Ancient History & Civilisation


Two stories were told of the parentage of Helen, the woman whose beauty had first plunged Europe and Asia into war. The best known claimed that she had been a Spartan, hatched from an egg after her mother, the queen, had been raped by Zeus in the form of a giant swan. A second, however, claimed that the queen of Sparta had only ever been the incubator, and that the egg itself had originally been laid by a quite different victim of Zeus’ attentions: a goddess, no less, as solemn as she was mighty, as calm as she was fatal. In one hand, she held a bowl containing what was destined to be; in the other, a measuring rod, employed to gauge the scale of mortal excess. Those guilty of “overweening boastfulness” she would bring low.59 None could withstand her, and the mightiest least of all. It was her habit, when she walked, to tread corpses underfoot. Her name was Nemesis.

Provoke her, and the world itself might be turned upside down. As evidence, the Greeks had always pointed to the career of Croesus, once so prosperous and smug that he had dared, until Nemesis took a hand in his career, “to suppose himself the happiest of men.”60 Yet not even that offense, rank though it was, could compare on a scale of horror with that of the Great King, the King of Kings, the King of Lands: the man whose goal it had been to make himself the master of all mankind. In Greek, only one word would serve to describe such lunatic 'font-size:9.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:blue; position:relative;top:-3.0pt'>61 An all too human failing, perhaps; and yet one to which barbarians, by their intemperate nature, and monarchs, by their rank, were peculiarly prone. The Greeks, who had always suspected this to be the case, now had, in Xerxes, their clinching proof. What had been the fruit, after all, of the Great King’s staggering ambition, his unprecedented power, his armies, his fleets, his greatness? A record without parallel of offenses against Nemesis.

Her vengeance had been swift and sure. “This exploit is not ours,” Themistocles, a man hardly given to modesty, and with much to be immodest about, had piously averred after Salamis.

The gods, the heroes who guard our cities, they resented the impious presumption of the king: a man who was not content with the throne of Asia but sought the rule of Europe, too; who treated temples as though they were mere assemblages of bricks and mortar; who burned and toppled the statues of the gods; who even dared to whip the sea, and bind it up with chains.62

Treading the blood-manured fields of Plataea, surveying the tangled corpses of the Great King’s finest fighting men, stripping his splendid tent bare, the conquerors of Mardonius could assert the same. All knew to whom the victory was owed. The goddess’s handiwork was clear.

But she was not finished yet: one final twist remained. It had always been the practice—and the delight—of Nemesis to cause offenses to ricochet back upon their perpetrator. Now the Great King, far away in Sardis, was about to learn this lesson for himself. The previous summer, having torched the holy temples of the Acropolis, he had dared to vaunt his unspeakable crime by ordering beacons to blaze the news of it across the sea; Mardonius, capturing Athens a second time, had done the same. The beacons still stood; but now securely in Greek hands. Pausanias, ordering them lit, could ensure that the news of his victory would reach the coast of Ionia within a matter of hours. And this, it seems, is precisely what he did.63

It is hard otherwise to explain a haunting coincidence. Well over a hundred miles away from Plataea, on the far side of the Aegean, on the same day as the great victory, “a rumour suddenly flew through the ranks of the Greek fleet that their countrymen had beaten Mardonius in Boeotia.”64 The resulting surge of confidence among the crewmen could hardly have been better timed: for they too, that afternoon, faced an army of barbarians. Leotychides, after months of inactivity, had finally, a few days previously, ventured eastward out of his headquarters and was now anchored in the great harbor of Samos, directly opposite the ridge of Mount Mycale. It was there, on the mountain’s slope, that the Panionium stood, the ancient communal shrine of the Ionians; south, along the coast, lay devastated Miletus; and just offshore from her harbors, in the bay, rose the island of Lade. Fateful scenes all, and clear evidence of Nemesis’ hand: for in the war’s beginning was its end.

