Ancient History & Civilisation


The Wooden Wall [481-480 B.C.]

These are the right questions to ask, in winter around the fire,

As we sit at ease over our wine: Who are you, friend? What is your land?

And how old were you when the Persians came?


THE ATHENIANS LOVED TO TELL HOW KING DARIUS OF PERSIA had reacted when he learned that they had helped burn Sardis. He called for his bow, fitted a shaft to the string, and shot an arrow high into the air. In this nation of archers, it was a ritual action to seal an oath. While the arrow was in flight, Darius swore that he would one day avenge the attack on his empire. Turning to the royal cupbearer, he commanded him to repeat every day the words “Master, remember the Athenians.” When Themistocles made his proposal to build a fleet, Darius was already dead. His son Xerxes inherited both the throne and the oath of vengeance.

The Athenians had been building ships for three years when Xerxes launched his attack. At thirty-eight he already ruled an empire that stretched from the Sahara Desert to the Caspian Sea, and from the Balkans to the Hindu Kush. At the corners of his realm ran the four great rivers of the known world: the Nile, the Danube, the Oxus, and the Indus. Through its heart ran the Tigris and Euphrates, rivers that had nurtured kingdoms and empires for centuries. The new king saw more in his expedition to the west than pious fulfillment of a vow. When the Athenians burned the temple of the Mother Goddess at Sardis, they provided the Great King with a justification for a holy war. The punishment of Athens would inevitably lead to the conquest of the other Greeks and then Europe all the way to the Atlantic. Great empires must grow, and Xerxes had inherited an empire at its zenith.

The Persians believed that God, or in their case the all-powerful deity Ahura Mazda, fought on the side of the big battalions. Having first dealt with rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia, Xerxes levied troops from all parts of his empire for the invasion of Greece. The resulting horde was so elephantine that it took six months to make its way from the capital at Susa to the coast of the Aegean Sea. The king’s relays of mounted couriers took only thirteen days to cover the same sixteen hundred miles. The motto of these riders was remembered through the ages: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor dark of night keeps these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed course.”

Like his mail carriers Xerxes was inexorable, but at a walking pace. The royal field pavilion, which had to be pitched anew at every night’s stopping place and struck every morning, was the size of a concert hall. Magi carrying portable fire altars marched beside the king’s chariot. To keep his brothers and other kinsmen out of trouble at home, Xerxes brought them along with him. His own attendants, including concubines, cooks, pastry chefs, musicians, bath attendants, astrologers, keepers of the wardrobe, and baggage handlers were an army in themselves. Close to Xerxes were the two royal intelligence officers known as the Great King’s Eye and Ear. Important Greek exiles also accompanied the king: these turncoats would guide the army’s course after it entered Europe and looked forward to ruling their native lands on Xerxes’ behalf once the Persians restored them to power. From Sparta came a banished king named Demaratus; from Athens, sons of the old tyrant Hippias. After spending half a year on the Royal Road, the grand army settled down in Sardis to pass the cold and rainy winter months. Poised at the eastern edge of the Greek world, the Persians would launch their invasion at the beginning of spring.

Even before then Xerxes intended to dazzle his puny antagonists with two amazing feats. The first would allow his army to walk into Europe. His corps of engineers spanned the Hellespont with a pair of pontoon bridges, connecting Asia to Europe with gigantic cables of papyrus and esparto grass. The hulls of more than six hundred galleys would be anchored


in the stream to carry the two roadbeds. The second marvel would enable the triremes of Xerxes’ fleet to cut through dry land. For almost three years other royal engineers had been directing huge gangs of workmen as they dug a canal through the peninsula at Mount Athos. By entering Greek waters through this canal, the armada would bypass the dangerous cape where stormy winds once wrecked Darius’ fleet.

