Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Dennis L. Fink, The Battle of Marathon in Scholarship. Research, Theories and Controversies Since 1850. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers, 2014. Pp. vii, 229. ISBN 9780786479733. $45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew P. Maher, University of Winnipeg (ma.maher@uwinnipeg.ca)

Version at BMCR home site


Fink's book aims to provide the reader with both a historiographical overview of, and the controversies in the scholarship surrounding the famous Battle of Marathon, which saw the allied Athenian and Plataean forces halt the attempted Persian invasion of mainland Greece in 490 BC. Including detailed and thorough endnotes and a bibliography comprised of some 400 different sources, the objective of this book is to make "available in one source most of the major scholarship available [on the subject] in English from the past 162 years" (p. 1).

After outlining his motives, the objectives, and the general structure of the book in the Preface, Fink proceeds in Chapter 1 to examine and evaluate the primary and ancient secondary sources that serve as our main body of evidence for the events surrounding the battle. Not surprisingly, it is Herodotus' Histories which is largely the focus of this chapter. The author proceeds to lay out the opposing arguments in the scholarship regarding the question of Herodotus' reliability and credibility. While warranting caution on the part of modern historians, Fink concludes that the arguments "on the dependability and usefulness of Herodotus are most convincing" (p. 11).

In Chapters 2 and 3, Fink provides general summaries of the Persian and Greek military systems. In the former, the author examines the Persian command structure, training, weapons and armour, troop strengths, Persian cavalry, and the organization of the Persian navy. In his discussion about the use of mercenaries and troop levies from the provinces, Fink raises an issue that has a bearing on the Battle of Marathon, arguing that "troops raised by the king had much experience and military training. Thus, the common perception of Persian armies consisting of hordes of untrained and undisciplined troop does not ring true" (p. 16). In Chapter 3, the author devotes a considerable amount of space to describing the intricacies of the Greek hoplite system including the arms and armour in terms of both their practical capabilities and psychological effectiveness. In this regard, because there is good archaeological evidence to support the discussion on the appearance of the much of the panoply, there is little of what might be deemed 'controversy'. Instead, the debates presented in this chapter lie with the origin of the hoplite panoply and phalanx formation, and especially the mechanics of the mass push. Again, as is the nature of his book, for all of these contentious issues, Fink presents the evidence promoted by different scholars in support of their arguments.

As further historical background to the Battle of Marathon, in Chapter 4, the author presents a brief and relatively uncontroversial summary regarding the rise of the Persian empire. Using primarily Herodotus (and occasionally Xenophon) as the main sources, Fink explores the origin and spread of the Persian Empire as well as short biographies of Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius. By ending this chapter with events from around 500 BC—with the Persian subjugation of the cities in the Hellespont, Thrace, and Macedon—Fink has demonstrated the size, resources, and strength of the Persian empire on the eve of Marathon.

Chapters 5 and 6 are also largely historical summaries of the events leading up to the Battle of Marathon. Specifically, in Chapter 5, Fink explores the Ionian Revolt, which (because of the involvement of Athens and Eretria) was directly related to the later Persian landing at Marathon. Unfortunately, as the author himself acknowledges, Herodotus is our only source for the Ionian Revolt and his account is problematic. After presenting the problems with Herodotus' account, the author focuses on the scholarly consensus regarding its most trustworthy elements and proceeds to present a historical summary of the revolt, the chief Persian and Greek players and their motivations, as well as the major military conflicts. The relatively short Chapter 6 picks up the story after the Persian suppression of the revolt with a brief account of Mardonius' failed campaign of 492 BC and preparations for the invasion of 490 BC.

With the necessary background established, the substantial Chapter 7, comprising about a third of the book's total, addresses the "list of issues raised by the study of the Battle of Marathon and summarize[s] how various scholars have dealt with the issues identified" (p. 121). Unfortunately, the space permitted in this review is hardly sufficient to cover in depth all of the key issues raised by the author in this important chapter; issues such as scholarly controversies surrounding Herodotus' account of the battle, why the Persians chose Marathon, the topography of the plain, troop numbers and deployment, the delay and Athens' decision to attack, and the number of causalities. Fink also adeptly examines the different sides of the debates concerning some of the more contentious issues regarding the Battle of Marathon, such as the Greek charge, the question of the Persian cavalry, the supposed shield signal, and the Athenians' march back to their city. In concluding this chapter, the author brings together many of the controversies explored earlier in an attempt to discover why the Greeks won the Battle of Marathon: in short, he feels, through the superior generalship of Miltiades, ineffective tactics on the part of the Persians, and the generally superior hoplite panoply. Finally, while not discounting the bravery and loyalty of the Persian troops, Fink does seem to give credence to the idea that the Athenians' desire for freedom also played an important role in their unlikely victory that day in 490 BC.

