(Adapted from a map by Pinpin.)

One dark night during the late autumn of 548 BC, while King Croesus was still snug in his bed in Sardis dreaming his foolhardy dreams of conquering the Persians single-handedly, the oracle of Delphi awoke with a start in her own, much more modest bower. Something was wrong; she felt it in her core. But what? Suddenly she noticed that the room around her was bathed in a subtle orange glow. Yet it was far too early for sunrise — and anyway, this color was like that of no sun nor moon that she had ever seen. She threw off her blankets, and, shivering in the chill air, pulled back the curtains in front of her bedroom’s single window. What she saw then made her cry aloud.

Her cry echoed through the town, the streets and buildings of which were all bathed in the same orange glow. The people rushed outside to see what was amiss. The catastrophe that met their eyes was beyond reckoning: a huge pillar of flame danced there at the center of town, casting light and heat in the faces of the people, raining hot ash upon their heads. The temple of Apollo was ablaze.

Due to the heat and smoke, the people couldn’t even get close to the inferno, much less hope to quench it. They could only soak the ground around the fire’s perimeter with water and post watches to stamp out any hot cinders that landed on walls and roofs, to prevent the burning of the temple from becoming the destruction of all of Delphi. A couple of intrepid souls dashed close enough to the flames to rescue the gold and silver libation bowls of Croesus that stood before the entryway to the temple, but the golden lion he had given to Delphi was much too heavy to bear away.

The morning sunlight revealed a smoking ruin; the temple was a total loss. Croesus’s lion had been melted into a mere lump of precious metal. (When the people learned of the ultimate fate of Croesus, many of them would say that the melting of his lion had actually been Apollo’s final prophecy from his temple.) Only the omphalos stone of Zeus had survived; it lay there glowing with heat at the center of the rubble, where the temple’s inner sanctum had once been, next to the yawning crevice in the ground where the god’s sacred vapors had always poured forth.

The people hardly knew what to make of this catastrophe. Was it a sign that the gods were angry with Delphi, or perhaps with all of Greece? Was it an act of arson on the part of some suppliant whom the oracle’s prophecies had aggrieved? Or was it a mere accident, the result of the ceremonial fires which had always been kept lit inside the temple? The people of earlier ages would have found the last explanation to be inconceivable, but in this younger, less pious age, there actually were some who hewed to it.

In addition to its staggering religious implications, the destruction of the temple might very well mean the end of Delphi’s unique role in Greece. Thus the people were relieved when the Amphictyonic League, having been called in for an emergency session, announced a determination to help Delphi rebuild the temple and its surroundings. Indeed, the League said that this centerpiece of Delphi ought to be rebuilt on a scale that had never been seen before in Greek architecture. Fulfilling such ambitions on the rugged, sloping, unstable terrain of Mount Parnassus’s southern face must represent the greatest engineering challenge Greece had ever confronted. Every block of stone would have to be dragged up to the plateau from the foot of the mountain, while a huge swath of land up there on the town’s precarious perch would have to be leveled to accommodate what was envisioned as not just a new and vastly larger temple of Apollo but an entire surrounding religious complex.

The call went out far and wide for donations of all sorts: money, tools, materials, artisans, workmen. Both Greeks and barbarians answered the call, all of them eager to demonstrate their largess to the world and to curry favor with the oracle and her god, who played such a pivotal role in international diplomacy. The donations came from as far away as Egypt, from which land Pharaoh Ahmose II sent many tons of his best alum, a beautiful mineral to be found in its purest form only in his country.

Delphi became an enormous building site, which brought with it its share of inconveniences for the town’s citizenry. Many of the people’s ordinary dwellings had to be knocked down and rebuilt elsewhere to make room for the expansive new complex at the center of the plateau. Yet the very atmosphere of the place was so charged with the excitement of renewal that few complained — least of all the oracle, who continued to prophesy and advise from a rude tent. The omphalos stone could be moved inside of the tent, but the sacred vapors could not. Never mind; the oracle, like everyone else in Delphi, made do in the present even as she eagerly envisioned her town’s bright future. Much to everyone’s relief, fears that some other spot, in Greece or elsewhere, might in the meanwhile replace Delphi as the center of the world proved unfounded. Delphi’s unique status was so ingrained in the minds of Greeks and even barbarians that they continued to visit the chaotic building site on the slope of Mount Parnassus as if it was still the peaceful, orderly place it once had been.

