Richard Blake Reviews “Sword of Marathon” by Jack England


Review Article by Richard Blake
(September 2012)

Sword of Marathon
By Jack England
Published August 2012, £7.99 pb, £2.99 Kindle
ISBN: 978 14781

The hero of this novel is a proto-Englishman (England itself will not exist for another thousand years) of great intelligence and beauty who settles in Greece. He begins telling his story in extreme old age, and, though aged, nearly has to kill someone in the first chapter. Much of the novel takes place in Athens. However, anyone who thinks the author has been influenced by my own Ghosts of Athens will be mistaken.

Jack told me he was writing Sword of Marathon in May 2011, when we were both attending a conference in Bodrum. I had just finished Ghosts of Athens, though it would not be published until August 2012. By then, Jack had finished Sword of Marathon, and was working on a sequel. There is a similarity between our novels, but I do swear that neither of us could have had any influence on the other. This really is one of those times when great minds have thought alike.

The story begins when Luke and his brother Hal are on a trading mission and are captured by nomadic and more than usually demented barbarians. Through a series of exciting and well-paced adventures, they arrive in Athens in 490, just when Darius of Persia has finally decided to have his revenge on a city that has not only resisted his invitation to accept him as overlord, but has consistently made trouble along the western fringes of the greatest empire that has existed.

Embraced by the Athenians as one of their own, Luke plays a key part in the victorious defence of Greece against the first Persian assault, and ends the story covered in well-deserved glory.

Rather than explain in detail what I like about the novel, let me quote this passage from when Luke and Hal are taken prisoner by the barbarians:

The horsemen dismounted noisily at a large circular wicker hut, then pulled the two boys off their horse; they unroped Luke and Hal from each other, then bound each boy’s hands tightly behind his back, before pushing them into the hut.

A stench of rotting entrails filled the space, from an indeterminate set of slaughtered beasts. A wide circular pit, twelve feet across, with vertical sides, occupied most of the space inside the hut, with a post standing beside its lip, which had a long length of rope coiled around it.

Instead of using the rope, the Gerroians threw both boys into the pit together, where they fell and splashed into five feet of stinking water, twisting knees and ankles when their feet crashed into mud at the pit’s bottom. Luke could hear laughter and mutual back slaps amongst the men above. The group of horse-riding captors left the hut. From the floor of the pit, to the lip at the top, was at least ten feet above the surface of the water. This was an old well, thought Luke, but clearly not used for drinking water.

The last man out rattled shut the hut’s flimsy door, then the sound of happy men receded. Ordinary sounds of town life re-filled the hut through the wicker walls; chickens squawked, dogs barked, and domestic arguments all flowed in, along with the smells of cooked meat and wood smoke.

In the bottom of the pit the boys stood up and could feel hard objects in the putrid mud under their feet. Almost drowning himself, and at risk of dislocating his shoulders, Luke managed to bring his hands around to his front.

He delved into the stinking mud with his hands and brought to the surface a human skull. The top had been sliced off and there were the telltale signs of a heavy axe blow, to mark the remains of what was left. This pit involved death; that much was clear. (p.18)

The author has done with this passage exactly what a competent writer does. He clearly imagines a situation, even down to the sounds of normality beyond the confines of its horror. He does this through the perceptions of his hero, leaving nothing to objective description.

Or take this:

…Miltiades spat up in the face of Hippias. Thick stinking phlegm dribbled down the former tyrant’s lips and dripped onto his purple silks, though Hippias stayed motionless.

“So you thought you would walk into Athens again with the same fucking plan your demented father lucked into all those years ago,” said Miltiades. “Did you think we would forget, you arrogant piece of dog shit? Did you think we would run from these fucking Persian bastards and these cock-sucking Median cuts?”…

Miltiades punched Hippias in the face and knocked out several loose blackened teeth, which created a putrid cloud of rotten breath, as bits of partially-digested meat and gristle came out with them. The teeth flew overboard, in a blood-and-spittle rain, mostly into the brackish lagoon water, though one rotten tooth fell onto the exposed sandbar that had trapped the trireme….(p.230)

This brings me to a complaint that I often face from my own readers. Why is it necessary to have all this foul language and graphic descriptions of violence? The answer is because this is how people often speak, and this is what they often do. People also have sex in ways that seem less than decorous to observers, and they go to the toilet, and they drink too much and throw up. Describing all this will not save a broken plot, but it is something that has a place in any novel that tries to put the reader into a world filled with real men and women. As for the further complaint that the specific words used may be anachronistic, and may sound more like Ray Winstone than the men whose smooth, marble busts have come down to us from classical antiquity – well, the answer is obvious. The convention is that what the author writes is a good translation into English from the original Greek. It would never do to have a character say: “A light came on in my head,” or “The temperature was dropping fast.” These are phrases that could only be used in a technological civilisation. But anything else, no matter how vulgar, is fair game for an historical novelist.

