Forgetting the Plataeans

Bernd K. Steinbock

University of Michigan

In Isocrates' Plataicus, following the Theban destruction of their city in 373, the Plataeans appeal to the Athenian assembly, arguing that the "Athenians alone of the Greeks owe them this contribution of succor;" for when the Athenians "had left this land in the Persian War, [the Plataeans] alone of those who lived outside the Peloponnesus shared in their perils" (Isoc. 14.57). Scholars have tried to connect this historical allusion to the Plataeans' role at Marathon (Mathieu Isocrate II 1938, 87, Nouhaud 1982, 153), even though the abandonment of Athens clearly points to Xerxes' invasion. This paper will argue that Athenian social memory transmitted a partial and distorted memory of Plataea's merits during the Persian Wars.

Athenian silence about the Plataeans' role at Marathon has troubled many historians: In political (Lys. 2.20,23; Isoc. 4.86; Dem. 60.10; Andoc. 1.107) and diplomatic (Hdt. 9.27.5; Thuc. 1.73.4) contexts the Athenians frequently claimed to have fought alone at Marathon. Yet Athenians were exposed to various reminders of the Plataeans' participation: the Marathon painting in the Stoa Poikile (Paus. 1.15.3), the two separate graves at Marathon (Paus. 1.32.3), the inclusion of the Plataeans into the Athenian prayer at the Great Panathenaea (Hdt. 6.111.2) and Herodotus' account of the battle (Hdt. 6.108.1). Inquiring how the average listener of the funeral orations received "such falsifications," Walters (RhM 1981, 204-11) asserts that two distinct, official versions of the same event were equally well known, current and in conflict. Drawing an analogy with the Greeks' acceptance of different versions of the same myth, he considers this phenomenon an idiosyncrasy of Greek culture.

However, considering the universal characteristics of social memory, it is not surprising that the Plataean contribution at Marathon was suppressed. First, the persistent Plataean-Theban conflict perpetuated the antithesis 'Plataean patriotism versus Theban medism' (Isoc. 12.93; [Dem.] 59.95) and linked the Athenian memory of the Plataean merits during the Persian Wars to Xerxes' invasion (Lys. 2.46), obscuring their role at Marathon.

Second, in the process of memorialization, traumatic or heroic events are typically stripped of their historical context, much simplified and transformed into symbols of the character, values and beliefs of the community (Fentress & Wickham 1992). Marathon as the (almost) solely Athenian victory became the epitome of the Athenian achievements in the Persian Wars (Loraux 1986, Thomas 1989, Gehrke 2003). In particular patriotic contexts (like the funeral orations) Athenians were therefore used to hearing of Marathon as a solely Athenian victory (see above). Yet, the Plataeans' participation was not necessarily entirely forgotten, it was rather suppressed as the occasion required it. A comparison with President Bush's speeches on Memorial Day and at the D-Day celebration in June 2004 shows similar results.

Politicians and diplomats (Andoc. 1.107; Hdt. 9.27.5; Thuc. 1.73.4) utilized the symbols and metaphors provided by the funeral speeches and further obscured the Plataeans' participation at Marathon in Athenian public discourse. Thus Isocrates' Plataeans (Isoc. 14.57) follow a common Athenian practice. The only reference to the Plataeans at Marathon in the Attic orators is [Dem.] 59.94. However, merely mentioning their participation did not seem sufficient to Apollodorus; by referring to the painting in the Stoa Poikile, he provided a suitable cue for the memory of the Plataeans' role at Marathon and reminded his audience of a relatively unfamiliar aspect of the Plataean merits during the Persian Wars.

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