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Victory At Marathon Saved A Lot More Than A Race

The story's a classic: An outnumbered band of Athenians pushes back the mighty Persian army. But the battle of Marathon, 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, left a legacy that extends far beyond the name of a famous race.

Historian Richard Billows explores the legendary battle in his new book, Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization. He writes that in a single day in 490 B.C., the Athenians managed to save their nascent democracy and change the course of civilization.

Billows tells NPR's Guy Raz that if the Athenians had lost the battle, the city of Athens would have been destroyed and democracy might never have flourished.

A Miraculous Victory

When the Persians arrived at the plains of Marathon, the Athenians took to the foothills and held off the Persians for two days.

"It was in a position where if the Persians had tried to attack them, they would have had to advance uphill against a force established in a defended position," Billows says.

The battle itself lasted just two hours and led to what Billows calls a "miraculous victory" for the Athenians. He says for two generations, the Persians had conquered empire after empire without ever seeing defeat.

"They were seen as this invincible juggernaut that really couldn't be stopped and yet this one tiny city state -- the Athenians -- dared to put its army of about 10,000 men up against these Persians. I think [they] themselves probably [were] not really thinking they could win, but determined not to go down without a fight."

How Democracy Shaped The Battle

Billows argues that the empowering sense of democracy could explain the Greek victory at Marathon.

Athenians saw themselves as participating members of their society, and the army was voluntary and egalitarian. Every soldier fought at his own expense, paid for his own equipment and upkeep.

"They felt that this community, because of the democratic system, was theirs," Billows says. "It was that sense of this is ours, this community, this political state that we've created is our thing."

The Speed March

The marathon -- the race named after that battle -- was inspired by the legend of Pheidippides, who is remembered for running 25 or so miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Persian defeat. But Billows says that story is a bit more complicated.

When the Persians arrived, he says, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to ask for Spartan help, then he ran all the way back -- a total distance of 280 miles.

Billows' research shows that it was the Athenian army itself that made the 25-mile trek back from Marathon to Athens. Without that "speed-march," he says, Persian ships could have swept into an unguarded Athens. And even though the Athenians won the battle of Marathon, they could have lost the war.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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