With these two superhuman achievements Xerxes hoped to shock and awe his enemies into submission. From his winter quarters the Great King sent heralds to the Greeks in his path, demanding earth and water. This symbolic offering showed that the people had yielded their land to the king. When the heralds finally returned, months later, it was clear that the war of nerves had been well worth the trouble and expense. All the cities and peoples north of the pass at Thermopylae capitulated. Only a few in central and southern Greece refused. They would join the Spartans and Athenians in the fight for freedom, regardless of the odds.

By the time Xerxes and his army appeared in Asia Minor, the Greeks had at last begun to take united action. The Spartans, traditional leaders and arbiters of Hellenic affairs, called a council at the Isthmus of Corinth. All the cities who meant to resist the Persians sent representatives. The council met beneath the tall pine trees in the sanctuary of Poseidon, god of the sea and lord of horses. That autumn, with the Great King sitting in state at Sardis and his canal and bridges nearing completion, the newly convened council decided to send three spies across the Aegean to ascertain the size of the enemy forces. It turned out to be an unexpectedly dangerous mission. While collecting information in the Persian camp, the three spies were apprehended, tortured, and sentenced to death. Xerxes himself, however, gave the order to spare their lives. He was delighted with this chance to provide the Greeks with up-to-date, eyewitness accounts of his army. The spies were freed, given a tour of the entire camp, and then sent back to the Isthmus. Their report was a shock to all.

In attempting to estimate the size of the Persian forces, the Greeks were dealing with numbers beyond their ability to count or comprehend. In the end they put the number of fighting men at somewhere between one and three million, and the number of triremes at over twelve hundred. The ships were not actually Persian, since the Persians were not a maritime people. Instead the Great King levied triremes from the seafaring nations within his empire—Phoenicia, Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, Cilicia, Caria—and from eastern Greek cities. Four royal Persians, kinsmen of the king, had been appointed as admirals of the monstrous naval force, but local rulers commanded the various contingents of the fleet. One of these leaders was a woman: Artemisia, queen of the Greek city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor and the lone female combatant among all the hundreds of thousands of men who followed Xerxes to Greece.

The Greeks may have been deceived about the exact tally of triremes in Xerxes’ armada, but it was no illusion that the Persians held an overwhelming advantage in numbers of ships, not to mention wealth, engineering, communications, siegecraft, and unified command. Whether his forces numbered in the millions or the thousands, Xerxes had paid the Athenians and the rest of the Greeks the compliment of attacking them with the largest combined army and navy ever assembled up to that time.

After receiving the spies’ report, the council voted to seek more allies within the Greek world. They sent an embassy to Sicily to solicit help from Gelon, the powerful tyrant of Syracuse. Originally a colony of the Corinthians, Syracuse had become one of the richest and strongest Greek cities. For this prestigious mission, Themistocles saw to it that an Athenian envoy accompanied the Spartans. During the negotiations at Syracuse the Athenian envoy put forward the idea that his city might lead the resistance at sea while the Spartans took charge on land, an idea that the Spartans seemed initially to accept. They had fewer than a dozen warships of their own, and the hostile masses of helots in the Spartan countryside made them always reluctant to send troops overseas. However, the diplomatic mission to Syracuse was a failure. The western Greeks had troubles of their own. Inspired by Xerxes’ example, Phoenician colonists at Carthage in North Africa were planning their own attack on the Greek cities in Sicily.

The council’s other appeals for help were also fruitless. In the end, out of hundreds of Greek city-states and islands scattered throughout the Mediterranean, only about thirty joined the alliance against the Persians. Given the odds, the wonder was not that there were so few but that there were any. What made the Spartans, Athenians, and others willing to fight?

Part of the answer lay in a raw Greek spirit of independence, a fierce and fanatical zeal for liberty. Their rough and rocky land had bred a race of tough, self-reliant people. Greek cities were as obstinate as individual citizens in jealously guarding their freedom. For centuries this spirit had kept the Greeks divided against one another. Now at last it helped them unite against a common enemy.

