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James Morris...[H]enceforth, and to this day, the city would matter for the might of its mind.
—WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
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The Needle's Eye at Salamis:
A Region Ventures into World Politics
At such times halfhearted souls take the opposite view from that of real generals. They think that by reducing their forces they can repair the damage; they resort to fragmentation, to compromising their real needs, whereas Themistocles convinced the Athenians, when Athens was threatened with ruin, to abandon their city altogether and take to the sea in order to found a new Athens there, on a different element.
Wherever in [Machiavelli's] The Prince we detect an honest feeling it is one of hatred and contempt for the dilettante, the bungler in political life who does things by halves, acting out half cruelties and half virtues.
In the late summer of 480 B.C., most likely toward the end of September, a dramatic, heartrending scene played out on the coast of Attica. Athens' entire population, including men, women, children, and slaves, was fleeing from the approaching Persian army. Only a few people remained, mostly the old, the infirm, and a few priests. The Athenians left behind the graves of their ancestors, their shrines, homes, fields, and plantations, entrusting them to the protection of their goddess, Athena. Horses, donkeys, and dogs may have accompanied the convoy as far as the harbor, but there they, too, presumably had to be left behind. There was hardly enough room on the ships for the 100,000 or more human beings, much less their animals. The Athenians did take along the statues of some gods, at least the wooden figure of Athena, for safekeeping and probably also to invoke the goddess's assistance.
Their warships were built in such a way that there was little room for anyone beside the crew; they were not passenger vessels. At most, they could have carried a few thousand passengers across the Saronic Gulf to the Athenian-controlled island of Salamis. So the people resorted to merchant ships, fishing boats, and any other watercraft they could find. Many of the vessels had probably traveled this route before, for the only destinations besides Salamis were the nearby island of Aegina and the town of Troezen on the Peloponnesian peninsula.
This was not the first time in Greek history that an entire population had left its homeland. The citizens of the Ionian cities of Phocaea and Teos on the coast of Asia Minor had done so two generations earlier, also in flight from the Persians. But their numbers had been much smaller than those evacuating Athens, which by 480 B.C. had by far the largest population of any Greek city. Those earlier evacuees had also been much more cosmopolitan; the Phocaeans had founded numerous colonies and had trade connections as far away as the Pillars of Hercules at the Strait of Gibraltar. The Athenians, on the other hand, had been relatively stationary up to this point, and their outlook was rather narrow. The final point of difference was that the Phocaeans and the Teans had left their homes to found new cities. Greeks had done so before, but in the past it had always been only a fraction of the citizenry that left, and only when the homeland was getting too crowded.
Perhaps the Athenians, too, would have done better to look for new places to settle in the western Mediterranean, for the primary motive behind the Persian expedition was revenge against the Greek states that had so long resisted and challenged Persian imperial control. But the Athenians had decided on a different course of action. They abandoned Attica, but they did it in order to continue their war against the Persians with the help of their Greek allies. They wanted these allies to join them in a risky strategy, calculated with brilliant rationality to confound all expectations. It was, in fact, the only strategy that held out any hope for victory in this desperate situation.
The Athenians were ready to stake everything on a single card. Their flight was a daring act. As it turned out, it was not just the battle of a David against a Goliath but the greatest military campaign of the fifth century B.C., the century of Athens--and one of the boldest, most unlikely, and most momentous campaigns in world history.
The inhabitants of some of Athens' allied cities north of the Peloponnese also took flight. Some hid or barricaded themselves in the mountains; some tried to flee to the Peloponnese. But the difference was not just that between a few thousand and a hundred thousand people were leaving their homes; it was a qualitative difference between retreating from the enemy--even if done to enable the soldiers to go on fighting--and evacuating a city as part of a great, ambitiously conceived scheme, a daring, deliberate trap. In such a situation, there is a marked distinction between a city that thinks only of its own fate and one that considers that of Greece as a whole.
With this act, the Athenians embarked on a path that quickly and inevitably led them away from old traditions and involved them ever more deeply in the affairs that were bound to arise from the transformed relationship between East and West. Naturally, the Athenians always had immediate goals in mind, during those September days in 480 and in the decades that followed. What makes this period remarkable is the ingenuity with which they responded to difficult challenges.
