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2,500 Years Later, Political Lessons From Marathon

09/22/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2011

Thank Gods that the Spartans never made it to the Battle of Marathon.

Inconveniently for the Greek states left to fend off the 20,000 troops assembled under Darius I, Persian King of Kings, the Spartans were otherwise occupied with a religious celebration. Herodotus tells us of how, after Pheiddippides completed his famous run to Sparta, it "was the ninth day of the month, and on the ninth day they said they would not go forth, not until the circle of the moon should be full." For our purposes, however, it's the unique circumstances of the Spartan recalcitrance that makes dating of the 490 b.c. battle possible -- allowing us to pinpoint September 12 of last week as the most probable date of the 2,500th anniversary of the battle.

On this 2,500th anniversary, Marathon is securely, one would assume, deposited in the dustbin of history. And until Frank Miller gets around to writing a prequel to 300, that's not likely to change. However, the story of Marathon -- as recorded by Herodotus, our primary source for the events of the battle -- still has a great many parallels and lessons that apply to today's sociopolitical world.

1) Whoever happens to be left standing at the end of the day gets the credit.

Who's the hero of Marathon? In Herodotus, the answer is clear: Miltiades. Before the battle, there were two schools of thought within the Athenian military camp: Half of the generals wished to retreat, while the other half, including Miltiades, urged steadfastness. It was Miltiades who swayed the Athenian commander-in-chief, Callimachus, to wage battle, and it was Miltiades who had his reputation enhanced the most by the events of Marathon.

Or, at least, that's the version that has come down through the ages. Perhaps Callimachus, the acting polemarch, would have had a different story to tell -- but he died in the fighting, leaving Miltiades to shape post-battle narrative.

This is the frustrating position many activists and politicians find themselves in today, one that Hillary Clinton acknowledged in her June 2008 concession speech when she described the role of her presidential campaign as failing to shatter the glass ceiling, but leaving "18 million cracks in it." For all the good Clinton accomplished during her campaign, it will be fascinating to see how much credit she eventually receives when a female candidate actually clinches the presidential nomination of a major political party. If the recent past is any indicator, it won't be much -- witness how many well-meaning observers, including then-Delware Senator Joe Biden, managed to, through their praise of candidate Barack Obama, diminish the roles of past trailblazers such as Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell.

2) Helpers, allies and fellow-travelers tend to be forgotten.

Imagine how the Plataeans feel -- well, would feel -- whenever Marathon is memorialized as a great Athenian victory. Remembered today through a lens of Greek history that stresses the progress of Athenian experiments in democracy, the field of Marathon still to this day includes a burial mound that plays host to the remains of fallen members of the Plataean contingent. Plataeans made up the bulk of the Greek army's left wing, and though the Athenians made sure to recognize their contributions -- for years afterward, Athenians offered sacrifices in order "that blessings may come to the Athenians and Plataeans both" -- posterity has chosen to honor primarily the Athenian aspects of the victory.

There is little question that, in the 2,500 years since Marathon, memories have grown shorter. Since late 2001, French forces have fought alongside the Americans in Afghanistan, participating as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (under U.S. command) and as part of the International Security Assistance Force, under the aegis of NATO as part of a U.N. mandate. Instead of a discussion of France's reasons for refusing to participate in the Iraq War two years later, however, it instead proved easier to demonize everything that seemed French -- a tactic that quickly morphed into an actual Republican campaign strategy in 2004, when it was determined that Democratic candidate John Kerry "looked French." In the Plataeans' case, the process of forgetting took generations; Suffice it to say, the process has been streamlined.

3) External strife provides excuses to revive internal tensions.

After the Persians were routed at Marathon, they attempted a naval sortie against the city of Athens, only to turn back to Asia upon realizing their tactic was surprising no one. This was enough to fire up suspicion within the city, and blame quickly fell on an unpopular political clan. Says Herodotus: "There was a slander prevalent in Athens that [the Persians] got this idea from a contrivance of the Alcmaeonidae, in accord with a covenant they had made with the Persians, showed a signal, the holding-up of a shield, for those barbarians who were on shipboard."

This would, depressingly, seem the most relevant lesson from the Battle of Marathon. Just as many in Athens were quick to suspect the presumed Persian links of the Alcmaeonidae family, many are quick today to publicly voice doubt concerning the loyalty of anyone they can mentally link to al Qaeda, no matter how tenuous the connection. Glenn Beck's fierce interrogation of Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison back in 2008 -- asking him "to prove to me that you are not working with our enemies" -- turned out to be just an early indicator of burgeoning, mainstream anti-Muslim hysteria.

Last month, a Muslim cab driver was stabbed in what appears to be a textbook example of a hate crime in New York City, while less than a week later a fire blazed over gasoline-drenched construction equipment at the site of a planned Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security identified as arson. In popular discourse, the term "Mosque" has become laden with aspersions, while the President's political opponents seem content to be using the idea of Obama's being a Muslim -- or a Kenyan anti-colonialist -- as public packaging for all of their anxieties concerning his administration.

None of this should be surprising. If history teaches us anything it is that, though our knowledge base and our capacity for empathy has grown exponentially, human nature remains largely unchanged over even great lengths of time. Similar parallels could undoubtedly have been drawn at the 1,000th, 1,500th and 2,000th anniversary of the battle as well. That's little reason, however, to stop studying these events -- and attempting to learn from them.