Still, human energy in the face of such a daunting task as this one can only last so long. In 514 BC — already 34 years after the fire — the temple of Apollo languished only partially completed. The flood of donations had dried up, and work had nearly ground to a standstill. It was at this point that a very special group of wealthy Athenians stepped forward. In the process, they tied the fate of Delphi to that of their own city.

Despite their wealth, these Athenians were in fact exiles who had made Delphi — temporarily, so they hoped — their home. For Athens was in dire straits. The fragile democracy which the wise Solon had set up for his people had collapsed, and tyranny had returned to take its place.

The tyrant in question was named Hippias. He was the son of a man named Peisistratos, who had first started scheming to become the sole and permanent ruler of Athens after he was elected chief archon in 561 BC, and who after many intervening twists and turns had finally cemented his power in 546 BC. Now, 32 years later, the noble vision of Solon seemed the merest shadow of a better past. The Athenian exiles who had eventually wound up in Delphi had for a long while done their best to accommodate themselves to the new reality in their home city, first under Peisistratos and then under Hippias. But just a few years ago an unknown assassin had killed the brother of Hippias, who had unleashed a series of brutal purges in response. Fearing for their lives, these Athenians had taken as much of their wealth as they could carry and fled to Delphi, in whose treasuries they had already stashed still more wealth long ago in anticipation of just such a day as this one.

The most prominent voice among the exiled Athenians was that of one Cleisthenes. He was far from the wealthiest or most politically seasoned of the exiles, but he had a quality about him that caused people to listen when he spoke. Some of the oldest exiles, who had known Solon before his death, even said that Cleisthenes reminded them of that wise man who had first established the democracy which they now dreamed of reestablishing. Cleisthenes had been the one who had urged his peers to settle in Delphi in the first place, and he was also the one who advised them to take up the task of finishing the town’s temple complex now. “It may seem mad to you to squander our resources on a seeming act of charity, but I believe it will prove in the end to have been no charity at all; time will show it to have been the wisest investment we could possibly have made,” he said to them. “We are men without a home in the world, men who have desperate need of friends and influence. This gift here, at the very center of the world, will win us both, as long as we attach the right conditions to it.” So, the other Athenians gave him permission to set up a very delicate private meeting with the oracle herself, away for once from the place where she was wont to prophesy.

“We each want something,” said Cleisthenes on that occasion, as the two of them sat sunning themselves on a bench on the outskirts of Delphi. “You want to see Apollo’s temple completed before the world loses patience and chooses another oracle to trust above all others. And as for me and my countrymen: we want to liberate our home. We need armies — strong armies — to accomplish this. Therefore I suggest…”

Soon after this conversation took place, the Athenian exiles came forward with an official offer to help Delphi out of its difficulties. They would complete the temple of Apollo, they said, using all of their considerable artistry and still-enormous wealth. The Amphictyonic League and the town elders alike were more than happy to take them up on the offer.

And the exiles proved as good as their word. They fulfilled and in some cases bettered the aspirations of the original planners from three and a half decades earlier. The Athenians were already widely known as the greatest architects in all of Greece. Now they demonstrated on this international stage why that should be so: the edifice they constructed was grand enough to suit any god. When they were done, Delphi was simply the most magnificent single spot in all of Greece.

The heart of the temple remained the inner sanctum where the oracle communed with her god, built over the same vaporous crevice, with the same omphalos stone also inside it. Yet it now had two opulent entry halls leading into it, with one of the rescued libation bowls of Croesus holding a pride of place in each. On the pure marble of the western pediment, Athens’s finest artists carved a scene of a battle among the gods from those days before the time of men; on the eastern pediment, they carved Apollo himself arcing through the sky in a divine chariot. Above the western entryway they placed two fundamental words of wisdom: “Know Thyself.” And above the eastern entryway they placed that most famous aphorism of Solon: “Nothing in Excess.”

