Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability that a man possesses.
—Pericles to the Athenians
Seamanship, just like anything else, is an art. It is not something that can be picked up and studied in one’s spare time. Indeed, it allows one no spare time for anything else.
AFTER THE VICTORY AT SALAMIS, TWO AMBITIOUS RIVALS challenged Themistocles’ sole leadership of Athens. Both men had been recalled from ostracism during the national emergency. When the war effort resumed in the spring, the Assembly appointed Aristides to command the army and Xanthippus the navy. Themistocles was passed over. His political opponents were well organized, and he himself soured public opinion with his vanity, his itching palm, and his courting of Spartan favor. In future the hero of Salamis would devote himself to Athens’ defenses, not its wars abroad.
The war was by no means over. Persians were famed for their persistence, even after suffering disastrous setbacks. To guard against a return of the armada from Asia, the Spartans announced that the Greek fleet would assemble at Aegina under the admiralship of the Spartan king Leotychidas. The decision to pass over Athens and Salamis as naval bases was another blow to Athenian prestige. In any case, Athens could not commit as many triremes as before. Eight thousand citizens of the hoplite class would follow Aristides in the campaign against the Persian army that Xerxes left behind, thus depleting the pool of Athenian rowers. Xanthippus joined the allies at Aegina with only 140 triremes. Even so the Athenians were still contributing the majority of ships and crews.
The summer days passed, and no Persian fleet appeared. The Greeks might have remained at Aegina indefinitely if a ship had not arrived from the island of Chios with an appeal for aid. The Chians were still subjects of the Great King and had risked their lives on this secret mission to Greece. They assured Leotychidas that the cities and islands of Ionia were eager for liberty. The arrival of the allied fleet of 250 ships in the eastern Aegean would be enough to spark the rebellion. Reluctantly the Spartan king left Aegina and advanced as far as Delos, but he refused to go farther. The coast of Asia lay only one hundred miles farther east, but to a land-bound Spartan it seemed “as far away as the Pillars of Heracles.”
At Delos a fresh appeal came from the Ionians of Samos. They reported that the Persian armada was at that moment stationed in their harbor, a prize ripe for the picking. The chance to eliminate Persian sea power once and for all was too tempting to resist. Leotychidas ordered the fleet forward. At his approach the Persian admirals, still traumatized by memories of Salamis, abandoned Samos for a safer haven on the mainland of Asia Minor. At Samos the Athenians and other Greeks equipped their ships with wooden gangways for boarding enemy ships. Then they cruised east in search of the enemy. They did not have to search long.
Half a day’s row beyond Samos the lookouts spotted their quarry on a beach below the rugged heights of Mount Mycale. One look at the Persian camp convinced the Greeks that there would be no battle at sea that day. The Persians had hauled their fleet ashore and constructed a stockade of stones, timber, and pointed stakes around the precious ships. But the Greeks had come too far to give up without a fight. Leotychidas’ flagship steered for a landing place beyond the stockade. As they rowed past the fortified camp, the Spartan herald shouted a message to the Ionians still in Xerxes’ service, urging them to join in the fight for freedom.
The Greek rowers backed the triremes onto the beach, and the fighting men leaped onto the sand. With about ten marines on each ship, the Greeks could field an army of more than two thousand hoplites. Arrayed eight deep in the traditional phalanx, their line stretched along a front about three hundred yards in length: too long to fit on the flat land between the mountain and the sea. Honor required the Spartans to hold the right wing, though this placement forced them off the beach altogether and onto the rough and rocky base of the mountain. The center, held by Peloponnesian allies from Corinth, Sicyon, and Troezen, stood on level ground, while the Athenians under Xanthippus were assigned the left wing near the water’s edge. The Athenians were cheered by the presence in their ranks of an athletic champion named Hermolycus, a notable celebrity. He had been crowned for victories at the Panhellenic Games in the pankration or kick-boxing event, and to march beside such a hero from the world of sports came close to walking in the aura of a divine hero.
