The First Clash by Jim Lacey
The First Clash by Jim Lacey is a history book dealing with the outbreak of the Greco-Persian Wars, primarily focused on the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Throughout the book the author also brings up many controversial issues that have been debated about Marathon and defends his arguments, including some of the more unorthodox ones. Lacey writes in a down to earth manner that also makes for pleasant reading and has great footnotes in the back of the book.
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To start off with aspects of the book that I didn’t like, my main problem was that the book focused too much on the background and context of the Battle of Marathon. For examples, the previous histories of Persia, Athens, and Sparta are all examined quite a bit.It is only halfway through the book that the narrative arrives at the Ionian Revolt which was the primary even that brought Greece and Persia into direct conflict. The Battle of Marathon itself is a fairly small, though detailed, account. There were also small instances of facts that were misleading or questionable. For example, the author uses the hoplitodromos, a foot race held in Olympic games in full hoplite armor, as evidence that Athenian hoplites trained to sprint in full battle array. However, this is debatable and many ancient sources seem to imply that the race was semi-entertainment because the runners were comically slow.
While I enjoyed that the author brought up and defended questionable points about Marathon, there was one that I felt that needed more defending. Herodotus claims that the Athenians ran the entire 8 stadia (about a mile) distance between the Athenians and Persians. The author defends this position despite the facts that the full hoplite panoply could be upwards of 40 or fifty pounds. This is not to mention how the armor and shield would encumber mobility and the like in addition to just the shear weight. He brings up studies that demonstrated that the charge was not really feasible in these conditions, but then argues that the participants (physical education college students) simply were not up to the task. Since the author was able to train with other carrying similar weights in rucksacks at greater distances it must be possible. However, I would argue that running with a 20 pound aspis shield on one arm and a spear in the other (plus the other armor) would be quite a bit different and more difficult to manage. Even if a few individual could perform such a feat, it seems doubtful that the entire Athenian host of 10,000 would have been up to the task. Lastly, the Athenian forces needed to stay in a tight phalanx formation to be effective. This simply cannot be done while sprinting or running, even more so over such a long distance.
Still, there were many thing that I did like about the book. The footnotes were excellent being the works cited as well as notes on particular details combined together. Also, the narrative was easy to read and quick to go through. His chapter on Persia and the Ionian Revolt I felt were really well done, as well as having an excellent comparison chapter between the resources that either side would be able to muster in the coming war. Lastly, I did agree with his argument that the polemarch was in overall command and that the 10 other generals (the strategoi) did not have much commanding authority, if their commands rotated at all. His defense of Callimachus as being the real hero of Marathon is well noted, as well as why he is largely forgotten in comparison to why Miltiades seems to have been able to garner the majority of the credit of the Greek victory.
Overall, The First Clash was an interesting book on the Battle of Marathon and I appreciate that the author did take unorthodox stands and defended them (even if I wasn’t convinced on all of them.) If you enjoy learning about the Greco-Persian wars, go ahead and pick this one up.
3.5 out of 5 stars.