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The 'Clash' At Marathon Shaped Greece, And The West

Greek warriors advancing on Persian troops at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., depicted in a painting by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse.
Greek warriors advancing on Persian troops at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., depicted in a painting by Georges Antoine Rochegrosse.

At the start of the fifth century B.C., the Persian empire was the world's paramount power, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa to the Indian subcontinent. But the Persian emperor, King Darius, did not control Athens — and defeating its much smaller army seemed a relatively small matter.

In September of 490 B.C., Persian troops advanced on 10,000 vastly outnumbered Greek soldiers on the Plain of Marathon. But the Greeks managed to crush the Persian army that day and, as the story goes, ran all the way home to preserve their victory.

Scholars have recounted the battle of Marathon for centuries, hailing it as one of the most pivotal battles in world history. And had the Athenians lost that day, as retired Marine and military historian Jim Lacey argues in The First Clash: The Miraculous Greek Victory at Marathon and Its Impact on Western Civilization, the world would look dramatically different today.

Jim Lacey, a retired U.S. Marines officer, is now a professor of strategy, war and policy at the Marine War College.
/ Helen Robertson
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Jim Lacey, a retired U.S. Marines officer, is now a professor of strategy, war and policy at the Marine War College.

The Persian empire "was probably not as bad as some empires or some tyrannies," Lacey tells NPR's Neal Conan. "But it was not conducive to the creation of democratic institutions or a market economic system. In fact," Lacey continues, Cyrus the Great, "the founder of the Persian empire, held both in contempt. He said as much when he found out how the Greeks governed themselves and how they traded."

That early democratic ideals had developed in Greece at all, Lacey says, "is pretty much a miracle in itself." Greeks had established the right to vote — albeit for a limited population — and created an "ancient equivalent of a middle-class system" through land redistribution.

A Persian victory, Lacey says, would have transformed the entire structure of Greek society, trampling the "flowering of Greek culture, Greek civilization, that fed right into the Roman civilization," ultimately forming the basis of Western political philosophy.

"Maybe Socrates would have been born, maybe Aristotle would have been born," had the Persians emerged victorious at Marathon, Lacey says. "But they would have been born under a tyranny. ... I cannot possibly believe that the institutions such as those that had been developed in Athens in the generation or two generations prior to the Persian invasion could possibly have survived. ... Tyrannies have a way of stomping out that kind of opposition."

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