Oh, and there is also this, from Jahiz, an Arab writer of the ninth century:

Some people who affect asceticism and self denial are uneasy and embarrassed when cunt, cock and fucking are mentioned. But most men you find like that are without knowledge, honour, nobility or dignity.

What more to say? Well, I could say that I am jealous of Jack’s choice of period. My choice of early Byzantium is a good one. Contrary to the general view, this was an age of heroism and genius. The fight the Byzantines put up against the barbarians and Persians and Moslems saved Western civilisation. There are few stories more inspiring than the defeat of the Arabs outside the very walls of Constantinople in 678 and 717. At the same time, nothing compares with what the Athenians achieved a thousand years earlier.

Forget the Egyptians and the Jews. Forget what we are told about the ancient Indians and Chinese. Forget even the Romans. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer – and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. They had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

This is the world that Luke and Hal do their bit to save. The Greeks had to win at Marathon. They had to win at Salamis and Plataia. Anything else would have condemned humanity to more of the same. Everything I was brought up to think had been achieved at Trafalgar or the Battle of Britain really was achieved in those three battles. It is the most inspiring story that can be told. You need to be a wretched novelist not to catch something of its universal importance. And Jack England is a very fine novelist. He does not denigrate the Persians – Datis is a most interesting and even sympathetic character. Nor, as shown, does he fail to recognise the brutality of the Greeks. At the same time, he knows which side he is on in the war for civilisation.

So buy this book. Buy many copies, and given them to your friends and loved ones. And let us hope that the next instalment in Luke’s mission to save the human race will not be long delayed.

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13 responses to “Richard Blake Reviews “Sword of Marathon” by Jack England

  1. “Richard Blake”, “Jack England” – do such people really exist or are they pen names? And for two people or for one person?

    I am reminded (perhaps unfairly) of Fred and Karl – who used to make up people to review their works (sometimes from a fake antiMarxist point of view “the conclusions of this writer go too far – but his method is profound, it exposes the true workings of history and society…..” and send them to newspapers, some of which were stupid enough to publish them).

    However, a work must be judged by those who have read the work -and I have not, so all I can judge is the review (which is odd).

    The names do not fit – “Hal” and “Luke” for 5th century BC Celts?

    And calling the hero an “Englishman”?

    No such thing existed at the time – or would do for more than a thousand years.

    I hope the book does not make the error the review does.

    I repeat I have not read the work – it could be a good book (I just do not know), but the review does not inspire confidence.

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  3. I really can’t take to the Byzantines, sorry. I’m with Gibbon on them, broadly speaking. Not entirely sure about the saving Western civilisation thing, either, since they weren’t really a Western civilisation. The Romans were only just Western anyway, geographically, and they overtly abandoned that when they followed the disastrous usurper Constantine across the Bosphorus. There’s an argument that by that point, they were only Roman in name anyway; the gene pool had been so diluted by manumitted slaves from the East. So, in a way, they just went home.

    I suspect that a major root of the “oikophobia” (the term coined by Scruton) lies in the Grammar School Curriculum; inherited from the days when European intellectual elites wanted to bask in the glow of these dead, failed civilisations. Ask a product of that curriculum to define “Western” or “Englishman” and he’ll immediately start spouting about foreigners; Judaeo-Christian this, Graeco-Roman that. Everyone’s folk history is long ago; ours, uniquely is, at least according to our supposed betters, far away too.

    That’s probably why I’ve a soft spot for neo-pagans. All those shouty Scandinavian metal bands; their ancient history may be a modern concoction, but at least they’re interested in their own history instead of somebody else’s.

    Of course, the Persians who the Byzantines faced weren’t the Persians of old. They’d been long since done in by the Macedonians under that nasty piece of work Alexander and become the property of the dynasty of one of his generals. But they’re an interesting bunch, the Persians of old. They’re the probable origin of the Achsenzeit; that curious period in the last millenium BC when everybody seemed to suddenly develop similar philosophical ideas. Persia is slap bang in the middle of it. The Zoroastrians invent the Saoshyant; the Jews have a messiah, the Christians have a Christ. Very suspicious.

