By the end of August the main body of the Persian army was into Attica. The advance guard was already on the outskirts of abandoned Athens and the fleet had rounded up into Phaleron Bay. Behind them both army and fleet left a trail of devastation. It was natural enough that the Great King and his advisers should take the ruthless path of destroying the towns, villages, and temples of their enemies, for such was the normal way of conquest in the face of determined hostility. In any case, certain victory beckoned, and they never for a moment had reckoned that their troops would have to spend many months in a ruined land. Their destruction of the crops was an act of stupidity for, even if the conquest of all of Greece had gone ahead according to plan, it would still have been necessary to maintain an army of occupation during the months that were to come. However, their flank to the east on Euboea was secured, most of the inhabitants having taken to the hills, and it is significant that Xerxes did not even bother to divert troops to occupy the island. Presumably such raids as were carried out by his fleet as they moved down the channel were sufficient to have neutralised the towns and fishing villages in that area, while Carystus in its bay to the south remained friendly and provided a useful guard-post over the Euboea-Andros passage into the Aegean.
In Athens, meanwhile, the evacuation continued apace, the panic departure of the last citizens being speeded by the news that the sacred snake, reputed to guard the Acropolis, had not been eating the ration of honey-cake which was ritually put out for it. The snake, therefore, was presumed to have left the sanctuary - assuredly a sign of doom. It is possible, as Plutarch suggests, that Themistocles (he was quite wily enough) had a hand in promulgating this story so as to speed the departure of the last inhabitants. Another tale has it that in order to provide money for some of the penniless he gave it out that the ornament of the Gorgon’s head which was set into the breastplate of the statue of Athene had been stolen. It may be presumed that this was of gold, and it is just possible that in the general panic some vandal had indeed managed to remove it, to be converted in due course into ready cash. In any case this missing adornment gave Themistocles the pretext to have the bags and baggage of the evacuees searched, thus revealing, as might well be expected, that some of the citizens had far more money and valuables on them than they either needed or, in some cases, could have acquired honestly. These were put into the public fund which had already been opened to provide the commanders of the fleet with enough money to pay their troops and oarsmen. In any case, there is no further reference to this doubtless archaic Gorgon-ornament in subsequent history.
It was three months after he had crossed the Hellespont and had first set foot in Europe that Xerxes gazed on the city which had defied him, lying empty and abandoned before his conquering army. Although, as has been said, his progress should - and possibly could - have been somewhat faster, it was no mean feat to have reached the capital of his enemies in such a time. He stood where no other Persian monarch had ever stood before and beheld the key to Europe before him. Syracuse in distant Sicily may have been in one sense a richer city, but Athens metaphorically represented the capital of the West and of all the rich lands that fringed the Mediterranean basin. From his far-travelled Phoenician advisers he knew the basic geography of this sea even as far as the Straits of Gibraltar and, indeed, beyond that - for had not their ancestors, at the behest of the Pharaoh Necho, well over a century earlier, circumnavigated all of Africa? He knew of Spain and its trading posts and metal mines, of the French littoral and the great port at Massilia, of the Balearics, the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, of southern Italy, and of the wealth of Etruria to the north… . All, with the help of his Carthaginian allies, should ultimately come under the control of the East. The Great King must have envisaged all this in terms of a vast expansion of the Persian Empire - something that would make even the achievements of Cyrus and Darius appear comparatively minor. Like all great conquerors, what he was, in effect, dreaming of was a change in world-history quite beyond his immediate comprehension. At this far remove in time it is just possible to envisage what a Persian-Carthaginian conquest of all the Mediterranean lands might have brought about - though not what would have ultimately succeeded it. Such speculation is perhaps as fruitless as changing the direction of some famous chess-game with the benefit of hindsight. Xerxes, in any case, had the next immediate move upon his hands - the capture of the Acropolis of Athens. Not until the high point of the city and its shrine were in his hands could he send the couriers back to Susa with the news of his triumph.
The defenders of the Acropolis were a curious mixture: the stewards, or treasurers, of the sanctuary and, in the words of Herodotus, ‘a number of poor men who lacked the means to get themselves to Salamis’. (From one’s knowledge of later wars one may feel assured that the rich had removed their families to safety a long time ago.) Another reason given for some of these poorer and simpler members of society staying behind in the last of their sacred and ancient places was that they believed the words of the Delphic oracle - ‘the wooden wall will not be taken’ - to refer to the out-of-date wooden palisade that surrounded the Acropolis. Certainly, it required some sophistication of thinking to equate the wooden wall with the new Athenian navy, even though this was the interpretation that Themistocles had cared to place upon it. There can be no doubt about the courage of these men who stayed behind on the Acropolis but, unlike Thermopylae, their defence had no tactical, let alone strategic, significance. The Acropolis could be bypassed or starved out; this small precipitous rock had no relevance to the war as such; its value to those who defended it, and to Xerxes who ordered his troops to attack it, was purely symbolic.
