Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

How Themistocles Saved Greece

F ROM Thermopylae, King Xerxes and his army marched down into Greece, punishing the people of all the places that had refused to send him earth and water. At Athens the people were in great fear. They knew that their turn would come next, and that the great king would punish them more severely than any of the other Greeks because they had once burned one of his cities. They sent to the oracle at Delphi and asked,—

"O Apollo! How may we save Athens from the wrath of Xerxes?" But the priestess only answered,—

"Fly to the ends of the earth; for nothing can now save your city. Yet when all is lost, a wooden wall shall shelter the Athenians."

This saying puzzled the Athenians very much. It was some comfort to know that though their city was to be destroyed, they were to be saved. But where was the "wooden wall" that Apollo said should shelter them? Some thought it meant one thing, and some thought it meant another. At last a quick-witted Athenian, named Themistocles, said,—

"The wooden wall means our ships. If we leave our city and fight the Persians on the water we shall win the battle. That is what Apollo promises us. Will you do it?"

Themistocles spoke so well that at last the people agreed to do what he advised. When Xerxes came, they went on board their ships and left the city to the Persians. Then the king pulled down the walls, and burned the city and all the houses in it, as a punishment for what the Athenians had done to the Persian city when his father was king.

When he had burned Athens, Xerxes wished to go on to Sparta and punish it also. The only way to reach that city was by marching along a narrow isthmus which joined the northern part of Greece to the southern; and this he could not do until he had driven away the Greek ships which were near it. These ships were in a narrow strait between an island called Salamis and the shore. They had only one-third as many ships as the Persians had; so when they saw the Persian ships row up to the end of the strait and get ready to fight on the next day, they were very much frightened Only the Athenians were brave and fearless. To keep the other Greek ships from slipping away in the night, and leaving them alone to fight the Persians, Themistocles sent a message to Xerxes, and pretended to be his friend.

"if you want to keep the Greeks from getting away," the messenger told the king, "you must send some of your ships around the island, and shut up the other end of the strait."

This seemed sensible, so Xerxes did as Themistocles advised; and all the Greeks had to stay and fight whether they wanted to or not. The next morning the battle began When the trumpet sounded, the Greeks rowed forward and tried to run into the Persian ships and sink them; and the Persians tried to do the same to the Greek ships. When the ships would come near one another, each side would throw spears or shoot arrows at the other side. Sometimes a ship would get alongside a ship of the enemy; and then soldiers would spring upon the deck of the other boat, and they would fight with swords just as they did on land.

All day long the fight went on. There were two things that were in favor of the Greeks, and which helped to give them the victory. There were so many Persian ships that they were all crowded together in the narrow strait, and could not get out of the way when they saw a Greek ship coming. Besides this, the Greeks were fighting for their homes, while the Persians were fighting only because their king had ordered them to; so the Greeks fought the better. At last, after a great many of the Persian ships had been sunk, the rest turned and fled. The Greeks had won the victory, and Themistocles was the one who had helped them most to gain it.

During all the fight King Xerxes had sat on a golden throne on a hill near the strait. He was very angry when he saw his ships flee, and he had many of his captains put to death. But, as he was a coward at heart, he was a little afraid. Suppose the Greeks should send their brave ships up to the Hellespont, and destroy his bridges of boats, how would he and his army get back to Persia? Besides this, he had punished the Athenians by burning their city; and that, he said, was the chief thing he had come to do. So the great king gave up his plan to conquer Greece, and when the next morning came he was already on his march homeward.

This was not the end of the Persian wars, but it was the beginning of the end. Twice the Persians had seemed just about to conquer Greece, and both times they had failed The first time they had failed because Miltiades had fought so bravely against them at Marathon. The second time it was Themistocles who had prevented them by his skill in bringing about the battle at Salamis. After this the Persians were never again to have the chance to conquer Greece; and when next we shall read about them, we shall see how they themselves were conquered by the Greeks in their own land.


Return of the Victors from Salamis

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