Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the Preparations of the Greeks

When the messengers told the words that they had heard and written down to the people, there were many and various opinions among those who sought to interpret the oracle. Some of the older men said that it seemed to them that the god bade them fortify the citadel, for that in old time the citadel of Athens had been surrounded with a fence. And this fence they supposed to be the "wooden wall." And there were others that said the "wooden wall" signified their ships; but these were confounded by the last words of the oracle:

"Thou, holy Salamis, shalt bring

Dark death to sons of women born,

Or when abroad the seed they fling,

Or when they pluck the ripened corn."

These words troubled them much, for the readers of oracles declared that it was signified by them that they should fight in ships and be worsted at Salamis.

Now there was at Athens a certain man that was but newly risen into the front rank of the citizens. This was Themistocles the son of Neocles. He then coming forward affirmed that the oracle-readers did not read the words aright, for that, if they had been really spoken concerning the Athenians, the god would have said, "Sad Salamis," rather than "Holy Salamis," it being decreed that the dwellers in the land should die there. It was manifest therefore, he said, to one that interpreted the words aright that they were spoken concerning the barbarians, and not concerning the Athenians. Wherefore he advised his fellow-citizens that they should make ready to fight in ships, for that these were their "wooden wall." When Themistocles had set forth these opinions, the Athenians judged them to be better than the opinions of the oracle-readers. For these would have hindered them from fighting in ships, yea, from so much as lifting up their hands against the enemy, and would have had them leave their country, and find some other wherein to dwell.

Before this, another counsel of this same Themistocles had been given excellently in season. It so chanced that the Athenians had much money in their public treasury, having received it from their mines at Laurium. This they were about to divide among the citizens, man by man, so that each should have ten drachmæ; but Themistocles persuaded the Athenians that this division should not be made, but that they should use the money for the building of two hundred ships for the war that they had on hand, that is to say, the war against Ægina. This war indeed it was that was the saving of Greece, for it compelled the Athenians to become seafaring men. As for the two hundred ships, they were not used for the end for the which they were made; but they were a help to Greece when she most needed them. So many ships had the Athenians ready before the war; and they began to build others. And now, after hearing the oracle and consulting thereupon, they judged it well to put their whole force on shipboard, even as the god commanded them; and so, together with such of the Greeks as were of the same mind, to give battle to the barbarians.

So soon as the Greeks that followed the good cause, even the cause of Greece, were assembled together, they took counsel and pledged their faith one to the other. This being done, they agreed in this, that, first of all, all feuds that there were of nation against nation should be appeased. Many such there were; but the greatest of all was that between the men of Athens and the men of Ægina. Afterward, when they knew that King Xerxes had come down to Sardis with his host, they thought it good to send spies to see how matters stood with the King in Asia; also they sent embassadors, some to Argos, to make an alliance against the Persians; and others to Sicily, to Gelon, lord of Syracuse; and to Corcyra, to ask for help; and others again to Crete. For they desired to bind together into one all that bare the Greek name, so that they might strive with one heart against him that was the enemy of all. Now the power of Syracuse was said to be greater than the power of any other city among the Greeks.

When they had thus taken counsel together, and had caused all such as were at enmity to be reconciled, they sent three men into Asia to be spies. These came to Sardis and learned what was to be known about the King's army. But being discovered, they were questioned by the generals and condemned to die. But when Xerxes heard this he blamed the purpose of the generals, and sent some of his own spearmen, commanding that if they found the spies yet alive they should bring them into his presence. So the spearmen went, and finding them yet alive brought them into the presence of the King. And when the King saw them, he inquired of them wherefore they had come; and afterward commanded the spearmen that they should show them the whole army, both horse and foot, and all the power of the King, and that when the men had had their fill of this sight, they should send them away unhurt whithersoever they would. And the cause, he said, why he gave this commandment about the spies was this. If these spies be put to death, the Greeks will not know that my power is greater by far than all that they have heard, nor shall we harm them much slaying three of their men. But if these spies return to Greece, then will the Greeks hear the truth about this my host, and of their own free will they will give themselves to us and surrender their freedom, and we shall be spared the trouble of this great business. At another time, also, Xerxes spake much in the same fashion. When he was in Abydos he saw three corn ships coming from the Black Sea and sailing down the Hellespont, carrying wheat to Ægina and the Peloponnesus. And they that sat by him when they knew that the ships belonged to the enemy had thought of taking them, and looked to the King that he should give the word. Then said Xerxes, "Whither do these ships sail?" And the men answered, "To thy enemies, O King, carrying corn to them." Then the King said, "And are we not also sailing to the same place, taking with us corn as well as many other things? What wrong therefore do these men carrying food for us?" So it came to pass that the spies returned safe to Greece.