Nor was it hard to discern the goddess’s hand in the fact that the odds which had so favored the Persians fifteen years previously had now been dramatically reversed. The imperial war fleet, once the terror of the seas, had been sadly reduced from its wonted pomp. Its ships were battle scarred, its crews demoralized, its squadrons near mutinous. The Phoenicians, once its mainstay, had been dismissed from its ranks altogether. Leotychides, by contrast, had recently received a huge reinforcement in the form of the Athenian battle squadron: for Xanthippus, having kicked his heels on Salamis throughout the first half of the summer, had cheerfully set out for Delos the moment that Pausanias was confirmed to have left the Isthmus. As a result, the Allies—in a startling turnaround from the previous summer—now possessed the advantage of numbers. Scanning the horizon nervously, the Persian admirals had only had to glimpse the Greek fleet bearing down on them to jump ship. Landing directly in the shadow of Mount Mycale, they had hauled their triremes onto a beach, frantically improvised a stockade out of boulders and apple trees, and barricaded themselves inside it.

And it was this same stockade that Leotychides, on the day of the Battle of Plataea, decided to attack. Noon, and a wisp of smoke began to rise on the western horizon, soon to be answered by a beacon blazing into life on the heights of Samos. Meanwhile, marines—Athenian, Corinthian and Troezenian—were landing on the beach near the Persians’ makeshift fort. The defenders, cheered by the small size of the allied assault force, emerged from behind their palisade; and the Greeks immediately charged them. A desperate fight ensued, with the Persians fighting bravely from behind a makeshift wall of shields; but in the end, as at Marathon and Plataea, the hoplites rolled them over. Meanwhile, Leotychides, having disembarked with the Peloponnesians in the rear of the palisade, gained sweet revenge for Thermopylae by emerging suddenly from a foothill of Mount Mycale and completing the rout. Only a fraction of the Persian garrison escaped to Sardis. The fort and all the ships lined up inside it were abandoned. Leotychides, having been sure first to pillage everything he could, torched the Persian fleet that same evening. No longer fighting in defense of their own soil, the Greeks had now gone successfully on the attack. Dusk settled over Ionia, and fires lit on the edge of Asia flickered throughout the night.

“Many are the marks of evidence which prove the hand of the goddess in the affairs of mortal men.”65 To the Greeks, it seemed a miracle that they should have prevailed twice on the same day over what was still, after all, the world’s superpower. Leotychides himself could barely credit it. Even back on Samos, having left the Persian fleet to burn across the straits, he and his fellow admirals continued to dread the wrath of the King of Kings. Surely, they imagined, his vengeance was bound to strike at any moment. But it did not. Instead, some weeks after Mycale, it was reported that Xerxes, “in a state of bewilderment,”66 had left Sardis altogether, and was taking the long road back to Susa. With him was going most of his army. A raiding party, dispatched from Sardis, did manage to land a blow on that favorite Persian punching bag, the holy shrine at Didyma, and once again cart off a statue of Apollo; but otherwise there was little action from the barbarians. A year passed, and then another; and still the Great King did not return.

This inactivity led to much conjecture among the Greeks. Cowardice, effeminacy and softness were all adduced as plausible explanations. The notion of the barbarians’ decadence, which would have struck everyone as preposterous before Marathon, now began to be regarded by most Greeks as a simple fact. Nor was it merely the failure of the Persians to launch a third invasion which increasingly nourished this comforting prejudice. Everything about Xerxes’ invasion which had struck the Greeks as so terrifying at the time—the teeming numbers of the Great King’s hordes, the limitless resources at his fingertips, the wealth, the show, the spectacle, the extravagance of his train—all, in hindsight, appeared merely to have marked him out as effete. Conquerors of Asia the Persians may have been; but they might as well have been women when measured against the free-born, bronze-clad men of Greece.