Nearby stood the great temple of Athena; the Athenians made sure that this monument to their own patron god was also as magnificent as it could be. Other temples dedicated to the other gods stood scattered about the marble terrace that had been built onto the sloping face of the plateau at such unimaginable cost in time, toil, and money. Everywhere were statues of gold and silver, ingenious fountains gushing the purest water, painted frescoes and soaring colonnades, the most beautiful plants collected from all over the world. Even the tiles on the floors were inlaid with jewels. The sight of it all, glowing there in the sunlight streaming down from the peak of Mount Parnassus, took one’s breath away. Surely the Age of Men had well and truly come into its own.

The completion of the temple complex constituted one party’s fulfillment of the quiet bargain which Cleisthenes had struck with the oracle. The other side of the deal manifested itself with only slightly more subtlety. Well before the exiled Athenians’ work was complete, the Spartans noticed a marked shift in their consultations with the oracle. Almost regardless of the ostensible subject under discussion, the oracle returned with the same message over and over: the god Apollo demanded that Sparta liberate Athens.

Bowing to this expression of the god’s divine will, the Spartans, despite holding democratic Athens’s liberality and individuality in contempt, sent an army to restore exactly those things. Also at the oracle’s behest, Cleisthenes and a small delegation of other Athenian exiles were allowed to march with the army. The first Spartan attack on Athens, in 511 BC, was rebuffed, but in typical Spartan fashion they regrouped, adjusted their tactics, and assaulted the city again the following year. This time they succeeded in forcing Hippias’s army off the field of battle; the Athenian tyrant took refuge behind the walls of the city.

Yet ultimate victory remained far from assured. Hippias had enough supplies to last many months, and the Spartan impatience with long sieges was well-known; on many occasions in the past they had simply walked away from a siege, having already achieved their real objective of the glory of a battlefield victory. And indeed, it didn’t take long for the Spartans to grow restless on this occasion. Cleisthenes fretted that his city’s liberation was about to slip out of his grasp.

He saved the day for himself via a clever if ruthless stratagem. It was tacitly agreed in situations like this one, when Greeks fought against other Greeks in a trial of honor, that the women and children of a besieged town should be allowed free passage to safety. This rule the Spartans, who were nothing if not honorable warriors, intended to abide by here. But, unknown to his keepers, Cleisthenes set up an observation post with his small detachment of exiled Athenians on the main road out of Athens. From here, he watched the groups of fleeing women and children that went by. When he saw the quarry he had been waiting for, he struck; he came away with the children of Hippias, and with his nephews and nieces as well.

Cleisthenes knew that the Spartans would never be a party to such a gross violation of the rules of war. Therefore he kept his captives hidden while he sent his own deputy to treat with Hippias. His offer was simple and non-negotiable: withdraw from Athens forever in exchange for your children’s lives. Just five days after the siege had begun, Hippias left the city with his children in tow, and Cleisthenes and the Spartans marched into Athens triumphantly.

Thus did the Spartans, who had no use whatsoever for Athenian democracy, reestablish it at the behest of the oracle in Delphi. It was one more example of the way that the two cities’ fates remained intertwined, often despite their own best efforts. Sometimes they were allies, sometimes they were at war with one another, but always they needed each other — as counterweights, as counterexamples, as confirmation through negation of the value of their own ways of life. And always their relations and antagonisms were mediated by Delphi.

Cleisthenes set himself up in Athens as the new Solon, the restorer of what his august predecessor had built. He put the old constitution back into service, albeit with modifications to make it even more democratic, to lessen even more the influence of birthright. One of his amendments demonstrated his wisdom particularly well: once per year, the Athenian citizenry would vote on whether to conduct an ostracism. If they voted in the affirmative, each would be asked to write down the name of the one man whom he most wished to be rid of — ideally a man whose power made him a threat to the stability of the democracy itself. The man who received the most votes would then be required to go into exile for ten years. When he returned at the end of that time, he would be allowed to live in Athens again as he had before, provided the people didn’t choose to ostracize him again. Perhaps partially because of this measure, the second incarnation of democracy in Athens would prove more lasting than the first had been.

