d scored when a student asked me after class whether I knew when this year’s marathon would be rebroadcast, so she could watch it.
300 popped up on some channel last night, and we got a time delay recording to watch it, which I did, mostly. Interesting stylization. Cartoonish characterizations, which one should expect from a movie intended as homage to the graphic novel that directly spawned it.
Several sources dated the climax of the battle as August 11, 480 B.C. — 2488 years ago yesterday. (The battle is said to have occurred during the Olympics that year, too.)
World history classes dig through that period of history in the first semester. Teachers, it’s time to think about how we’re going to facilitate this history this year. As always, some bright student will wave a hand in the air and ask, “Mr. Darrell! How do they know what happened if no one survived, and nobody had their Sony videocorder?”
At least one other student in the course of the day will be surprised to discover the movie wasn’t a filmed-on-the-spot documentary. But apart from that, how do we know the events well enough to pin it down to one day? And, since the Greeks surely didn’t use the Gregorian calendar, since it wasn’t invented until the 18th century — how do we know the date?
The short answer is “Herodotus.” The longer answer may resonate better: This is one dramatic battle in a year-long fight for the history of the world. The Greeks were understandably and justifiably proud that they had turned back Xerxes’s armies and navy (The Battle of Salamis, a bit after Thermopylae). So, these events were preserved in poetry, in the chronicles, in song, in sculpture, and in every other medium available to the Greeks. Your AP English students will probably tell you the movie reminds them of The Iliad. There’s an entré for discussion.
Turning points in history: Had Xerxes succeeded in avenging his father’s, Darius’s, defeats, and subjugated the Greeks, history would be much different. The culture the Romans built on, the trading patterns from east to west and around the Mediterranean, the technologies, the myths, and the stories of the battles, would be different. (Remember, one of Darius’s defeats was at the Battle of Marathon, from which we get the modern marathon racing event, the traditional close of the modern Olympics.)
How do we know?
How do you handle that question? Tell us in comments, please.
Resources and commentary on Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the 300:
- Controversy – all characters in the movie have cadrtoonish portrayals. Cartoonish bravery and valor is easy to explain away. Persians are portrayed bizarrely, in often-offensive caricatures. This would be a good time to remind students of the achievements of various Persian cultures, and those of Xerxes I himself.
- Barry Strauss’s 2004 book, The Battle of Salamis, the naval encounter that saved Greece – and Western Civilization
- 10 things the movie didn’t tell you, from Mental Floss
- Interesting narrative, from Steve’s Famous On This Day; Thermopylae means “hot gates”
- Blog post from a Greek mother, about taking her son to see the movie, the place of the story of Thermopylae in Greek culture, and the history
- Warner Bros. released a video game, “300 – March to Glory” (what’s your view of the game and its historical accuracy?)
- Thermopylae is an area of great geologic and geographic transformation. AT the time of the first battle, the pass was very narrow, with steep cliffs above the pass, and a steep cliff falling to the ocean below the pass. Today there is a plain of about 3 miles to the ocean, the product of much sedimentation from erosion of the land in the past 2,000 years.