When Things Got Tough

Peter Green

  • Athens Burning: The Persian Invasion of Greece and the Evacuation of Attica by Robert Garland
    Johns Hopkins, 170 pp, £15.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 1 4214 2196 4

In 413 bce, outside Syracuse, the Athenian general Nicias, old and mortally ill, tried to rally the spirits of his defeated troops before their final retreat. A city, he told them, consists of its men, not of its walls or its empty ships. He had in mind their own city of Athens. In 480-79 bce, about a decade before Nicias was born, Athens had been systematically sacked and burned, not once but twice, by Xerxes’ invading Persian army; yet its citizens survived, against apparently insurmountable odds, to inflict crushing defeats on the invaders, first by sea off Salamis, and the following year by land at Plataea in Boeotia. There have been many occasions in recent months, watching grim scenes of other cities being reduced to rubble, to reflect on Nicias’ words. Coventry, Dresden, Warsaw and Hiroshima rose again, phoenix-like, from their ashes; might Aleppo and Mosul, despite all the suffering and destruction, one day recapture some of their former splendour? Such thoughts were very much in my mind while reading Robert Garland’s retelling of Athens’s tribulations during those two fraught years of Persian invasion. It is a story that has been told countless times, but never before has the narrative concentrated primarily on the Athenians’ wholesale evacuation of Attica, considered as a historical and social phenomenon.

The Achaemenid empire of Persia (named after a probably mythic ancestor) was no negligible power. Its founder, in the mid-6th century, was Cyrus II (c.559-30), known, with reason, as Cyrus the Great. Originally a lord of Anshan (a hitherto insignificant piece of cattle country in southwestern Iran) he conquered in quick succession a group of once-dominant powers: first and foremost Media, in what today is northwestern Iran, but also the Neo-Babylonians and the Lydian kingdom at that time ruled by Croesus, which encompassed the Asiatic Greeks. In 521-19 these conquests were extended by Darius I, a warlord and very probably a usurper who – after fighting 19 battles in a single year to consolidate his position – was responsible for the effective organisation of these vast new territories, perhaps over a million square miles in all. By the end of the 6th century the empire consisted of 23 provinces, each under a satrap (a ‘protector of the kingdom’) directly answerable to the Great King in Susa, and connected by a road system that was the envy of all.

Under Croesus and Cyrus the Ionians, on the western maritime fringe of the empire, enjoyed a very easy-going relationship with their Lydian and Persian overlords. As long as they paid their taxes and avoided any kind of anti-governmental activity they were, by and large, left alone. Cyrus very sensibly had a policy of letting his far-flung subjects maintain their own culture, language, religion and laws. Ionians in particular were encouraged to seek advancement in the provincial administration: as local city governors, or tyrannoi, they could keep a watchful eye on the satrap, who watched over them in turn. Both would report to the Great King, who was thus kept unusually well informed.

The arrival of Darius marked a much stricter relationship with the tyrannoi, who found themselves obliged to attend to the demands of their new master regarding tribute, land ownership and military service, rather than, as before, being left to deal with the needs and ambitions of their own citizens. Darius was no fool politically, but his attempts to assert his authority caused considerable resentment among his Greek subjects, to the point where some began seriously to consider the possibility of breaking away from Persian control. They were encouraged in this by the extraordinary example of Athens, which by 508 had not only got rid of its tyrannoi but had enfranchised the common people and brought in a new democratic system of government based on the will of the majority. There were quite a few tyrannoi among the Greeks who thought it might be time to reinvent themselves as popular, if not populist, leaders – revolutionaries by default. Of these the two most notable were Histiaios, the governor of Mîlêtos (a wealthy city on the western coast of Asia Minor), and his cousin and son-in-law Aristagoras.

