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THE WOODEN WALLS
OTHING strikes us more painfully as we read the
history of Greece than the incessant feuds which were
carried on by neighbouring cities, worshipping the same
gods, speaking substantially the same tongue, and so
closely akin in race that their strife was little less
monstrous than civil war. It sounds, therefore,
something like a paradox when a Greek historian,
writing of one of these miserable conflicts, declares,
"this war was the saving of Greece." For all that the
statement is strictly true.
THE VARVAKEION STATUETTE.
Athens and Ægina, separated from each other by some
fifteen miles of sea, had been at feud almost from time
immemorial. Commercial jealousy, and the petty causes
of offence which are sure to occur between neighbours,
are sufficient to account for this enmity, but legend
had preserved or invented some special way of
 It is needless to follow the course of the war. It will
suffice to say that Athens, though probably the
stronger state, had not been able to gain any
substantial advantage over its adversary. It was the
genius of Themistocles, who seems to have had a
singular capacity for discerning the real bearing
of events, and to have foreseen the future with an
almost prophetic instinct, that suggested the means by
which the war was to be brought to a successful end,
and at the same time to become, as the historian
remarks, the salvation of Greece.
To put the matter briefly, Themistocles persuaded his
countrymen to bend all their energies to the
 work of making Athens a great naval power. It is not
difficult to believe that he looked beyond the
immediate occasion. An enemy far more formidable than
Ægina threatened his native country. Persia he knew,
was bound to avenge the insults which it had received,
and to retrieve its defeats. It was making gigantic
preparations for this object, and the only hope of
safety for Athens was to obtain command of the sea.
This secured, the Athenian people might survive, even
though their city, which was then, it will be
remembered, unprotected by walls, might fall into the
hands of the invader. Fortunately the means for
constructing a powerful fleet were ready to his hand.
The city possessed in the silver mines of Laurium
a source of revenue which might be easily employed for
this purpose. The proceeds of the mines had been
frittered away in yearly doles to the citizens.
Themistocles persuaded his countrymen, to devote the
whole, a sum amounting to about £12,000
to the building of a fleet. The immediate
 result was a speedy victory over Ægina; the remoter
gain was the salvation of Greece.
Circumstances had combined to give a long respite to
the Greeks. Nearly ten years had passed since the day
of Marathon, and the storm of Persian vengeance had not
yet broken. Darius had been called away when his
preparations were almost complete, by the revolt of
Egypt; and his death had followed, at a very short
interval, the reduction of Egypt. But his son and
successor had no idea of abandoning the scheme. Indeed,
he was collecting from every part of his vast Empire a
force so vast that the mere report of it would suffice,
he thought, to banish all idea of resistance. This
enormous host, gathered from every tribe between the
Indus and the Bosphorus, was already on its march
westward. In the Greek cities there was no unity of
purpose. Some openly declared their intention to submit
to the barbarians; others, with a selfishness only
equalled by their folly, dreamt of saving their
strength for the defence of their own walls. It was
only a minority that had any idea of a combined
resistance of the common foe, and even in these there
was a feeling of terror which approached almost to
GENERAL VIEW, SHOWING THE PHAEDRIDDES ROCKS AND THE RAVINE OF CASTALIA.
The Athenians, feeling that they would be the first
objects of attack, asked the Delphian oracle what they
should do. Apollo's answer was by no means encouraging.
The envoys had scarcely taken
 their seats within the precinct when the priestess
broke forth into a strain of awful warning.
"Unhappy men why do ye tarry?
Fly, fly to the borders of earth.
From where round your towering stronghold
lies wheel-like the town of your birth!
For the head and the body are sick,
and the feet are all weary and spent,
And their cunning is gone from the hands,
and the loins are all feeble and bent.
They are perished already, so fiercely
the flame runneth on to destroy,
While, driving his Syrian chariot,
the terrible Master, whose joy
Is in battle and death, cometh nearer.
Nor think these will suffer alone;
Full many a wall shall be levelled;
not a stone shall be left on a stone!
