The following is one of the parts of Men of Old Greece, by Jennie Hall.
All the freemen of Athens stood on the Pnyx hill. There were tanners and carpenters and farmers and fishermen in short, dark chitons. Their brown arms and legs were bare. Their hair was cropped. There were gentlemen in white linen robes that reached to their feet. Their long hair was gathered into a knot on top of their heads and was fastened with a golden pin. Here and there a few young men were dressed in a later fashion. Their hair was short. They wore short chitons, like the workmen’s, but these glowed with gold embroidery or light bands of color.
There were no smiling faces in that great crowd. Most wore sneers or frowns. All eyes were turned toward the stone platform. There was a strange company. One man stepped out to speak. He wore a long red robe of silk embroidered with flowers. On his head was a tall red cap. His black hair hung in curls to his shoulders. His face was dark and covered with a curling beard. A heavy gold chain hung around his neck. He raised his hand to speak, and a loose sleeve fluttered out. Gold bracelets shone on his arm. On the platform were two or three other men dressed in the same fashion. The Athenian officer, the president of the meeting, sat in a chair. His chin was in his hand. He looked at the stranger and frowned.
This stranger began to speak, but he used a language that the Athenians could not understand. A man stood beside him. He had fair face and hair like the Athenians, and he wore a long chiton like theirs. He was a Greek from across the sea, where these strangers lived, and he could speak their language. He had come with them to tell the Athenians what they said. So now, as the stranger talked, this Greek spoke after him:
“I am a messenger to you from the Great King of Persia. He is master of the world. The harvests of the great Nile are his. The ships on the paths of the sea are his. The horses of Arabia, the gold of India, belong to him. The wild men of the north bow down to him. Lands tremble under the glance of his eye. All the world, but Greece, has sent him earth and water, because he is master of all lands and lord of all the seas. And now I have come to get earth and water from you. It is the Great King’s command.”
An angry roar went up from the crowd. Many men shook their fists at the strangers. The whole crowd pushed forward close to the platform, shouting angrily:
“Take your commands back to your slaves, not to Athens,” cried one man.
“Athens has no earth to spare,” shouted another.
“The messenger has too much Athenian earth on his shoes now. Let him shake it off and begone,” another called.
“Yes!” the whole crowd shouted. “Be off to your Great King! Athens does not want you. Go!” And they shook their fists.
The strangers on the platform gathered together and talked. The Athenian president looked on from his chair and smiled.
Another stranger came forward.
“Men of Athens,” he began; but the crowd shouted him down.
The president stood up and raised his hand.
“Let us hear this Persian and then answer him,” he said.
So the people listened.
“Be careful what answer you send,” said the Persian. “The Great King has many hands and many weapons. If his trumpet blows, warriors will run to him from the four ends of the earth. Those warriors will trample your little land into the sea. But the Great King is kind to his friends. For them sunshine falls from his eyes, and gold flows from his hand. You choose between death and the king’s love.”
“Death, then!” shouted the people.
A man came out of the crowd and ran up the steps upon the platform.
“Themistocles!” the people shouted. “Let us hear him!”
Themistocles caught up a crown of myrtle from the altar and put it upon his head. Then he turned quickly to the crowd. His eyes blazed.
“Men of Athens,” he said, and his voice rang like a war cry, “remember the fair shores across the sea. There our kinsmen lived in beautiful cities. Their ships rode out to the corners of the world. Smoke rose from their altars to the gods. Freemen filled their marketplaces. Artists worked in their shops. Fearless soldiers walked the high walls and guarded the gates. Now those walls are flat. Those shops are empty. Those marketplaces are bare. Those altars are overturned. Those ships are sunk. Who has done these things? This Great King, who commands us to give him earth and water. Will you make friends with him?”
“No!” shouted the crowd.
Themistocles pointed at the strange Greek.
“And this man,” he said, “is from one of those ruined cities. Yet now he does the king’s errands. He has put this Persian’s words into Greek. Those words praised that Great King who has killed our kinsmen or made slaves of them. Those words were commands to us as though we were slaves. Shall any man dare to use our Greek language so? I move that this man be arrested and punished like a criminal.”
The Athenian president leaped to his feet.
“All who think that this should be done will raise their hands.”
There was a great uprush of hands, with a shout.
“It shall be done,” said the president. “Guards, arrest this man. Persian, you have your answer. The meeting is over.”
After that, Athens was a busy place. There were meetings often on the Pnyx hill. At one of them Themistocles said:
“Men of Athens, what we have done means war. We have expected this thing for a long time. We have watched the Great King’s soldiers march up and down the lands across the sea. We have seen them beat down the walls of our neighbors. We ourselves went across and lent a hand. Nine years ago we burned the Persian’s rich city. We have never expected the Great King to forget that. Have we not heard how a slave stands behind him at every meal and says, ‘Master, remember the Athenians’? And have I not said to you, ‘Athenians, remember the Persian war’? Has a man ever gone to the marketplace to buy or to gossip without finding Themistocles there talking of the Persian war? Have you ever come to the assembly without hearing Themistocles say, ‘We must have a port before the Persian war begins, and Piraeus is the place’? At last, the work started.
“Now we have a port at Piraeus, and we have seventy ships on the sea. It is good, but it is not enough. We must have walls about our port. We must have more ships. We must be able to fight on the sea, for the Persians will come in boats. Our Athens lies on a plain here. Fields and gardens are all about her. The Persians will camp around her. They will eat our harvests. They will burn our houses. We shall die in our city. We must have ships to go to. We must have a safe place in which to leave our wives and children. Now Piraeus is on a steep bluff. The sea goes around it almost all the way. We men can lie in our ships under the walls of Piraeus and fight for our women. But more ships must be built. Piraeus must be walled. There is not a moment to spare. We must all turn carpenters and shipbuilders and masons. Let us set to work.”
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
Preparations Against the Persians
So Athens was busy for a year. Then people began coming from Greek cities in the north.
“We are flying from the Persians,” they said. “They are on their way here. They are breaking down the walls of our cities as they come.”
Then one day men came from the island of Euboea, just north of Athens. They were Athenians who had been in Euboea for a little while.
“We have seen the Persians,” they said.
