A single battle rarely changes the course of an entire civilization. If the Athenians had not defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, however, democracy may never have developed, the plays of Aristophanes and Sophocles may have been lost, Herodotus may never have become a historian and the groundwork of modern philosophy may never have been laid by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Columbia University professor Richard Billows said in a lecture on Monday.
The Athenian victory in the battle allowed for the development of Greek culture during the fifth century B.C., Billows said, and in doing so established the foundations for Western civilization.
If the Persians had won the battle of Marathon, they would have collected and resettled the Athenian survivors along the Persian Gulf, judging by their actions after defeating other settlements, Billows said. If the Athenian settlement had been moved, Athenian civilization would never have reached the prominence it did only two generations after the Athenians won the Battle of Marathon, according to Billows.
“The culture of fifth century Greece is centered in and based at [Athens] and its highest achievements are achieved by Athenians, and those achievements would not [have occurred if the Athenians lost the battle],” he said.
This would have delayed, or even prevented, the creation of modern democracy that originated in Athens, Billows added.
“Democracy, if we knew about it at all, it would have been considered a failed experiment,” he said. “[Democracy] would be fundamentally different than the way we know it.”
The Athenians’ success at the Battle of Marathon also led to a flourish of intellectual and cultural development because of Athenian optimism following the defeat of the Persians.
“For two generations, they lived in a world where anything seemed possible,” Billows said.
The Western tradition of drama would have also experienced severe developmental delay without the ability to thrive in a democratic society, Billows said. Fifth-century Athenians like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes might never have written their most famous works if the Athenians had been defeated, he added.
Without the Battle of Marathon, Socrates and possibly his successors Plato and Aristotle also might have never developed seminal works in philosophy, Billows said.
Billows also discussed the structure of the battle, comparing the advantage the Persians held over the Athenians to the advantage of the United States over Panama during the 1969 invasion of the country.
At the time of the battle, Persia was “the great superpower of its time, a vastly larger and more populous, wealthier state, a state which had a history behind it of unparalleled military success,” Billows said.
The Battle of Marathon took place in the summer of 490 B.C. on the Marathon plain, located approximately 26 miles from Athens.
The Persian armada sought to subdue the Athenians, who were allies of the Ionian rebels on the western edge of the Persian Empire, Billows said. By defeating Athens, the Persian Empire would also have gained a foothold from which to conquer the rest of Greece, he added.
The massively outnumbered Athenian force defeated the Persian army as a result of the Persian’s strategic mistakes and the Athenians’ effective battle style, which consisted of having heavily-armored soldiers march in phalanxes, Billows said.
“[The Athenian battle style] was a superbly structured formation to negate what the Persians did,” he said.
In the lecture, Billows also debunked the myth that the term marathon’ used to describe a 26-mile race originated from the distance run by the Athenian man Philippides from Marathon to Athens, when he proclaimed, “We won,” and died of exhaustion.
Instead, Billows said, the story behind the term marathon is “one of those cases where what really happened was so much more impressive than legend,” because Philippides ran more than 280 miles from Athens to Sparta and back to request reinforcements from the Spartans before he ran the final 26 miles from Marathon to Athens.
Billows acknowledged many historians’ reservations about the usefulness of “counter-factual” history, which he described as studying “what if?” scenarios. He cautioned against assigning too much value to individual events, but argued that “the Battle of Marathon is an exception.”
“It is a rare case in which we can see that a relatively small number of men on one particular day that nearly did make a radical and fundamental difference to something as vast of all of Western history,” Billows said.
Classics professor Roberta Stewart who gave the introduction to the presentation supported Billows’ theory, saying she found counter-factuals “more compelling.”
The presentation was a preview of Billows’ upcoming book, “Marathon: The Battle That Changed Western Civilization,” which will be published this summer.
Classics professor Jeremy Rutter also expressed enthusiasm for Billows’s approach to Greek history, having read an advanced copy of Billows’ book prior to the presentation.
“Athenians had a special reverence for the men who fought in the battle, the same way we think of our founding fathers,” Rutter said in an interview. “You just never get tired of hearing the story.”