The boats full of refugees headed for the islands and for Troezen were not the only ones to take to the sea in late September. The warships of the newly created Attic navy also set out from Piraeus in order to join Athens' allies in the narrow sound north of Salamis. The ships were triremes, ingeniously designed and highly maneuverable warships of a type that had been in use by the Greeks for some time and whose defining features were their three staggered banks of oarsmen.
While some of the departing Athenians must have mourned the loss of their homeland or been afraid of the uncertain fate that awaited them, others must have conveyed at least the impression of resolution, perhaps even of desperate courage, as the commands rang out loudly and the oars struck the water in coordinated rhythm.
Alongside one of the triremes swam a dog. It belonged to Xanthippus, who was the father of Pericles and a descendent of the noble family of the Alcmaeonids. Xanthippus had been banished, but earlier that year Athens had allowed him and all other political exiles to return home. His dog swam as far as Salamis, where it collapsed, dead of exhaustion.
The vast Persian forces, traveling toward Greece by land and by sea, would soon arrive. Xerxes, the great king (shahinshah) of Persia, had spent years preparing for this expedition, which was to bring all of Greece under his control. But he was especially intent on punishing the Athenians. Twenty years earlier, in 500 B.C., they had assisted a rebellion of the Greeks who lived along the coast of Asia Minor and on nearby islands, and who had been Persian subjects for over a generation. A similar punitive campaign against the Athenians, undertaken ten years earlier, in 490, had failed when the Athenians defeated the Persians at Marathon. Now Xerxes determined to put the Greeks in their place and to demonstrate the full superiority of his empire. He took no chances; the campaign was expected to be a total success.
Since Greece was small as well as poor, the Persian king had begun years before to build and fill storehouses north of the Aegean Sea to ensure supplies for his army. To eliminate all risk to his navy, he had spent three years cutting a canal across the isthmus connecting the peninsula of Athos with the mainland. The canal was about 2,200 meters long and 30 meters wide, enough room for two warships to be rowed through abreast. Herodotus, our main source for this period, notes that this ambitious project was superfluous because the ships could have been hauled across the isthmus with much less effort. But that would not have been in the king's style. He wanted to leave a lasting mark on the landscape and sought to make a grand display of his empire's power.
For the same reason, Xerxes had caused two bridges of boats to be constructed across the Hellespont, between Abydos and Sestos. The bridges, one of 360 ships, the other of 340, were tied together by a network of ropes made from white flax and papyrus stems. They are said to have made a fine sight. Logs were tied across the decks of the ships and planks placed over the logs. Railings were added to keep the horses from taking fright. To the Greeks, the bridges seemed an extreme act of hubris; an attempt to subdue even the sea was bound to stir the wrath of the gods.
In the fall of 481, the Persian land army assembled near Sardis, in Lydia, a three-day march from the port city of Ephesus. The Persians must have formed a colorful camp, spread out far over the landscape. Conscripts arrived from all parts of the Persian empire, which stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Indus and from Egypt to the Caspian Sea. There probably were over 100,000 men. Meanwhile, on the coast, a fleet of over 1,200 Greek and Phoenician ships was being assembled. When scouts sent out by the Greeks were intercepted, instead of punishing them, Xerxes turned them to his own purpose. Magnanimously, he let them go, perhaps with a touch of scorn, so that they would report back home how overpowering the forces making ready for war were.
In any case, it was hard for the great king to comprehend how the few Greeks on the other side of the Aegean could have the nerve to defy him--they must have taken leave of their senses. Besides, only a minority of the Greek cities put up resistance. Many others had offered earth and water, symbols of their submission, to the envoys he had sent. And some of the city-states that wavered probably did so for appearance's sake. Only Sparta and Athens, as well as Sparta's allies on the Peloponnese and a few cities in the north and on the islands, were determined to take up arms-a total of maybe thirty city-states, most of them small and insignificant. They would be able to raise a force of some thirty thousand men at most, and had far fewer ships than the Persians.
