Though tall and long-limbed, he has put on weight. He is smooth-skinned and beardless and has a full head of hair, which he wears twisted into tight curls. He is a grown man but retains the high-pitched voice of a boy. And he is present, along with the generals, politicians, priests, ambassadors, bodyguards, secretaries, attendants, chefs, dressers, flatterers, mistresses, and illegitimate children who make up Xerxes’ retinue, as the Great King enters Athens.
Like the other dignitaries of the Persian court, he is dressed in a long, flowing robe decorated with embroidery. Since he stands high in Xerxes’ eyes, his cloak may well be a royal gift, dyed a kingly purple or scarlet. His outfit is completed by a cloth hat and a pair of sandals and a great deal of gold jewelry: armbands, anklets, a torque, and—one last touch—a pair of earrings, probably elaborate, perhaps a combination of gold and faience beads. He is perfumed, of course.
His name is Hermotimus and he is a eunuch. This description of his appearance is an educated guess, based on ancient evidence. But much else about Hermotimus is certain. Castrated as a boy, he had been sent as a gift for Xerxes to Susa, the winter capital of the Persian Kings. He had served the Great King so well that Hermotimus was now first among the royal eunuchs. Eunuchs had a reputation for intrigue, but apparently they made up for it by their industriousness and attention to detail. Because eunuchs had no children of their own, the Persian kings prized them for their loyalty. Eunuchs inspired special trust in Persia as managers, watchdogs, and gatekeepers in the royal palaces, especially in the harem, where they served the royal women and children.
It was probably around September 20 when Hermotimus entered Athens, about three weeks after the battle of Thermopylae. The distance between Thermopylae and Athens, by the shortest possible route on ancient roads, was just over 140 miles. The Persians no doubt wanted to pursue their enemy hotly and rapidly. But the best that they could do was to send an advance force ahead, probably consisting of cavalry and elite troops. The bulk of Xerxes’ big and heterogeneous army moved only very slowly, perhaps at a rate ofabout ten miles a day, including one day’s halt every seven to rest the animals. Further slowing the army was the need to conquer Phocis and Boeotia before reaching Attica.
Xerxes’ full army probably took over two weeks to reach Athens. Assuming it took a few days to regroup after Thermopylae, the army might have begun its march south around September 1 and reached Athens by about September 20. The Persian advance guard presumably covered the distance at a much more rapid pace.
Herodotus suggests that the Persian fleet reached Athens’s main harbor, which was at Phaleron Bay, only nine days after the final battles at Artemisium and Thermopylae. He implies, furthermore, that the Persian army had reached Athens before the fleet. Assuming that the army, in this case, refers to the advance guard, then the first Persian land forces reached Athens around September 5, while the fleet reached Phaleron around September 7. The bulk of the Persian forces were far behind.
Along with Xerxes and his men, Hermotimus had proceeded south from Thermopylae into the mountainous regions of Doris and Phocis. They had as guides Greeks from Thessaly, pro-Persian sorts who hated their neighbors in Phocis more than they did any foreign invader. Led by these men, the Persians wound their way through the upland valleys of rocky Phocis, plundering and burning property, including a temple of Apollo. Most of the inhabitants had taken to the hills for safety, but a few unlucky souls fell into Persian hands. The women were gang-raped so violently that they died. The region of Doris, a friend of both Thessaly and Persia, was spared.
On the border of the region of Boeotia, Xerxes divided the army into two divisions. The smaller of the two headed westward for the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the wealthiest and most prestigious shrine in the Greek world. The larger division, which was headed by Xerxes, drove south in carts through Boeotia toward Athens. Delphi was awash in gold and silver gifts from the faithful, including a refined-gold statue of a lion that allegedly weighed 570 pounds. Xerxes was said to be eager to bring home such trophies, but the fabulous treasures eluded him. A violent thunderstorm on the outskirts of Delphi struck the army with lightning and sent rocks crashing down from Mount Parnassus, which panicked the superstitious men into turning back.
The Boeotian towns of Plataea and Thespiae were not as lucky. They alone of the city-states of the Boeotian plain had supported the Greek cause. The other cities, led by Thebes, had joined the Persians. The Greeks had a verb for this; “to Medize,” after the Medes, a separate Iranian people from the Persians but close enough for the Greeks: Greeks were always vague about the facts of those whom they called barbarians.
Being a military people, the Boeotians knew how a soldier itches for loot when he sees a city gleaming in the sun, and they did not want to run the risk of tempting the Persian army. So, for good measure, when they Medized, they hosted Macedonian ambassadors, men who had been sent by Xerxes’ trusted friend, the Macedonian king Alexander (an ancestor of Alexander the Great). Having no such protectors, Thespiae saw its territory ravaged, and Plataea was burned. The inhabitants of both places had already taken refuge in the Peloponnese.
