Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Did you miss Richard Billows discussing MARATHON on NPR?

Never fear! Here's a handy link to both his interview (with a transcript!) and an excerpt of the professor's wonderful book MARATHON: HOW ONE BATTLE CHANGED WESTERN CIVILIZATION.

Our favorite part of the interview with Guy Raz actually occurs right at the beginning, and is a great summary of why the Battle of Marathon is so crucially important to our civilization, besides giving us 26.2 mile runs.

RAZ: Aeschylus was a veteran of the legendary battle at Marathon. It happened exactly 2,500 years ago, and it pitted a heavily outnumbered band of mainly Athenians against the far mightier Persian army. It also lent its name to the famous race, which we'll hear about in a moment.

Historian Richard Billows writes about the battle in a new book called "Marathon." And he says that that one day in 490 BC actually changed the course of Western civilization.

Mr. BILLOWS: What we can tell from the way the Persians treated other cities -Greek cities that they attacked in this same period is that if the Athenians had lost the battle, the city of Athens would have been destroyed. The Athenian citizen population rounded up, put on ships and transported to Persia to be interviewed by the Persian king, Darius, at that time and then probably resettled somewhere near the Persian Gulf where they would've been lost to history.

And as a result, all those great Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries -the likes of Thucydides and Socrates and Plato, one could go on - simply would never either have been born or their works would never have been written and would not have been able therefore to shape subsequent classical Greek civilization and Western culture as we know it.

RAZ: I mean, you say that had the Persians defeated the Athenians at Marathon, democracy would never have flourished.

Mr. BILLOWS: The first democracy that we know of in world history was created by the Athenians just 15 years before the battle of Marathon. It was established as a result of a kind of coup d'etat against a tyrant who had been ruling Athens. And that democracy was a very young and new experiment when the Athenians faced the Persians.

We also love how Mr. Raz chose to end the interview.

RAZ: I'm curious. You emphasize the importance of democracy in the Athenian victory. Why?

Mr. BILLOWS: The way that the Greeks fought was very egalitarian. Every individual soldier fought at his own expense. He paid for his own equipment and for his own upkeep. And essentially voluntarily, they were participating members of the social and political community. They felt that this community, because the democratic system, was theirs, they governed themselves very directly.

We tend to make a distinction between the government and the people. There was no such distinction in Athenian democracy because the people were the government. It was that sense of this is ours - this community, this political state that we've created is our thing.

So, the Greek victories over the Persians were intimately tied up with the political system of participatory democracy that the Greeks had created.

Fascinated yet? Make sure to listen to (or read!) the entire interview. And stay tuned for more reviews, events and interviews with Professor Billows as the marathon race season gears up!

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