Xenophon looked on Marathon

Xenophon looked on Marathon

In Brief

Dan Dawson's praise of Ireland's natural beauties elicits a classical comment from Simon Dedalus: "And Xenophon looked upon Marathon...and Marathon looked on the sea." He is quoting from a verse of Byron's, but inaccurately, and his reasons for alluding to the poem are not entirely clear. 

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In the midst of the third canto of his comic epic Don Juan (1821), Byron inserts a 16-stanza "hymn" to Greece, expressing his despairing wish that the country might throw off Turkish rule. The third stanza of the hymn recalls his 1810 visit to Marathon, where in 490 BCE an Athenian army defeated a much larger Persian force:

The Mountains look on Marathon–
And Marathon looks on the Sea;
And musing there an hour Alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free
For standing on the Persian’s Grave,
I could not deem myself a Slave.

Persian troops serving Darius I landed on the Attic coast near Marathon, a town surrounded by low mountains, and were soundly defeated by the Athenians. (A runner was sent back to Athens bearing the news, inspiring the 26-mile race called the marathon.) The Athenian historian Xenophon was not present at this battle, however––he was born more than half a century later. Apparently Dedalus has confused Byron's mention of Marathon looking on the sea with the campaign of the Ten Thousand in Persia, whose escape from hostile armies was announced with the cry "Thalatta! Thalatta!" upon reaching the Black Sea.

It is easy to imagine this confusion arising from dimly remembered shards of Greek-Persian battles, encouraged by the human brain's love of similar sounds like "Xenophon" and "Marathon." Assuming that Joyce was aware of the mistake, it is also understandable that he might have wanted to put it in the mouth of one of the men in the newspaper office, where hot air blows nonstop and many dubious claims are made. The men's fact-challenged puffery about Ireland's greatness and its cruel fate reprises the scene in the Dubliners story "Grace" where Tom Kernan's friends extol the glories of the Catholic church, making one intellectual error after another.

But what is Simon Dedalus saying? Dawson's speech has been picturing a stream that runs "'neath the shadows cast o'er its pensive bosom by the overarching leafage of the giants of the forest," which apparently prompts Simon to recall a poem in which mountains look down on the town and the town looks down on the sea. Is nothing more than this imagistic association at work, or is he also thinking of Ireland's dream of freeing itself from imperial domination? Equating Ireland with Greece and Britain with Persia would be entirely consistent with other symbolic associations made in Aeolus, like Pyrrhus struggling to prevent Roman domination and Moses leading his people out of Egypt. (In a reversal of such symbolism, Ireland also is linked with Troy, a city destroyed by a massive foreign army.) But Simon does not develop this associative logic. Nor, as far as I can tell, does anyone else in Ulysses.

JH 2023
Map drawn for the Department of History at the U.S. Military Academy.
Source: www.worldhistory.org.
Depiction of the battle by John Steeple Davis, in The Story of the Greatest Nations, from the Dawn of History to the Twentieth Century (1900).
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Another depiction of the battle by Time Life Pictures.
Source: www.sbnation.com.