It was late afternoon by the time Leotychidas gave the order to attack. So began an extraordinary naval battle, with both fleets on shore and the Greek rowers watching from their triremes as if from a grandstand. To keep the Greek phalanx as far as possible from their ships, the Persians sallied out from the stockade and marshaled their archers and light-armed troops behind a wall of close-set wicker shields. As the Greeks advanced, the Spartans on the right wing were gradually separated from the rest of the line, swallowed up by a ravine, and lost to sight. Meanwhile the forward motion had brought the other Greeks within range of Persian arrows. As zealous for Athenian preeminence as Themistocles had ever been, Xanthippus decided to go on with or without the Spartans. After telling the men to pass the word down the line, he led a charge that broke through the enemy shields and carried the Greeks to the stockade. At first the Persians resisted, but their lack of defensive armor put them at a disadvantage in hand-to-hand combat. Abandoning the battle line, they turned and fled inside the stockade.
But the Greeks were at their heels. Led by Xanthippus and his Athenians, they burst into the camp and attacked the disorganized pockets of resistance. Now the Persians fought alone: the Ionians and other subject peoples had begun to aid the enemy. It was the long-lost Greek right wing that delivered the final blow. Having struggled over the uneven ground, the Spartans finally worked their way around to the slope above the beached ships, then came pouring over the landward side of the stockade. Many Persians were killed; the rest surrendered or escaped over the passes to Sardis. There they had the unenviable task of reporting the catastrophe to Xerxes himself.
That evening the triumphant Greeks awarded the prize for valor to the Athenian contingent and the individual prize to Hermolycus the pancratiast. The Peloponnesians of the center were recognized next, but the Spartans not at all. The larger issue was the fate of the Persian ships. The Greeks did not have enough crews to man them all, yet it was imperative to keep them out of enemy hands. So after stripping the captured triremes of their money chests and other valuables, the Greeks lit a titanic victory bonfire. Timber and pitch flared like torches until the fire consumed even the stockade. The glow against the dark side of Mount Mycale that night was a beacon of victory and liberty for the Greeks of Asia.
Within a few days messengers arrived from Greece to report that the allied army had won a decisive victory over Xerxes’ grand army on the plains near Plataea. The great invasion was over: Greece was free. As news spread, envoys from the Greeks in Asia descended on Leotychidas to seek admission to the alliance led by Sparta. If granted, these requests would have embroiled Sparta in overseas wars for years to come, for the Great King would certainly not give up his rich satrapy of Ionia without a bitter fight. Leotychidas therefore made a counterproposal: the Ionians should abandon their cities in or near Asia and immigrate over the sea to their original homeland. The port cities of traitorous Greeks who had surrendered to Xerxes could be cleared out and handed over to the Ionians. Xanthippus and the Athenians opposed the proposal. They stated that Ionia had been colonized long ago from Athens and that no one should rob the Ionians of the cities that they had founded in those far-off days. At their demand, the Greeks of Samos, Lesbos, Chios, and other islands were all sworn into the alliance.
Though late in the season, the Greek fleet, now reinforced by Ionians, set out from Samos on a final mission. Despite the onset of contrary winds they voyaged northward to break Xerxes’ bridges. They were too late—storms had already swept the pontoons away. Local informants told Leotychidas that the big cables now lay in Sestos, a city on the European shore of the Hellespont. The high walls of Sestos were also sheltering all of the Persians left in the area. Unwilling to storm the place, Leotychidas declared that the fleet would return to Greece.
Xanthippus and the Athenians parted company with the admiral. Supported by contingents of the new Ionian allies, they remained at the Hellespont after the departure of the Spartans and Peloponnesians. Lacking siege equipment, they settled down to starve the defenders into submission. At last the desperate Persians slipped over the walls by night and escaped into the countryside. Some fell into the hands of Thracian tribesmen, who sacrificed the Persian commander to one of their gods. The Athenians caught most of the rest near a beach called Aegospotami (“Goat Rivers”), about twelve miles from Sestos. Among the prisoners was a Persian governor who had desecrated a Greek sanctuary by having sex with his concubines on sacred ground. Though the Persian offered a king’s ransom of three hundred silver talents for himself and his son, Xanthippus had him crucified as if he had been a pirate. As the Athenians voyaged homeward, they carried in the holds of their triremes the immense bridge cables that had for a short time yoked Europe to Asia.
