In an 1846 review of Grote’s History of Greece, John Stuart Mill makes this claim: “The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings.”
My first reaction to Mill’s sentence was agreement. My second reaction was to the audacity of the claim and to wonder how it could be justified.
The 1066 CE Battle of Hastings was 780 years Before Mill, and the 490 BCE Battle of Marathon was 2,336 years BM. But how does one make cause-and-effect claims about human actions involving millions of people across thousands of years? That takes major conceptualizing cojones.
Here is Mill’s sentence in context: “The interest of Grecian history is unexhausted and inexhaustible. As a mere story, hardly any other portion of authentic history can compete with it. Its characters, its situations, the very march of its incidents, are epic. It is an heroic poem, of which the personages are peoples. It is also, of all histories of which we know so much, the most abounding in consequences to us who now live. The true ancestors of the European nations (it has been well said) are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and the Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.”
Mill is doing “What-if” history: We know we are what we are today significantly because of the Greek victory at Marathon, but where would we be if the Persians had won?
Let’s separate two propositions:
1. The Greeks defeated the Persians at Marathon. Therefore, we are where we are today. What evidence do we have connecting those two sentences?
2. If the Persians had defeated the Greeks at Marathon, then … . How do we complete the sentence?
On 1. The Greeks’ defeating the Persians made it possible for Greek culture to be transmitted across the generations. That was not a deterministic process — each generation’s decision-makers to varying degrees had to accept and propagate its distinctive Greek inheritance of independent, naturalistic thinking, and to the extent that each generation did it developed a culture of rationality, creativity, innovation, science, and artistry. As historians we can see the positive evidence for those connections as they played out across time: the western European decision-makers of the 300-1000s largely rejected the Greek philosophy and declined into the Dark Ages; but further east Byzantium continued to flourish, keeping the Greek texts and ideas alive; the decision-makers of the 1100s to 1400s rediscovered and rejuvenated the Greeks and the Renaissance ensued; and so on.
On 2. What counts as evidence here? We can imagine victorious Persians stamping out Greek culture or dispirited Greeks letting themselves slide into insignificance. But we can also imagine a more relaxed Persian regime content with tribute or tenacious Greeks keeping the flame alive and rebelling a few years later.
Imagination aside, we can think analogically to real historical cases. From the 300s to the 500s CE, the victory of early Christianity did lead to the suppression and extermination of Greek culture. But previously, from 197 to 30 BCE, the Romans systematically defeated the Greeks — yet the Greek inheritance survived, becoming not only part of Roman culture but for many generations the dominant philosophy of the Romans. (I like the saying that the Romans defeated the Greeks but the Greeks conquered the Romans.)
So a Persian victory would have led to which result? I don’t know. And not knowing that, can we say how important Marathon was to where we are 2,500 years later?
My lecture “What Moves History: An Introduction to the Philosophy of History,” available as a free audio download.