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Wabash Voices: Marathon Man

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Marathon Man

by Stephen Ellis ’57

On a summer day in 490 B.C., on the coastal plain of Marathon, roughly 9,000 citizen-soldiers from Athens and the neighboring city-state of Plataea soundly defeated a crack force three times its size sent by Darius of Persia to bring the unruly Greek cities under his rule. This battle—the first in a serious of encounters between East and West which continues to this day—insured that Western civilization would survive its infancy. It was one of History’s pivot points.

The victory surprised even the Greeks, who later claimed that the gods themselves had descended from cloud-draped Olympus to fight on their side. Others said that the god Pan had come in from the countryside on his little goat-feet to sow confusion among the Persians. It’s hard to understand the outcome without allowing for divine intervention of some kind.

Every armchair Hellenophile can empathize with my longstanding desire to visit the battlefield at Marathon, and on my most recent sojourn to Greece, I finally followed through. There are no regular tourist excursions to the place, so I was obliged to have my hotel arrange a taxi to take me out there, wait while I prowled the place, and then carry me back into Athens.

Fortune favored me in the person of the driver who drew the assignment. Demetrios was a lanky young man with an outgoing personality who spoke very good English and had a lively mind, well-stocked with characteristic Greek curiosity. He appeared to be puzzled that a foreigner would actually take the trouble to go out to the national shrine at Marathon, and he quizzed me about my interest in it.

Finally I said, “Well, Marathon belongs to all of us.”

Demetrios brought the cab to a screeching halt and said, “You come sit up here, so we can talk. It’s going to take us a while to get out there.” Despite the cars whizzing by us I exited the passenger seat and jumped into the front beside him.

Now we can talk better,” he said.

Talk we did, and we had plenty of time to do it. Our destination was only 26 miles from central Athens, but the traffic congestion built exponentially as we to the northeast.

It had been a mild, sunny day in Athens, but as we crawled though the industrial area which rings the city for several miles, the sunlight was obscured by pollution from vehicles, from the enterprises which lined the highway, and from various pre-Olympics construction sites in and around the city.

“I can understand why old Phillipides chose to run back to the city to report the victory rather than taking a taxi,” I joked, and Demetrios chuckled as he expertly avoided striking one of the ubiquitous elderly women in black unaccountably threading her way through the traffic on foot.

“The cab drivers had probably all joined the army, anyway,” he said, “but you can run the rest of the way from here if you want to!” I declined.

At length the sprawl gave way to country houses and fields, and we were in golden sunlight again. Demetrios hit his accelerator, rather prematurely, I thought. He had the Greek habit of not slowing before starting a turn, a holdover from chariot-driving days, I suppose.

Finally, he swerved down a country lane with a moderately high wall on one side and stopped abruptly, announcing, “We are there.”

But we quickly discovered that the battlefield was closed for the day and the gate locked. My disappointment must have shown, because Demetrios leapt from the cab and went over to talk to a farmer in a neighboring field. After what seemed to be an explosive interchange between them, he came back grinning. (For some reason, two Greeks exchanging pleasantries often sounds like the prelude to a fight, and with three or more you’d swear that a revolution is underway.)

“There’s not watchman on duty, so we climb over the wall, yes?”

I was pleased that he had now fully bought into the project, but I had some misgivings.

“Demetrios, I have seen Midnight Express, and I have no desire to have my ass thrown in a Greek jail!”

“That was TURKISH jail!” he said. “We climb, yes? It will be easy. I’ll show you.”

I exited the taxi slowly, thankful that before I left home, a colleague had given me the name of an English-speaking lady lawyer in Athens. Finally, I said, “Let’s go for it!”

And so we did. The ascent was surprisingly easy, although the spikes at the top of the wall were challenging to negotiate. (I had no desire to leave my masculinity there as a blood sacrifice to the honored dead!)

We dropped to the ground inside, I paused for a moment to catch my breath, and I gazed around me. In Greece, the past and present always seem closer together than they do elsewhere: the centuries rub shoulders comfortably. Directly ahead of us was the tumulus in which the remains of the 192 Greeks and the 6,400 Persians slain in the battle were interred together. Clumps of wild flowers decorated the slope. In front of the tumulus was the simple monument erected in modern times by a grateful people in honor of their valiant forebears. In the distance we could hear the forlorn sounds of pipe— a schoolboy perhaps, or a lonely shepherd. Or maybe it was old Pan, serenading the fallen.

My feelings at that moment were far outside the normal WASP comfort zone, and I was grateful that there was no busload of clamoring, camera-happy tourists to mar the intensity of the occasion.

Demetrios was no less moved than I as we stood silently side by side in front of the monument. After a minute or so he said, “I haven’t been here since I was in school. I’d almost forgotten.” He paused. Then, grinning, added, “Thank you for insisting we break in!”

In all, we spent nearly an hour at the site, about the same length of time it had taken us to make the trek out from Athens. In the fading light, my mind moved to a time in the less-distant past, to the autumn of 1956, in Professor Jack Charles’s History 1, where he had laid out with such clarity the importance of the divided Greeks’ struggle against the Persian invaders. It’s odd how some things stay with you.

Exiting the battleground was easier than getting in: there were no close calls with the spikes, and I managed to hit the ground outside without spraining an ankle.

As we made our way back into the city, lights were starting to come on. The traffic was still chaotic, and the pollution still heavy, but I didn’t care. We rode in silence. My mind was elsewhere, and so, apparently, was the driver’s.

Ultimately, we made it back to the hotel. I took Demetrios inside, paid the fee brokered by the hotel plus a hefty bonus, and bought him a stiff drink. He had earned it.

I will always cherish the memory of that golden afternoon—and of Jack Charles in the basement of the Chapel, holding forth on what had happened at Marathon.