Xerxes’ army next marched over the mountain pass into Athenian territory. What Hermotimus thought, as the wagon, on which he no doubt traveled, crested the hills and offered him his first glimpse of the territory of Athens, can only be guessed. But we would not be surprised if his mind turned to punishment. Xerxes was about to discipline the Athenians for having burned Sardis and for having humiliated his royal father’s men at Marathon, to say nothing of having broken their promise of submission. Hermotimus knew, as few others did, that justice requires paying people back in their own coin. Herodotus says, in fact, that no one ever did a better job of getting even than did Hermotimus.
Hermotimus came from Pedasa, a city in Caria, located just a few miles from Halicarnassus, Herodotus’s hometown. Pedasa was inhabited by the Leleges, a non-Greek people of whom little is known today. One striking detail is the legend that in times of trouble, the priestess of Athena in Pedasa grew a beard, perhaps a symbol of even the women’s willingness to fight for the defense of their land.
Tough, warlike, and dug into their well-fortified cities, the Pedasians held out against Persia’s initial conquest in 546 B.C. and fought fiercely when they joined the Ionian Revolt in 499 B.C. Maybe it was then, when Persia suppressed the rebellion, or maybe it was in the course of some unrecorded pirate raid, that young Hermotimus was captured and enslaved. It happened that he was an especially good-looking boy, and he came from a region, Caria, that was known for its supply of good-looking boys.
Xerxes brought Hermotimus along to Greece in 480 B.C. The king trusted the eunuch enough that, upon their eventual return to Anatolia, he made Hermotimus the secondary guardian of certain of the king’s illegitimate sons, who had been present during the expedition. Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus was in charge of getting the boys home safely. It was not unusual for members of the royal household to accompany the king on campaign. Among Xerxes’ illegitimate sons in Greece was presumably Tithraustes, who, fourteen years later, in 466, commanded a large Persian navy against the Greeks at the battle of the Eurymedon River in Anatolia. At Athens in 480, he would have to be satisfied with observing.
The plain of Attica, as the territory of the city-state of Athens is called, stretches out below the mountains. Most of Attica is made up of farmland and forests; the urban space of Athens in 480 B.C. was tiny, a distance that would take an hour’s walk from end to end. In the clear blue light of September, the Persians’ advance guard could make out the columns of the temples on the Athenian Acropolis, the center of the city of Athens. The sound of the wind blowing through the trees might stir them to picture the soft, city beds that were about to replace the pine needles on which they had earlier bivouacked.
The water of the Saronic Gulf and the distant mountains of the Peloponnese serve as a backdrop. Well within the Persians’ view and much closer at hand is the island of Salamis, which is separated only by a narrow channel from the mainland of Athens. As the Persians crested the mountains of Attica, they might have imagined that total victory lay in their grasp. The main obstacle consisted of some three hundred triremes, the Greek fleet that had regrouped in Salamis harbor after the battle at Artemisium. The Persian navy had sailed down the west coast of Euboea, looting as it went. The Persians had a Greek pilot to guide them through the twisting waterway, one Salganeus of Boeotia. But they were so dismayed at the narrowness of the Euripos strait that they had him executed on the grounds of misleading them—unfairly, since this was indeed the best route.
The Persian fleet finally rounded the tip of Attica at Cape Sunium, and now it was moored at Phaleron, about three miles south of the Acropolis. Meanwhile, about forty miles southwest of Athens, a Greek army hurried to build a wall at the narrow Isthmus of Corinth in order to block the Persians by land. But all that might seem far away on the morning when the Great King’s men would head for Athens and revenge.
Athens is only three miles from the sea, but it does not feel like a port. Rather, the ancient city’s hills—the hills of the Muses, the Nymphs, the Areopagus, and of course, the Acropolis—remind a visitor of the mountains in whose foothills Athens sits. Indeed, the city is enfolded by mountains: to the southeast, Mount Hymettus; to the northeast, Mount Pentele; to the northwest, Mount Parnes; and to the southwest, Mount Aigaleos. Only due south does Athens open to the sea. There, at the shore three miles away, a traveler enters a different world, one of the light and air of the Greek islands.
Athens might have reminded Hermotimus of the city of his birth. Ancient Pedasa has been tentatively identified with the site known today as Gökçeler Castle, a few miles northwest of the ancient site of Halicarnassus. Gökçeler Castle sits high in the hills of the Bodrum peninsula, set in a classic Aegean mountain landscape. Its acropolis is a steep, defensible hill. The imposing line of the fortification walls, with their massive, well-worked stones, is still visible, despite the wild growth of trees and bushes. It was good land for grazing sheep and goats, good land for terracing for olive cultivation, good land for bird hunting. Quiet in the hills, Pedasa seems a world away from the sea, although the water, only a few miles away, is visible in the distance, at least from the top of the citadel.
