Greece- The Field Of Marathon
( Originally Published 1936 )
Once heard Mr. Baldwin, the British Prime Minister, whimsically remark that if the Greeks had not prevailed at Marathon there would be no blondes in Europe.
He meant, of course, that had Persia carried that famous day Europe would have become an Asiatic Continent. No spot in the ancient world has greater appeal, and none, I am sure, was I more anxious to see.
The excursion to the battlefield of Marathon is one of the shortest and easiest Athens has to offer. Yet the generality of tourists do not go there. Those traveling on the cruise ships can seldom afford even the limited time required, and I fear the local tour agencies do not encourage the others. Some really intelligent Greeks advised against the trip, dismissing the whole matter with the comment that " There is nothing to see there except a mound."
Those who demand their ruins will naturally be disappointed, but a little imagination makes this small plain, where the issue of a civilization was determined, one of the most fascinating spots of the world. I well know that in recent years the claim of Marathon has been contested by scholars. There are those who hold that Salamis and Platwa were more decisive battles, and that it was the press-agenting of the Athenian writers that gave Marathon its fame.
This may be true, but the names of those later battles of the Persian war have never become by-words of the people. Millions speak flippantly of Marathon who have never heard of Miltiades or Darius, to say nothing of. Datis and Artaphernes. The fame of Marathon is secure.
The distance from Athens is about twenty-two miles and the road is not difficult, judged by existing standards. We had as our guest Mr. Hollis French, of Oxford, who was spending his Easter holiday in travel in the Near East.
The Kephissia Road begins at the Old Palace and for some distance it is lined by the finest private houses of Athens. From the military barracks farther out there is a new view of Lycabettus, quite different from the sharp peak to be seen from the city. We traversed the pass that separates Hymettus from Pentelicus and on the side of the latter mountain saw clearly the white gashes of the ancient quarries.
Now came a wilder region, with forests of pine and arbutus, and a turning of the road brought us to the scene of one of the most famous tragedies of Greek banditry. At this place in 1870 the English-man, Mr. Vyner and all the members of his party were murdered by klephts. The crime had repercussions in every chancellery of Europe. England, backed by the other powers, sternly demanded that Greece be made safe for her nationals. The pressure was so great that the Greek Government became really active. The most severe measures were taken against all outlaw bands and the Vyner tragedy may be said to have marked the beginning of the end of brigandage in north Greece. In the Peloponnesus it had been extinguished more than thirty years before.
Before this incident the whole of the Greek hinter-land was so unsafe that large areas were actually depopulated. No rural homestead or isolated village was free from the peril of extortion and violence. To-day, if we except a few small zones on the troubled Serbian border, there is no land in which the traveler can move about with greater security. I am informed that there are but five,small bands of out-laws in the whole country and all of these are in the border country I have mentioned. The last train robbery occurred five years ago in Thessaly, and even then the bandits took the precaution to injure no foreign passenger.
Seven of the Vyner murderers were eventually captured and executed, and the public was not astonished when six of them turned out to be Vlach shepherds, those wild, predatory wanderers from whom the bandit class was always recruited. The Vlachs are tamed now, but not so long ago they were regarded as bad neighbors. During the long summers they pastured their flocks in the mountain heights, coming down in the autumn to bully and bedevil the peaceful peasants, whose crops and rights they held in scant respect. Those who were not actually bandits were reputed to be in league with robber bands, informing them of prospective booty and giving warning in case of pursuit.
The terrified villagers dared utter no word of complaint, lest they be made the victims of savage reprisal. The men of Arakhova were a conspicuous exception. The robber Daveli then operated on Parnassus. His band often numbered sixty or seventy men. The atrocities they practiced were beyond be-lief. The feet of captives were dipped in boiling oil to force them to reveal the hiding place of treasure. The collection of ransoms was a staple source of revenue. One young girl was displayed on the mountain side for days that her frantic relatives might know that she could still be redeemed. Such were the moral obliquities of the robber chief that he ac-counted himself a pious man and in this very in-stance he abducted a priest to look after his prisoner's spiritual needs.
At length the worm turned. The Arakhova men formed themselves into a company of vigilantes, and led by one of their townsmen, Megas, they guided a company of soldiers to the bandit camp near Delphi. In the fight that followed twenty-six of the thirty brigands perished. Daveli fell before Megas's rifle, but the brave peasant was himself slain a moment later. His monument now stands on the spot of the parricide of CEdipus.