Some even began to wonder if the bloody repulse that the Great King had suffered had doomed his regime altogether. One of these optimists was an Athenian by the name of Aeschylus—a man who had every reason to nurture such a hope. A veteran of both Marathon and Salamis, he had also suffered a bitter personal loss at the hands of the barbarians: for it was his brother who had clung to one of the ships moored off Marathon, and had his wrist hacked off by an ax. Well might Aeschylus have dreamed of the implosion of Persian power. In 472 BC, eight years after Salamis, he gave his optimism a truly visionary rendering at the City Dionysia, the Athenians’ annual drama contest. As the audience, assembling in the shadow of the Acropolis, milled into the theater, they would have seen, wherever they gazed, scars and reminders of their city’s recent ordeal. Behind them, on the sacred rock, the silhouette remained one of devastation still: for the allies—Athenians included—had vowed before taking the field against Mardonius that any temple burned by the barbarians was to be left forever as a ruin, “to serve as witness for generations yet to come.”67 The bleachers on which the audience took their seats had been fashioned, almost certainly, out of timbers salvaged from the shattered barbarian fleet; while on the stage itself, it has been plausibly suggested, there may have stood that most spectacular of all battle trophies: the captured royal tent.68 If so, then the leather that had once sheltered the King of Kings now provided an awning over the stage of the Dionysia—and the perfect backdrop for the tragedy that Aeschylus had titled The Persians.

Set in Susa, it offered, for the delectation of the Athenian people, a dramatic reconstruction of Xerxes’ return home from Salamis. The king who had left Persia in the full pomp of his majesty was portrayed limping back in rags; the courtiers who had thought to hail a conquering hero were heard wailing in misery. All most enjoyable—and comforting—for the audience, of course. The Great King was indeed cowed, Aeschylus reassured his fellow citizens; and Athens, the city which had defeated him, was now a beacon of liberty to nations everywhere. “For the people of Asia will not endure to remain the slaves of Persia for long; to be strong-armed into paying tribute to their master; to prostrate themselves before him on the ground. Kingship itself and all its power are dead.”69 The world, in other words, had been made safe for Athens—and for democracy. No wonder that Aeschylus should have scooped first prize.

Even as he celebrated his victory, though, his fellow citizens would not have been left entirely purged of a residual fear. It was all very well for Aeschylus to claim that Salamis had left the Great King “denuded of men capable of defending him,”70 but why, in that case, were Persian garrisons still in Thrace and beside the Hellespont? What were they doing in Sardis? How could they be in every capital of every satrapy, to the limits of the rising of the sun? Far from tottering, the empire of the Great King in truth remained on foundations as solid and formidable as ever. That the mighty edifice had received the odd chip to its western facade was indisputable, but few within the vast extent of the empire would have realized even that. The Great King, after all, was hardly in the habit of broadcasting his failures. If his subjects had ever heard of Athens, then it was only as a city that their master had put to the torch. If they had ever heard of the Spartans, then it was only as a people whose king their master had killed in battle. “May Ahura Mazda, and all the gods, protect me. And may he protect my kingdom. And may he protect all that I have laboured to build.”71 So Xerxes was in the habit of praying. And who was to say that Ahura Mazda did not listen to him still?

But Aeschylus, imagining “the people of Asia” restless beneath the Persian yoke, had not been indulging entirely in wishful thinking. Why, after all, had the Great King hurried away from Sardis—and why exactly had he failed to return? The solution to the mystery lay far distant from Greece, in that cockpit of the Near East, Babylon. There, late in the campaigning season of 479 BC, even as Xerxes was being brought the disastrous news of Plataea and Mycale, a fresh revolt had broken out.72 The Great King, to his horror, had found himself caught between two fronts. Abandoning his campaign on the fractious periphery of his empire, Xerxes had sped back to its heartland—where the insurrection, sure enough, had been easily suppressed. Babylon, taught its lesson once and for all, had remained quiescent from that moment onward. But Xerxes himself, it appears, despite the successful pacification of the rebellion, had also absorbed a painful lesson. Cyrus, Cambyses and Darius had all taken it for granted that the frontiers of Persian dominion would prove infinite. Darius, in particular, that devout and cynical autocrat, had proclaimed that he was entrusted not merely with the right but with a sacred duty to subdue the Lie wherever he found it, to the very limits of the world. At least as pious in the worship of Ahura Mazda as his father, Xerxes had inherited this sense of global mission along with the imperial tiara. This, after all, was why he had led the invasion of the West. But that invasion had failed; and the chariot of the Lord Mazda, ridden with such awful ceremony along the pontoon over the Hellespont, had ended up stolen by a gang of Thracian brigands and dumped in a field. To the Greeks, the bridging of Asia and Europe, and the desire to rule both continents, had always seemed the most fatal of the Great King’s follies; and perhaps, in his heart of hearts, Xerxes had come to agree. Certainly, there would be no more attempts to conquer Europe following his return from Sardis. It was Xerxes, of all Persia’s kings, who had been obliged to accept an uncomfortable truth, and one that for once was not synonymous with his own country’s order: that even the mightiest empires can suffer from overstretch.

