The Ionian Revolt
At the end of the sixth century the very existence of Athens was threatened by a danger looming in the east. The expansion of the Persian Empire, the superpower of its time, had reached the Aegean shore and absorbed the Greek cities of Ionia. It was not to be expected that the fiercely independent spirit of the Greek city states could be crushed easily, even by such overwhelming force; and in 499 B.C. the Ionian city of Miletos led a concerted revolt against Persian rule. Answering their call for aid, the Athenians sent twenty ships to assist them. Although the rebels burned Sardis, the seat of the Persian satrap, the revolt was soon extinguished at the battle of Lade. In brutal reprisal, Miletos was destroyed, and its entire population massacred or enslaved. The strong identification of the Athenians with the Ionian cause was evident shortly afterwards, when Phrynichos put on his play The Capture of Miletos in Athens. Many in the audience burst into tears. Phrynichos was fined one thousand drachmas and his play banned.
In 492 B.C. the Persian king, Darius, sent an expedition to conquer Thrace and Macedonia which was only withdrawn after much of his fleet was destroyed by a storm while rounding the peninsula of Athos.
The Battle of Marathon
The Aegean Sea, however, was no barrier to the spread of Persian power, for the islands of the archipelago, for the most part lying within sight of each other, invited further expansion. In June 490 Darius sent another force, which sailed from island to island across the Aegean receiving submission and tribute, and reducing any cities which resisted. This expedition was probably designed only to subdue the islands and then to reconnoitre the European shore; but the Athenians, conscious of the assistance they had rendered to rebel Miletos, expected Persian retribution. When, in September, having subdued Euboea, the Persians landed their forces in the Bay of Marathon, the Athenians feared the worst.
It is not known at that time whether the lower city was surrounded by a wall, but no unambiguous trace of one has yet been detected by the archaeologists. The defencelessness of the city has been used to explain why, with only some six hundred Plataean allies, the Athenian citizen army, under the command of the polemarch Kallimachos and the ten generals, numbering perhaps ten thousand men in all, marched out to Marathon.
The Athenians stationed themselves on the lower slopes of the hills above the bay to observe the invaders, having already sent a runner to Sparta to seek assistance. He seems to have had some sort of religious experience while crossing the mountains of Arcadia, which he interpreted as an encounter with the god Pan. When he arrived, the Spartans warmly expressed willingness to come to the aid of the Athenians in principle, but also explained that they. were forced to delay actually setting out to help them on account of a religious holiday they were observing. It seems likely that the Spartans were not unwilling to see the destruction of a potential rival.
The Athenian forces contented themselves with observing the Persians watering their horses at a lake on the north of the plain for several days Then when he saw an opportunity to strike, one of the generals, Miltiades, who had acquired experience of the fighting practices of the Persians in the Straits area, led a surprise attack against the invaders and defeated them. Then the victorious warriors rushed back to defend their city from further attack in case the fleet should land a force at Phaleron, but the reconnoitring ships did not put anyone ashore.
Our knowledge of this battle comes almost entirely from a single source: Herodotus. His Histories was written more than one generation after the events he narrates, and were designed to be read aloud before an Athenian audience, so he was unlikely to present a clinically detached viewpoint. In addition, there are some important respects in which his account is deficient. For example, he writes that King Darius had special ships built to transport cavalry horses, yet in his account of the battle itself, the cavalry plays no part, and he never accounts for their absence. Again, he describes the Persians as defeated at Marathon and fleeing in panic to their ships, yet he inconsistently portrays the Athenians as afraid that, when the fleet rounded Cape Sounion, the Persians might land a force at Phaleron and take the city. He never explains why the Persians, if they intended to take Athens, landed at Marathon, on the wrong side of the peninsula, and stayed there for such a long period. With the overwhelming force he attributes to them, a landing at Phaleron would have been the obvious preliminary to an attack on the city.
There is reason to believe that the expedition may have been over already, as far as the Persians were concerned. They probably landed at Marathon to water and graze their horses at the lake which then occupied the north of the plain, in preparation for the return journey back to Asia Minor. There is some late evidence that most of their forces had already embarked on the ships when Miltiades launched his attack, so that only a fraction of the Persian forces were actually defeated; hence the nervousness of the Athenians that their city was still in danger from the Persian forces after the battle.
Yet despite all these qualifications, Marathon remains one of the most important battles in world history. The Athenians lost only one hundred and ninety-two men, and their 'victory', how- ever insignificant it may have seemed to the Great King in distant Susa, filled the Athenians with a heady sense of their own potential, the results of which were to play a crucial role in the history of the long upward march of the human spirit. Á new self-confidence filled the people of Athens, and this spirit, however insecure its basis, was to have momentous consequences for the history of civilisation.