The Athens to which they returned was scarcely recognizable. The Persians had destroyed everything except the houses where their officers were billeted, so the city had to be reconstructed from the ground up. In this vast undertaking Themistocles moved once more to the forefront of Athenian life. The Spartans discouraged the Athenians from rebuilding their city wall on the grounds that it might serve as a Persian stronghold if Xerxes came back. Themistocles had to use all his cunning to distract the Spartans while the entire population of Athens rushed to complete the job. After the victory at Plataea the Greeks had sworn not to rebuild the temples burned by Xerxes: their scorched ruins would forever bear witness to Persian sacrilege. There was no ban, however, on raising new temples. Themistocles dedicated a new sanctuary in the Piraeus and built a temple to Artemis, truly the goddess of best counsel, near his own house in Athens. On the banks of the Ilissus River the Athenians raised their new temple to the god they had not previously worshipped: Boreas the North Wind, destroyer of Persian ships. In these and other holy places they hung the cables from Xerxes’ bridges as offerings of gratitude to the gods.
With the city in ruins, Themistocles tried to persuade his fellow citizens to abandon the old site around the Acropolis and rebuild Athens directly on the coast. He failed, but the Assembly did vote to finish constructing a fortified port at the Piraeus, a project that had lain dormant for more than a decade. They also voted to build twenty new triremes each year and offer incentives to attract skilled craftsmen from other cities to immigrate to Athens. All of these initiatives originated with Themistocles.
When the time came to launch the triremes for the second campaigning season after Salamis, the Athenians allotted command of their squadron to Aristides the Just. Four years earlier he had been ostracized after opposing Themistocles’ proposal to build a fleet with the silver from Laurium. Now, like most of his countrymen, Aristides embraced the idea that Athens’ future lay with the sea. He had won glory in the fighting on Psyttaleia island at Salamis and at the battle of Plataea the previous summer. The Spartans assigned the admiralship of the allied fleet to Pausanias, supreme commander at Plataea, who was acting as regent for Leonidas’ young son. Pausanias was a tactician of genius and a dangerous megalomaniac, though that did not become clear till later.
Expanding the range of naval activity, Pausanias first led the fleet to Cyprus and then, having stirred up a rebellion against the Persians throughout the island, cruised around the entire western end of Asia Minor to Byzantium, a Greek colony lying at the gateway to the Black Sea. After capturing Byzantium, the Spartan admiral became increasingly tyrannical and inaccessible even to his own allies. Eventually some of the allied contingents mutinied. The Ionians begged the Athenians to take over the leadership of the fleet. Such an act would ratify the informal arrangement of the previous autumn, when Xanthippus had led a united Athenian and Ionian fleet at Sestos. In addition to sharing a common ancestry, the Ionians put more trust in the Athenians to protect them from reconquest by Persia. Athenians were energetic and adventurous; Spartans (with the exception of the volatile Pausanias, of course) tended to be stolid and earthbound. The universal respect inspired by Aristides also played a part in their decision.
When the government in Sparta sent a new admiral to Byzantium to replace Pausanias, the Ionians refused to take orders from him. The die was cast. The frustrated admiral went home to Sparta, and the Peloponnesian triremes also abandoned the expedition. Aristides remained behind with the fleet of Athenians and Ionians to lay the foundations of a new world order in which Athenians would lead a league of their own.
The Ionians proposed that they and the Athenians form a new naval alliance patterned after the Spartan-led alliance that had won the war against Xerxes. The Spartans had convened their councils at the Isthmus; the Athenians and Ionians would meet on the island of Delos, in the heart of the Aegean. Within the alliance Athens would play the role of hegemon (literally “the one who goes in front”) or leader. Athenian generals would command the allied fleet, and Athens would take the lead in all decisions, with the council of allies serving in an advisory capacity. Their mission was simple: perpetual war against the barbarian. The new Athenian alliance would exact revenge on the Persians for all the injuries that they had done to the Greeks.