Imperial forces had not given up the fight in the Aegean—but they were no longer in the vanguard of a scheme of global conquest. The Great King’s defeat in the West had dealt a fatal blow to that vaunting dream. Persian ambitions were now infinitely more modest: merely to stabilize control of Ionia. Even when basking in the afterglow of the victory at Mycale, Leotychides had recognized that this would be the Great King’s policy, and he dreaded the inability of the Greeks to stand in its way. But when he had proposed the transplanting of the Ionians from their cities and their resettlement on the mainland, Xanthippus had exploded with indignation. He had protested that it was not for the Spartans to propose the dissolution of what were, originally, Athenian colonies; and he had pledged his city eternally to the defense of Ionian freedom. “And after he and his fellow citizens had expressed themselves with great vigour, the Peloponnesians at length gave way.”73

So it was that the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks from Asia was postponed for 2400 years, until the era of Atatürk; and the claim of Athens to the command of the continued war against Persia was made explicit. One year later and it was formalized as well. An alliance was legally constituted, with its treasury on Apollo’s sacred island of Delos, and subscription fees measured in either ships or cash. The Ionians, the islanders, the Greeks of the Hellespont: almost all signed up. With the added muscle that this new Delian League provided them, the Athenians could now take the attack directly to the barbarian. Throughout the 470s BC, Persian garrisons in Thrace and around the Hellespont were systematically reduced. The following decade witnessed even more spectacular successes. Led by Cimon, the dashing son of Miltiades, the Athenians swept the enemy from the Aegean, and fostered rebellion throughout Ionia and Caria. The climax of these triumphs came in 466 BC, when Cimon, confronted by the largest concentration of Persian forces to have been marshaled since the year of Salamis, won a sensational double victory. First, gliding into the mouth of the Eurymedon, a river in the south of what is now Turkey, he wiped out an entire Phoenician fleet. Next, landing his weary marines on shore, he inflicted the same treatment upon the imperial army. It was this battle, once and for all, that destroyed any lingering prospect of a third Persian invasion. Security had been won for Greece at last. The great war, in effect, was over.

But Athens, the city that had secured the victory at the Eurymedon, appeared to shrink from a sense of her own achievement: as though she could not bear to abandon a struggle that had served for thirty long years to define her. So that Persia, in the prayers offered up by the Assembly, continued to be named as the national enemy. So too that the Athenians, having run the Persians out of the Aegean but still addicted to making war on them, voted to hunt them down in foreign fields. In 460, a huge armada was dispatched to Cyprus and Egypt. Six years of fighting later, it had been comprehensively wiped out. The Athenians, in a panic that the barbarians might now come sweeping back into the Aegean, hurriedly removed the headquarters of the league from Delos to their own city. Even when the Persians failed to materialize in Greek waters, the treasury remained on the Acropolis. Naturally, just as they had always done, the Athenians required that subscriptions to the league be paid in full. Liberty, as they pointed out, did not come cheap. But many of the increasingly disgruntled allies began to mutter that Athenian-sponsored freedom was proving a good deal more expensive than slavery to the King of Kings had ever been.