Certain rational and strategic calculations, too, made resistance more than a forlorn hope. The man who saw them most clearly was Themistocles. Each city-state had sent one deputy to the council at the Isthmus. The life-or-death nature of the emergency forced the cities to grant decision-making powers to these deputies, powers that in peacetime they would never have possessed. No arrangement could have given Themistocles greater influence. Back home at Athens, in the Assembly or the Agora, he was merely one of the ten generals elected for the year, criticized and challenged daily (as were all Athenian leaders) by his colleagues and fellow citizens. At the Isthmus he suddenly became the voice of Athens. The Spartans were the nominal leaders, but even they soon acknowledged Themistocles as the mastermind behind the allied strategy.

In Themistocles’ judgment, the most vulnerable element in Xerxes’ forces was the navy. Seemingly an invincible fleet of unprecedented size and grandeur, the huge armada was in truth a shambling giant. While the land army of cavalry, spearmen, and archers had a solid core of Persians and Medes, the empire’s power at sea lay entirely in the hands of subject peoples. Below the level of the four royal Persian admirals the fleet was a hodgepodge of nationalities, languages, and nautical traditions (or lack thereof). It was unlikely that the various contingents would be capable of any coordinated maneuvers. Their loyalty to Xerxes was questionable too. And Themistocles, moved by cunning mêtis rather than noble heroism, believed that the Greeks should aim their strongest blow at the enemy’s weakest link.

In the meetings at the Isthmus, wily Themistocles was waging two campaigns at once. Behind his public efforts to devise a winning strategy lurked a second and covert goal: to stake out a position for Athens as joint leader with Sparta. Luckily for him, Spartans seemed by nature slow to act. This slowness gave quicker-witted men, whether friends or enemies, plenty of opportunities to seize the initiative. Themistocles began by urging that all the allies give up hostilities among themselves, beginning with the longstanding feud between his own city and Aegina. The vision of Athens as peacemaker and unifier made a compelling image. With it Themistocles launched his undeclared campaign.

Next, he brought the council over to his idea of meeting the barbarian “as far forward as possible.” In early spring the alliance undertook its first military action: an expedition to block the Persian army at the narrow Tempe gorge in Thessaly. A Spartan named Euainetus led his country’s contingent, and Themistocles himself in a seemingly equal role led the Athenians. With ten thousand troops to ferry northward, the expedition launched Athens’ new fleet of triremes on its maiden voyage. Within a few days of arriving at Tempe, however, Euainetus and Themistocles learned that the Persians would have a choice of several passes through the mountains, and the Greeks could not hope to guard them all. Equally demoralizing was the discovery that Xerxes had not yet even crossed into Europe and might not reach Thessaly for months. So Tempe was abandoned. The Greeks boarded their ships and rowed home.

After this fiasco Themistocles rejoined the council at the Isthmus, where a new plan was devised for the defense of central Greece. When the Persians came, the Greeks proposed to divide their forces. The Greek army would block Xerxes’ army at the narrow pass called Thermopylae or the “Hot Gates,” while the Greek fleet would oppose the Great King’s armada in the nearby Artemisium channel. The new plan suited Themistocles very well. With the enemy still so distant, however, he made no headway against the allies’ reluctance to actually send their troops and ships northward.

Where were the Persians? As the Athenians and other Greeks were rowing home from their misbegotten expedition to Tempe, the Persians had still not entered Europe. Xerxes was holding reviews and regattas for his ships on the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont. The boat races were a diversion to pass the time while the army prepared to cross the two new pontoon bridges. An unexpected disaster had disrupted the royal plans. Before anyone had crossed the bridges a violent storm broke the huge cables and swept the original spans downstream. Furious at the delay, the king beheaded the overseers and ordered his men to beat the unruly waters of the Hellespont with whips. After a new engineering team rebuilt the bridges in record time, Xerxes marched grandly across to the European shore in the midst of his army. It took a month for the entire horde to cross.