The Persian army left Asia Minor in the spring of 480 and made its way overland, across the Dardanelles and Macedonia toward Greece. The Greeks quickly abandoned their original plan of occupying a mountain pass in northern Thessaly. Instead, a small contingent of Spartans was dispatched to the narrow pass of Thermopylae, and the main body of the Greek navy was stationed nearby, off Artemisium on the northwestern coast of Euboea. The Persian land army then circled in behind the Spartans under the command of Leonidas, and after a fierce battle defeated the last Greek troops. In contrast, an engagement of the two fleets ended without victory for either side--no mean achievement for the Greeks, considering that the Persian ships outnumbered theirs by at least two to one.
After the Greeks' defeat on land, their ships hurriedly sailed south. Athens' allies headed directly for the sound between Salamis and the mainland, while the Attic ships set course for Piraeus to ready the populace to leave on a moment's notice.
Did the Athenians really think that the Persian army and navy could be stopped before it reached Attica? The Athenian leadership is said to have expected the Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies to set out for Boeotia to wage battle there. But the Spartan forces were otherwise engaged, working feverishly to build a defensive wall across the isthmus of Corinth. Sparta had fought at Thermopylae only to gain time and perhaps to put on an illusory show of strength for the benefit of the wavering communities north of the Peloponnese. In reality, however, the Spartans had long since given up on Attica. Of course, later on it may have seemed advantageous to the Athenians to pretend to have been surprised at Sparta's lack of support.
In all probability the Athenians, too, realized, even before the battle of Thermopylae, that they would have to flee. They may have reached this decision as early as June and they likely began preparations then. Arrangements had to be made with Troezen and Aegina for the arrival of so many refugees; food and water had to be brought along, and additional means of transport found. Cautious Athenians probably moved their families, cattle, and some valuables out of the country in good time.
Responsibilities were divided up, possible courses of action discussed, and old boats made seaworthy--evacuating so many people by water was no small matter. But the majority of the citizenry seems to have put off action, not wanting to suffer the misery of exile before it was necessary.
In the course of their long debates over strategy, the Athenians decided to consult the oracle of Delphi. The oracle advised the city to defend itself from behind a "wooden wall." Some citizens, especially the older ones, interpreted this to mean the Acropolis, which was surrounded by thornbushes. Others interpreted the "wooden wall" to mean the navy, and this opinion finally prevailed. The Athenians decided to evacuate their city and to fight the Persians at sea.
Themistocles, son of Neocles, is said to have put forward this motion. He was well into his forties at the time, an extraordinary man endowed with a sharp, analytical mind and a fierce independence. He possessed an astonishing clarity of vision and a passion for planning, but he did not share his thinking readily. Even so, some years earlier, in 485, he had persuaded the Athenians to build a larger fleet than had ever existed in mainland Greece. He must have convinced his fellow Athenians that he had a strategy that would work against the Persians. Not everybody was impressed by his plans; in fact, there are signs he was reviled by many Athenians. The majority, however, put their trust in him, even if in the end they did so like drowning men clutching at straws. Initially all they needed to do was vote on a motion to approve the appropriation of public funds for the navy.
Then, in 480, reality caught up with them. Heralds enjoined all to save themselves and their dear ones as best they could. The fleet sailed into port, and the crews hurried to their families. Homes and possessions were to be relinquished. Many Athenians must have been reluctant. No matter how promising Themistocles' plan had seemed, everything looked different once they had to act on it and actually abandon their property and their homes. It is normal to assume when a dangerous course has been chosen that things will not turn out quite as badly as feared. But did the Athenians hold even the slightest hope of defeating the vast Persian forces? Would it not have been better to stay home or to set out for a new place to settle permanently? Why gamble on a battle? Why put Athens' last hope, the ships it had built with such great effort, in jeopardy in a venture whose outcome appeared uncertain at best?