Between 499 and 494 they were the leading figures in a confused and confusing period of political and military upheaval known as the Ionian Revolt. This misleading name suggests a degree of planned and unified opposition notably lacking in the sole narrative account of it we possess, by Herodotus, which presents the two instigators as little more than local opportunists with strongly pro-Persian backgrounds. In 499 a small force from Athens and Euboean Eretria joined the revolt, advanced fifty miles inland to Sardis (Sart in modern Turkey) and took it. But Sardis, straw-roofed, caught fire and burned down, including a famous temple of Cybêlê; the expedition, heavily outnumbered by incoming Persian troops, fled to Ephesus on the coast and was heavily defeated. The survivors beat an ignominious retreat by sea and took no further part in the revolt.

In any case the entire uprising was doomed to failure, not least because of the inability of its proponents to think beyond their own special interests – a tendency also exhibited by the mainland Greeks during the subsequent Persian invasions. (Though it’s possible that the rebels would have won the final naval battle of Lâdê in 494 had the Samian flotilla not decided – with a few notable exceptions – to desert in mid-conflict). The ultimate, and expensive, failure of the uprising had two long-term consequences. The intellectual and creative glory achieved by the Ionian cities in the late 6th century was over, never to be resurrected. More threateningly, the brief, abortive participation of Athens and Eretria was regarded by Darius as a foreign invasion – the satrapal seat had been burnt down, together with a notable shrine – and he vowed vengeance on the offenders. ‘These ships,’ writes Herodotus of the Athenian fleet, ‘were the beginning of troubles for Hellenes and barbarians alike.’

Darius’ first expedition was wrecked in a storm and abandoned, but the second, in 490, started the business of revenge in earnest. Eretria was sacked and burned, including its sanctuaries, after two noblemen betrayed the city (‘a common practice among aristocrats in the Greek world when things got tough,’ according to Garland, particularly during this period). The Persians then made for Athens, taking with them the tyrant Hippias (ousted by the Athenians in 510), whom they planned to reinstate after their victory. Hippias directed them to Marathon, where there was a good shelving beach for landing cavalry.

The Athenians held an emergency meeting and the statesman Miltiades persuaded them, against considerable opposition, to march out to Marathon and fight the invaders, even though the Persian expeditionary force was more than twice the size of their own and the prospects didn’t look good. In the event, they risked a direct infantry charge unsupported by cavalry or archers, and scored a crushing victory, allegedly losing less than two hundred men out of a hoplite force of some ten thousand, as against the slaughter of six thousand Persians. They then marched back to Athens, battle-stained and weary, to hold off a second landing in Phaleron bay, near modern Piraeus. There are endless questions about the details of what is a singularly ill-documented victory, but a victory, and a great victory, it most certainly was. It showed that a Greek infantryman was better equipped than his Persian opposite and that Darius’ army was, with luck, beatable. The invincibility of the great Achaemenid empire had been challenged, with significant political consequences. Though many continued to throw in their lot with Persia, opposition to the Achaemenids was now a viable proposition (if still at perilously long odds).

‘When the news of the battle that had taken place at Marathon reached Darius, who was already greatly exasperated with the Athenians because of their attack on Sardis,’ Herodotus writes, ‘he reacted with an even more violent display of anger, and was more than ever determined to march against Hellas.’ We may suspect a calculated public display here. The purpose of the Persian expedition had been to inflict what was held to be justified punishment for the arson and sacrilege at Sardis, and these offences were still unavenged. It is very likely though that Darius was already planning further western expansion of his empire, and that retributive action against Athens and Eretria provided a convenient excuse. He now ordered preparations throughout the empire for a major expedition against Greece.

These were well advanced when in 486 they were delayed, first by an Egyptian rebellion, then by the death of Darius himself. He was succeeded by Xerxes, his son by Cyrus’ daughter Atossa, and though Herodotus claims initial reluctance on the new king’s part, it is clear that he had motives in plenty for carrying out his father’s plan: filial duty, demonstration of his own courage as a warrior, the stabilisation and possible expansion of the empire’s frontiers. But first he had to put down the Egyptian revolt, and then a Babylonian uprising in 484. It took three more years before the invasion finally got under way in the spring of 481, reaching Sardis in the autumn. News of its tremendous power travelled fast. Troops had been assembled from all 23 provinces, and their horses drank the rivers dry. A bridge of boats was set across the Hellespont to enable this vast force to enter Europe without embarking. Most of the surrounding states, from Thrace to Macedonia, were either neutral or actively pro-Persian.

