Casting Through Ancient Greece

26. The War Continues

March 12, 2021 Mark Selleck Season 1 Episode 26
Casting Through Ancient Greece
26. The War Continues
Show Notes Transcript

The Greeks had just won the battle at Salamis but it wasn’t immediately clear the extent of their victory. The Persian fleet had been mauled and now had some breathing room to withdraw back across the Aegean unhindered. The Greeks expecting the Persians to resume the attack the next day, eventually gave chase but to no avail.

Xerxes and his commanders discussed the best way forward, he still had an intact and undefeated army on Greek soil. Though, political considerations and possible trouble brewing back in the Empire would see him withdraw back home. 

The Persians would still continue the campaign without Xerxes present. His most trusted general Mardonius had been left in command of a picked fore to attempt to subjugate the rest of Hellas. The Persians would fall back into Thessaly for the winter and attempt you break Athens away from the Hellenic alliance.

Athens was now concerned at the inaction by the Peloponnesians who had returned to the Peloponnese behind the now near completed wall across the Isthmus. Though, Athens would reject the terms given which would see their city occupied for a second time in a year. They were once again taking refuge on Salamis and now desperate to get the Peloponnesians to march north. 

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Episode 26

The War Continues

“While Mardonius was selecting his forces and Xerxes was still in Thessaly, the Lacedaemonians received and oracle from Delphi advising them to demand satisfaction for the murder of Leonidas and to accept what ever he gave them. So as quickly as they could, the Spartans sent off a herald who managed to overtake all the forces while they were still in Thessaly. When he came to into the presence of Xerxes, he said to him, King of the Medes, the Lacedaemonians and the Heraklids from Sparta demand satisfaction for murder, because you killed their king as he was trying to protect Hellas. At this point Xerxes burst into laughter, but refrained from answering for quite some time. Then, as Mardonius happened to be standing close by, he pointed at him and said, Well, then, Mardonius here will give them the sort of satisfaction they deserve.” [1]

Herodotus – The Histories 

Hello, Im Mark Selleck and welcome back to Casting Through Ancient Greece, episode 26, The War continues. 


The sun was now starting to set on the 25th of September 480 BC. The waters between Salamis and Attica were littered with the hulks and debris of the destroyed ships that had taken part in the fighting at Salamis. The bodies of many from both sides, floating amongst the wreckage or were washed up on the shores. The Greeks, in control of the straits for the moment would have been trying to recover as many of their fallen comrades as possible. They would have encountered many more bodies of the invader, who we are told, were unable to swim.[2] The Persian fleet had managed to eventually escape the straights and clear the narrow exit, back to the relative safety of the bay at Phaleron. 

The battle of Salamis, that almost didn’t happen had now been fought and won by the Greeks. Though, at this point it wasn’t clear that the battle was over, had a lull occurred after the days fighting and would the Persians resume the offensive. The Greeks had lost forty ships in the engagement,[3] while many more had sustained damage. Back on Salamis the Greeks were attempting to recover and repair as many triremes as possible to prepare for another encounter with the Persian fleet. Although the Persians had seen far more of their ships destroyed, they still had a sizable force that could threaten the Greeks. There is also the possibility that certain contingents were relatively fresh such as the Egyptians depending on how we interpreted their involvement from the sources. Had they remained outside of the straits during the battle, had they sailed to the other entrance of the straits?[4] Or had they been involved in the battle against the Corinthians defending the rear of the Greek position. What ever the case, the Greeks had to prepare, in their eyes that battle had not been won yet, like at Artemisium they may need to engage in multiple battles. Ultimately, how long the engagement at Salamis would go on for would be up to Xerxes. The historian Peter Green also puts forward the idea that the Greeks may have not been aware of the scale of the victory they had won, due to the winds over the night seeing much of the wreckage from the battle blown away from their view by the morning. [5]

Back at Phaleron:   