After this the Greeks sent messengers to divers cities, asking help. First they sent them to Argos. Now the Argives had been warned by an oracle that they should sit quiet, being indeed greatly weakened by that which they had suffered at the hands of the Spartans, for these, under King Cleomenes, had slain six thousand citizens. Nevertheless they bade the messengers come into their council chamber and declare their message. And when they had heard it they answered, "We will help you if the Spartans will give us a truce for thirty years, and will also divide with us the command of the army. This indeed we should by rights have altogether, but we will divide it with Sparta. The truce they asked that, their children having grown to man's estate, they might be able to make head against Sparta, if need should be. The Spartans answered, "As for the truce, we will bring the matter before the people, but the leadership we can not divide as ye would have it. For we have two kings and ye only one. But your King shall have one vote." This the Argives could not endure. Whereupon they said to the messengers, "Depart out of our borders before the sun be set, or we will deal with you as with enemies."

This is the story of the Argives, but the other Greeks affirm that Xerxes sent a messenger to them, saying, "We Persians are your kinsmen, for Perses, who is our father, was son to Perseus that was the son of Danae, that was the daughter of Acrisius your King. Wherefore neither should we fight against you, nor ye against us. Do ye, therefore, keep quiet, and there shall be none whom we will honor more than you." With this message the Argives were greatly pleased; and they asked for a share in the leadership for a pretense only, as knowing that the Spartans would not yield it.

Many years after it chanced that while certain ambassadors from Athens were at Susa, there came up also an embassy from Argos, who inquired of King Artaxerxes, that was son to Xerxes, "Does the friendship that Xerxes thy father made with us still remain, or dost thou count us as enemies?" To this Artaxerxes answered that the friendship remained, and that he held no city dearer to him than Argos.

The truth of these matters can not certainly be known. Yet so much may be affirmed without doubt, that if all men were to bring their own misdeeds into one place, as wishing to exchange them for the misdeeds of their neighbors, when they came to look close into the misdeeds of their neighbors, they would be right glad to carry back their own.

Other messengers, among whom was one Syagrus of Sparta, were sent to speak with Gelon, lord of Syracuse. These, when they were come into his presence, spake, saying, "The Spartans and the Athenians and their allies have sent us to tell thee that the Persians are marching into Europe, giving out indeed that they make war upon Athens only, but purposing to subdue the whole land of Greece. Do thou therefore—for thou hast great power, being lord of Sicily—help us that we may keep our freedom. And be sure that if thou suffer us to perish these barbarians will fall next upon thee, and that if thou helpest us thou helpest thyself." To this Gelon made answer, "Men of Greece, ye think only of yourselves when ye ask my help against the Persians. Did ye help me when I would have had you for my allies against the Carthaginians? Nevertheless I will not render evil for evil, but will help you, sending two hundred ships, and twenty thousand footmen, and two thousand horsemen, and archers and slingers and light horsemen, of each two thousand. Also I will promise meat for the whole host of the forces so long as the war shall continue. Only ye must make me commander."

Therefore Syagrus the Spartan burst forth, "Surely now Agamemnon son of Pelops would groan to hear that Gelon and the men of Syracuse had taken the leadership from Sparta. If thou wilt help the Greeks, O King, know that thou must follow the leading of the Spartans."