In the rough country beyond the Hellespont, the army trekked overland while the ships coasted along toward Mount Athos. They avoided the deadly cape by rowing through the newly dug canal. With numbers increased by galleys levied from Greek cities along the way, the fleet rejoined the army at Therma on the Macedonian coast. Here Xerxes called a halt. His troops and rowers rested as the engineers smoothed a road through the mountains. From his new base Xerxes could gaze south toward the high peak of Mount Olympus. Its snowcapped summit was the dwelling place of Zeus and the other Greek gods. On a whim, Xerxes cruised down the coast on his fastest trireme, a Phoenician ship from the city of Sidon, to view Mount Olympus and the vale of Tempe from the sea. The holy mountain was now part of his empire, and it seemed inevitable that all the lands ruled by those gods would soon be his also.

Once the Persian forces had entered Europe, the desperate Athenians sent two envoys to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Though only a small village on the slope of Mount Parnassus, Delphi was venerated by the Greeks as the center of the world and the navel of Mother Earth. Its famous temple was sacred to Apollo, god of light, inspiration, and prophecy. Enclosed within its crypt was a fault in the rock, and through this fissure emerged a sacred spring and a mysterious vapor. The Greeks believed that the Delphic Oracle had been a source of wisdom and guidance throughout history, from the time of the universal deluge through the heroic age of the Trojan War and on down to the present. Apollo delivered his oracles through the mouth of a local woman called the Pythia, who sat atop a bronze tripod above the fissure. The exhalation rising from the fissure in the inner sanctum endowed her with prophetic power. In her trances she spoke as the medium of the god.

At dawn on the seventh day after a new moon, the two Athenian envoys climbed the switchback trail up the mountainside and took places of honor near the head of the long line. On the front of the temple were written the words “Know Thyself.” The oracles were often cryptic—not straightforward predictions but tests of self-knowledge and insight. As Xerxes was approaching Greece, the Delphic Oracle had warned the Spartans that their country could be saved but that a Spartan king must die. Now it was the turn of the Athenians. The two envoys passed through the tall doorway into a shadowy space lit by the glow of an eternal flame. Descending a ramp, they plunged into the perpetual twilight of the inner sanctum, seemingly deep within the earth. Straight ahead gleamed the gold cult statue of Apollo; to their left they could dimly see the Pythia in her alcove. The envoys recited the question from the Assembly: What course of action should the Athenians take at this time? The woman’s deep voice answered, chanting in verse like a Homeric bard.

Apollo was angry. Why were these Athenians lingering at Delphi? They must abandon their city and flee to the ends of the earth. Ares, god of war, was advancing toward Athens in an Asiatic chariot, with fire and destruction. He would bring down towers and temples. Images of the gods would sweat and shake. Black blood would run down the rooftops. At the end of the nightmarish prophecy, the god ordered the wretched Athenians out of his shrine. Climbing back into the daylight the envoys debated what they should do. While they hesitated, their Delphian sponsor urged them to enter the temple again, this time as suppliants carrying olive branches, to ask for a better prophecy. The Athenians took his advice, and their persistence was rewarded with a second oracle that held out a glimmer of hope.

Athena cannot appease Olympian Zeus
With her pleading words and shrewd mêtis,
Yet I speak this word, firm as adamant.
Though all else within Attica’s border shall be taken
Even the secret places on divine Mount Kithairon,
Far-sighted Zeus will grant to Athena a wooden wall.
It alone shall come through uncaptured: good fortune for you and your
But do not wait for the host of foot and horse coming overland!
Do not remain still! Turn your back and retreat.
Someday you will yet oppose them.
O divine Salamis, you will destroy many women’s children
When Demeter is scattered or gathered in.

Demeter was goddess of wheat, and according to the Greek farmer’s almanac, her times of scattering and gathering would be either autumn or early summer. Salamis was, of course, an island off the coast of Attica, but it was also the name of a Greek city in Cyprus where the Ionians had won a sea battle against the Phoenicians during the Ionian revolt. Did Apollo mean to guide the Athenians to Salamis, or to warn them away? As for a “Wooden Wall,” such a structure was typically a palisade erected around a military camp, but there were other possibilities. The second prophecy at least contained some hopeful ambiguities to counteract the dire warnings of the first. Somewhat encouraged, the envoys secured a transcript of the Pythia’s words and departed.

