Despite the triumphant success of Salamis the winter of 480 was not a happy one for the Greeks. The allied fleet dispersed, the commanders making their way down to the headquarters at the Isthmus where awards were to be made for distinguished conduct during the campaign. The semblance of unity, which had only just held them together during the recent months, was swiftly dissipated. Indeed, during that meeting, one may detect all the seeds of the Greek destructiveness which was to rend their city-states in the years to come. Envy and distrust of one another were dominant at what should in theory have been a happy occasion but which, knowing the Greeks, was exactly what one might have expected. Herodotus and Plutarch both tell the story that, in a secret ballot as to who should receive the crown for the most outstanding individual contribution to the victory, with a second crown for the runner-up, each commander put his own name at the top, but most put Themistocles second. This seems an unlikely tale if the voting was in secret - and the Greeks would hardly have made public declarations. The fact remains that the result was inconclusive, and the crown was never awarded. This must have been galling indeed for Themistocles, who clearly deserved the honour, but highly satisfying to men like Aristeides and others of the hoplite party. The prize for valour was awarded to the Aeginetans: a fair enough choice, perhaps, though not one likely to be appreciated by the Athenians. Nevertheless, Herodotus concludes that ‘Themistocles’ name was on everyone’s lips, and he acquired the reputation of being by far the most able man in the country’. This may well have been so, but it was certain to lead to unpopularity, for his many enemies in Athens could hardly bear to see this upstart being declared their superior in intelligence and ability. It would probably have been even worse for him if he had indeed received the ‘poisoned crown’.
The Spartans now saw the chance of making some political capital out of the situation. They had, in any case, every reason to be grateful to Themistocles. He had initiated the policy of sea-warfare, thus preserving the great bulk of their army and, by conducting the campaign off Attica, he had preserved the Peloponnese from Persian invasion. For the same reasons it is not too difficult to understand why many Athenians disliked him. The fact that the Spartans now invited him down to their city as a guest of honour was to give many Athenians a real reason to distrust him. At this winter prize-giving the Spartans awarded their own admiral Eurybiades with a crown of olive, something which he undoubtedly deserved - though largely for going along with the strategy evolved by Themistocles. But they also decorated the latter with a similar crown ‘for his ability and skill5. For the proud and xenophobiac Spartans to accord such an honour to a foreigner and to a citizen of Athens, whose new naval power was already causing them uneasiness, was something extraordinary in itself, nor did they stop at this. Before Themistocles left their unwalled city by the Eurotas they made him a gift of the finest chariot in Sparta. Having praised him to the skies, after what can only be termed a ‘state visit5, they accorded him a royal bodyguard of 300 Spartiate horsemen as far as their frontier with Tegea - the first and only non-Spartan in history ever to be shown such an honour.
It was hardly surprising that his detractors in Athens seized the opportunity to attack him for accepting these honours from that harsh warrior-caste down in the Peloponnese. (Already one senses in the air that terrible future war between Athens and Sparta which was to break the ‘Bulwark of Hellas, glorious Athens, city of godlike men5.) Herodotus gives us one revealing story:
Back in Athens he came in for a deal of abuse from a certain Timodemus of Aphidna, whose hatred of Themistocles was his only claim to distinction. Mad with jealousy, he reviled him for going to Sparta, and maintained that he had earned his honours there not by his own merit but merely by the fame of Athens. The continual repetition of this taunt at last drew from Themistocles a reply: ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said; ‘I should never have been honoured as I was if I had been born a Belbinite - and you wouldn’t, Athenian though you are!’ (Belbina was an unimportant islet off Cape Sunium.)
