Word soon reached Delphi of the Persian army which was marching upon it; this prompted the elders of the town to once again take the unusual step of consulting the oracle on their own behalf. “What should we do with the riches that fill our treasuries?” they asked. “Should we attempt to transport them across the Gulf of Corinth? Or should we attempt to bury them at some secret site near Delphi? If the reports reaching us are true, there may not be time enough for either.”
“Do nothing with these riches,” answered the oracle rather perfunctorily. “Trust to the god Apollo to protect them. I must flee up to the Corycian Cave — and I must do so now. The foremost oracle of the world cannot be allowed to fall into barbarian hands.”
She made a disturbingly undignified sight as she scampered out of her temple. The head elder, watching her go, couldn’t help but compare this timid creature to the bolder oracles of legend.
When the rest of the town learned that the oracle had fled, they rushed to do the same. Many of them joined her in the Corycian Cave, which, instead of a place of wild revelry, now became an encampment of fearful refugees, hoping against hope that the Persians wouldn’t learn of their hiding place. Others scattered hither and yon to the west and south, to wherever they had family or friends who might take them in. Within a day after the oracle’s departure, Delphi stood abandoned. Only about 60 men stayed behind, brave souls who pledged to defend their town to the end, pledged not to let the barbarians occupy and loot the very soul of Greece without some sort of a struggle.
The day that the Persians reached the foot of Mount Parnassus had an apocalyptic feel. Thunder boomed in a sky as dark as night, and the lightning bolts of Zeus charged the air amidst fierce gusts of rain and wind. Suddenly the lightning struck a rocky overhang just above the Persians as they marched up the steep path that led to Delphi. A huge boulder came rolling down the mountainside into their midst, scattering the soldiers, killing or maiming several of them. They regrouped and marched on, only to be set upon by an avalanche of rocky scree unleashed by the storm. It carried dozens of them down with it into the valley below, legs and arms flailing helplessly.
Now, the Persians were pious people in their own way, and were deeply unnerved by this evident proof of the gods’ displeasure. They had a prophet in their ranks, whom the commander of the army, whose name was Mardonius, now proceeded to consult. After analyzing the signs and portents, the old man declared that the god Apollo promised to destroy all of the Persians in Greece if they attempted to plunder his temple. Mardonius decided that such a prophecy justified disobeying the direct orders of his king: he commanded his army to bypass Delphi. After all, the city had no immediate military value, and they could always come back and occupy it once the war was won. “I hope you will be pleased with my decision to abide by the words of the prophet,” he wrote to Xerxes, “for doing so would seem to mean that we are guaranteed to prevail over the Greeks.” That was, of course, an unwarranted corollary, but he was understandably nervous about his king’s reaction.
The 60 brave defenders who remained in Delphi had spent the last hours steeling themselves for certain death as they stood on the heights of the town, looking down upon the Persian army as it straggled toward them through the inclement weather. Now, they were shocked to see the Persians turn back the way they had come. Delphi was saved — inexplicably, anticlimactically saved, but saved nevertheless. Like men delivered from a sentence of execution — which in effect they were — they whooped and hollered so lustily that some faint echo of their voices reached their fellow citizens who were huddled together in the Corycian Cave, reached even the people waiting in dread down in Cirrha. There was much celebration that night once the people in both places learned what their cries of joy meant.
But alas, the cities of Boeotia were not so fortunate. For the main body of the Persian army had kept marching due south after the Battle of Thermopylae, looting and burning as it went, just as it had done ever since first crossing the Hellespont. Xerxes fumed when he received Mardonius’s message telling that he had elected not to take Delphi, but he didn’t allow it to distract him from his own goals. Proud old Thebes — the very first city of Greece, home of Cadmus, the land’s first mortal patriarch — was abandoned by its defenders without a fight in the face of the overwhelming main body of the Persian army. Thebes’s army and many of its citizens retreated to the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Corinth. There the cities of the Peloponnese had used the time which Leonidas had bought for them at Thermopylae to organize a line of defense, just as Demaratus had told Xerxes they would do.
