From Pierian Plain To Marathon – Greece Travel

At early light of a cloudless morning we were going easily down the Gulf of Thermae or Salonica, having upon our right the Pierian plain; and I tried to distinguish the two mounds which mark the place of the great battle near Pydna, one hundred and sixty-eight years before Christ, between AEmilius Paulus and King Perseus, which gave Macedonia to the Roman Empire. Beyond, almost ten thousand feet in the air, towered Olympus, upon whose “broad” summit Homer displays the ethereal palaces and inaccessible abode of the Grecian gods. Shaggy forests still clothe its sides, but snow now, and for the greater part of the year, covers the wide surface of the height, which is a sterile, light-colored rock. The gods did not want snow to cool the nectar at their banquets.

This is the very center of the mythologic world; there between Olympus and Ossa is the Vale of Tempe, where the Peneus, breaking through a narrow. gorge fringed with the sacred laurel, reaches the gulf, south of ancient Heracleum. Into this charming but secluded retreat the gods and goddesses, weary of the icy air, or the Pumblechookian deportment of the court of Olympian Jove, descended to pass the sunny hours with the youths and maidens of mortal mold; through this defile marks of chariot-wheels still attest the passage of armies which flowed either way, in invasion or retreat; and here Pompey, after a ride of forty miles from the fatal field of Pharsalia, quenched his thirst.

At six o’clock the Cape of Posilio was “on our left, we were sinking Olympus in the white haze of morning, Ossa, in its huge silver bulk, was near us, and Pelion stretched its long white back below. The sharp cone of Ossa might well ride upon the extended back of Pelion, and it seems a pity that the Titans did not succeed in their attempt. We were leaving, and looking our last on the Thracian coasts, once rimmed from Mt. Athos to the Bosphorus with a wreath of prosperous cities. What must once have been the splendor of the AEgean Sea and its islands, when every island was the seat of a vigorous state, and every harbor the site of a commercial town which sent forth adventurous galleys upon any errand of trade or conquest!

We ascended Mt. Pentelicus. Hymettus and Pentelicus are about the same height—thirtyfive hundred feet—but the latter, ten miles to the northeast of Athens, commands every foot of the Attic territory; if one should sit on its summit and read a history of the little state, he would need no map.

Up to the highest quarries the road is steep, and strewn with broken marble, and after that there is an hour’s scramble through bushes and over a rocky path. From these quarries was hewn the marble for the Temple of Theseus, the Parthenon, the Propylae, the theaters, and other public buildings, to which age has now given a soft and creamy tone; the Pentelic marble must have been too brilliant for the eye, and its dazzling luster was, no doubt, softened by the judicious use of color. Fragments which we broke off had the sparkle and crystalline grain of loaf-sugar, and if they were placed upon the table one would unhesitatingly take them to sweeten his tea. The whole mountain-side is overgrown with laurel, and we found wild flowers all the way to the summit.

We looked almost directly down upon Marathon. There is the bay and the curving sandy shore where the Persian galleys landed; here upon a spur, jutting out from the hill, the Athenians formed before they encountered the host in the plain, and there—alas! it was hidden by a hill—is the mound where the one hundred and ninety-two Athenian dead are buried. It is only a small field, perhaps six miles along the shore and a mile and a half deep, and there is a considerable marsh on the north and a small one at the south end. The victory at so little cost, of ten thousand over a hundred thousand, is partially explained by the nature of the ground; the Persians had not room enough to maneuver, and must have been thrown into confusion on the skirts of the northern swamp, and if over six thousand of them were slain, they must have been killed on the shore in the panic of their embarkation. But still the shore is broad, level, and firm, and the Greeks must have been convinced that the gods themselves terrified the hearts of the barbarians, and enabled them to discomfit a host which had chosen this plain as the most feasible in all Attica for the action of cavalry.