Ancient History & Civilisation




A man sits in a small wooden boat. It may be an Athenian dispatch boat, or perhaps it is one of the hundreds of fishing boats on Salamis. In order not to attract attention, only two men are rowing the vessel, as we may imagine. As they make their way in the dark past the barely visible hill of Munychia—lit by a small number of lamps—toward Phaleron Bay, the little crew feels every wave against the thin hull. And the sea outside the Salamis channel, unprotected by island or peninsula, is rougher than the waters inside the straits. Earlier that same evening, the mighty Persian fleet, about seven hundred triremes strong, had rowed these very waters, moving from Phaleron to the mouth of the Salamis straits and then reversing course. Now the tiny vessel is following in the Persians’ wake. It is nighttime on about September 24.

The man is simply dressed, in a tunic and boots, perhaps with a cloak to protect him against the sea breeze and with a well-fastened hat. No doubt he is not carrying the gnarled stick usually held by someone in his position of responsibility over children. He is probably unarmed, so as to make his peaceful intentions clear.

If he looks worried, it is not just because his companions are rowing him in the dark, which is never without risk, or even merely because they are headed for the enemy encampment, always a perilous place to land. Rather, he is worried because he knows that he is carrying the weight of the war, because it is on his words that the fate of Greece depends. This is a huge burden for a man without a country or a family name or even his freedom.


In later years the rumors about him flew. He was a Persian, no, a eunuch; he was a prisoner of war, no, a slave; he carried out his mission at dawn, no, at night. Some scholars deny that his celebrated deed ever took place. In that case, his story hoodwinked not only Herodotus but the people of Thespiae as well. After the Persian Wars, the inhabitants of this small Boeotian city made Sicinnus—we call the man simply Sicinnus, for we know neither his father’s name nor his country of origin—a citizen, and at Themistocles’ suggestion. As if that wasn’t boon enough, Themistocles also made Sicinnus a rich man.

We can be sure that Sicinnus was Greek. Greek cities, such as Thespiae, did not enfranchise Persians, nor did they enfranchise eunuchs, since one of a citizen’s duties was to furnish the city with Greek children. His name may indicate that Sicinnus came from Phrygia, a district in northwestern Anatolia. Phrygia was famous for its cult of the Great Mother, a goddess to whom Themistocles, too, was devoted. Since Phrygia was under Persian rule, Sicinnus might have been familiar with Persian ways, and perhaps he even spoke Persian. As for his status, Sicinnus was indeed a slave, and it is plausible that he was once a prisoner of war as well, since many slaves owed their status to the misfortune of war. Themistocles must have freed him sometime after 480 B.C. before recommending Sicinnus for citizenship in Thespiae.

As a slave, Sicinnus played a hallowed role in a prosperous Greek household: he was paidagogos to Themistocles’ sons. The paidagogos was both more and less than a modern pedagogue. He had to take the boys to school and home again each day, carrying their belongings, a lamp, and sometimes even a tired boy or two. He also had to supervise them in the streets and divert them from any of the various temptations offered by a booming town like Athens. The paidagogos did no formal teaching, but he bore a general responsibility for the boys’ moral education. In short, a paidagogos had to be firm, alert, of good character, and, above all, trustworthy. No wonder Themistocles entrusted him with so important an assignment.

For the mission did take place. There is no reason to deny it except for its improbability, and that is a poor argument, since history is full of the improbable. Not just Herodotus, a Halicarnassian who wrote two generations after the events of 480 B.C., but Aeschylus, an Athenian who wrote in 472 B.C., confirms Sicinnus’s deed. They differ about the details, but reports of secret missions often do conflict, and besides, Aeschylus and Herodotus wrote in different genres (respectively, tragic poetry and history), for different audiences, and for different purposes. Stark disagreements between the two should not surprise us.

But having asserted that Sicinnus’s mission really did happen, we cannot understand its purpose or its results without looking back at the circumstances surrounding it. It began earlier that evening of September 24 on Salamis.

On the previous night, September 23, the showdown between Themistocles and Adimantus had ended up with Eurybiades’ decision to keep the fleet at Salamis. But the Peloponnesian crews were not happy with the choice. The more they heard about the defensive works at the Isthmus, the more they wanted to abandon Salamis. On top of that, the afternoon of September 24 brought the entire Persian fleet to the entrance of the Salamis straits, offering battle. And after the enemy navy retreated to its base at Phaleron, the enemy army began marching along the Attic coast, westward toward the Isthmus.

