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Alfred J. Church

The Wooden Walls

N OTHING strikes us more painfully as we read the history of Greece than the incessant feuds which were carried on by neighbouring cities, worshipping the same gods, speaking substantially the same tongue, and so closely akin in race that their strife was little less monstrous than civil war. It sounds, therefore, something like a paradox when a Greek historian, writing of one of these miserable conflicts, declares, "this war was the saving of Greece." For all that the statement is strictly true.


Athena Parthenos.
The Varvakeion Statuette.

Athens and Ægina, separated from each other by some fifteen miles of sea, had been at feud almost from time immemorial. Commercial jealousy, and the petty causes of offence which are sure to occur between neighbours, are sufficient to account for this enmity, but legend had preserved or invented some special way of explaining it.

It is needless to follow the course of the war. It will suffice to say that Athens, though probably the stronger state, had not been able to gain any substantial advantage over its adversary. It was the genius of Themistocles, who seems to have had a singular capacity for discerning the real bearing of events, and to have foreseen the future with an almost prophetic instinct, that suggested the means by which the war was to be brought to a successful end, and at the same time to become, as the historian remarks, the salvation of Greece.

To put the matter briefly, Themistocles persuaded his countrymen to bend all their energies to the work of making Athens a great naval power. It is not difficult to believe that he looked beyond the immediate occasion. An enemy far more formidable than Ægina threatened his native country. Persia he knew, was bound to avenge the insults which it had received, and to retrieve its defeats. It was making gigantic preparations for this object, and the only hope of safety for Athens was to obtain command of the sea. This secured, the Athenian people might survive, even though their city, which was then, it will be remembered, unprotected by walls, might fall into the hands of the invader. Fortunately the means for constructing a powerful fleet were ready to his hand. The city possessed in the silver mines of Laurium a source of revenue which might be easily employed for this purpose. The proceeds of the mines had been frittered away in yearly doles to the citizens. Themistocles persuaded his countrymen, to devote the whole, a sum amounting to about 12,000 ) ?> to the building of a fleet. The immediate result was a speedy victory over Ægina; the remoter gain was the salvation of Greece.

Circumstances had combined to give a long respite to the Greeks. Nearly ten years had passed since the day of Marathon, and the storm of Persian vengeance had not yet broken. Darius had been called away when his preparations were almost complete, by the revolt of Egypt; and his death had followed, at a very short interval, the reduction of Egypt. But his son and successor had no idea of abandoning the scheme. Indeed, he was collecting from every part of his vast Empire a force so vast that the mere report of it would suffice, he thought, to banish all idea of resistance. This enormous host, gathered from every tribe between the Indus and the Bosphorus, was already on its march westward. In the Greek cities there was no unity of purpose. Some openly declared their intention to submit to the barbarians; others, with a selfishness only equalled by their folly, dreamt of saving their strength for the defence of their own walls. It was only a minority that had any idea of a combined resistance of the common foe, and even in these there was a feeling of terror which approached almost to despair.


General View, Showing the Phaedriddes Rocks and the Ravine of Castalia.

The Athenians, feeling that they would be the first objects of attack, asked the Delphian oracle what they should do. Apollo's answer was by no means encouraging. The envoys had scarcely taken their seats within the precinct when the priestess broke forth into a strain of awful warning.

"Unhappy men why do ye tarry?

Fly, fly to the borders of earth.

From where round your towering stronghold

lies wheel-like the town of your birth!

For the head and the body are sick,

and the feet are all weary and spent,

And their cunning is gone from the hands,

and the loins are all feeble and bent.

They are perished already, so fiercely

the flame runneth on to destroy,

While, driving his Syrian chariot,

the terrible Master, whose joy

Is in battle and death, cometh nearer.

Nor think these will suffer alone;

Full many a wall shall be levelled;

not a stone shall be left on a stone!

And the flame that devours shall encircle

full many a high-pillared fane;

Alas! for their dwellers immortal,

who tremble and sweat in the pain

Of the mastering dread that is on them,

for even to-day do they see

The blood dripping down from the roof-tops,

dread token of doom that shall be;

Go and harden thy heart to the trouble

that comes, is my counsel to thee!"

The terror inspired by these words in the hearts of the envoys was indescribable. Then came a suggestion of comfort. One of the most notable citizens of Delphi counselled them not to be content with so hopeless an answer. Let them, he said, approach the god again, not as enquirers, but as suppliants, and see whether they could not wring from him some more encouraging reply.

It was commonly said that the Delphian god "medized," i.e. took the Persian side in the great struggle of Greece for freedom. And it is beyond doubt that the council of priests which dictated the answers of the oracle shared the common belief that the Persian arms were irresistible. Their great object was to secure the reputation of their god as a predicter of the truth, and they put into his mouth a forecast that seemed to them almost certainly true. At the same time they were not inaccessible to other influences, and these, we may be sure, Themistocles did not fail to use. So far the oracle had said exactly what he wished. Men reduced to despair, as they had been, would listen eagerly to any suggestion of hope, and this was now given them, and exactly in the direction in which the great statesman had been working for years. Bearing the tokens of supplication in their hands the envoys entered the shrine again: "Lord Apollo," they said, "have regard to these tokens, and give us some better answer about our fatherland; verily we will not depart otherwise from thy temple, but will stay here till we die." Thereupon the priestess delivered a second oracle. "Pallas," she said, "had vainly endeavoured to sway the heart of Zeus and save her city; but she had wrung from him one thing.