“They came in ships. They got out upon our land. We never saw such an army before. They covered the land. No city can stand before them. The towns of Euboea are making a brave fight, but they will fall. We ran to tell you and to help. Make ready. The Persians will come here next.”
The men of Athens held a great meeting. They chose their generals. They said to them:
“Call together all the men of Athens who are able to fight. Leave a few to guard the city. Take the others to meet the Persians. We must stop them here. They must not come upon Greek soil. Sparta will help us. Let us send a runner to tell her.”
The next two days were busy ones. Pheidippides was off to Sparta to get help. The generals were drilling their army.
“But what can we do?” said a man in the marketplace. “We are only a handful against a million. Sparta must send us all she can. And then we shall lose.”
“What can we do?” cried another man. “Our best, and the gods will fight with us. This is their land as well as ours.”
On the second day, the guard at a gate blew his trumpet and called:
“Pheidippides is coming back. I see him running along the road near the river.”
When men heard that, they began to run.
“Pheidippides!” they cried. “To the marketplace! Hear his message. Pheidippides is back from Sparta.”
So the word went. From all corners of the city, men ran to the marketplace. They crowded close around the doors of the officers’ house. Pheidippides would come there to give his message. The crowd was silent. Men’s faces were pale. They were thinking:
“Will Sparta come? Must we stand alone?”
At last, Pheidippides came through the gate of the market. He dragged his feet in a slow run. His wet body glistened in the light. Dust was caked on his legs. His nostrils were spread. Men could hear his breath whistle through them. His lips were white and tight shut. His eyes were red. A man put out his arms, and Pheidippides fell into them.
“Sparta will not come,” he said.
His voice was thick. Then he rested. Men turned to one another with pale faces.
“She will not come,” they whispered.
Then they waited to hear more from Pheidippides.
“I ran to their marketplace,” he said. “Their kings and best men were there. I said: ‘Athens asks you for help. The Persians are coming. The men of Euboea are already made slaves, and their cities are burned. Help us!’ But they turned slowly to talk among themselves. And one said to me: ‘It is a long run; you must bathe and eat.’ ‘No, no!’ I cried. ‘Your answer!’ But still they talked. At last, they turned and said to me: ‘There is no need for hurry. Our great festival of Apollo comes in a few days. We must wait for that. After that, we will come.’
“I did not wait to hear more. Back I ran to Athens, over the mountains, down the valleys, through the rivers. And every hour my legs grew heavy, and my breath short, for anger at Sparta filled my throat, and my heart was cold with fear for Athens. At last, I stumbled in a little stream and I cried out: ‘Oh, gods of Olympus, help me!’
“And as I fell I saw a goat beard moving in a little dim cave and I heard a shrill note of Pan’s pipe. I lay trembling, afraid to look up. Then there was a quick stir through the bushes. I felt a rough hand on my head. At that touch, fire rushed through my veins. I leaped up. Pan was gone, but his own strength was in me. My lungs were fresh. My legs were steady. My heart laughed. The rest of the way I ran like a wind to tell you: ‘Fear not. We have a friend. Pan helps us. We win!'”
Then the men in that crowd threw up their hands and shouted:
“Pan and Athens!”
The army of Athens was on the march. Behind them, soldiers walked the wall of the Acropolis. The city streets were empty. The women and children sat trembling behind their shut doors. The old men talked in the marketplace, waiting for news. Ahead of the army were the mountains and the pass. Beyond that were the Persians.
The Greeks marched for six hours. Then they came out from the pass. Before them lay a little plain. On one side of it rose a high mountain. On the other side was the sea. Here lay the Persian ships, drawn up on the sand. On the shore back of them were tents, stretching up and down the sea for miles. Some were black and mean-looking. Some sparkled with cloth of gold. Some shone with bright colors. Some were made of skin. Among them bustled men in curious clothes.
Many of the Athenians had never seen the Persians before. Now a noise of wonder went through their ranks. But they marched straight on. They kept close to the mountain. There was a wide hilltop at the foot. Here was a spring and an altar to Heracles. To this hilltop the Athenians marched, and here they set up their tents. After the work of making camp was over, men stood and looked down at the Persians and talked.
“Surely the whole world has poured soldiers into that camp,” said one.
“And we alone stand against them,” said another.
“We are not alone,” said Pheidippides. “Pan fights with us — Pan the gay, the strong, the bringer of fear.”
“There is good omen in this place, too,” said another man. “We fight at the altar of Heracles and on his ground. And here, hundreds of years ago, our king, Theseus, wrestled with a wild bull and won. We wrestle with the bull of Persia, and wre shall win.”
“Athena, too, will not desert us,” another soldier said. “Has she not always fought with us? Is not her holy house in Athens? Did she not give us her own name? The gods are on our side.”
“And yet,” said the first man, “it is a sad thing that not one hand in all Greece is raised to help us. In her hundred cities men stand idle and watch us.”
Late that afternoon, the Athenians saw dust rise from the road they had just come over. Next they saw a glint of armor. By that time, every man was looking. A little column of soldiers was marching toward the camp. Who were they? They could not be foes from that direction. But what friends could they be?
“Sparta has changed her mind,” some cried. “She has sent us soldiers.”
“But what a handful!” others answered. “They are not Spartans,” a man said. “They have not the high helmets or the red chitons or the letter on their shields.”
So men stood making guesses and changing them. The generals sent out a scout to see who the strangers were. The Athenians watched him running down the hill among the bushes. He kept hidden from the men marching. But as he went near, the Athenians saw him break from the bushes and run straight up the hill again. They heard him shouting before they could understand his words. But at last they made out:
“The men of Plataea! The men of Platsea! They are coming with a thousand soldiers to lend us a hand.”
Then a great shout of joy rang from those Athenian throats. Men ran down the hill calling out. When the Plataeans saw, they broke ranks and ran to meet their friends. All the way back men walked with their arms over each other’s shoulders, and there were shouts of:
“Athens! Plataea! Little Plataea, the true-hearted!”
In the camp, the Athenian generals met the Plataean commander. They grasped his hands. Tears were in men’s eyes.
“Athens sent her friend no message,” said the Plataean. “Did you think we were not worth telling? It is true that our city is little and weak. But we shall never forget that day when we sat on the altar steps at Athens and asked her for help. She raised us up and called us friends that day and fought our battle for us. And since then she has struck many a blow for us. Now we can help her. Our swords are few, but our hearts are full of love.”