Because this new alliance was dedicated to naval warfare, it needed something that Sparta’s alliance had never required: regular contributions of money and ships. The huge crews of rowers would have to be paid; new triremes would have to be built and old ones repaired. A standing fleet was far more costly than an army to maintain, and it remained a heavy financial burden even when the ships were in port.
To ensure that each ally shouldered a fair share of the burden, the Athenians proposed a system much like the annual tribute of the Persian Empire. Each city or island would be assessed a yearly contribution based on its resources and would pay either in cash or in kind (that is, by sending triremes) as Athens determined. Aristides himself was to make the assessments. Contributions of silver would be sent each spring to Delos, and entrusted to ten Athenian citizens bearing the grandiloquent title of Hel lenotamiai or “treasurers of the Greeks.” The proper name of the new alliance was The Athenians and Their Allies. Later historians dubbed it the Delian League.
Aristides made an initial assessment of tribute that yielded 460 silver talents each year. The amount would grow as more Greeks joined the alliance. The Athenians decreed that those with large fleets, such as the islanders of Samos, Lesbos, Chios, Naxos, and Thasos, would contribute quotas of ships. Other allies possessed only small and antiquated galleys; they paid in silver from the start. When all were in accord, the representatives on Delos swore oaths of allegiance to the new Athenian alliance on behalf of their cities. Then they ceremonially cast iron bars into the sea. This act symbolized their intention that the oaths would endure until the iron rose again. It was a heady moment. Gazing east from Delos, they must have thought the Persian Empire looked big enough to sustain an eternity of pillage and plunder.
To lead the new allied expeditionary force, the Athenian Assembly appointed none of the successful naval commanders of the previous three years—Themistocles, Xanthippus, Aristides—but Cimon, a newcomer to the generalship. It was he who had rallied the city’s young horsemen to the naval effort before Salamis. Cimon was a tall, athletic man with a crop of curly hair and a genial, gregarious manner. His father was Miltiades, his mother a Thracian princess. Part of his youth had been spent in his family’s fiefdom on the northern shore of the Hellespont, watching the rich argosies sailing downstream from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
Now just thirty-one years old, Cimon launched the new alliance on its first campaign. The most pressing target seemed to be Eion, a walled city on European soil that was still in Persian hands. Eion lay on the Strymon River in Thrace, the native land of Cimon’s mother, and commanded access to the Thracian gold fields. Cimon’s allied forces disembarked and defeated the enemy in a battle outside the city; but then the surviving Persians defied the Greeks from behind Eion’s strong fortifications. Cimon promptly imitated the Persians’ own penchant for engineering feats. He turned the course of the Strymon so that the river flowed against the city’s walls. As they were made of mud brick, the walls began to melt. In despair, the Persian commander committed suicide, and Cimon was able to take the town. Those who had collaborated with the Persians were sold into slavery, and the proceeds were divided among the cities and islands of the alliance. Cimon turned the collaborators’ rich farmlands over to Athenian settlers.
This dramatic success brought the first campaigning season of the new alliance to an end. The grateful Athenians set up a war memorial at the main entrance of the Agora. Its inscribed verses compared Cimon and his troops to the Athenians who fought in the Trojan War, “masters of warlike arts and leaders of valiant men.” Pleased with their choice of general, the Assembly continued to send Cimon out to lead allied expeditions for fifteen seasons. As his tally of victories mounted, so too did membership in the alliance, which eventually reached a total of about 150 cities and islands.
Cimon’s most popular exploit involved him in a quest for sacred relics: the bones of the hero Theseus. The Athenian navy had established itself as a force in the world: it was time to endow it with a patron hero and a creation myth. Theseus—voyager, liberator, slayer of monsters—seemed the right hero. In his youth Theseus had entered the Labyrinth at Knossos and killed the Minotaur, a fearsome beast that was half-man, half-bull. By this daring exploit he had freed Athens from its bondage to King Minos of Crete, who had demanded a regular tribute of Athenian youths and maidens to feed the Minotaur. During his long life Theseus took part in so many other quests and adventures that the phrase “Not without Theseus!” became proverbial. He was supposed to have died on the island of Scyros, but no one knew his burial place.
