The article “A Day at Marathon” was published in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country (April 1854). Fraser’s was a monthly edition devoted to politics, religion, and social conditions, rather than a literary magazine in the strict sense (Houghton 438). Light-hearted and humorous, “A Day at Marathon” presents a mid-nineteenth-century day trip to the site of the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE), in which the outnumbered Athenians defeated the Persians. The text offers an account of this journey, while playfully discussing the issue of brigandage in Attica. Prior to depicting the actual visit, the author carefully sets the background by detailing a “breakfast party at the Hôtel d’ Angleterre, of Athens, on a bright morning in November, 18–,” (396). The group of foreigners reportedly represent “each portion of the globe” and the lingua franca of the conversation is French (396):
We were almost all strangers in Athens; only one opinion, however, prevailed, as to the utter and unaccountable degeneracy of the modern Greeks: our views were, nevertheless, keenly combated by the only Greek gentleman of the party, who, warmly espousing the cause of his countrymen, declared that to misgovernment and oppression alone the temporary degradation of the Hellenic race was to be attributed, and expressed the most decided conviction that his country would,ere long, arise from the ashes of its former greatness, and shine among the nations of Europe. (396)
Perhaps offended by the generalised bias of the party towards Modern Greece, the Greek gentleman who partakes the hotel breakfast rises in defence of the country. As a result, the international visitors gracefully change the subject to the patriotism and bravery of ancient Greeks at Marathon and decide to visit the spot. Unsurprisingly, the Greek man offers to be their cicerone during their excursion to Marathon the following day.
Despite the generalised excitement with the idea of seeing the landmark, there is an obstacle to the impromptu journey:
The lonely, and wooded region through which it was necessary to pass was said to be infested by numerous bands of robbers, whose daring and repeated attacks upon travellers had lately become the subject of serious consideration and general alarm, not only to the inhabitants of the country, but also to the weak and corrupt Government of Athens, which found itself utterly unable to stem the torrent of brigandage, at that time devastating the whole continent of Greece, and especially the neighbourhood of the capital. (396)
Brigandage is here depicted as plaguing both the city and the countryside, while the Greek government is characterised as weak and corrupt. The notion of unruliness and lack of administration or “foreign and absolute rule” is commonplace among British travellers in Greece. (Hionidis 34).
The solution to this threat is for the travellers to be armed. As it turns out the following morning, a “party consisted of nine gentlemen armed like highwaymen, and two guides” sets off for the field of Marathon (397). The first seven miles of the journey is “uninteresting” since it is performed “en voiture” pointing to the travellers’ reluctance to reconcile the comfort of the coach with their perceptions of a rather primitive Modern Greece. After the party arrives “at a miserable Greek farm,” they resume the journey on horseback (397). As Pandeleimon Hionidis explains, relying on horse power for transport is a salient feature of the nineteenth-century traveller, as opposed to the tourist and being a traveller “had certain connotations connected to a person’s status and his writing’s influence” (32). It seems that in dismissing the brougham part of the journey, the author of the article diss-associates himself from the figure of the “Cookite” and from the idea of an organised tour.
The author’s horse being “every inch a devil” and “most unruly” with a bridle composed of “a single rein” indeed introduces the element of danger. The prospect of an attack is sustained through the text, both by the author’s thoughts—“A more likely or better adapted spot for an attack on the unwary traveller could not be imagined”— and by the narration of the Greek guide:
Some twenty years back I was passing this very spot in the service of two English gentlemen; the elder man of about forty years of age, was bent upon visiting the field of Marathon, while the younger thought only of thefun and probable adventure which might befall them in the trip which was at that time really dangerous. I had done my best, Signori, to dissuade them from their purpose, for the country was then even more infested than now by lawless bands of robbers, who spared neither sex nor age, if their cupidity were once aroused; in vain did I represent all this to the headstrong travellers. (398)
As predicted, the guide tells the cautionary tale of this past attack whereby the young English gentleman shoots dead two Greek robbers. The rest of the band are obliged to fully retreat leaving their dead behind, yet they manage to severely injure one of the two Englishmen.
The guide’s narration is interrupted by the author’s line of thought who scrutinises the landscape:
A sudden short turn of the path had opened out to our view a lovely little oasis of the greenest turf, which shone in bright relief against the grey, stony background of the surrounding forest. The sight that there caught our eye was, however, far from reassuring. About forty of the most ferocious-looking Greeks, dressed in the national costume, were reposing in seeming indifference round a bivouac fire, which burned cheerily in the centre of this picturesque group, while others were engaged in cleaning their arms or cooking, over separate little fires, which, sparkling at the feet of the more retired rocks, added to the interest of the scene.
The author now clearly undermines any sense of danger describing the picturesque sight of forty brigands in the midst of a green oasis. The “robber-chief” is quick to approach the travellers and salute the Greek guide whom he clearly knows; explanations are offered, according to which the band is part of the force of irregular troops sent by the government to patrol the area against brigands (399). The fact that it is difficult to tell brigands and government troops apart perhaps points to the unruly state of these irregular troops under Otto’s rule (1832-1862).
Following the imbroglio, the trip is resumed leading the party to a view of the “celebrated plain of Marathon” (400), whereby the author discusses the specifics of the 2000 year-old battle of Marathon between the Ancient Greeks and Persians—strategy and tactics, positioning of troops, and victorious outcome—not forgetting to duly mention the work of Lord Byron. The soldiers whom they mistook for brigands are the ones who have supposedly secured the travellers’ safety. The article draws toward a conclusion with the party’s uneventful return to Athens and their hotel rooms. Having initially reproduced the stereotype of hazardous, uncontrolled brigandage, the chronicle of the trip undertaken by this adventurous lot offers a rather anti-climactic ending.
Hionidis, Pandeleimon. “Travelling and the Shaping of Images: Victorian Travellers on Nineteenth-Century Greece.”International Journal of Cultural and Digital Tourism. 1: 2 (2014): 30-40.
Houghton, Walter E, ed. The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals 1824-1900. Vol II. Eds. Walter E. Houghton et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.
Unknown Author. “A Day at Marathon.” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. Vol. 49. January to June 1854. London: Savile and Edwards, Printers. 396-400.
Title: Thomas Cook & Son at the Hotel d’ Angleterre. According to the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive (E.L.I.A.), the first Greek office of Thomas Cook opened at the ground floor of Hotel d’ Angleterre in the late 1890s and remained in business until the early 1960s (http://www.elia.org.gr/research-tools/hotels/streets/sintagma/sintagma/agglia/).
Source: Programme of Cook’ s tours in Greece including excursions in and around Athens. Athens: Cook and Son, n.d. Library of the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive/Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece.
Title: Hotel d’ Angleterre, circa 1880.
Source: Thomas Sitaras Collection, Library of the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive/Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece, http://www.elia.org.gr/research-tools/hotels/streets/sintagma/sintagma/agglia/.