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Jacob Abbott

The Burning of Athens

W hen the officers of the Persian fleet had satisfied themselves with examining the battle-field at Thermopylæ, and had heard the narrations given by the soldiers of the terrible combats that had been fought with the desperate garrison which had been stationed to defend the pass, they went back to their vessels, and prepared to make sail to the southward, in pursuit of the Greek fleet. The Greek fleet had gone to Salamis. The Persians in due time overtook them there, and a great naval conflict occurred, which is known in history as the battle of Salamis, and was one of the most celebrated naval battles of ancient times. An account of this battle will form the subject of the next chapter. In this we are to follow the operations of the army on the land.

As the Pass of Thermopylæ was now in Xerxes's possession, the way was open before him to all that portion of the great territory which lay north of the Peloponnesus. Of course, before he could enter the peninsula itself, he must pass the Isthmus of Corinth, where he might, perhaps, encounter some concentrated resistance. North of the isthmus, however, there was no place where the Greeks could make a stand. The country was all open, or, rather, there were a thousand ways open through the various valleys and glens, and along the banks of the rivers. All that was necessary was to procure guides and proceed.

The Thessalians were very ready to furnish guides. They had submitted to Xerxes before the battle of Thermopylæ, and they considered themselves, accordingly, as his allies. They had, besides, a special interest in conducting the Persian army, on account of the hostile feelings which they entertained toward the people immediately south of the pass, into whose territories Xerxes would first carry his ravages. This people were the Phocæans. Their country, as has already been stated, was separated from Thessaly by impassable mountains, except where the Straits of Thermopylæ opened a passage; and through this pass both nations had been continually making hostile incursions into the territory of the other for many years before the Persian invasion. The Thessalians had surrendered readily to the summons of Xerxes, while the Phocæans had determined to resist him, and adhere to the cause of the Greeks in the struggle. They were suspected of having been influenced, in a great measure, in their determination to resist, by the fact that the Thessalians had decided to surrender. They were resolved that they would not, on any account, be upon the same side with their ancient and inveterate foes.

The hostility of the Thessalians to the Phocæans was equally implacable. At the last incursion which they had made into the Phocæan territory, they had been defeated by means of stratagems in a manner which tended greatly to vex and irritate them. There were two of these stratagems, which were both completely successful, and both of a very extraordinary character.

The first was this. The Thessalians were in the Phocæan country in great force, and the Phocæans had found themselves utterly unable to expel them. Under these circumstances, a body of the Phocæans, six hundred in number, one day whitened their faces, their arms and hands, their clothes, and all their weapons, with chalk, and then, at the dead of night—perhaps, however, when the moon was shining—made an onset upon the camp of the enemy. The Thessalian sentinels were terrified and ran away, and the soldiers, awakened from their slumbers by these unearthly-looking troops, screamed with fright, and fled in all directions, in utter confusion and dismay. A night attack is usually a dangerous attempt, even if the assaulting party is the strongest, as, in the darkness and confusion which then prevail, the assailants can not ordinarily distinguish friends from foes, and so are in great danger, amid the tumult and obscurity, of slaying one another. That difficulty was obviated in this case by the strange disguise which the Phocæans had assumed. They knew that all were Thessalians who were not whitened like themselves. The Thessalians were totally discomfited and dispersed by this encounter.

The other stratagem was of a different character, and was directed against a troop of cavalry. The Thessalian cavalry were renowned throughout the world. The broad plains extending through the heart of their country contained excellent fields for training and exercising such troops, and the mountains which surrounded it furnished grassy slopes and verdant valleys, that supplied excellent pasturage for the rearing of horses. The nation was very strong, therefore, in this species of force, and many of the states and kingdoms of Greece, when planning their means of internal defense, and potentates and conquerors, when going forth on great campaigns, often considered their armies incomplete unless there was included in them a corps of Thessalian cavalry.

A troop of this cavalry had invaded Phocis, and the Phocæans, conscious of their inability to resist them in open war, contrived to entrap them in the following manner. They dug a long trench in the ground, and then putting in baskets or casks sufficient nearly to fill the space, they spread over the top a thin layer of soil. They then concealed all indications that the ground had been disturbed, by spreading leaves over the surface. The trap being thus prepared, they contrived to entice the Thessalians to the spot by a series of retreats, and at length led them into the pitfall thus provided for them. The substructure of casks was strong enough to sustain the Phocæans, who went over it as footmen, but was too fragile to bear the weight of the mounted troops. The horses broke through, and the squadron was thrown into such confusion by so unexpected a disaster, that, when the Phocæans turned and fell upon them, they were easily overcome.

