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2500 Years After Marathon

At first it felt like a ridiculous thing to be doing on a school night: bundling up in the cold weather, enduring a 3 hour drive to a relatively non-descript town near the eastern shore of Greece, and walking a couple miles to the middle of a field to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. “Couldn’t I celebrate just as well in the comfort of my own apartment, back in Athens?” I thought. But I went to the celebration anyway, and I’m so glad I did.

Although I wasn’t a classics major, I did know something about the battle and its importance. Persian soldiers, with the guidance of Athenian conspirators, landed at Marathon in 490 BC. They had the dual mission of subjugating the rebel Athenians who refused to submit to Persian rule, and of conquering all of Attica for the glory of the Persian king Darius. The Athenians tried to rally a defense by calling to Sparta for help, but the Spartans could not escape their religious duties in time and didn’t arrive until after the battle had taken place. Alone, the Athenians marched out to the plains of Marathon to mount a defense—outnumbered almost three to one by the most powerful army in the world at that time. They must have expected certain death, but according to the virtues of their age, they preferred to die nobly than to feebly submit to tyranny.

Neither the Athenians nor the Persians imagined what happened next: the Athenians, with their superior weaponry and sharp strategic calculations, sent the Persians fleeing back to their boats after only a several hours of fighting. The fatality counts numbered 192 on the Athenian side and over 6000 on the Persian side. Against all odds, the Athenians had defeated Persia and rescued all of Western civilization from being strangled in its cradle.

The story is, of course, exciting and unforgettable, but the celebration was even more so. After a couple miles of walking, guided by just a sliver of moonlight and the small candles carried by the crowd, the parade group gathered noisily at the base of a large hill, forming a semicircular space around three musicians. The flutist picked his flute up and began to play a somber, chilling melody. The noise of the crowd dwindled to a whisper. The other two musicians played instruments I had never seen before, creating a strange harmony. It was hard to believe that the Greeks would have played these same instruments so many thousands of years ago, or that a battle for the course of world history had been fought on such an inconspicuous field.

The musicians alternated with several different readers—famous Greek actors or actresses who recited the passages of Thucydides in ancient Greek, telling the story of Marathon. I could pick out several words from my limited knowledge of Modern Greek, but the majority of the content was completely lost on me. It was the mood that stuck. I couldn’t see well, so I ran around the crowd, right to the front, only about twenty feet from the performers. Just as I sat down, a procession of young men and women lined up at the opposite side of the semicircle, each of them carrying a bundle of wheat. This was the last part of the ceremony. The reader called the first name, and the first young man walked to the center at the base of the hill and dropped his bundle of wheat on the ground. “Athanatos!” the reader chanted, and recited the next name. A young woman in a toga came forward and gracefully laid her wheat on the ground. “Athanatos!” the reader chanted, now joined by members of the audience. As the next name was called, another young woman laid down her bundle of wheat, and now almost the entire crowd shouted “Athanatos!” With each bundle of wheat, the crowd yelled louder and louder, Athanatos! … αθάνατος! ... Immortal! The reader was reciting the names from the list of Athenian soldiers who gave their lives at Marathon, who had received the inestimable honor of being buried on the field of battle, inside the man-made hill right in front of me.

When I later realized these things, I was overwhelmed by emotion. To have been in Athens, 2500 years later to the exact day—the thought still leaves me speechless. The fact is, my life today would not exist if it were not for ancient Greece, and ancient Greece, with the enduring greatness of its literature, drama, art, sculpture, technology, language, and culture, would not have existed were it not for the Athenian soldiers who fought at Marathon. I only wish those men could have realized how heroic they really were. It was an honor to be able to celebrate their lives.