There can be little doubt that Themistocles was arrogant in his time of triumph and this spelled his certain downfall. Throughout that winter his enemies were actively campaigning against him and circulating stories to his discredit. The landowning aristocracy had good reasons for mistrusting any extension of Themistocles’ naval strategy. Mardonius and his forces were to the north and the next attack, it was quite clear, would not come by sea but on land. For this reason, above all, it was essential to secure the participation of the powerful Spartan army and it might be conjectured that the reason why the Spartans had feted Themistocles was that they wished his naval policy to be pursued, thus preserving the Peloponnese and their own army from being the object of the forthcoming offensive. One thing is certain: in the elections in the spring of 479 Themistocles, if he gained any place at all in the command, was relegated to some insignificant role. Two men whom he had previously contrived to have sent into political exile received the principal generalships for the campaign of that year. Aristeides, predictably, was put in command of the land forces, and Xanthippus of the navy. There could hardly have been a more bitter blow to the victor of Salamis and the man who had worked so hard to create the new navy of Athens - the ships which were ultimately to give her her empire. There is no record of any comment by Themistocles who, indeed, seems to have taken no further active part in the war. His sentiments, one suspects, may have been akin to those expressed by Winston Churchill centuries later: ‘… at the onset of this mighty battle, I acquired the chief power in the State, which henceforth I wielded in ever-growing measure … at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs.’ In the whole of the rest of Herodotus’ history of this great war there is only one other brief and unimportant reference to Themistocles.
Xerxes’ winter march to the north is represented by Herodotus and Aeschylus as something as disastrous and demoralised as the retreat of Napoleon from Moscow. Crossing the frozen Strymon river a number of the troops are said to have fallen through the thin ice and drowned. It is possible that some, impatient of delay, did essay the ice and drown, but a point to remember is that the river had been bridged before the campaign had started and the whole army had passed over without incident. Then again a grim picture is painted of food shortage, of troops starving and dying of dysentery, but once again one suspects that many of these lurid details were added in later years like colourful touches (in the fashion of Delacroix) to remind all who came after - and particularly the Persians - of the folly of attempting to invade Greece.
The time taken by Xerxes to reach the Hellespont, forty-five days, or half that of the advance, is made to suggest a panic-stricken rout. On the contrary, since there was no opposition to deal with at any point - no Thermopylae, for instance - and since the fleet had been able to make its way up to the Hellespont to receive the army, with no Greek fleet interposing, it sounds like a reasonable speed for withdrawal. The bridges of boats, as might have been expected, had been broken by the onset of winter’s gales. Nevertheless the army passed over into Asia without any significant incidents being recorded - and there can be no doubt that Greek writers would have made much of it if there had been any disaster at sea. The northern lands through which the march took place, Thessaly, Macedonia and Thrace, did not shift from their loyalty to the Great King - something they might possibly have done if the army’s retreat had been the Napoleonic disaster that the Greeks later made it out to be. Men who had fallen ill on the march were left behind in friendly Greek cities to be taken care of, and the strong garrisons such as Eion, Doriscus, and other places, guaranteed that the Persian hold over the country was as secure as ever.
The only exception to the rule occurred in December that year when some of the towns in the Chalcidice area, mostly notably Potidaea, revolted against the Persian rule. Potidaea was the most well-placed to do so, being situated astride the neck of the Pallene peninsula and virtually unassailable except by sea - and Mardonius had no fleet. Other towns of Pallene also joined in the revolt. Olynthus to the north, standing at the head of the Gulf of Torone, was unwise enough to join them, but the town did not have the strongly defensive position of Potidaea. The revolt began at about the time that Artabazus, a remarkably fine soldier, in company with 6000 of the handpicked Persian corps, had just turned hack after escorting the Great King as far as his crossing of the Hellespont. Having laid siege to Potidaea, which he could see would prove a tough nut to crack, he decided to make an example of Olynthus: a far easier proposition. The city was besieged and taken, and the inhabitants driven out and slaughtered. Artabazus, wisely, instead of garrisoning it with Persian troops, and knowing the hatred so often felt by one Greek township for another, offered the governorship of Olynthus to a man from nearby Torone, whose citizens were only too delighted to enlarge their sphere of influence.
