Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 4

Holding the Pass [SUMMER , 480 B.C.]

Pindar rightly called the battle of Artemisium the place where the sons of Athens laid the shining cornerstone of freedom; for courage is the beginning of victory.

—Plutarch

THREE FAST TRIREMES HAD GONE AHEAD TO ESTABLISH A guard post on Skiathos, an island at the entrance to the Artemisium channel. The traditional lookout point on the westernmost heights of Skiathos commanded a view of the seaway to the north that would shortly be filled with the ships of Xerxes’ armada. The Greeks set up a chain of beacons from Skiathos across the hilltops of Euboea so that the watchers from the three triremes—one from Athens, the others from Aegina and Troezen—could flash news by fire signal to the main Greek fleet.

While the lookouts on the island were scanning the northern approaches, an advance squadron of ten fast Phoenician triremes managed to take them by surprise. Running for their lives, the hapless Greeks scrambled into their ships and tried to escape. The triremes from Troezen and Aegina had no chance, though one of the Aeginetan marines put up such a heroic fight that the admiring Phoenicians bandaged his wounds and kept him with them as a sort of talisman. Only the Athenian trireme managed to break through to the open sea. Hotly pursued by the enemy, the trierarch Phormos and his crew raced northward along the mountainous Magnesian coast, outrowing Xerxes’ fastest ships for half a day. At last, with Mount Olympus in view, the Athenians risked a landing. They jumped out at Tempe and fled up the narrow gorge of the Peneus River. The Phoenicians captured only the empty hull abandoned at the water’s edge. It was the first Athenian trireme to fall into enemy hands, but Phormos and company reached home safely after a long trek overland.

Once the Phoenician scout ships returned to Therma, the entire Persian armada began its cruise southward. The fleet could reach Thermopylae in just three days of rowing, while the army’s march through Thessaly would require fourteen. So Xerxes had told his naval commanders to wait eleven days after his departure before setting out. In their anxiety to reach the rendezvous on time, the commanders unwisely bypassed the long strand south of Mount Ossa, the last haven that could accommodate all their ships. Instead they pushed forward down the rocky Magnesian coast as long as daylight lasted. Nightfall caught them below the heights of Mount Pelion, where only a few short beaches lay between slopes that plunged steeply into the sea. On this hostile shore the armada had to disperse among many small mooring places. At some beaches the triremes tied up eight deep, with the outermost ships swinging at anchor far out from land.

Earlier that summer the Delphic Oracle had advised, “Pray to the winds.” Next morning those prayers were answered. A violent northeasterly gale, known locally as a “Hellesponter,” struck the Magnesian coast. For three days Xerxes’ triremes were helplessly smashed against the rocks while the Magi offered prayers to quiet the storm. The winds wrecked many of the Great King’s triremes and supply ships, scattering the shattered hulks far and wide. The dwellers along the Magnesian coast later combed the beaches for gold cups and other Persian treasure that washed up in the surf.

The allied Greek fleet spent the three days of the storm safely sheltered in the lee of Euboea. They learned of the disaster to the Persians from watchers on the hills and the seaward coast. When the gale finally blew itself out, the Greek fleet resumed its voyage toward Artemisium, fervently hoping that the winds had cut Xerxes’ navy down to size. As the Greeks rowed past Thermopylae, they stopped to confer with Leonidas, whose army of four thousand was busy repairing the ancient fortifications in the pass. All were confident that the main Greek army would appear any day to reinforce Leonidas’ small contingent. Before proceeding on to Artemisium, the commanders of the fleet left a galley at the Hot Gates to carry dispatches from Leonidas if need arose. They chose for this mission an Athenian triakontor commanded by a citizen named Abronichus. At the same time a local boat from a town near Thermopylae joined the Greek fleet. It would observe the naval actions at Artemisium and report to Leonidas. These slender links would connect the Greek efforts to hold the Persians by land and by sea.

Several more hours of rowing brought the Greeks to their destination. Artemisium was a long curving beach on the northern shore of Euboea, facing the channel that had been since time immemorial the maritime gateway to central Greece. A temple of Artemis, the virgin huntress, overlooked the golden sands. Themistocles venerated this goddess, calling her Artemis Aristoboule or “Artemis of Best Counsel.” Religious conviction as well as strategy had marked out Artemisium as the right place to block the passage of Xerxes’ armada.

