Gateway to the Classics: Famous Men of Greece by John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland
Famous Men of Greece by  John H. Haaren and A. B. Poland



A T this time the leading man of Athens was a great statesman and soldier named Themistocles. Some years before when the news had come that Xerxes was collecting an army and intended to invade Greece, the Athenians sent messengers to Delphi to ask the oracle what they should do. Delphi was upon the side of Mount Parnassus, and there stood a temple of Apollo. It was built over the cleft in the rock which, you remember, Deucalion found long ago as he and Pyrrha were coming down the mountain after the flood.

In the inner chamber of the temple just over the cleft, was a three-legged stool called a tripod. When a person wished to consult the oracle the priestess, who was called the Pythia, took her seat on the tripod. In a few minutes her eyes would close and she would begin to talk. The words which she spoke were noted, and the Greeks believed that they were really the words of the god Apollo.


The Pythia on the Tripod

Her answer to the messengers from Athens was:

"When everything else in the land of Cecrops shall be taken Jupiter grants to Minerva that the wooden wall alone shall remain undestroyed, and it shall defend you and your children. Stand not to await the attack of horses and foot from Asia, but retire. You shall live to fight another day. And thou, O divine Salamis, shalt destroy the children of women!"

What do you think this strange answer meant? The Athenians were greatly puzzled by it.

Themistocles said that the "wooden wall" meant ships of war, and that the gods would save the people if they would leave their city and trust to their fleet when the enemy approached. He advised the Athenians to build more ships of war. The people at last came to believe him. Rich Athenians gave him money, and the people voted that the silver which was dug every year from the silver mines owned by the city should be used to pay for building ships of war. And thus by the time Xerxes began his march Athens had a fleet of two hundred ships of war. These vessels were gigantic rowboats, each having as many as a hundred and fifty oars. Each had also a mast with a single big sail, which was hoisted to help the rowers.

The capture of Thermopylae had given the Persians an open road to Athens, and so the women and children of the city and the men who were too old to fight had been sent away in merchant ships to places of safety. A few men stayed in Athens and defended the citadel, as you learned in the last chapter. The rest went out in the war ships with Themistocles to fight behind the "wooden wall."


T HEMISTOCLES and the commanders of the fleets of the other Greek states took their vessels into the narrow strait of Salamis, which lay between the island of Salamis and the shore of Attica. Here the Persians followed them.

Themistocles now wished the Greeks to give battle to the Persians, but the Spartan commander and the other Greek leaders were unwilling to risk a battle in the narrow strait. They proposed to retreat. Themistocles was determined, however, that a battle should be fought in the strait; so he sent word secretly to Xerxes that the Greek ships were going to try to get away and advised him to head them off. Xerxes was delighted to get this message, and during the night he sent a part of his fleet up the shore of Attica to the other end of the strait, so as to hem the Greek fleet in between two lines of Persian ships. Next morning the Greek leaders all saw that there was nothing to do but fight, and at once their ships were drawn up in line of battle.

Xerxes' throne had been placed on a high cliff on the shore of Attica, so that he might look down upon the battle. When the sun rose he took his seat upon the throne. He was clothed in his royal robes and surrounded by the princes of his court. Below him were a thousand Persian war vessels, while close to the shore of the island lay three hundred and seventy-eight Greek vessels. It seemed an easy victory for the Persians. The Greeks rowed forward from the shore of Salamis, shouting the cry, "We fight for all." The Persians replied with their war cry, and the battle began. For a time the Persians had the advantage. But their ships were in the way of one another; those in the front could not go back, those in the rear could not come forward. The confusion became terrible. Ship after ship of the Persians sank, some of them rammed by the Greeks, others run down by their own allies. In all two hundred Persian vessels were destroyed and a great number captured, while the Greeks lost only forty.


Xerxes Watching the Battle of Salamis

When Xerxes saw his thousand vessels sunk or captured or rowing away in flight, he determined to go back to Persia.

He at once returned to northern Greece, where he left 300,000 men in command of his brother-in-law, Mardonius. With the rest of his army he marched on to the Hellespont.

Here he found that storms had destroyed his bridges, so that what was left of his army was carried across to the shore of Asia Minor in ships.


E VERYBODY in Greece now admitted that Themistocles had been right in his explanation of the oracle that the "wooden wall" would save the people. And "Salamis," as the oracle had said, "destroyed the sons of women"; but they were chiefly the sons of Persian, not Grecian women.


The Victors of Salamis

The battle of Salamis brought fresh glory to Themistocles. After some years, however, he became unpopular and was banished from Athens. He stayed at Argos. Then the Spartans, who were his enemies, accused him of treason against Greece. Fearing that he could not get a fair trial at Athens he fled to Persia.

The Persian king gave him three cities to support him, and in one of these he lived until his death in 453 B.C.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Leonidas at Thermopylæ  |  Next: Aristides the Just
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.