Max Weber vs. Eduard Meyer on Marathon
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

Max Weber vs. Eduard Meyer on Marathon

For a long time I have been meaning to find the original citations for the great debate between sociologist Max Weber and historian and orientalist Eduard Meyer about the significance of the first two Persian invasions of Attica (the Athenians didn’t like to talk about the third Persian army and fleet which arrived a hundred years later and was welcomed with open arms). Jona Lendering mentioned it in his article on the significance of Marathon but when he was creating his site he was bullied into leaving out citations by teachers who were worried that their students would crib from it. I finally have the passage: Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, 4th edition (Därmstadt, 1965), Bd. IV.2.3 p. 420 Meyer had just noted that Delos and many other sacred sites in Greece seemed to have a working relationship with the Persian kings by the beginning of the fifth century BCE. I will give the original German and then my translation.

Hätten die Perser gesiegt, so hätten sie auch in Griechenland versucht, mit Hilfe der geistlichen Autorität zu regieren, und ihr eine Organisation gegeben wie in Ägypten und bei den Juden. Dann aber ergab es sich von selbst, daß die vom Staat geschützte und zur Herrschaft berufene Priesterschaft die neue theologische Religion annahm, mochte sie sich bisher ihr gegenüber auch so ablehnend verhalten haben und sie ihr so unbequem sein wie der Priesterschaft von Jerusalem das Judentum: die beiden religiösen Strömungen, die politische und die geistige, mußten in ein Bett zusammenfließen. Dabei mochte sich eine rationalistische Weltbetrachtung, ein Versuch, aus eigener Kraft das Welträtsel zu lösen, in einzelnen Kreisen immer noch behaupten, wie im Judentum neben der theologisch-gesetzlichen die individualistische Gegenströmung einhergeht. Das Endergebnis wäre schließlich doch gewesen, daß eine Kirche und ein durchgebildetes theologisches System dem griechischen Leben und Denken ihr Joch aufgelegt und jede freiere Regung in Fesseln geschlagen hätte, daß auch die neue griechische Kultur so gut wie die orientalischen ein theologisch-religiöses Gepräge erhalten hätte (vgl. Bd. III2 S. 693). Fremdherrschaft, Kirche und Theologie im Bunde hätten mit dem Staat auch hier den Zutritt zu den höchsten Regionen menschlichen Lebens und menschlicher Tätigkeit für alle Zukunft versperrt.

If the Persians had won, then in Greece they would have also attempted to rule with the help of the spiritual power, and given it an organization like in Egypt or among the Jews. And then it would have naturally occurred, that protected by the state and called to rule, the priesthood adopted the new theological religion, which they had formerly distanced themselves from and which was as uncomfortable for them as the priesthood of Jerusalem was for Judaism: the two religious currents, the political and the spiritual, would have to flow together in one channel. Under these circumstances a rational way of dealing with the world, an attempt to solve the mystery of the world with one’s own power, could certainly have continued in specific circles, as in Judaism an individualistic counter-stream proceeded in addition to the theological-legalistic one. However, in the end the final result would have been that a church and a thoroughly theological system put its yoke on Greek life and thought, and threw every free impulse into chains, so that the new Greek culture, just as much as the oriental, would have acquired a theological-religious character (cp. Book III2 p. 693). Here as elsewhere, an alliance of foreign rule, church, and theology would have, with the state, closed the doors to the highest regions of human life and human activity for all time.

An English translation of Max Weber’s counterargument is available in Max Weber, The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch trans. (The Free Press of Glencoe: New York, 1949) around page 174 Since he wrote, we have learned that ancient kings and temples did not have anything like the power which Europeans attributed to an Ottoman sultan or Chinese emperor, and that self-governing communities and systematic thought occur throughout world history. Pāṇini‘s Sanskrit grammar, the tablet scribes’ predictive mathematical astronomy, Bronze Age Egyptian surgery, and the practical empirical wisdom which made iron or catapults something anyone with money could buy were not hindered by some kind of oppressive bureaucracy. Without kings sponsoring temples and hiring engineers, they might have never turned from idea into practice!

As I pointed out on page 39 of my first book, Herodotus’s despots often sponsor his great works of discovery and creation. He lived long before 19th century debates about the Catholic church, Islam, fundamentalist Protestantism, and why some small parts of the world were suddenly rich and powerful while others were struggling to catch up so he did not write his history to help one faction in that fight.

Since I am talking about methods and ideas and decisions of what to write about, I want to mention this thought about how what historians write about is not necessarily what readers would be excited to read:

Some biases are less interesting than others. Like Hardtack and Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life by John D. Billings, opening with an introduction where he explains that when he and other vets told small boys about their campaigning during the American Civil War, the boys listened with rapt attention, and also when they told about the details of army life. He noticed that all the memoirs being written about the war were about the campaigning. So, for future generations, here was a memoir about the later, which they might find interesting.


I really do not know why the only good book on the experience of life as a soldier in the early Greek world is John Lee’s A Greek Army on the March! Roman Army scholars write books like that which draw on archaeology and comparative evidence, but the study of early Greek warfare is still dominated by philologists.

(scheduled 2021-01-22)

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2 thoughts on “Max Weber vs. Eduard Meyer on Marathon

  1. Toad Worrier says:

    What do you think of Josiah Owner’s book which documents the Greek efflorescence as far outstripping despotic empires in cultural and economic output. Ober builds up as detailed model not how that high performance was the effect of an ecosystem of what he calls “citizen centred” poleis.

    As for self governing polities, we know they produced India’s greatest man and history is too vague to tell us what else to credit them with. We do know that Kautilya was shit-scared of them.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I have not read that book, but this review says that he did not take the essential first step of understanding ancient city-states and monarchies as a class before deciding what if anything was special about some of them. The period from 800 to 500 BCE was a boom time in Mesopotamia too! The material and scholarly riches of Iron Age Athens, Rome, Assur, and Babylon all depended on a stream of stolen silver and people!

      My next scheduled post will talk about how there are many many clever people who take something they admire about their own culture, project it on classical Greece, and then declare that the Greeks were the first culture to have this and that the clever people are the only true heirs to this tradition. That does not work because people can invent the same thing independently, and because even Samuel P. Huntington recognizes four civilizations as descendants of classical Greece.

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