It was always the same with the Greeks, Artabazus must have reflected; by playing upon their mutual rivalries and hatreds, as well as by the transference of a little gold, you could usually get your way without a protracted siege. Potidaea was another matter, but he soon managed to get in touch with Timoxenus, the governor of the troops from nearby Scione. The two managed to communicate by a method that was probably not unusual in ancient siege warfare - that of writing a message and binding it around an arrow-shaft. What exact arrangements were being made for the betrayal of Potidaea we do not know, for the spy-link was discovered through the Persian arrow on one occasion failing to fall in the right place. It ‘struck a Potidaean in the shoulder. As usually happens in war, a crowd collected round the wounded man… .’ (A nice touch of realism!) The message was found and taken to the commanders. The astonishing thing is that Timoxenus was not accused of treachery and summarily executed, but ‘in order to spare the people of Scione from being branded as traitors for ever after’ no action was taken. Knowing the nature of the Greeks, this seems almost unbelievable. It suggests that either others were in the plot, or that Timoxenus was so popular with his own men that his execution would have caused them to withdraw - and Potidaea needed all the troops possible to man its walls.
Artabazus now settled down to a protracted three-month siege. Soon the spring would be upon them and he would have to march to join Mardonius for the campaign. He must have been on the point of withdrawing, when a sudden and unexpected natural phenomenon occurred. Owing, very likely, to an underwater earth-tremor the sea-level of the almost tideless Aegean suddenly dropped, leaving a shallow passage across which troops could wade to attack the exposed end of the city-wall. Artabazus acted promptly and sent an advance force to cross the channel with the idea of taking the city from the rear. Unfortunately for the Persians (as happens on occasions in Malta and southern Sicily with a somewhat similar phenomenon known as the marrobio) the sea suddenly came flooding back. Those of the troops who were not drowned were killed by the Potidaeans who came rushing out in small boats. Later - and with good reason - they ascribed this victory to the sea-god Poseidon, also known as the Earth-Shaker. They attributed the Persian disaster to the fact that they had desecrated Poseidon’s shrine and statue which had formerly stood outside the walls. Artabazus lifted the siege and marched to join Mardonius. Potidaea had been an irritant, but neither it nor the Pallene peninsula represented any real threat to communications.
Mardonius, although his troops had wintered well in Thessaly, was not without his problems. It was true that he was in the position of ruler or satrap of the whole of northern Greece from the Hellespont down to Athens, but the ‘Greek problem’ was far from solved. The whole of the Peloponnese was still untouched and there lay the military core - even discounting the hoplites of Athens - which must be smashed before all these Greeks could be added to the Persian Empire. It was true also that the attack of Persia’s Carthaginian allies on Sicily had been repulsed, but Sicily and then the rest of the western Mediterranean could be won, once Greece itself had been conquered. The question was - how to achieve it? Beyond him lay the stark, mountainous land, with its limited agricultural plains, the narrow isthmus of Corinth, fringed on both sides by the ‘bitter water’, and then the little-known Peloponnese, largely dominated by these Spartans, a small handful of whom had dared to challenge the whole of the Great King’s army. Nothing suggested an easy campaign. Mardonius was more than a simple general; he was a strategist and a diplomat. Throughout the winter Persian agents had been as active as before, down in the Peloponnese, doing their best to ensure that the cities which had long had good reason to be hostile to Sparta would not help their old adversaries any more than they had in the previous year. There can be little doubt that money and promises were exchanged, but the situation had changed considerably since Xerxes and the whole army had trampled over northern Greece and Attica. Even the Argives, who are said to have promised that they would prevent the Spartans marching north (an improbable thought), must have hesitated. Salamis must have been in the minds of even these land-bound peoples; they knew that the Athenians’ fleet - repaired over the winter - was still in being, so too that of Aegina, Corinth, Megara, and even Sparta. They knew also that the demoralised Persian fleet was far away and that any action which would follow must almost certainly be a military one. Mardonius might well ravage Attica again, but would he be able to storm the Isthmian line and, even if he managed to do so, how could he manage the conquest of the Peloponnese without a fleet? There can be no doubt that they made promises, took Persian gold, but still laid off their bets. The year before Xerxes had looked like an odds-on-favourite, but the same could not be said in the early spring of 479.
