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The Story of the Greek People by  Eva March Tappan




AND now Xerxes was well on his way. The Thracians knew that he would pass through their country first, and they sent messengers to the council at the Isthmus to say, "Men of Greece, we [107] ought not to be left to die in your defense alone and unassisted. Send us troops to guard the Pass of Tempe, or we shall make terms with the Persians." An army was sent, but when they learned that there was another pass through which the enemy might enter, they abandoned Tempe and returned to the Isthmus.

The stand against the Persians must be made somewhere, but where was the best place? Of course Xerxes would keep as near the sea as possible. They must, then, find a pass near the coast through which he would be obliged to march, and so narrow that only a few of his men could fight at a time. They decided upon Thermopylę because there the mountains jutted out so boldly into the sea that only a narrow roadway was left between them and the water. Here the Greeks took their stand. Leonidas, king of Sparta, was in command. With him were three hundred Spartans whom he had chosen one by one for their courage and patriotism. There were also about six thousand men from different tribes. This was an absurdly small force to send against the hundreds of thousands of Xerxes; but it was the time of the Olympian games and also of a festival in honor of Apollo. As soon as the festival was over, more men would be sent. No one supposed the struggle at Thermopylę would come so soon; and in any case the state that [108] neglected to honor the gods could expect no good fortune in war.

Xerxes would perhaps have put his men on shipboard and landed them below Thermopylę; but four hundred of his warships had just been wrecked in a storm, and the fleet of the Greeks was guarding the strait at Artemisium against the others. If he was to enter Greece, he must pass Thermopylae. This seemed to him a small matter. He had heard that a few men were at the Pass, but he supposed they would soon run away. Indeed, some of them were talking of doing that very thing. "Let us go back to the Isthmus," they urged. "The most we can do is to defend the Peloponnesus." "No," cried Leonidas, "do those of you retreat who wish to retreat; but as for me and my Spartans, we have been sent to guard this Pass, and here we remain."



There was as terrible fighting as the world has ever seen. From morning till night it lasted, and from morning till night of the second day. Then came treachery. A Malian told Xerxes of a footpath leading over the mountains and around the Pass; and just as it was growing dark this traitor led the Persians out of the camp, across the little river, and up the mountain. The Greek guard at the summit could not see them, as the mountain-side was so thickly covered with oak trees; and they knew nothing of the coming of the enemy until in the silence of the early morning they heard the tramping of thousands of feet. The little force could only prepare to die; but the enemy rushed by them eager to surround the Greeks at the Pass.

When Leonidas learned that the path had been discovered, he knew that there was no hope of holding Thermopylę. "Do you return to the Isthmus if you will," he said to his allies, but for me and my Spartans, the laws of our country forbid that we [109] should leave the place that we have been sent to guard." The Thespians, too, refused to retreat. The fighting went on, more furiously if possible than before. The Spartans and the Thespians rushed forward into the very midst of the Persian forces. Men were thrust into the sea, were trampled to death by scores and by hundreds. The spears broke, they fought with swords; the swords gave out, they fought with their teeth, with their fists, with stones, with anything that would strike a blow, until they lay dead, buried under heaps of Persian missiles. At this battle, too, the slain were buried where they fell. In memory of the bravery of Leonidas, a marble lion was reared at the entrance of the Pass. Pillars were set up in honor of the soldiers. Upon one was written:—


"Here did four thousand men from Pelop's land

Against three hundred myriads bravely stand."

Another was in honor of the Spartans alone. Its inscription was,—

"Go, stranger, and to Lacedęmon tell

That here, obeying her behests, we fell."

This was written by Simonides, a poet of Ceos, one of the Cyclades. He could write such strong lines as these, in which every word counts, and he could also write so gracefully and tenderly that his friends used to call him the sweet poet. One of his sayings seemed to people so true that it has been famous through all the centuries since he died. It is: "Poetry is vocal painting, as painting is silent poetry."

