THE SHIELDS OF MARATHON

 

    

     There are rare moments in history when the destiny of a civilization faces the stark choice between freedom and light or the darkness and oppression of slavery.   The occasion of so momentous an event is what Winston Churchill called the hinge of fate.  So it was in 490 BC on the plain of Marathon near Athens, Greece.  It was here that the army of the Persian King, Darius I, was repulsed and the first Persian invasion of Greece was crushed. 

…..Athens at that moment was on the threshold of an astonishing cultural flowering that still underpins Western culture to this day.  The birth of democracy, the first great tragedies and comedies, philosophy, science, sculpture and art in all its forms, the very veneration of the value and sanctity of the individual, all this was straining to be expressed to its possible limits.  But if these transformational forces were to be unleashed, the might of Persia, massive and until then irresistible, had to be turned back.  The scope of the resultant cultural ascendency that followed the Greek victory is all the more amazing in that it encompassed the span of a single lifetime; from the battle of Marathon to the execution of Socrates and its aftermath.  It is remembered as the Golden Age of Greece.

     Darius I was master of all Asia from Egypt to the gates of India.  He had subjugated the ancient Greek colonies on the Ionian coast, situated in present day western Turkey.  These were centers of cultural enlightenment and intellectual advancement.  Their kinsman in Athens were aroused to help them militarily in the vain effort to rebel and restore their independence.  This insolence infuriated the Great King and he embarked on a massive campaign to conquer and punish Athens.  He sent a great naval armada with overwhelming numbers of infantry and cavalry that landed at Marathon, some 25 miles east of the city of Athens.

     The vastly outnumbered Athenian and Plataean allied infantry assembled there to block the two passes that led overland from Marathon to Athens.  With brilliant military tactics and the courage of free men resisting tyranny they drove the Medes ( Persians ) into the sea and precipitated their withdrawal from the province of Attica and from all of the Greek mainland.

     In the ranks that day was a citizen soldier destined to be called the Father of Tragedy.  On his epitaph marking his grave at Gela, Sicily, Aeschylus was remembered for his courage at Marathon.  Not a word recalled his artistic genius though he was renowned for it in his lifetime.  Such was his sense of pride in the memory and importance of that event.

     In the poem that follows, reference is made to Albion, the name given to Great Britain by the Greeks and Romans.   Perhaps this alluded to the white cliffs of its southern shores.  There, in the skies of 1940 AD, the valiant few of the Royal Air Force drove back the tyrant’s yoke as the hinge of fate appeared again.

 

THE SHIELDS OF MARATHON

 

                “Aeschylus of Athens Euphorion’s son this tomb

covers who died at wheat bearing Gela

                                    his valor of high repute the grove of Marathon would attest

                      and long haired Mede who came to know him well”

                                                                                                 Epitaph at the grave of Aeschylus

 

 

 

Aeschylus at arms

Bore a stalwart heart

Against the scorching wave

On the plain of Marathon

 

There with courage, spear and shield

The phalanx drove the hand of Fate

Overcame the Persian night

That dreadful Attic day

 

And at the rim of battle

That shocked unspoken plane

A bursting visceral force

Of rapture yet untamed

Welled up within the poet

As a cry and then a flame

That would ignite his generation

And glorify their name

 

Heroic mortal struggle

With all to come and go

Meteoric was their arc

A blazing trail of gold

Before Time swept the hemlock

Before the poisoned well

Radiant shone the brilliance 

Of the sons of Marathon

 

To each new generation

It is given to hand forth

The salvaged shrines and glory

The standing and the lost

The dream of birth

The fact of death 

Inviolate runs the course

But ever rare the moment

When again upon the shore

We hold the horde at Marathon

As in the skies of Albion

We lift the night at Marathon

And drive them back once more

 

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