When the Athenians went to sleep that night, their faces shone with gladness. They had almost forgotten the Persians and were remembering their friend, little Plataea, the true-hearted.
For nine days the Athenians and Persians sat in their camps and looked at each other.
“The more often I see these Persians,” said an Athenian, “the less I fear them. I think they are more slaves than soldiers.”
“After this war,” said another, “I will never wear a long chiton again. It is too like the Persian dress.”
“After this war we shall all be Persian slaves,” another soldier said.
“Faint-heart!” cried a dozen men.
“Faint-heart indeed!” he said. “I am not afraid of twice or three times our numbers. But look! The plain is flooded with men. There are spearmen and swordsmen. There are bowmen and slingers to shoot from afar. There are horsemen to run upon us then be off before we can breathe. We have no bowmen and no horsemen. The enemy are ten times our number. I say, let us wait until Sparta comes to help.”
“Wait for Sparta!” cried the others. “Wait for the Persians to burn Athens!”
“Half our generals think as I do,” said the man.
“But Miltiades knows better,” the others replied. “When the right time comes, he will lead us out. He will not wait for Sparta. And Themistocles is of the same mind. They are the men for Athens.”
Hey! I hope you’re enjoying this free content.
Would you consider contributing to the cause of Latin and Classics?
Just a few sestertii will buy you some cool books!
The Battle of Marathon
On the ninth morning, the Persians began to move. The ships were pushed off into the water. The horsemen saddled their horses and rode on board and sailed off. Then the footmen made ready to go into their ships. Miltiades had called his Greeks into line.
They stood on the hilltop waiting and looking at the Persians.
“We have frightened them away,” men said. “They dare not try to march past us to Athens. They will sail around to the city. We must stop them. What will our command be?”
Some Persians stood in arms on guard. Others were getting into their boats. Off on the sea shone the sails of the ships that were carrying the horsemen away. Then at last Miltiades gave the word to march. The Greek army moved down the hill in a long, thin line, five hundred men abreast. In the middle the line was only two or three men deep. It moved steadily ahead. Every man held his spear before him. His shield was tight to his left side. His sword swung at his knee. The helmets glistened. Dust rose behind the line. The men sang a war song as they marched. Soon Miltiades gave another command. The trumpets blew.
The men shouted the war cry for Athens.
Then they all broke into a run, still shoulder to shoulder.
The Persians were surprised. The guards gave the alarm. The others turned to look. Some leaped out of their boats. Then there was a rushing about. Men caught up their arms and fell into line. But the Greeks were upon them quickly. The Persian arrows had just begun to fly when the Greeks were already pushing with their spears and slashing with their swords.
The Persians were on the very shore. The sea was behind, the Greeks in front. So they fought for their lives, and they did many brave deeds. Their swords rang loud on the Greek armor. And from the back of their line their arrows dropped like stinging hail upon the heads of the Greeks. Few of the Persians wore armor. The Greek swords tore through their soft clothes and sank into their flesh. Yet they stood firm, and many a Greek and Persian fell together after a brave fight. But when a Persian in the front line died, another stepped forward and took his place, for they were many. New foes stepped out so fast that there was no time for the Greeks to take breath. They were wounded, their armor was slashed, their spears were broken, yet they kept up the fight, for they were thinking:
“These Persians will make us slaves if they win. They will burn our homes. They will carry away our wives and children. We must drive them back.”
And some things happened that put heart into the Greeks.
“Courage, friends,” a man cried to his neighbors. “Did you not see Athena’s helmet flash along the line? Did you not hear the whizzing of her spear?”
“Athena for Athens!” they shouted back, and courage leaped into their hearts.
“Pan! Pan!” cried Pheidippides. “He fights beside me. He has kept his promise.”
“See! There is Heracles with his good club.”
“The gods are with us,” all men thought and were glad.
So they pushed the Persians before them. Many they struck dead on the shore. Some fell into the sea. Most leaped into their boats and pushed off. Then the Athenians ran into the water after them. They caught hold of the ships and struck down the rowers and broke the oars and fought with the soldiers. The Persians struck bravely back, and many Greeks dropped into the sea and died. But some boats the Greeks burned there on the shore, while the others sailed away. At last only the dead warriors and the burning ships and the Greeks were left on the battlefield.
Then the Athenians rested and looked about. Thousands of men lay dead on the plain — Greeks and Persians.
“This is the price we pay for our city,” Miltiades said. “But we must be ready for them.”
He left one company to bury the dead. The others he led back to Athens. Their armor was cut and dented. Some men carried Persian swords or shields, because their own had been lost in the fight. On many bare arms and legs were wounds, sometimes wrapped with rags of Persian dress. It was a broken army. But there was a joy in their hearts such as they had never felt before. They had done a thing such as no other army had ever done. They had beaten the army of the Great King.
When they came near Athens, they saw the Persian boats coming towards Piraeus. But at the sight of the Athenian armor the Persians turned away. They had had enough of fighting. They sailed back across the sea to Persia, and Athens was at rest.
Then the first thing was to raise a mound of earth over the dead warriors. Some people had said:
“Let us bring them back to the city and bury them there. All the other soldiers who have died for Athens lie over there in our cemetery.”
But other men said:
“No. Let them lie on the battlefield. No other men ever fought such a battle. They are the first Greeks to meet the Persians. They are heroes.”
So there on the plain of Marathon they raised a great mound over their brave soldiers. On the top they put ten stone columns and cut on them the names of the men buried there. They raised another mound over the Plataeans. And they cut their names on a column.
“Let no man ever forget,” said the Athenians, “that the Plataeans came to Athens in her need and did brave deeds at Marathon.”
At the next meeting in the Pnyx they voted for a festival of Marathon.
“Our children and their children for hundreds of years must not forget Marathon,” the people said. “It is the best battle that ever was fought. It saved Greece. Every year we will hold a Marathon festival. On that day we will sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving. And our herald shall pray, and these shall be his words, ‘May the gods bless the Athenians and the Plataeans!’ And on that day we will burn sacrifices on those mounds as on holy altars. Our soldiers shall drill there on that day, looking at the mounds of those heroes. So they shall remember to he brave like the men who died there fur Athens.”