And the flame that devours shall encircle
full many a high-pillared fane;
Alas! for their dwellers immortal,
who tremble and sweat in the pain
Of the mastering dread that is on them,
for even to-day do they see
The blood dripping down from the roof-tops,
dread token of doom that shall be;
Go and harden thy heart to the trouble
that comes, is my counsel to thee!"
The terror inspired by these words in the hearts of the
envoys was indescribable. Then came a suggestion of
comfort. One of the most notable citizens
 of Delphi counselled them not to be content with so
hopeless an answer. Let them, he said, approach the god
again, not as enquirers, but as suppliants, and see
whether they could not wring from him some more
It was commonly said that the Delphian god "medized,"
i.e. took the Persian side in the great struggle of
Greece for freedom. And it is beyond doubt that the
council of priests which dictated the answers of the
oracle shared the common belief that the Persian arms
were irresistible. Their great object was to secure the
reputation of their god as a predicter of the truth,
and they put into his mouth a forecast that seemed to
them almost certainly true. At the same time they were
not inaccessible to other influences, and these, we may
be sure, Themistocles did not fail to use. So far the
oracle had said exactly what he wished. Men reduced to
despair, as they had been, would listen eagerly to any
suggestion of hope, and this was now given them, and
exactly in the direction in which the great statesman
had been working for years.
Bearing the tokens of supplication
in their hands the envoys entered the shrine again:
"Lord Apollo," they said, "have regard to these tokens,
and give us some better answer about our fatherland;
verily we will not depart otherwise from thy temple,
 will stay here till we die." Thereupon the priestess
delivered a second oracle. "Pallas," she said, "had
vainly endeavoured to sway the heart of Zeus and save
her city; but she had wrung from him one thing.
"When all things else shall perish
that are found in King Cecrops' land,
Then alone unhurt of the foeman
the walls that are wooden shall stand,
The safety of thee and thy children.
But do not thou think to abide
The host of the footmen and horsemen
as it pours like an incoming tide
Over the land of thy birth, but depart;
yet know that there cometh a day
When those from whom thou art flying
thou shalt meet in the battle array,
And Salamis, Island Divine,
many children of women shall slay."
Here certainly we can see the hand of Themistocles. The
whole scheme of his policy is wrapped up in these
words. The Athenians were to relinquish all idea of
resisting the Persian advance by land; they were to
abandon their city—what an audacious proposal, one
thinks, for a statesman to make to his countrymen!—they
were to trust to their ships, and to make their stand
on the very place which the extraordinary genius of the
man had discerned as the most favourable place for it.
Something, indeed, still remained to be done. The
 oracle had been obtained; it had now to be interpreted
in the sense which Themistocles desired. There were
some who maintained that the "wooden walls" was the
ancient palisading that surrounded the Acropolis or
citadel of Athens, and thus it was in the Acropolis
that the last stand was to be made. When this opinion
was overruled, there remained what seemed a gloomy
prognostic how "Salamis should slay many sons of
women." Might not this be a prophecy that Athens,
risking her all upon her ships, should suffer defeat?
At this point Themistocles himself intervened. "Not
so," he suggested, "if the god had meant to prophesy
disaster he would not have spoken of Salamis as
'divine' but 'wretched' or 'unhappy.'" The argument
was convincing; and the plan of action was determined
upon. The Athenians were to concentrate their whole
fighting force in their fleet; they were to make their
stand behind their "wooden walls."
The earlier events which followed the arrival of the
Persian host may be very briefly summarized. The first
line of defence was forced. The army that garrisoned
the pass of Thermopylæ was compelled to retreat,
leaving behind to a glorious death the famous Three
Hundred from Sparta, and another Seven Hundred from the
Bœotian Thespiæ, less famous but not less noble.
 fleet at Artemisium in Eubœa, which had been intend to
arrest the southward advance of the Persian ships,
after winning two victories at considerable cost, had
also fallen back. Themistocles, who was in command of
the Athenian contingent, which numbered one hundred and
eighty ships out of a total of about three hundred and
seventy, induced the Greeks to make a halt at Salamis.