The wooden wall which protected part of the Acropolis was on the western side, and it did not take the Persians long to site themselves on the Areopagus rock facing it and open fire on the defences with ‘arrows with burning tow attached to them’. This ‘Wild West’ technique was admirably successful, and it was not long before these inadequate defences were set alight and shown to be as valueless as most oracles - if, of course, the defenders had read the Delphic utterance correctly! Even so, the steepness of the approach proved a deterrent, and Xerxes despatched a group of pro-Persian Athenians to reason with the defenders. These were members of the Peisistratid family who had never given up hope of a return to an aristocratic government of Athens - which meant, of course, by themselves. These collaborators were suitably rebuffed, so an attack was ordered against the smouldering wall. The defence had been prepared for this and had stacked up boulders, and possibly drums from unfinished columns, which they rolled down against the Persians as they toiled up the harsh slope. This was warfare at its most primitive, something for which the Acropolis of Athens, as well as those high points of other cities, had been carefully chosen in ancient days. The Persians were beaten back, ‘and for a long time Xerxes was baffled by his inability to capture the defenders’.
Quite how long a time the defence of the Acropolis caused Xerxes to be delayed is something that has given rise to much debate, principally because Herodotus ceases his time-count upon the occupation of Athens itself and does not resume it until after the battle of Salamis. Eager to get on with the story-telling aspect of his history, he does not bother too much with the missing two or three weeks between Xerxes’ arrival at the city and the fateful battle. It cannot be believed, however, that the defence of the Acropolis, gallant though it was, held up the attackers for more than a few days at the most. The rest of the time, as will be seen, was largely spent by both sides in watching each other like wary boxers circling in a ring, waiting for one party or the other to declare his intentions or make some fatal error.
The fall of the Acropolis, which one may guess (but no more) as having occurred early in the first week of September 480, was swift and sudden. As well as being mountain-men the Persians were long skilled in siege warfare and attacks on supposedly impregnable citadels. Trained soldiers and their commanders made a careful reconnaissance of the rock, looking for a place so apparently unscalable that the limited number of defenders would necessarily have neglected it. Finally they found it ‘in the front part of the Acropolis, but behind the approach to the gates - a point which was left unguarded because it was not believed that any man could climb it’. A special assault group finally made it silently in the dark of the night, coming out on to the Acropolis near the shrine of Aglaurus, and made their way straight for the gates. Once these were opened the waiting Persians burst in and the slaughter of the
Athenians and the plundering and firing of the Acropolis began. Some of the defenders, realising all was lost, threw themselves down to death from the walls, while others made for the sanctuary of Athene. But Athene, guardian and patroness of these mercurial and intractable people of the city that bore her name, was not to be accorded the respect shown to Apollo, Lord of Light. All the people on the Acropolis, including those in the sanctuary, were slaughtered, the temple was stripped of its treasures, and then the whole area was set on fire. Xerxes was at last absolute master of Athens.
He wasted no time in sending the great good news by courier to Artabanus in Susa. His triumph, for the moment at least, must have seemed almost complete and the king’s pleasure was surely increased by being able to tell his uncle Artabanus that he, Xerxes, had confounded the latter’s pessimism. What had the old man said: ‘Your two worst enemies will be the land and the sea’? Well, here the Great King stood, watching the Acropolis go up in flames, having reached Athens in three months, having defeated the so-called unconquerable Spartans at Thermopylae, and having driven the fleet of Athens before him down the Euripus Channel. Artabanus had cautioned him about there being no harbours on all the coast? Yet, here in Phaleron Bay, the principal naval base of the Athenians, his fleet was safely secured. What Xerxes perhaps forgot was the conclusion of the old man’s speech all those months ago, when they had stood together at Abydos: ‘Remember, I beg you, the truth of the old saying, that the end is not always to be seen in the beginning.’ Westwards in Salamis, however, the Greeks saw that great fire in the sky and felt their hearts sink. There would be much debate between them before they could bring themselves to face these conquerors of Athens, the new rulers of Attica and of all northern Greece.