Yet those efforts did nothing to protect Athens, Xerxes’s first priority ever since setting off from his own lands. That city now stood utterly exposed before his army. There could be no talk among its citizens of coming out to meet the Persians in open battle this time, no hope of another Marathon; the disproportion in numbers was simply too great now. Athens was in panic, its leadership riven with dissension. They felt abandoned by the Spartans and their other supposed allies, who had elected when push came to shove to protect their own cities rather than Athens. The Athenians continued fruitlessly to debate the meaning of the Delphi oracle’s prophecy to them. What were the “wooden walls” of which she had spoken? The two largest camps continued to believe that her words must refer either to the stockade surrounding their acropolis or to their fleet.
In the end, terror of the approaching Persian army perhaps played the biggest role in convincing the majority of the people that the latter was the case. Only a few hundred stubborn soldiers declared their intention to remain behind atop the acropolis. Most of the rest, including the archontes and other political and military leaders and all of the ordinary citizens who could manage it, decamped to the island of Salamis near the harbor of Athens, the sanctuary annexed by the wise Solon a century before; the entire city now gave thanks for that legendary founder’s foresight.
Thus the day came when the Persian army marched unopposed into Athens, even as the Persian fleet sailed peacefully into the same city’s harbor. Only after they had occupied the height of the Areopagus did they encounter any semblance of resistance, in the form of arrows fired across from the city’s other promontory, its acropolis, by the few Athenian defenders gathered there. These put up as fierce if doomed a defense as the Spartans had at Thermopylae; it cost the Persians several days as well a considerable number of their own lives to scale the acropolis and kill the last of them. But when that was done, Athens and all its riches — all of its storied gold, architecture, history, and culture — lay entirely in Persian hands. If the oracle’s prophecy had referred to the stockade around the acropolis, the Athenians had missed their chance to save themselves by defending it with all their might.
And yet Xerxes’s moment of triumph didn’t quite live up to his expectations. Like many a conqueror before and after him, he found that military victory is ultimately hollow, for there is always one more battle to fight once a man starts down the path of conquest. Xerxes had no sense that he had won the war he had begun. Far from it: he was keenly aware that he had yet to engage the main body of the Greek military on either land or sea. So, although he raised his glass with the others to toast the occupation of Athens — the apparent vanquishing of his father’s arch-enemy — he retired early that night with a mind full of the warnings of Artabanus and Demaratus.
He was right to worry. For, while Athens itself might have fallen, the Athenians were not yet cowed. After harrying the Persian fleet so brilliantly at Cape Artemisium, keeping it from reaching Thermopylae until there was no longer any reason to do so, Themistocles had brought his ships to Salamis, where they were joined by all of the other seaworthy ships of war which the other cities of Greece could muster to the cause. The small island fairly groaned under the weight of its burden: ships, sailors, soldiers, and of course the many civilian refugees of Athens.
The question before the fleet’s commanders was where to fight. Theirs was a formidable force by any standard, but it was only half the size at best of the Persian fleet. Most of the non-Athenian captains believed that Athens and, indeed, all of Attica were a lost cause now; they argued stridently for a strategic withdrawal to the Isthmus of Corinth. There, they said, they could wait for the Persian army and navy to approach for a final battle on both land and sea that would decide the fate of the rest of Greece once and for all. That desperate affair would require every able-bodied man of fighting age; if their ships were sunk beneath them, the Greek sailors could swim to shore and take up the fight on land. “We must confront the Persians in one place rather than allowing them to defeat us piecemeal,” the non-Athenians on Salamis said — and it certainly sounded reasonable enough when they did so.
But Themistocles was against such a course, and not just out of a desire to free his occupied city right away. He feared greatly that, if given half a chance, the disparate Greek vessels would desert the common cause to return to their individual cities, out of the vain hope that the Persians might pass them by. And many of the Greek soldiers gathered on the Isthmus of Corinth, he thought, might do the same, for these cities of Greece were not used to this level of cooperation, and remained almost as suspicious of one another as they were of the Persians.