    Whatever, the Persians set up Yehud as a temple state for some reason and invented Judaism; Judaism mutated and spread, spread and mutated, and one of its bastard offspring reconquered the Persians much later. But in the West, its other offspring ran into European values, which had been untainted by the Oriental disposition towards despotism, and thus the West was the cradle of Liberalism.

    So, Western civilisation? The Romans and the Greeks could never have built it. They were culturally incapable of industrial capitalism, despite having near enough most of the technologies necessary to progress to a steam engine. They never would have built a steam engine if they’d lasted another thousand years. Their economies were fundamentally, inescapably, predicated on manual slave labour. Worse, they were incapable of paradigmatic shifts. They could not reinvent themselves. That’s the European genius; constant change, sometimes evolutionary, sometimes revolutionary. Only a society with that capacity can invent and appreciate market capitalism driven by technological and organisational change. It may be that we are living in the era when our own society loses that capacity and settles, like the Ancients, into an eternal now. I do hope not.

    They may have left us many fine words (if they really are fine; much of it, like Homer, is admired simply because it is old, not because it is really any good, and because those with a Grammar School education can boast “oh, you really must read it in the original Greek”, simply because they know that the lower classes cannot) but they were a dead end. Greece exhausted itself with futile wars and faded rapidly (and the less said of the ghastly Spartans (the Nazis particularly admired them) the better); Rome rotted on behind the Theodosian Walls, like a potato lost behind the fridge. There’s a reason that those civilisations have to be dug back out of the ground by us. They were crap.

    So. I am an Englishman. I drink ale and sit at a table eating food prepared by free individuals, rather than reclining on a couch with wine poured down my fat throat by a slave. That’s my manifesto!

    • Ian, I disagree with you on so many points of fact and interpretation, that I’d have to write a longish essay to knock you down. Perhaps I will do this, and prefix your whole comment to it. However, I still have a book to finish, and the new academic year is starting. You’ve provoked me, but you’ll have to be content for the moment with imagining the scowl on my face and slight rise in blood pressure.

      • I am rather drawn to Ian’s analysis, I am sorry to (have to) say. I was thnking of elevating it to a post without Ian’s authorisation, but I would, I thnk now, wait until Sean has produced a rejoinder/refutation, which ought to then go up as a part of the entire essay, for people’s general instruction in these matters.

  4. Well, I did waffle a bit there and went off at a tangent, but what I was trying to get at is that I’m highly suspicious of the idea that you can lump everything west of the Bosphorus as “Western Civilisation”, and of the idea that there is much in the way of continuity between the Mediterranean world and our Western European civilisations. For instance, this verges on the absurd-

    Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

    I’m an artist. I can certainly appreciate how superb Greek statuary was. But really, we aren’t “fit to kiss the [Greeks'] dust”? It’s easy to see how such an attitude could develop into Scruton’s oikophobia. The legacy of this Hellenophilia is generations of ruling class brought up to despise as inferior anything native, including the people they ruled over. There is something deeply wrong about this. A good part of the reason that Britain lost her Empire was that the training for its administrators consisted largely of memorising quotes from Cicero, and that tiresome “in the original Greek” boast. I am personally quite convinced that it underwrites the modern ruling class’s willingness to disparage their native subjects compared to foreigners.

    Western Europeans have accomplished more in the past few centuries than the Greeks and Romans not only did, but ever could have accomplished. We ought to be proud of that. The Mediterranean cultural mix was not the right one to progress to modernity. If it had survived, we’d all still be travelling around in horse drawn carts.

    We are not the afterglow of the Graeco-Romans. They are best seen as an early, but unsuccessful “species” of civilisation, a branch of our lineage, like Neanderthal Man. Their statuary was certainly admirable, but it takes more than fine sculpture to put a rover on Mars.

    • Your invitation to debate is very tempting. I could question your ethnic assumptions about the ancients and the Byzantines; and I could show that, in their mental habits and forms of external organisation, the Greeks showed general European characteristics, but taken to an extraordinary degree; and that Greek, in nearly all its forms, is a most remarkable and admirable language. I could also argue that British decline set in after the falling off in the study of the ancients among the ruling class; and that the growing bias of English education towards the practical has done England no good at all; and that our present ruling class is largely ignorant of English history and civilisation, let alone that of the ancients.

      But I won’t do any of this. My women look to me for all the necessaries and comforts of life, and my duty is to provide for them. Arguing even with you is a luxury I cannot presently afford.

      • The Byzantines are a mixed bunch (of course it is a thousand years of history – so they would be). However, the practice that Constantine established (that wonderful general, he never lost a battle, and terrible Emperor) of keeping the main army near to the Emperor and capital (fools call it a “strategic reserve” not practical when transport was as slow as it was in the Ancient World, in reality it was to try and prevent any other general doing what Constantine had done – use a frontier army to usurp the throne).