It is important to bear in mind how novel and strange the idea of a sea battle must have been to the Athenians. Battles were traditionally fought on land, honorably, face-to-face on solid ground, the way the Greeks had met the Persians at Marathon in 490 and, with the help of the gods, emerged victorious. Would this new, totally untested strategy succeed? Had they been right to go along with Themistocles, the peculiar man who had set everything on its head, who had planned and seen to the buildup of the fleet, and on whose advice all available men had been pressed into service on the ships for weeks and even months at a time in order to learn how to row and maneuver them? The time had come when the Athenians were to face battle on this unfamiliar element, the sea.
It is not hard to imagine what sort of speculation this situation would raise. People must have talked among themselves in the streets and as they shopped in the marketplace. Themistocles and his strategy could not have been very popular, no matter what instructions the ships' crews had been given when they landed at Piraeus.
A small scene that has come down to us by chance sheds some light on those days. A tall young nobleman, "well-built and with a head of beautiful locks," caused a stir as he and his companions strode confidently through Keramikos, the potters' quarter, and across the market toward the Acropolis. At the temple of Athena he consecrated his horse's bridle to the goddess, picked up a shield captured in an earlier campaign, offered a prayer, and then departed for the harbor at Piraeus.
His behavior was significant because the young man was Cimon, the son of Miltiades, the victorious general in command at the Battle of Marathon. Until this day, Cimon had hardly distinguished himself politically; he was better known for his frivolous way of life. But his father had been the most influential defender of conventional warfare during the last Persian invasion in 490, and anyone uncomfortable with the idea of entrusting the entire city to ships could point to the example of Miltiades' victory at Marathon. Thus Cimon's visit to the Acropolis was a grand symbolic gesture: the scion of one of the noblest Athenian families was saying that Marathon belonged to the past. He gave up his riding tackle in exchange for the shield of a hoplite, a heavily armed foot soldier, and departed for the ships on which battles were now to be fought. By his action, the three Greek styles of battle were illustrated in rapid succession, and the goddess's blessing was invoked for the most recent one. The appealing but no longer serviceable old ways, represented by the bridle, were consecrated to her care. In exchange Athena supplied the shield Cimon would use for fighting onboard. Naval warfare entailed not just maneuvering ships but also combat on deck between heavily armed men and archers.
We know that weapons at that time were regarded not simply as tools. Certain types of arms were associated with specific peoples and with segments of society. They were seen as a man's characteristic mark, indeed, as a part of him. Helmet, shield, and spear were inseparable from the image of a Greek warrior, as shown by innumerable monuments that depict naked men with their weapons. Cimon's symbolic rejection of the old sanctioned a change that would extend beyond the military domain. The entire citizenry was entering a new phase.
As recently as Marathon, the Athenians had sent out only hoplites--men wealthy enough to supply their own arms--9,000 out of the 35,000 free male citizens. Some slaves were taken along, too, but this does not alter the fact that there was apparently no thought, or at least no possibility, of drawing on the large number of poorer citizens.
In the ten years since Marathon, much had changed. Two hundred ships had to be manned, each presumably needing 170 oarsmen (in later years that was the usual number). Add to this officers, mates, hoplites and archers. That would mean about 200 men on each ship, or a total of 40,000, more than Athens' entire citizenry (and, of course, not all men were able-bodied enough to fight). Non-citizens had to be hired, and other cities were asked to provide crews for some of the ships. In any case, all Athenians down to the least propertied had to serve. Most of the hoplites--men of rank who thought themselves above the rest--had to take places on the crowded benches of the ship's oppressive hold and lean into the oars. They had to be fully reschooled, and it could not have been easy for them to sit side by side with men of the lowest status. Instead of fighting the enemy man-to-man, they had to face backward and exert all their strength to move the ship forward. Reason and the simple demand for utility seem to have prevailed over long-standing customs. It was a triumph of the Athenians over themselves.
Herodotus later said that Themistocles transformed the Athenians into "seafaring men" (thalassioi). Indeed, it soon became evident that the new kind of warfare not only represented a firm departure from the old kind but that the concerted development of naval power would transform the nature of the city.
For all the drama of Cimon's visit to the Acropolis, many other Athenian leaders made similar acts to gain the support of the populace, an effort aided by the growing pressure of time. Gradually the Athenians reconciled themselves to abandoning their city and country.