Travel in the Greek mountains is now safer than motoring in the outskirts of an American city. Minor incidents occasionally take place. Of one I have personal knowledge. In the offices of the Acropolis Travel Bureau I met a young English woman from the University of Oxford. When she had departed the manager said to me:
"That is a very courageous woman. She was up at Larissa last week, and as she was walking alone in the country a young man came up and asked her for money. When she refused he snatched her handbag and ran. It contained travel checks and other money to the amount of one thousand pounds. She did not lose her head, but reported immediately to the police station, which happened to be only a mile away. Her description of the thief was accurate and the police captured him and recovered her property within two hours. This experience has not alarmed her in the least and just now she was arranging to make alone an eleven day mule trip through the Peloponnesus."
I made inquiry as to the probable punishment of the thief.
"He will get at least ten years in prison, for the authorities are determined to keep the country safe for travelers. He was not a real criminal, only a poor country boy who had never been in any trouble be-fore, but could not resist a sudden temptation.
"In Athens we now have practically no robbery and the streets are safe at any hour and in any quarter. There are murders, to be sure—probably an average of one a week. But they are almost invariably crimes of honor or of passion, and trouble over women is at the bottom of nearly all of them."
Outside Charvati we encountered a new settlement of refugees. In the matter of houses the newcomers have an advantage over the old residents, for their cottages are just a little better than the average of country, homes. At least they start free of vermin, whereas some of the old hovels have been infested for so many generations that their occupants are qualified for notice in the Almanach de Gotha of the insect world. A mile beyond this settlement there was a collection of conical huts of reed, which had all the look of a Nyassaland kraal. Whether they were the habitation of men or beasts I do not know.
There was a bridge over the little river Valanaris, which comes down from the mountain swift and crystal clear. The banks were high and shaded and it was one of the most peaceful retreats I saw in Greece. The women of the countryside were gathered here to do their washing. Their donkeys grazed on the slopes and the children splashed in the pools, while the women, with wooden paddles pounded the family wardrobe. The garments were spread over flat stones in the shallows, and the methods of the washerwomen were quite unchanged since the days of the Persian Wars.
Above the bridge there was a more exclusive gathering. There three women of greater wealth and superior equipment had soap and a large kettle and they boiled their garments over a bonfire. From time unknown this spot has been a favorite resort of the housewives. The very scene we witnessed is mentioned in the writings of travelers who passed that way fifty years ago.
We were now nearing the battlefield and by the road we saw a farmhouse far superior to most that we encountered. The residence was of two stories in front, tapering off in the rear into stables and store-houses, which also housed the wine and olive presses. The great stone oven of the bakery was separate and occupied a little building of its own. Bread was in the making and the old wife constantly replenished the fire from bundles of olive twigs.
We were hospitably received. The master of the house came out to greet us, while wife, mother-in-law, daughter, son-in-law and various grandchildren lurked shyly in the background. Four great dogs were his only attendants, but the Molossians were friendly.
We were saluted in halting English. The name of our host, he explained, was Speras K. Gekas, and in the year 1907 he had emigrated to America to work in the mines of New Mexico. There he remained two years, when an attack of rheumatism discouraged him and he returned to his birthplace. Since that time he has operated his little farm, with some measure of success.
By this time the others had forgotten their diffi and escorted us through the establishment. We started with the bedroom, which occupied the second floor. There was one cheap bedstead of white iron, but on the floor were spread five mattresses. The members of four generations shared this dormitory and the room was as crowded as the shack of a mountain cracker. There was not the slightest provision for heat, light or water. .
The large general room below was paved in part with cobblestones and was in part of pounded dirt. A home-made table and two benches were the only furniture, but there was a fireplace at one end of the room. Under the pot suspended from an iron crane some twigs were laid, but the fireplace did not give evidence of frequent use. Herbs and dried vegetables were hanging from the rafters and the floor was covered with miscellaneous litter. The single window admitted little light, but I made a photograph in the gloom, with an exposure of one and one-half minutes. The little grandson once peered into the open lens, but so slow was the impression that he did my picture no harm.
The hospitable farmer gave us such refreshment as his house afforded. He brought out black bread, olives floating in oil and a rough wine so charged with resin that it had the bite of turpentine.
The olive and wine presses were idle and chickens roosted upon them at will. The ideas of sanitation entertained by a Greek farmer are not our own.
When the time came to make the family portrait Mr. Gekas became excited and asked us to wait until he returned. He ran behind the house and presently appeared leading two huge white hogs, which he was very anxious to have in the picture. I did not wonder at his pride, for they were by far the largest swine I saw in Greece.