That a Greek pledged to the overthrow of Persian despotism might himself start to ape the manners of a Persian was not, in the decades that followed the great invasion, a wholly novel paradox. Pausanias, for instance, giddy with conceit, had become a notorious enthusiast for barbarian chic. His countrymen, appalled to see a general of the Spartan people swanning around on campaign sporting the trousers of a satrap, had grown increasingly suspicious of their erstwhile hero. A mere decade after Plataea, the ephors accused him of plotting to overthrow the state. Pausanias, taking sanctuary inside the bronze-walled temple on the Spartan acropolis, was walled up there to starve; only at the very last moment was his emaciated body hauled out, so that his death would not pollute the shrine. The man who had laughed at the wealth of the Great King’s table only himself to develop a gluttonous taste for Persian haute cuisine duly expired of hunger.

Nemesis, as ever, had proved herself both merciless and witty; and just to emphasize that hubris might prove a failing of Greeks as well as of barbarian kings, she had dragged down, in the weeks that followed Pausanias’ wretched end, a hero greater even than the Regent. Themistocles, hated ever since Salamis for having been so persistently and spectacularly right, had already, by 470 BC, been ostracized by his resentful fellow citizens. Now, implicated in Pausanias’ treachery, he had fled Greece altogether. After wanderings and adventures worthy of Odysseus, he had finally ended up in Susa, where Xerxes’ son, the new Great King, had exulted in the capture of his father’s most formidable enemy. “The subtle serpent of Greece,”74 now that he was defanged, had proved a great favorite of his new master; and all the brilliant qualities of his intellect, once so fatal to Persian ambitions, had been put to the Great King’s service. Dispatched to the western front, Themistocles had settled just inland from Miletus, where he had issued coins and run an army, just like any satrap. He passed his final days advising the court in Sardis on how best to resist the encroachments of his own countrymen. And so it was, as a royal servitor and as a traitor, that Themistocles, in 459 BC, finally breathed his last.

An unsettling precedent: that the savior of Greece should have ended up the enemy of liberty. Even in exile, it seemed to many, Themistocles continued to serve as a model to his city. For increasingly, throughout the 450s BC, cities freed from barbarian rule found their sense of gratitude toward Athens darkening into envy, suspicion and dread. They could see little difference between the tribute that they had once paid to Susa and the subscription that they were now obliged to send to the Acropolis. Already, in the 460s BC, cities that had attempted to secede from the league had found themselves being visited by the Athenian fleet. So too, in the following decade, had cities not even in the alliance. In 457, for instance, the Athenians put paid to half a century of rivalry by investing their old rival Aegina, dismantling her walls, confiscating her fleet—and then inviting her to join the league. An offer which the wretched Aeginetans could hardly refuse—and of which even the most imperious Oriental despot might have been proud. Men began to recall the first arrival of Athens to her empire as a moment both ominous and fateful: for Xanthippus, it was said, having sailed north from the Battle of Mycale, had moored off the Hellespont, seized the cables from Xerxes’ bridge as plunder, and then nailed a captured Persian alive to a plank. This crucifixion, looming ever larger in people’s memories, began to seem sufficient to cast all Greece into its shadow.

And yet the Athenians themselves knew better. Great though their city had become, and powerful, and rich, they never forgot for a moment what she had passed through, what braved, to win such pre-eminence. “Bulwark of Greece, famous Athens, city of godlike men”: the world that she put in her shadow she also illuminated with her glory. Literally so: for a sailor rounding Cape Sunium might look toward “the shining city, violet-crowned, famous in song,”75 and see, at a distance of thirty miles, a brilliant flash of light. This was the reflection of the sun upon a burnished spear, held in the grip of a colossal Athena, some thirty-five feet tall, who stood, heroic and beautiful, on the summit of the Acropolis, guarding the entrance to the rock, her gaze serenely fixed in the direction of Salamis. Fashioned out of plunder seized from the barbarians, funded by members of the league and crafted by Phidias, the greatest Athenian sculptor of his day, the bronze rendered physical the whole triumphant course of the democracy’s history. A statue of liberty indeed.

