The slaughter of the defenders of Thermopylę exposed Athens to the onslaught of the vast Persian army, which would soon be on the soil of Attica. A few days' march would bring the invaders to its capital city, which they would overwhelm as a flight of locusts destroys a cultivated field. The states of the Peloponnesus, with a selfish regard for their own safety, had withdrawn all their soldiers within the peninsula, and began hastily to build a wall across the isthmus of Corinth with the hope of keeping back the invading army. Athens was left to care for itself. It was thus that Greece usually let itself be devoured piecemeal.
There was but one thing for the Athenians to do, to obey the oracle and fly from their native soil. In a few days the Persians would be in Athens, and there was not an hour to lose. The old men, the women and children, with such property as could be moved, were hastily taken on shipboard and carried to Salamis, Ęgina, Trzen, and other neighboring islands. The men of fighting age took to their ships of war, to fight on the sea for what they had lost on land. A few of the old and the poverty-stricken remained, and took possession of the hill of the Acropolis, whose wooden fence they fondly fancied might be the wooden wall which the oracle had meant. Apart from these few the city was deserted, and Athens had embarked upon the seas. Not only Athens, but all Attica, was left desolate, and in the whole state Xerxes made only five hundred prisoners of war.
Onward came the great Persian host, destroying all that could be destroyed on Attic soil, and sending out detachments to ravage other parts of Greece. The towns that submitted were spared. Those that resisted; or whose inhabitants fled, were pillaged and burnt. A body of troops was sent to plunder Delphi, the reputed great wealth of whose temple promised a rich reward. The story of what happened there is a curious one, and well worth relating.
The frightened Delphians prepared to fly, but first asked the oracle of Apollo whether they should take with them the sacred treasures or bury them in secret places. The oracle bade them not to touch these treasures, saying that the god would protect his own. With this admonition the people of Delphi fled, sixty only of their number remaining to guard the holy shrine.
These faithful few were soon encouraged by a prodigy. The sacred arms, kept in the temple's inmost cell, and which no mortal hand dared touch, were seen lying before the temple door, as if Apollo was prepared himself to use them. As the Persians advanced by a rugged path under the steep cliffs of Mount Parnassus, and reached the temple of Athené Pronęa a dreadful peal of thunder rolled above their affrighted heads, and two great crags, torn from the mountain's flank, came rushing down with deafening sound, and buried many of them beneath their weight. At the same time, from the temple of Athené, came the Greek shout of war.
In a panic the invaders turned and fled, hotly pursued by the few Delphians, and, so the story goes, by two armed men of superhuman size, whose destructive arms wrought dire havoc in the fleeing host. And thus, as we are told, did the god preserve his temple and his wealth.
But no god guarded the road to Athens, and at length Xerxes and his army reached that city, four months after they had crossed the Hellespont. It was an empty city they found. The few defenders of the Acropolis—a craggy hill about one hundred and fifty feet high—made a vigorous defence, for a time keeping the whole Persian army at bay. But some Persians crept up a steep and unguarded part of the wall, entered the citadel, and soon all its defenders were dead, and its temples and buildings in flames.
While all this was going on, the Grecian fleet lay but a few miles away, in the narrow strait between the isle of Salamis and the Attic coast, occupying the little bay before the town of Salamis, from which narrow channels at each end led into the Bay of Eleusis to the north and the open sea to the south. In front rose the craggy heights of Mount Ęgaleos, over which, only five miles away, could be seen ascending the lurid smoke of blazing Athens. It was a spectacle calculated to infuriate the Athenians, though not one to inspire them with courage and hope.
The fleet of Greece consisted of three hundred and sixty-six ships in all, of which Athens supplied two hundred, while the remainder came in small numbers from the various Grecian states. The Persian fleet, despite its losses by storm, far outnumbered that of Greece, and came sweeping down the Attic coast, confident of victory, while the great army marched southward over Attic land.
And now two councils of war were held,—one by the Persian leaders, one by the Greeks. The fleet of Xerxes, probably still a thousand ships strong, lay in the Bay of Phalerum, a few miles from Athens; and hither the king, having wrought his will on that proud and insolent city, came to the coast to inspect his ships of war and take counsel as to what should next be done.