The Greek fleet approached Artemisium late in the day, as the battered Persian survivors of the storm were rounding Cape Sepias and entering the channel from the other end. On the northern coast there was no long beach such as the Greeks would occupy at Artemisium. Instead the contingents of Xerxes’ fleet occupied widely separated stations at a string of little beaches known as Aphetai (“Starting Places”). From one of these beaches Jason and his Argonauts had launched the legendary Argo on their quest for the Golden Fleece. Themistocles’ calculations proved correct: the huge number of the Persian ships was a weakness, since few harbors or beaches could hold them all.

Then through the afternoon haze appeared fifteen Persian ships rowing directly across the channel toward the Greeks. Was it a mad challenge? Or an attempt at a parley? Before the ships reached them, the Greeks realized the truth. These late arrivals, overlooking the disorganized Persian fleet at Aphetai, had mistaken the Greek fleet for their own and were attempting to join it. The newcomers were immediately surrounded and escorted back to Artemisium. Among the captured crews was a commander from Cyprus who had lost eleven of his ships to the storm. He was now losing the twelfth and last to his own carelessness. After questioning, the prisoners were shackled and sent off to the Isthmus.

That night some fifty thousand Greeks camped at Artemisium. Grateful for the fleet’s protection of their island, the Euboeans who lived at Histiaea and other neighboring towns brought livestock, firewood, and other provisions to feed the crews and fighting men. The Athenian division of the camp covered the eastern half of the waterfront. There were 271 Greek triremes drawn up at the water’s edge that night, more than half of them Athenian. In recognition of their great contributions, the Spartan admiral had awarded them the coveted post of honor on the right wing. Eleven other city-states contributed the remainder of the Greek ships. Highest in prestige were the ten Spartan triremes. From elsewhere in the Peloponnese came triremes from Corinth, Sicyon, Epidaurus, and Troezen. Central Greece was represented only by triremes from Megara and old-fashioned pentekontors or fifty-oared galleys from Opuntian Locris. The fleet also included ships from the islands of Aegina, Euboea, and Keos. At the west end of the beach camped the Corinthians, whose forty triremes would hold the left wing in the Greek battle line.

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ARTEMISIUM AND THERMOPYLAE, 480 B.C.

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Athens alone had mobilized its entire citizen body for the naval effort. Young Cimon and his fellow horsemen were now riders to the sea. The hoplites of Athens had traded their shields and spears for rowing pads and oars. As for the thousands of common citizens, the naval expedition had given them for the first time a feeling of true equality with horsemen and hoplites. Oars were great levelers. Rowing demanded perfect unison of action, and the discipline inevitably generated a powerful unity of spirit. Rich and poor shared the same callused palms, blistered buttocks, and stiff muscles, as well as the same hopes and fears for the future. A new unified Athens was being forged on the decks and rowing thwarts of the fleet.

Across the water glimmered other fires, clusters of twinkling lights that stretched for miles. There was no danger that the Persians would slip by them in the night—Xerxes had ordered his admirals to annihilate the Greeks down to the last fire-signaler. They had not expected the Greeks to confront them but were happy to take advantage of their rashness. The ten miles of open water in the Artemisium channel would be the arena for the coming contest.

That evening a deserter from Xerxes’ armada reached the Greek camp in a small boat. He was a famous diver named Skyllias of Skione. For centuries divers around the Aegean Sea had fished for sponges, pearls, coral, and valuables from sunken wrecks. Over the generations they developed the skill and stamina to work for long periods at depths of one hundred feet or more. The trade ran in families, though girls usually gave up diving after marriage. As protection from the dangers of the deep the divers smeared their bodies with olive oil and carried knives. In time their eyes became bloodshot and their bodies bent, but the treasure recovered from a single shipwreck could make a family rich.

War fleets used divers for reconnaissance, salvage, and clandestine operations. Skyllias had been pressed into Persian service as Xerxes passed through his home territory in northern Greece, and he had helped salvage some of the Persian treasure lost during the recent storm off the Magnesian coast. Seeing the campfires of fellow Greeks across the water, he seized the chance to warn them of a new danger. The Persians had sent a squadron of triremes south along the seaward coast of Euboea, hoping to outflank the Greeks’ position. No one had anticipated such a move. Whether this roving squadron circled back to Artemisium or pressed ahead to Attica and the Saronic Gulf, the success of the Greek naval mission was now in jeopardy.