Back in Athens, Hermotimus might have shepherded the royal princes on a tour of the city, or what was left of it. He might have cited the signs of Persian pillage as proof that revenge is sweet. And Hermotimus could have cited his own experience as a case in point.
Just a few months earlier, while at Sardis in the winter of 481–480 B.C., the eunuch had made a side trip to the Greek coastal city of Atarneus. There, he happened to run into a Greek from the island of Chios named Panionius. He was the very man who, years earlier, had castrated Hermotimus. Indeed, Panionius castrated good-looking boys as a profession. Now was the moment of Hermotimus’s revenge. He lied to Panionius, claiming that he had no hard feelings, since Panionius’s knife had cut a path to wealth and power at the Persian court. Indeed, Hermotimus invited Panionius to share his success by moving from Chios to Atarneus—Panionius and his entire family.
Panionius fell for the ploy and moved his family, at which point Hermotimus struck. He revealed his true anger at having been castrated. Panionius, said Hermotimus, had made him “a nothing.” Now Hermotimus unveiled his plan for revenge. Hermotimus forced Panionius to castrate his four sons, and then he made the boys do likewise to their father. There is a hint in Herodotus that it was more than tit-for-tat; that while Hermotimus lost only his testicles, Panionius and his sons each was left with only a hole for urination. This savage act of reprisal suggests the sort of bloody justice—if not the precise punishment—that Xerxes had in mind for the Athenians.
At the end of the sixth year of his reign, and four months after he had crossed the Hellespont, the Great King finally rode into Athens. The Persians no doubt planned their usual penalty for rebels and recalcitrants. Athenian men would be put to the sword, women would be raped, children rounded up. Human dragnets would be launched; long lines of men would scour the countryside and haul in prisoners. Then tens of thousands of Athenian survivors of Persia’s vengeance would be marched or rowed off eastward, far from the Aegean, to places on the Persian Gulf or in the mountains of Central Asia, in order to serve the glory of the Great King. There they would fret over future generations and their precarious ability to pass on ever dimmer memories of Athens to their young.
It was all a familiar pattern by now, from the bloodshed to the uprooting to the lamentations. It was the fate, after the failure of the Ionian Revolt in 494 B.C., of such islands as Chios and Lesbos and of the cities of Eretria and Miletus and, many years earlier, of other cities in the ancient Near East. But it never happened in Athens, because when the Persians arrived, there was almost no one there. Nearly the entire territory of Attica, the one-thousand-square-mile area that was roughly equal in size to the American state of Rhode Island or the British county of Hampshire, had been stripped of its people. From the mountains of Marathon to the lowlands of Eleusis, from the silver mines of Laurium to the harbor of Piraeus, Attica was nearly empty.
It was not easy to evacuate a Greek city-state. One other city had tried to do so with mixed results. Rather than submit to Persia, in 540 B.C. the people of Phocaea in Ionia voted to move lock, stock, and barrel. But there was enough resistance that they had to drop a lump of iron into the sea and all swear not to return to Phocaea until it floated again—that is, never. They also put a curse on anyone who stayed behind. Even so, more than half of the population of the city broke their oath, braved the curse, and sailed back home to become Persian subjects. The remainder eventually resettled in Italy, after many troubles.
Athenians in 480 B.C. faced similar temptations and greater problems. Phocaea was a small place; Athens was one of the largest city-states in the Greek world. There were probably about 150,000 men, women, and children in Attica in 480 B.C. And most of them would leave.
They would go to three destinations. Women and children were meant to head across the Saronic Gulf to Troezen, a city-state on the east coast of the Peloponnese, but some also went to the Saronic Gulf island of Aegina. Aegina and Troezen are each about a day’s sail from Athens. Athenian men of fighting age—in this emergency, possibly ages eighteen through fifty-nine—headed for Salamis; that island was, it seems, the preferred destination also for the elderly and for whatever household goods could be transported. Salamis lies off the coast of Attica, only about a mile away.
Like Aegina and Troezen, Salamis is accessible by sea. So far as is known, Athens was evacuated entirely by ship. The veterans of Artemisium had no time to rest before going back to sea, ferrying their countrymen to safety. As for the evacuees, anecdotes survive of tearful dockside leave-takings.
Troezen was a logical choice for Athenian relocation. Troezen had long-standing connections to Athens. Myth made Troezen the maternal home of Theseus, Athens’s legendary hero-king. The island of Aegina was not as obvious a destination, since until Xerxes’ invasion, it had been Athens’s archenemy. But Aegina had closed ranks with the anti-Persian Greeks, and perhaps now, in 480 B.C., the island wished to make amends for its past. The welcome given to Athenian evacuees was a good start.