Back at Phaleron, Xerxes now had a tough decision to make. Should he continue the engagement tomorrow or allow the battle to have run its course? His fleet, although they had performed better than at Artemisium, had still been badly mauled. It is possible that the Persian fleet was much more on parody with the Greeks at this stage.[6] If he continued the fight it was entirely possible that his army would be stranded in Greece without support from a navy if they suffered another day like what they had just experienced at Salamis. Their lines of communication and supply would be severally threatened without a navy securing them. Herodotus also says that Xerxes was extremely concerned with the bridges across the Hellespont that his army had used to cross over into Europe at the beginning of the campaign. He feared that the Greeks would sail off and destroy them cutting the army off in hostile lands with the campaign season coming to a close.[7] We are told that Xerxes had taken the decision privately to not have the Fleet continue the battle, but would instead have them fall back into the Aegean closer to Anatolia and protect their lines of supply closer to home territory.[8] With winter coming on there would be no use for an offensive fleet in enemy waters as the weather would be extremely hostile to any military actions. Being closer to the Empire, the fleet had a much easier task of repairing the damage it had sustained as well as incorporating reinforcements into it. Also the threat of more trouble in Ionia seems to have been a real prospect, having the fleet off the coast would help guard against any new revolt that may develop.[9] Supposedly he had made this decision before calling for a council of war to discus further action. What Herodotus reports here is similar to how he presents Xerxes decision to engage at Salamis before asking others opinions.[10] Though, other preparations would take place around Salamis indicating a resumption of the offensive, but this was all for the benefit of the Greeks and his own troops. For the Greeks this would keep them pinned on Salamis preparing to meet another Persian attack, with them being unable to sail off and harass Persian communication and supply lines. For the Persians, this would have seen morale stay steady with the other troops who had not been part of the fleet, covering over the seriousness of the defeat. Xerxes had ordered that the fleet prepare themselves to make ready to renew the action the next day, repairing the damaged ships. This activity that would have been reported back to the Greeks would have maintained their view that the battle wasn’t over yet. He also had his engineers begin constructing a causeway from the mainland to Salamis which would allow foot troops to cross. With the activity in the Persian camp the Greeks would have to prepare not only for another naval engagement but to also defend Salamis on dry land. 

Xerxes Advisors:

Back when Xerxes had marched into Athens, word had been sent back to Susa with news of its capture. Remembering word would have travelled quickly with the use of the royal messenger service and the royal road, once back in the empire. There had been much rejoicing back in the empire of Athens capture, the city that had dare send a hostile force into their lands and burn down Sardis along with its temples. Herodotus also says that after Salamis another messenger was sent with new of the Persian defeat, bring much distress back in the empire.[11] It is hard to imagine Xerxes sending a messenger back highlighting a defeat, surely if one was sent the news would have put a different spin on the outcome. We see in the inscriptions that survive today of the Persian Empire that they were in the habit of only presenting victories even if they had to present events in a different light. Highlighting a defeat in a distant land while the main army and fleet along with its king were away campaigning would have only encouraged revolts within the empire. It would seem what Herodotus reports here was more for the benefit of his Greek audience.

Although, Xerxes had decided to withdraw from Greece, he now had what we could consider advisors approach him with advice on how to move forward. Mardonius was one of Xerxes generals who had led the first expedition through northern Greek land before being wounded some 15 years earlier when Darius was king and it is thought he fell out of favour after the failed campaign. Mardonius was Xerxes cousin and brother in-law and had come back in favour at the Persian court to where he accompanied the second invasion. We are told that Mardonius was blamed back in the Persian court at Susa for the failure at Salamis.[12] If a message had in fact been sent back, maybe Xerxes had framed it so that the blame would lay at someone else’s feet. Mardonius is supposed to have feared that he would be made a scape goat and was now looking for a way to have the Greek campaign continue.[13] Herodotus frames Mardonius in his histories much like an evil advisor looking out for his own interests and he was looking to become the satrap of Greece once conquered. 

Mardonius now approached Xerxes with his view of what action should now take place in the Greek theatre. Firstly, he urged the king not to take the defeat at Salamis to hard, with his reasoning being that victory over Greece lay with the army, who had yet to be defeated. He assured Xerxes that the army was made up of loyal Persian and Median troops who could be relied upon. While the navy was made up of their subjected populations who the majority had tried to revolt from Persian rule at one time or another, so could hardly be relied upon. Next was the plan forward, here Mardonius had two options in mind, firstly they continue with their original plan of acting the Peloponnese at once. Or if Xerxes had his heart set on leaving Greece, he, Mardonius should be left behind with a picked force to subjugate the rest of Greece and deliver a new region for Xerxes to rule over. With the proposal put forward by Mardonius for Xerxes to consider, the great king now called for a council with his commanders. After listening to his commanders, or most likely telling them of his plans, he is then supposed to have called for Artemisia to attend, as she had provided such sound advice previously, even if it wasn’t followed. On her arrival, Xerxes dismissed the rest of the council so he could confer with her on matters in private. Once again, we see Herodotus giving his beloved Artemisia special treatment in his narrative.[14] Once they were alone Xerxes then asked for her opinion one the proposal that Mardonius had come to him with. Artemisia is meant to have agreed that his suggestion of being left with a picked force while Xerxes returned home would be the best course of action for Xerxes personally. Instead of paraphrasing Artemisias’ reasoning, I will share what Herodotus has her tell the great king. 