While the famous little band of Greeks were doing their best to hold back the Persian forces at Thermopylę, the Greek ships were also at work. They were keeping the Persian fleet from entering the Euripus, the strait that lies between Eubœa and the mainland. The Persians thought it would be a good move to send two hundred of their ships around Eubœa and up the Euripus from the south. "Then we shall have the Greek ships shut into the strait," they said, "and with our great fleet it will be easy to destroy them all." They sent the two hundred ships, but soon a storm wrecked every one of them. For one day, two days, three days, the naval battle went on, the Persians trying to press through the strait at Artemisium, and the Greeks holding them back. Just at evening of the third day there came a swiftly sailing vessel that had been watching affairs at Thermopylę; and now the men on board the Greek ships learned that the Pass was lost, and that the Persians were marching on toward Athens. There was no reason then for guarding the strait; it [111] was far better to sail through the Euripus toward the south. The Greek admiral was a Spartan, but Themistocles commanded the ships of Athens. The winds had fought for the Greeks, and now he meant to make the earth speak for them. Wherever there was a good chance, he sent men to cut on the rocks inscriptions which would be read by the Ionians in Xerxes' army. "Men of Ionia," they said, "come over to our side if possible; if you cannot do this, we pray you stand aloof from the contest, or at least fight backwardly." Themistocles thought that, even if the Ionians did not see these inscriptions, they would surely be read by some of the Persians, and that Xerxes would not venture to use the Ionian aid in the sea-fights. The Greek fleet then sailed around Sunium, the southern point of Attica, and anchored between Athens and the island of Salamis.



The Persians were aiming at Athens, but a little west of their line of march lay Delphi, and there was the temple of Apollo, fairly crowded with treasures. They could not pass that by; so part of the army left the coast and turned to the westward. The Delphians were in despair. "O Apollo," they prayed, "tell us, we beseech thee, what shall we do with thy holy treasures! Shall we bury them in the ground, or carry them away to some other country?" "Fear not," was the reply, "Apollo needs no help to protect his own." Then most of the Delphians departed from the city with the women and children. It was reported by those who remained that the sacred armor of Apollo was moved, but by no man's hands, from the inner shrine and laid in front of the temple. However that may be, there was certainly a terrific thunderstorm. From Mount Parnassus two immense crags split [112] off and rolled down upon the Persian hosts, and by their weight many were crushed. It is no wonder that the barbarians fled in terror from this and the resistance of even the few Delphians, or that in their alarm they told marvelous tales of what had happened to them. "They with whom we fought were not mortal," they declared; "they were armed warriors with stature more than human, who burst upon us and slew some of us."

These men hastened into Bœotia to join the rest of the army and march upon Athens; and Athens was helpless, for the Greeks of the Peloponnesus had quietly abandoned her to her fate and were working night and day to build a high wall across the Isthmus to keep the Persians from attacking their own cities.



Athens had done all that she could to unite the Grecian states. She had planned the council at the Isthmus; she had not asked for control of the army; and although she had many more ships than all the other states, she had allowed the command of the fleet to go into the hands of the Spartans. Now she was abandoned by the rest of Greece. Her only encouragement lay in the one line of the oracle, "Safe shall the wooden walls continue for thee and thy children"; and the citizens could not agree upon the meaning of that. Another line that puzzled them greatly was this: "Holy Salamis, thou shalt destroy the offspring of women." Themistocles insisted that the "offspring of women" meant the [113] Persians. "If it had meant the Greeks," he urged, "the oracle would not have called Salamis 'holy,' but rather 'luckless'; and surely it must mean that at Salamis the Persians will meet some terrible disaster." Whatever the oracle might mean, it was plain that the city could not be saved. Then began a rushing to and fro, a crowding of the women and children into the boats, and a hurrying over the water to safer places. They were hardly out of sight of Athens before the Persians swept down upon it. They overthrew and plundered and burned, till little remained but piles of smoking ruins.

The only hope of the Greeks lay in Salamis and in Themistocles. "We will fight the enemy at the Isthmus," declared the men of the Peloponnesus, "and then if we are defeated, we can retreat to our homes." Themistocles pleaded with them to alter their decision. "We can meet the Persians in the narrow strait at Salamis," he said, "and then it will not matter how many ships they have, for there will be room for them to use only a few. A victory here will defend the Peloponnesus as much as one at the Isthmus; and it is at Salamis that the god has promised us a victory." Here a Corinthian broke in upon him exclaiming, "You are only a man without a city! Show us of what state you are an envoy." Themistocles had kept his temper through other provoking speeches, but now he burst out against his opponents. "No country!" he exclaimed. "I have two hundred ships at my command all ready for battle. What state of Greece can resist me if I choose to make a descent upon it? Be persuaded by my words. If not, we will take our families and make homes for ourselves in Italy. When you have lost us as allies, you will remember what I have said."



