On that day in early May 48o when Xerxes watched from his marble throne the Immortals begin their crossing of the bridge over the Hellespont and the fleet exercises in the blue strait below him, the Greeks were still in a turmoil. Although they had had not months, but even years, in which to prepare themselves for the inevitable second round against the Persians they were still disunited. As always, it was the independent nature of the Greeks, coupled with the rivalries of the numerous city-states themselves, that prevented a real cohesion, even in the face of so overwhelming a threat to the freedom of all Greeks. The very individualism that they cherished was the greatest danger to their continued existence.
In the autumn of 481, after Xerxes’ heralds had made their demands for the tokens of earth and water from the Greeks, it became plain which states were prepared to accept the challenge and which had already submitted or medised. Ambassadors from the majority of the mainland states met in a congress on the Isthmus of Corinth held under the aegis of Sparta. An alliance was proclaimed between all the states attending, with Athens and Sparta universally accepted as the leaders. This, the Greek Isthmian League, was the first occasion that the Greeks had shown anything approaching a semblance of unity or of national feeling. But almost as significant as those who attended the meeting were those who abstained. It was hardly surprising that Argos, traditional enemy of Sparta in the Peloponnese and quite recently defeated by the Spartans, was in no mood to accept any secondary place under them. They made the unacceptable demand that Argos should have an equal share in the high command. This was impossible, and was no more than an oblique way of saying that they had no intention of fighting. It was also true that the Argives had been privately approached by the Persians, who had offered them a most-favoured-nation status in the Peloponnese if they remained neutral. The Argives clearly saw this as a means of dominating Sparta in due course, and of regaining their ancient position of leadership in southern Greece. If they had need of any excuse, they had also consulted the Delphic oracle and had received the advice to sit tight within their walls and clet the head save the body’. .
The cities of Crete, far removed from the new development of Greece, and only too conscious that the Persian-serving Ionian Greeks and the Phoenicians ruled the seas that had once been dominated by their distant ancestors, were determined not to be involved. Other states equally - like Achaea - were more concerned about their own problems, and did not see the impending struggle as of any concern to them. Quite apart from these, there were states like Thessaly where its rulers, the Aleuadae, were openly friendly with the Persians, while once-famous cities like Tiryns and Mycenae had suffered too much in the past from Argos, and particularly Sparta, to feel any desire to help them out.
The Greeks of the mainland had long been in consultation with their prosperous colonies, or former colonies, in rich Sicily and southern Italy, but little help was to be expected from these directions. Gelon, the tyrant of the great city-port of Syracuse, had, it is true, offered his services with that of his considerable fleet - but only if he had the high command. This had been turned down, because it was unthinkable that a cmere colonial’ should hold such a position. In any case, by the time that the great invasion of Xerxes was on the point of being launched, Gelon, like the next most important ruler in Sicily, Theron of Acragas, realised that they too were under threat of attack. The Carthaginian colonies on the island, with the aid of their founders and in concert with Persia, were about to launch a major blow against the Greek settlements as soon as the invasion of Greece got under way. Xerxes and his staff had largely anticipated that additional help might arrive in Greece from the cities of Sicily, and had prepared to circumvent it by a flank attack on the island. (Gelon of Syracuse alone had promised 200 triremes and well over 20,000 men for the defence of the Greek homeland.)
Something that added to the disunity and dismay of the Greeks was the oracle at Delphi itself. In the years prior to the invasion the various inquiries sent by agitated cities had received little comfort in return. It was not only to Argos that Delphi gave the dismal news of a Persian victory and advised neutrality or friendship with the enemy. Gelon of Syracuse covered himself, after the attack had begun, by sending an emissary to Delphi to watch events and, if necessary, to offer submission. The Delphic oracle never at any time advised him to allow his rich city to become involved. Throughout this period it is possible that Delphi was either bribed by Persian gold or it was Petainist, in the sense of making as reasonable an accommodation as possible with the apparently inevitable victors. (It was, in any case, well enough known to the priests at Delphi that Xerxes would always spare their shrine, just as he had that of sacred Delos.) The Cretans, for instance, were not only following their natural inclinations, but were also advised to stay neutral. The Athenians, as might well be expected, received the grim warning that ‘they should fly to the ends of the earth’. The Oracle was explicit:
Do not stay here, you who are doomed… . Leave your homes and the heights of your wheel-shaped city… . All is ruined and the swift God of War, hurtling in a Syrian chariot, shall destroy it. He shall lay low many a tower - not yours alone - and burn to ashes many shrines of the gods. Even now they stand dripping with sweat and shake with terror. From the topmost roofs drips dark blood, which foretells your inevitable ruin. Arise and leave the sanctuary, and prepare your hearts to meet misfortune.
