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Marathon: The Battle That Changed Western Civilization Paperback – November 1, 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1590205686 ISBN-10: 9781590205686 Edition: 1st
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Although focused on the 490 BCE Battle of Marathon between ancient Athens and the Persian Empire, Billows’ scope widens to the stakes for the Athenians. They were prosperous, Kleisthenes had recently instituted their democracy, and the cultural efflorescence evocative of ancient Athens had only just begun. Billows backgrounds these developments with coruscating clarity, summarizing decades of Greek history prior to Marathon in terms of economics, politics, and cultural values. After also recounting the rise of the Persian Empire, Billows proceeds to events that precipitated the Persian invasions of Greece and culminates in an astute narrative of Marathon, in which the Athenian soldiers—dramatist Aeschylus among them—were heavily outnumbered. Their victory, explainable as the result of a risky battle plan, the combat tactics of the phalanx, and the courage of citizens with everything on the line, soon acquired significance for the ancients, in the nature of admiration for Athenian martial excellence. Marathon’s reputation as a historical salvation of the cradle of Western civilization developed in modern times; under scholastic challenge, it is a status Billows stoutly defends in this stirring history. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Billows conceptualizes the fateful one-day battle between Persian Empire and the Albanian city-state with an engrossing narrative" -- Foreword Magazine

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press; 1 edition (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781590205686
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590205686
  • ASIN: 1590205685
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,275,626 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Debra Hamel VINE VOICE on December 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
In 490 B.C.--2500 years ago next year--a Persian army landed at Marathon, about 25 miles northeast of Athens. The King of Persia, Darius, was intent on punishing the Athenians for their involvement in the burning of the Persian capital Sardis some years earlier. But against all odds, the army he sent to subdue Athens wasn't up to the task. The Athenians were significantly outnumbered. The Persians were a formidable war machine. And yet some 10,000 Athenians and fewer than a thousand of their staunch allies, the Plataeans, managed to send the Persians limping back to Asia. The score card in the end: an astonishing 6400 enemy dead against 192 Athenian and 11 Plataean losses. In his book Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, Richard Billows argues--and he's right, to my mind--that the battle of Marathon was a a turning point in western history: had the Athenians lost that day, Greek history, and western civilization, would have developed very differently.

Billows makes his case for Marathon as a decisive battle in his introduction, where he further discusses the three "legends" of Marathon: how the Athenians themselves held the victory up as a defining moment in their history; how, beginning in the mid-19th century, Marathon came to be appreciated by modern scholars as a pivotal event in world history (although in academic circles nowadays the notion of the "decisive battle" is unfashionable); and finally, how Marathon came to be associated with the modern "marathon" race.

After beginning his book with this focus on Marathon, Billows spends the next 150-odd pages discussing the background to the battle.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Aubergine on November 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The majority of the book is devoted to setting a historical backdrop for the battle of Marathon and its participants, mostly focused on the large-scale and long-term cultural and political movements that affected each side. And it's an excellent choice on Billows' part to concentrate his efforts there, because that's certainly the best part of the book. The description of the actual battle is slightly weaker but still well worth the time to read. The letdown comes when the history is over and Billows is left to expound on his thesis of "Marathon as a critical point in Western History". It appears Billows was just looking for a catchy title and way to sell the book. While his subtitle certainly does this, when it comes times to put up or shut up, his argument essentially comes down to "things would have been different". He beats around the bush for 15 pages or so trying to come up with something more compelling but ultimately fails to draw any line between the battle and today that doesn't get extremely hand-wavy.

Stylistically the book is easily readable, if not noteworthy in the slightest. Billows worst habit is illustrating a point he wants to make over a few sentences to a couple paragraphs with colorful explanations and historic details. Then as soon as you grasp his point, he comes back and whacks you in the face with a explicit single sentence summary of it. May work great in lectures, but it doesn't transition well to the written form where the reader is free to digest it at his own pace.

Overall, worth the read for the historical coverage in a popular form, but lacking when it comes down to making a convincing argument on the importance of the battle.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Terry J. Crebs on August 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Enjoyed Billows' research and analysis of Marathon; and loved his recommended reading list rather than the usual bunch of footnotes at the bottom of all the pages. Also, I agree with his using Greek-to-English letters for names rather than the Greek-to-Latin-to-English (i.e., Sokrates not Socrates, and Herodotos not Herodotus as neither "C" nor "U" occur in the Greek alphabet.)

Billows writes of 490 BC (Marathon) and 480 BC (Thermopylai) as times when battles could significantly change the course of history. He notes these ancient battles are therefore similar to Waterloo and the Normandy Invasion of WWII, and I think he's right. He also notes that in the last 55 years, military battles in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. have not been as significant nor as decisive. Throughout Western Civilization, military might and prowess often appear more important than they actually are.

I also enjoyed Billow's reasoning of why the Spartans never showed at Marathon and why they only sent 300 (+servants/slaves) to Thermopylai--the Messenians and other Helots tended to revolt when Spartans left the Pelopennesos. I agree with Herodotos and Billows, the Athenian's victories at Marathon and Salamis (480 BC) really did save more-civilized, southern Greece from Persian dominatrion, while the Spartan-led victory at Plataia (479 BC) was more of a mopping-up operation of the demoralized Persians and their northern-Greek, Babylonian, Assyrrian, Egyptian, and Hebrew allies.

One more quibble, if a military battle like Marathon could change the direction of Western Civilization; what about the discovery (482 BC) of the world-class Athenian silver veins near Lareion? Who was the prospector who discovered the mines, which paid for Thermistokles' +200 Athenian triremes at Salamis.
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