Sun Ra - Column for 5/6

the Odds

Well, I haven't much immediate social commentary welling up this week, so I'm gonna fall back on my favorite subject. History. I'm enrolled in a course about the Ancient World right now (in particular, the Greco-Roman world), so let me tell you about how the Greeks resisted the Persians at Marathon. That's right! It's educational!

Now, in the fifth century B.C., Greece was a collection of hundreds of city-states, comprising perhaps two million people in all. And the chief Greek city-state was Sparta. Sparta was the country that other Greeks looked to represent them when dealing with other nations.

This was because Sparta could defeat anyone, or at least any other Greek country. Sparta was unique in its political organization, which was its military organization. There were nine thousand Spartans. Always. And those Spartans were all men of fighting age. Everyone else was not a Spartan; some were young or old would-be or has-been Spartans, but most were slaves. The Spartans had over ten times as many slaves as there were Spartans.

And the slaves ("helots") did everything except the one thing the Spartans did, which was to fight. All the Spartans did, all the time, was to fight or to train for fighting. So, not surprisingly, they excelled at it. No other Greek city-state could resist them, at least not alone. But, since there were by their own law only nine thousand Spartans, Sparta was not particularly aggressive.

Thus other Greeks were content enough to let Sparta represent them. Sure, they were weird (and pretty much all other Greeks thought so. Spartans slept their whole lives in barracks, were allowed one change of clothes, period, and slept on straw. By law. The word 'spartan' has really solid roots), but they were Greek, and in a masochistic sort of way you could look up to them. They had self-discipline.

Persia, on the other hand, had imposed discipline. It was an empire on the make, forty million people under the thumb of the Emperor, who was also a god. Unlike Greeks - even Spartans - who had at the top a class of more-or-less equal people, every single soul in the Persian empire lived or died at the will of the Emperor. And the empire was young, and growing.

This sort of political arrangement didn't suit the Greek city-states on the Ionian coast, across the sea from the main Greek city states. These colonies had been in modern Turkey for a long time, and when the Persian empire came through they all fell into line. But the taxes and the discipline imposed on them by the empire became too onerus, and the Greek cities in the empire rebelled.

And were crushed, utterly. All the men were slain, all the women and children sold into slavery. The Greeks in mainland Greece were horrified, and noted well what could happen to whoever fell under the power of Persia.

Oh, and the Greek cities, especially Athens, had helped the rebels. So, a few years later, the Persian emperor Darius decided to teach those damn Athenians a lesson. In 492 B.C. he dispatched a fleet with some ten thousand soldiers to conquer Athens.

The Persian expeditionary force landed at the Bay of Marathon. The Athenians, some three thousand of them, marched out to meet them. They hoped that someone - the Spartans, to whom they had sent a runner - would come to help them, but they couldn't count on it.

The Athenians marched down to Marathon to meet the Persians. And they lined up along the hill overlooking the beach, where they Persians were assembled.

And they waited.

And they waited.

Neither side made a move for seven days. For seven days both armies sat there, about a thousand feet apart, and watched each other. The Athenians weren't going to attack an army three times their size, especially if help was on the way, and the Persians didn't want to attack uphill. So they waited.

Then, on the seventh day, the Persian commander came to his senses. He realized that there simply weren't that many Athenians. This group here, looking down at him, was all of them. Which meant that if he simply got back on his ships, sailed the twenty-five miles up to the main Athenian harbor, he could just walk into the city, and the Athenian army would be outside.

So he ordered his troops to re-embark.

The Athenian commander, though, had come to the same conclusion. And when he saw the Persians getting back on their ships, he knew he had to do something. So he lined up his men, and gave the order to attack. But in so doing, he did something no Greek army had done before.

The usual method of fighting for Greek armies was for all the soldiers ("hoplites") to link their shield, raise their spears, and walk into battle as an unbreakable wall. It was critical that the shield-wall remain unbroken, so it was critical that all the men in it walked together. In fact, there was music specifically for the purpose of keeping all the soldiers in lock-step. The Spartans, who forbid any form of art or culture (well, by Spartans. Imports were okay) because it took time away from preparing from war, nonetheless put great stock in their war chants. It was necessary to keep in step.

That day, the Athenians didn't. They lined up together, but they didn't advance at a walk. They ran. They ran down the hill with their shields and spears, and crashed into the Persian army that was three times their number.

But the Persians were boarding their ships, and were totally unprepared. This army that had sat on the hill and watched them for a week had in mere moments picked up their armor and weapons and come howling down the hill. And that armor was heavy - the Athenians hit the Persians with far too much momentum to stop, or to be resisted.

The Persians broke. After all the dust had settled, and the Persian ships had escaped, the Athenians had killed six thousand Persians, and taken only one hundred and ninety two casualties. It was an incomparable victory. It was a victory worthy of the Spartans, and the Athenians had done it! Alone!

Of course, there were still four thousand Persians on their ships, sailing for Athens. So the Athenian commander summoned a runner, and told him to run without stopping to Athens, and tell them to shut the gates and man the walls with whoever was left there. And the runner, leaving behind his armor and weapons and not stopping in his run, covered the twenty-five miles from Marathon to Athens in a few hours, so that when the Persians arrived in the harbor they saw the walls manned and the gates closed.

So the Persians went home.

Then, a few hours later, the Spartans arrived. They went down to Marathon, looked at all the dead Persians (they had never seen Persians before), congratulated the Athenians, and went home. There was nothing else to do.

The battle of Marathon had a number of important consequences. It kept the Persians out of Greece for several years, but at the same time ensured that the Persians would return and would do so with not just an expeditionary force, but with overwhelming power. It was just a matter of time.

It also lifted Athens, not least in their own eyes, out of the ranks of Greek city-states and set them up with Sparta as a leader of the Greeks. Athens had defeated Persia! Perhaps it should be Athens that led the Greeks, not backwards Sparta. And this was a conflict that would bubble below the surface for years, until it resulted in the Peloponnesian Wars, thirty years of conflict that drained the Greek world. The brilliance of classical Greece, the art, philosophy, drama - all were born at Marathon, when Athens realized that she could have primacy among the Greeks. And that same thought brought with it the destruction of the classical Greek world, when the same Athenian pretentions brought them into conflict with Sparta, and both sides destroyed each other in thirty years of fratricide.

- Sun Ra

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