Three days after the fall of Thermopylae the main body of Xerxes’ army was moving south and, now that there was no opposition, they had the choice of a number of routes. Some probably passed through the ravine of the Asopus river, while the transport and baggage-wagons will have followed the coastal road through Locris. A squadron of cavalry and crack troops had already gone on ahead to clear the way through to Athens. There would be no resistance. With the collapse of the Greek defence at Thermopylae and the withdrawal of their fleet from Artemisium everything was clear for the Persian advance by land and sea. Xerxes was naturally anxious to confirm that the way was open and, hearing that some Greek deserters had arrived in his camp, had them sent for and interviewed by an interpreter. The men were from Arcadia and ‘having nothing to live on, wanted employment’. These would-be mercenaries present an interesting problem, for why would Arcadians come all the way from southern Greece merely to seek employment when they could certainly have found this among their fellow Greeks at the defence-line of the Isthmus ? It seems more than likely that, even if they were actively pro-Persian, they would not have journeyed so far to bear arms for Xerxes’ cause. If they were violently anti-Spartan (like Argos), all they had to do was stay in Arcadia and join the Persians when they occupied the Peloponnese. The answer must surely be that these renegades came from the 2120 Arcadians who had joined up with Leonidas as he marched north to the Isthmus. They had fought in the first two days at Thermopylae and had left with the other allies when Leonidas had prepared for his last stand. They had seen the unbelievable manpower of the Persian army and they knew that even a Spartan king and those lords of the Peloponnese, the Spartiate warrior-caste, were not invincible. It was hardly surprising that they should wish to join what they must surely have seen as the inevitable victors. It must also be remembered that at this period in Greek history there was little or no ethnic patriotism (even though Thermopylae may have helped to promote it). A man belonged to his city-state, his small land area, his ‘clan’ almost, long before he had any concept of‘Hellas’ or of all mainland Greeks forming a nation. It was not for over a hundred years, when Alexander the Great had united Greece by force and established his vast empire, that this sense of nationhood was achieved.
Xerxes asked these Arcadians what the other Greeks were doing at the moment, wanting very naturally to find out whether the Athenians were busily fortifying their city or whether all the Greeks had withdrawn to hold the line at the Isthmus. Now the Arcadians, if they had indeed come up from the south or were, as seems almost indisputable, deserters from the remnants of Leonidas’ army, would have known what every Greek knew. Quite apart from the Carneian festival on 20 August, at the second full moon of the month, it was also the year for the Olympic games which were held at the time of the same full moon. Although, in view of the invasion, there were many Greeks who could not attend, the fact remained that even in the face of the attack upon their homeland the games were still being held (something else that sounds unbelievable to a modern, but in no way surprises Herodotus). ‘… [Xerxes] was told in reply that the Greeks were celebrating the Olympic festival, where they were watching athletic contests and chariot-races.’ The king, imagining that for the Greeks to indulge in athletics when his army was threatening to engulf their country, naturally jumped to the conclusion that these Greeks (he knew their mercenary nature) must only be doing so because there were prizes of immense value to be won. He was astounded to hear that it was not for gold or silver that they were competing but for ‘the wreath of olives which it is our custom to give’. The son of Artabanus (Xerxes’ uncle who had been sent home for giving him sage advice about the dangers attendant on the expedition) was so astonished when the interpreter repeated these words that he exclaimed in a loud voice to the King’s brother-in-law: ‘Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have brought us to fight against - men who compete with one another for no material reward, but only for honour!’ It is reasonable to suspect that the young man was immediately marked down as being defeatist like his uncle and unsuitable for promotion… .