As the day of September 24 wore on, the Peloponnesians began gathering in small groups and whispering. They kept their voices down but their dander up; they were simply amazed at the bad decision that Eurybiades had made. They were afraid of being stuck in Salamis on the verge of fighting a naval battle for Athens, and if they lost, they would be trapped, unable to defend their homeland. Perhaps they griped about how a fast-talking Athenian had pulled the wool over the eyes of a stalwart but simpleminded Spartan. Finally, the discontent broke out in public. Itching to join the stand at the Isthmus, “the men who were wasting their time in Salamis with all the ships were so terror-stricken that they no longer obeyed the commanders,” as a later historian put it.

Eurybiades had lost control of his fleet. Perhaps another man might have done better, but he would not have found it easy. The Greeks rarely valued obedience above saying what was on their minds, not even now, when Greece itself was at stake.

By now, it was nighttime. Yet another assembly was called. The Peloponnesian commanders spoke at length and did not mince words. Athens, they said, was lost: it was, to use the traditional term, “land that had been captured by the spear.” The thing to do was to leave Salamis at once and take their chances at the Isthmus. The Athenians, of course, disagreed. They, along with the Aeginetans and the Megarians, argued for staying and fighting at Salamis.

But it was no use. Or so Themistocles thought: he reached the conclusion that his policy would be rejected. Plutarch claims that the Greeks actually decided to withdraw that night, and went so far as to give orders for the voyage to their pilots. No doubt before that happened, Themistocles slipped out of the meeting discreetly and found Sicinnus. The ancient sources give the impression that the idea of Sicinnus’s mission was a sudden burst of inspiration on Themistocles’ part, born of desperation, but it seems more probable that the Athenian had planned things in advance. Themistocles was nothing if not perceptive, and he surely had noticed before how shallow support for his position was among the Peloponnesian crews.

Besides, Themistocles’ stock in trade was to think the unthinkable. An upright soul might have soothed itself with the thought of Panhellenic unity, but Themistocles shunned illusion. Surely he had considered the possibility of a Peloponnesian sellout. It might have occurred to him that if he could not save Athens by straightforward words in open debate, he would have to resort to more devious methods. And in order to save Athens, there are few things that a man like Themistocles would have ruled out. He was certainly more than capable of forcing a battle at Salamis against the will of the majority of his fellow Greek naval commanders.

So he might well have planned Sicinnus’s operation in advance. Among other reasons for this were the practical questions that needed to be solved. Sicinnus would have to be made ready to go on a secret mission, although he might not have been told what to say until the last minute. Trustworthy men would need to be found to row the boat. A launch site would have to be determined, and guards would have to be persuaded or bribed to turn a blind eye to an unauthorized departure. Themistocles had to do all of this and then return to the council meeting before anyone grew suspicious about his absence. Although it might all have been arranged at the last minute, advance preparation seems more probable.

But just what was Sicinnus’s assignment? He was to deliver a message to the Persians. Three detailed descriptions of the message survive in the ancient sources. The earliest appears in Aeschylus’s play of 472 B.C., The Persians:

A Greek man from the Athenian host

Came and said the following to . . . Xerxes:

When the darkness of night comes

The Greeks will not remain, but will leap upon

The rowing benches and by one way or another,

Each by secret flight will save his life.

Writing shortly after 430 B.C., Herodotus reports:

When he [Sicinnus] arrived with his boat he said the following to the generals of the barbarians: “The general of the Athenians sent me in secret from the other Greeks (because he happens to have the King’s interests in mind and he wants you rather than them to have the upper hand) to say that the Greeks are terrified and plan to flee, and now is the best time of all for you to carry out the deed, so as not to let them run away. They are neither united nor will they resist you, but you will see them fight a naval battle amongst themselves, some taking your side and some not.” And when he had declared these things, he departed and got away.

Finally, Plutarch, writing centuries later, about A.D. 100, writes:

He [Themistocles] sent him [Sicinnus] to Xerxes secretly, ordering him to say that Themistocles the general of the Athenians had chosen the King’s side and is the first to announce to him that the Greeks are running away, and he urges him not to stand by and let them escape but, in a moment at which they are in disorder because they are separated from their infantry, to fall upon them and destroy their naval power. Xerxes received this as a message of goodwill and he was delighted. . . .

