System Shock – “Marathon”

Given the overblown and often problematic glamorization of Sparta (or rather, the myth of Sparta) and the last stand of the 300 at Thermopylae in 480 BCE, other pivotal events of the Persian Wars tend to be overshadowed. Such is certainly the case in metal music, where in contrast to dozens of songs on the “Gates of Fire” there are just a handful on the other battles of the war, such as Salamis and Plataea (which, unlike Thermopylae, the Greeks actually won).

Before any of these battles, there was the very first, on the plain of Marathon just 26.2 miles (!) north of Athens. Here, 10 years before Xerxes’ invasion and Leonidas’ heroics, Xerxes’ father Darius came not by land but by sea to conquer Greece. Nominally, the campaign was in retaliation for the Athenians’ burning of Sardis, the capital of one of their provinces across the Aegean Sea a few years prior. It was at Marathon that the Persians came ashore, and waiting for them was an army of Athenian hoplites, joined only by the Plataeans. The Spartans, though willing to help, were delayed back home due to religious obligations.

According to the strategy of the general Miltiades, this Greek force took the initiative by charging down the plain toward the enemy encamped on shore. Besides the element of surprise, Miltiades’ plan involved thinning out the army’s center while deepening the flanks, so when the Persians pushed into that center they became enveloped by the flanks. The plan worked, and the Persians that weren’t slaughtered had nowhere to run but back toward their ships, where the lucky ones got aboard and sailed home. It would be 10 years before they tried again.

As is typical, ancient accounts of the battle exaggerate the numbers: Herodotus records 6,400 out of 26,000 dead on the Persian side, while out of a combined force of 10,000, only 192 Athenians and 11 Plataeans lost their lives, given the unique honor of being buried where they fell. Though Athens would later pride itself on its navy, they would forever look to the infantry battle of Marathon as the finest hour of their history.

The Swedish melodic death metal band System Shock, with this song from their 2008 album Urban Rage, report this battle from the first-person perspective of the proud Athenians. The band suggests the Athenians were united and resolute in their willingness to go on the offensive and drive the invaders out (this was not actually the case, as it took Miltiades’ clever persuasion among the other generals to execute his plan). Indeed, the song validates Athens’ divine right to repel the barbarian forces of “evil” that threaten to spread over Greece, the goddess Athena personally leading the charge. Finally, the band interprets Sparta’s absence from the battle as a “stain” on their reputation, as though recognizing the reputation the Spartans have in popular culture and metal music. With “Marathon,” System Shock remind us that the glory of defending Greece was due just as much, if not more, to Athenian ingenuity as to Spartan sacrifice.

Silence fell across the oceans
Ships from Persia touched the shores
Burnt and plundered Eretrian lands
Heading now for the northern coast

Summon the men, inform our allies, lead the city-states to war
Time has come for the citizens’ vote show of hands in the assembly’s floor
No more talk and indecision, time to march the phalanx forth
No turning back, as the city has voted for war

War on our shore
Hope in the sword
This war scares us all
Call for the phalanx to reach the shore

Now again marching to the end, tired, sore and outnumbered
Nine thousand men, fight to the death, fight to the bitter end

Evil spread across the land
Sparta failed to march for war
Cowardice has stained her city
Alone we’ll face the barbarian foe

Get the shields and shining armor, let the Goddess guide our sword
Let the pain feed our anger, lead the men to a merciless war
Leave behind our city and home, let Miltiades engage the foe
No turning back, as the city has voted for war

War on our shore
Hope in the sword
This war scares us all
Call for the phalanx to reach the shore

Now again marching to the end, tired, sore and outnumbered
Nine thousand men, fight to the death, fight to the bitter end

Goddess, we’ll fight forevermore
March to the other world
Into the the darkness and death
Goddess, we’ll fight forevermore
March to the other world
Into the shadows of death

Goddess, is your desire to forfeit your might?
Goddess, shed your light for us
For we pledge to fight

Hades open wide the doors, phalanx marches to the shore
Carry on forevermore, fight ‘Till the battle’s won
Write the story of the sword, crush their will to carry on
Scatter bodies on the shore, blood, legions, battles, war

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s