THE BURNING OF ATHENS
AS all their allies were trying only to defend the
Peloponnesus, the Athenians were left entirely alone.
Many of their friends advised them to abandon their
city, and follow the other Greeks southward, leaving
all Attica a prey to the foe.
This the Athenians did not wish to do, so they sent in
haste to Delphi, to inquire of the oracle whether they
had better retreat, or attempt to defend their city. As
was generally the case, the oracle did not give a plain
 answer, but merely said, "The wooden walls will defend
you and your children."
When this answer was brought to Athens, no one could
tell exactly what it meant. Some of the citizens
fancied that the oracle was advising them to retreat
behind the ancient wooden stockade on the Acropolis,
but Themistocles insisted that by "wooden walls" the
oracle meant their ships.
He finally persuaded the Athenians to believe him. All
the old men, women, and children were hastily brought
aboard the ships, and carried to the Peloponnesus,
where they were welcomed by their friends. Then the men
embarked in their turn, and the fleet sailed off to the
Bay of Salamis, where it awaited a good chance to
The Persians swept down into Attica, and entered the
deserted city of Athens. Here they gazed in wonder at
all they saw, and, after robbing the houses, set fire
to the town, and burned down all the most beautiful
The Persians were so delighted at having attained their
purpose, and reduced the proud city to ashes, that they
sent messengers to bear the glad tidings to the Persian
capital. Here the people became almost wild with joy,
and the whole city rang with their cries of triumph for
many a day.
As you will remember, Themistocles had allowed the Spartans
to command both the army and the navy. It was therefore
a Spartan king, Eurybiades, who was head of the
fleet at Salamis. He was a careful man, and was not at
all in favor of attacking the Persians.
Themistocles, on the contrary, felt sure that an
immediate attack, being unexpected, would prove
 and therefore loudly insisted upon it. His persistency
in urging it finally made Eurybiades so angry that he
exclaimed, "Those who begin the race before the signal
is given are publicly scourged!"
Themistocles, however, would not allow even this remark
to annoy him, and calmly answered, "Very true, but
laggards never win a crown!" The reply, which
Eurybiades thought was meant for an insult, so enraged
him that he raised his staff to strike the bold
speaker. At this, the brave Athenian neither drew back
nor flew into a passion: he only cried, "Strike if you
will, but hear me!"
Once more Themistocles explained his reasons for urging
an immediate attack; and his plans were so good, that
Eurybiades, who could but admire his courage, finally
yielded, and gave orders to prepare for battle."