The epochal battle fought on September 12, 490 B.C. between a predominantly Athenian army and the vast polyglot Persian Empire quickly acquired iconic status as the violent emblem of starkly contrasting civilizations. For the Athenians, the victory was the defining experience of their lives: the tombstone of the great playwright Aeschylus ignored his victories in the theater and bragged instead of the “glorious courage” he displayed at Marathon. By the late fifth century, the marathônomachai, the “Marathon fighters,” had become the representatives of the old-fashioned agrarian conservatism that had defended political freedom against an aggressor—“tough, stubborn, made of oak and maple” as Aristophanes called the old veterans, in contrast to the silver-tongued sophists and preening orators of the urban radical democracy the comic poet so savagely satirized. For centuries thereafter, the battle dramatized...


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