Even Athena supported this decision, for it was reported that her holy serpent had vanished from its place on the Acropolis, and the honey cake the priestess had placed there for it was found untouched. Thus, the goddess, too, by leaving the city, submitted to Themistocles' advice--perhaps with a little help from the general himself.
A minor crisis arose when some men refused to return to their oars without being given adequate pay in advance. They insisted they needed the money for their families, who now, with the men gone, would have almost nothing to live on. The members of the council of nobles are said to have used the temple's treasury and probably funds of their own in order to meet the payroll.
In this way events in Athens and Attica ultimately obeyed the dictates of one man. People began streaming toward the harbors from all directions, in small groups and large ones, forming longer and longer lines. There may have been some final arguments on the docks when, for example, someone wanted to take along more possessions than allowed. Adding to the commotion were the farewells of the men who had to board the triremes.
The entire city sailed out into the Saronic Bay, hundreds of packed ships, great and small, some moving along swiftly, some slowly, most of them in disarray. None of the passengers knew what would happen next. And because everyone was aboard a ship, there would be no witnesses to this melancholy yet impressive spectacle.
The Attic ships were not the only ones that could have been seen heading for Salamis. The fleeing Athenians were joined by an allied squadron from Troezen to the south, where other vessels had gathered. Many of the Athenians who had helped in the evacuation now had to sail to Salamis in a hurry to join the battle.
The deeper and more permanent the effect of a momentous event, the harder it is to imagine that event not having taken place (or having had a different outcome). From there it is a small step to the belief not just that the event happened but also that it had to happen. Thus, in retrospect, history loses its unpredictability.
The defeat of the Persian fleet off the coast of Salamis did not secure the Greeks' larger victory, but it was the decisive battle of the war. And the overall failure of the Persian invasion set the stage for the future history of Greece, the rise of Athens, and everything connected with it.
In this sense Greek history is unimaginable without Salamis. But military victory over the Persians was by no means assured. And it is certainly questionable whether very many Greeks believed such victory likely.
When the priestess of Delphi caught sight of the Attic envoys that had been sent to seek her advice about how to respond to the Persian threat, she chased them out of the sanctuary: "Miserable ones, what are you still doing here? Flee to the ends of the world!" It took some diplomacy and possibly a few gold pieces to produce an oracle that implied even the possibility of victory behind a "wooden wall." Perhaps these words were invented, and the oracle decided in retrospect not to object to the attribution.
Most Greeks continued to consider all opposition vain. Even in Athens, politicians who urged some kind of accommodation with the Persians were met with widespread sympathy. It seems to have taken Themistocles years to gather the necessary support for his plan. The reasons individuals, groups, or cities gave for submitting to the Persians grew increasingly persuasive with the apparent hopelessness of resistance. The Greeks were all too aware of the might at Xerxes' disposal and his readiness to use it.
Consequently, the men of Argos, of Achaea in the northern Peloponnese, and of Crete, as well as Gelon, the powerful tyrant of Syracuse, were unwilling to join the Greek cause. Some of them cited oracles. The men of Corfu devised an especially clever way out. They sent a squadron of ships but instructed the commander to stop short of Salamis and then either join the Persians or send a messenger to tell the Greeks they had been delayed by bad weather.
The warriors of Sparta, however, would not tolerate such an avoidance of duty. Most likely, the Spartans did not even try to calculate the chances of success in opposing the Persians. It was not their way to lie low in the face of danger. They were trained to stand their ground, to fall in battle rather than retreat. A Spartan warrior was expected to return from war carrying his shield or being carried on it. He had reason to fear the opinion of his fellow citizens more than the enemy. And since this attitude was at the heart of the entire community, the Spartan warriors had no choice in 480 but to fight. Furthermore, they considered themselves invincible; and their allies on the Peloponnese--no matter what they thought--had little choice but to follow their example.