In the short concluding Chapter 8, Fink does not take the opportunity to provide a summary of the book's main themes, nor to reiterate the chief controversies and scholarly debates explored in the previous chapters. Instead, the author examines the answer to a question foreshadowed in the preface: "was it really an important battle that saved Western civilization, or was it simply a minor defeat as the Persians viewed it?" (p. 2). Fink points out (correctly I think) that from a Persian viewpoint, their defeat at Marathon had little or no impact outside Greece, and by punishing Eretria and adding much of the Cyclades to the empire the expedition of 490 might actually have been viewed as successful. From the Athenian viewpoint (hypothetical questions afforded by hindsight about the effect of a Greek defeat with respect to the development of Greek, and thus Western culture notwithstanding), not only was the battle a turning point for the city of Athens and its young democracy, but "from a psychological viewpoint the "legend" that grew up around the victory was probably more important than the actual battle" (p. 189).

The remainder of this book is comprised of endnotes divided by chapters, an extensive bibliography, and an index.

In Chapter 7, in a discussion about the Athenian decision to attack the Persians at Marathon, Fink maintains that "perhaps the best approach is to accept the minimal information provided by Herodotus and attempt to fill in the details with speculation based upon probabilities… aren't all authors doing the same thing—making up details to fill in the information missing in Herodotus' account? Ultimately it is up to the reader to determine which is the "best" viewpoint based upon the criteria that the reader establishes" (p. 151). In a sense, this could be a maxim for the whole book and Fink's approach to all of the controversies surrounding the Battle of Marathon. Indeed, consistently throughout the book, he examines an issue (most often related to Herodotus' account), and then presents the different scholars, their work, and their arguments about the said issue. With the style and nature of this book, one is left with the impression that one is actually listening to a lively (if extremely specific) scholarly debate. That being said, Fink does not just passively present a given argument, and although the reader rarely is given the chance to hear the author's own voice or opinion, he does not report the different scholarly arguments without a critical eye—if a position is presented without evidence or if an argument is not widely accepted by other scholars, Fink points this out to his readers.

There are no significant problems I took issue with in this book, and instead there are only a few minor points to bring to attention. For example, in the discussion in Chapter 3 about the advantages of the hoplite's arms and armour, Fink presents a well-argued case for why a hoplite's shield must have been custom made (p. 32), but later, states that the hoplite's helmet "was not custom made for the individual so often the fit was poor" (p. 41). In a rare oversight, Fink provides neither arguments nor archaeological or historical evidence to support this opinion. Because of the ensuing discussion about the impact of the (Corinthian) helmet's deficiencies in battle and its subsequent evolution to address such failings, it is an important point—one that was passed over a little too quickly. Another example can be found in the same chapter, where Fink maintains that hoplites did "not feel any responsibility to fight if their own lands or lives were not threatened. This is seen by the little aid that Athens gained against Persia at the Battle of Marathon" (p. 46). I feel this statement is a little misleading and the truth may have had more to do with the specific realities of the situation. On the basis of their long-standing alliance, that Plataia joined the Athenian cause is not surprising. More surprising is the fact that, despite the delay, the Athenians succeeded in getting the Spartans to march north of the Isthmus to their aid—certainly a rare event for the time. As was the case on the eve of Xerxes' invasion a decade later, perhaps if the Athenians had had more time, other Greeks would have rallied to their cause. Finally, and on a more superficial note, while some of the chapters are a little repetitive in places and the book contains a few typographical mistakes, the most obvious shortcoming is the lack of any maps or plans. A map of Asia Minor showing the important cities would have complemented Fink's discussion of the Ionian Revolt; and a topographical map of the plain of Marathon would have greatly facilitated the debates regarding the proposed location of the Greek camp at the Sanctuary of Herakles, the main roads to Athens, and the topographical features which played a role in the battle.

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that although Fink does occasionally make use of translated modern scholarship in his research, the overwhelming majority of the material employed (as he himself admits) are works written in English. This is the most serious drawback of his book; by limiting his scope only to scholarship produced in English, Fink obviously and unavoidably excludes the important collection of scholarship on the subject of Marathon produced in languages other than English.

Such criticisms aside, Fink delivers exactly what he promises: a single book summarizing "most of the major scholarship available in English from the past 162 years on the Battle of Marathon" (p. 1). Moreover, by providing all of the background information (from Herodotus, to the rise of the Persian empire, to the Ionian Revolt), the author puts the Battle of Marathon into its proper historical context and thus ensures the controversies and debates presented are comprehensible. Finally, another objective met by the author is his desire to present the latest research on the subject in a summary form so that "rather than needing to be read cover to cover, the book's organization allows readers to zero in on their particular areas of interest" (p. 2). The structure of the book—organized into self-contained chapters detailing all the different aspects surrounding the battle itself—ensures that wherever the reader's specific interest in the battle lies, a comprehensive summary on the topic is readily accessible.

In the Preface, Fink modestly tells the reader that his "lack of specialized training in ancient history, lack of Greek and Latin language skills, and my lack of academic experience at the university level prevented me from presenting any new or unique perspective on the topic" (p. 1). On this point I would disagree with Fink and, in fact, by bringing together "some limited consensus, lots of controversy…lots of speculation, some unusual theories, and impressive scholarship" (p. 190), Fink has produced something not only useful, but unique. Indeed, although largely comprised of other scholars' arguments, his endeavour is, in its own right, a carefully and well-researched book which stands as an important contribution to our understanding of the Battle of Marathon. Despite his modesty, Fink is obviously an expert on the topic and having him actually weigh in more on the debates would have been welcomed. I hope to hear more from this author in the future.

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