The real threat to Mardonius and his commitment to conquer the rest of Greece for Xerxes clearly lay in the Greek fleet, which to a large degree might be equated with the fleet of Athens. He knew well enough that the Athenians and the Spartans were very different types of Greeks - the one brilliant, volatile, and magnificent seamen; the other dour, conservative, and an aristocratic military caste. It was no secret that, even though they had fought together at sea in the previous year, their differences outweighed their Greek consanguinity. ‘Divide and rule!’, so wise an imperative to all nations with imperial aspirations, was something that Mardonius, son-in-law of Darius, must have learned from his earliest days. And these Greeks were so easy to divide! Since the Athenians lay nearest to hand, since their land was ravaged, and since they were only even now attempting to repair their devastated city, they seemed the easiest target. They had felt the harsh stroke of the Great King and would be unlikely to wish to evacuate Attica once again. They could hardly expect, in any case, to repeat their deceitful success of Salamis. They were therefore clearly the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Greek axis, to be tempted into withdrawal from the conflict.
The charming, smooth-talking Alexander of Macedon was once again used as a go-between and sent down by Mardonius to propose terms to the Athenians which, on the surface, might have seemed acceptable to a people under such military threat, and who could not, furthermore, be confident that the Peloponnesian land forces would come to their aid. The very fact that Themistocles, the author of Greek victory at sea, had been down in Sparta suggested that he might have been conniving with the Spartans - as many Athenians thought that he had. Mardonius, as a politician well versed in the wiles of the court at Susa, knew how bitter a blow it must have been to Themistocles to find that he no longer had control of the Athenian navy, and that he had been relegated to some almost insignificant place in the Greek command. A bitter man, thrust out of favour, who nevertheless commanded the affections and respect of the ‘navy party’, might possibly be able to detach the fleet from the control of the hoplite class; the landowners with whom the men at the oar-benches had little or nothing in common.
Alexander faithfully relayed the message which had been given him by Mardonius, and which one can have no doubt came all the way from Xerxes himself: ‘I am willing to forget all the injuries that Athens has done me. So, Mardonius, first give the Athenians back their land; and secondly, let them take whatever other territory they wish [a rich inducement], and have self-government. If they are willing to come to terms with me, you are also to rebuild the temples that I burnt.’ This was the personal message from the Great King in Susa, but Alexander, taking his lines now from Mardonius, went on to elaborate:
Why then - I ask you - are you so mad as to take arms against the king? You can never defeat him, and you cannot hold out for ever. You have seen his army, its size, and what it can do; you know, too, how powerful a force I have under me now. Even should you beat us - and, if you have any sense, you cannot hope to do so - another force many times as powerful will come against you. So stop trying to be a match for the king, at the cost of the loss of your country and continual peril of your lives. Come to terms with him instead … Make an alliance with us, and so keep your freedom.
Such terms, generous enough on the surface, had yielded fruit in other parts of the Persian Empire, and in any case the Athenians were prepared to deliberate upon them for as long as possible. The reason for this was obvious. ‘In Sparta the news of Alexander’s visit to try to bring about an alliance between Persia and Athens caused consternation.’ No doubt it did. With Athenian seapower allied to Persian military might the Peloponnesians would stand no chance. Their Isthmian line would be bypassed and the steamroller of Persia would soon be down before the unwalled city. There was also, apparently, an oracle to the effect that ‘the Dorians would one day be driven from the Peloponnese by the Persians and Athenians’. One might suspect that so curiously explicit an oracle could only have had an Athenian hand behind it and, indeed, even wonder whether the discredited Themistocles could in some way have been involved in its circulation. In any case, the news that the Persians and the Athenians were sitting down in Athens for a long series of talks about forming an alliance caused a panic in the Peloponnese. Sparta swiftly despatched an embassy to Athens.