“For if he does subjugate this land as he claims he would like to do and thus succeeds in this plan, the success will be yours, my lord, since the conquest will be performed by your slaves. On the other hand, if the outcome is the opposite of what Mardonius thinks will happen, it will be no great misfortune, since you will survive and so will your power in Asia as far as your own house is concerned. And if you and your house survive, the Hellenes will have to run many races for their lives. Besides, if something happens to Mardonius, it is of no great consequence. And even if the Hellenes win, they will not win anything substantial by destroying your slave, while you will march home after you have burned Athens, and thus will have achieved the goal of your expedition.” [15]

Xerxes found this to be excellent advice, not only to how sound and rational it was, but most importantly it mirrored his own exact thoughts on the matter. Xerxes mind was now made up, its not really known how much influence others had on his decision, though the tales Herodotus present add some entertainment to proceedings. It would be almost certain that he would have had military advisors helping sketch out the realities and situation, but for narrative purposes that is not as interesting to report on.

It has also been suggested that the decision to leave behind a force under the command of Mardonius, was to act as a sort of rear guard as the rest of the army withdrew north and back over the Hellespont. This force would ensure that the Greeks or, any other regions now rethinking their loyalty to the Great king, would be kept in place with the threat of an organised army still present in their lands. Also, if Xerxes had really decided that the feasibility of the campaign was now over with the defeat of the navy. To pull completely out of Greece would not look good for Persian prestige and parts of their subjected populations in the west might see it as the right time to revolt from Persian rule. The land army had not been defeated so it seems plausible that the force left behind was to serve as a face-saving exercise, small enough so that keeping it supplied would not prove too difficult, but large enough to pose a real threat in battle. It would appear that the goal of subjugating all of the Greek lands had realistically disappeared from Xerxes mind. He was now more interested in covering over how disastrous the defeat at Salamis really was.   

The Fleet departs:    

The day after the battle of Salamis was mostly taken up with these deliberations at the highest command levels, while the rest of the commanders and crews would have been busy repairing and reading their triremes to be fit for service once again. Now a decision had been arrived at for future operations, Xerxes now ordered for the fleet to prepare to sail out of Phaleron at nightfall so as to not alert the Greeks to their retreat, allowing them to withdraw unhindered. At dawn on the next day the Greeks had prepared themselves to renew the fight in the straits. Across on the mainland they could still see the Persian army in place. Nerves would have once again been tested as they prepared to engage for the second round. Though, at some stage as they prepared to man their ships, word had arrived informing the Greeks that although the Persian army still occupied Attica the fleet had pulled out of Phaleron and was making its way back across the Aegean. With this news the commanders instead of preparing their triremes to sail out into battle formation, they now prepared them to give chase outside of the straits in an attempt to catch up with the retreating enemy. The nerves of the ordinary men would have been replaced with relief with the prospect of battle being delayed. While Themistocles and the other commanders would have been frustrated, if they could have destroyed the Persian fleet it would have made the Persian army’s position in Greece untenable.