Moreover, he believed that conditions around Salamis were more favorable to the Greek fleet than those near the Isthmus of Corinth. For here the Persian ships would have to pass through the narrow, swiftly flowing strait between the island and the mainland; the Greeks could bottle the Persian navy up in the strait much as they had the Persian army at Thermopylae, preventing it from bringing its superior numbers to bear along a wide front. “If we can destroy their fleet here,” Themistocles said, “I don’t believe they will dare attempt an invasion of the Peloponnese this year — not without ships to land their soldiers behind our defenders at the Isthmus of Corinth. They cannot afford a long siege there — not with winter coming, not when they have been so foolish as to utterly despoil the lands they have already occupied. Their king’s hubris has led them well out on a limb; if we beat them here, he must choose between withdrawing to winter quarters or watching his army starve.”
But argue though he would, Themistocles couldn’t convince the others to stay and fight at Salamis. “Perhaps you should speak when you once again have a city to speak for,” said one of the few captains from the tiny Spartan navy, gesturing venomously across the water toward the occupied Athens.
“I may not have a city at the moment, but I do still have the most and finest ships and sailors in Greece,” Themistocles answered. “Perhaps I will sail with my fleet into exile in some other land, and leave the rest of you to battle the Persians as you will.”
But even this threat availed him not. The other captains believed, correctly, that it was a mere bluff, that the Athenians would never permanently abandon their beautiful city. A vote was taken, and the outcome was that the fleet would sail three nights from that day for the Isthmus of Corinth.
Desperate to prevent that retreat from happening, Themistocles resorted to subterfuge. He called his most trusted lieutenant, a man named Sicinnus, and gave him a secret mission.
Just after sunset two nights before the one on which the Greek fleet planned to withdraw, a Greek ship sailed into the harbor of Athens burning torches and waving a flag of truce. When the Persians sailed up to meet it, they found Sicinnus onboard. Making no secret of his identity, he asked to meet with King Xerxes. So, the Persians led him up to the top of the Areopagus, where their king had set up his headquarters.
“Most respected monarch,” said Sicinnus, bowing low before the makeshift throne of Xerxes, “my master Themistocles, the supreme commander of the Athenian navy, has sent me to tell you that he recognizes how fruitless it would be to continue this war. Clearly Athens, like the rest of Greece, is over-matched against your forces. And yet not all of the Greek cities yet understand this to be the case. We have been feuding with one another endlessly on Salamis, to the point that our anger is now more inflamed against ourselves than against you Persians. We Athenians are ready to accept the inevitable, ready to surrender here and now and join your great empire as loyal vassals. But the others insist on fighting on — insist on sailing to the Isthmus of Corinth and joining our army there for a final battle that will bring enormous death and suffering for no reason whatsoever. My master would prefer to spare our land that battle.
“Thus the reason I have come is to tell you that those among our fleet who would fight on plan to make their escape tomorrow night. If your ships take up position at the outlet of the strait through which they must sail and engage them there, Themistocles will attack them from behind with the Athenian fleet. Together we will squeeze the life out of them. For Themistocles believes that, if the news that the entirety of the Greek fleet has either been destroyed or captured or has gone over to the enemy should reach the army at the Isthmus of Corinth, its generals will finally see sense and surrender. By killing some of our own tomorrow, he can save the lives of a much larger number in the weeks to come.”
Now, this speech had two qualities which are a huge help in effectuating any deception. First, it had as much truth in it as its promulgator’s goals allowed; the Greeks on Salamis really had been arguing with one another about whether to stay or go, and really had decided to retreat to the Isthmus of Corinth over the objections of Themistocles. And second, it was exactly the message which its recipient most wished to hear. Xerxes was all too eager for these troublesome Greeks to accept reality and give up the fight so that he could turn his attention to another problem that was growing increasingly urgent as the year drew on: his army’s lack of provisions for winter.
Xerxes sent his visitor back to Salamis without comment, maintaining his unbreachable kingly façade all the while, but his heart was pounding with excitement as he did so; he saw this Sicinnus as another Ephialtes, appearing unexpectedly to solve his most pressing problem at a stroke. As soon as the Athenian messenger was gone, he called his commanders together to plan their next move.