The Persians Are Not Defeated Yet
It was in the middle of the forenoon several months after the battle of Marathon. The marketplace was full of people. Flower girls were running about with their baskets.
“Roses, roses! Violets from the plains! Crocuses from the road to Piraeus! Flowers! Buy, buy!”
Rough fellows, in short brown or gray chitons, stood by their little tables and beat upon gongs and cried:
“Fish, fish! Fresh fish! Caught but an hour ago! Come buy!”
Bankers sat on their benches behind their little tables covered with boxes and coins. They were changing money for visitors from foreign cities, and they were lending to gay young men, who dropped the coins into their bags and were off, laughing.
A pottery seller had his little table full of red and black vases.
“Come buy a Marathon vase,” he called, “painted with pictures of our glorious battle.”
And among those dozens of tables and crying merchants walked the men of Athens. Their slaves followed with baskets and money bags. Some were buying vegetables and fruits and wines and meat and bread and cakes for dinner. Others were buying clothes and sandals; others, vases, jewels, lamps, olive oil. So, the baskets of the slaves were filled.
“This sight delights my eyes,” said a man who stood talking to friends. “Peace is the real glory of a land. We have driven out the Persians; now we can rest.”
“Rest?” cried a man who had just come up. “Rest with no wall about Athens? Rest with our port unfinished? Rest with no ships to meet our foes on the sea? Are the Persians driven out? Only driven back to make better plans. How long do you think it will be before we see the water white with Persian sails and feel our land tremble under Persian feet? Rest? There is not an hour to spare. Are the men of Athens mad to think of resting now? We can rest when Persia is dead.”
“Oh, Themistocles raving again!” laughed one of the men. You are a skeleton at the feast, Themistocles. Three men cannot stand together anywhere in Athens without having you come up and rave about the Persians and the work to be done.”
“A skeleton at the feast?” cried Themistocles. You need one. You have drunk the wine of victory. It has made you drowsy. Must I frighten you to work? The king of Persia can get together enough soldiers to cover our land. And do you think he will not do it? Is he not ashamed of Marathon? Will he not try to wipe out that disgrace? How can we win against him? His weakest point is his navy. Persians are not sailors. He must borrow his ships and crews from lands that he conquers. Those men will fight from fear of him. Can such men win against men who fight for their own dear country? So I say: let us build ships. Let us all go aboard and leave an empty land for the Persian army. But let us meet the ships on the sea, and we shall win. We have seventy boats now. We must have two hundred!”
“Ho-o!” laughed the men about Themistocles, for a crowd had gathered to listen. “Two hundred ships of war! Where can you get the money? Where can you get the men to do the work?”
“I know of ten rich men,” Themistocles replied, “who have already said: ‘We will each pay for the building of a ship.'”
A fish seller put his hands on his hips and raised his eyebrows and gave a long whistle.
“Nothing stingy about that!” he said.
“No,” cried a potter. “But they are rich. We poor men have nothing to give.”
“Have you not?” cried Themistocles.
He pointed to the east.
“Off there are the silver mines of Athens,” he said. “Rich men work them and pay rent — to whom? To you and me, the freemen of Athens. The rent will soon be due. Will you spend it for Athens?”
“No!” cried a blacksmith. “I need it to buy a new bellows.”
“You will need no bellows, Ariston,” said Themistocles, “when the Persians have set fire to Athens.”
“The Persians!” laughed a dozen men.
“When our children are men, they can take care of the Persians. Now they are far off.”
Then the company broke up. Themistocles walked slowly away. His mouth was set hard. There was a frown on his forehead.
“They must do it,” he was thinking. “How can I plan it? They must listen.”
He had done more than he thought that day. Those men went away scoffing. But they could not forget Themistocles’s words. Some talked together of the matter afterwards.
And Themistocles was in the marketplace every day. And always he talked about the war, the walls, the navy.
“Here comes the Athenian navy,” men used to say of him when they saw him coming.
“If you meet this man at a banquet,” a young fop once said, “he will not touch the lyre and sing of love or of beauty or of the gods, as other men do. He talks of the Athenian navy. If you go to the marketplace to have a pleasant chat in a perfumer’s shop, in will come Themistocles and make your head ache with the Athenian navy. I am coming to dream at night of him and his navy.”
“And there are worse things to dream of,” replied a friend of Themistocles.
“Yes,” answered another man. “Now that this trouble with Aegina has come, a navv would not be a bad thing for Athens.”
So the talk grew.
Again there was a meeting on the Pnyx hill. The sacrifices and prayers were over. Then Themistocles stepped upon the platform and put the myrtle crown upon his head. Above him to right and left stretched the crowd of Athenian men. Before Marathon it had been a crowd with long robes and long hair and flashing jewels. Now it was a crowd with close-cropped hair and short chitons and bare legs — a crowd of active men, of haters of Persia.
Themistocles’s voice rang out:
“Men of Athens, what will you do? Our sacred ship and our holy priests are not safe on the seas. We send them to the temple of Poseidon for the great festival. The men of Aegina hide on our shores and steal our priests. Our merchants sail out from Piraeus in ships loaded with rich stuffs. The men of Aegina lie in wait, sink the ships, carry home the rich goods. And have you heard the talk of the traders from across the sea? The Great King is mad with anger. They say: ‘He will conquer Greece yet. He has called a new army together. The whole land of Persia clangs with arms and marching men. This time the king himself will lead his army.’
“These things are not news to you now. You have talked them over in the marketplace during the last few days. What shall we do? Aegina is an island. Her men are at home on the sea as well as on the land. There is but one way to meet them — in ships. The Persians will burn our land. Where shall we stand then? In ships.
“There lie in our treasure house now chests of money, the rent from our silver mines. Athens is ready to divide it among you. Will you have it to buy clothes that shall burn in Persian fire? Will you have it to buy wheat to eat while the men of Aegina drink the wine that our ships take to sea? Will you have it to lay away in money chests for Persians to break open? Or will you build ships with it, to be a strong right arm for Athens? — Ships that will drive the men of Aegina home; ships that will keep our waters safe and bring rich traders to our port; ships that will save our wives and children and land from Persia. I move that the money from the silver mines be spent for building a navy to save Athens.”
The president asked for the vote. Then the men of Athens forgot their little wishes and their stinginess and their poverty. They remembered only their dear Athens — her honor, her glory, her need, her danger. They voted to give their money to her.