The Greeks now gave chase attempting to catch up with the Persian fleets. They had got as far as the Island of Andros, just south of Euboea, but were unable to locate the fleeing Persian fleet. Orders now went out for all of the contingents to put ashore where the commanders could now discuss how to proceed forward. During the council on Andros, Themistocles put forward a plan to continue through the Islands and make their way to the Hellespont where they should then set about destroying the bridges Xerxes had constructed months earlier beginning the campaign. Eurybiades spoke up and put forward an argument against Themistocles proposal. He thought cutting off the Persians path of retreat back home would be a calamity for Greece. He argued that if the Persians were cut off in Greece there would be only one option open to Xerxes. He would have no choice but to keep his army active, capturing and conquering all he could no matter the cost. This would be the only way he could keep his army supplied and fed.[16] Basically Eurybiades thought if they blocked Xerxes into a corner, he would act in a reckless manner that could turn out to be disastrous for the Greece and the rest of Europe with no other options open to him. By leaving the bridges intact, Eurybides argued Xerxes could retreat unhindered, taking a large number of forces out of Greece and where the Greeks could then transfer the war into Asia, away from Greek lands. The other Peloponnesian commanders were in agreeance with assessment, perhaps not very surprising as they would have been very wary of travelling further away from their lands with an army still on their door step. Themistocles had now, for once found himself out manoeuvred and now had the task of convincing his fellow Athenians, who were anxious to make for the bridges across the Hellespont. Their desire to destroy the bridges saw them willing to leave the rest of the fleet if need be. Themistocles used Eurybides argument to attempt to convince his country men to change their course on the matter of the bridges. He also used the divine to explain their current success, addressing the Athenians with;

“Now we’ve had the luck to save ourselves and our country by the repulse of this great force, which seemed, like a cloud, to darken the sea. That force is now in flight – let it go. Indeed it was not we who performed this exploit; it was the gods and the heroes, who were jealous that one man in his godless pride should be king of Asia and Europe too – a man who does not know the difference between sacred and profane, who burns and destroys the statues of the gods, and dared to lash the sea with whips and bind it with fetters. At the moment, all is well with us; so let us stay where we are, in our own country, and look after ourselves and our families. The Persians are gone – flung out, once for all; so repair your houses, every one of you, and attend to the sowing of your land. Let us sail for the Hellespont and Ionia next spring.” [17]

With his arguments put forward the Athenians agreed to follow his advice and give up the chase. Themistocles had thus far proved himself to be a competent and successful leader, the Athenians were not about to doubt him now.

The second delegation to Xerxes:

Herodotus in his Histories now relates a story of Themistocles sending another delegation to Xerxes. If we were willing to take the story of the first, which we related in the last episode, at face value; This time around it may seem this story is coming from a position of hindsight, as Herodotus was fully aware of Themistocles’ future actions, which we will get to in time to come. Supposedly Sinnicus who delivered the message just before the battle of Salamis was also leading tis second delegation.  Although the fleet had fled, Xerxes was still in Attica with his army and this is where the delegation’s’ ship headed for. The delegation arrived on the Attic shore, where Sinnicus then travelled to meet with Xerxes. He presented his message on behalf of Themistocles, telling Xerxes that he had helped look after his interests as he was able to convince the Greeks not to pursue the kings retreating fleet and to leave the bridges across the Hellespont intact. We don’t hear of Xerxes response to the message present before him but even if this message had been sent by Themistocles, it seems very unlikely Xerxes would have acted very favourably to wards the delegation, let alone to Sinnicus himself, since last time he was the mouth piece of Themistocles disinformation. If anything in the eyes of Xerxes this message would have come across as a taunt from the Greeks who had deceived him and were now rubbing salt into the wounds. But, we are told that once Sinnicus delivered his message he was able to return to the ship on the sore he had come across on. [18]

Reparations In the Aegean:

Back on Andros the people of the Island would have welcomed the Greek fleet as it had come ashore, though somewhat nervously. Andros like many of the Islands in the Aegean had medized, providing various forms of assistance to the Persian Empire. Themistocles aware that Athens the polis still needed income to function now sought to extract money from the Islands in the form of guilt money, reparations or protection money. How ever you like to see it. Attica was not bringing in any income through its usual means but bills and men still needed to be paid. This would be the beginnings of what would develop after the Greco-Persian wars and what would later be described as the Athenian Empire. Mixed results were achieved with some handing over the demanded amounts while at Andros a siege developed when the Island refused to pay on account of their poverty and inability to pay. It is unclear how long the Greek fleet remained at Andros, but  time was not on Themistocles side as events would see him abandon the siege only after a short period as news arrived of the Persian land army preparing to withdraw from Attica. Though, how much time elapsed between the departure of the Persian fleet, the Greeks time at Andros and the Persian army marching north comes across a little ambiguous in the ancient accounts. Herodotus talks of the Persian army moving out of Attica only after a couple of days of the fleet’s departure.[19] But if the Greeks did return after learning of the Persian army’s march, it seems unlikely that a couple of days would have been sufficient to collect the reparations they sought and to mount a siege. Perhaps a couple of weeks may be more realistic, allowing the Greek activities in the Aegean to unfold in a more reasonable period of time. While it would have taken some time to arrange the Persian army , being the size it was to prepare to march again.  