But there was also another difference in the new Athens: the city began to pay serious attention to its military for the first time in generations. And, with the commercial life of Athens soon thriving once again, its capabilities in this realm proved impressive. Observers in Delphi and elsewhere debated an emerging truth which few of them had ever anticipated: that democracy, and the economic and personal freedoms which went along with it, might actually be a source of military strength rather than weakness.

Cleisthenes said as much in a speech which made its way through all of Greece. “An equal voice in government has a beneficial impact in many areas,” he said to his people. “When ruled by a tyrant, you were no better than any of the cities around you, but now that you have freed yourself of him you are the greatest of them all. This is natural; people who work for a master are always slack, but those who are free to work for themselves become ardently devoted to their labor so as to win recognition for themselves as individuals.”

Because the Athenians were already so well-established as seafaring traders, it was natural to them to build a powerful navy — a navy which the landlocked Spartans had no answer for. And so the Spartans, seeing their military dominance over all of Greece threatened for the first time since the reforms of Lycurgus, became seriously concerned. Their twin kings and their senators had a new advisor whispering in their ears, constantly emphasizing the danger to their hegemony that the new Athens represented. This was the exiled Hippias, who had made his way to Athens’s erstwhile liberators because he now saw them as the ones best placed to return him to power in his home city. He promised the Spartans a subservient, servile Athens, ruled by a tyrant in himself who would recognize the debt he owed to them. And the Spartans, for their part, found this scenario much more to their liking than that of an independent Athens on the ascendant.

In 507 BC, Cleisthenes, seeing the threat posed by Sparta, suggested sending a delegation to Sardis — formerly the capital of Lydia, now a regional capital of the Persian Empire — to seek an alliance with the Persians. When the delegation arrived, the governor of Sardis said the Athenians could have their alliance on one condition: if they agreed to offer earth and water to King Darius, the successor to the Persian King Cyrus. The delegation, knowing nothing of the customs of these strange people of the East, readily agreed, then returned to Athens very pleased with themselves.

But Cleisthenes was less pleased with what they had done, for he knew that to offer earth and water meant to swear allegiance to the Persian king — and not as equals but as his subjects. Soon after, Cleisthenes died of a sudden illness, still worrying on his death bed about what his diplomats had done, berating himself for having sent them in the first place. “The Persians are not to be trifled with,” he said. “Far better to go to war with Sparta than with them.” But few of those around him heeded his last words; they continued to underestimate the Persians even as they sought their help in a potential war with Sparta. In time, Athens would have cause to wish that its second great wise man of the Age of Men could have lived as long as its first, for all of his apprehensions about the Persians would prove to have been well-founded.

In 504 BC, the Spartans, just six years on from serving as Athens’s liberators, called a secret meeting of most of the other prominent cities of Greece to propose forcibly returning the city to tyranny. Tellingly, the meeting took place in Sparta itself rather than Delphi. “We admit to you that we made a mistake in toppling Hippias,” said Cleomenes, the Spartan king who had been selected to deliver the proposal. “It was an unjust act. In our defense, we now know that we were induced to do so by counterfeit prophecies; the guileful Athenians bribed the oracle in Delphi to tell us to do what we did.” A stir passed through the crowd at these words; while veiled insinuations against the oracle were common in the private chambers of Greece’s sophisticated classes, such direct accusations in public were something else entirely. Undaunted, the king continued. “After we conquered Athens, we handed the city over to its people, who have since behaved in a thoroughly thankless way. Their wealth inflates them with an overweening arrogance, and makes them a threat to all of Greece. While we freely accept responsibility for the original error of deposing Hippias, we do ask for your help to correct it, for the Athens of today is already much stronger than the city we so recently conquered.

“Hippias is here with us today.” Cleomenes gestured to that man, sitting proudly with the Spartan Senate. “We ask you to join with us to restore to him what we alone unjustly took away from him. And we ask you to do so now, before Athens grows too powerful to contain.”