Salamis was the key to Athens’s strategy. Unlike Troezen and Aegina, Salamis was Athenian territory. Originally independent, Salamis had a strategic location, skirting both Attica and the neighboring city-state of Megara, which made it much fought over by its neighbors on the mainland before finally being conquered by Athens not long after 600 B.C. In time, Athenian families settled on the island. A few years before 480 B.C. one of Salamis’s most famous sons was born: the Athenian tragedian Euripides.
The view from the Athenian Acropolis makes the strategic value of Salamis clear. The narrow straits separating Salamis from the mainland lie due west of the Acropolis. The rugged outline of the island rises beyond a sliver of water. Standing on the Acropolis, a person feels almost as if he could grab hold of the island. By evacuating to Salamis, the Athenians found a base within sight of home.
Although the Athenian relocation had already begun before August 480 B.C., it accelerated with the news of the fall of Thermopylae. The Peloponnesians had promised that if they had to retreat from the pass, they would make a stand in Boeotia. Under no circumstance would they leave Athens to find its own way. Yet the Peloponnesians had reneged. Their armies were forming a defensive line at the Isthmus of Corinth, gateway to the Peloponnese, that is, about forty miles to the southwest of Athens. The allies had deserted Athens. The Athenians had to settle for a Peloponnesian agreement that, after Artemisium, the Greek fleet would regroup at Salamis rather than at a harbor at the Isthmus. But the Peloponnesians, who were itching to get back closer to home, did not promise to actually fight a battle at Salamis. Since that was precisely what the Athenians wanted to do, and since Athens had the leverage of the largest fleet in Greece, disagreement lay ahead.
Alone and abandoned on land, the Athenians decided to evacuate their homeland and make a stand at Salamis. This was no hasty or eleventh-hour plan. It had been decided on before the Athenian fleet went north to Artemisium, perhaps nearly a year earlier. And it had been approved by the Athenian assembly, where six thousand or more men met, debated, and voted on the plan of action, which was passed as a decree. “It was resolved by the Council and the Assembly of the People”: so every decree of the Athenians began. As the assembly took the heavy step of voting for mass departure, the rarest of things may have descended on that rowdiest of parliaments: silence.
The Athenian people had voted for their own exile. But behind the strategy was one man. Themistocles was the leader whose name was recorded on the official record and the politician who would be blamed if everything failed in the end.
A document inscribed on stone, known as the Themistocles Decree for the name of the man who moved its passage, confirms Herodotus’s report while adding several important details. Dating from ca. 300 B.C., the inscription may indeed be based on the original document passed by the Athenian assembly. The Themistocles Decree shows that the evacuation of Athens began well before the battle of Artemisium, in August 480 B.C. It also demonstrates how carefully the people of Athens were thinking ahead.
They made use of Salamis in more ways than one. For example, all the politicians who had been ostracized were recalled in the interests of national unity, but since some of them had been ostracized because of pro-Persian sentiments, they were kept at arm’s length on the island of Salamis.
Nor was religion neglected. Before the departure of the fleet, for instance, the authorities were to sacrifice to Zeus All-Powerful, to Athena of Victory, and to Poseidon the Securer: that is, to the king of the gods, to the patroness of the city, and to the god of the sea. Power, victory, and security were the themes of the hour.
The decree’s mobilization of military manpower is even more striking. Not only Athenian citizens but resident aliens were called up. Careful provision was made to combine seasoned rowers with landlubber infantrymen in each of the two hundred ships in the Athenian fleet. The names of each ship’s crew were posted on boards for all to see.
Each name betokened Themistocles’ political acumen. Xerxes had made his vendetta against Athens into a campaign of conquest, but Themistocles then turned it into a people’s war. This was both his malice and his genius, because evacuation incited the Athenians and left the Persians unfulfilled, which set the stage for a bloody battle.
Now Athenians turned to the gods, and the god whom the people wanted most to hear from was Apollo. They consulted his prestigious oracle (literally, “mouthpiece”) at Delphi, but its response was not encouraging. Just when the Athenians sounded out the oracle is not known, but it was probably in late 481 or early 480 B.C.
The Greeks firmly believed that the gods offered signs of the future, if only men know how to read them. The pseudoscience of divination, therefore, was vital to Greek religion. Its branches included the interpretation of dreams, observation of birds, sacrifice, chance omens such as sneezing, and consultation with representatives of the gods at oracular shrines. Of the last, none was more prestigious than Delphi, where the god spoke through a priestess in a trance. Delphi’s prestige rested not only on piety and self-promotion, but also on the solid record of good advice that the oracle had amassed over the years. That, in turn, reflects the thick network of communications that Delphi maintained. The oracle’s advice was based often enough on fact to be worthy of attention.
Aristonice, priestess of Apollo at Delphi, told the Athenians not even to consider resisting Persia: “O wretches,” she asked, “why are you sitting?” Her advice: “Flee to the ends of the earth, leave your homes and the heights of your city,” because “miserable things are on the way.” Seeing that Apollo’s customers were, to put it mildly, unsatisfied with this response, one of the authorities at Delphi told the Athenians to try again. This time they should approach the priestess as suppliants, holding laurel branches. It was no doubt understood that they would eventually have to repay Apollo’s patience with a more substantial gift.