Attica was a busy land. The pine forests on the mountains were full of men. There were the ringing of axes and the crashing of falling trees. Long lines of mules dragged logs down the hills and across the plains to the seashore. Here was the noise of saw and hammer, where carpenters were building ships. Here, too, was the smoke of fire, where blacksmiths were making the sharp beaks of ships. Clumsy mule carts creaked across the plains, from the stone quarries to Piraeus. There stonecutters and masons were building docks. Housebuilders, too, were busy, for news of what Athens was doing spread through Greece. Many men came seeking work. These foreigners built their houses at Piraeus. So, a busy little city began to grow up here.
Off the shore were little boats going about all day. They seemed to carry nothing and to go nowhere. Aboard them were the young men of Athens, learning to be sailors. The boats were always being turned about; the sails were always being raised or lowered.
On a certain day, after three or four months of this work, one of these little boats came alongside a pier. Two young men leaped out. Their faces were tanned. Their short chitons were water-splashed. Their eyes were glad.
“Oh, ho!” cried one in a gay voice, breaking into a run. “The sea! The sea! It is a fine thing.”
The two young men ran along the pier, side by side.
“I used to think it shameful for a man’s hands to smell of ropes and oars,” said the first; “but now, Milon, I am as proud of that smell as of the oil of Olympia.”
“Think of the days,” answered Milon, “when we used to spend half our time in the gymnasium. The disc, the spear, the boxer’s thongs, the race course, the jumping weights — they gave us strong muscles and quick eyes. But this, Demipho! This is striving with the gods themselves. Will Hermes blow our ship north? We make it go south. Will Poseidon beat her against the rocks? We guide her off. Athenians have been landsmen. These little islands have lorded it over the sea. Let them be careful! Athens is learning to pull the oar and work the sail. We have already made Aegina smart.”
“But Persia!” said Demipho. “Shall we be able to hold out against her? King Xerxes builds a bridge a mile long. He sets his slaves to work, and in a few months he has dug a trench from sea to sea for his ships to sail through. His army has been three years coming together. He has said that he will not rest until he has burned Athens. What can we do against such a king?”
“Themistocles will find a way,” replied Milon.
“True,” Demipho answered. “What can he not do? He has built a fleet and has turned farmers and merchants into sailors.”
The two young men were walking along a country road. Before them stood up the steep Acropolis hill, with its temples. Other hills clustered around it. The houses lay among them. The young men came to the foot of the Pnyx. Streams of men were pouring toward it. All were talking excitedly. The words “Persians,” “Xerxes,” were spoken often. They all walked up the hill and showed little tickets to the keeper of the gate. Those tickets of sheepskin told that the men who held them had a right to go to the meetings of Athens. So they all passed in.
After the sacrifice, Themistocles went upon the platform to speak.
“Men of Athens,” he said, “the Great King is coming. He sits on his throne and sees his army drill. He waits only for the great bridge to be finished. Then he will cross the water into Greece. Again he has sent for earth and water. Some of our neighbors have given them to him. But most Greeks are still freemen. They have sent the messengers home empty-handed. What are those Greek freemen to do? There are a hundred cities and more in Greece. Everyone stands alone, a jealous foe of every other. But can they stand so against Persia and her million soldiers? We have enemies in Aegina and in Sparta. Our hearts have been hot with anger against both. But would you have Persians make slaves of Spartans? Would you have Athens safe and see Delphi burned, or see Persians run at Olympia? We are all Greeks and brothers. Shall we not stand shoulder to shoulder against Persia? I propose a meeting of all the lovers of Greece. Let it be at Corinth, in the middle of Greece. I move that we send messengers to every city, telling them of this plan.”
The men of Athens voted for that motion.
On the day set, the wisest men from those Greek cities came together at Corinth. Themistocles spoke:
“The first thing to say is that we are all friends. There are men here from cities that were once foes of Athens. We are foes no longer. We have enough of them in the Persian camp. This is no time to remember little things. There is only one thing to remember — Greece.”
And those men vowed that all quarrels should stop. Men talked kindly together who had not long ago raised spear against each other. So they began to plan what to do.
“The Great King sits in his camp across the sea,” one Greek said, “waiting for his bridge. If we knew his numbers and the kind of weapons and men, we could plan better. Let us send spies to steal into the camp and look about.”
It was done. The Greeks waited many days for the return of those spies. When they did come, they told this story:
“We came to the rich city of the king and were looking about us. But the generals found us out and led us away to kill us. At the last moment, the king sent, saying: ‘Bring the spies to me.’ So we went.
“There he sat like the statue of a god, high on a golden chair. He himself, in purple robe, was all a glitter of gold and jewels. About him stood a thousand servants. They carried the king’s napkin, the king’s parasol, the king’s perfume bottle, the king’s fan, the king’s cup, the king’s wine bottle, the king’s hand basin. They knelt to offer him drink. They bowed to the floor when they spoke to him. ‘Why are you here?’ the king asked us. ‘We have come to see your army and to tell the Greeks about it,’ we answered, expecting to die. Then the king called his guards and said: ‘Show these men about. Let them see everything — my horsemen, my bowmen, my spearmen, my slingers, my runners, my chariots, my mules, my stores of food, my chests of gold.’ So we walked for a whole day through that camp, seeing new things always. Never before had we seen so many men. It was like twenty Greek cities put into one. Surely we cannot fight with that army.”
But men who heard answered:
“It is better to die with a sword in your hand and in the smile of the gods than to live to carry the king’s fan. Why should we be discouraged? True, half of Greece lies trembling under the Great King. But we are still free. Zeus and Apollo and Athena still sit on Olympus. Have their arms lost their strength? Do not their arrows shoot as straight, and are their spears not as sharp, as when they helped the Greeks against Troy?”
So with brave hearts they set to planning. Not long after that, word came that the Persian army had crossed the great bridge.
“And so large was the army,” men said, “that for seven days and nights the bridge was full of soldiers marching. There were men from all parts of the world: Greeks from across the sea in their bronze armor, Arabs on horses, men from India in white robes, savages in skins. Now they are marching down toward Greece. The ships are sailing along the coast near the army.”