It is significant that the next day Xerxes seems to have been worried by the fact that he had permitted this sacking and desecration of Athens’ temple. Unlike Darius, who was sagely tolerant towards other religions in his great empire, Xerxes had a touch of the fanatic in his nature, as he had shown in his treatment of the polytheism of Egypt. Nevertheless, although he placed his faith firmly in Ahuramazda and the teachings of Zoroaster, he seems to have felt uneasy at the desecration of so ancient a shrine. He was in Europe now, another part of the world altogether from Asia
Minor and the East with which he was familiar. … It might just be possible that in these foreign lands the local gods possessed some kind of power? It would be unwise to give any offence at this crucial stage in his great campaign.
‘[So] on the following day he summoned to his presence the Athenian exiles who were serving with the Persian forces, and ordered them to go up into the Acropolis and offer sacrifice there according to Athenian usage… . The Athenian exiles did as they were bidden.’ Herodotus goes on:
I mention these details for a particular reason: on the Acropolis there is a spot which is sacred to Erechtheus - the ‘earth-born’, and within it is an olive tree and a spring of salt water. According to the local legend they were put there by Poseidon and Athene, when they contended the possession of the land, as tokens of their claims to it. Now this olive was destroyed by fire together with the rest of the sanctuary; nevertheless on the very next day, when the Athenians, who were ordered by the king to offer the sacrifice, went up to that sacred place, they saw that a new shoot eighteen inches long had sprung from the stump. They told the king of this.
(This is a very pleasant instance of the use of hindsight in symbolism while, as Burn has pointed out, the story contains some of the earliest description of the topography of the Acropolis as well as its legends.)
The destruction of the Acropolis naturally caused consternation at Salamis and some of the commanders (not the Athenians, one feels sure) ‘hoisted sail for immediate flight’. During the days that followed there seems to have been incessant debate, and conference after conference between the Greek admirals. Eurybiades, nominally commander-in-chief, who had shown so little wish to engage the Persians earlier from the Artemisium base, was naturally in favour of withdrawal to the Isthmus where the Peloponnesian army was concentrated. Plutarch tells an anecdote which shows how high passions were running:
Themistocles, however, opposed this plan and it was then that he uttered a remark which became famous. Eurybiades had said to him: ‘You know, Themistocles, at the games they thrash anybody who starts before the signal?’ To this Themistocles replied, Yes, but they do not crown anybody who gets left at the post.’ At this point Eurybiades lifted up his staff of office as if to strike him. Themistocles, maintaining his self-possession, said: You can hit me if you like, but still you must listen to me.’
Eurybiades conceded that this was true and the debate continued, with Themistocles naturally doing all that he could to preserve the unity of the fleet in the very place where they were already -Salamis. One commander, growing irritated by Themistocles’ argument, and eager no doubt to see the old original plan of the defence of the Isthmus put into action, sarcastically pointed out that Themistocles had no right to speak at all. He was a man without a city. (It is possible that he waved with the back of his hand towards the smoke that still lifted from the Acropolis.) Themistocles, therefore, was in no position to tell men who still belonged to a city and a state what they should do about the conduct of the war. The latter’s reply was characteristically Churchillian in its fire and vigour:
It is quite true that we have given up our houses and our city walls, because we did not choose to become enslaved for the sake of things that have no life or soul. But what we still possess is the greatest city in all Greece, our 200 ships of war, which are ready to defend you, if you are still willing to be saved by them. But if you run away and betray us, as you did once before, the Greeks will soon hear the news that the Athenians have found for ourselves as free a city and as fine a country as the one they have sacrificed.’
There could be no doubting the menace behind the words. Without the Athenian fleet there could be no possible means of holding the Isthmus or any part of the Peloponnese. Once the Athenian fleet was withdrawn, not only the disciplined core of the Greek navy collapsed but also all co-ordinating authority. Herodotus gives an interesting detail, which is not in Plutarch’s account of this meeting, that Themistocles even went so far as to name the place to which the Athenians would withdraw. This was Siris in the Gulf of Taranto, which Themistocles (somewhat dubiously) claimed had long belonged to Athens. It hardly mattered - he might as well have named ruined Sybaris. Thither, he said, the Athenians with their fleet would withdraw (having presumably collected the women and children from Salamis and Troezen). The scarcely exploited richness of Italy was well enough known to all Greeks, and the Athenian fleet would have encountered practically no opposition in making a landing and establishing a new city in many a suitable place. Vast areas of the Mediterranean were at that time as open to colonisation by the sea-borne Greeks as were America and other lands to the Europeans of later centuries.
Even among the vociferous and volatile Greeks, a great silence must have followed these words.