The Athenians, aided by a lucky strike in the Laurium silver mines, had made good use of the intervening years. Themistocles, one of the new politicians benefiting from the popular vote, bullied the assembly into backing a crash naval building programme: Laurium silver paid for no fewer than two hundred triremes, great galleys with three rows of oarsmen, at once making Athens the strongest naval power in the Aegean. It also aroused the resentment of the upper classes, since Themistocles’ plan not only avoided the land battles where honour was traditionally achieved, but also, in consequence, required the mass evacuation of Athens and Attica, leaving the estates of the nobility at the mercy of advancing Persian troops, who were soon to demonstrate their ruthlessness by devastating Eretria. But Themistocles was reckoning, correctly, on the votes of workers in the shipyards and the men who would be enlisted as rowers in the fleet. The Athenians consulted the Delphic oracle and were advised to flee for their lives. When they asked for a less bleak forecast, the oracle told them to rely on their ‘wooden wall’, which Themistocles quickly interpreted as his new fleet. Only 31 Greek states, led by Athens and Sparta, met at the Isthmus of Corinth and determined to fight. In the early winter of 481, following Themistocles’ public decree (a much-debated version of which survives) the Athenians began their mass evacuation. It is this story which forms the core of Garland’s narrative, and its vivid immediacy owes much to the unhappy ordeals of refugees today.

The Athenian council and people resolved, the decree tells us, that ‘the city is to be entrusted to Athena, the protector of Athens, and to all the other gods for them to guard and to defend against the barbarian on the country’s behalf.’ Athenians and resident foreigners were told to send their women and children to Troezen (a city with strong ties to Athens, about fifty miles south west of Attica by sea, in the Peloponnese, and so more secure), while the old people and movable goods went to Salamis, and the treasurers and priestesses remained on the Acropolis to protect the gods’ possessions. Men of military age were ordered to man the two hundred triremes now waiting in the harbour. Detailed instructions were given regarding naval organisation: half the fleet was deployed at Artemisium (on the northern tip of the island of Euboea) as an advanced line of defence; the other half off Salamis to guard the Attic coastline. Even ostracised exiles were not forgotten. They were told to go to Salamis till a decision was reached concerning them: clearly an unenforceable provision, though presumably it was taken for granted that they would come home in the crisis.

The evacuation was a major undertaking: it may have affected a civilian population as large as 100,000. ‘No text indicates how the Athenians planned to undertake such a complex operation,’ Garland writes, ‘so we are left to ourselves to work out the details.’ The skill with which he proceeds to do this is one of the best things about his reconstruction. All farming activities ceased, so feeding the evacuees would soon have become an acute problem (to be dealt with as best they could by their host cities). There was also the matter of domestic goods. Valuables, from glassware to coin hoards, were buried in the hope that they would still be there when their owners returned. Wood was expensive: when country dwellers moved to Athens after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war in 431 they took with them not only furniture, but also doors, shutters and window-frames. Chickens were just about manageable, but what happened to the goats and sheep? And how did the evacuees travel – some of them thirty miles or more – to their embarkation point in Phaleron Bay? Most must have gone on foot, with the lucky few riding on mules or in ox-carts, and slaves shouldering their baggage. Like Garland, I was reminded of the long shabby lines streaming out of Paris in 1940 as the Germans approached, few with more than a pitiful bundle of worldly goods.

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How was the evacuation organised? Garland is surely right to argue that arrangements must have been in the hands of local deme governments (though this, I suspect, would have resulted in far greater chaos than he assumes: getting refugees from the most distant rural demes to the coast, and giving them priority on boats when they got there, will have required greater discipline than seems likely). The chances of finding refreshment en route were minimal, and on arrival ‘many must have been exhausted, dehydrated, and footsore’. How did they manage while they waited their turn to board? In makeshift tents is Garland’s guess, presumably with contemporary encampments in mind. But what, in Phaleron Bay, did they do for drinking water? There was no adequate river nearby, and fetching water from wells would have been hazardous. How, too, was human waste dealt with? More than probably it ended up in the sea. There was also the difficulty of separated families. Headed for their different destinations, the elderly, the men of military age, and the women and children all feared they might never see each other again. Half a millennium later, Plutarch imagined the shrieks, tears and embraces as they parted, and the desperate howls of the pet dogs left behind. Worst of all, they had to abandon the tombs of their ancestors to desecration and cut themselves off from their religious rituals.