Xerxes Marches:

So, perhaps after two weeks of the fleet’s departure from Salamis Xerxes and the Persian army now began their march north following the same path they had taken during the invasion. Mardonius and the forces he would command were also apart of the march north. The close of the campaigning season was fast approaching and suitable lands were needed to support the army during winter. Attica was the furthest extent of the Persian advance, so was in close proximity to hostile regions, while not being fully subjected itself. It was also unlikely that the resources of Attica would be sufficient to support Mardonius army through the winter, especially his cavalry forces. In Thessaly Mardonius would have much better lands for wintering his men and horses, due to the open plains as well as a region that was much more firmly under Persian influence. The supply and communication lines were also shortened some what, travelling through lands that were secularly under Persian control. This would allow Mardonius to stay in the field with his army and renew the offensive once conditions improved. Looking at many modern accounts, estimates for the army he would command seems to be thought to be somewhere around 100,000 strong, including the Greeks allied to the Persians. Though, Herodotus tells us Mardonius’ army was 300,000 strong,[20] but as we have seen the numbers he gives throughout have been consistently inflated. Xerxes then left Mardonius and his army to winter in Thessaly while he set out with the rest of the Persian army back to the empire. We hear that the army Xerxes returned to the Hellespont with was but a shell of itself, as they had suffered from exhaustion and hunger on the return march.[21] The regions had been supporting the Persian invasion since it began while also trying to feed their own people, they could only keep up with demand for so long. Once back at the Hellespont it had been discovered that the bridges connecting the two continents had been destroyed in a large storm doing what the Athenians had wanted to do themselves. But this would not hem Xerxes in Europe, there were enough ships in the region to ferry the remnants of his army back across into the Empire.

With the spread of the news of the Persian defeat at Salamis revolt was a very real threat, through out history after a powers defeat, subjugated peoples have often seen it as a perfect time to attempt to gain their freedom. For the most part the regions and cities subject to Persian rule remained loyal; Xerxes was able to march his army through lands remaining friendly to him. The fleet that had fled Greek waters now lay at the Island of Samos, just off the Anatolian coast. Supposedly this was to guard against the Ionians from trying their luck at another revolt in the face of the Persian defeat.[22] Mardionus though had not remained entirely idle during the winter. A couple Greek cities in the north of Greece had attempted to gain back their independence which had been recently lost during Xerxes invasion. But in the grand scheme of things they didn’t effect his overall position in Greece or present any great threat to his army. 



Athenians Return Home:

With Athens and Attia empty of the Persian army and the siege on Andros a stalemate, the Athenians now made their way back to their homeland. As they set foot for the first time since the Persians sack of their city, the sight would have been gut wrenching. Their homes and farms surrounding the Acropolis and in the country side lay in ruins, burnt to the ground. The once bustling life of Athens itself would have been an eerie ghost town with chard remains just being left behind. Though with how depressing the sight would have been the Athenians almost at once began to rebuild to bring life back to normal. Also undertaken right away was the religious obligation of honouring the gods for their victories. A portion of the spoils of war the Greeks had taken during the battles were dedicated to the appropriate gods for the victories they were granted. Not only would have the Athenians been making these offerings, but all the city states involved would have, or they would risk offending the gods. Once these formalities were out of the way it was now time to honour a man with the prize of valour for who had distinguished themselves most in the war. The Greeks commanders gathered on the Isthmus where they could all cast their votes. Each commander listed two men on their votes, one for first place and one for second place. Their honour saw that they listed themselves as most deserved of the prize, but all had listed Themistocles as second on their votes. Since no decision was arrived at for first place no award could be given. Though, it would have been clear to all where credit should lay and his reputation spread throughout Greece. Jealousy and their own sense of honour had just stopped them from admitting it in front of one another.  

