About 2,500 years ago, the citizen-soldiers of Athens, 10,000 strong, gathered on the plain of Marathon and launched a bold attack on a far larger Persian force. The heavily armoured Greeks smashed into their foes, driving the invaders back to their ships and killing 6,400 of them while losing only 192 of their own. That first defeat of a previously invincible superpower in 490 BCE has never been forgotten in the West. Given the incalculable Greek influence on all later Western history, John Stuart Mill hardly exaggerated when he claimed that “the battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings.”
Lacey, a former U.S. 82nd Airborne Division officer who now teaches at the Marine War College, has no doubt about Marathon’s place in history, even if he strips some of the mythic veneer from it. The Athenians were far from the farmers-turned-reluctant-soldiers of legend, he shows, but a veteran force that had been kicking around their neighbours for 20 years. He also enters the acrimonious—as in opponents calling each other purveyors of “intellectually dishonest feces”—debate over whether the battle marks the emergence of a Western way of war. Half the argument seems sound, Lacey reasons: Westerners have always used superior technology to make up for inferior numbers; put their faith in raw power, whether in heavily armoured men or in tanks; and sought decisive battle. The other half of the concept—that the Western model has always and everywhere been superior—is far shakier: in days of asymmetrical warfare, like today, its truth isn’t obvious.
Whatever the battle may mean in the long sweep of history, its significance was clear to contemporaries. When the great dramatist Aeschylus wrote his own epitaph more than 30 years afterwards, he did not praise his artistic achievements: what he wanted known to posterity was that he had stood and fought at Marathon.