Most of them agreed with their king that they should do just as Themistocles had suggested through his messenger. As usual, only Demaratus went against the flow. “My lord,” he said, “do not let impatience be your undoing. You do not need to fight this battle now, and I fear the outcome if you do so. The Athenians, who fancy themselves the world’s foremost intellectuals, pride themselves on their trickery. Your fleet may find itself the hunted rather than the hunter.”
“And what difference would that make?” scoffed the others. “We outnumber them by two to one!”
“Yes,” said Demaratus, “but I must say it to you plainly: each of the Athenian ships surpasses each of ours in strength to the same degree by which a man surpasses a woman. They are the finest fighting mariners in the world.” He turned back to Xerxes. “I say to you again, my lord, this battle is unnecessary. You already hold Athens, the main reason for which you set out on this campaign. The Peloponnese can be taken as well, but a measure of patience is warranted. One should always endeavor to fight one’s enemy on terms favorable to oneself rather than to them. You are better equipped to win this war on land than at sea. If the talk of surrender from Themistocles was honest — which I frankly doubt, knowing the Athenians as I do — you will soon be able to add his fleet to your own and overwhelm the remaining Greek navy elsewhere easily enough. But don’t bet everything on the word of an Athenian. We should reject this bait; we should leave an occupying force in Athens while the rest of the army retires to winter quarters right now. Next year we can resume the campaign and finish what we have started.”
But his pleading availed nothing. Xerxes still lacked the backbone to go against his other advisors; these were mostly grizzled veterans who had campaigned with his father, and he felt them to be constantly comparing their new king to their old, and finding the one of them wanting. Out of a perverse desire to please them, he gave the order to muster the fleet.
So, the Persian sailors spent the next day preparing for battle. Everyone ate well; the crews inspected their oars and their weapons and slapped one another on the back, promising each other that they were about to atone for their ineffectuality at Cape Artemisium. Then they spent the afternoon sleeping. Meanwhile Xerxes and his entourage made their way to a high point on the mainland just outside of Athens to observe the coming battle. Many scribes surrounded his throne there, prepared to write down who did what in the battle, for at the behest of his advisors the king had promised great rewards to any of his captains who performed especially well.
At dusk, the Persian fleet sailed out of the harbor and set up in formation at the mouth of the strait. All night the Persians continued to mark time there, but the battle they had been expecting didn’t come; the Greeks who were supposed to attempt an escape that night never did so. As morning broke, still without the battle their captains had so confidently predicted, the rowers in their traces had that look of worry which is always engendered in soldiers by the unexpected.
The Greeks on Salamis, who had actually been planning to make their escape on the night to come rather than this one, awoke that morning to see their plans forcibly altered by the hundreds of Persian vessels standing a short distance out to sea. Only Themistocles and Sicinnus knew why the Persians had come. The rest of the Greeks saw only that their escape route had been cut.
As sometimes happens in war and life, the Greeks, seeing that retreat was no longer an option, were galvanized by this reality rather than dismayed. Seizing the moment, Themistocles ordered the fleet to attack. He shouted his exhortations there on the quay of Salamis so loudly that all of the sailors could hear him: “Go forward, you children of the Greeks! Free your homeland! Free your wives and children, the shrines of gods that your forefathers worshiped, the tombs of ancestors. This is your time, your fight. Everything is at stake.”
So, the Greek ships took to the sea to the shouts of the criers who kept the rowers in time, to the rhythmic striking of the heavy oars in the water. While the rowers rowed, the soldiers aboard each ship, whose ranks included both spearmen and archers, pranced the deck in nervous excitement, like thoroughbreds in the last minutes before a race is run. Foolishly, the Persians rushed into the strait to meet their enemies rather than waiting patiently outside, where they could have more easily deployed their full numbers. The tide was swelling and the sea was running high; this was to the advantage of the small, quick, low-slung triremes which composed the majority of the Greek fleet, but to the disadvantage of the larger, less maneuverable galleys favored by the Persians, which struggled to navigate the torrent with any precision. The battle was joined when Themistocles’s own ship, sailing proudly at the head of the Greek formation, smashed its iron prow into the stern of one of the Persian vessels at full speed, breaking it apart as if it has been cleft by a woodsman’s axe.
