Xerxes enters Athens 480 B.C.

The main part of Xerxes army now moved south towards Athens. A squadron of cavalry and crack troops had already gone on ahead to clear the way; there would be no further resistance.

With the collapse of the Greek defense at Thermopylae and the withdrawal of their fleet from Artemisium everything was clear for the Persian advance by land and sea. The Persian march was now facilitated by the Thessalian. The Phocians, who had, however inefficiently, fought for the Greek cause, were not to be persuaded by the Thessalians' offer to protect them against the wraith of the Great King, if they were to be given a large sum on money. In any case the Thessalians hated the people of Phocis as they had recently rebelled against them, and were rudely shocked when the Phocians sharply replied 'whatever other people did, the men of Phocis would on no account be traitors to Greece.'

Xerxes determined to make an example of Phocis, its fertile land, and all its people. Small states which dared to make a stand against his inexorable advance should be taught so savage a lesson that all others would quickly learn that it was better to collaborate than to try for independence. All Phocis was overrun; the Thessalians did not let the Persians miss a bit of it, and everywhere they went there was devastation by fire and sword, and towns and temples were burned. No village or township was spared and, women were raped; successively by so many of the soldiers that they died. Nevertheless, most of the population managed to escape. The smoke of the towns, farms and temples could be seen for miles away. The news of the devastation was spread far and wide by the fleeing refugees and it will not have been long before the inhabitants of even the remotest hamlets in Attica will have learned the fate that lay in store for them.

In Athens itself, the news of the fall of Thermopylae and the withdrawal of the fleet from Artemisium will have been received quite quickly, either by couriers, a fast ship or by signal-fires. Despite Themistocles' early arrangement for the evacuation of the greater part of the population it is clear that, as there were many who had been unwilling to comprehend that their land and even their city would ever by seriously threatened by the invaders. Few of them were in a position to know how small was the holding force that had gone north to Thermopylae. Now they knew the horrifying truth that an army led by Spartans had been defeated, and that a Spartan king had perished. This was writing on the wall with a vengeance: a shudder ran round the community that had stayed behind, where was the major force that the Athenians so urgently pressed the Peloponnesians for? They now knew that they had stayed behind and refused to budge from the Corinth Isthmus.

Panic in Athens, every available craft was commandeered and, no doubt, there was a good deal of black-marketeering being done by boat-owners as farmers and prosperous citizens now sought to make their getaway. Heart-rendering scenes as husbands and wives were parted, most of the women and children joining their predecessors in Troezen, old men being left behind, and pet dogs howling for fear of desertion on the coast line as their owners left on the ships. Whatever hope these Athenians had were dashed as they saw their naval fleet, upon which they had staked everything, retreating to Salamis. Most of the refugees from Athens made their way by ship to Troezen, inside the Peloponnese, and now too, more flooded the town. Salamis took many of the late-comers. Even a former mortal enemy, Aegina, opened its homes to this sudden, last-minute influx of Athenians, at long last deep rooted enmities were forgotten in the face of this irresistible force.

As the Persian army marched closer to Athens, a part of the force turned and headed towards Delphi. For whatever their real reason, it remains hidden, for the hypothetical reasons for this, read more here.

The remainder of the Grecian sea-force that had gathered at Troezen now joined the Athenians at Salamis. Eurybiades (the Spartan naval commander) summoned a council of war and asked all what they thought was best to do, considering now that Attica had fallen. Again, the captains suggested to leave Salamis and Attica to the Persian and safe-guard the Peloponnese, for if the Greek naval fleet fails there would be nothing to stop the Persian sailing around the Isthmus and landing anywhere they liked inside the Peloponnese.

The Persians had marched through Boeotia where they had burnt Thespiae and Plateae and were now inside Athens organising to make an attack on the acropolis where some of the Athenians boarded themselves up. Thinking that the 'wooden wall' refereed to by the oracle meant the wooden walls of the acropolis.

After a while, even the holdouts inside the acropolis couldn't continue to hold out the Persians, and after scaling the blind side of the citadel the Persians entered the acropolis, killing all they could find and burt every part of the citadel.

Xerxes, had now completely mastered Athens and sent a horseman back to Susa, with a message informing all of his success. The day after he called in all the Athenian exiles who had come into Greece in his train, and bade them go up into the citadel, and there offer sacrifice after their own fashion.

No sooner had the message reached the Greeks that the citadel had fallen that they fell into such alarm that some of the captains did not even wait for the council to come to a vote, and embarked hastily on board their vessels, and hoisted sail as through they would take to flight immediately. The rest, who stayed at the council board, came to a vote that the fleet should give battle at the Isthmus. Night now drew on; and the captains, dispersing from the meeting, proceeded on board their respective ships.

Themistocles, on his way back to his ship realised that with the abandonment of Athens, all was lost. There would be nothing to stop captains deserting over the next while, as each would do what he had to to protect his own land. Themistocles realised that the Greeks had to make a stand, and it should be here in the straights of Salamis, where the sea suited the Greeks best.

Themistocles made way to Eurybiades ship and had a council with him. Here it is reported that he gave many reasons as to why they should stay and defend the straight of Salamis over returning to the Isthmus and trying to make battle in the open sea. But there was one argument that Themistocles kept hidden for a long time, but now to him seemed the right time to play the card and he used it to force Eurybiades to change his mind. Themistocles told him that if they abandon Salamis, he and the rest of the Athenian fleet would not go to protect the Peloponnese, but would abandon Greece altogether and sail away and go to a friendly city, like Siris in Italy. Athenians would not loose their lives to save Spartan soil.