These things had irritated and vexed the Thessalians very much. They were eager for revenge, and they were very ready to guide the armies of Xerxes into the country of their enemies in order to obtain it.

The troops advanced accordingly, awakening every where, as they came on, the greatest consternation and terror among the inhabitants, and producing on all sides scenes of indescribable anguish and suffering. They came into the valley of the Cephisus, a beautiful river flowing through a delightful and fertile region, which contained many cities and towns, and was filled every where with an industrious rural population. Through this scene of peace, and happiness, and plenty, the vast horde of invaders swept on with the destructive force of a tornado. They plundered the towns of every thing which could be carried away, and destroyed what they were compelled to leave behind them. There is a catalogue of twelve cities in this valley which they burned. The inhabitants, too, were treated with the utmost cruelty. Some were seized, and compelled to follow the army as slaves; others were slain; and others still were subjected to nameless cruelties and atrocities, worse sometimes than death. Many of the women, both mothers and maidens, died in consequence of the brutal violence with which the soldiers treated them.

The most remarkable of the transactions connected with Xerxes's advance through the country of Phocis, on his way to Athens, were those connected with his attack upon Delphi. Delphi was a sacred town, the seat of the oracle. It was in the vicinity of Mount Parnassus and of the Castalian spring, places of very great renown in the Greek mythology.

Parnassus was the name of a short mountainous range rather than of a single peak, though the loftiest summit of the range was called Parnassus too. This summit is found, by modern measurement, to be about eight thousand feet high, and it is covered with snow nearly all the year. When bare it consists only of a desolate range of rocks, with mosses and a few Alpine plants growing on the sheltered and sunny sides of them. From the top of Parnassus travelers who now visit it look down upon almost all of Greece as upon a map. The Gulf of Corinth is a silver lake at their feet, and the plains of Thessaly are seen extending far and wide to the northward, with Olympus, Pelion, and Ossa, blue and distant peaks, bounding the view.

Parnassus has, in fact, a double summit, between the peaks of which a sort of ravine commences, which, as it extends down the mountain, becomes a beautiful valley, shaded with rows of trees, and adorned with slopes of verdure and banks of flowers. In a glen connected with this valley there is a fountain of water springing copiously from among the rocks, in a grove of laurels. This fountain gives rise to a stream, which, after bounding over the rocks, and meandering between mossy banks for a long distance down the mountain glens, becomes a quiet lowland stream, and flows gently through a fertile and undulating country to the sea. This fountain was the famous Castalian spring. It was, as the ancient Greek legends said, the favorite resort and residence of Apollo and the Muses, and its waters became, accordingly, the symbol and the emblem of poetical inspiration.

The city of Delphi was built upon the lower declivities of the Parnassian ranges, and yet high above the surrounding country. It was built in the form of an amphitheater, in a sort of lap  in the hill where it stood, with steep precipices descending to a great depth on either side. It was thus a position of difficult access, and was considered almost impregnable in respect to its military strength. Besides its natural defenses, it was considered as under the special protection of Apollo.

Delphi was celebrated throughout the world, in ancient times, not only for the oracle itself, but for the magnificence of the architectural structures, the boundless profusion of the works of art, and the immense value of the treasures which, in process of time, had been accumulated there. The various powers and potentates that had resorted to it to obtain the responses of the oracle, had brought rich presents, or made costly contributions in some way, to the service of the shrine. Some had built temples, others had constructed porches or colonnades. Some had adorned the streets of the city with architectural embellishments; others had caused statues to be erected; and others had made splendid donations of vessels of gold and silver, until at length the wealth and magnificence of Delphi was the wonder of the world. All nations resorted to it, some to see its splendors, and others to obtain the counsel and direction of the oracle in emergencies of difficulty or danger.