The Spartans, however, seem to have had good grounds for suspicion that the Athenians were only playing for time, and that they could never in fact reconcile themselves to the idea of being a client state of Persia. After all, although the Persian terms might appear acceptable to an Aegean island or to a city in Ionia, the Spartans knew the nature of the Athenians, knew their pride in their state, their navy, and their inextinguishable love of freedom. They pointed out Alexander’s untrustworthy character and the fact that he was only a ruler because the Persians permitted him to be: he was the lackey of Xerxes. How, they asked, could the Athenians even consider such proposals, which would be a betrayal of all of Greece? These were fine-sounding words which inevitably found an echo in Athenian hearts, but what they had hoped for was a guarantee of the Peloponnesian army. They were not to get it. Indeed, the Spartans even went so far as to reproach the Athenians, pointing out that this war had only started because of Athenian intervention in Ionia, and it now threatened to engulf the whole of Greece. This was true enough, for at the time of the Ionian revolt the Spartans had carefully remained uninvolved. Fence-sitting was part of the Lacedaemonian conservative policy. All that they were prepared to offer the Athenians at this crucial moment was sympathy with their hardships through the ruin of their city and the loss of the harvest, and an agreement to provide them with economic aid and ‘support for all the women and other non-combatant members of your households, for as long as the war lasts’. This was ominous indeed. The Athenians had thought they had had the Spartans over the proverbial barrel with the veiled intimation that they might accept the Persian proposals but, to their consternation, they now found that the Spartans were not duped. Before Salamis, Themistocles had scared the Spartans badly when he had threatened to withdraw the Athenian fleet and found a new Athens far away in southern Italy, but the Spartans knew now that the Athenians would never leave their beloved city and their land.
There was nothing for it but for the Athenians to make an open rejection of the proposals brought by Alexander:
We know as well as you do that the Persian strength is many times greater than our own… . Nevertheless, such is our love of freedom, that we will defend ourselves in whatever way we can. As for making terms with Persia, it is useless to persuade us; for we shall never consent. And now tell Mardonius, that so long as the sun keeps his present course in the sky, we Athenians will never make peace with Xerxes.
This was fine Churchillian stuff, fully in the vein of . . we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’. There can be no doubt that the full speech as reported by Herodotus does represent with some accuracy what was said at the time. The Athenians, like the British in 1940, needed such a rallying call and, with or without allies, they had no option but to brace themselves for the coming struggle.
To the Spartans the Athenians then made a declaration which was clearly designed to shame them if possible into guaranteeing the Greek alliance with the backing of their military might.
No doubt it was natural that the Lacedaemonians should dread the possibility of our making terms with Persia; none the less it shows a poor estimate of the spirit of Athens. There is not so much gold in the world nor land so fair that we would take it for pay to join the common enemy and bring Greece into subjection.
Aristeides (for it was probably he) went on to say that the Athenians would never forgive nor forget the destruction of their city, the desecration of the Athenian temples, shrines and sacred places, and then he made a dramatic call for Pan-Hellenism: ‘Again, there is the Greek nation - the community of blood and language, temples and ritual; our common way of life; if Athens were to betray all this, it would not be well done’.
The implication here is clearly that it ‘would not be well done’ either, if the Peloponnesians betrayed their ‘Greekness’. He went on with some distinct element of sarcasm to thank the Spartans for their kindness in offering to look after the Athenian women and non-combatants - ‘Nothing could be more generous’ But still the Athenians would carry on, and had no wish to be a burden on their Peloponnesian neighbours. One can almost hear the barb striking home, and see the embarrassment on the faces of the Spartan ambassadors. The sting came in the tail: ‘That being our resolve, get your army into the field with the least possible delay; for unless we are much mistaken, it will not be long before the enemy invades Attica - he will do it the instant he gets the news that we refuse his requests. Now, therefore, before he can appear in Attica, it is time for us to meet him in Boeotia.’
The implication was clear. This was from now on to be a hoplite war. The Spartans’ courtship of Themistocles and the ‘navy party’ had back-fired. The landowners, the bronze men, the military, were now in command. The Athenian fleet, unlikely to be challenged again, would be kept as a last resort, possibly to do just what Themistocles had threatened them with before - re-establish Athens elsewhere. Herodotus concludes the eighth book of his Histories with a line as succinct as anything ever written by Hemingway, and as laconic as anything that a Spartan might have said: ‘Athens had given her answer; and the Spartan envoys left for home.’