Several years after the founding of the Delian League, the Delphic Oracle announced that the Athenians must retrieve Theseus’ bones and worship him as a divine hero. Cimon undertook the mission. After a long search on Skyros, he happened to see an eagle tearing at a mound of earth. Recognizing the omen, Cimon ordered his men to dig. They uncovered a sarcophagus containing a sword, a spear, and the skeleton of a very big man. With elaborate ceremony Cimon conveyed the bones back to the Piraeus in his flagship. The Athenians welcomed the relics with parades and sacrificial offerings and laid the bones to rest in a sanctuary in Athens devoted to Theseus’ cult. An annual festival by the sea commemorated the date when Theseus was supposed to have begun his epic voyage, just as a second festival in the autumn celebrated his return. Each year the steersmen of Athens held a festival in honor of the man from Salamis who had piloted Theseus’ galley to Crete and back.
Athenians inherited many myths from the remote past, but when current developments, such as the rise of the navy, seemed to cry out for mythical precedents, they readily invented new ones. Cimon abetted the process. Among the creative artists whom he patronized was a genealogist and mythographer named Pherecydes. He had already traced Cimon’s family tree back to the hero Ajax of Salamis. Now Pherecydes rewrote the Theseus myth. In this exciting new account, a desperate Theseus rushes back to the harbor near Knossos after killing the Minotaur and ensures a safe escape by ramming the hulls of the Cretan ships so that they cannot pursue him. A later mythographer named Demon improved the tale by transforming the Minotaur into a Cretan general named Taurus and claiming that Theseus defeated him in a naval battle—the first naval battle in Athenian history!—at the mouth of the harbor. Thus Theseus metamorphosed into a true naval hero, with exploits that foreshadowed naval warfare of Cimon’s own day.
ATHENIAN TROOP CARRIER
In addition to the bones, Athens laid claim to a second tangible relic of Theseus. The little triakontor called the Delias was the city’s oldest ship. Each spring it conveyed a sacred embassy to Delos, birthplace of Apollo, where the Athenians and other Ionian Greeks honored their ancestral god at a sort of family reunion. In one of the earliest recorded acts of historic preservation, the city’s carpenters continually replaced worn-out or rotting timbers in the sacred galley with new wood. The Delias had the typical design of an Iron Age galley, complete with ram, but that did not prevent the Athenians from identifying it as the very same vessel in which Theseus had voyaged to slay the Minotaur. It was another relic, another link in a chain that bound Athens to an imagined heroic past.
THE MYTHICAL VOYAGES OF THESEUS
THE DELIAN LEAGU, Founded 4780477 n.c.
One of the paintings that decorated Theseus’ temple was the creation of an Athenian artist named Mikon. The mythical scene showed Theseus deep under the sea, surrounded by tritons and dolphins. The goddess Amphitrite, queen of the sea, was handing a crown to the young hero while Athena stood by as witness. Other additions to Theseus’ myth enhanced his role in Athenian history. It was said that during his kingship Theseus had unified Attica, established the first democratic assembly, encouraged the immigration of resident aliens, and stood as champion to the poor and oppressed, even to slaves. Thus the primeval founder of the city’s sea power also became the originator of Athenian liberty, unity, and democracy.
Meanwhile Themistocles, the real founder of the navy, was still very much alive. The powerful clans of Attica had united against him in the Assembly, and his personal reputation suffered from a smear campaign that accused him of corruption and treason. In an attempt to restore his standing and to counter Cimon’s mythmaking, Themistocles sponsored the production of a new tragedy by the playwright Phrynichus. The play, Phoenician Women, recounted the battle of Salamis as a tragedy seen from the Persian point of view. In the opening scene a eunuch of the Persian court spoke a soliloquy while arranging cushions in the council chamber of the royal palace. A chorus of wailing women, the grieving widows of Xerxes’ Phoenician mariners, lamented their fate. Themistocles thus reminded his fellow citizens of his own role in humbling the Persians at sea. He also presented the story of Salamis on a stage that was usually dominated by tales of gods and heroes, thus elevating it to the realms of epic and myth.
