February 18, 2011
The story of Marathon is one of the most exhilarating and significant in human history.
Two thousand five hundred years ago this year, the future of the western world hung in the balance. In 490 BC, the Persians launched what they hoped would be a crushing attack on Greece – and, in particular, on Athens. But, despite the odds being stacked so massively against them, on the morning of 10 September the Athenian army surprised the Persians by launching a rapid attack. Together, they ran in full armour from the hills across the plain of Marathon, sowing panic in their enemy. In terror, the Persians scrambled to their ships. Within a few short hours it was all over. The Greeks had won. For now, the newly established democracy of Athens could thrive.
Yet ten years later the Persians were back, and this time in even greater strength. The Persian King Xerxes himself assembled his forces at Sardis and led them north, past Troy, and so across the Dardanelles and into Greece. Despite the heroism of the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Persians pushed on through to Athens, burning the city and devastating the land. All was not lost, though. In the waters of Salamis, Greek ships destroyed the Persian fleet, and at last, next year, the Persians were forced to make the long trek home, defeated. The confidence these victories instilled allowed the flowering of Greek culture, to which we still owe so much today.
This summer, with The Traveller (and following the trail of the ancient historian Herodotus) I’ll be tracing the steps of the Persians to Marathon – starting at Sardis, the legendary city of Croesus, where the second invasion was mustered. Today Sardis is a peaceful place, its ruins set in a magical landscape made more mysterious by many ancient burial mounds (the largest of which, Herodotus tells us, was paid for by the local courtesans). From Sardis, we continue past the lovely Assos, high above the sea, to Troy, the scene of an earlier struggle. In fact, these are lands which have been contested for millennia, as we are poignantly reminded when we enter Europe at Gallipoli.
Further reminders await us near Salonika, when we visit the cities of that other conqueror, Alexander the Great, and the rich sites of Pella, Dion and Vergina – and at Iolkos, the legendary home of one of the first European travellers to Asia, Jason; for it was from here that he set out with his Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece.
By now, though, there are reminders everywhere of the Persian Wars. We visit Thermopylae, where the 300 Spartans held out so valiantly; Delphi, where (Herodotus claims) the gods sent huge rocks crashing down to stop the Persians from sacking Apollo’s sacred site; Plataea, the scene of the last great battle; Salamis, in whose bay the Greek fleet fought with such determination; and on 10 September itself, the 2500th anniversary, Marathon itself. Finally, we come to Athens to visit and reflect on its glories, and to consider how different things might perhaps have been.
It is an epic journey in so many ways, and one to which I personally am looking forward hugely. Not only are the places we’ll be visiting spectacular and special in themselves, but their significance reverberates deeply throughout western history. To reach Marathon after such a journey, and on such an anniversary, will, I am sure, be quite remarkable.