After what Herodotus calls ‘the disaster at Thermopylae’ (with his pro-Athenian bias he was not willing to see that the Spartan stand at Thermopylae had made Artemisium possible), the march of the Persian army was now facilitated by the Thessalians. The Phocians, who had, however inefficiently, fought for the Greek cause, were not to be persuaded by the Thessalians’ offer to protect them against the wrath of the Great King if they were given a large sum of money. The Thessalians, in any case, hated the people of Phocis for having quite recently - and most successfully - rebelled against them, and their own pro-Persian attitude was more than offended by the Phocians’ sharp reply that, whatever other people did, the men of Phocis ‘would on no account be traitors to Greece’. Encouraged by the active collaboration of the people of Thessaly, Xerxes determined to make an example of Phocis, its fertile land, and all its people. Small states which dared to make a stand against his inexorable advance should be taught so savage a lesson that all the others would quickly learn that it was better to collaborate than to try for independence. (Once again, as throughout so much of this distant war, the twentieth-century reader is likely to be reminded of the actions of the Germans in the Second World War and of the Russians in Eastern Europe subsequently.) In the words of Herodotus: ‘All Phocis was overrun; the Thessalians did not let the Persians miss a bit of it, and everywhere they went there was devastation by fire and sword, and towns and temples were burned.’ In the gracious valley of the Cephisus no village or township was spared and, as in all wars, ‘some women were raped successively by so many of the soldiers that they died’. Nevertheless, most of the population managed to escape, either by taking to the hills in the area of Parnassus or fleeing westward to Amphissa on the far side of the great massif. The smoke of the burning towns and farms and temples could be seen for miles away, and the pro-Persian inhabitants of Orchomenus could congratulate themselves on their political foresight. The news of the devastation was spread far and wide by the fleeing refugees and it will not have been long before the inhabitants of even the remotest hamlets in Attica will have learned the fate that lay in store for them.
In Athens itself, the news of the fall of Thermopylae and the withdrawal of the fleet from Artemisium will have been received quite quickly; either by a series of couriers, a fast cutter, or by signal-fires. Despite Themistocles’ earlier arrangements for the evacuation of the greater part of the population it is clear that, as so often happens, there were many who had been unwilling to comprehend that their land and even their city would ever be seriously threatened by the invaders. Few of them were in a position to know how small was the holding force that had gone north to Thermopylae. Now they learned the horrifying truth that an army led by Spartans had been defeated, and that a Spartan king had perished. This was the writing on the wall with a vengeance: even the Athenians, proud as they were after their victory at Marathon, conceded in their hearts that the Spartans were the most formidable soldiers known to man. A shudder ran round the community that had stayed behind. Where, for instance, was the major force from the Peloponnese that should have come up to reinforce Leonidas? ‘The Athenians’, as Plutarch put it, ‘pressed them [the Peloponnesians] to make a stand in Boeotia and protect Attica, just as they themselves had gone out by sea to fight in defence of the rest of Greece at Artemisium, but nobody would listen to them; instead, the remainder of the allies refused to budge from the Peloponnese.’ In this decision the Greeks from the south were, for once, quite right: no amount of men that they could muster would have been able to stem the Persian advance, once their army had begun to swarm all over the land to the north.
Panic set in. Every available craft was commandeered and, no doubt, there was a good deal of black-marketeering being done by boat-owners as farmers and prosperous citizens, who had hitherto neglected Themistocles’ previous warnings and arrangements, now sought to make their getaway. Both Plutarch and Aelius Aristides describe the heart-rending scenes as husbands and wives were parted, most of the women and children joining their predecessors in Troezen, old men being left behind, and pet dogs howling and running to and fro as their masters embarked. The fleet had rounded Sunium and made up for Salamis Sound where they took aboard all the refugees that they could. No doubt it was the sight of their fleet, upon which they had staked everything, retreating to Salamis, that completed the desperation of the remaining Athenians. Here was tangible evidence indeed that everything to the north was lost and that soon it would be the turn of their beloved city. Apart from Troezen, whither most of the more provident citizens had sent their wives and children long ago in June, and which now received a further influx of refugees, Salamis took many of these late-comers. Even Athens’ former mortal enemy, Aegina, opened its homes and hearths to this sudden, last-minute influx of Athenians. Aegina’s action is remarkable in showing that, at long last, deep-rooted enmities were forgotten in the face of the imminent destruction of everything that the Greek-speaking peoples, however much their states had been at variance, now faced together.
The death of a Spartan king, far from his home, fighting on behalf of all Greeks, may have symbolised this new concept of unity. It had little effect upon the general view of the Peloponnesians that, since Attica and Athens itself were clearly doomed, the original plan of holding the line at the Isthmus was the right one. Under the command of Cleombrotus, the younger brother of Leonidas, some 30,000 Peloponnesians manned a defensive line across the Isthmus, a little south of the slipway used for the land-transport of vessels between the Aegean and the Gulf of Corinth. While all this frenzied activity was taking place on the Greek side the army of Xerxes continued its inexorable advance and began to enter Boeotia, at which point the looting and the vandalising that had characterised their progress through Phocian territory was ordered to cease. The Boeotians, through the good offices of Alexander of Macedon, had already negotiated their surrender and their willingness to act in concert with their old enemies in Thessaly. They, too, had come out in favour of the Persian cause.