The three stories agree that a message was brought to the Persians from the Athenians, announcing that the Greek fleet was on the verge of fleeing from Salamis. They all go on to say that the Persians accepted the message as genuine and so launched their ships. But there are disagreements among the three versions. Herodotus and Plutarch refer to Sicinnus by name, but Aeschylus does not. Aeschylus and Plutarch say that Sicinnus spoke directly to Xerxes, but Herodotus gives what is surely the more likely version, that Sicinnus spoke to the Persian commanders. The Great King rarely spoke directly to anyone, let alone to Greek slaves. Still, it is possible that Sicinnus was interrogated by a Persian in Xerxes’ presence, as Arcadian deserters had been interrogated after Thermopylae.

Herodotus says that Sicinnus arrived after the Persian fleet had returned to Phaleron, that is, at night. Aeschylus says that the mission took place before sunset, while Plutarch implies a nighttime mission without specifically saying so. As a tragedian, Aeschylus had a poetic license denied to the historian or biographer. He might well have placed a sunset between speech and deed to add drama. In any case, the night is a far likelier time for a secret and potentially traitorous mission than is the daytime.

Besides, another issue comes into play. Aeschylus was a patriot writing for an audience of thirty thousand Athenians. It was far more politic to depict an unnamed man in the light of day than to identify the moral guardian of Themistocles’ sons and to show him sneaking around in the dark.

Patriotism might also explain another discrepancy among the three accounts. Herodotus and Plutarch are clear on the point that Themistocles promised Athenian treachery to the Persians. Aeschylus is silent about this matter. Yet it’s no wonder, since treason was no doubt a sensitive subject in a mass Athenian audience at a drama festival only eight years after the event. The foreign slave who labeled Athenians as traitors to Greece was perhaps not entirely popular in Athens. It was, after all, in the city of Thespiae and not in Athens that Themistocles found a home for Sicinnus, and then only because the Thespians had lost many citizens during the war and were hungry for replacements.

And so a common story emerges: Themistocles sent his trusted slave Sicinnus on a secret and dangerous nighttime mission to Persian naval headquarters. Sicinnus announced the imminent departure of the Greek fleet and urged the Persians to mobilize at once to stop them. They did so, and launched their fleet at nighttime. Before the Greeks at Salamis knew what had hit them, the Persians managed to surround them. As a result, there would be no more talk of running away to the Isthmus. The Greeks would have to fight at Salamis or they would have to surrender. In other words, Themistocles got exactly what he had wanted.

Just how the Persians managed to surround the Greeks, and just what “surrounding” means in this context, are big questions that we will address in the next chapter. In the meantime, another question leaps out: why did the Persians believe Sicinnus? For that matter, why did they let him escape rather than hold him for questioning or even torture?

To answer these questions is to understand the genius of Themistocles and his ability to read the mind of his adversary. Themistocles knew how badly Persia wanted to hook a big Greek traitor. And so he sent the Persians Sicinnus.

Themistocles knew how the Persians had used traitors at Thermopylae in August and in the naval battles at Lade and off Cyprus about fifteen years earlier. If he had been able to interrogate the high-ranking Persian commanders captured at Artemisium, he might have learned just how important treason loomed in the Great King’s mind.

The key to misinformation is telling people what they want to hear. Sicinnus did precisely this. Sicinnus did not tell the Persians to fight a naval battle at Salamis. He did not need to. When he arrived in their camp, the Persians had already decided to risk their fleet in the Salamis channel. Sicinnus did nothing more than to precipitate the timing.

He did nothing more than that, and yet, in so doing, Sicinnus did everything: at Salamis, the timing was all. Consider Sicinnus’s—and Themistocles’—nimble touch. As if aware that it is easier to tell a big lie than a small one, Sicinnus fed the Persians a host of secret details that happened to be true. He told them that the Greek council at Salamis was in disarray, which was true. He told them that the Peloponnesians wanted to withdraw the fleet at once to the Isthmus, while the Athenians, Aeginetans, and Megarians wanted to keep the ships at Salamis, which was true. He told them that unless the Persian navy stopped them, the Greek ships would flee, which was also probably true.