It was a request which could not be refused, for the
Athenians had resolved to abandon their city and
absolutely wanted the squadron for the removal of the
non-combatants and of so much of their property as it
was possible to save. But the difficulty was to keep
the fleet there. The contingents from the
Peloponnesus—and a Peloponnesian, the Spartan
Eurybiades, was in supreme command—were selfishly bent
on defending their own country. A wall was being built
across the Isthmus with all possible speed; this, it
was hoped, would stop the Persian advance by land; how
the hostile fleet was to be dealt with they do not
appear to have considered. Themistocles, on the other
hand, felt that their departure would be the ruin of
Greece. The fleet would
inevit-  ably break up, each squadron hurrying home to the
defence of its own coast. Accordingly, he spared no
efforts to prevent a step so disastrous. When other
arguments failed, he had to recourse to a threat. "Stay
here," he said to the Spartan admiral, "and you will be
playing the part of a brave man, and will save Greece.
But if you are determined to go, then know what we
shall do. We will put our families on board, and go
just as we are to Siris in Italy; that place is ours,
and it has been prophesied that some day we shall
colonize it. As for you, you will find out before long
what it means to have lost such allies as we are."
Eurybiades could not resist this argument. He was
perfectly aware that without the Athenians the Greek
fleet was helpless, and he gave the order to remain.
This was received with apparent obedience, but the
discontent among the Peloponnesian allies was great.
And when the danger drew nearer, when the army of the
Persians was known to be marching towards the Isthmus,
where the wall was scarcely finished, their fear got
beyond all control. Another council of the admirals was
held; a fierce debate followed, but it was evident to
the Athenian commander that the vote would be against
him, and that Salamis would be abandoned.
 The peril was imminent. The safety of Greece and his
own personal fortunes—which for all his patriotism he
never forgot—were at stake. Under these circumstances
he took a desperate resolution, venturing on an act
which only success, and scarcely success itself, could
justify. He sent to the Persian king by a trusted slave
of his own, Sicinnus by name, a message which was to
have the effect of compelling the Greeks to remain
where they were. It ran thus: "The Athenian commander
sends you this without the knowledge of his allies. He
wishes you well, and would gladly see you victorious
rather than his countrymen. Know, therefore, that they
are overpowered by fear and are meditating flight. You
can therefore now accomplish the best work that you
ever did, if you will hinder their escape."
Xerxes, apparently without any suspicion that this
advice was not sincere, acted on the suggestion, and,
moving the western wing of his fleet, cut off the
retreat of the Greeks.
Themistocles first heard of the success of his advice
from a political enemy. Aristides, the leader of the
aristocratic party at Athens, had been banished at the
instance of his great rival. But this was a time when
all such feuds are forgotten. Aristides came to the
Spartan admiral's ship, where the council was being
held, and standing outside called for Themistocles,
who at once came out to speak to him. "It
 matters not," said the new-comer, "whether there be much
talk or little about the departure of the
Peloponnesians from this place. Depart they cannot,
however much they may wish it. The Persians enclose us
on every side. This I have seen with my own eyes. Go
and tell the news to the council."
"You bring good news," replied Themistocles. "But you
must know that this is of my devising. Our allies would
not fight here of their own free will, and it was
necessary to make them do so, whether they would or no.
Do you now go in and tell them. You they will believe,
while they will think that I am telling them a feigned
Aristides accordingly entered the council. "I have
come," he said, "from Ægina, having with difficulty
escaped the blockading ships. You are entirely enclosed
by the enemy. Make ready therefore to fight."
Many of the captains still doubted, when a new arrival
put the matter beyond all question. A Tenian ship—Tenos
was a little island in the Ægean—which had deserted
from the Persians, came with full intelligence. The
Greeks had to make a virtue of necessity, and prepared
At dawn of day Themistocles—the Athenian gift of
oratory was even then, it would seem,
acknowledged—addressed the assembled men-at-arms from
the fleet. These were soldiers who served on board the
ships, fulfilling much the same functions as our
 marines. Plutarch tells us that there were eighteen in
each ship, so that the total number would amount to
something less than seven thousand.