        The Byzantine habit (if I may call it that) of marching into ambushes may well be connected to the pratice of keeping the main army near to the Emperor (in or not far from Constaninople) so when the army marched out into the provinces (to meet…..) it was marching into lands it did not really know.

        Their culture? I have very mixed feelings about it – the more I read the less clear I become (a fancy way of saying that it confuses me).

        The Classical world?

        Ian is at least partly right.

        The Greek philosphers (at least the ones whose books we have – and remember the vast majority of classical writing is lost, and if a similar destruction hit our civilisation it is likely that the crap, John Rawls and co, would survive and the good stuff, Antony Flew and so on, would be lost).

        Plato is too well known to need comment. But even Aristotle (as Hayek sadly points out) is no real friend of manufacturers and traders.

        In the Roman word Cato (the Elder) was vile (just disgusting in every way) yet he was considered a moral and poitical guide. However, Cicero is a bit more friendly – but their is still a bit of a the attiude that a gentleman sits on their estate, rather than develops it (let alone concentrates on trade and so on).

        There was a lot of economic development in the Republic – it seems to have falled off under the Empire.

        But it is not till the time of Diocletian (before Constantine) that I really lose sympathy.

        A civilization with that level of taxation (basically near modern levels) is despicable. And Diocleatian declared the vast majority of the population (the free peasants) de facto serfs – by declaring they could not leave the place they lived in (it was a tax move – but it had revolutionary effects, and was copied bythe barbarian rulers who came after the Romans).

        Then there was the price contral efforts (for the entire economy – the demented……) and the state factories .

        When I see the (unwearable) helmets, and near useless shields of the late Empire I think of Diocletian – not that they were this bad in his time (but he set up the system).

        The helmets (for ordinary soldiers) end up almost square (do you have a square head? no I do not either) – people tried leather caps under them, but they were basically unwearable and a lot of soldiers just stopped wearing helmets).

        The armour goes down hill (when the soldiers even wore armour), and the shields become near useless (flat , thin, and oval shaped).

        It is all “fulfill the plan” stuff – vast amounts of stuff produced (so the “GDP” figures woud have looked great – if the Romans had bothered with such figures), but not very useful..

        One of the reasons I tuned off the latest history effort on British television (Sky this time) was that it showed Roman soldiers of the late Empire dressed and equiped (and even acting) as if they were soldiers of the early Empire.

        If that were true (if society has not changed) the Empire might not have fallen.

        Anyways…..

        Civilisations that gave more status to trade and manufacturing than the Greeks and Romans did.

        The Etruscans?

        Italians were still using their slag heaps during the First Word War.

        With the Celts attacking from the north, the Romans from the south and their own internal problems (which seem to have been some sort of rich versus poor thing – plus ethic divisions) we have really lost Etruscans – all we know of them is from Greek and Roman writers (who complain about such “terrible” things as the legal rights Etruscan women had).. Theirt own books are either lost or unreadable.

        Carthage?

        The great Punic outgrowth from the civilisation that starts where Lebanon now it.

        Aristotle (in “The Politics”) reports that there was no “class conflict – with ordinary people happy for the success of rich traders and manufactures (and voting for them for public offices) rather than blaming their poverty on the wealth of others.

        But, again, we do not really know – the books of the Carthagians are lost (apart from some works on farming methods). We know they had philosophers and so on – but we have no idea what they taught.

        But all the ancient world is disfigued by slavery (well Pliny the Elder claims that slavery was unlawful on the island of Ceylon – but that was far away it might a well have been the Moon).

        Slavery, slavery, slavery.

        With slave labour what it is the point of investing large amounts of money and time (and mental effort) in developing labour saving machines.

        The Greeks and Romans were not stupid – they were perfectly capable of inventing things.

        But their inventions (steam engines and ,,,,,) were for party tricks and so on – not for the hard graft of mass production. A prototype is one thing – a factory working model is quite another – and Greek and Roman thinkers tended to be just interested in the prototypes (to delight their friends with).

        General production? For that one just had the slaves whipped so more (or, if the slaves died, captured some more slaves).

        One odd thing about the Ancient Greeks…..

        In the Middle East arches were common (and had been for centuries) and the Romans (later) also used arches.

        Yet the Ancient Greeks do not seem to have done so (perhaps I am mistaken – if so Sean Gabb will correct me).