In the time of Xerxes, Delphi had been for several hundred years in the enjoyment of its fame as a place of divine inspiration. It was said to have been originally discovered in the following manner. Some herdsmen on the mountains, watching their flocks, observed one day a number of goats performing very strange and unaccountable antics among some crevices in the rocks, and, going to the place, they found that a mysterious wind was issuing from the crevices, which produced an extraordinary exhilaration on all who breathed it. Every thing extraordinary was thought, in those days, to be supernatural and divine, and the fame of this discovery was spread every where, the people supposing that the effect produced upon the men and animals by breathing the mysterious air was a divine inspiration. A temple was built over the spot, priests and priestesses were installed, a city began to rise, and in process of time Delphi became the most celebrated oracle in the world; and as the vast treasures which had been accumulated there consisted mainly of gifts and offerings consecrated to a divine and sacred service, they were all understood to be under divine protection. They were defended, it is true, in part by the inaccessibleness of the position of Delphi, and by the artificial fortifications which had been added from time to time to increase the security, but still more by the feeling which every where prevailed, that any violence offered to such a shrine would be punished by the gods as sacrilege. The account of the manner in which Xerxes was repulsed, as related by the ancient historians, is somewhat marvelous. We, however, in this case, as in all others, transmit the story to our readers as the ancient historians give it to us.

The main body of the army pursued its way directly southward toward the city of Athens, which was now the great object at which Xerxes aimed. A large detachment, however, separating from the main body, moved more to the westward, toward Delphi. Their plan was to plunder the temples and the city, and send the treasures to the king. The Delphians, on hearing this, were seized with consternation. They made application themselves to the oracle, to know what they were to do in respect to the sacred treasures. They could not defend them, they said, against such a host, and they inquired whether they should bury them in the earth, or attempt to remove them to some distant place of safety.

The oracle replied that they were to do nothing at all in respect to the sacred treasures. The divinity, it said, was able to protect what was its own. They, on their part, had only to provide for themselves, their wives, and their children.

On hearing this response, the people dismissed all care in respect to the treasures of the temple and of the shrine, and made arrangements for removing their families and their own effects to some place of safety toward the southward. The military force of the city and a small number of the inhabitants alone remained.

When the Persians began to draw near, a prodigy occurred in the temple, which seemed intended to warn the profane invaders away. It seems that there was a suit of arms, of a costly character doubtless, and highly decorated with gold and gems—the present, probably, of some Grecian state or king—which were hung in an inner and sacred apartment of the temple, and which it was sacrilegious for any human hand to touch. These arms were found, on the day when the Persians were approaching, removed to the outward front of the temple. The priest who first observed them was struck with amazement and awe. He spread the intelligence among the soldiers and the people that remained, and the circumstance awakened in them great animation and courage.

Nor were the hopes of divine interposition which this wonder awakened disappointed in the end; for, as soon as the detachment of Persians came near the hill on which Delphi was situated, loud thunder burst from the sky, and a bolt, descending upon the precipices near the town, detached two enormous masses of rock, which rolled down upon the ranks of the invaders. The Delphian soldiers, taking advantage of the scene of panic and confusion which this awful visitation produced, rushed down upon their enemies and completed their discomfiture. They were led on and assisted in this attack by the spirits of two ancient heroes, who had been natives of the country, and to whom two of the temples of Delphi had been consecrated. These spirits appeared in the form of tall and full-armed warriors, who led the attack, and performed prodigies of strength and valor in the onset upon the Persians; and then, when the battle was over, disappeared as mysteriously as they came.

In the mean time the great body of the army of Xerxes, with the monarch at their head, was advancing on Athens. During his advance the city had been in a continual state of panic and confusion. In the first place, when the Greek fleet had concluded to give up the contest in the Artemisian Channel, before the battle of Thermopylæ, and had passed around to Salamis, the commanders in the city of Athens had given up the hope of making any effectual defense, and had given orders that the inhabitants should save themselves by seeking a refuge wherever they could find it. This annunciation, of course, filled the city with dismay, and the preparations for a general flight opened every where scenes of terror and distress, of which those who have never witnessed the evacuation of a city by its inhabitants can scarcely conceive.