Then the men at Corinth said to Sparta:
“You are best in war. Send an army to the narrow pass at Thermopylae to stop the Persians. We will send the ships to lie near that army to stop the fleet.”
But Sparta sent only a few men under Leonidas. All the ships, however, sailed north, ready for work. And half of them all were Athenian, and Themistocles was with them. They lay waiting for several days. And while they waited, their courage faded away. Many captains said:
“Let us sail south again. We cannot meet the Persians here. We are too far from home.”
So Themistocles was very busy. To one man he must say this thing, to another one, that. Some he laughed at, others he threatened, trying to put courage into their hearts. And he succeeded. He kept the fleet together.
At last, the Persian ships came into sight, and with them came the news:
“Poseidon has not forgotten the Greeks. He has sent storms that wrecked many Persian ships.”
Now there lay the Persian fleet a few miles away. Here lay the Greeks looking at it.
“What is there terrible about those ships?” the Greek sailors said among themselves. “How will those men fight? Do they know how to handle a ship? Let us try them.”
So, finally they fought, two hundred ships against a thousand. Three different times they had little battles, and in every battle the Greeks did brave work. At night, a storm helped the Greeks by wrecking more of the Persian ships. The Greek boats were safe in the harbor out of the waves.
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
The Battle of Salamis
But the last fight was a hard one. More than twenty Greek ships were sunk. And that same night the news came of the lost battle at Thermopylae. Then even Themistocles said:
“Let us fight no more. Our ships need repairing. Thermopylae is lost. We cannot keep this north country. We must let the Persians have it. We must save the southern part. But let no man think that we have been beaten in this sea fight. Wrecked Persian ships and dead Persian sailors tell that we were not afraid, and that we know how to handle a fleet. Greece has no cause to be ashamed of us. We will meet the foe again.”
A while before the sea battle, the people of Athens had sent to Delphi to ask Apollo about the war. This was the message they received:
“When all inside Athens is lost, Zeus will give you wooden walls to save you. Do not wait for the army marching down, but turn and flee. You will still be able to face them. Oh, divine Salamis, you will cause men to die whether the harvest is gathered in or not.”
The Athenians could not understand this message. Some said, “What are the wooden walls?”
Others answered: “That must be the old wooden wall around the Acropolis. Are not our holiest temples there? Is not the holy wooden statue of Athena there? That is the place for us to flee to.”
But others laughed at that.
“Impossible!” they said. “Not half the people of Athens could be crowded upon the Acropolis. Apollo would not give such advice.”
“Salamis will cause men to die,” men repeated, thinking. “That must mean that we are to flee to Salamis. Then the Persians will come and kill us.”
“No, no!” others cried. “Zeus will save us and our children.”
“Why are you sad?” Themistocles said. “This is a good message. Is not the island of Salamis bare and rocky? Yet Apollo calls it divine. What makes it divine? The good fortune that will happen there. ‘Zeus will give us wooden walls,’ Apollo says. But where? We are not to wait for the Persians, but to flee away. We must flee to Salamis. ‘But there is no wooden wall at Salamis,’ you say. Look at the sea. There lie our ships of wood, strong walls for brave men. What Apollo means is: ‘Flee from Athens. Go aboard your ships. Meet the foe at Salamis. You will win a glorious battle.'”
But some people doubted.
“Themistocles can never see anything but his ships,” they said.
Others frowned, saying, “Apollo would not tell us to leave our homes, our father’s graves, our temples, our holy statues.”
All this happened before the war began.
After those first sea battles were over, the Greek fleet came south. Themistocles returned to Athens. He found the people unhappy.
“What shall we do?” they said to him. “Thermopylae is lost. The Persian army is marching down upon us. The Persian fleet is sailing down. Sparta will not send us help. She will take the Greek fleet and the Greek army farther south and leave us to the Persians.”
“And she will do right,” Themistocles replied. “No army can hold our land now against the Persians. We must give it up. But there is a new Athens built for you. Will you scorn it? Has it not made you proud of it in these last few days? You dread to leave your father’s graves. Is that not better than to make Persian slaves of your fathers’ sons? Some time we will come back and raise new stones at those graves and write on them, ‘Fathers of the men who beat the Persians on the sea.’ Do you dread to leave the temples? But the gods are not chained to their altars. Is it not Athena who sends victory to Athens in war? Then was she not with us in these battles on the sea?”
“But our women and children cannot go on shipboard,” men said. “What will happen to them?”
That was a hard question. But in a few days word came from the city of Troezen:
“Athens and Troezen are friends from of old. Let us keep your women and children. They shall be the guests of our city. They shall stay with us until you have some place for them. We will send your boys to school. Your children shall play in our parks. They will not be unhappy.”
For days, men talked about all these things in the streets. It was a sad city. But at last they voted to go away.
When the last day came, the streets of Athens were a strange sight. Men, women, and children, rich men and slaves, were walking to the sea. Every man carried a load of his most precious things. Mules, packed with clothes and furniture, followed. Wooden carts creaked along. At the shore all was thrown out upon the ground and loaded into boats. Early in the morning, the priests had taken the most holy statues and dishes from the temples. They were now on a ship sailing to Salamis. Some of the wise old men went with them.
“In Salamis is the new Acropolis,” they said.
As the people walked the streets, some wept, and some cried out to the gods. Some looked back and waved farewell at the empty city. Some squared their shoulders as if for the battle ahead. One gay company of young men ran through the streets and up to the temple of Athena on the Acropolis. Here they hung up the bridles of their horses, saying, “We change horses for ships.”
Shields hung over the columns in the porch of the temple. They had been won in old battles by Athenian warriors. Each young man took one down and put it upon his arm. Then they ran down the hill and off toward the sea, shouting, “Victory for the now Athens!”
The Greek fleet lay off the shores of Salamis, wailing. Then one day a man came rowing toward them, calling:
“News from Athens!”
Eagerly the sailors pulled him over the side of Themistocles’s boat.
“What is your news?” they cried, and their faces grew white.