Themistocles reputation that had spread saw him being honoured in Sparta of all places. Their Spartan commander Eurybiades had been awarded the prize for valour but Themistocles who had travelled to their city was also awarded for his role, with his wisdom and cleverness being recognised. He was treated in much the same way as an Olympic victor and had been gifted the finest chariot in Sparta. When he finally departed Sparta, he was given an escort of 300 of Sparta’s finest hoplites to the boarder. In all of their memory no one from outside of Sparta had been honoured in this way before, which would lead to jealousies back in Athens as well as that notion of hubris entering Themistocles life. 

Themistocles fades into the background:

With the Persian army now camped in Thessaly, the Athenians back in Attica and the cooler months setting in, a cold war of sorts developed. The pressure and tension the Peloponnesians were under at the Isthmus of Corinth had been eased to where a geographical buffer once again existed between them and the Persian army. As we have seen the Greek city states had a hard enough time coming together and cooperating when directly facing a common foe. Now with this breathing space the political rivalries within polis’ and the differences between city states were beginning make themselves more pronounced. In Athens, Themistocles now began to loose his political favour that he had earnt over the years leading up to and during the second Persian invasion. During this period he may well have had thought back to his childhood, when his father walking along the beach with him pointed out some discarded decaying ships on the shore line and said to his son, “That, my boy, is just how the Athenian people treat their leaders when they have no further use for them”.[23] As told by Plutarch when dealing with the life of Themistocles. We need to keep in mind that with the Persian invasion all Athenians who had been sent into exile were recalled home and many of them would be from different political factions than that of Themistocles. With the rebuilding of Athens physically and economically, as well as decisions on their police towards Persia still needing attention, rivalries would have been fiercer than ever. 

The conservative elements and farmers in Athens began to dominate political affaires which saw Themistocles begin to fade into the background. The policy of focusing all their efforts on the navy now gave way to the army, the arm the aristocrats and farmers had the most influence in. Though, it is easy to see how this change in policy occurred, as the Persian fleet had been defeated, the only threat the Persians posed now, existed on land. During the elections that took place in Athens of 479 BC Themistocles long time rival, Aristides and his supporters took effective control of the political offices. With that, the influence of the architect of the battle of Salamis evaporated and he would be left with those other ships on the shore line which had passed their usefulness. Perhaps the gifts he received from the Spartans were seen as political bribes. Maybe his hubris played a part, after his successes where he thought he was immune from political scrutiny. Or, simply, the situation on the ground had changed, he represented a policy that had served its purpose and new circumstances were now at hand. Most probably all of these factors played some part in Themistocles departure from centre stage of Athens history, though he wouldn’t be completely absent from the story yet.

The Athenian army was now under the command of Aristides, while Themistocles beloved fleet now passed into the command of Xanthippus, the father of the future statesman and Athenian leader, Pericles. It seems Themistocles wasn’t elected to any official office or none important enough to make the historical record. With this shift in policy Athens now sought to push the Persians from Greek soil. To effectively challenge Mardonius’ army though, they would need to bring back the co operation that had existed the year before with other city states of the league. I use the word co operation very loosely here. The other Greek city state that could provide the largest contingent of hoplites was that of Sparta. But, at the moment they and the other Peloponnesians were very comfortable behind the defensive line on the Isthmus and the buffer that now existed between their position and the Persian army.    

The Peloponnese:   

On the Peloponnese the Spartans and other Hellenic league members had also been active in preparing for the opening of the new campaigning season, though their minds had shifted to a policy of isolation. As spring approached the Island of Aegina had become the base of operations for the Greek navy, maybe a shun at Athens due to the jealousies of their successes at Salamis. The command of the combined Greek fleet now shifted from Eurybiades to the new Spartan king, Leotychideas.[24] Like the previous year the Hellenic league would be commanded by Spartans. The army, although not yet assembled, would now see itself under the command of Pausanius, who himself was not a king, but with the death of Leonidas the new heir to the throne was too young and Pausaionus was acting as regent.[25] The fleet that assembled was but a fraction of what the Greeks sailed with in 480 BC, noticeably missing was the Athenian fleet. With their focus on the army, the navy was of secondary importance. Also, it seems the Athenians were using the fleet that they could muster as a bargaining chip in getting the Peloponnesians to march out of the Peloponnese. With Athens missing, only 110 triremes in all were present from the league members, less than a third of what fought at Salamis.[26] But it seems that most had recognised the land army needed the main focus of effort now. No figures exist for the make up of the fleet but it is assumed that the Athenians still made up the majority of the numbers. The numbers suggest that all of the city states committed far less resources to the navy this time around. Although they had more triremes, the men needed to row and act as Marines were instead sent to the respective armies.  