The immediate object of the general terror was, at this time, the Persian fleet; for the Greek fleet, having determined to abandon the waters on that side of Attica, left the whole coast exposed, and the Persians might be expected at any hour to make a landing within a few miles of the city. Scarcely, however, had the impending of this danger been made known to the city, before the tidings of one still more imminent reached it, in the news that the Pass of Thermopylæ had been carried, and that, in addition to the peril with which the Athenians were threatened by the fleet on the side of the sea, the whole Persian army was coming down upon them by land. This fresh alarm greatly increased, of course, the general consternation. All the roads leading from the city toward the south and west were soon covered with parties of wretched fugitives, exhibiting as they pressed forward, weary and wayworn, on their toilsome and almost hopeless flight, every possible phase of misery, destitution, and despair. The army fell back to the isthmus, intending to make a stand, if possible, there, to defend the Peloponnesus. The fugitives made the best of their way to the sea-coast, where they were received on board transport ships sent thither from the fleet, and conveyed, some to Ægina, some to Salamis, and others to other points on the coasts and islands to the south, wherever the terrified exiles thought there was the best prospect of safety.

Some, however, remained at Athens. There was a part of the population who believed that the phrase "wooden walls," used by the oracle, referred, not to the ships of the fleet, but to the wooden palisade around the citadel. They accordingly repaired and strengthened the palisade, and established themselves in the fortress with a small garrison which undertook to defend it.

The citadel of Athens, or the Acropolis, as it was called, was the richest, and most splendid, and magnificent fortress in the world. It was built upon an oblong rocky hill, the sides of which were perpendicular cliffs, except at one end, where alone the summit was accessible. This summit presented an area of an oval form, about a thousand feet in length and five hundred broad, thus containing a space of about ten acres. This area upon the summit, and also the approaches at the western end, were covered with the most grand, imposing, and costly architectural structures that then existed in the whole European world. There were temples, colonnades, gateways, stairways, porticoes, towers, and walls, which, viewed as a whole, presented a most magnificent spectacle, that excited universal admiration, and which, when examined in detail, awakened a greater degree of wonder still by the costliness of the materials, the beauty and perfection of the workmanship, and the richness and profusion of the decorations, which were seen on every hand. The number and variety of statues of bronze and of marble which had been erected in the various temples and upon the different platforms were very great. There was one, a statue of Minerva, which was executed by Phidias, the great Athenian sculptor, after the celebrated battle of Marathon, in the days of Darius, which, with its pedestal, was sixty feet high. It stood on the left of the grand entrance, towering above the buildings in full view from the country below, and leaning upon its long spear like a colossal sentinel on guard. In the distance, on the right, from the same point of view, the great temple called the Parthenon was to be seen, a temple which was, in some respects, the most celebrated in the world. The ruins of these edifices remain to the present day, standing in desolate and solitary grandeur on the rocky hill which they once so richly adorned.

When Xerxes arrived at Athens, he found, of course, no difficulty in obtaining possession of the city itself, since it had been deserted by its inhabitants, and left defenseless. The people that remained had all crowded into the citadel. They had built the wooden palisade across the only approach by which it was possible to get near the gates, and they had collected large stones on the tops of the rocks, to roll down upon their assailants if they should attempt to ascend.


The Citadel at Athens.

Xerxes, after ravaging and burning the town, took up a position upon a hill opposite to the citadel, and there he had engines constructed to throw enormous arrows, on which tow that had been dipped in pitch was wound. This combustible envelopment of the arrows was set on fire before the weapon was discharged, and a shower of the burning missiles thus formed was directed toward the palisade. The wooden walls were soon set on fire by them, and totally consumed. The access to the Acropolis was, however, still difficult, being by a steep acclivity, up which it was very dangerous to ascend so long as the besiegers were ready to roll down rocks upon their assailants from above.

At last, however, after a long conflict and much slaughter, Xerxes succeeded in forcing his way into the citadel. Some of his troops contrived to find a path by which they could climb up to the walls. Here, after a desperate combat with those who were stationed to guard the place, they succeeded in gaining admission, and then opened the gates to their comrades below. The Persian soldiers, exasperated with the resistance which they had encountered, slew the soldiers of the garrison, perpetrated every imaginable violence on the wretched inhabitants who had fled there for shelter, and then plundered the citadel and set it on fire.

The heart of Xerxes was filled with exultation and joy as he thus arrived at the attainment of what had been the chief and prominent object of his campaign. To plunder and destroy the city of Athens had been the great pleasure that he had promised himself in all the mighty preparations that he had made. This result was now realized, and he dispatched a special messenger immediately to Susa with the triumphant tidings.