“The Persians have marched down from Thermopylae,” he said. “They have burned Thespiae. They have burned Plataea. The great army marched through our land of Attica. The grain fields burned behind them. Men and women fled before them. The temples of Athens are ashes. Xerxes and his army sleep in our houses. But a few of us gave trouble at the Acropolis. We stayed there when you went because we thought Apollo meant that. But the Persians shot burning arrows, and our wooden walls fell in fire. But even then the enemy could not get up to us, for we rolled great rocks down the steep sides. But at last a few crawled up where we had no guards. Then some of us died fighting. Some ran to the holy altar of Athena, but the Persians killed them there. When I saw that the fight was lost, I ran to tell you. I went down the underground stair and through the cave. Surely Athena guarded me as I stole around the great army. As I left the shore, I turned back and saw the roof of the temple fall and the flames shoot up. A smoke hangs over all Athens. She is dead and buried on her holy hill.”
Then all that shipload of men groaned and could not speak a word. But men from other ships were shouting questions, and at last the answer came, “Athens is burned, Xerxes has come.”
Then suddenly here and there sails were raised, and ships moved off.
“What are you doing?” men from other boats called.
“We are going home,” came the answer. “Only fools will stay.”
“Only cowards will go,” shouted an Athenian.
“Have you no gods to make you ashamed?”
“Do you call yourselves Greeks? Bah! They are Persians.”
Such were the cries that came from the Athenian boats and from some others. Yet many were silent, wishing to run away.
The captains came together to plan what to do. A Spartan was general. They met on his boat. There was a long talk. At last the meeting ended, and Themistocles came rowing back to his own boat. His brow was heavy. His face was gloomy. He went aboard and walked to the bow. Here he stood looking off into the dark, towards Athens. His men watched him, and their hearts grew sick. After a while, an old man, his friend, went close to him.
“What do they plan to do?” he asked in a low voice.
“To go south and wait before Corinth,” Themistocles answered, without turning.
“Do you know what will happen then?” said the friend. “If we leave Salamis, we shall never fight for any country. Every ship will go to its own city. Then not only will Athens be ashes, but Greeks will be slaves. Go to the Spartan again.”
Without a word, Themistocles walked to the side of the ship and got into his boat.
“To the general’s ship,” he said to the rowers.
As he came near, he called out, “I must see the general on business.”
“Come aboard,” was shouted back.
So Themistocles went aboard. He sat with the general alone in the bow of the boat.
“If we leave Salamis, we shall scatter to the four winds,” he said. “The men are afraid. You know that. They will fly home if the flock moves. Call the captains together again. Let us talk further.”
For an hour, Themistocles urged. At last, the Spartan sent messengers to call the captains. They came, and at once Themistocles began to talk.
“Apollo has lent him his own tongue,” said a man.
“But why should this man talk?” cried another, mockingly. “He should have no vote. He has no country.”
Then Themistocles turned, and his eyes blazed.
“Have we Athenians no country?” he said. “Our city is in ashes, but look!” he pointed to the Athenian ships. There is our country. Of those four hundred ships, two hundred are Athenian.”
Then he turned again to the Spartan general.
“If you stay here, we can save Greece. Apollo has promised Athens victory at Salamis. If you do not stay, then bid farewell to us and our two hundred ships. We will go to find a new home far west.”
That threat won. At last the captains voted to stay.
On the next morning, the Greeks saw the Persian fleet come sailing in from the north. All the host of the army, too, marched down the shore from Athens.
“They have come to see us die,” cried out a Corinthian.
The Greeks lay facing the hosts of the Persians, while the king took time to hold a meeting and look over his ships. And all the time fear grew in the hearts of the Greeks.
“We were fools to listen to Themistocles,” men said. “He stays for the sake of Athens. We shall all die here for the sake of that dead city.”
So men stood on their ships, scowling and talking together. By night, their fears had grown so great that they called a meeting. The captains were crowded on the deck of the general’s ship. They looked out on the Greek fleet as they talked. Far off, the Persian ships lay in the moonlight. They stretched for miles along the shore.
“We will not stay here,” the captains cried, “to be carved up by Persian swords.”
Then followed a long, angry talk. Once a sailor called Themistocles out. He soon came back with another man. The stranger said to the company:
“Some of you know me. I am Aristides, the Athenian. I have been an exile from Athens. But I have come back now to fight for her. Are you talking of going away? It is too late. I have just come from Aegina. I could barely steal through the line of Persian ships. They are drawn up before you in a close half circle. Behind you a half circle of land shuts you in. You are in a trap. You must fight.”
There was some grumbling then, but most men lost their fear when it came to the touch. Every captain went back to his ship and made ready for a fight in the morning.
“Themistocles looked as though what Aristides told was no news to him,” one man said.
“Very likely his finger was in it somewhere,” another answered.
And indeed it was. When he saw from the talk of the captains that they meant to go away, he sent a messenger to Xerxes, saying:
“I come from the general of the Greeks. He is a friend to the Great King. The Greeks are going away, for they are afraid. If you would catch them, shut them in with your ships, so you can best conquer them and win great glory.”
And so the king had done.
In the morning, the Greeks saw the Persian ships around them. Back on the shore sat the king, high on his golden throne. And all about him glittered his soldiers. On the rocks of Salamis stood the old men of Athens and some of the women and children. All these foes and friends were looking down on the little Greek fleet.
“It is like a great theater,” said an Athenian. “We are the actors. There is the audience. Who will clap their hands, and who will weep?”
“And there is another audience,” said a man. He pointed to the sky. “There sit all the gods watching.”
Soon, the fighting men of the Greeks were called together on a few ships about the general. Then some of the captains spoke to them. Themistocles said:
“For what do we fight? Not only for Athens, not only for Sparta, nor Corinth, nor Aegina, but for all of Greece. Do you fear those Persians? Do you think that the gods of Greece will let them make slaves of the people that are dear to Olympus?”
Then the fighting men went back to their boats. Most of the Greek ships had three rows of oars, one above the other. A man sat at every oar. Above the rowers was a deck. Along the sides went a bulwark. Behind this stood the fighting men, fifteen or twenty for every boat.
At last, the trumpet blew, and the ships were rowed forward. Then there was such a fight as Greece had never had before. The trumpet, with its clang, fired the hearts of the Greeks. Swiftly they came on with dashing oars. The Persians could hear a mighty shout and a song:
Oh, sons of the Greeks,
for the freedom of your land and the freedom of your sons,
for the shrines of the gods, for the graves of your sires!
All now hangs on the fight.