A small motor truck now drew up at the gate. On the driver's seat sat three men, one holding a double gun across his knees. They were hucksters, and from Speras they bought a small pig. They tied the squealing porker's legs and threw him into the truck. When the transaction was closed the bargain was sealed with another pitcher of wine. I handed the kindly man a small note, for he could ill afford our entertainment. Only with difficulty could I prevail on him to accept it.
This farm was actually on the Plain of Marathon and three minutes later we saw the mound that marks the center of the field. The Soros of Marathon is but a small hill of yellow clay, twenty or thirty feet in height. Scrub now covers its slopes and around its base is a double row of aloes. It shelters the remains of the one hundred and ninety-two Athenians who fell in the great battle. Of these one was Cynegiras, brother of Nschylus. He pursued the Persians to their boats and his arm was cut off by a Persian axe as he grasped the gunwale. AEschylus himself was present on that day.
From the Soros we surveyed the field. There were the two passes in the near-by mountains from which the Greeks emerged. The plain lay flat and marshy toward the sea, whose waters glowed and glinted in the morning sunlight. There were a few white cottages and along the bay a row of cypress trees. Across the shining waters rose the heights of Eubcea. As we looked around us we read again the story of the battle from Herodotus. With every situation before our eyes the words of the ancient historian seemed vivid and real. Before us rose the vision Byron saw:
"The flying Mede, his shaftless, broken bow; The fiery Greek, his red, pursuing spear; Mountains above, Earth's, Ocean's plains below, Death in the front, destruction in the rear. Such was the scene."
A barefoot girl, wandering about with a bill-hook in her hand, tendered a cluster of daisies she had gathered, and. a small boy, encouraged by her success, collected blood-red poppies for us. Peasants loaded a cart in a distant field. Save for these, Marathon plain was empty.
The general form of the battlefield is that of a rough crescent lying between the mountains and the sea. The Persian landing was made at the northerly end, where there was a suitable beach for the grounding of their ships, and the land was firmer than in the marshes farther to the south.
The approaching danger was long anticipated, and the little army of less than ten thousand Athenians waited in the hills while the swift runner, Pheidippides, was despatched to Sparta: for aid. He covered the distance of one hundred and fifty miles in two days. The Spartans promised assistance, but their oracles forbade them to leave until the next full moon.
The Athenians confronted a force at least ten times their number. No Greek had yet learned to face the Mede in battle. It was the supreme crisis of civilization. In this extremity the Greeks held counsel. The zeal of Miltiades at length prevailed, and by the deciding vote of Callimachus, the Polemarch, it was determined to give battle. At this juncture a thousand men of Plataea arrived and the opportune reinforcement gave heart to the Athenians.
It was do or die. Raising their fierce battle cry the Greeks rushed upon the Persian mass. The Median center gave way and in six hours all was over. The vanquished Asiatics fled to their ships, leaving six thousand dead upon the shore.
Through the northeasterly defile we could see the modern village of Marathon, nestling among the hills. In its vicinity one of the most important engineering works in Greece is going forward—the reservoir and tunnel for the new water supply of Athens. Scarcity of water is one of the chief handicaps of Greece. This Athens is now taking comprehensive measures to overcome. The contract for the dam and tunnel that is to penetrate the hills of Hymettus for twelve kilometers, is controlled by Ulen and Company, of New York. They have established a vast labor camp on the dam site, and are dealing with the human, as well as the material problem, in a scientific way. It was discovered at the out-set that the Greek laborers were undernourished and dietitians were added to the medical staff.
There is no reliable stream from which water can be accumulated, so it is planned to fill the reservoir from the winter rains, supplementing the supply with artesian wells. The water for fire fighting is to be brought up from the sea, and salt water tanks are already being constructed on the heights about the city.
Few of my readers, I imagine, have ever dwelt in regions where water is scarce. The discomfort can hardly be imagined. In Mr. Papafigou's offices, for example, there was not a drop of water, and he told me that when he wished a drink he sent down to the coffee house below for a cup of coffee. A glass of water was always sent with it.
The new Athens water supply is not the largest engineering work in progress in Greece. In the Vardar marshes, near Salonica, the Foundation Company, of New York, is draining three hundred miles of land. This reclamation project is expected to provide farms for 120,000 refugees and to relieve Greece of her $60,000,000 annual deficit in wheat.
Ultimately, I hope, the field of Marathon may be preserved by the Greek nation. More than one hundred years ago the whole plain, of twelve square miles, was offered to Byron for $4,500, but he could not buy. What could have been more fitting than that this field of glory should have passed into the hands of the man who loved Greece best?