And why not, the Athenians began to wonder, of Greek brotherhood as well? In 449 BC, a direct accommodation was reached at last with the barbarians, bringing to a conclusive end, after half a century of warfare, all hostilities between the Great King and his greatest enemy.76 In the same year, an invitation was issued by the Athenians to the cities of Greece and Ionia, requesting them to send delegates to a congress on the Acropolis.77 The ostensible purpose of this proposed conference was to discuss whether the temples burned by the barbarians might now acceptably be rebuilt. But there was also, hovering over it, an altogether more elevated goal. “Let everyone come and join in the debate on the best way to secure peace and prosperity for Greece,”78 the invitation declared. An idealistic appeal—and one that invoked, in the first months of the peace with Persia, the spirit of the Athenians’ finest hour. “We are all Greeks,” Aristeides had proudly asserted to the Spartan ambassadors, back in 479 BC, when countering the accusation that his city might side with Mardonius. “We all share the same blood, the same language, the same temples, the same holy rituals. We all share the one common way of life. It would be a terrible thing for Athens ever to betray this heritage.”79 And the Athenians, rather than do so, had lived up to Aristeides’ stirring words, and seen their city burn. The evidence of their sacrifice could still be seen cracked and blackened across the Acropolis. Why, the Athenians demanded now, did it require the barbarian to remind the Greeks that they were all Greek? Why could not their own example serve to inspire an era of universal amity and peace?

The Peloponnesians, led by Sparta, responded with scorn. Who exactly, they sneered, was to lead the cities of Greece into this promised golden age? The answer envisaged by the Athenians had been implicit in their invitation: cities that sent delegates to the Acropolis would effectively be ceding the primacy to Athens. Sparta, inevitably, refused point-blank to do so. Her allies in the Peloponnese dutifully did the same. The conference was aborted. Shrugging off this setback, Athens responded by tightening the screws on those that she could force to do her will. The war with Persia might have been brought to a close, but the Athenians were in no mood to see the league dissolved just because peace had come to the Aegean. Any hint of recalcitrance from a member state, still more open rebellion, and their crackdown would be merciless. The subscriptions sent to the Acropolis, now nakedly revealed as tribute, continued to be extorted every year. The very word “allies,” having become hopelessly outdated, was replaced by the phrase “cities subject to the Athenian people”—a description that at least had the merit of accuracy. Far from being united, the Greek world found itself divided instead into rival power blocs, each one led by a city that put her dependants humiliatingly in the shade, and justified her hegemony by boasting loudly of her record in the defense of liberty.

For Athens was not the only city which laid claim to the title of savior of Greece. In the balance, Sparta, her former ally, and now increasingly bitter rival, could set Plataea and—above all—Thermopylae. To the rest of Greece, the Spartans remained peerless as models of heroism and virtue; and nothing, not even their most splendid victories, had done more to cement this reputation than the memory of the three hundred and their exemplary defeat. “Go tell them in Sparta, O passer-by / That here, in obedience to their orders, we lie.”80 These lines, carved on a simple stone memorial, could be read on the site of the famous last stand: an epitaph as laconic and stern as Leonidas himself. As immortal as well—for Thermopylae, of all the battles fought against the armies of the Great King, was the one most gloriously transfigured into legend. Yet the Athenians—as brilliant, as eloquent, as quick-witted as their Spartan opposites were sober—would nevertheless trump its memory. Late in 449 BC, a portentous motion was brought before the Assembly. Only a few months previously Sparta had refused to send her delegates to Athens and agree that the burned temples could be reconstructed; now the Athenians voted on the issue without reference to the opinion of the rest of Greece. The proposal to rebuild the monuments on the Acropolis was thunderously passed. Plans for a spectacular makeover of the sacred rock were put into immediate effect.