"When all things else shall perish

that are found in King Cecrops' land,

Then alone unhurt of the foeman

the walls that are wooden shall stand,

The safety of thee and thy children.

But do not thou think to abide

The host of the footmen and horsemen

as it pours like an incoming tide

Over the land of thy birth, but depart;

yet know that there cometh a day

When those from whom thou art flying

thou shalt meet in the battle array,

And Salamis, Island Divine,

many children of women shall slay."

Here certainly we can see the hand of Themistocles. The whole scheme of his policy is wrapped up in these words. The Athenians were to relinquish all idea of resisting the Persian advance by land; they were to abandon their city—what an audacious proposal, one thinks, for a statesman to make to his countrymen!—they were to trust to their ships, and to make their stand on the very place which the extraordinary genius of the man had discerned as the most favourable place for it.

Something, indeed, still remained to be done. The oracle had been obtained; it had now to be interpreted in the sense which Themistocles desired. There were some who maintained that the "wooden walls" was the ancient palisading that surrounded the Acropolis or citadel of Athens, and thus it was in the Acropolis that the last stand was to be made. When this opinion was overruled, there remained what seemed a gloomy prognostic how "Salamis should slay many sons of women." Might not this be a prophecy that Athens, risking her all upon her ships, should suffer defeat? At this point Themistocles himself intervened. "Not so," he suggested, "if the god had meant to prophesy disaster he would not have spoken of Salamis as 'divine' but 'wretched' or 'unhappy.'" The argument was convincing; and the plan of action was determined upon. The Athenians were to concentrate their whole fighting force in their fleet; they were to make their stand behind their "wooden walls."

The earlier events which followed the arrival of the Persian host may be very briefly summarized. The first line of defence was forced. The army that garrisoned the pass of Thermopylæ was compelled to retreat, leaving behind to a glorious death the famous Three Hundred from Sparta, and another Seven Hundred from the Bœotian Thespiæ, less famous but not less noble. The fleet at Artemisium in Eubœa, which had been intend to arrest the southward advance of the Persian ships, after winning two victories at considerable cost, had also fallen back. Themistocles, who was in command of the Athenian contingent, which numbered one hundred and eighty ships out of a total of about three hundred and seventy, induced the Greeks to make a halt at Salamis. It was a request which could not be refused, for the Athenians had resolved to abandon their city and absolutely wanted the squadron for the removal of the non-combatants and of so much of their property as it was possible to save. But the difficulty was to keep the fleet there. The contingents from the Peloponnesus—and a Peloponnesian, the Spartan Eurybiades, was in supreme command—were selfishly bent on defending their own country. A wall was being built across the Isthmus with all possible speed; this, it was hoped, would stop the Persian advance by land; how the hostile fleet was to be dealt with they do not appear to have considered. Themistocles, on the other hand, felt that their departure would be the ruin of Greece. The fleet would inevitably break up, each squadron hurrying home to the defence of its own coast. Accordingly, he spared no efforts to prevent a step so disastrous. When other arguments failed, he had to recourse to a threat. "Stay here," he said to the Spartan admiral, "and you will be playing the part of a brave man, and will save Greece. But if you are determined to go, then know what we shall do. We will put our families on board, and go just as we are to Siris in Italy; that place is ours, and it has been prophesied that some day we shall colonize it. As for you, you will find out before long what it means to have lost such allies as we are."

Eurybiades could not resist this argument. He was perfectly aware that without the Athenians the Greek fleet was helpless, and he gave the order to remain. This was received with apparent obedience, but the discontent among the Peloponnesian allies was great. And when the danger drew nearer, when the army of the Persians was known to be marching towards the Isthmus, where the wall was scarcely finished, their fear got beyond all control. Another council of the admirals was held; a fierce debate followed, but it was evident to the Athenian commander that the vote would be against him, and that Salamis would be abandoned.

The peril was imminent. The safety of Greece and his own personal fortunes—which for all his patriotism he never forgot—were at stake. Under these circumstances he took a desperate resolution, venturing on an act which only success, and scarcely success itself, could justify. He sent to the Persian king by a trusted slave of his own, Sicinnus by name, a message which was to have the effect of compelling the Greeks to remain where they were. It ran thus: "The Athenian commander sends you this without the knowledge of his allies. He wishes you well, and would gladly see you victorious rather than his countrymen. Know, therefore, that they are overpowered by fear and are meditating flight. You can therefore now accomplish the best work that you ever did, if you will hinder their escape."

Xerxes, apparently without any suspicion that this advice was not sincere, acted on the suggestion, and, moving the western wing of his fleet, cut off the retreat of the Greeks.