Eurybiades called a meeting of the allied commanders to debate strategy. Most voted to keep their ships ashore and let the enemy make the first move. Themistocles disagreed. In his view, everything favored a bold move. The Greeks, though few, were united. The Persian forces were divided among many mooring places and were further depleted by the absence of the division that was making its way around Euboea. With sublime confidence Themistocles told the other commanders that he wanted to test Persian seamanship. Were Xerxes’ steersmen and crews adept at breaking through the line with the diekplous or “rowing through” maneuver? Or at encircling an enemy with the simpler periplous or “rowing around”? These were the lethal maneuvers that could expose the vulnerable sterns and flanks of the Greek triremes to the Persian rams.

Themistocles proposed to use science and skill to overcome the Greeks’ disadvantage in numbers. He expected no close coordination among the various squadrons in the enemy armada. It also seemed likely that the Phoenicians, Egyptians, and the rest would count not on their steersmen but on their marines. In that case they would fight in the old-fashioned way, with ships locked together and armed men using their decks as a battleground. True, the Persian ships outnumbered the Greeks’ by more than three to one, and in open water such as the Artemisium channel the larger fleet usually won by simply enveloping the smaller. But Themistocles had devised a maneuver that he believed would protect the Greeks from defeat.

On the following day the crews rested on shore till well after the midday meal. When only a few hours of daylight remained, the Greeks launched all their ships and rowed north toward Aphetai. The customary hour for a naval battle was early morning, the time of calm winds and flat water. A late-afternoon attack would take the enemy by surprise. More important, Themistocles had realized that the approach of darkness would ensure that, even if the fighting went against the Greeks, the battle would be too short for the Persians to win a decisive victory.

When the Persians saw the enemy fleet rowing toward them, they decided that the Greeks must be insane. Communication among the scattered beaches at Aphetai was difficult, but before long the Persian ships in their hundreds were bearing down on the Greek line. As they neared the enemy, the Persians began to fan out. The enveloping movement was not carried out in order but at varying speeds. Bolder commanders spurred their crews as they strove to be first to take a Greek ship and thus secure a reward from the Great King. All were eager to capture an Athenian.

Before the two fleets came close enough to engage, the trumpeter on the Spartan flagship blew a signal. In response the Greek line began to bend like a bow, curving back in an immense convex arc as the Athenians on the right wing and the Corinthians on the left reversed their oar strokes and backed away from the advancing Persians. They kept their bronze rams constantly pointed toward the enemy, who were now prowling around them like wolves around a herd. Frustrating the Persian attempt at a periplous, the Greek line finally contracted into an immense ring. The ships that had occupied the extreme ends of the original line were now side by side at the rear of the kyklos or circle, facing south. All the sterns and steering oars were drawn together in the center, while the outer rim of the vast circle presented a continuous array of rams. It was as if a hedgehog had curled into a ball with all its spines pointing outward.

Themistocles was counting on the defensive appearance of the kyklos to make the enemy overconfident. With the Persian fleet milling around the circle’s perimeter, carelessly exposing their ships’ sides, Eurybiades had his trumpeter blow another call, this time the familiar signal for an attack. At the sound the Greek rowers pulled their hardest, and the triremes lurched from a standstill to a sprint. Bursting from the protection of the circle, each Greek steersman targeted an enemy hull or oar bank in the disorganized throng that surrounded them. The Persians were caught completely off guard. Ship after ship was immobilized as the Greeks smashed hulls or sheared off oars with their rams. The disabled triremes were left to drift in the melee, until their attackers could come back and tow them off. Elsewhere in the crush some Greek marines leaped across to the decks of enemy triremes. They killed or captured the fighting force on board and then claimed the ship as a prize, with its rowing crew intact.

