Limits of war-historical examples - the Battle of Marathon

Karoline Resch


In a military environment history - amongst other fields of scientific analysis of the phenomenon “war” - has to serve to create the prerequisites and basics in the widest sense for completing missions and ought not to be pursued for its own sake. Despite the importance ascribed to the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) the sources which can cited independently from each other for a possible reconstruction are within reasonable limits. Here Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BC, must be quoted before all others; he provided the earliest texts on the course of the battle, and all other authors such as Cornelius Nepos, Plutarch und Pausanias depended from him or were of secondary importance when compared to him. These authors wrote their texts at least four centuries after Herodotus. Herodotus, however, cannot be read as a self-contained text, and soon enough this was realized especially in the context of the Battle of Marathon. Apart from Herodotus there are of course some archaeological findings from the battlefield itself (the “Soros”, i.e. the so-called burial mound of the fallen Athenians; the so-called grave of the Plataians; findings of the 5th century which are used for pinpointing the Herakles-Shrine; the Tropaion), and finally the pictorial representation of the battle in the Stoa Poikile. The battle must certainly not be reduced to the events on the plains of Marathon. On the contrary, all command and decision-making levels which influenced the events ought to be examined. This is the only way where to find possible use or weaknesses of a reconstruction. In this particular case a simple division into military strategic, operational, tactical and battle technical levels is faced with the civilian and military structures of ancient Athens. Thus, a clean separation of military and political decisions on the levels of military strategic planning and operational command is not always possible. Reflecting the sources for a particular battle is supposed to illustrate that there are always some difficulties when a war-historical example is used for reconstructing military principles. Before one can draw conclusions from real sequences of events, one must first catch up on the sources carefully and methodically. The one has to find out for every level where the limitations of every single war-historical example are. On the other hand, for categorizing in levels it is absolutely necessary to adapt to the special conditions (way of thinking, political and military structurings, etc.) at the time. In the case of the Battle of Marathon, the tactical and battle-technical levels will not lead the military scientist to his goal, but dealing with the strategic and operational levels, especially before the battle itself, will be quite useful despite the time distance of 2.500 years to the events.