Back in Athens, the words of the two oracles were made public and an Assembly was convened to debate them. If the Athenians obeyed the oracle to the letter, they would flee their land, avoid all contact with Xerxes’ forces, and found a new city far away, at “the ends of the earth.” Some professional diviners and older citizens indeed urged the people to abandon hope and emigrate. According to their interpretation, the gods had promised to protect their own temples behind the thorny hedge that encircled the Acropolis. This, they claimed, was the Wooden Wall of the prophecy.

The Pythia had given no prediction of ultimate victory, no reference to the sea or ships, no suggestion that the Athenians should fight as far forward as possible or indeed fight at all. Nothing could have been more disastrous for Themistocles and his aggressive naval policy than a sudden Athenian resolution to “turn their backs” on the Persians. It would be up to Themistocles himself to bend the prophecy to his purpose.

And when the Assembly met to debate the oracle’s meaning, he did just that. The Wooden Wall was not the palisade around the Acropolis, Themistocles said, but the navy. Its triremes, by now numbering two hundred, would be a wooden bulwark for the people’s defense. Apollo had revealed that this floating Wooden Wall would endure and bring benefits for generations to come. The Athenian citizens should man their ships, not to flee, but to face the Persians at sea.

His interpretation won over the majority. Seizing the moment, Themistocles pushed through the Assembly a series of emergency measures. All citizens regardless of class would man the triremes, most of them as rowers. The Athenians would not wait for the vote of the other allies but would act on their own. At Themistocles’ urging, they voted to send their own ships north to Artemisium, inviting all other Greeks to share the danger with them. The navy’s mission would be to keep the Persian fleet from reaching Attica and the interior of Greece for as long as possible. This bold communal decision set the capstone on all Themistocles’ efforts.

Evacuation of noncombatants was an essential condition for mobilizing the fleet. Themistocles could not expect all the the men of Athens to confront the Persians far from Attica if they were leaving defenseless hostages to fortune behind them. So at Themistocles’ recommendation the Assembly accepted the invitation of the city of Troezen in the Peloponnese to send their families there for refuge. Troezen claimed to be the birthplace of the Athenian hero Theseus and felt close ties to Athens. Meanwhile the flocks and herds of Athenian landowners and herdsmen would be shipped to offshore islands.

Once the able-bodied citizens were packed together within the Wooden Wall and their families safely evacuated to Troezen, the Athenian elders would set up a government-in-exile on the island of Salamis. This base, while still on Athenian territory, would remain secure so long as Athenian triremes could hold off the Great King’s armada. As for Salamis, Themistocles managed to convince the Assembly that the oracle would not have called the island “divine” if it were going to bring harm to Athenians.

Athenians lived lightly upon the land. Their homes were simple, their possessions few and mostly portable. With Attica in a turmoil of triremes and ferries, tears and farewells, uprooted households and migrating livestock, Themistocles returned to the Isthmus. There he informed the Spartans and the other allies of his city’s decisions and challenged them, on behalf of Athens, to “share the danger” of a naval campaign.

One class of Athenians obstinately opposed the naval mobilization: the horsemen. They balked at the idea of serving alongside lower-class citizens at the oars of the triremes. Athens’ horsemen had officers of their own, namely the two hipparchs or cavalry commanders, and they were ready to defy Themistocles and the Assembly itself. The crisis was resolved by the son of Miltiades, a patriotic young Athenian named Cimon. Though he was not yet thirty, his winning character had already made him a leader among the horsemen. Cimon felt no loyalty to Themistocles, but he loved his city. Roping in a band of friends, he led them on foot up to the Acropolis. At the great altar on the summit, Cimon ceremonially dedicated his bridle to Athena and left it in the goddess’s safekeeping. Then he and his comrades joined the rank and file down at Phaleron. Inspired or shamed by their example, the rest of the horsemen followed them to the ships.