        In fact Ancient Greek buildings (whilst very attractive) appear remarkably primitive – lots of pillars everywhere, rather than arches and domes (again – well known in the Middle East for many centuries).

        The Persians.

        The Persians were actually (even in the time of their Imperial greatness) a semi nomadic people – who overwhelmed more developed civilisations (such as that of Babylon). Oddly enough the old Persian “capital” (which they only inhabited for part of the year) is also full of pillars – whereas there are much older (non Persian) cities not so far away that have arches.

        That is why I laughed at the bit in the Oliver Stone film “Alexander” where he has the character go about how the Persian civilzation is much older than the Greek.

        Actually, of course, it was the other way round.

        As for cultural clashes – they have an oddly modern note.

        “Greek” (and Greek like Roman) attacks on the Jews – on Jewish greed (obsession with trade and money making) and the “absurd” Jewish attitude to religion (acting as if “their God was actually real” whereas all “intellectuals” knew that Gods were not real persons – so it was O.K. to worship the King or Emperor) and, of course, on “fanatical” violence (such as that of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic effort to destroy the Jewish faith) have an oddly modern ring.

        Intellectuals (including intellectuals from nominally Jewish backgrounds) have been making the same attacks on American Republicans since the 19th century.

        “Bible, pocket account book – and gun”.

        There is much absurdity in the figure (“Go in the peace of God my son – or I will fill you full of lead. But, whilst you are here, can I interest you in this stuff I am selling, my factory has produced some really wonderful new stuff, at great prices……”). But there is also much that is not absurd – and much absurdity in the intellectuals themselves (but they do not tend to look into a mental mirror).

  5. Economically, it seems to me that what it boils down to is that while the Romans had some understanding of the usefulness of trade, they had little grasp of production; the same mental block still common today on the Left and other Statists. It’s a paradimatic thing. I know I keep going on about paradigms, but understanding is consequential of one’s conceptualisation of the world, and wrong concepts leading to wrong understanding and conclusions.

    So the Romans, like the modern Left, perceived the economy as being about distribution of (prior) resources, rather than about production- the classical liberal and Austrian view. They understood that you could make money by taking something wanted to where it was wanted- the classic merchant concept- but failed to grasp the importance of per-capita-output as a means of wealth creation. Wealth isn’t money, it’s stuff.

    A money-wealthy man with an estate heaving with slaves just isn’t led in that conceptual direction. A western european family farmer without access to slave labour is much more keenly aware that his wealth is tied to his own production. He goes to the market and trades what he has produced, rather than simply profitting from a “merchant” differential.

    I do not of course mean the above to be critical of merchants or their profits; they provide an essential economic service. Simply that merchants are only half the equation.

    I am also well aware that the Northern Western European Vikings were remorseless plunderers and slavers. But they never built a civilisation out of that strategy.

    • To be fair there is a bit of evidence of labour saving technolgy – for example I have been shown some stone cutting (and shaping) kit, that would indeed have made the job much less terrible. And this dates from the Roman (and Byzantine) period in Israel. The Muslims appear (contrary to BBC shows and other such) to have had no interest in labour saving technology.

      Of course in Jewish law someone can only be a slave for six years (Deuteronomy) and on the seventh year the slave must be freed – and given a start in freedom (so they do not starve in freedom) “You must make a generious provision from your flock, your threshing-floor, your winepress….”. (Alaxander Jones’ “Jerusalem Bible” perhaps my favourate version). But many argued that this only applied to Jewish slaves – not to nonJews. And the labour saving technology does not appear to be a special Jewish thing anyway.

      There is also (in Italy) some evidence of family pride in improvements made to production over the generations – for example an inscription at a stone quarry – where the owner notes with pride how many generations have owned the quarry, and how they have improved it over time.

      However, I would agree with you Ian – there does seem to be a lack of respect for production (and new developments in production) in the Classical world.

      Improving production (by one’s “practical wisdom”) and getting many people to come to work for you (freely) does not seem to have been regarded by the Greeks and Romans as being pleasing to God (indicating that one is a Godly man who is to be respected) – or “the Gods”.

      Although some argue that in the early period the Greeks were very different – for example the the old poets praised the productive and successful man.

      And that the Ionian cities in Asia Minor (before they fell to Persian rule) had a pro commercial (both trade and production) and pro scientific (and pro technological) development culture.

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  8. I think my first comment was unfair.

    Everyone knows that Sean used various names (he makes no secret of the fact – unlike me in the old days), and so it is fine for him to review his own work.

    Indeed it is interesting for him to do so – many authors have reviewed their own work (Tolkien and so on).

    Short version – I apologise for my first comment.