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Spirit of democracy born of a battle

Sardis is a heap of ruins; Miletus just a collection of black walls. The Greek colonies on the eastern coast have been defeated. Defeated by the Persians. 490 BC: The smell of fire hangs above the Aegean. The Persian king Darius, ruler of an empire stretching from India to the Near Eastern coast, calls for an attack on Europe. The Greek colonies revolt, with Athens’s active support. Darius sends a powerful fleet across the Aegean Sea to punish Athens. On board the Persian flagship is Hippias, a tyrant banished by the Athenian people. He hopes for his restoration to power by the Persians and brings the invaders’ fleet into the Bay of Marathon. The decisive battle occurs in the autumn. The Hellenic existence is at stake, but the Athenians finally succeed. If Athens hadn’t stopped the Persian invaders at the time, Europe would look very different today. Athens’s resistance against Persian rule was a battle of democracy against tyranny. Greek historian Herodotus describes Darius as a cruel tyrant: Once he conquered the rebellious city of Babylon, he put to the stake 3,000 of their most noble men. The victory of the Greeks against the Persians is proof of the strength of democracy: While the Persians disposed of a heterogenic army of mercenaries, free people fought for Athens. The Athenians took advantage of the athletic body strength they had gained in their gyms in younger years, their skill with weapons, mental discipline and motivation to fight for self-determination and freedom. And that’s how 7,000 Athenian warriors defeated an army of 40,000 Persians. The Athenians used democratic elements in their warfare. Their general staff was based on democratic principles: The 11 generals made their decisions via majority. This rationalistic decision-making process was superior to the careless and arrogant Persian warfare. According to Herodotus, general Miltiades ordered the Greek phalanx to carry out a surprise attack. However, current historians say it was the Persians who hit first. The Athenians didn’t have any other chance of escaping the hail of arrows than by attacking. The Persians first pushed back the weak center of the Greek forces before they were encircled by their stronger wings. About 6,400 Persians must have fallen. On the Athenian side, 192 soldiers perished. After the victorious battle of resistance, a messenger ran the almost 40 kilometers to Athens and called out the victory in the market place, dying shortly afterward of exhaustion. Today for many people the term marathon means simply a run, but its real meaning is manifold. Marathon doesn’t only stand for the danger of a conquest of Athens but for the entire development of Greek classicism, which could have hardly been imagined without Athenian self-determination in the Persian wars. How could we imagine Athenian democracy in the 5th century without the Hellenistic victories in Marathon, Salamis and Plataea? What about the great Pericles and his new Acropolis? What about the great works of the classical dramatists, such as Aeschylus, who himself fought at Marathon? Without Marathon, Europe wouldn’t be what it is today. For years, academics have been discussing whether we owe our European identity to the ancient Greeks or to the Romans. That it originates from many sources is a platitude. The Romans would have hardly been Romans if they hadn’t adopted classical Greek heritage for themselves. If the Athenians had lost the Battle of Marathon, history would neither have experienced the classical era nor the Renaissance. And modern democracy wouldn’t have developed the way it has, because it wouldn’t necessarily have been a historical product of industrialization. Sociologists argue that democracy is a form of government immanent to society, like in ancient Athens. The objections start with the fact that industrialization could hardly have developed without the impetus of science. The use of classical knowledge and philosophical heritage as a medium of liberation from medieval chains can be considered as an acceleration of at least a European revolution. And finally it is worth mentioning that royal empires have developed everywhere in human history. Monarchy is a great evolutionary probability, whereas democracy is an exception in world’s history. An exception that has stood the test of time, thanks to Hellas. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis is a European Parliament member with the Free Democratic Party of Germany. Guy Feaux de la Croix is a diplomat who lives and works in Athens.