There can be no come back to this, without the Athenians the Greek fleet would diminish by over 50% and Athenian sailors were the best available. Eurybiades had no choice it was either stay and fight here in the straight of Salamis or else it would resolve to a free for all, with many desertions and only a meager fleet to protect the Peloponnese.

Eurybiades ordered another council of war.

This time before Eurybiades could open his mouth Themistocles rattled off all the reasons why they needed to stay and fight here, not mentioning the number one reason. A Corinthian captain taking note of Themistocles talking over the top of Eurybiades said "..at the games, they who start too soon are scourged". To which Themistocles replied.

"True, but they who wait too late are not crowned". After he had finished speaking again the Corinthian attacked him and told him to be silent, since he was a man without a city, and at the same time he asked Eurybiades not to be persuaded by a man who had no country. Themistocles replied with over 200 ships at his command, ready for battle (this would mean he had 40,000 men at his command), there was no Grecian city that could resist them, and thus he could take any city he wanted to. Eurybiades put an end to the argument with the command that the Grecian fleet would stay and fight in the straight of Salamis.

Xerxes now controlling all of Attica including Athens, sat with the captains of the fleet to discuss their next move. All the captains advised to take on the Grecian fleet as they just didn't have enough ships to withstand the Persian onslaught. Only Queen Artemisia questioned this course. She advised the King to do nothing, his whole plan had been to take Athens, this they had now done. The Peloponnesians were holed up on their island, they can't stay their forever, in the end they would have to surrender anyway.

Even though her words pleased him, nevertheless, he gave orders that the advice of the greater number should be followed; for he thought that at Euboea the fleet had not done its best, because he himself was not there to see-whereas this time he resolved that he would be an eye-witness of the combat.

By the time orders were given to set sail and they had taken up their stations, night had fallen, so they prepared to engage the following day. The land army (about 300,000) began to march towards the Peloponnese (See Note#1)

The Greeks continued to be in great distress and alarm, more especially those of the Peloponnese, who were troubled that they had been kept at Salamis to fight on behalf of the Athenian territory, and feared that if they should suffer defeat, they would be besieged on an island, while their own country was left undefended.

At the isthmus all that was possible had already been done to prevent Persian access into the Peloponnese. The death of Leonidas had led the various cities to camp at the isthmus under the command of the Spartan Kleombrotus, son of Anaxandridas and brother of Leonidas. Here they laboured day and night until the isthmus (about 5 miles across) was blocked up. As the number assembled amounted to tens of thousands, stones, bricks, timber and sand were used in the building. The pass was blocked as best they could. The Peloponnesians assembled for the battle of their lives.

As the Greeks continued to toil unceasingly at the isthmus, the Greeks on Salamis when they heard of what their countrymen were doing and of the advancement of the impending Persian force, began to feel alarmed, not for the fear of themselves but for their country.

At first in low tones, each man with his fellow secretly, marveled at the folly shown by Eurybiades, but presently the smothered feeling broke out, and another assembly was held; whereas the old subjects provoked much talk from the speakers, one side maintaining that it was best to sail to the Peloponnese and than risk battle, fighting for a land that was already taken.

During the argument as both sides for and against a battle at Salamis. Themistocles, realising that the Peloponnesians would carry the vote against him, went out secretly from the council. Summoning his household slave (who was also a very trusted friend), Sicinnus, who was also tutor to his five sons. He whispered a command to him.

Sicinnus, ferrying a boat across the straight toward the shoreline delivered a message to the Persians on guard (See#2), speaking across the sea.

"The Athenian commander has sent me to you privately, without the knowledge of the other Greeks. He is a well-wisher to the king's cause, and would rather success should attend on you than on his countrymen; wherefore he bids me tell you that fear has seized the Greeks and they are organising a hasty flight. Now then it is open to you to achieve the best work that ever ye wrought, if only ye will hinder their escaping. They no longer agree among themselves, so that they will not now make any resistance-nay, 'tis likely ye may see a fight already begun between such as favour and such as oppose your cause." With that the messenger departed silently into the night, towards the island of Salamis, and was seen no more.

Map of SalamisThe Captains believing all that the messenger had said, sent a large body of troops on the islet of Psyttalea, as any wreckage would float past the islet and may be rescue their own men and destroy the enemy. They also send for their fleet to enclose around Salamis, not to leave any access for them to leave.

The Persians blockaded the western entrance with their Egyptian warships whilst assembling most of their fleet in the wider channel to the east. This occurrence is more important than scholars have given credit for. For those that are interested in a detailed explanation regarding the strategy, go here and read about The Egyptian Fleet.

All the movements were made in silence, that the Greeks might have no knowledge of them; throughout the night the Persian ships searched the gulf for the Greek retreat, while in fact the Greeks remained on their ships, asleep.

Meanwhile, among the captains at Salamis, the strife of words grew fierce. As yet they did not know that they were encompassed, but imagined that the barbarians remained in the same places where they had seen them the day before.

During the arguments an Athenian from Aegina who had just crossed over announced that the Greeks were encircled, they cannot retreat, and are enclosed on every side by the enemy. This at first the captains did not believe. Shortly after a Tenian trireme who had deserted from the Persians, came in with the same story. By now the situation was known and there would be no option left but to fight. There was no more talk of escaping to the Peloponnese, tomorrow the Greeks would give battle for their very existence.

NEXT PAGE>>>The battle of Salamis


'Histories' by Herodotus published by Wordsworth 1996




Note#1: More to keep them in check for the coming sea battle the following day, the Persians didn't want an unexpected attack from there during tomorrows naval engagement.


Note#2: This master stroke, must have been preplanned with help from his aids, otherwise, how could he set sail to give the message to the Persians without being spotted by Greek guards?


If you want to see Xerxes timeline of dates for this period of time goto here.


Copyright 2011 | All Rights Reserved