Once the Persians recovered from the shock of the initial Greek charge, they began to counterattack, but nightfall put an end to the battle before they could turn the tide. The demoralized crews of Xerxes’ grand armada returned to their havens. A current from the straits carried after them the debris of battle: wrecked ships, broken oars, floating corpses. The Greeks’ performance had been so impressive that one trireme from the Aegean island of Lemnos deserted from the Persian side. The Athenians were so grateful to the Lemnian trierarch for joining the resistance that they awarded him a grant of farmland on the island of Salamis.

Acting like judges at a musical or athletic contest, the Greek commanders voted to honor those who had contributed most to the victory. The Athenians received the group prize for valor, and one of their own, Themistocles’ kinsman Lycomedes, won the individual prize. He had been the first trierarch to take an enemy ship.

The following day at Artemisium the Greeks spotted a large squadron of triremes rowing toward them from the west. It was not the encircling Persian squadron that the diver had foretold, but the fifty-three Athenian triremes that had been left behind in Attica. They were welcome both as reinforcements and as bearers of good news. Violent storms had wrecked the southbound enemy squadron on the dangerous stretch of coast called the Hollows of Euboea. As the Delphic Oracle had predicted, the winds still seemed to be fighting for the Greeks.

Late in the afternoon, as on the previous day, the Greeks put out to sea. This time they engaged just one isolated division of Xerxes’ navy. The target was the contingent from Cilicia in Asia Minor, one hundred strong. The javelins and cutlasses of the piratical Cilicians proved to be no defense against Greek rams, and they lost many triremes in the fighting. Few Asiat ics knew how to swim, so the sinking of a ship inevitably caused many deaths. By the time the skirmish ended, the Cilicians had been virtually destroyed.

The Persians in the fleet at Aphetai were well aware that they were keeping their royal master waiting and as yet had nothing to show for the delay. On the third day Xerxes’ naval commanders finally took the initiative, launching their entire force at about noon and bearing down on the Euboean shore. The crews yelled their battle cries, flaunted their insignia, and shouted encouragement from ship to ship. The competitive scramble of the first day’s attack was gone: the various contingents kept good order as they crossed the channel. The Greeks awaited the charge in silence. They planned to hug their own coast, leaving as little sea room as possible to their rear so as to hamper any enemy attempt at a diek plous or periplous.

The Persians began with an enveloping movement. Their left and right wings stretched forward in two curving prongs menacing the ends of the shorter Greek line, like the horns of a bull or a crescent moon. At last Eurybiades gave the order to attack. The two fleets collided all along the line. The Persian order broke with the collision. In the chaos that followed, their ships fouled one another as much as they injured the Greeks. Still they did not retreat, and the Egyptians among others began to perform with success. Ships were lost on both sides, but in the end Xerxes’ mighty navy once more got the worst of it. After three successive engagements at Artemisium, Themistocles’ interpretation of the Delphic Oracle still held true. The Wooden Wall had endured.

The retreating Persians left the Greeks in control of the sea. They carried out the sacred duty of picking up the floating corpses of their comrades and towed the wrecked vessels back to Artemisium. After the heavy ramming action on that third day of fighting half the Athenian triremes needed repairs. Given their small numbers, the Greeks could ill afford to lose any ships. Yet they had survived and had refused to let the enemy drive them from the sea. At the victory celebration on the beach they again voted to award the prize for valor to the Athenians. This time the individual prize went to a noble Athenian named Cleinias. His ship had not been built with public money from the silver strike but was a trireme of his own, as in the buccaneering days of old, furnished with a crew of followers in Cleinias’ pay.

While the Greeks were taking their evening meal, the lookouts caught sight of a vessel coming in fast from the west. It was the Athenian galley from Thermopylae. As soon as it reached shore, Abronichus made his report. There was no message from Leonidas: the king was dead. For two days the Spartans and other Greek allies had succeeded in repelling wave after wave of Persian attacks, even though the main Peloponnesian army had still not arrived. That morning, however, scouts had come running down from the hills with the news of a Persian breakthrough.

