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Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Headlong God of War: A Tale of Ancient Greece and the Battle of Marathon

Peter Krentz in The Battle of Marathon (Yale Library of Military History) describes in detail the equipment, terrain and tactics that shaped the Battle of Marathon, but he singularly fails to make Maraton an exciting story or to bring the characters to life. While his facts and analysis make an important contribution to understanding Marathon -- a battle that was arguably more significant than Thermopylae, his failure to excite our emotions as well as inform our minds detracts significantly from the impact of the book. Martin's The Headlong God of War makes up for these deficits and is as a result an excellent companion to Krentz's book for the scholar while being far more accessible to the laymen. If I could recommend only one book on Marathon, I would prefer Martin's account to Krentz' because it is both good history and a good story.

Particularly impressive is Martin's ability to make Miltiades, the Athenian commander at Marathon, comprehensible and likeable. The historical Miltiades is at best complex and at worst a shady character. His relationship to both the Persians and Athenian democracy was ambivalent, not to say treacherous. Yet Martin succeeds in turning him into a character that the reader can readily identify with. I especially liked the way Martin portrayed his relationship to his sons, something that is based on the historical record and described with great sympathy.

But Miltiades is not the only historical character Martin effectively brings to life in this novel. His portrayal of the tyrant Aristagoras is likewise excellent -- and chilling. Few scenes from any novel have stayed with me as long as Marin's description of the arrival of Histiaios' messenger at Aristagoras' court. Likewise, his Persian characters have greater depth and differentiation than is common. For the sake of a good, historically accurate story with believable characters, I'm willing to overlook the occassional typos and editing errors.

Of Martin's three books on ancient Greece this is my favorite. I recommend it to anyone interested in Marathon specifically or ancient Greece generally.

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