This speech caused much heated discussion in the hall. Sparta had involved itself in many wars in the past, but heretofore it had always been happy to fight alone; certainly it had never attempted to get most of the rest of Greece to band together against one foe. Some thought the proposal dishonorable; some even detected an unseemly fear behind Sparta’s sudden embrace of multilateralism. And some wondered why Sparta should be allowed to be militarily dominant while Athens was not. But pushing against these currents was the worrisome unknown of having this brash new power among them. For Athens did indeed seem almost to have been reborn, so quickly and completely had it begun to thrive again in the wake of Hippias’s toppling. Sparta, by contrast, was a known quantity, one which was known to prefer the act of war itself to the spoils that came with the subjugation of others. This made Sparta seem to many of the gathering to be perversely less dangerous than Athens, whose acquisitiveness seemed to know no bounds. The arguments went around and around.

But at last, an old statesman named Sokleas, of the city of Corinth, stood up to be a voice of principle. Of all the Greek cities, Corinth was the one most similar to Athens. It too was a city of traders who were accustomed to sail far and long in their commercial pursuits, as well as one with its own tradition of liberality, individuality, and moderate government. All of these things doubtless impacted what Sokleas said.

“I never thought I would see the day when we Greeks, led by proud Sparta, propose to destroy a state of political equanimity in one of our numbers and replace it with tyranny. Well, I say to you now, Spartans, that there is nothing more unjust than a tyrant! If you really believe it is so good to be ruled by tyrants with no claim to power beyond that of the sword, perhaps you should impose one on your own state before spreading tyranny elsewhere. But no… instead you in Sparta take the most elaborate precautions to avoid tyranny in your own ranks, even as you seek to impose it on another. I can hardly believe that such an historically honorable people as you would cast your lot with Hippias, this pathetic popinjay of a monarch. And even as you do so you cast aspersions on the greatest oracle in the world? For shame! How often has the god Apollo told us not to impose tyrannies? Your actions are contrary to all that is good and just and sacred. Corinth, for its part, does not stand with you!”

This speech restored to the rest of the assembly their consciences; the tide turned immediately and definitively against the Spartan proposal. Not only did the other Greek cities choose not to join the proposed alliance, some of them even dared to issue veiled threats that they might find common cause with the Athenians should the Spartans go ahead with their plans alone. The Spartans were abashed, hardly a normal state for them. They suffered the supreme indignity of having their disingenuous proposal revealed for what it was and cast back in their faces. They wanted nothing to do with Hippias after that day; they sent him on his way forthwith, and with his departure the danger of an all-encompassing Greek civil war dissipated, at least for the time being.

But Hippias wasn’t through causing trouble for his countrymen. Being no longer welcome anywhere in Greece, he traveled across the Aegean Sea and negotiated a meeting with Darius the Great. He found a receptive ear in that monarch. Hippias, one might say, became Darius’s version of King Cyrus’s Croesus — a native of a land at the edge of the Persian Empire who was eager to teach the Persian king how to conquer his homeland, all as a way of revenging himself upon those he deemed to have betrayed him.

Hippias urged Darius to first occupy the islands of the Aegean Sea so that he could use them as stepping stones to the Greek mainland. He pointed toward the fair and fertile island of Naxos in particular. “It would make a good position from which to attack Euboea, which I know for a fact is not very well-defended,” he whispered. “And then you will stand on the very doorstep of Athens and the rest of Greece.” Darius agreed to follow this advice.

But when he launched his attack on Naxos in 499 BC, the people there showed themselves to be made of stronger stuff than either he or his Athenian advisor had anticipated. As soon as they heard that the Persian fleet was on its way, they collected all of their island’s bounty behind the walls of their central city, then burned their fields. When the Persians arrived, the people of Naxos held out behind their walls for four months, until the acute lack of food on the devastated island forced the invaders to sail away again.

The example of Naxos’s successful defiance touched off a chain reaction none could have anticipated. It emboldened the people of Miletus, a city on the southeastern shore of the Aegean Sea which had already fallen to the Persians. The former rulers of this city decided to declare independence from their complacent conquerers, whose actual military presence in their region was almost nonexistent. They sent one of their number, a supposedly masterful orator named Aristagoras, to seek aid for their rebellion from Sparta. Miletus had been originally settled by Greeks, and Aristagoras made a point of the shared ethnicity when he spoke before the Spartan Senate.