Meanwhile Themistocles’ efforts at the Isthmus were not prospering. The allies refused outright to serve in a fleet led by Athenians. To the Dorians of Aegina, Corinth, Megara, and Thebes—and of course to the Spartans most of all—the Athenians and their fellow Ionians seemed a lesser breed of Greek: dangerously volatile, restless, and presumptuous. In the face of these sullen antagonists, Themistocles’ dream of an Athenian naval command melted away. Athens would contribute more than two-thirds of the ships, but the admiral of the Greek fleet would have to be a Spartan.

More than a month after midsummer, as the sour debates dragged on, messengers from the north arrived at the Isthmus. They reported that Xerxes was on the move at last. The Persian army was marching south past Mount Olympus while the fleet prepared to cruise down the coast. In less than half a month the Persians could be expected to reach the gates of central Greece at Thermopylae. If the Greeks intended to oppose the Persians anywhere north of the Isthmus, they must take immediate action. The news succeeded where Themistocles’ arguments had failed. Quickly they resurrected the plan to hold the invaders at Thermopylae and Artemisium. On land, they would avoid the risk of a major battle in open terrain. At sea, the Greek ships would make an all-out effort to destroy Xerxes’ fleet.

In keeping with this strategy, the council of allies accepted Athens’ unprecedented and unilateral decision to commit all of its manpower to the navy. No Athenians would fight on land, though their ten thousand hoplites would have been a welcome addition to the Greek phalanx. King Leonidas of Sparta led a small advance force to hold Thermopylae until the main Greek army arrived. Meanwhile a Spartan named Eurybiades was appointed navarchos or admiral of the allied fleet, even though Sparta had practically no navy. At once the deputies at the Isthmus notified their cities of the plan and instructed their fellow citizens to send ships to join the fleet under Eurybiades and men to join Leonidas. The main Peloponnesian army, however, would first muster at the Isthmus.



Back at Athens, Themistocles broke the news to the Athenians that they would not after all lead the naval effort. For the sake of the cause of liberty as well as survival, the Athenian people yielded to Themistocles’ persuasion and waived their claim for the time being. Another difficulty now arose, for only part of the fleet was ready to launch. Athens’ shipbuilding had outstripped its manpower, and the city could not man its two hundred triremes. Had it been conceivable to conscript slaves as rowers, the ships could all have been filled, for there were thousands of slaves in Attica. But on a ship of war an oarsman was a combatant, and the men who fought for a city-state should be free, like the citizens themselves. So to fill the remaining ships, the Athenians turned twenty of the hulls over to Greeks from Chalcis, a town on Euboea, and to eager volunteers from Plataea, though these inland allies scarcely knew one end of an oar from the other. With these reinforcements, the first wave of ships bound for Artemisium would number almost one hundred and fifty. The rest would follow later.

The morning of departure came. All along the beach at Phaleron, men dragged the black ships down to the water’s edge to set them afloat. The crews swarmed up ladders propped against the towing bars. The hollow belly of each trireme was soon packed full with the bodies of rowers. Marines, archers, and lookouts took their places on the forward deck above the ram; the steersman and his assistants manned the stern. When all had boarded, the wealthy citizen who served as trierarch or commander of the trireme poured wine into the sea as a libation to the gods. Then at the coxswain’s command the rowers bent to the first stroke.

With the Acropolis dwindling in the distance, the Athenians joined a great stream of ships all bound for the north, including triremes from Sparta and the other cities of the alliance. On board the Spartan flagship rode the admiral Eurybiades with his herald, trumpeter, prophet, and other attendants. The fleet rounded Cape Sunium with its temple of Poseidon, passed the Laurium hills, and continued onward to the plain of Marathon and the frontier of Attica. Ten years had elapsed since an Athenian army had succeeded in driving King Darius’ forces back to their ships at Marathon Bay. The men in the fleet hoped for the same success in facing the Persians now. Leaving the historic battlefield astern, the Greeks entered the long winding gulf that separates the island of Euboea from the mainland. Ahead lay Thermopylae and Artemisium. The great adventure, the greatest that any Athenian would ever know, had begun at last.

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