This time the priestess held out a little more hope. She said that although everything else in Athens would be captured by the enemy,
Far-seeing Zeus grants to thrice-born Athena a wooden wall,
The only place not to be sacked, it will help you and your children.
Do not wait for the great host coming from the continent,
Cavalry and foot soldiers; turn your back and withdraw from the foe.
Eventually you will stand opposite them.
O divine Salamis, you will destroy the sons of women
Either at seedtime or at harvesttime.
Certainly the gods move in mysterious ways, but it is hard not to conclude from so detailed a response that the priests of Apollo had done their homework about the policy options under consideration in Athens. The oracle offered something for everyone, as a heated discussion back in Athens demonstrated.
Nearly everyone wanted to fight; the question was how. Some Athenians, particularly in the older generation, took “wooden wall” to mean a wooden palisade with which the Acropolis should be defended. But others said that “wooden walls” meant wooden ships, i.e., the Athenian fleet. All effort should focus on readying for battle the new navy begun in 493 B.C. But their opponents raised an objection: Salamis.
If Apollo had meant to encourage Athenians to fight at sea, he would not have referred to destruction at Salamis; on the contrary, he was warning them to avoid Salamis. So said the fretful, and they were led by the oracle collectors. These men, professional divines who peddled books of predictions, had a significant following in Athens. They were defeatists; rather than resist Xerxes, they wanted Athenians to emigrate as the Phocaeans had. But Themistocles outwitted them.
Far from discouraging the Athenians, the god was steering them toward “divine Salamis,” said Themistocles. Surely Apollo would have referred to “wretched Salamis” if he had meant to dissuade Athens from the sea. The “sons of women” who would be destroyed must mean the Persians, he said. Note, too, that the oracle predicted a battle there either in spring (harvesttime in Athens) or fall (when the grain is sown in Athens). In war, as in all else, timing is everything; this particular, as will become clear later, is highly significant.
No politician wins without allies. No ally is more valuable than an ex-enemy, especially a famous enemy. In Cimon son of Miltiades, that is precisely what Themistocles got. Miltiades was the victor of Marathon in 490 B.C. and no friend of Themistocles. After Miltiades’ death from gangrene in 489 B.C. his mantle passed to his young son. In late 481 or early 480 Cimon might have led the charge against Themistocles but instead did just the opposite, and in the most public way possible.
At the height of the debate over the oracle, Cimon led a public procession. He was an aristocrat and a member of what amounted to one of the most exclusive clubs in Athens, the cavalry. You could always tell a cavalryman in Athens by his long hair and his dandy’s clothes, an odd combination of Spartan toughness and Ionian conspicuous consumption. Tall and curly-haired, Cimon stood at the front of his procession of fellow horsemen. They marched from the edge of the city through the streets toward the Acropolis. There, in Athens’s holiest shrine, the temple of Athena Polias, Cimon dedicated his horse’s bridle to the goddess. Then he took one of the shields hanging on the temple wall, said a prayer to Athena, and marched down to the sea.
In a grand gesture of political theater, the uncrowned king of Athens’s conservatives gave his public blessing to the radicals. What Cimon said, in effect, was that the national emergency had abolished the difference between aristocratic knights and the lower classes who manned the rowers’ benches. For the duration of the Persian Wars, all Athenians would be seamen. Cimon had proclaimed, in effect, a sacred union. It was a gesture of statesmanship of such daring that it would be tempting to see Themistocles behind it somehow, if not for the knowledge that he was not the only clever patriot in Athens. Cimon deserves credit for sacrificing party for country.
Themistocles won the debate over strategy. Herodotus reports that the Athenians voted to await the barbarian invasion of Greece with their entire supply of manpower deployed on ships. As agreed by the Hellenic League at its meeting at the Isthmus, the other Greek allies would defend the country by land. They would try to stop the Persians in the north, but if that failed, the Athenians resolved to evacuate Attica and fight at Salamis. The pious were mollified by a resolution to leave the city in the care of its patron god, Athena.
Nothing so became the land of the Athenians as the manner of their leaving it. In light of the common criticism of democracy as soft and submissive, it is worth appraising the price that democratic Athens was willing to pay for freedom. The Athenian assembly voted not only to send its young men out to battle but to uproot its elderly, its women, and its children. And the march of the population of Athens aboard refugee ships—the population of a city so ancient that its name is older than the Greek language itself—the willing steps of a people who did not know if they would go home again, might have been as stunning a sight as the seven days’ procession of Xerxes’ army across the bridges of the Hellespont.