The states were beginning to recognize the strength of the [114] Athenians, and had no wish to lose them. They finally voted to meet the Persians at Salamis; but the men of the Peloponnesus still objected. "That is good for the Athenians," they grumbled, "but no gain to us." They succeeded in having another council called, and Themistocles saw that the vote would be changed. He made up his mind to use a trick. He sent to the Persians a faithful slave, who was to say, "An Athenian commander who wishes you well sends you this message: 'The Greeks are divided. Some will oppose you and some will join your side. Now is your chance to win a glorious victory.'" Then he slipped back into the council room. The discussion went on till long after midnight. In the midst of it a message was brought to Themistocles: "There is one without who would speak to you." It was Aristides, returned from banishment, for all those who were banished had been recalled lest they should join the Persians. He was eager to help his rival win glory and honor if only Greece might be saved. "The Persian ships are at the entrance of the strait," he whispered. Themistocles saw that the enemy had fallen into his trap and that now the Greeks would be forced to fight, whether they wished it or not.



In the morning the battle of Salamis began. The line of Greek ships stretched across from Salamis to Attica. Farther south, at the entrance of the strait, lay the Persian vessels. Over on the Attic shore, high up on a hill that overlooked the strait, sat Xerxes on his throne, ready to watch every movement. All day long the battle raged. The Persians had so many ships that they, got into one another's way. They drifted helplessly about with broken oars and rudders gone. The Greeks sank one after another; they chased the enemy out of the strait; they even sailed around the Persian ships and attacked them from the other side. When [115] night came, the Greeks had won the victory. They had won more than a single naval battle, for Xerxes had already started for home, sailing as fast as a ship could carry him, for fear the Greeks should break down the bridges over the Hellespont before his troops could march across it. He was disappointed and tired of the whole undertaking and was quite ready to listen to his general Mardonius. "You have done what you wished," Mardonius declared, "you have punished Athens, and may well return to Persia. Leave me with three hundred thousand men, and I can soon conquer the rest of Greece."

The way that Mardonius set about this conquest was by trying to bribe Athens to join with him. "Xerxes will forgive what is past," he said. "He will build you temples, help you to win lands [116] and leave you free, if you will become our allies." And the Athenians replied, "So long as the sun holds on his way in the heavens, the Athenians will never come to terms with Xerxes." Then Mardonius marched straight to Athens. The land was there and the partially rebuilt houses; but a second time the Athenians had fled from the city; they were all at Salamis.

For some time the states of the Peloponnesus seemed to care for nothing but their own safety; but at last they saw that even to save themselves they must help to oppose Mardonius. They pursued him into Bœotia. Then came a furious battle at Platęa, and Mardonius was slain. What were left of the Persian ships had gone to Samos and were keeping close watch of the Ionian colonies, for it was plain that they meant to free themselves as soon as they were able. The Greek ships were at Delos. To them [117] three men came secretly from Samos. "Come and help the Ionians to become free," they pleaded. "You can easily drive back the barbarians, for their ships are no match for yours. The moment you are in sight, the Ionians will revolt." The Greeks decided to sail for Ionia. They expected a naval battle, but they found it would have to be fought on dry land, for the Persians had drawn their ships up on the beach near Mycale in Ionia and built around them a wall of logs and stones. When the Greeks saw this, they went ashore. The barbarians were soon routed, and the Ionian colonies joined the league of Grecian states. This was the battle of Mycale, and it was fought on the same day as the battle of Platęea. So it was that Greece was freed from the fear of the Persians; for never again did a Persian army set foot on Grecian soil.


Thermopylę was chosen as the place to oppose the Persians, and there a terrible battle took place. The dead were buried where they fell. Simonides wrote the inscription on the pillar raised in honor of the Spartans.

The Greek ships defended the Euripus till Thermopylę was lost. Themistocles left messages on the rocks to the Ionians.

The Persians marched to Delphi, but were driven away by a thunderstorm.

Athens was abandoned by the other Greeks to her fate. The Athenians had to flee from their city, which was burned by the Persians.

After much discussion the Greeks agreed to meet the Persians at Salamis. Themistocles tricked the Persians into making an attack. The Greeks were victorious, and Xerxes started for home.

Mardonius failed to win the Athenians by bribes, and again they were driven from their city.

[118] A fierce battle was fought at Platęa, and Mardonius was slain.

The Persian ships retreated to Samos. At the request of the Samians the Greek ships sailed to Ionia and routed the Persians at Mycale.


Xerxes tells what he expects to do at Thermopylae.

One of Themistocles's men tells about cutting the inscriptions on the rocks.

A Persian soldier describes what happened at Delphi.



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