Other cities north of the peninsula joined the Spartans for a variety of reasons, particularly concern for their relations with neighboring communities. For example, if one city submitted to the Persians, its rival would be inclined to join the Greek side. Domestic politics was also a factor: Cities where broad segments of the population had gained political rights feared that the Persians would reinstall the aristocracy or impose a tyrant. Adding to this was the cities' desire to preserve their independence and that of Greece west of the Aegean Sea, not to mention the shame of appearing cowardly. Where a few were determined to resist the Persians, it was hard for the others to hang back. In some cities, those who favored siding with the Greeks prevailed without debate and succeeded in turning back the Persian envoys who arrived demanding the symbolic concession of water and earth. The freedom of the Greeks was invoked, and "the shared blood, shared language, shared shrines and sacrifices, the shared way of life." For the Greeks of the Peloponnese, these were especially powerful arguments.
In such situations, motives of all kinds tend to be linked to lofty common goals. That personal and even selfish interests often hide behind the invocation of the common good by no means implies dishonesty, especially in the face of such a threat, nor are the goals themselves merely hollow words. The cause possesses powerful moral force, and anyone distancing himself from the cause becomes a traitor.
In the year 481 the cities that were readying for war--a total of about thirty--had formed an alliance, whose headquarters was located, most likely, in Sparta. All feuds and enmities between members were to be laid aside. Any Greek city submitting to the Persians without being forced to do so would have to pay a tithe to the Delphic oracle. With this provision, the alliance hopeed to win Apollo over to its cause.
Scouts were sent to spy on the Persian camp at Sardis, and the allies agreed to reconvene the following year on the Corinthian isthmus to discuss a common strategy. In the meantime, the member cities urged others to join them, an effort in which they failed.
Indeed, some of the cities in the alliance defected to the Persian side as soon as it became clear that the line north of the Peloponnese could not be held. These cities must have realized before how great the odds were in favor of the Persians. Perhaps they had simply not wanted to admit their true feelings, given the prevailing mood.
And what about those cities that remained loyal to the alliance? What were their chances? They may have simply been determined to go to any lengths necessary to oppose the Persians. Or they may have been counting on luck, the help of the gods. It is difficult to believe that they imagined their combined strength sufficient to beat the Persians. Never before had thirty cities banded together to fight off an external enemy; there had, in fact, never been a need for such an alliance.
All we can say is that only a minority was determined to do battle. Even in the cities of the alliance powerful opposition must have existed. When the Persian troops moved closer, fear spread, even in Sparta. From all appearances, the fear was justified.
The historian's task is to explain the Athenians' decision to prepare for war, how they went about that preparation, and why they staked everything on one card. Midway through the decade, strong internal disagreements had led to the exiling of several aristocrats, in part because they were suspected of being on good terms with the Persians. In the end, the group that sought to emphasize Athens' political and military power won. Themistocles was the motor that drove this movement. By 483 the Athenians were ready to begin building their fleet. The necessary funds came from the profitable exploitation of newly discovered silver veins in the mines of Laurium. The decision to build triremes meant that the Athenians were preparing for war. If the Athenians had contemplated retreat into the western Mediterranean they would have built transport vessels.
The building of the navy was an almost unbelievable accomplishment. Themistocles had previously arranged for the improvement of the harbors on the Piraean peninsula, but there were no shipbuilding facilities or dockyards. Huge quantities of wood had to be found, as well as pitch and tar. There were hardly enough men with the expertise to supervise the complicated building of triremes and far too few workmen. Men and materials had to be brought from near and far, and in a great hurry. Wood may have been available in the interior of Attica, but transporting large logs by land was arduous, and the trees were of poor quality. The best wood came from Macedonia, where the forests apparently were closer to the coast or rivers than in Attica. But it seems likely that the regions north of the Aegean were already under Persian control by the time Athens was ready to build its fleet. In that case, either the Persians were unaware of what was going on or most of the wood was brought from Italy--or, perhaps from Euboea.
It is likely that Themistocles instituted freedom from taxation as an inducement to attract workmen from abroad. Laborers had to be trained to perform an enormous amount of work: building hulls, struts, oarsmen's benches, rigging, decks. It was a race against time, requiring almost unimaginable quantities of skill, physical labor, imagination, and money. Athens must have been bustling with activity during that period. This had a benefit: It left little time to reflect.
