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Monuments of Marathon

Written by Brandon Braun |

Brandon Braun has been an academic visitor at the ICS over the last two years while writing his UCLA doctoral dissertation on monuments and memorials in ancient Greece. As well as researching the monuments of Marathon, which he discusses in this blog, he has run the course of the first marathon from the battlefield to the city of Athens.


Modern column
Figure 1: Modern reconstruction of Marathon Column Monument


The battle of Marathon was fought in 490 BCE. It was (and indeed still is) one of the most well-known ancient battles, having been alluded to as early as Aeschylus’ Persians of the 470s BCE, before a generation later Herodotus described the events that led to the battle, narrated the fighting itself, and indicated some of the subsequent commemorations. I won’t analyze of the ancient sources here. Instead, I want to focus on how the battle was remembered in physical forms on the field itself, primarily centered around a single stone column monument. This column, undoubtedly a commemoration of the battle, had a very interesting object biography.

As we understand from reconstructions, the Ionic column stood more than 10 metres tall. The vertical effect was further emphasized by the placement of the monument, as it appears that its base would have stood on an earthen mound, perhaps granting extra height and, therefore, prominence on the field.

Being such an imposing monument for an important battle, it may be surprising that the architectural features of the column date to the 460s BCE stylistically, indicating it was erected several decades after the battle was fought in 490 BCE. There are several possible reasons for this, and I’m sure the readers of this blog could posit many, but I’ll just talk about one: was it a stone replacement of an ephemeral trophy?

The answer is complex. First, we have to ask what a trophy was. Scholars connect the monument type to a celebration of the rout, literally the “turn” of the battle, linked etymologically with the Greek term τροπήThe trophy would thus be placed at the point in the field where the tide turned and victory was assured. There are plenty of literary sources that mention trophies, especially historians after Thucydides.

That leads to the follow-up question: what about in the early fifth century BCE? Some project the practice of raising trophies backwards from Thucydides, but there is little evidence before the second half of the fifth century. The earliest literary reference to a trophy is from the 460s in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (line 954). All in all, it seems unlikely that an ephemeral trophy was raised after the fighting at Marathon, thus the stone column was not a monumental replacement.

Nevertheless, the column monument attracted later embellishments that added iconography that would be expected of an ancient trophy. The first of these is a set of carved weaponry, now stored in the British Museum.


Figure 2: Possible added trophy elements, now in British Museum. Vanderpool 1967, plate 31.


There is some question regarding where this sculpture originated (a very interesting question, involving museum collections, inventories, and the relative fame of ancient battles), but let’s assume that it can be associated with the column. Thus, these sculptures effectively updated the appearance of the column, such that it more closely resembled an ancient battlefield trophy.

We only know of a second embellishment because of 19th-century drawings by Loius François Sébastien Fauvel. In this drawing, the early-modern French diplomat/artist/archaeologist has a block with the inscribed label ΤΡΟΠΑΙΟΥ, the Greek word for “trophy”. Unfortunately, the stone is lost so it is not possible to get more information about it. Still, assuming that it existed and was not Fauvel’s creative way of labelling a drawing of the column, the block is further evidence that the column monument was at one point considered a trophy.


Fauvel drawing
Figure 3: Drawing of column monument capital, with “ΤΡΟΠΑΙΟΥ” block. Drawing by Fauvel (Parigi, Bibl. Nat. Estampes, Gb 15, f. 23). See Beschi 2002.


There may have been later changes to the column or the space around it, but the next secure phase of its biography dates to the medieval period. Perhaps around the 12th century, several column drums and the ionic capital were re-used as building materials in the lower courses of a medieval tower. This was the state of the column until it was extricated from the tower in the 20th century, then taken to be displayed in the museum at Marathon.


Medieval tower
Figure 4: Reconstruction of Medieval tower. Korres 2017, plate 17.


In addition to being used as expedient building material, the monument also served as a makeshift gameboard at some point in its object biography. Close inspection of the face of the capital shows the marks for a game called “Nine-man’s Morris”, similar to checkers or tic-tac-toe.


Detail of column capital
Figure 5: Detail of column capital, “Nine-man’s Morris”


Today, the remains of the column are on display in the archaeological museum at Marathon, or rather, a few column drums and the Ionic capital. On the field, a modern reconstruction stands near where the original had been found. Rather than simply a stand-in for its ancient predecessor, the modern column is a monument in its own right, which has the capacity to attract further commemorations or “dedications”, such as the wreath in the first picture.

Thus was the simplified object biography of the stone column monument at Marathon. It was an early-Classical commemoration of the battle, which was later updated to reflect developing expectations of battlefield commemorations in the later Classical and Hellenistic period, before eventually falling and being reused as building material and a gameboard. Later, the stone was “rescued” from the field to be displayed in a museum, and its original location was marked by a modern replica.

The column was not the only monument on the field. Anyone who has visited will remember the soros or tumulus, an imposing human-made mound measuring nine meters tall and 50 meters diameter, supposedly marking the burial of the 192 Athenians that had perished in the battle. Just as with the column, monuments such as the soros also have complex histories, but I’ll leave that for another time!


Supposed burial mound
Figure 6: View of soros