The speech finished, the men-at-arms embarked again, and
the fleet put out from land. The Persian ships advanced
to engage it, and with an aspect so formidable, it
would seem, that the Greeks began to back water. They
had almost touched the land, when some captain, with
more presence of mind than his companions, set a bolder
example. Who this was was much debated in after days.
Some gave the credi to Ameinias an Athenian, and,
according to Plutarch, a brother of the poet Æschylus.
The Æginetans claimed it for themselves. The ship that
supernatural allies, the heroes of the house of Æacus,
was the first, they said, to show a courage worthy of
Among the other Greeks a legend grew up that the figure
of a woman was seen to hover in the air, crying in a
voice that was heard from end to end of the fleet: "How
long, ye foolish ones, are ye going to back water?"
 The details of the battle that history has preserved
are not particularly clear; but it is beyond doubt that
the Athenians contributed far more than their allies to
the victory. They were matched against the most
formidable part of the Persian fleet—at least as far is
nautical skill was concerned—the Phœnician ships, and
inflicted on them a heavy loss. Next to them, (in the
judgment of some, above them) ranked the men of Ægina.
And, indeed, considering the smallness of the Æginetan
squadron—only thirty ships—it did more conspicuous
service. They were especially active in cutting off
the ships that attempted to escape from the battle.
Probably they could boast a greater number of captives
than any of the allies. Herodotus bears express
testimony to the good order of the two squadrons, old
enemies, it will be remembered, who had gained their
knowledge through many bitter years of mutual loss, and
now turned it against the common foe. These, we learn
from the same source, did not yield without a struggle.
"The Persians," he says, "surpassed themselves." They
were fighting under the eye of the King himself, whose
throne had been set up on a hill on the mainland, that
immediately overlooked the scene of action, and whose
scribes noted down for reward or punishment the names
of the captains who seemed to be doing conspicuously
well or ill. None in the Persian fleet did better than
the Greeks from the
 maritime cities of Asia Minor and the islands that had
submitted to the king. They were opposed to the
Peloponnesian contingent and did them much damage. A
ship from Samothrace is specially mentioned for the
success with which it was managed. It had sunk an
Athenian vessel, and was in its turn attacked and
crippled by an Æginetan. But its crew who happened to
be particularly expert in the use of the javelin,
cleared the deck of the assailant, and then boarded and
captured it. Xerxes was particlarly struck with this
deed, and conceived from it very high opinion of the
skill, the valour, and the fidelity of his Greek
subjects. A less creditable exploit performed by
Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city which
had fallen under Carian sway also attracted his
favourable notice. She was being closely pursued by an
Athenian trireme. Not seeing any hope of escape, she
ordered her ship to be steered against another Carian
vessel, fighting like herself on the Persian side. This
she sent to the bottom with all on board. The Athenian
pursuer, making sure that he had been chasing either
one of his own side, or a deserter from the Persians,
abandoned the pursuit, and the Queen was able to get
clear away from the battle. Xerxes saw what was done,
and enquired the name of the successful combatant. His
attendants were sure that the victorious ship was
Artemisia's, for they recognized her ensign,
 but it occurred to none to doubt that her antagonist
was a Greek. "My men bear themselves like women, my
women like men," was the king's comment.
Whatever successes may have been won by individual
ships in the Persian fleet, the result on the whole was
a disastrous defeat. As a fleet it had almost ceased to
exist. The loss in ships and men was enormous, all the
greater because very few of the crews were able to
swim. The victory was completed by the destruction of
the force which had been landed on the little island of
Psittaleia, lying between Salamis and the coast of
Athens. It had been intended that these troops should
help any of their own men and kill any of the Greeks
who might drift thither in disabled ships. Aristides
landed some heavy-armed Athenian troops on the island,
and slew its occupants to a man. None of the disasters
of the day affected Xerxes more profoundly. Many
Persian nobles, among them three nephews of his own,
perished at that fatal spot.
Athens had saved herself and Greece by her "wooden