From Boeotia part of the Persian army turned westwards and moved towards Delphi. It is unlikely that there can ever have been any intention of plundering and sacking that rich shrine - that ‘Navel of the Earth’ - for Delphi, always remembering the clemency displayed to Delos in the expedition of Darius, had undoubtedly shown a pro-Persian bias through its ‘inspired’ utterances, both before and during the campaign of Xerxes. The question is worth asking - was Delphi and its priesthood Machiavellian in its attitude towards the Greco-Persian conflict, or was it no more than concerned with its own survival as the Fountain of Wisdom? There is no proof, but it seems possible that Delphi had taken Persian gold in return for giving pessimistic utterances to Greek cities; above all, to Syracuse, to Athens, to Argos, to Crete, and to Sparta. Delphi was primarily a great religious centre for all of the Greekspeaking world but, in the course of being established as such, it had long been involved in the field of politics. (In very similar fashion, at various periods in its history, the Papacy, in order to survive, has been drawn into making accommodations with temporal powers.)
Delphi was spared. Although the inhabitants of Delphi were themselves of Phocian stock they had, over the years, tended to dissociate themselves from their rural brothers. They had certainly made no efforts during the invasion to help them in any way, but had preserved a strict neutrality. Xerxes, therefore, had no reason to subject the territory of Apollo to the same treatment that had been handed out to the unhappy people of the devastated land of Phocis. According to Greek authorities the Great King sent 4000 men to seize the shrine and carry off the immense wealth of treasures that had accumulated there over the years. Now, with the exception of the Prophet of the Oracle, Aceratus, and sixty men (the latter presumably staying to guard the treasures against any local vandals) all the inhabitants of Delphi, men, women and children, had fled the area, some taking to the heights of Parnassus, others going to Amphissa, and yet others proceeding by boats from the Gulf of Itea across to Achaea. The shrine, then, and all its temples and buildings were, in effect, left undefended. If it was Xerxes’ intention to loot this rich and most sacred place in Greece, one can but wonder at his strange failure to do so. The answer, as legend had it, was that Apollo, by miraculous intervention, drove away the advancing column. What must strike a modern commentator on the events as singular, to say the least, is that none of the treasures of Delphi had been removed to safe-keeping; neither taken over to Achaea nor hidden in the mountain caves (especially the large and hard-to-find Corycian Cave - used by refugees in the Second World War) whither a number of Delphians had fled for safety. The story as promulgated to all later Greeks was that Apollo had personally assured the Priest of the Oracle and all the people of Delphi that he could, and would, take care of his own. Thus arose the very convenient tale of heavenly thunder, vast rocks being torn from the slopes of Parnassus and hurled at the invaders, and a great voice shouting from the innermost sanctuary itself, while two giant warriors suddenly emerged and pursued the Persian column headlong back to Boeotia from the sacred precincts.
One does not need to be cynical to doubt these stories. What is necessary, however, is to try to understand why - if such was the will of Xerxes - Delphi was not seized and looted. There are two comparatively simple answers to this question: first, that Delphi had all along collaborated with Persia; and, secondly, that after the ultimate Greek victory it was more than necessary for the Delphic priesthood to establish Greek faith in this most enduring of all their oracular shrines. If people asked later why Xerxes did not destroy, burn and loot Delphi as he had done already with numerous sacred places in Phocis, and as he was to do in Athens itself, the only answer that could be given was a miraculous one. Indeed, to simple people the fact that/unimportant villages on Parnassus and the town of Daulis nearby had been set afire and destroyed - while Delphi had been spared - could only suggest divine intervention. It is just possible (although there is no evidence) that there was a secret agreement between Xerxes and Delphi, but this seems unlikely and, furthermore, unnecessary. On the verge of triumph, as it seemed, Xerxes would have had to be as blinded with hubris as Herodotus often tends to picture him to contemplate so gross a folly as to destroy the shrine. Delphi, whether bought with Persian gold or not, had served his cause well and if, as a Zoroastrian, he did not find it difficult to equate Apollo with Ahuramazda, the Principle of Light, he would hardly have treated this major place of worship with such sacrilegious contempt. Delos and Delphi between them might well become, under the Persian domination of Greece, two great centres from which the truth as revealed by Zoroaster might be disseminated among the pagan Greeks.