When Scholarship Is Too Difficult

9 September 2010

I know that Americans lag behind other countries in math proficiency, but this exceeds every reasonable pessimism. I happen to know that the people at the ASCS know more about classics.

The Glory of Athens

10 June 2009
The Parthenon

The Parthenon

So many of the Greek and Roman texts I transcribe and present on Lacus can be considered as irrelevant to us today, if not in their most general lines of course, certainly in their details. One of today’s items, though, is not: Plutarch’s fragmentary essay On the Glory of Athens. I hadn’t read it, but it was part of the immense backlog of items not online or not onsite that I was eventually going to get around to; Jona’s entry a few days ago on the runner of Marathon decided me to put it up, mostly so he’d have something to link to for the careful reader eager to read the actual source. The incidental mention of Marathon aside, however, the essay itself turned out to be so relevant to the modern world and to modern America, that I’m not far from considering it part of my American history site. (The Greek original is also up.)

While I was at it, I noticed that a squib of Plutarch that I’d already put up in English translation, the Greek wasn’t that long, why not — so it’s now gone to join it: Εἰ διδακτόν ἡ ἀρετή.

Common Errors (12): Marathon

31 May 2009
A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

A Greek soldier and his panoply (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussels)

In 490 BCE, Hippias, a former tyrant of Athens, attempted to return to his native city, which was, by now, in the hands of the democrats. His interests matched those of the Persian king Darius I the Great, who liked the idea of a pro-Persian regime among the Yauna-across-the-Sea. The expedition turned out to be an epic failure: the army was defeated at Marathon. After the Athenian victory, a man named Thersippus of Eroeadae ran to Athens to announce the outcome; having told his compatriots that they were safe, he fell down dead.

At least, that’s what Plutarch says in his treatise The Glory of Athens. But the reliability of this anecdote is about zero. Plutarch lived about six centuries after the events. Worse, he adds that other sources report that the runner was called Eucles, and that he covered the distance while wearing his panoply, which is physically impossible. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived shortly after the famous battle and could interview the survivors, knows nothing about the Marathon runner, although he does mention a long-distance runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for reinforcement.

Whatever the reliability of the story, Plutarch’s anecdote inspired the organizers of the first modern Olympics, in 1896 in Athens, to invent an athletic contest of epic dimensions: the marathon run. It was repeated on later occasions, and since the Olympic Games of London (1908), the distance has always been 42 kilometer. Many people now believe that it’s also 42 kilometer from the battlefield to the Athens, but that is not the case. It is in fact about 35 kilometer, depending on your route. I once covered it in a little over seven hours. Without panoply.

<Overview of Common Errors>


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