The would-be hunters who had expected to catch the fleeing Greeks unaware now became their prey, just as Demaratus had predicated. With their crews already exhausted from their long night’s vigil, the Persian ships bumbled around in confusion, shattered their oars against one another by sailing too close. The sheer quantity of Persian ships trying to pour into the strait all at once became a hindrance rather than a help; the second line got entangled with the first, the third with the second. Meanwhile the Greek ships tacked deftly away to the more open waters to the south of the strait. Some of them stoked the carnage from afar with rocks and arrows while others dashed in and out of the maelstrom, ramming and burning their confused foes.
The battle went on in fits and starts for the entire day. Throughout, the Persians remained hopelessly discombobulated. In their exhaustion and panic, none of the captains among them had the presence of mind to lead a flotilla around the other side of the island and attack the Greeks from the rear, a maneuver which might very well have turned the tide of battle. They were able only to keep feeding themselves into the maw of that deadly strait like sacrificial victims appeasing an angry god. By the afternoon, one could almost have walked from Salamis to the mainland on the upturned hulls that clogged the strait; its actual water was made all but invisible by the wrecks and butchered men on its surface. The Greeks, whose battle lust gave no space for mercy, speared those Persians who survived in the water like fish.
The wail of the dying on that day must have exceeded all the groans of lament in Hades. Indeed, many later claimed to have seen apparitions of legendary heroes like Heracles and Jason and strange bellows of divine fire hovering over the sea while the battle raged. Some among both the Greeks and the Persians believed that the Olympian gods had deigned to join their favored people in corporeal form once again, to aid them in this, their time of existential peril.
As Xerxes observed his fleet’s destruction from his prime viewing location, tears streamed down his face. When the sun blessedly set to hide the terrible scene from his view, he moved and spoke like a man of twice his age. At last, he understood the depth of his strategic folly in rushing to Greece without first consolidating a position in Thrace, followed by his tactical folly of trying to win the war here and now, on his enemy’s terms rather than his own. “What are your recommendations?” he asked his advisors wearily that evening. But they said nothing in their shame.
Only Demaratus had the heart to speak. Mercifully, he broached not a word of reproach toward those who had mocked and ignored his cautions so many times. “We have suffered a major reversal today, but we must dwell on the future rather than the past. I fear that the Greek navy, which will now be able to roam the seas unopposed, can make a difficult battle still worse for us at the Isthmus of Corinth by transporting troops behind us to harry our rear. More than ever, then, I don’t believe we can conquer the Peloponnese before winter comes. And without control of the sea here at Athens we can’t hope to hold the city with the relatively small occupying force which we have sufficient provisions to support. Therefore we must abandon Attica and Boeotia entirely — but only for the time being, mind you — in favor of winter quarters well to the north. Then we can resume the war next year.” And for once, all of the other advisors merely nodded in subdued agreement.
Xerxes, who had never been particularly noted for his piety, now took an unusual step: he turned to his army’s prophet, whose presence at these councils of wars had heretofore been little more than a formality. “What is your reading of today’s events?” he asked.
“It is not the Greeks who have defeated us today,” said the prophet. “It is the gods. They have determined that one man shall never be given dominion over both Asia and Europe.”
The prophet’s words chimed with what Xerxes was already thinking. The fact was that he had no stomach left for continuing the war: he was for retreating immediately, all the way back to his own lands. And this was what he ordered. He didn’t even make any provision for meeting up again with the army of Mardonius, which was still in Phocis. Let Mardonius make his own way. All he wanted was to go home.
The Greeks on Salamis had been prevented from rejoicing over their great victory to the extent they would have liked by the need to keep a wary eye on the Persians who were still encamped just across the water. But then, just a few days after the battle, they saw the Persians begin to withdraw quietly — mournfully, one might even have said. Spies from the field soon informed them of Xerxes’s decision to retreat all the way he had come. After the Greeks had given full vent to their joy at this development, there followed another pitched debate about what to do next. Some hotheads wanted to signal the army at the Isthmus of Corinth to move up and attack the Persians, who suddenly seemed much less fearsome, somewhere in northern Attica or southern Boeotia; some only slightly cooler heads wanted to send the victorious Greek fleet all the way to the Hellespont, where it could easily destroy the floating bridge the Persians had constructed there, trapping Xerxes’s army in the foreign lands of Europe; some pushed for both measures in their lust for revenge against the invaders.