Themistocles first heard of the success of his advice from a political enemy. Aristides, the leader of the aristocratic party at Athens, had been banished at the instance of his great rival. But this was a time when all such feuds are forgotten. Aristides came to the Spartan admiral's ship, where the council was being held, and standing outside called for Themistocles, who at once came out to speak to him. "It matters not," said the new-comer, "whether there be much talk or little about the departure of the Peloponnesians from this place. Depart they cannot, however much they may wish it. The Persians enclose us on every side. This I have seen with my own eyes. Go and tell the news to the council."

"You bring good news," replied Themistocles. "But you must know that this is of my devising. Our allies would not fight here of their own free will, and it was necessary to make them do so, whether they would or no. Do you now go in and tell them. You they will believe, while they will think that I am telling them a feigned tale."

Aristides accordingly entered the council. "I have come," he said, "from Ægina, having with difficulty escaped the blockading ships. You are entirely enclosed by the enemy. Make ready therefore to fight."

Many of the captains still doubted, when a new arrival put the matter beyond all question. A Tenian ship—Tenos was a little island in the Ægean—which had deserted from the Persians, came with full intelligence. The Greeks had to make a virtue of necessity, and prepared for battle.

At dawn of day Themistocles—the Athenian gift of oratory was even then, it would seem, acknowledged—addressed the assembled men-at-arms from the fleet. These were soldiers who served on board the ships, fulfilling much the same functions as our marines. Plutarch tells us that there were eighteen in each ship, so that the total number would amount to something less than seven thousand.

The speech finished, the men-at-arms embarked again, and the fleet put out from land. The Persian ships advanced to engage it, and with an aspect so formidable, it would seem, that the Greeks began to back water. They had almost touched the land, when some captain, with more presence of mind than his companions, set a bolder example. Who this was was much debated in after days. Some gave the credi to Ameinias an Athenian, and, according to Plutarch, a brother of the poet Æschylus. The Æginetans claimed it for themselves. The ship that fetched those supernatural allies, the heroes of the house of Æacus, was the first, they said, to show a courage worthy of this mission. Among the other Greeks a legend grew up that the figure of a woman was seen to hover in the air, crying in a voice that was heard from end to end of the fleet: "How long, ye foolish ones, are ye going to back water?"

The details of the battle that history has preserved are not particularly clear; but it is beyond doubt that the Athenians contributed far more than their allies to the victory. They were matched against the most formidable part of the Persian fleet—at least as far is nautical skill was concerned—the Phœnician ships, and inflicted on them a heavy loss. Next to them, (in the judgment of some, above them) ranked the men of Ægina. And, indeed, considering the smallness of the Æginetan squadron—only thirty ships—it did more conspicuous service. They were especially active in cutting off the ships that attempted to escape from the battle. Probably they could boast a greater number of captives than any of the allies. Herodotus bears express testimony to the good order of the two squadrons, old enemies, it will be remembered, who had gained their knowledge through many bitter years of mutual loss, and now turned it against the common foe. These, we learn from the same source, did not yield without a struggle. "The Persians," he says, "surpassed themselves." They were fighting under the eye of the King himself, whose throne had been set up on a hill on the mainland, that immediately overlooked the scene of action, and whose scribes noted down for reward or punishment the names of the captains who seemed to be doing conspicuously well or ill. None in the Persian fleet did better than the Greeks from the maritime cities of Asia Minor and the islands that had submitted to the king. They were opposed to the Peloponnesian contingent and did them much damage. A ship from Samothrace is specially mentioned for the success with which it was managed. It had sunk an Athenian vessel, and was in its turn attacked and crippled by an Æginetan. But its crew who happened to be particularly expert in the use of the javelin, cleared the deck of the assailant, and then boarded and captured it. Xerxes was particlarly struck with this deed, and conceived from it very high opinion of the skill, the valour, and the fidelity of his Greek subjects. A less creditable exploit performed by Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city which had fallen under Carian sway also attracted his favourable notice. She was being closely pursued by an Athenian trireme. Not seeing any hope of escape, she ordered her ship to be steered against another Carian vessel, fighting like herself on the Persian side. This she sent to the bottom with all on board. The Athenian pursuer, making sure that he had been chasing either one of his own side, or a deserter from the Persians, abandoned the pursuit, and the Queen was able to get clear away from the battle. Xerxes saw what was done, and enquired the name of the successful combatant. His attendants were sure that the victorious ship was Artemisia's, for they recognized her ensign, but it occurred to none to doubt that her antagonist was a Greek. "My men bear themselves like women, my women like men," was the king's comment.

Whatever successes may have been won by individual ships in the Persian fleet, the result on the whole was a disastrous defeat. As a fleet it had almost ceased to exist. The loss in ships and men was enormous, all the greater because very few of the crews were able to swim. The victory was completed by the destruction of the force which had been landed on the little island of Psittaleia, lying between Salamis and the coast of Athens. It had been intended that these troops should help any of their own men and kill any of the Greeks who might drift thither in disabled ships. Aristides landed some heavy-armed Athenian troops on the island, and slew its occupants to a man. None of the disasters of the day affected Xerxes more profoundly. Many Persian nobles, among them three nephews of his own, perished at that fatal spot.

Athens had saved herself and Greece by her "wooden walls."