Themistocles Urges Eurybiades To Stay at Salamis
After Xerxes had secured the pass of Thermopylae, a march of six days would bring him to Athens. There was no army in his way, for the Spartans and other tribes in Peloponnesus were now fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth, so as to protect their cities from the foe.
If the Athenians wished to save themselves they would have to desert their city and seek refuge elsewhere, for it was impossible to hold Athens against the great army that was marching towards her. Yet even to save their lives how hard it was to leave their homes, their temples, their gods!
The oracle at Delphi was consulted, and told them that "when all was lost a wooden wall should still shelter the Athenians." Some there were who believed that the oracle meant that if the Acropolis were fortified with timber it would not be taken by the Persians, and they shut themselves up in the citadel and refused to leave the city.
But Themistocles knew that the only way to save the people was to get them away from Athens, and he used all his eloquence to make them willing to go. When it seemed that he had failed, he tried another way—he began to work upon their superstitious fears. He told them that Athene, their own goddess, had already deserted the city, and taking with her her pet snake had gone to the sea. He assured them that the "walls of wood," of which the oracle had spoken, were the good ships that were at Salamis, waiting to defeat the Persians and put their fleet to flight.
At length his words prevailed, and the old men, women, and children were sent to the island of Salamis, while the fighting men joined the fleet.
In the confusion, many faithful animals were forgotten. These ran along the shore, while the ships carrying the fugitives sailed away. One faithful dog leaped into the water and followed his master's ship until it reached Salamis. But when he had dragged himself out of the water the poor creature was so exhausted that he lay down on the shore and died.
Meanwhile Xerxes was marching toward Athens. On the way he ordered a large company to break off to the west to seize Delphi and the sanctuary of the oracle, in which, as the king knew, vast treasures were kept. No Greek would have dared to rob the sacred temple.
When the Delphians heard that the Persians were approaching, they fled to Parnassus, leaving only sixty men and the priest to defend the sanctuary. They did not think that the treasures would be stolen, for the gods would protect their own.
And as soon as the barbarians were close to the city, strange things are said to have taken place. The sacred arms, which none might touch, were mysteriously carried out and placed in front of the temple. The sky was ablaze with brilliant flashes of lightning, while two great crags were wrenched from the heights of Mount Parnassus and fell with a loud crash upon the enemy. At the same time, from the temple of Athene a shout as of a mighty warrior was heard.
The barbarians were stricken with terror at these strange sights and sounds, and they fled, pursued, so they declared, by two Greeks, each taller and more fearful than any mortal they had ever seen.
Xerxes had now reached Athens, to find the city deserted, save for the few who had taken refuge in the citadel. These defended themselves bravely, and as it was difficult to scale the height on which the Acropolis stood, they were able for a time to keep the enemy at bay.
But at length the wooden defences, in which the people had put their trust, were set on fire by the burning brands of the enemy. At the same time a band of Persian soldiers discovered a secret path on the north side of the citadel. Although it was steep, they at once began to climb, and before long they reached the summit and entered the citadel. The defenders were slain; the temples were plundered and burned.
As the Greek fleet lay in the narrow strait between Salamis and the Attic coast, the Athenians saw smoke and flames rising from the burning city. They were filled with grief as they gazed upon the destruction of their homes and their temples, while their wrath burned hot against the destroyers.
Themistocles and the Athenians wished to stay where they were to await the enemy. But the other admirals were anxious to sail to the Isthmus of Corinth, where they would be within reach of the Peloponnesian army.
A council of war was called, at which Themistocles urged that they should stay where they were to fight and to conquer the Persian fleet. He reminded the other admirals that in the narrow strait of Salamis the big and heavy ships of the Persians would have no room to move and would be captured without great difficulty. But no one agreed with the Athenian general, and the council broke up, after having agreed that the fleet should sail to the Isthmus of Corinth on the following day.
Themistocles was so sure that it was a mistake to move, that he went alone to Eurybiades and earnestly begged him not to withdraw. His gravity impressed the commander, and he promised to recall the council to discuss the matter once more.
No sooner had the admirals again assembled than Themistocles rose, without waiting until the council was opened in the usual way, and again explained the urgent reasons why the fleet should stay to fight at Salamis.
The Corinthian admiral was angry already because the council had been reopened; he was angrier still as he listened to the words of Themistocles.
At length he could keep silent no longer, and he interrupted the orator, saying in a harsh voice, "Themistocles, at the games they who start too soon are scourged."
"True," answered the Athenian, "but they who loiter are not crowned."
Even Eurybiades lost his temper as Themistocles urged his wish more and more vehemently, and at length he raised his staff as though he would strike the persistent orator.
Themistocles looked calmly at the admiral and said, "Strike if you will, but at least hear me." His self-control pleased the Spartan commander. He let his arms drop to his side and listened until Themistocles had ended his speech.
But although Eurybiades said nothing, an officer began to taunt Themistocles, saying that he was the last man who should urge them to stay at Salamis, for he had no city to defend, as Athens was in the hands of the barbarians.
"A base fellow art thou to use such a taunt," answered Themistocles. "True it is that we have left our houses and our walls, for we will not endure to be made slaves for such things. But in these two hundred ships here ready to defend you all, we still possess the fairest city in Greece."
Then turning to Eurybiades he said, "By remaining here, thou wilt show thyself a brave man. By going away, thou wilt destroy all Hellas, for with the war on land the Athenians have nothing more to do. If thou wilt not stay, we will sail away with our two hundred ships and build a city in the west, where the Persians will not trouble us."
Then Eurybiades grew afraid, for he knew that without the help of the Athenians the Greeks need not hope to conquer the enemy, so he agreed to stay to fight at Salamis.