Thursday, May 20, 2010

Did Marathon Change Everything?

Via rogueclassicism and

Prof. Richard Billows, in the article mentioned above claims, in a lecture aimed at supporting his soon-to-be-published book on the topic, that the Battle of Marathon can be considered one of the pivotal moments of world history.

He argues that had the Athenians lost the battle at Marathon to the Persians, Western Civilisation would be radically different - there would be no democracy, no Socrates or Plato, no Aeschylus or Sophocles. Essentially, he's claiming that the victory at Marathon set the tone for the next two generations - a period of immense intellectual, cultural and political development.

His argument is full of "mays", "maybes" and "mights". I have to say I find it a little bit tiresome. It can be an interesting exercise, but it seems like a stroke of poor imagination to pick an event (even though Marathon is well chosen) and say: "things could maybe possible be much different if that single event had never transpired or ended in a different fashion!".

I think as human beings we like these kind of explanations - they appeal to us and we enjoy the mental exercise of "what if?", but I think "research" and speculation on the topic is mostly a waste of time. I don't think we need a book on it.

Moreover - why choose Marathon? It's a single event that can be easily labelled, I suspect. Why not choose, say, the Persian decision to invade Greece, the weather or any assortment of other factors? I reckon it's because they don't have the same "pull" as the "big" events of history, but they seem to be to be just as equally valid.

Speculative counter-factual history can be interesting or fun (Nazi's hiding on the moon!?) but in the field of classics, and especially when taken seriously, it seems like a colossal waste of time to me. It has a tiny bit of merit insomuch as it may call attention to things we take for granted, but it's a fun mental exercise, nothing more.

It's overly simplistic to choose a single event and say it changed everything. Ignoring the fact that it's built on the idea that ultimately there is a prime mover of some sort in every sequence of events, it just demonstrates a lack of true imagination and demonstrates a fondness for simple or stark explanations. The flourishing of Athens after Marathon was part of a development stretching much further back in time - it was an instance on an enormous time scale which we can't really comprehend. Explanations such as this one are poor attempts at doing so.

I don't have a problem with artistic licence being taken in books, novels or TV shows - in fact, in these cases, reading into historical events can be interesting, it's just the notion of taking counter-factual history as a useful tool in genuine historical discourse that I dislike. Maybe I'm being a stick in the mud, though!

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