Then said Gelon, "For all thy evil words, man of Sparta, thou shalt not persuade me to answer thee evil. Yet if ye put such store by this command, how much more should I, that can bring with me so great an army! Howbeit I will yield to you so much as this. If ye will take the rule of the army, then will I command the ships; or, if ye choose the ships, yield the army to me. But if this please you not, then ye must depart without my alliance,"

Then said the ambassador from Athens, making haste before the Spartan could speak, "The Greeks have sent me, O King, to ask not for a leader, but for an army; but thou sayest little of an army, but art over eager for the leadership. As to the army we were willing that the Spartan should answer; but as to the fleet, hear this. If the Spartans will have the command, we yield it to them; but if not, then it comes to us, and we give it to no man. For why should we yield, who are the most ancient nation of all the Greeks, and of whom came the most skillful to order an army of all the chieftains that fought against Troy?"

Then said Gelon, "Man of Athens, ye seem to have commanders more than enough, but of them that should be commanded a few only. Go ye back then to Greece with all haste, and say that she has lost the spring out of the year." For he likened himself and his power to the spring, which is the best season of the year.

When the Greeks had departed, Gelon sent three small ships, and with them one Cadmus, who should watch the issue of the war. And the man had with him many gifts and earth and water. These Gelon commanded him to give to King Xerxes if he should get the upper hand, and if not, to bring back again. This Cadmus had received the lordship of Cos from his father, yet for love of right and justice gave it up to the people. And in this manner also he showed himself to be a righteous man for when the Greeks had prevailed, and Xerxes had departed, he kept not the gifts, as he might have done, but carried them back to Gelon.

Nevertheless some say that, notwithstanding the matter of the leadership, Gelon would have helped the Greeks, but that there came to Sicily about this time a great army of Phœnicians and Libyans and Sardinians under Hamilcar, King of Carthage. They say also that he conquered this army on the very same day on which the Greeks conquered the Persians at Salamis.

Envoys went also to the Corcyreans, who spake them fair, saying that they would send sixty ships. But these ships were long delayed; and after they had set forth they lingered about the coast of the Peloponnese, waiting for the end, even as did Gelon. But when the Greeks reproached them, the Corcyreans answered that the Etesian winds had not suffered them to round Cape Malea.

The Cretans inquired of the god of Delphi whether they should help the Greeks; and the god answered them, "Do ye not remember, ye fools, how that Minos was wroth with your nation because ye went to help the Greeks against Troy, because forsooth a barbarian had carried off a woman from Sparta, yet cared not to avenge him when he perished at Camicus?" Wherefore the men of Crete sat still.

While these things were being done the men of Thessaly sent to the Greeks, saying, "Come ye and guard the pass of Olympus, so shall ye preserve both our country and the rest of Greece also. But if ye will not, then must we yield to the Persians, lest we be left alone and so perish on your behalf."

Then the Greeks sent an army, even ten thousand men at arms, to the Pass of Olympus. But when they had been there a few days only there came messengers from Alexander, King of Macedon, saying, "Depart from this place lest ye be trampled underfoot by your enemies." And he told them of the number of the army and of the ships. So the Greeks departed and returned to the Isthmus; and having taken counsel again, they determined to send an army to Thermopylæ, which is the Pass from Thessaly into Greece. And the fleet they sent to Artemisium, which is in the island of Eubœa. As for the Pass it is but fifty feet wide, and westward there is a high mountain which no man can climb, but to the eastward is the sea and the marshes of the river Peneus. And across this Pass there had been built a wall in old time. The Phocians built it for fear of the men of Thessaly. And now the Greeks repaired the breaches, for it was broken down.

In the meanwhile the men of Delphi inquired of the god what they should do, being in great fear of the barbarians. And the god said to them that they should pray to the winds. To the Athenians also there came an oracle that they should seek help from their son-in-law. Now their son-in-law was Boreas, the north-wind; for Boreas, being a prince of Thrace, took to wife, as say the Greeks, Orithyia, the daughter of Erechtheus, that was King of Athens.