The Spartans seem to have taken a defensive view, even when the Persians were in Attica, they and the other Peloponnesians were not going to advance beyond the defensive wall on the Isthmus. The argument from Athens about focusing on the Persian fleet focused much on the threat of the Isthmus position being outflanked. The Persian fleet was no longer a threat after its defeat and neither was the army after its withdrawal. They had no interest in taking to offensive operations; the Peloponnese was even more secure than it had been the previous year. To keep the Persians out of the Peloponnese they just needed to occupy their own lands. For the Spartans another consideration always existed in their minds. It would take a great threat for them to send their forces away from Sparta when their ever-restless helots were still at home. No doubt the Athenians with their change in policy had been sending delegations to the Peloponnesians to arrange for a land army to march north. But all throughout the winter and leading into the spring they would have been met with delays and inconclusive talks as the Peloponnesians looked to avoid any commitment beyond their boarders.

Although everyone was either focused on a defensive policy at home or a policy of army operations, the first action by the Greeks was for them to send out their fleet while the Persians were still camped in Thessaly. The fleet though, wasn’t looking for a fight, but appears to have been acting in more of a defensive manner. The Greeks wanted to ensure the Persian fleet would not make its way back into Greek waters to support the Persian army, so the fleet was only sent as far as the Island of Delos where it would act as more of a deterrent than anything else. Though as the campaigning season developed this fleet would take on a more active role. Herodotus tells us that some Ionians were able to convince the fleet to leave Aegina and sail to Delos in a request to assist another revolt in Ionia.[27] We will look at this more when we get to the battle of Mycale.

Persia sends Macedonian delegation to Athens:

As the weeks were becoming warmer, Mardonius was also preparing for a resumption of operations in the spring. So often with the Persians he began by using diplomacy as his first measure before taking any action. No doubt he would have been aware of the rifts and disagreements on strategy taking place between the Greeks. His plan was to attempt to drastically reduce the power of the Hellenic league while bolstering his own. His focus was on trying to have Athens break away and come to their own arrangement with Xerxes. Not only would this effectively make the Greek fleet null and void, but Athens would also be one of the major contributors along with Sparta of Hoplites and other forces for the army. Should they accept the terms, Persia would now also be back in possession of an effective fleet that the Greeks would not be able to respond effectively to. One would imagine that Mardonius would employ the Athenians in much the same manner as the Persians had always treated the Phoenicians and having them devote all their resources and man power to manning the fleet.

Instead of sending a Persian delegation, Mardonius sent King Alexander of Macedon, not the Alexander the Great, but this Alexander would be an ancestor of his. Macedon had submitted to Xerxes and was acting as an ally; also Alexander was related to the Persian court through marriage. Alexander was also a benefactor of Athens and on friendly terms, where Herodotus describes him as looking after and protecting their interests.[28] Which we possibly saw happening at the pass at Tempe during the initial stages of Xerxes invasion where he warned Themistocles of the approach and size of the Persian forces.[29] So, with connection to both parties he seemed like the best conduit for negotiations.

Alexander arrived at Athens with the terms that if not originating with Xerxes would most certainly have been sanctioned by him. For joining Xerxes in a military alliance without any guile of deceit, most certainly a reference to Themistocles’ past interactions with the Persians, Xerxes was prepared to hold no grudge against Athens for their past dealing with Persia. On the tangible side of things he offered the Athenians their own land back and independent governance, while also offering to rebuild their sanctuaries. As well as this the Athenians would also be able to increase the size of their territory with the offer of taking for themselves another land of their choosing. Along with the terms there was much reference to the size and power of the Persian force and how hopeless a cause it was to defy such an army.

From what was reported in Herodotus’ Histories it seems unlikely that the Athenians were entertaining an alliance with the Persians at this stage. Firstly, they were the most eager of all the Greeks to launch an offensive against them. Also, we hear that they had delayed proceedings with Alexander so that the Spartans would have time to get their own messages to Athens to hear the official response by the Athenians, as word of Alexander’s mission would most certainly have it to the Peloponnese. A Spartan delegation most certainly made it to Athens to where they were able to hear the terms being offered to Athens. This is exactly what the Athenians were hoping for, hopefully this would roues the Spartans into action while also showing their devotion to the Greek cause and their loyalty never called into question. After the Spartans had addressed the Athenians and urged them to not accept the terms of the Persians, the Athenians responded to both Alexander, Mardonius’ messenger and the Spartans.[30]

To Alexander, a flat-out refusal to come to any agreement was instantly delivered. 