Phrynichus’ play sank almost without trace, and Themistocles’ political career shared its fate. Two years after the performance of Phoenician Women, the Athenians voted to ostracize him. Ostracism did not always mean the end of a man’s political career: Xanthippus and Aristides had both succeeded in regaining power after returning to Athens from ostracism. But no such happy future awaited Themistocles. Midway through his ten-year banishment, vengeful Spartans and envious Athenians stirred up accusations against him that led to formal criminal charges of treason. The Assembly summoned Themistocles back to Athens to stand trial.
Rather than face a jury of his fickle fellow citizens, Themistocles fled over land and sea, pursued by Athenian officials across the Peloponnese and then to Corcyra, eastward through the mountains of northern Greece to Macedon, and finally by ship to the territory of the Persian Empire, the only haven where he could feel safe from the long arm of the Athenian law. To save his life, Themistocles surrendered himself to the Great King. The victor of Salamis and father of Athenian naval power thus ended his days as a trophy of a Persian monarch, whom he served as a semicaptive governor of a few Greek cities in Asia Minor.
Themistocles died an outlaw, still under a charge of treason. His children were therefore refused permission to bring his bones back to Athens. No monument was raised or funeral oration spoken in his native land. Many years passed before an Athenian finally wrote a proper eulogy for the founder of the navy: “It was he who first ventured to tell the Athenians that their future was on the sea. Thus he at once began to join in laying the foundations of their empire.” The writer was Thucydides, a historian born within a few years of Themistocles’ death. “He was particularly remarkable at looking into the future and seeing there the hidden possibilities for good or evil. To sum him up in a few words, it may be said that through force of genius and speed of action this man was supreme at doing precisely the right thing at precisely the right moment.”
With Themistocles gone, Cimon dominated Athenian affairs unchallenged. Year after year he held the generalship, campaigning with the fleet during the summer months and keeping open house for distinguished visitors and common citizens alike when he came home from the wars. Despite his easy sociability, Cimon cherished his own ambitious vision of his city’s future. And his model, strange to say, was Sparta.
Alone among the Greeks, Spartan citizens remained in a perpetual state of military readiness throughout their adult lives. In order to control hostile helots and other subject peoples, Spartans of all ranks right up to the kings had become permanently militarized. Their constant training made them the most feared fighting force in the Greek world. Cimon admired the Spartans without reserve: he even named one of his twin sons Lacedaemonius or “The Spartan.” He also perceived in Sparta a way of life—the city as armed camp—that the Athenians would have to emulate if they meant to remain leaders of the Delian League.
Under Cimon’s charismatic leadership, Athenian society became “navalized” from top to bottom. Before Salamis, citizens of the lowest census class, the thetes, had never been compelled to train for military service at all. Now they took to the sea in thousands every spring, pulling the oars or learning the craft of lookouts, coxswains, or steersmen. The hoplites were also brought into the rotation, serving as marines on the triremes or transported overseas to fight on foreign soil. The richest Athenian citizens joined the naval effort as trierarchs—the commanders and financial sponsors of the triremes.
To make the process of navalization complete, it became customary for the Athenians to choose as political leaders, not lawgivers or orators, but generals. Though power rested ultimately with the popular Assembly, executive authority at Athens was in the hands of ten annually elected generals or strategoi. They were true general officers, overseeing all matters pertaining to war: the navy, the army, the fortifications, and at times even diplomacy. At the controversial dramatic festival when young Sophocles first competed against Aeschylus, the generals led by Cimon even served as judges in the theater.
Ten generals were elected each year, one from each Attic tribe. Themistocles had been elected by his fellow citizens of the fourth tribe, Leontis; Xanthippus and Pericles by the fifth tribe, Akamantis; and Cimon by the sixth tribe, Oineus. These men, like Miltiades before them, had brought immense prestige to the generalship, and it was only through military or naval command that an ambitious citizen could be sure of gaining influence in Athens. Thus a political “rule by generals” was established that was to endure for a century.
While Athens and its navy prospered, enthusiasm for the alliance began to ebb here and there among the member states. For some, the endless running war with the Persians seemed an unreasonable burden. No Persian ships had been seen in the Aegean for years. The outcome of this discontent was a reluctance to serve or contribute in the timely, enthusiastic manner that Athens expected and that their oaths required.