Then ship dashed her brazen prow at ship. At first the Persians stood against the foe, but their thousand ships were crowded in the narrow sea. They struck each other with their own brazen beaks and broke their own oars. And the Greek vessels hit them and broke their oars and overturned their ships. The water could not be seen, it was so filled with wrecks and men. The sea and the air were filled with wailing. The Persian boats that could, rowed away in flight. King Xerxes went mourning home.
So the story was told in a play years after the battle.
After the Persians
Salamis did not end the war. Part of the king’s army stayed to fight it out. There was war on land for a year after that. Again the Persians camped in Athens. But at last the Greeks won a great battle. Then the Persians who were left marched home, never to trouble Greece again.
So the men and women of Athens went back to their city. But it was no longer a city. The temples were piles of blackened stones. Old homes were changed to a cartload of ashes. For miles about, the fields and hillsides were black.
“Men of Athens, do you see your work?” Themistocles had said. “There is no time for mourning. How long before those black fields shall be yellow with grain? How long before those black hillsides shall laugh with purple grapes? How long before the black banks of Cephissus, there, shall be green with olive trees? Were the vines and the trees that men burned those that your great-grandfathers planted? What of that? They had lived long enough. These new vines and trees will be the vines and the trees that the men of Salamis planted. Will not your children’s children be more proud of that? Ages ago, Athena brought an olive tree out of the ground for us. We guarded it lovingly in the yard of her temple. That holy tree burned in the Persian fire. But Athena did not mourn. Athenians offered sacrifice to her there on the ashes of her temple and her tree, and lo! from the old roots a new sprout shot up tall as a man. From that new sprout you shall get slips for new orchards, from Athena you shall get the courage to build a new city. See, yonder the unfinished walls of Piraeus still stand. Our ships are out on the sea keeping Persians behind their walls. Let us have a place to receive those brave ships when they return. There is much to do: our own homes to rebuild; our orchards and vineyards to plant; the walls of Athens to set up; our harbor to finish; the temples of the gods to make anew. Which work shall come first, yours or that of Athens?”
Their work shows what their answer was. Two years after the war, there was a strong wall around Athens. It was thirty feet high, with gates and towers. Another like it went around Piraeus. A pair of long walls stretched between the two cities. Perhaps altogether there were fifteen miles of wall. For some of the time men had worked on it night and day. They had put into it things that they loved: the columns of the fallen temples; broken altars of the gods; the gravestones of their fathers.
“We cannot wait for the quarries,” men said. “Let us take whatever we can lay our hands on. Sparta will stop our work if we do not hurry. She is jealous. She would keep us a weak village. She wishes to be the only strong city. She may even send an army to stop us. But while Themistocles is in Sparta, we must work. He will hold her off with some wily words until we have finished.”
So they worked with their hands, while Themistocles worked for them with his head, and they built those great walls.
Themistocles had been dead for many years. Athens was the richest and most beautiful city in Greece. At Piraeus marble docks and storehouses lined the shore, and they were full of grain and precious goods from afar. The city was built close, with fine houses along broad, straight streets. Here and there temples shone with soft colors.
A straight road stretched through the low country to Athens. On either side of it stood up high stone walls. Even in war men could walk safely from town to port.
At the gate of Athens the wall spread out and went in a ragged circle about the city. Crooked streets wound among the little bare hills. Plain houses sat close together along both sides. The men of Athens had spent their time and their money on the buildings of Athens, not on their own houses.
The marketplace was fenced about with offices of marble, with wide porches before them. On the walls were painted pictures that told of the glories of Athens. One was of the battle of Marathon. Before the porches stood statues of heroes.
The city was dotted over with temples (a hundred or more) — temples of Heracles, of Theseus, of Athena, of Apollo, of Zeus, of Hermes, of Artemis, of Poseidon. Some of these buildings were large, with columns all about them. Some were small, with only one door. But all of them were marble, and most of them had painted bas-reliefs and statues. And inside of all were wonderful gifts of gold and of ivory and of bronze, marble statues, vases, tablets, tripods. At almost every street corner stood a statue of some god or hero.
Just outside the wall was the burying ground, where lay the heroes of Athens. And over every grave was a beautiful stone. There was carved a bas-relief of the dead person, showing him doing something that he had loved to do. The reliefs were painted in the colors of life. Often, too, gold necklaces or bracelets or headbands or bronze swords or spear points glistened on them.
In the middle of this beautiful city arose the Acropolis. Down one corner of the hill stretched the wide theater, with its marble seats. On the north side was the cave of Pan.
In most places, the sides of the Acropolis were steep, bare rock. But all the western end was a rich shrine of marble road and columns and roofs and bronze doors. The flat top was a grove of statues and lovely things that people had given to the gods, and out of this forest rose two temples and a great bronze Athena.
The people of this wonderful city were holding a meeting on the Pnyx hill, as they had done in the days of Themistocles. A man, crowned with myrtle, was speaking from the platform.
“In return for our help against Persia, the islands of the sea pour gold into our treasure house. Our navy is the defender of Greece. Who built that navy? Our ships sail all seas and bring back to us the wealth of the world. Who made us sailors? Look from this hill. Here circles our wall, and yonder stretches our walled road to Piraeus. Who built those walls and planned that port? Far off you can see Salamis. There stands the monument which tells that Greece drove Persia from the sea. Who won that battle? A man spent his life to do these things. He dreamed of Athens by night and worked for her by day. And because he was a little vain and not smooth-spoken, our fathers exiled him from this Athens that he built up from ashes. Perhaps he had worse faults. Men say so. He went to Persia after Athens pushed him out. But has a Persian king no work that an honest man can do? Those who knew Themistocles best say that never once did he lose his love for Athens or plan harm to her. Indeed, some men say that he killed himself when the Great King asked him to do that. Themistocles had his faults, but can we not forget them? We have forgotten brave deeds long enough. Our city is full of statues, pictures, temples, tombs, that tell of the glories of that Persian war. Miltiades lies in our burying ground. A tomb tells his name and his deed. His statue stands by our city hearth. Every soldier of that war has our honor. How long shall Themistocles be forgotten? How long shall he lie in Persian soil? Let him come back to this Athens that he loved and built. Let his tomb stand where he loved most to be — at Piraeus, where boats go in and out, where our ships of war lie, where Salamis looks across. That tomb will add glory to our land.”
So it was done, and Themistocles came home.