In the night a local Greek turncoat had led the dreaded spearmen whom the Greeks called “The Immortals” around Thermopylae by a path running along a high mountain ridge. Within a short time Leonidas was trapped between two fires. The Spartan king now had only three options: flight, surrender, or death. Xerxes would have been only too delighted if his opponent had agreed to terms, but Leonidas, achieving true heroism in his final hours, resolved that he would fight to the death in the pass. His courage inspired the three hundred Spartans and a thousand men from the town of Thespiae to follow his lead. Leonidas sent the bulk of his army away toward the south and dispatched Abronichus and his Athenian crew to their triakontor at the same time. By staying behind, Leonidas and his thirteen hundred meant to hold the Persians long enough for the other allies to escape. They, at least, would live to fight another day.

Marshaling his hoplites for the last time, Leonidas led them to the end of the pass in battle array. He had to defend himself from enemies in front and to the rear, as “The Immortals” were now clambering down from the hills into the narrow roadway behind him. When it became clear that the Greeks would not surrender, Xerxes responded with such an avalanche of men that some Persians on the edge of the mass were pushed into the sea and drowned. The Greeks fought like men possessed. When their spears broke, they went on fighting at close quarters with swords and finally with their bare hands. Even after Leonidas fell, the Greeks would not surrender. In the end Xerxes had to send in his light-armed troops to finish the job with a hail of missiles. The road to the south now lay open. Powerless to help, the Athenians had watched until they could no longer doubt the outcome. Then they set off as fast as they could row to warn the fleet.

The news from Thermopylae changed everything. Exhausted after a full day of rowing and fighting, the Greeks had no choice but to retreat from Artemisium immediately. If they waited until daylight, they would have the Persian fleet dogging their tails. Their foresight in posting the Athenian galley at Thermopylae had bought them a few hours’ head start on the Persians. Xerxes had no boats at Thermopylae to carry a message to his naval forces, and it would take at least a day for any of his mounted couriers to reach Aphetai.

Themistocles did what he could to improve their chances of escape and raise the morale of the men. He proposed a plan to provision the ships at once for the long row ahead and recommended heaping more fuel on the campfires along the beach. With extra wood the fires would burn through the night and perhaps convince the enemy at Aphetai that the Greek fleet was still at its battle station. Themistocles also heartened the men with a novel scheme to induce the eastern Greek contingents to defect from the Persian fleet. He would inscribe messages on the rocks at the watering places on the way south, appealing to the Ionians to join their fellow Greeks in the fight for freedom.

It remained to settle on their destination. Knowing that Xerxes’ army and navy would converge as rapidly as possible on Attica, Themistocles persuaded Eurybiades that the Greek fleet should fall back not to the Isthmus of Corinth but to Salamis. On that island the Athenian elders had established their headquarters in exile. They could help provision the Greek fleet, just as the Euboean islanders had done at Artemisium. And in the protected waters of the Salamis channel, the Greeks might hold Xerxes’ armada at bay until the onset of bad weather closed the seaways for the winter. Thermopylae had given the resistance its first heroic martyrs. The spirit of Leonidas and his men could already be seen in the Greek fleet’s decision to seek and hold another pass.

Nothing, however, altered the discouraging fact that their struggle at Artemisium had been in vain. With every stroke of the oars they would now be drawing Xerxes’ armada after them into the heart of Greece. At that dark hour no Athenian could have predicted that a poet would one day hail Artemisium as the place “where the sons of Athens laid the shining cornerstone of freedom.”

As the full moon rose, casting a glittering silver path down the channel, the Greek crews pushed off from shore and began the retreat. Behind them the campfires burned brightly on the deserted beach. Themistocles went first with a squadron of the fastest ships. Then came the Corinthians at the head of the main fleet, followed by the other allied contingents and last of all the long line of Athenian triremes. Several hours later the vanguard reached the westernmost cape of Euboea, pointed like a dart toward the Greek mainland. Fifteen miles ahead of them, across a wide stretch of water and alluvial flats, lay Thermopylae.

At the Hot Gates the distant coast appeared lit by an unearthly glow. In and around the pass shone the myriad flames of the Persian camp: victory bonfires, watch fires, fires for roasting meat, and the blazing fire altars of the Magi. Xerxes’ army was celebrating its first taste of Greek blood. Somewhere amid the eerie wisps from the hot springs stood Xerxes’ proudest trophy: the head of Leonidas, cut from his body and stuck on a pike. Out at sea, hidden by darkness, the ghostly line of ships made its way past the scene of revelry and vanished southward into the night.

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