Such a scheme had been long in the preparation. The mover behind it was a Eupatrid grandee by the name of Pericles, a seasoned political operator who had first demonstrated his passion for eye-catching cultural projects by sponsoring, back in 472 BC, Aeschylus’ celebrated tragedy on the Persians. Pericles certainly brought an unrivaled pedigree to his taste for grands projets: the son of Xanthippus, he was also, on his mother’s side, an Alcmaeonid. This meant, of course, that he was the heir to a long family tradition of sponsoring monuments on the Acropolis; but no Alcmaeonid had ever been presented with an opportunity such as Pericles was grasping now. The barbarian holocaust had ravaged the entire summit of the rock, so that it was not a single temple but the whole Acropolis that Pericles was planning to rebuild. By employing the cream of Athenian talent, including the great sculptor Phidias, he aimed to raise, as he put it, “marks and monuments of our city’s empire” so perfect that “future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.”81 In 447 BC, work began on a temple designed to be the most sumptuous and beautiful ever built. Subsequent generations would know it as the Parthenon.*20

However, bold and original though all the new monuments on the Acropolis were destined to be, they still had their foundations deep in the bedrock of what had gone before. The Parthenon, for instance, that daring monument to the new age of Athenian greatness, was being raised on the scorched base of an older, unfinished building: the great temple that had been begun in the 480s BC as a celebration of the victory at Marathon. Now, with his plans for the Acropolis, Pericles was looking to enshrine the memory of Marathon for all eternity. Remembrances of the battle were to be everywhere on the sacred rock. Whether in the ground plan of the Parthenon itself, or in trophies raised to the victory, or in friezes illustrating the fighting, the greatest moment in Athenian history was to be celebrated with a brilliance that would proclaim Athens not merely the savior of Greece, but her school and mistress, too.

For those who had fallen at Marathon were not altogether dead. Leave behind the dust and din of the building site on the Acropolis in the morning, and an Athenian might reach the battlefield by nightfall. There, silhouetted against the stars, he would see the great tumulus which had been raised over the honored ashes of the slain, and beside it a more recent monument, lovingly crafted out of white marble, barely a decade old. The most potent, and the eeriest, memorial, however, could not be seen—only heard. Every night, it was said, ghostly across the plain, strange sounds of fighting would disturb the midnight calm: the ringing of metal, the hiss of arrows, war cries, trampling, screams. No other field of battle that had been contested with the barbarians could boast of such a visitation; and an Athenian, although he would have dreaded to approach the phantoms, would perhaps have found in their presence a certain source of civic pride. They had been actors, after all, in the greatest drama in history—when Athens had stood alone and preserved the liberty of all Greece. “For they were the fathers not merely of children, of mortal flesh and blood, but of their children’s freedom, and of the freedom of every person who dwells in the continent of the West.”82 Everything stemmed from Marathon; everything was justified by it, too.

Beyond the plain, with its monuments, graves and ghosts, the road wound on northward, leading over empty hills to a single temple on a slope above the sea. This was Rhamnus, where it was said that Zeus, having pursued Nemesis across the whole world, had finally brought her to earth. From that one rape had been hatched Helen, the Trojan War and all the long, violent story of hatred between East and West. It had brought Datis the Mede and his great armada to Marathon, barely five miles to the south; “and so sure was he that nothing could stop him from taking Athens that he had brought with him a block of marble, from which he intended to carve a trophy in celebration of his victory.”83 After the defeat of his expedition, the block of marble had been found abandoned on the battlefield; and so the locals had hauled it off to Rhamnus. No better place for it could have been imagined—for the temple that stood there above the slope that led down to the sea was sacred to Nemesis herself. It was clearly her anger that had doomed the barbarians’ expedition; and so plans had been made to build a second temple to her, and as a memorial to Marathon. It was intended to fashion the marble into a likeness of the goddess. The great Phidias had been asked to carve it. As on the Acropolis, so at Rhamnus, an Athenian might aim to glimpse the future. If he arrived where the marble block stood, waiting to be carved, he might easily imagine that he could see within the spectral purity of its whiteness a foreshadowing of the sculpture that was to be; that he was catching a glimpse of the face of Nemesis herself.

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!