The only lie that Sicinnus told was the big lie: that Themistocles was ready to join the Great King’s side. Or was it a lie? Who can be sure that, if the Greek fleet left for the Isthmus, Themistocles would not have considered a deal with Xerxes? It would not have been easy to convince Athenians to bear doing business with their archenemy. But if they were abandoned by their Greek allies, would the Athenian refugees on Salamis not have been better off going home under Persian protection than taking their chances in Italy, the likely outcome of a doomed resistance at the Isthmus? Themistocles might have reasoned that, with Persian honor avenged at the Acropolis, the enemy might be ready to bargain. As practical men, the Persians would immediately see the advantage of allying with a man of action like Themistocles instead of with has-beens like the heirs of the former Athenian tyrant, Hippias.

To be precise, Sicinnus’s lie consisted of saying that Themistocles’ preference was joining the Persian cause. In truth, Themistocles preferred to achieve victory for Greece. He proposed to do so by forcing a naval battle immediately.

But let us not assume that Sicinnus was a good liar. He would not have had to be. Themistocles knew that the Persians might torture Sicinnus, and Themistocles would not want to risk his man cracking under the strain. Far better to lie to Sicinnus, to tell him simply that his master had decided to defect rather than tell the truth about the double game that he was playing. The deeper his belief in Themistocles’ treason, the more convincing a messenger Sicinnus would make. It would have been just like Themistocles to hide the truth not only from the Persians and his fellow Greeks but also from his trusted servant. As long as Sicinnus was trustworthy, brave, and reasonably articulate, he could carry out his assignment. Who knows? Sicinnus might also have been pro-Persian, which would have made him all the more appealing a messenger in Themistocles’ mind.

After hearing out Sicinnus, the Persians let him go. That was not standard procedure. Earlier, when a Greek defector from Arcadia in the central Peloponnese appeared in the Persian camp, he was kept tied and bound. Perhaps Sicinnus was peculiarly smooth, perhaps he was lucky, but it may be that the Persians let him go because they needed to, and they needed to because Themistocles had promised to surrender. The terms of the deal still had to be worked out.

That, after all, is the way things had happened at the battle of Lade. The Persians met with Samian traitors before the battle and arranged for the Samian contingent to turn tail at the outbreak of the engagement. As soon as the battle began, the Samians hoisted their sails and fled. At the sight, most of the other Greek warships promptly did the same, leaving in the lurch a few stout sailors, mostly from Chios.

We may speculate that Sicinnus offered, or the Persians asked, for a similar arrangement at Salamis. The Persians would approach the Greek fleet, and the Athenians would hoist their sails and start a stampede toward surrender. And that might be the reason why the Persians let Sicinnus go. He was the go-between, vital to confirm the terms of Themistocles’ treason.

Surely, someone was skeptical. Certainly one of the Great King’s advisers warned him against “the guile of the Greek man,” as Aeschylus calls it. Surely the Athenian exiles and the Theban allies in Xerxes’ entourage denounced the slave of Athens’s chief democrat. The Persians were no strangers to cunning: the royal court thrived on intrigue. The many Greek princes and squadron commanders in the Persian fleet all knew the story of the Trojan horse, and how the Greeks had conquered a city by means of a false gift. And yet none of them managed to see through the stratagem of Athens’s latter-day Odysseus. Or, having seen through it, they could not successfully persuade Xerxes.

In retrospect, his gullibility stands out. At the time, however, Sicinnus’s tale might have seemed reasonable. Traitors and deserters were the common currency of war. In all likelihood, Sicinnus was not the first person to bring the Persians intelligence from Salamis. Artemisia, for instance, is likely to have received her information about the shortage of food on the island from just such a source.

Nor did the risk of trusting Sicinnus seem large. If the Greeks were indeed plotting to escape secretly that night, the Persians had an opportunity to stop them. If that intelligence proved false, then the Persians would intrude upon a divided and dispirited foe at dawn. The Greeks would either have to accept the Persian challenge to fight a battle or concede their own inferiority, thereby further encouraging defection to the Persian side.

Besides, it might have occurred to Xerxes that his ships would reap the benefit of surprise if they moved at once. The Greeks might have envisaged the Persians entering the straits but not at night and certainly not that night. That very evening the Greeks had seen the enemy mass its fleet outside the straits. There seemed little danger that he would come back that very night and this time come into the Salamis channel.

