Encountering Gods: The Curious Case of Epizelus at Marathon

By Lara O’Sullivan, The University of Western Australia

Attic red-figure kylix showing Athena slaying the Gigante Enkelados (c. 550–500 BC)
Attic red-figure kylix showing Athena slaying the Gigante Enkelados (c. 550–500 BC). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

They had been encamped for days, the 900 Athenian hoplites, while their 10 commanders argued about how best to deal with the unprecedented threat: Persian invaders, some 200,000 of them (or so the poet Simonides would fantastically claim), massed across the plain at Marathon in 490 BCE. When the hope of reinforcements from Sparta waned, the Greeks gambled on a brazen charge, almost reckless in its daring. What ensued was arguably the most unexpected Greek victory of ancient history, one whose story became enshrined in the patriotic mythology of the nascent Athenian democratic state and fashioned a paradigm of military virtue there for centuries to come. Even Aeschylus, the earliest of the great Attic tragedians, would omit any mention of his dramatic successes on his epitaph, and choose instead to have it remembered that he, too, had fought in the Athenian ranks at Marathon:

 

Under this monument lies Aeschylus the Athenian, Euphorion’s son, who died in the wheat-lands of Gela. The grove of Marathon, with its glories, can speak of his valour in battle. The long-haired Persian remembers, and can speak of it too.[1]

 

Concerned as always to preserve the memory of astonishing deeds in his chronicles of the Persian Wars, the ‘father of history’ Herodotus singles out individual combatants at Marathon for special mention. Of these, the most intriguing is an Athenian named Epizelus. He was, so Herodotus reports, suddenly struck blind in the midst of the melee, his sight never to return as long as he lived. There was no physical cause for his blindness — no blow had been landed upon him – but Epizelus himself would later relate that he had encountered on the field a man of immense stature with beard overflowing his shield; this phasma, or phantom as Epizelus termed it, passed him by, and slew instead the man at his side.[2]

Well acculturated to the notion of occasionally present and meddlesome deities, Epizelus’s fellow Greeks would have recognised this strange form as the epiphany of some non-mortal presence, whether a hero or even a god; as a range of Greek historical narratives attest, such beings were not unknown to stride the field of war among the throng of mortal combatants.[3] Epizelus’s story has, however, attracted interest in because it invites a rationalisation more comfortable to the modern secular mind-set. In it is recognised one of the earliest descriptions of something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, with Epizelus’s blindness taken as a corporeal response to the psychological strain of battle.[4] The close combat of hoplite warfare was indubitably a terrifying affair, and we may well imagine the acute distress suffered by Epizelus as he witnessed the man at his side cut down. The terror at Marathon may have been especially intense, if we set any store by Herodotus’s eulogy of the victorious Athenians:

They were the first Greeks … who dared to look without flinching at Persian dress and the men who wore it, for until that day came, no Greek could hear even the word Persian without terror.[5]

On this understanding, the epiphany witnessed by Eipzelus serves to sublimate something of the psychological trauma of warfare experienced by that mortal combatant. There is something to be said for such a reading. The Greeks’ encounters with gods were characterised by emotional responses – indeed, it was often the emotional response elicited from a mortal that betrayed the true divine identity of a god in anthropomorphic disguise. Within battle contexts in particular, the manifestations of gods and heroes help to articulate and calibrate the emotional register of the conflict itself. Heroes often appeared within the ranks of men in order to steel the courage of the warriors and galvanise them into action; some believed that the greatest of Athens’ own local heroes, Theseus, had risen from the underworld to lead the astounding charge at Marathon. But fear too threads through a number of epiphany narratives. Embedded as early as the poetry of Homer, in which that most war-like of goddesses, Athena, enters the battle array at Troy garbed in her ‘terrible aegis, all about which Terror hangs like a garland’,[6] the topos is discernible too in narratives of real, historical battles; a decade after Marathon, for example, a second wave of Persian invaders would disperse in fear when, it was believed, the god Apollo defended his sanctuary at Delphi from their advance.

There is a danger, however, in rationalising Epizelus’s experience solely within a modern psychological paradigm; to do so misses another key dimension of the emotional framework that epiphany constructs. The manifestations of gods and heroes serve within battle narratives to impart an enhanced status, both to the conflict and to individual participants. The importance of Marathon itself is reflected by the cluster of epiphany episodes that the battle attracted (in addition to Theseus and Epizelus’s unnamed opponent, the god Pan seems to have claimed a place in the narratives), while at the individual level Epizelus’s encounter with the daunting phasma augmented his personal valour and prestige. Confirmation of this can be found in the inclusion of him in a famed painting of the battle of Marathon that was put on display in the fifth century in the Stoa Poikile at the heart of Athens. Here he was portrayed alongside other figures such as Callimachus, the Athenian general whose vote had been crucial in the decision to mount the Athenian attack, and Cynegirus, who had distinguished himself on the field by sacrificing his own hand in a successful effort to prevent the flight of a Persian ship. All these men, Epizelus among them, subsequently featured in what became the canonical list of the bravest Greeks at Marathon.

For all its brevity, then, Herodotus’s anecdote about Epizelus’s confrontation with the nameless phantasm and his subsequent lifelong blindness speaks, through the cultural notions embedded around epiphanies, to the emotional complexity of battle. It confronts the destructiveness and personal toll exacted, and yet, by envisaging men and gods coming to grips in bloody strife, at the same time recognises such conflict as an ultimate theatre for the display of achievement and honour. This was a complexity appreciated by Epizelus’s contemporaries, for whom a personal experience of warfare within the citizen militia of their polis was an almost universal given, concomitant upon their citizen status. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that it is in the work of the writers of ancient Athens that a modern generation of military personnel, so often alienated from the wider community by their endurance of an experience no longer widely shared, are now finding a conduit for emotional understanding and expression.[7]

Lara O’Sullivan is a Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests are primarily in Classical and Hellenistic Athenian history and culture. She is the editor, with Michael Champion, of Cultural Perceptions of Violence in the Hellenistic World (Routledge, 2017), and author of chapter on epiphanies in Greek warfare in Religion and Classical Warfare: Archaic and Classical Greece, edited by Matthew Dillon, Christopher Matthew and Michael Schmitz (Pen and Sword, forthcoming 2018).

 

[1] Translation from Richard Lattimore (ed.), Aeschylus: Oresteia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954), p.1.

[2] Herodotus 6.117.

[3] On epiphanies generally, see Georgia Petridou, Divine Epiphany in Greek Literature and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] See, for example, James Gallagher, ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Evident in 1300 BC’, BBC News, 24 January 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-30957719

[5] Herodotus 6.112.

[6] Homer, Iliad 5.739.

[7] Bryan Doerries, The Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. (Brunswick: Victoria Scribe Publications, 2015).

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