We do not know how Troezen, or the island of Aigina, or little Salamis in particular, which was also the base for the Athenian naval command, coped with their hugely inflated populations and the imminent possibility of defeat. If the numbers, as seems almost certain, far exceeded available accommodation, did something like modern tent cities develop? Were there serious food shortages? Troezen provided a rare example of generosity, granting the refugees a small daily allowance, supporting them at public expense, letting the children pick ripe fruit anywhere and arranging for their education. But overall the economic, social and environmental strain must have been enormous. There were some, of course, who had ignored the call to evacuate and stayed put, but by late summer in 480, after the defence line of Thermopylae and Artemisium had been abandoned and the Persian advance through mainland Greece was approaching Attica, most of these people too were shipped out.

In September the Persian fleet reached Phaleron Bay, and the smoke and flames rising from the city indicated that Xerxes’ troops were busy exacting retribution for the torching of Sardis. At the Isthmus the Peloponnesians were building an emergency defence wall. Then came the great naval battle of Salamis, which the Athenians and their allies were not even sure they had won till they woke the following morning to discover that what was left of the Persian fleet had sailed for the Hellespont. A day or two later, even more astonishingly, Xerxes and the greater part of his army also began a retreat. The Salamis refugees returned home, to the kind of total devastation with which we are familiar today. Shrines, houses, and – most distressingly – tombs lay in blackened ruins. The corpses of priests and other guardians who had been murdered on the Acropolis remained unburied, amid the scattered chaos of smashed-up statuary. To the huge task of rebuilding was added the urgent need for purification from the miasma, the ritual pollution, caused by the slaughter and desecration. Worse still, it was soon known that a sizable army, including some of Xerxes’ best troops, led by his son-in-law Mardonius, had remained behind to carry on the war.

Mardonius was convinced that he could still win that war at sea, though first he needed a fleet comparable with the Athenians’. They were already known to be at loggerheads with their lukewarm Spartan allies, whose retreat behind the Isthmus wall suggested that they meant to leave the Athenians to fend for themselves. Mardonius sent the king of Macedonia to entreat the Athenians to switch sides. The Athenians realised that threatening to do so might scare the Spartans into agreeing to come north – far beyond their defence wall – and fight the Persians there. They spun out negotiations till this was achieved, and then turned down Mardonius’ offer. (Herodotus, straight-faced, records their high patriotic speeches to both sides.) Furious, the Persians proceeded to march on Athens. The city was hurriedly evacuated and then sacked, for the second time in 18 months. But the Spartans did come north in 479, and a Spartan-led army won the land battle at Plataea, which finally removed any immediate Persian threat from the Greek mainland.

Though the Persian Wars did, almost by default, create a kind of national Hellenic pride, the eternally quarrelsome Greek city-states seemed to learn little from the experience. Athens and Sparta remained deeply distrustful of one another. Themistocles, the brilliant but brusque hero of Salamis, never popular among his peers, was dropped from the board of generals the moment the crisis was over and ended up, ironically, in exile as an official of the Persian regime he had fought and defeated. The Athenians recovered with remarkable speed from their double devastation. They used their new fleet to acquire allies against further Persian attacks, and when these allies chose to pay for protection rather than supply their own ships, they lost no time in turning them into subjects of an Aegean empire not unlike that of the Achaemenids. As 5th-century Athens flourished intellectually and creatively, Sparta’s military regime watched and waited. When the showdown war broke out between them, it lasted almost 30 years and finished Athens as an imperial power. Meanwhile, until Alexander the Great came along, the vast Persian Empire went on very much as before.