Here, before his royal throne, were seated the kings of Tyre and Sidon, and the rulers of the many other nations represented in his army. One by one they were asked what should be done. "Fight," was the general reply; "fight without delay." Only one voice gave different advice, that of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus. She advised Xerxes to march to the isthmus of Corinth, saying that then all the ships of the Peloponnesus would fly to defend their own homes, and the fleet of Greece would thus be dispersed. Xerxes heard her with calmness, but declined to take her prudent advice. The voice of the others and his own confidence prevailed, and orders were given for the fleet to make its attack the next day.
The almost unanimous decision of this council, over which ruled the will of an autocratic king, was very different from that which was reached by the Greeks, in whose council all who spoke had equal authority. The fleet had come to Salamis to aid the flight of the Athenians. This done, it was necessary to decide where it was best to meet the Persian fleet. Only the Athenians, under the leadership of Themistocles, favored remaining where they were. The others perceived that if they were defeated here, escape would be impossible. Most of them wished to sail to the isthmus of Corinth, to aid the land army of the Peloponnesians, while various other plans were urged.
While the chiefs thus debated news came that Athens and the Acropolis were in flames. At once some of the captains left the council in alarm, and began hastily to hoist sail for flight. Those that remained voted to remove to the isthmus, but not to start till the morning of the next day.
Themistocles, who had done his utmost to prevent this fatal decision, which he knew would end in the dispersal of the fleet and the triumph of Persia, returned to his own ship sad of heart. Many of the women and children of Athens were on the island of Salamis, and if the fleet sailed they, too, must be removed.
"What has the council decided?" asked his friend Mnesiphilus.
Themistocles gloomily told him.
"This will be ruinous!" burst out Mnesiphilus. Soon there will be no allied fleet, nor any cause or country to fight for. You must have the council meet again; this vote must be set aside; if it be carried out the liberty of Greece is at an end."
So strongly did he insist upon this that Themistocles was inspired to make another effort. He went at once to the ship of Eurybiades, the Spartan who had been chosen admiral of the fleet, and represented the case so earnestly to him that Eurybiades was partly convinced, and consented to call the council together again.
Here Themistocles was so excitedly eager that he sought to win the chiefs over to his views even before Eurybiades had formally opened the meeting and explained its object. For this he was chided by the Corinthian Adeimantus, who said,—
"Themistocles, those who in the public festivals rise up before the proper signal are scourged."
"True," said Themistocles; "but those who lag behind the signal win no crowns."
When the debate was formally opened, Themistocles was doubly urgent in his views, and continued his arguments until Adeimantus burst out in a rage, bidding him, a man who had no city, to be silent.
This attack drew a bitter answer from the insulted Athenian. If he had no city, he said, he had around him two hundred ships, with which he could win a city and country better than Corinth. Then he turned to Eurybiades, and said,
"If you will stay and fight bravely here, all will be well. If you refuse to stay, you will bring all Greece to ruin. If you will not stay, we Athenians will migrate with our ships and families. Then, chiefs, when you lose an ally like us, you will remember what I say, and regret what you have done."
These words convinced Eurybiades. Without the Athenian ships the fleet would indeed be powerless. He asked for no vote, but gave the word that they should stay and fight, and bade the captains to make ready for battle. Thus it was that at dawn of day the fleet, instead of being in full flight, remained drawn up in battle array in the Bay of Salamis. The Peloponnesian chiefs, however, were not content. They held a secret council, and resolved to steal secretly away. This treacherous purpose came to the ears of Themistocles, and to prevent it he took a desperate course. He sent a secret message to Xerxes, telling him that the Greek fleet was about to fly, and that if he wished to capture it he must at once close up both ends of the strait, so that flight would be impossible.
He cunningly represented himself as a secret friend of the Persian king, who lost no time in taking the advice. When the next day's dawn was at hand the discontented chiefs were about to fly, as they had secretly resolved, when a startling message came to their ears. Aristides, a noble Athenian who had been banished, but had now returned, came on the fleet from Salamis and told them that only battle was left, that the Persians had cooped them in like birds in a cage, and that there was nothing to do but to fight or surrender.
The Victors at Salamis.
This disturbing message was not at first believed. But it was quickly confirmed. Persian ships appeared at both ends of the strait. Themistocles had won. Escape was impossible. They must do battle like heroes or live as Persian slaves. There was but one decision,—to fight. The dawn of day found the Greeks actively preparing for the most famous naval battle of ancient times.
