Today is the traditional anniversary date of the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., one of the most consequential battles in the history of the Western world. It’s a name and an event every homeschool student should know, so why not remember it with your students today and perhaps engage in a little “what-if” speculation.
The Battle of Marathon took place on the east coast of mainland Greece near a small town called Marathon, about 26 miles northeast of Athens. Soldiers from the fledgling democracy of Athens and its ally Plataea defeated a much larger army sent by Darius I, ruler of the Persian Empire, to conquer mainland Greece. The Athenian and Persian forces formed up in lines facing each other on the plain beside the shoreline, and in a classic military maneuver, the Greeks fell back in the center of the line, drawing the Persians toward them, and then closed around with both flanks. The Persian army was crushed in the jaws of this vise and collapsed. The Greek soldiers rushed back to Athens, 26 miles away — which is why we call a 26-mile race a Marathon — fearing that the Persians would reassemble on their ships and launch a second attack, but the second attack never came.
This battle took place in 490 B.C., and the century that followed is what we now think of as the Golden Age of Greek literature, art, and science. If the Persians had won at Marathon and Athens had fallen, all of mainland Greece would probably have fallen in turn. All that came after — Socrates and Plato, Sophocles and all the Greek playwrights, the art and architecture of Classical Greece, the science and philosophy of Aristotle and his followers — all might never have appeared. (“What-if” history is always speculation, but it’s good for your students’ imaginations even so.)
History is not always an appealing subject for young people, and yet the events of the past, often the remote past, have profoundly shaped the world we live in today. To understand who we are and what we should do today, we must understand what has gone before.
The American essayist Guy Davenport wrote a beautiful modern poem about the importance of remembering Marathon, using fellow-poet Marianne Moore (1887–1972) as his example. Late in life, Moore, who had lived for many years in Brooklyn, New York, made a pilgrimage to Marathon to pay tribute to the Athenian army:
Marianne Moore saluted the battlefield.
Her frail hand at the brim of her hat
round as a platter, she stood at attention
in her best Brooklyn Navy Yard manner,
or as years before she and Jim Thorpe
raised the school flag at Carlisle.
Here in long scarlet cloaks the ranks
advanced with ashlared shields, singing
to the thrashed drums and squealing fife
the pitiless hymn of Apollo the Wolf,
spears forward, horsetails streaming
from the masked helmets with unearthly eyes.
The swordline next and the javelineers,
More red cloaks, Ares wild in their blades.
The javelins whistled up like partridges
flushed in a brake and fell like sleet.
The Persians bored in, an auger of hornets.
The Greeks flowed around their thrust
as fire eats a stick. Wise to the ruse,
the Persians pulled back to the sea
and made hard in their ships for Athens,
which, the Greek army there on the plain,
lay naked to their will, tomorrow’s victory.
But the Greeks were there on the morrow
to cut them back. They had run all the way
from Marathon, twenty miles, in bronze.
Two thousand, four hundred and fifty-five
years ago. There are things one must not
leave undone, such as coming from Brooklyn
in one’s old age to salute the army
at Marathon. What are years?
Perhaps you and your students will visit the Plain of Marathon someday to give a salute of your own. The Athenian soldiers are still there. Although it was generally the custom in Greece to return war casualties to their home city for burial, the victory at Marathon was deemed so important that in Homeric fashion, the Athenians raised a great burial mound and interred their fallen comrades on the field where they fell, and there they remain today.
What are years?
What holidays or anniversaries are you marking in your homeschool this week?
❡ Explore more: You can find Athens and Marathon on plate 72 of your River Houses atlas (riverhouses.org/books), and you can discover other important historical events and anniversaries to mark in your homeschool on our River Houses homeschool calendars (riverhouses.org/calendars) — print out your own copies today. 😊