Some Athenian generals handled the recalcitrant allies harshly, but Cimon took a different tack. He was always friendly and encouraged allied cities to choose the kind of contribution that best suited them. Most voluntarily withdrew from active service in the annual naval campaigns and turned the empty hulls of their triremes over to Athens; from that time forward they paid a tribute of silver each year to the allied treasury. Cimon was affable where his colleagues were severe, but in both cases the result was the same. As campaigning seasons came and went, the tradition of military service and competence waned among the allies, while growing ever stronger in Athens.
Keeping the alliance together and the treasury filled required an iron will. Almost from the beginning the Athenians found it necessary to wage war not only on the Persian Empire but also on other Greeks. Their argument was a simple one: all those who reaped the benefits of the Athenian alliance—freedom of the seas and freedom from Persian aggression—should join and contribute. Some islands and cities were forced to join against their will. Others, such as the rich island of Naxos, tried to withdraw from the alliance after a number of years, only to have the allied fleet descend upon their shores, blockade their port, and treat them as dangerous rebels. The Athenians took full advantage of these conflicts. On Skyros they expelled the original piratical inhabitants and resettled the island with colonists drawn from Athens’ own booming population. On Thasos the Athenians fought with their allies for control of local mines. By the end of the war the islanders were forced to surrender both their fleet and their mining rights to Athens. The annual yield was a staggering eighty silver talents.
Some Athenians were undoubtedly troubled by these brutal campaigns against fellow Greeks, the very people whose liberty they had pledged to defend. A new threat in the eastern Mediterranean, however, seemed to justify the strong measures that kept the alliance unified. Fourteen years after Salamis the Persians began to assemble another huge fleet and army for a new expedition against the Greeks. Xerxes could no longer ignore the successes of the Delian League and the erosion of his western frontier. He would mount a Persian naval offensive to check the advance of the Athenians and their allies. Rousing himself temporarily from his preoccupation with harem intrigues, Xerxes gave the word. The mustering point for men and ships was to be a plain beside the Eurymedon River, on the southern coast of Asia Minor.
To forestall a Persian advance into the Aegean, Cimon assembled the allied fleet at the southwestern cape of Asia Minor near the ancient Greek city of Cnidus, sacred to Aphrodite. He intended to carry an army of fighting men in his triremes and decided to modify the vessels so that the troops could fight more easily from the decks during any naval battle that might lie ahead. Thanks to painstaking maintenance, many triremes from Themistocles’ shipbuilding campaign were still in service. Their light, open construction made them fast and maneuverable, but they were ill adapted for carrying large numbers of troops. Under Cimon’s instructions, the shipwrights spanned the hulls with overall decking across the tops of the rowing frames. Now a full complement of rowers could ply their oars below deck, while dozens of hoplites and javelin throwers could be accommodated above.
When the alterations had been made, Cimon started eastward for the Eurymedon River with an Athenian and allied fleet of 250 triremes. After cruising through the turquoise-blue waters off Caria and Lycia, the fleet skirted the little chain of Chelidonian Islands and passed beyond the realm of Athenian influence. Ahead of them loomed the mysterious mountain of the Chimera, home to a mythical fire-breathing monster, where by night mysterious flames could be seen spouting from the rocky heights. Learning that the Persians at the Eurymedon were expecting a fleet of reinforcements any day, Cimon prepared for an immediate attack. After capturing the city of Phaselis, the allied fleet crossed the Gulf of Antalya and camped for the night within striking distance of the Persian base.
Xerxes’ fleet was moored at the mouth of the Eurymedon River, a broad stream fed by the melting snows of the Taurus Mountains. The Great King had appointed his own son Tithraustes as admiral. While he was still awaiting the arrival of reinforcements, the horizon suddenly filled with the black hulls and white spray of an approaching fleet: not friendly Phoenicians but Greeks. In a panic, the admiral first ordered his Cyprian and Cilician triremes to crowd into the river mouth for safety. Realizing that the fleet was now forced into a trap of his own making, Tithraustes reversed his decision and ordered all the ships to sea. So the hundreds of vessels rowed out into open water and formed a battle line.