Experts in navigation had to be found to hire and train the ships' crews. The tactical superiority Athens counted on would require professionalism. Skillful maneuvering was the centerpiece of Athenian strategy. Half a generation earlier, when the Ionian Greeks were getting ready for their crucial sea battle against the Persians at Lade in 495, Dionysius, commander of the three ships Phocaea had contributed, convinced the Ionians to toil furiously for the sake of future freedom. He had the ships sail out one behind the other in two parallel lines; then one line turned and slipped between the ships of the other line, an exercise they were made to repeat over and over. This training was to teach the crews how to maneuver quickly, holding an accurate course and accelerating to ram enemy ships. The men on deck were required to wear full armor despite the heat of summer and the extreme crowding onboard. This training went on for days--until, on the seventh day, the crews rebelled in protest. The battle at Lade was lost.
The Athenians seem to have shown more enthusiasm in their preparations and were more willing to make enormous efforts. We have no reports of shipbuilding in other cities, though it may have been undertaken elsewhere on a small scale. But in most places funds for a major effort were lacking, and insufficient time was allocated to the task. The credit has to go to Themistocles and his fellow citizens for changing the balance of sea power to such an extent that the Greeks could even contemplate challenging their opponent in a naval battle.
The Athenians resolved to fight the Persians for two reasons: First was the danger that confronted the city. Its citizens had reason to expect that the Persians would not just subdue them but would destroy their city and carry many of them off to slavery. Perhaps the majority of Athenians would not have had too much to fear if the city had thrown itself at Persia's mercy. Certain Athenian exiles living at the Persian court may have sought to mediate the dispute in order to win a role in governing the city. And Xerxes might not have been averse to concessions in view of Athens' importance. But, second, although the Persians had long harbored designs to conquer Greece, it was Athens that precipitated the Persian invasion. Thus, capitulation--let alone going over to the enemy's camp--would have been especially shameful, and flight would have been no better. The Athenians were given no choice but to uphold their honor.
But the most remarkable thing about the Athenian mobilization is that Themistocles seems to have planned practically the entire war, anticipating the enemy's strategy and designing his own moves to make a Greek victory seem possible, in spite of all appearances that the Persians' might was superior. What's more, the oracle the Athenians finally brought home from Delphi spoke not only of the wooden wall but concluded with a prophetic reference to Salamis: "Divine Salamis, you will bring death to the children of women when the corn is scattered or the harvest gathered in." Whatever Themistocles had to do with the oracle, the prophecy weighed greatly in the discussions over strategy held in the first months of 480. It was also clear that if the Persians could not be turned back at Thermopylae, as seemed likely, the Greeks would have no choice but to try to intercept their navy in the waters off Salamis.
Salamis was the only place where the Persians would be unable to take full advantage of their naval superiority; the narrowness of the channel would prevent the vastly larger Persian fleet from encircling the Greek ships, as the Persians had tried to do at Artemisium. Another danger was that many of the allies would try to beat a retreat. Consequently, it was essential to engage the Persians off Salamis. If they could not be defeated here, even the mighty wall that had been built across the isthmus of Corinth would prove useless; it could be circumnavigated all too easily.
That is presumably why Themistocles had planned much earlier to confront the Persians at Salamis. The only problem was how to lure them there. But there was a logical reason for them to go to Salamis, a reason that could be neatly incorporated into the war plan. As long as the Greek navy was stationed at Salamis, it would prevent the Persians from attacking the Peloponnesian coast. And since the Persians could not wait too long before attacking, they would be eager for battle. Their other option would be to encircle the Greeks at Salamis, but that would presumably have led to battle as well.
|1||The Needle's Eye at Salamis: A Region Ventures into World Politics||3|
|2||The Late Rise of Athens||35|
|3||The Greek Way||92|
|4||The New Founding of the Polis Under Cleisthenes||155|
|5||The Persian Threat||189|
|6||From Devastation to Democracy: 479-461||247|
|7||"Adventurous Beyond Their Power": Athens at Midcentury||305|
|9||The Eve of the Peloponnesian War to the Peace of Nicias||434|
|10||The Long Road to Collapse||507|
|Chronology of Events||593|