And there might have been one further argument for action: the weather. Clouds are common in Athens in late September. A cloudy night was the best and maybe the only thing that would allow the Persians to enter the straits secretly under the Greeks’ very noses. With a moon lighting up a clear sky, it would have been difficult to hide the truth from the Greeks on Salamis. Few tacticians can resist the chance of surprising the enemy. So if the night of September 24 was in fact cloudy, an eager Persian commander might have seized on Sicinnus’s story as a way to precipitate a cherished plan. And Xerxes agreed.

And so the order went out: the Persian fleet would not wait until the morning to seek out the Greeks. Instead, they would launch immediately, in “the middle of the night,” as Herodotus calls it. Precisely what hour that was is unknown. But assuming that Sicinnus began his mission after sunset (7:19 P.M.) and needed about an hour to reach Phaleron, and considering that it would take an hour or two for the Persians to hear him out and evaluate his message, and considering that yet more time would be needed to rouse the men and ready the ships, midnight is probably the earliest hour that the Persian fleet got under way.

Xerxes must have made ready to ride from Phaleron to a spot overlooking the Salamis straits, about six miles away. He hoped that before the next day was over, his men would have destroyed the enemy fleet and thereby all but guaranteed his conquest of the rest of Greece well before winter.

It all seemed so reasonable. And yet what if the Greeks were in fact not at loggerheads? What if they were keen for battle, full of wholehearted passion to sweep the Persians from the Salamis straits? In that case, the Persians would have done the enemy the favor of fighting in his chosen location, in the narrows.

But in Xerxes’ defense, consider that it was most unlikely that the Greeks would turn from disarray to sudden unity. Themistocles’ trick, however brilliant, was not enough to bring about that result. Themistocles was many things, but a unifier was not one of them. It would take someone else to play that role. Amazingly, a potential candidate was at hand.

It was one of the most celebrated reconciliations in the history of the ancient world. Aristides, son of Lysimachus, and Themistocles were the most bitter of political enemies. A veteran of the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., where he may have served on the Athenian board of generals, Aristides enjoyed a prominent political career. There was a personal element in the rivalry between Themistocles and Aristides, which some sources trace all the way back to the playground. Themistocles’ nature, writes Plutarch, was

quick, reckless, unscrupulous, and easily borne with haste into any undertaking, while Aristides’ was founded upon a firm character, which was intent on justice and not inclined toward any falsehood, buffoonery, or trick even in a game.

But principle was at stake as well. One tradition makes Aristides a fox who flirted with pro-Persian sentiment; another makes Aristides a patrician who crossed swords with the populist Themistocles. According to this tradition, Aristides played paragon to Themistocles’ rogue. Certainly Aristides had a reputation for fairness, whence his nickname, Aristides the Just. Herodotus calls him “the best and most just man in Athens.”

In fact, Aristides seems to have been a prig, as we may judge from the farmer who came to town to vote in favor of ostracizing Aristides. When asked what he had against Aristides, the man replied that he was simply tired of everyone calling him Aristides the Just. The man got his way: Aristides was ostracized in 483 B.C. Themistocles had come out on top.

Aristides was recalled with the other exiles before the Persian invasion. Anyone who feared that he would continue his feud with Themistocles need not have worried. Polyaenus, a Greek writer in the era of the Roman Empire, tells this dramatic story of the two men’s reconciliation:

Aristides and Themistocles were the worst enemies of anyone in politics. But when the Persians attacked, they went outside the city to the same place, each lowered his right hand, intertwined their fingers, and said, “We put down our enmity here, until we finish the war against the Persian.” When they said this they raised their hands, separated their fingers, and, as if they had buried something, they heaped up earth in the ritual pit, and they departed and spent the entire war in agreement. And the concord of the generals was particularly responsible for the victory over the barbarians.

If it is true that the former exiles were confined to Salamis, then this scene, if it is genuine, would have to have taken place there. Whether this amazing ritual actually happened is unknown, but there is no doubt about the importance of the concord of the generals.