“I have come here so urgently,” he said, “because we sons of Greece are forced to live as slaves under the Persians. Our sorry situation should be not just an anguish for us but for all Greeks everywhere — especially for you in Sparta, the proudest city of the Greeks. We therefore ask you to rescue us from our servitude. This will be easy for you to do; the Persian barbarians have grown fat and decadent since they conquered the Lydian Empire half a century ago. Miletus and Sparta together could easily retake all of Lydia and rule it together. The Persians of today are not valiant, cannot match the Spartan excellence in war. They fight in trousers and turbans rather than armor. And yet their treasuries are full of gold, silver, bronze, and fine fabrics. All of these things are practically yours for the taking. Why fight against others here in Greece who are almost your equals in battle and have little treasure when you could so easily control the vast lands currently occupied by the Persians, with all of their riches?”

Aristagoras rather outsmarted himself with this speech; being ethnically but no longer culturally Greek, he commited the grave rhetorical error of not knowing his audience, of assuming that the people with whom he negotiated had the exact same values and desires as himself. But in fact, as we have seen, the Spartans loved war for the glory of battle, not for the riches it would win them, and saw little glory in defeating a foe as over-matched as Aristagoras claimed the Persians to be. The Spartan Senate dismissed him with something close to disgust — whereupon Aristagoras, still failing to understand why his rhetoric had gone so awry, made his position still worse by finagling a private meeting with King Cleomenes and offering to pay him outright in exchange for convincing his people to come to Miletus’s aid. The king’s young son happened to be in the room where that meeting took place. “Father,” said the boy, “this foreigner wants to corrupt you. You should ask him to leave now!” Well pleased with this demonstration of virtue by one so young, Cleomenes did just that. When Aristagoras returned to his quarters, he found a note there waiting for him. It said that he was no longer welcome in Sparta; he must depart before sunset.

Having thus been thrown out of Sparta, traditionally the strongest of the Greek cities, Aristagoras set his sights on the rising power that was Athens. When he arrived there, he made almost the same speech which he had delivered to the Spartans — but this time, Athenian democracy being what it was, he spoke before some 30,000 citizens. And this time his audience responded much more favorably. In the absence of Cleisthenes’s moderating voice of wisdom, Aristagoras’s words about the rich treasuries of the Persians struck a powerful chord with the acquisitive, mercantile Athenians, who were in any case eager to test their newly raised military in battle. Forgetting about the degrading form of alliance its diplomats had accidentally made with King Darius, Athens agreed to send a fleet of ships stuffed with soldiers to Miletus, whence they would strike at Sardis itself. Prior to returning home to make preparations for the Athenians’ arrival, Aristagoras also stopped in Eretria, the largest city of Euboea, and managed to recruit it as well to his cause.

The combined Greek army arrived in Miletus in 498 BC. There it found that Charopinos, a brother of Aristagoras, had already raised an army and used it to liberate the city with virtually no bloodshed. The full force set off toward Sardis. Just as had been the case when Croesus had marched from Sardis half a century before, these attackers had caught the Persians utterly unprepared. Under the overall command of Charopinos, they marched all the way to Sardis unopposed and proceeded to besiege the city.

But, once again just like Croesus, Charopinos’s army didn’t hold onto its newly won gains for very long. While the soldiers and their commanders were gathered there around the walls of Sardis, reports started to reach them of a massive Persian force marshaling further to the east. The more the would-be liberators of Lydia learned about it, the more unnerved they became — for this was an army larger and more potent than they had ever imagined meeting on this campaign. Reports told of tens of thousands of horsemen preparing to advance upon the open plains around Sardis, where the besiegers’ foot soldiers would have little chance against them. More and more, the Greeks wondered why they had agreed to come to this distant part of the world, to a region so vast that only the most delusional hubris could have led them to believe they could conquer it. They finally demanded that Charopinos lead a retreat before their entire army was massacred.