“As long as the sun continues on the same course as it now travels, we shall never come to an agreement with Xerxes. Trusting in the gods and heroes as our allies, we shall advance against him and defend ourselves.” [31]

This was the message the Athenians told Alexander to report back to Mardonius. To the Spartans the Athenians berated them for thinking they would medize after all they had achieved and suffered at the hands of the Persians. The Athenians sought to represent themselves as the embodiment of what it meant to be free in the Greek world. Though, they added that they understood how the Spartans came to think it to be possible that the Athenians would switch sides. Showing the Spartans, they knew that they needed the Athenians and highlighting their insecurity with the situation while they failed to act. The Athenians then ended with another plea for the Spartans to finally act now that the Athenians had officially refused the terms given by Xerxes and showed their devotion to the defence all of all Hellas. 

“But now, since the situation is as it is, do send out an army as quickly as possible, for it is our conjecture that before long, indeed, as soon as the barbarian hears that we have refused to do as he asked, he will be here invading our land again. And so now, before he reaches Attica, is the time for you to hasten to battle in Boeotia” [32].

Mardonius Marches on Athens: 

With the Athenians decision now clear to all, both delegations departed Athens. Once Alexander returned to Thessaly with the Athenians reply, Mardonius acted just as Athens had suspected. The army was called to stand to and prepare to march back south at once, the campaigning season in Greece had now begun. Mardonius’ army departed Thessaly and entered into Boeotia; the Athenians would have been receiving reports back on the progress of their march. Their eyes were cast to the direction of the Peloponnese hoping that the Spartans and other Peloponnesian cities had taken notice of their last plea for battle. But as the Persians moved into Boeotia no army had yet materialised. The Athenians not strong enough on their own to face the Persians and time running out, now took the decision to evacuate Athens for the second time in a year. Word had been passed all through the city and country side for everyone to collect their belongings and make for Pharleon, where they would be once again taken over to Salamis. One could imagine a higher level of panic and despair setting in as families received the news, the Persians were practically on their door step this time. Not only that but many would have begun rebuilding and getting their lively hoods back up and running, but now they were to abandon them again.

As Mardonius’ army marched through Attica they approached the Acropolis of Athens. Their march had been uneventful, no Greek army stood before them and the villages in the country side had been abandoned apart from those few desperate to protect their belongings and livelihoods. Moving into Athens it was clear to Mardonius that the Athenians had also fled their city. He was to learn that they had once again relocated to the Island of Salamis, without a fleet he wouldn’t be able to attack them directly. But for now, Mardonius took in the glory that he had captured Athens, word would have been sent back to Xerxes of his achievement. Athens had fallen for a second time to the Persian Empire in proceeding seasons. Though, the campaigning season had only just begun.  


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I hope you can join men next time for Episode 27: The Road to Plataea





[1] Herodotus 8.114
[2] Herodotus 8.89
[3] Diodorus 11.19
[4] Diodorus 11.17
[5] Peter Green, The Greco-Persian Wars p201
[6] Herodotus 8.130
[7] Herodotus 8.97
[8] Herodotus 8.130
[9] Herodotus 9.96
[10] Herodotus 8.67
[11] Herodotus 8.98
[12] Herodotus 8.99
[13] Herodotus 8.100
[14] Herodotus 8.101
[15] Herodotus 8.102
[16] Herodotus 8.108
[17] Herodotus 8.109
[18] Herodotus 8.110
[19] Herodotus 8.113
[20] Herodotus 8.113
[21] Herodotus 8.115
[22] Herodotus 8.130
[23] Plutarch’s Lives, Themistocles p148
[24] Herodotus 8.131
[25] Herodotus 9.10
[26] Herodotus 8.131
[27] Herodotus 8.132
[28] Herodotus 8.140
[29] Herodotus 7.173
[30] Herodotus 8.141 - 144
[31] Herodotus 8.143
[32] Herodotus 8.144