Themistokles and the Silver Mines of Laurion (Lavrion)
The results were not slow in coming. An awakening of confidence of the citizens in their ability to govern themselves is evident in the new readiness of the people actually to exercise their powers of ostracism against prominent citizens. The first ostracism was voted in 488-7 B.C. It was probably in the next year that the method of choosing the archons by lot was introduced. This was a profound move towards genuine democracy. It destroyed the advantage which the wealthy and well-known necessarily enjoy in elections, and removed a source of corruption. It also indicated that these, and all, offices of state were no longer to be as important as they had been, that ambitious citizens would no longer campaign for their election, and that the boule and ekklesia had taken upon themselves a greater role in the government of the country. The various specific duties of government were generally taken up by boards of officials chosen by lot, who could serve only once. Only the ten generals were elected, and could serve an indefinite number of times.
It was intended to erect a magnificent new temple to Athena, now known as the 'older Parthenon', on the acropolis. Older buildings were demolished and the rubble used to extend the surface area of the citadel. New temples were constructed at Rhamnous and Sounion. The cult of the rural god Pan was introduced into Athens. The sanctuary of Pan in the cave on the northern side of the acropolis was dedicated following the victory of Marathon. An annual torch race and sacrifices were established in honour of the god. Another sanctuary to Pan lay by the Ilissos, near the present church of Ay. Photini, where a carving of the god could still be seen on the rock until recently. In the countryside of Attica he frequently came to share the caves originally sacred to the nymphs.
The first prominent citizen who was to win his position by his ability, and whose origins lay outside the ranks of the old aristocracy, was Themistokles. He saw clearly that the expansion of Persian power had not really been checked, and that the Athenians must prepare for the real threat which would inevitably come.
A stroke of pure luck provided the means to make preparations to beat off an invasion. Á particularly rich vein of silver was discovered in the mines of Laurion. Themistocles knew his fellow citizens well enough to realise that there was no way that he could persuade them to spend this money on building a navy to protect their shores from a distant enemy whose resources and strength they did not yet appreciate. So he took advantage of a long and inconclusive war with the Athenians' nearby rivals, the Aeginetans, to persuade the citizens to use their new wealth to make Athens a great naval power. Á new war fleet of two hundred ships was built; and instead of beaching the ships at Phaleron, as had been the practice, the three natural harbours at Piraeus were developed and fortified. [Read more about the mines of Lavrion, ancient and modern, in 'Attica.]
When it became clear that King Xerxes was planning a campaign to subdue the whole of Thrace, Macedonia and the Greek peninsula, a meeting those states determined to resist met at the Isthmus. The Hellenic League was formed, and the Spartans were accepted as head of this alliance. All wars between its members, including that of Athens with Aegina, were promptly ended.
The Battle of Salamis
The attack, when it came in 480 B.C. was by both land and sea. In an attempt to prevent the Persian army entering the peninsula, a detachment was sent to block the Vale of Tempe. But when the leaders of this force found out that there were other ways into Greece, they returned to the Isthmus. Á second blocking attempt was made at the pass of Thermopylae. Most of those soldiers left when the Persians appeared; and the Spartan rear guard was surrounded and annihilated. As so often happens in wartime, this defeat was transformed by propaganda into a 'moral victory', but one that in no way held up the advance of the Persians. Despite the loss of many of his ships in a storm off Euboeia, and an indecisive engagement with Greek ships at Artemiston, the Thebans and some other states decided to side with the invaders, while the Peloponnesians built a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, leaving Athens defenceless against overwhelming force.
The Delphic oracle had instructed the Athenians to rely on their 'wooden walls'. Themistocles convinced the people that this was a cryptic reference to their ships, and the new navy was employed to evacuate the citizens to the nearby islands of Salamis and Aegina, and the peninsula of Troizen, while the fleet of the Hellenic League, having protected the operation, put into Salamis. Nine days after the engagement at Artemiston, the Persian fleet anchored in the Bay of Phaleron.
When Persians land forces arrived at Athens there were just a few people left behind, described as the Treasurers of the Temple of Athena and a mass of poor people, all barricaded on the acropolis. Because it was thought impregnable, the defenders had left the steep north side of the hill unguarded, and Persian soldiers managed to scale the cliff and the walls. The despairing defenders flung themselves from the battlements or fled into the temples, where they were slaughtered. The lower city and the temples on the acropolis were alike plundered and burned.
Themistokles had to employ all his cunning and duplicity to prevent the Greek fleet from either withdrawing to defend the Peloponnese, protected by its hastily built wall, and abandoning the rest of Greece, or simply breaking up, with the various contingents going their several ways. In secret communications with Xerxes he lured the Persian fleet into the narrow Bay of Salamis after convincing him that the Greek ships would otherwise escape his clutches, and provoked a battle in which the Persian fleet was decisively defeated. In this victory the new Athenian fleet played a key role, although it was agreed at the time that the first prize for valour in the battle really went to the Aeginetans. '
Disgusted, Xerxes went home, leaving his general Mardonius with part of his forces to winter in Greece and complete the subjugation of the region in the next spring. Mardonius, however, was defeated by the combined land forces of the Hellenic League at the battle of Plataea, and on the very same day, the Greek fleet, which had gone onto the offensive, defeated a Persian fleet at Cape Mycale, in Asia Minor. The Greeks of lonia promptly rose in revolt once more, and drove out the Persians, whose power in the Aegean was set to fade from this time onwards.
© John L. Tomkinson