So, the army of rebels and invaders fled back the way it had come. They made for the port of Ephesus, where the fleet that had carried the Greeks to Lydia was gathered, awaiting word from them. The Persians were initially slow to take up the pursuit, but, when they realized that their quarry was about to slip out of its trap, they galloped like the wind across the plains of Lydia toward the sea. They caught up with their enemies when they were just hours from the safety of the fleet.

And now the full extent to which Aristagoras had misinformed the Greeks about the Persians’ capabilities became clear. In the time since Croesus had first begun to teach them the art of fighting on horseback, the Persians had become fine cavalrymen indeed, equipped with some of the best steeds in the world, along with bows and arrows of the most recent design. They unleashed volley after deadly-accurate volley into the ranks of the Greek and Miletian infantry, who couldn’t even get close enough to their tormentors to strike a blow in response; their retreat turned into a rout, as the erstwhile invaders threw down their weapons and raced in panic for the safety of their waiting ships. Dismayingly few of them made it. Charopinos died in the fighting; his brother Aristagoras perished soon thereafter, when the Persians were mopping up the remainder of his shabby rebellion. Most of the Athenian ships returned to their home city empty.

The Athenians were stunned at the effortlessness with which the Persians had dispatched the cream of their military; now it was their turn to feel like the foolish beekeeper who has just poked the hive. Their grief and shame at their own proud folly were such that, when a noted playwright penned a tragedy about the events at Ephesus, the entire audience broke into helpless tears, and subsequent performances were cancelled. It struck much too close to the bone in this city that had believed so strongly in the superiority of its philosophy. Athens had manifestly failed to heed the words of wisdom which its own architects had inscribed on Apollo’s temple in Delphi.

At last, the full magnitude of the threat which the Persians represented penetrated not only Athens but all of the independent-minded, perpetually divided cities of Greece. Although some — not least the Spartans — were happy in a way to see the proud Athenians get such a humiliating comeuppance, it was alarming even for them to realize that Athens had been saved from the utter ruin which the Persians had earlier visited upon the Lydians only by the barrier of the Aegean Sea. And if the reports that Darius was building an awesome navy as he looked ever more intently westward were true…

Had the Greeks known what was going on in the court of that monarch, they would have been still more worried. For Darius was every bit as proud as the earlier Persian King Cyrus, and equally unwilling to forget a people who had once attacked him. He considered his betrayal by the Athenians — their act of swearing subservience to him and then daring to invade his territory — to be truly beyond the pale, as disgraceful an outrage as had ever been committed. Standing on the field of battle outside Ephesus, surrounded by broken Greek bodies, he took up his bow and sent an arrow soaring high in the direction of Mount Olympus. “I shall use these Greeks’ own gods against them,” he said as he watched it fly. “So, Zeus: let it be granted to me to punish the Athenians to the utmost for this cowardly attack on my empire.” Then he called one of his servants to him, and ordered him to say three words to his king before every meal: “Remember the Athenians.”

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(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

11 Comments for "Chapter 15: The Wisdom and Folly of Athens"

  • Ilmari Jauhiainen

    “For Darius was every bit as proud as his ancestor Cyrus”

    I thought Darius was not descended from Cyrus, but was an unrelated Persian noble who rebelled against an impostor ruler pretending to be one of the sons of Cyrus – or that’s at least what Herodotus tells.

    Otherwise, a great read, as usual!

    • Jimmy Maher

      Ah, good catch. Thanks!

  • Andrew Pam

    “to lesson even more the influence of birthright” should be “lessen” (decrease).

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Laertes

    “The morning sunlight revealed a smoking run”, shouldn’t it be “ruin”?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes. Thanks!

  • Captain Kal

    I think you ended it, with a cliffhanger!! Next chapter will be more action oriented!!!

  • Marcus

    “catch aspersions”
    -> “cast”?

    Also, it’s a really minor point, and I wouldn’t mention it if I didn’t so massively enjoy the high quality of your writing, but is “pile on” the best phrase to use in this article? It just seems a bit childish to me.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Agreed. Thanks!

  • Will Moczarski

    This was another very satisfying read, Jimmy!

    There’s one instance of “Hippas” (should be Hippias, of course) in “Hippas is here with us today…”

    • Jimmy Maher



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