Later generations would revere the decision for exile and inscribe and reinscribe it in stone. They celebrated its daring, and they were right. While most Greeks surrendered, while their Peloponnesian allies tried to abandon them, the Athenians thought it a high honor to resist Persia. Rather than flee Greece, says Herodotus, “they stayed behind and waited courageously for the enemy to invade their land.” The day they passed a motion to evacuate Athens, the Athenians decided that not only their soldiers and rowers stood on the watchtowers of history, they all did.
On a likely reconstruction, the Athenians decided to carry out the evacuation in two stages. The date of the decree may be as late as June 480 B.C. Athenian women, children, and old men probably left first, while the young men stayed behind to man the fleet.
The final evacuation began only when the men returned from Artemisium, about September 1. The Athenian fleet put in at its harbor at Phaleron about three days after leaving Artemisium, a distance of about 214 nautical miles. The Persian fleet had remained in northern Euboea for six days after the battle, in order to repair ships, receive reinforcements from the Greek islands, and see the battlefield at Thermopylae. That meant that the Athenians had less than a week to carry out the bulk of their mass departure. To be sure, neither the Persian navy nor the Persian army’s advance guard, which reached Attica about September 5, could scour all Attica, which meant there was still time to escape until the full Persian forces arrived around September 20. But the first sight of Persians in Attica no doubt lit a fire under Athenian stragglers.
The evacuation turned out to be more spontaneous and slapdash than the Athenian assembly had planned. But Law and Order were Spartan goddesses; the Athenians worshipped Freedom. Athenians were famously individualistic and suspicious of authority, and no doubt many had ignored the earlier mandate to leave. Others may have first left but then, when the Persians failed to appear, returned to Athens. So the exodus of September 480 B.C. included women and children, people who, in principle, should have already left for Troezen. Some now went to Troezen, some to Aegina, and the rest to Salamis.
Yet even with the news from Artemisium and Thermopylae, it was still not easy to convince the Athenians to leave home. Help came from Athens’s council of former chief magistrates, the Areopagus, named for the hill near the Acropolis on which it met. The Areopagus voted every sailor a maintenance allowance of eight drachmas, about enough money to buy food for three weeks. The money probably came from the state treasury. Classical Greek navies carried only the most minimal supplies. Sailors were expected to buy food at local markets, which made an allowance essential for most men.
Themistocles was a member of the Areopagus, but an alternate story denies his ability to convince that council to assign state funds to the fleet. Instead, the money depended on a scheme of his. In the confusion of departure, someone stole the gold Gorgon head of the statue of Athena on the Acropolis. On the excuse of looking for this priceless relic, Themistocles managed to get people’s luggage ransacked. He confiscated all the money he found and used it to pay the men. We do not know which story is the truth, nor do we know if the Gorgon head was ever found.
It may be that the city of Troezen encouraged the evacuation as well. At least in later years, Troezenians claimed that they passed a law to support Athenian refugees at public expense. Each Athenian family relocated to Troezen was voted a modest daily subsidy; their children were allowed to pick fruit from any trees they wanted; and teachers were hired for them as well.
An added fillip for departure came from the Acropolis. The ancients believed that when a city faced destruction, its patron deity left first. The patron of Athens was the goddess Athena, who revealed herself in many ways, one of which was supposedly as a great snake that lived in a temple on the Acropolis. No one had ever seen the snake except, allegedly, the temple staff, who claimed to have proof of its existence. Once a month the priestess of Athena the Guardian of the City left out a honey cake and, somehow or other, it disappeared. The snake, it was thought, must have eaten it. This month, however, the impossible happened: the honey cake was left untouched. The priestess drew the conclusion that Athena had abandoned the city. She concluded that the Persians would destroy Athens, and she informed the Athenian people.
Behind the priestess, it was whispered, stood the serpent of the speaker’s platform, Themistocles. The story of the snake and the honey cake, they said, was just a comedy of his devising. Themistocles allegedly convinced the priestess to concoct the tale of the rejected honey cake in order to manipulate public opinion. If Themistocles did indeed negotiate with the priestess, she was probably no pushover. A mature woman from a prominent family, she managed the most important cult in the city. She served for life and lived on the Acropolis. She was surely as savvy politically as she was pious.
One way or another, the priestess informed the city of Athena’s flight, but not every last Athenian followed. In the countryside, where most Athenians lived, what looked like safe hiding places tempted those who could not bear to leave. The Persians caught them and sent five hundred Athenian prisoners across the Aegean Sea to the island of Samos. How many Athenians they murdered in Attica is not recorded.
It was the supreme emergency in the history of the nation. Democracy in Athens lasted 250 years, and most of that time Athens was a naval power, yet this was one of only two occasions when every single available man was drafted for service aboard ship; the other occasion came later at the low point of the Peloponnesian War. Little in the long history of government by the people tested democracy like this moment.
If it worked, the evacuation of Athens would be celebrated as one of the supreme strategic retreats in the history of war. If it failed, it would be lamented in exile.