It bore its ripest fruit on the night of Sicinnus’s mission on September 24. Sicinnus no doubt left the Persian camp excited and immensely relieved. We do not know when he managed to return to Salamis, but we do know that he was not the first man to bring Themistocles the news of his success. That honor goes to Aristides.

That very morning, after the earthquake had upset the men, Aristides had been sent, along with at least one other general, on a trireme to Aegina to hurry back with the cult statues of Aeacus and his sons. The mission speaks volumes about Aristides’ status in the Greek camp. He was not sufficiently important to be indispensable to the preparations for battle or discussions in council, but he was just the man for an operation of religion and morale.

By the time Aristides returned from Aegina it was late at night. Apparently he arrived not with the cult statues but with the news that they were on the way. When he landed at Salamis, Aristides went straight to the council hall, stood outside, and called for Themistocles. When Themistocles emerged, Aristides informed him that he could tell his colleagues to forgo the debate about moving to the Isthmus. Relocation was no longer an option. As Aristides had seen with his own eyes, the Greeks were now surrounded by the Persian fleet. His journey from Aegina had taken him almost directly into the path of the Persians, as his ship passed the south coast of Salamis and rounded the Cynosura peninsula into the straits. Since the Persians had not left Phaleron before midnight, and since it would have taken considerable time for them to get their ships in position opposite the Greeks—and in the dark—the hour of Aristides’ arrival at Salamis could hardly have been earlier than two or three in the morning. That, of course, was not the normal time for a trireme to travel, but Aristides’ mission called for all possible speed.

“We are shut in by the enemy in a circle,” Aristides said. He had barely made it past them with his boat and escaped pursuit. Now he advised Themistocles to return inside and deliver the news.

We need not imagine that Aristides meant the word circle literally. The Greeks used the word kuklos to mean not only circle but, among other things, the vault of heaven, the horizon, the Milky Way, a person’s cheeks, an assembly place, a crowd of people standing around, and the annual cycle of the seasons. By kuklos, Aristides meant only that the Persians had surrounded the Greek fleet at either end of their mooring stations on the eastern coast of Salamis. He did not mean that the Persian fleet had surrounded the entire island. Plutarch makes clear how Aristides’ words are to be understood:

The barbarian triremes were launched at night, and after they surrounded the strait in a circle, they occupied the islands.

We might say, then, that the Persians had ringed the straits at either end.

Apparently Themistocles could hide neither his joy at the information nor his pride in his role as a manipulator. “You should know that the Medes are doing what they are on my initiative,” he told Aristides. And the Greeks would soon be bent to Themistocles’ will as well: he had forced them to fight at Salamis, like it or not. It must have been bliss for Themistocles to contemplate his power, but to lord it before the eyes and under the nose of his archenemy Aristides—that must have been very heaven.

But ever the strategist, Themistocles limited his crowing to Aristides. Far from taking credit before the other commanders, he told Aristides to deliver the news himself. “If I say it,” Themistocles said, “it will look as if I am lying and they will not believe that the barbarians are really doing these things.”

Inside the council hall, the Greek generals were “shoving each other with their words,” as Herodotus puts it. They thought that the Persian fleet was safely ashore back at Phaleron, from where they had seen it depart the day before.

Aristides duly entered the meeting and delivered his news. “The entire camp of the Greeks is shut in by Xerxes’ ships,” he said. He advised them to get ready to defend themselves. And having made his shocking announcement, Aristides left.

A debate immediately broke out. Most of the commanders were so determined to leave Salamis that they refused to believe Aristides, in spite of his reputation for probity. But the matter was soon settled by another arrival, a man named Panaetius son of Sosimenes. He was the commander of a trireme from the small Aegean island of Tenos, one of the many islands that had sent ships to Xerxes after Artemisium and Thermopylae. Perhaps the Tenians had done so halfheartedly, or perhaps Panaetius had lost his enthusiasm for the Persian cause when the fleet entered the dangerous waters of the straits. In either case, he deserted to the Greeks.

It was a decisive defection. After Panaetius repeated what Aristides had said, the council conceded. The combined words of the most just man in Athens and of a treacherous islander who was not tarred with the brush of being Athenian had finally worked. The commanders acknowledged the truth of their reports, and so they prepared to fight a naval battle.

By now, it was three or four in the morning. This was not the usual hour to load seventy thousand men onto triremes and prepare them to row out to battle. But it would have to do.

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