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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: “The Battle of Marathon” by Peter Krentz

The Battle of MarathonPeter Krentz provides a meticulous analysis of the Battle of Marathon in his recent release with Yale University Press, The Battle of Marathon (London: 2010). He provides a succinct description of the events leading up to the Persian-Greek confrontation on the famous plain north of Athens and then carefully dissects every aspect of the battle itself from the equipment to the topography. Krentz knows his sources well but does not drag his reader down into the weeds of academic bickering. Rather, he marshals the evidence in a coherent and comprehensible fashion, topic by topic. Particularly impressive is his analysis of the geography of the plain of Marathon (and how it has changed over the centuries), and the physical stamina required to run a mile in full panoply.

Krentz goes a long way to refute aspersions cast on the credibility of Herodotus’ account by later historians, and effectively defends the ancient historian’s version of events. Krentz’s key argument is that Athenian hoplites could indeed have “run” (defined as jogging at ca. 4.5 miles per hour or more) for one mile across a plain in full battle gear. He also does an excellent job of explaining why this would have been desirable. His analysis of the battle itself is altogether convincing and plausible.

Another outstanding feature of the book is the illustrations. The maps, charts and reproductions of contemporary art illustrate the points made in the text cogently. The variety of images, far more diverse that the standard fare found in most books on the topic, is impressive. I came away better able to visualize Persian forces, something I have long wanted to do. Indeed, Krentz’s impressive collection of contemporary art showing Persian warriors shames other sources that singularly fail to make it possible to imagine how these fierce fighters dressed and fought.

Yet, while Krentz’s book is a good reference, it is not a narrative. Anyone interested in the tale of Marathon will be disappointed. Krentz provides some skeletal, biographical facts about the key actors in the drama, but fails to describe or even sketch the personality of any of the leaders, not even Miltiades, much less bring them to life. He outlines the causes of the conflict, without conveying a sense of the “life and times,” or the society and issues at stake in a way that makes the reader identify with the protagonists. Most important, despite its merits, this book is evidently not intended (and so not constructed) to arouse emotions or create suspense. Maybe I am too much of a novelist, but I firmly believe it is possible – and more effective - to tell the story of Marathon in a way that is not only 100% accurate, but also exciting, moving and inspiring.

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