Few of Athens’s blue bloods wished to risk capture by Xerxes. Among their ranks in the evacuees was a teenager named Pericles, son of the aristocrat Xanthippus son of Ariphron of the deme of Cholargos. One day Pericles would be the first man in Athens. In 480 B.C., however, for the second time in his fourteen years, Pericles and his family, including his brother and sister, were going into exile. In 484 B.C., Xanthippus had been ostracized and the family left Athens, possibly for the northern Peloponnesian city of Sicyon, where they had relatives. That had been a private drama, but in 480, all Athens shared Pericles’ experience of upheaval.
Anecdotes of the departure abounded. One story, for example, said that Xanthippus’s dog was so devoted that he swam after his master’s trireme across the mile-wide straits of Salamis, reached the other shore, and immediately died of exhaustion. A spot in Salamis known centuries later as the Dog’s Tomb was said to mark his grave.
The departure of a Greek warrior was ordinarily marked by a ceremony. Typically, the woman of the house would use a small pitcher to pour a libation, an offering of wine to the gods, in the hope of a safe return. But who made the libation when the whole family departed, as most Athenian families did in September 480 B.C.? Whoever presided, perhaps the words echoed these sentiments of the Greek poet Theognis of Megara:
May Zeus who dwells in the sky ever hold his right hand over this city
to keep off harm, and may the other blessed immortals do likewise, and
may Apollo make straight our tongue and mind.
. . . after offering libations satisfying to
the gods let us drink, . . .
fearing not the Median war.
The Athenian refugees carried what little they could into exile. The rest they left behind, everything from clay tableware, lamps, and loom weights to glass bowls, coins, and jewelry buried in the backyard, and bronze objects of every kind—pots, bowls, ladles, tripods, weights decorated with dolphins. The wealthiest left family graves marked by statues, including images of horsemen and athletes, immigrants and infantrymen, lions and boars, sphinxes, wreaths, and flowers. They left behind records of past mourning, like the epitaph for one Anaxilas of Naxos, who died around 510 B.C., leaving behind a family “fraught with grief, sorrow, and lamentation.” They left behind tombs containing gold rings, earrings, and necklaces; iron swords and spearheads; ceramic toys; knucklebones; and painted pottery of every shape and size, decorated variously with scenes of gods and heroes, lovers and conquerors, roosters and sphinxes, athletes and warriors, weavers, satyrs, and dolphins.
As the Persians made their progress through a largely empty Attica, they looted whatever they could and demolished whatever seemed worth the trouble of destruction. The vengeance that had been denied at Marathon was finally at hand.
What did the Persians think of the Athenians as they smashed their vases? Did they stop to look at the painted scenes? Did they notice that the images of drinking, playing, and praying were far outnumbered by those of fighting? Did they consider the meaning of all those pictures of warriors spearing, stabbing, and pummeling each other to death and then fighting over the corpses—having of course first stripped the enemy dead of their arms?
What did the Persians think of the Athenians as they overturned their statues? Did they notice, for instance, a bronze statue of Apollo holding a bow? This tall, strong, lean, and powerful figure is more street fighter than god of light. What did they make of Artemis with her quiver or Athena in her bronze helmet and breastplate of goatskin and snakes?
Did it occur to the Persians that they had taken on a nation of killers? Or did they simply dismiss the Greeks as braggart savages? No doubt the latter, since soldiers rarely imagine their own death. Whatever they found in deserted Attica, the Persians probably preferred focusing on the kind of scene illustrated by an Iranian cylinder seal of the period. This object, made of the semiprecious stone chalcedony, would be rolled across a wet clay stamp on a document to yield an image of Persia triumphant. It showed the Great King spearing a fallen Greek foot soldier.
When the Persians reached the city of Athens they found it empty. Athenians were not in evidence except on the Acropolis. The men there were not many in number, but they were diverse. A group amounting to, at a guess, several hundred consisted of treasurers of the temple of Athena, who were all wealthy men; men too poor or too physically infirm to support themselves on Salamis; and, finally, those who simply refused to believe that the “wooden wall” meant ships and not a wooden palisade on the Acropolis itself. They put up a better fight than might have been expected.
The Athenian Acropolis is a natural fortress, its slopes sheer and precipitous. Oblong in shape, it stands about 512 feet high and covers a space of about 1,000 by 500 feet—about three times as long and three times as wide as an American football field. The defenders barricaded the Acropolis with doors and wooden beams, which they presumably took from the temples. In all likelihood, they built the barricade on the stone gateway to the Acropolis.
The Persians, meanwhile, based themselves on the nearby Areopagus, or Hill of Ares, a rocky summit that rises to a height of about 375 feet across a narrow valley from the west end of the Acropolis. From there, Persian archers shot flaming arrows up into the wooden enclosure that the Athenians had built. Tied to each arrow was a strip of hemp or some other plant fiber that had been dipped in flammable liquid, such as pine resin, and which was ignited as it was shot.