Delphi was not only ‘The Navel of the Earth’, but was also the centre best equipped to receive information from all over the Greek and Mediterranean world. Merchants, travellers, scholars, ambassadors, mystics and plain ‘spies’, all passed through the glowing illuminated home of the sun-god Apollo. (As has been seen at Delos, the fact that Apollo almost equated with Ahuramazda of the Persian religion gave his worship and his priests a foot, as it were, in both camps.) If Athens was doomed, it could hardly be expected that the arrogant Spartans (‘They dared to throw the Great King Darius’ ambassadors down a well!’) could expect any comfort. They were told that either their city ‘of the wide places’ would be sacked or ‘The whole of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles [from whom the kings of Sparta claimed descent]’. This last of the many Delphic oracles certainly held a kernel of truth. A king of Sparta would indeed have to die in an effort to check the apparently invincible march of Persia.
The politics of both Athens and Sparta during the years immediately preceding the great invasion inevitably has considerable significance. In Athens, the political struggle which had ended with the triumph of Themistocles had been bitter in the extreme. His principal opponent in later years had been Aristeides, a dignified conservative who was known because of his incorruptibility (rare indeed in Greek politics) as ‘the Just’. Whereas Themistocles represented the ‘navy party’ which, as has been said, meant the poorer classes, Aristeides represented the ‘hoplite party’: men who could afford to provide their own armour, men of substance, and men furthermore who had already proved their worth at Marathon.
The curious Athenian process of ostracism, whereby voters annually wrote on a piece of potsherd the name of the man whom they felt the state could best do without, was the means whereby Aristeides was finally removed from the chessboard. (It is significant that the discovery of a pile of shards all bearing the name ‘Themistocles’ and dating from this period show how bitter was the struggle between the parties.) Ostracism meant banishment, and a sufficiently high count of votes meant exile for ten years. Political opponents of Themistocles who had been banished during this period included Hipparchus in 488-7, Megacles a year later, and Xanthippus two years after him. In 483-2 it was the turn of Aristeides, who was prominent among those who did not agree with the use of the Laurium silver to build the new triremes. A well-known anecdote records how, on being asked by an illiterate citizen to write his own name on a potsherd, he courteously inquired why the man wanted Aristeides banished. Back came the unexpected, but very human, reply: ‘Because I’m sick and tired of hearing him called “the Just”.’
If Athens had had its problems and close political in-fighting, so had Sparta. While the political scene in Athens seems not too unfamiliar to a modern, that of Sparta (like the state itself) is obscure and confusing. All this stems from that strangely muddled constitution which had grown up among the Lacedaemonian master-race. Grundy, like others, finds Sparta’s actions in international affairs difficult to interpret:
There is such an extraordinary consistency [my italics] in that “unambitious”, “vacillating”, “dilatory” policy, which even her friends and admirers condemned in the fifth century before Christ, and less passionate critics have condemned in the nineteenth century after Christ, that a thoughtful student of history may well feel some doubt as to whether that policy was dictated by an innate, unintelligent, selfish conservatism, or was due to motives of such a compelling character as to condition rigidly the relations of Sparta with the outside world.
The situation in Sparta was curious enough, to say the least. The dark struggle for power had taken place at a different level from that of Athens and had been considerably more primitive. Kleomenes, who had been one of the two kings of Sparta until his death in 489, had been responsible for the banishment of his fellow-king Demaratus, on the grounds that the latter was illegitimate. Herodotus has much to make of this story and tells it well; for the intrigue involved, and that which was to follow, was worthy of Shakespeare (with Macbeth in mind). Demaratus had gone across to the Persians and was now one of the advisers on the staff of Xerxes. It was Demaratus who cautioned Xerxes against underestimating the Spartans in warfare:
When the Spartans fight singly they are as brave as any man, but when they fight together they are supreme above all. For though they are free men, they are not free in all respects; law is the master whom they fear, a great deal more than your subjects fear you. They do what the law commands and its command is always the same, not to flee in battle whatever the number of the enemy, but to stand and win, or die.
It is clear that despite the embitterment which had driven him to the court of Xerxes the former king never forgot the Spartan virtues.
The death of Kleomenes has sinister undertones. After his twin-king Demaratus had been exiled, it is said the Spartans found out that lies had been told about the latter’s paternity, and that the whole thing was a put-up affair by Kleomenes. He fled from Sparta, visited Thessaly and Arcadia, and tried to get a league of chieftains to support him. It is possible that he had in mind a return to Sparta at their head and - with the aid of the Helots - the establishment of a completely new regime. The Spartiates were quick to see the danger to their own privileged position if Kleomenes succeeded in his aim, and invited him to return. ‘But when he did come back’, says Herodotus, ‘he immediately went mad; he had always been somewhat unstable… .’It appears that he was a heavy drinker, drinking his wine undiluted ‘in the Scythian fashion’, and he now became violent and uncontrollable. His half-brothers, the elder of whom was Leonidas, had him arrested and put in irons. Then one morning he was found in his cell with his body hideously cut up by a knife. The official story given out was that he had bribed his Helot jailer into giving him the knife so as to commit suicide - but it does not ring true. Some complicity between his half-brothers, even if not outright murder, seems more likely. It is possible that when Leonidas led out his small force to Thermopylae - to his eternally remembered death at the Hot Gates - he had something on his conscience to expiate.