But it fell to Themistocles, the very figure who had earlier agitated so strenuously for action, to be the voice of caution now. “We ourselves have just demonstrated how men who seem defeated can manage to renew the fight and turn their weakness into strength when driven to it by necessity. We are lucky that we have found a way to repulse these barbarians. Why give them a reason to reawaken to their still-enormous strength? It is actually best for us if Xerxes and his army are on the other side of the Hellespont rather than this one. We should let them go there peacefully if that is their intention.” And this time trickery was not required to make the other Greeks agree that this course was wisest, especially given that Mardonius’s army, which was potent in its own right, was still at large elsewhere.
In the end, those Greeks who wanted the Persians to suffer got their wish anyway; their main army’s journey back to Persian territory was as brutal as any dozen battles. Every single soul of those that comprised the army lamented the heedless devastation they had visited upon the land on their way toward Greece now that they were forced to pass through the same territory again. For the crops that remained were nowhere near enough to sustain an army the size of this one. When the fields were bare, the men ate the grass growing from the ground; when the grass was gone, they stripped bark from trees and ate it. Starvation brought with it sickness; dysentery ravaged the ranks, killing more Persians than ever the Greeks had managed. In his crazed desire for the safety and security of his own lands, Xerxes ordered that the sick be left behind to starve. Unable to countenance serving a king who showed himself to be such a dishonorable coward, countless numbers of his soldiers deserted to make the best lives for themselves they could in these harsh foreign lands. Most of those who remained threw down their weapons and armor in order to lighten their load.
The army that straggled back over an icy Hellespont in the dead of winter was a pathetic caricature of the force that had set off some nine months before. It was a ragged rabble of refugees rather than an army, a creeping blight on the landscape. Well under half of the number who had left Abydus returned. Among the dead the army had left behind it was the wisest man in its ranks: Demaratus, felled by dysentery — or perhaps by a broken heart after he realized that he would never have his revenge, never become a king of Sparta once again.
Wizened old Artabanus shook his head sadly when his nephew returned to Sardis dressed in the rags of a pauper, having long since lost his kingly wardrobe along with his kingly chariot and his kingly mien. “The blame for this debacle should go as much to my advisors as to me,” said Xerxes, whining like a petulant child. “They kept on telling me how my father attained great riches at spearpoint while I stayed close to home, not adding to my father’s empire.”
“And yet you are the king,” said Artabanus quietly. “The responsibility lies with you. And not all of your advisors told you to rush blindly forth as you did. At least two of them — myself and Demaratus — urged you to proceed more methodically.”
Xerxes fell to his knees. “I am fit only for weeping! A woe and a bane, that’s what I am, to father and fatherland.”
But Artabanus pulled him up with firm hands. “You are still king. You must begin to act like it again.”
“But what comes next? What shall I do now?”
Artabanus looked at him, keenly but not unkindly. “Perhaps you are not made for campaigning, my boy. Perhaps your reign should focus on consolidation rather than conquest.”
And so, through Artabanus’s quiet wisdom, Xerxes began to learn a lesson which many sons of powerful or accomplished fathers could stand to learn: that a son cannot subsist on the dregs of identity left behind by his father, that every man must navigate the world in his own way.
After a long winter and spring of cat and mouse, Mardonius’s stranded army was definitively crushed by a Greek coalition that summer in a pitched battle near the town of Plataea in Boeotia. Xerxes never attempted another invasion, of Greece or anywhere else, but devoted himself instead to a multitude of building and engineering projects that made the lands his predecessors had conquered more beautiful and pleasant places for the people who lived there. He ruled gently, almost as if he sought to atone for what he had done before, and his people slowly came to see that out of the depths of his humiliation he had forged a hard-won wisdom. Some of them even forgave him for the death and suffering which his earlier impetuosity and insecurity had visited upon so many.
(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.)