Beforehand, the Persians had called on Athenian exiles that they had in tow and sent them over to the Acropolis to talk sense to the defenders. The exiles were heirs of the former tyrant Hippias, last seen in Athens in 490 B.C. at the battle of Marathon. The wardens of the Acropolis were unimpressed. They responded to the exiles’ offer by rolling stones down on the Persians who attempted to climb the Acropolis.
For what Herodotus calls “a long time”—perhaps several days—the Persians were stymied. Then they found a way up via a trail in the cleft of the rock on the northwestern part of the Acropolis, a way so steep that it had been left unguarded. When the defenders saw the Persians reach the top, some of them committed suicide by leaping off the hill. The others took refuge in the temple of the goddess. Murder in a sanctuary was a great crime under Greek law. And yet, says Herodotus, as soon as the Persians reached the top of the Acropolis, they made straight for the temple and “they opened the gates and murdered the suppliants.” There were no survivors.
Athens’s unknown warriors could not have looked less gallant: men too poor to own armor or too duty-bound to join the fleet at Salamis or too frail to move without a walking stick. Yet like the Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae, these Athenians defended Greek soil to the death. So far as is known, no monument was ever erected to them, but as Pericles said not long afterward, brave men have the whole earth as their sepulcher.
After slaughtering the Athenians, the Persians looted the treasures of the temples and then set fire to the whole hill. The wooden beams of its stone buildings blazed, leaving fire-stained wrecks.
The Persians had destroyed the Acropolis but not the Acropolis known to us. The Athenian Acropolis whose ruins are famous today is largely the product of the generation after the Persian Wars. The Acropolis’s best-known building, the Temple of Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess Athena—the Parthenon—was completed in 432 B.C.
The Athenian Acropolis of 480 B.C. was not the icon of Western art that it would later become. Its art and architecture were exuberant, experimental, even grotesque—anything but serene. The old temples of the Acropolis were full of statues of lions and sea monsters, of Gorgons and gaily painted snakes, of men with trim black beards, of long-tressed women in long pleated gowns, of youths with hair teased into snail-shell-style curls.
The bric-a-brac of the cluttered space of the old Acropolis reflected centuries of accretion rather than a single classical program. For the Athenians to rebuild the Acropolis, as they did, beginning in the 440s B.C., they had first to clear away the old buildings and statues. The fires set by Xerxes’ men in 480 B.C. proved, therefore, to be an act of creative destruction, although it did not seem that way to the Greeks at the time.
On the contrary, it might have seemed like the end of the world. The Persians had destroyed the sum total of a people’s religious faith. Everything that the Athenians had accumulated over the centuries, patiently and piously, had been ruined in an afternoon. To the ancient Greeks, what the Persians did amounted to a crime against the gods. Fighting the barbarians afterward was no longer an act merely of self-defense; it was an act of piety.
Xerxes now controlled Athens. He sent a horseman hurrying back to Susa to bring the good news to Artabanus, who was the Great King’s uncle, his regent, and the arch-dove of the preexpedition debates. Xerxes had reason to welcome the congratulations that his men now surely showered upon him. Hermotimus was no doubt among them.
Back in Persia, in the Palace of Darius at Persepolis, carved into a doorjamb, stands a sculpture in relief of a beardless attendant. Well-dressed, carefully groomed, and good-looking, he is usually thought to be a eunuch. In his right hand, he carries a perfume bottle, a round-bottomed, tubular flask closed with a stopper. He holds a towel draped over his left hand. He strides ahead, as if to bring the objects to the Great King.
So we might imagine Hermotimus, after the fall of the Acropolis, waiting on Xerxes. As a high-ranking eunuch, Hermotimus would have brought the ruler honeyed words instead of cosmetics and cloths, but the principle was the same: devotion. Hermotimus would not have wanted to miss an opportunity to flatter the Great King.
But the eunuch, a connoisseur of vengeance, would probably have turned a skeptical eye on the flames over Athens. The Greek fleet still sat in the Salamis channel, within sight of the Persian victors on the Acropolis. Hermotimus would want nothing less than to see the enemy’s ships smashed.
The Greeks had not surrendered. Athens was occupied, Athens was burning, but the Athenians were unbowed. The sack of the Acropolis no doubt struck terror in some Athenian hearts, but for the most part it seems only to have increased their appetite for battle.
In fact, the Greeks’ greatest enemy at this point was not Persia but themselves. The arguments swung this way and that during the course of violent disagreements at Greek naval headquarters. The Greeks had abandoned Athens, but their navy now lay barely a mile away. The fleet had docked at Salamis, in the harbor across the channel from the mainland that now lay in enemy hands. On that fleet now depended the future of Greece.