As the leading ships in the two fleets collided, the shock proved too much for the inexperienced Persians. Most turned and dashed for shore. The Greeks chased them into the shallows. The first Persian crews to reach land spilled out of their vessels and ran. Piling up hull against hull, the entire mass of ships fell prey to their attackers. By one estimate Cimon captured two hundred triremes over and above the vessels that escaped or sank.
Meanwhile the Persians had marshaled their army and marched down to the beach. Cimon’s men were hot and tired from their struggle across the ships’ decks, but the hoplites made it clear that they were ready for more. At Cimon’s command the Greeks jumped down onto the sand and ran toward the Persians, just as an earlier Athenian army had followed Cimon’s father Miltiades across the plain at Marathon. Now Cimon’s foresight in bringing as many troops as possible reaped its reward. Little by little the Greeks gained ground, and in the end the battle became a rout. The Athenians and their allies pursued the Persians all the way back to their camp. The haul of booty from the pavilions and baggage train was immense.
In Cimon’s eyes, however, the fight was not over. Leaving some troops at the camp to guard the plunder, he ordered the rest back to the ships, rallied the crews, and rowed east in search of the last remnant of Persian naval power, the eighty ships from Phoenicia. Cimon moved so quickly that he outstripped the news of his victory at the Eurymedon. He caught the unsuspecting Phoenicians at sea and captured or destroyed them all.
When the Athenian fleet arrived back at the Piraeus, towing the captured enemy triremes behind their own, the city gave Cimon a hero’s welcome. His achievement that summer rivaled the victory at Salamis and in some ways surpassed it. Cimon had carried the fight against the Great King through Persian waters and onto Persian soil. He had performed the unparalleled feat of winning two battles on the same day, one at sea and another on land. And while a large part of Xerxes’ royal navy had survived Salamis, Cimon’s destruction of the Persian fleet had been complete. Sweetest of all, none of the credit had to be shared with the Spartans or other Peloponnesians.
Xerxes did not long survive the humiliation of his army and fleet at the Eurymedon River. That winter Persian ministers assassinated the king in his own palace. Xerxes’ son Artaxerxes succeeded to the throne. The new Great King was an able administrator but not a conqueror. His reign began a period of conservative retrenchment in place of perennial wars and expansion.
With the treasure won during the campaign, Cimon and the Athenians beautified their city as never before. In the Agora they planted majestic plane trees with rich green foliage and spreading boughs dappled white and brown. The deep shade gave the once-barren market and civic center the airy coolness of a royal Persian pleasure park. Also in the Agora a new colonnaded portico or stoa was built to house paintings of historic Athenian battles: the world’s first public art museum. The painted stoa became a popular gathering place and ultimately gave rise to the term “Stoics” for a school of philosophers who met under its colonnade.
On the Acropolis engineers and masons raised a magnificent buttressed wall to fortify the south slope of the rock and uphold a broad flat terrace on the summit, fit site for a future temple. At the Academy or grove of Akademos outside the city walls, Cimon improved the training grounds for Athens’ young athletes with aqueducts, fountains, shady groves, and running tracks. At the Piraeus a new temple was erected to honor a divine hero just added to the Athenian pantheon. His name was Eurymedon.
Appropriating Themistocles’ naval vision, Cimon began the task of joining Athens to the sea with long walls. Ultimately these massive fortifications would run from the city gates right down to the Piraeus and the beach at Phaleron, almost four miles away. Cimon paid for the foundations, laying down tons of rubble in marshy areas between the city and the sea.
The Persians had razed Athens to the ground, but within two decades the city was reborn. Xerxes’ attempt to crush the Athenians had the paradoxical effect of spurring them to new heights of achievement. Cimon presided over the transformation of a small city-state into the leader of a mighty maritime league. The astonishing transformation of character in the ordinary Athenian was an outcome that he had not foreseen. The city was becoming a vast urban stage decorated with sumptuous scenery, and the men of the demos,veterans of many successful campaigns at sea, were at last ready to take the direction of the drama into their own hands.