The combat about to be fought had the largest audience of any naval battle the world has ever known. For the vast army of Persia was drawn up as spectators on the verge of the narrow strait which held the warring fleets, and Xerxes himself sat on a lofty throne erected at a point which closely overlooked the liquid plain. His presence, he felt sure, would fill his seamen with valor, while by his side stood scribes prepared to write down the names alike of the valorous and the backward combatants. On the other hand, the people of Athens and Attica looked with hope and fear on the scene from the island of Salamis. It was a unique preparation for a battle at sea, such as was never known before or since that day.
The fleet of Persia outnumbered that of Greece three to one. But the Persian seamen had been busy all night long in carrying out the plan to entrap the Greeks, and were weary with labor. The Greeks had risen fresh and vigorous from their night's rest. And different spirits animated the two hosts. The Persians were moved solely by the desire for glory; the Greeks by the stern alternatives of victory, slavery, or death. These differences in strength and motive went far to negative the difference in numbers; and the Greeks, caught like lions in a snare, dashed into the combat with the single feeling that they must now fight or die.
History tells us that the Greeks hesitated at first; but soon the ship of Ameinias, an Athenian captain, dashed against a Phnician trireme with such fury that the two became closely entangled. While their crews fought vigorously with spear and javelin, other ships from both sides dashed to their aid, and soon numbers of the war triremes were fiercely engaged.
The battle that followed was hot and furious, the ships becoming mingled in so confused a mass that no eye could follow their evolutions. Soon the waters of the Bay of Salamis ran red with blood. Broken oars, fallen spars, shattered vessels, filled the strait. Hundreds were hurled into the waters,—the Persians, few of whom could swim, to sink; the Greeks, who were skilful swimmers, to seek the shore of Salamis or some friendly deck.
From the start the advantage lay with the Greeks. The narrowness of the strait rendered the great numbers of the Persians of no avail. The superior discipline of the Greeks gave them a further advantage. The want of concert in the Persian allies was another aid to the Greeks. They were ready to run one another down in the wild desire to escape. Soon the Persian fleet became a disorderly mass of flying ships, the Greek fleet a well-ordered array of furious pursuers. In panic the Persians fled; in exultation the Greeks pursued. One trireme of Naxos captured five Persian ships. A brother of Xerxes was slain by an Athenian spear. Great numbers of distinguished Persians and Medes shared his fate. Before the day was old the battle on the Persian side had become a frantic effort to escape, while some of the choicest troops of Persia, who had been landed before the battle on the island of Psyttaleia, were attacked by Aristides at the head of an Athenian troop, and put to death to a man.
The confident hope of victory with which Xerxes saw the battle begin changed to wrath and terror when he saw his ships in disorderly flight and the Greeks in hot pursuit. The gallant behavior of Queen Artemisia alone gave him satisfaction, and when he saw her in the flight run into and sink an opposing vessel, he cried out, "My men have become women; and my women, men." He was not aware that the ship she had sunk, with all on board, was one of his own fleet.
The mad flight of his ships utterly distracted the mind of the faint-hearted king. His army still vastly outnumbered that of Greece. With all its losses, his fleet was still much the stronger. An ounce of courage in his soul would have left Greece at his mercy. But that was wanting, and in panic fear that the Greeks would destroy the bridge over the Hellespont, he ordered his fleet to hasten there to guard it, and put his army in rapid retreat for the safe Asiatic shores.
He had some reason to fear the loss of his bridge. Themistocles and the Athenians had it in view to hasten to the Hellespont and break it down. But Eurybiades, the Spartan leader, opposed this, saying that it was dangerous to keep Xerxes in Greece. They had best give him every chance to fly.
Themistocles, who saw the wisdom of this advice, not only accepted it, but sent a message to Xerxes— as to a friend—advising him to make all haste, and saying that he would do his best to hold back the Greeks, who were eager to burn the bridge.
The frightened monarch was not slow in taking this advice. Leaving a strong force in Greece, under the command of his general Mardonius, he marched with the speed of fear for the bridge. But he had nearly exhausted the country of food in his advance, and starvation and plague attended his retreat, many of the men being obliged to eat leaves, grass, and the bark of trees, and great numbers of them dying before the Hellespont was reached.
Here he found the bridge gone. A storm had destroyed it. He was forced to have his army taken across in ships. Not till Asia Minor was reached did the starving troops obtain sufficient food,—and there gorged themselves to such an extent that many of them died from repletion. In the end Xerxes entered Sardis with a broken army and a sad heart, eight months after he had left it with the proud expectation of conquering the western world.