OP: The legend of the Greek messenger running twenty-six miles from Marathon to Athens with news of victory in battle is the inspiration for our modern-day race. Sources suggest that in reality, the entire Greek army marched this distance to defend Athens. Why does this popular myth persist in spite of its historical inaccuracy?
RB: The legend of the lone runner who announces momentous news and dies of exhaustion is very romantic. It was considered extremely romantic in antiquity already, which is why Roman era writers like Plutarch and Lucian told the story. But for modern city marathons, the speed march of the whole Athenian army, which is what really happened, actually offers a much better inspiration!
OP: What led you to become a historian of Ancient Greek and Roman culture?
RB: I've always found the creation of a single, Mediterranean-wide culture and state system to be a fascinating achievement, well worth trying to understand and explain. The way the Greeks and Romans brought this about, and kept it going for centuries, is one of the great achievements in human history. And then too, the stories, the plays, the histories and philosophies and other writings of the ancient Greeks in particular, are so entertaining and just plain interesting.
OP: What is it about the Battle of Marathon that interested you enough to write an entire book about its history?
RB: What is extraordinary and gripping about the battle of Marathon is the huge disparity between the two sides: the vast and immensely powerful and wealthy Persian Empire on one side, the tiny and poor city-state of the Athenians on the other. The sheer daring of the Athenians in standing up to the might of the Persians is remarkable. That they won, and preserved their democracy, their culture, the future of Greek civilization has always seemed little short of miraculous.
OP: Movies and television shows depicting loose interpretations of ancient history are very popular these days. Are you a fan? Will you be watching Immortals when it comes to theaters this month?
RB: I am a big fan of movies and tv shows about ancient Greece and Rome. Spartacus is one of the great films of modern times, I loved Gladiator, and 300 was hugely entertaining. And the HBO series Rome was wonderful, as was the old BBC series I Claudius, for example. I'm not too sure about Immortals: it looks to be less historical than most. But I'll probably ending up watching it and enjoying it.
OP: If you could eat dinner with one figure from Greek or Roman history, who would it be and why?
RB: I'd probably have to choose Julius Caesar. He wasn't just a great politician, or a great general, or a great writer: he was all three! That makes him almost unique in human history, I dare say, and it'd be endlessly fascinating to have a chance to talk to him about how he achieved such stunning success in such different fields of activity. And to top it off, he was also well known as a man of captivating charm and affability, so the evening would be sure to be a success.