Monday, 21 November 2011

The Goddess Athena takes a hand

In the summer of 480bc a vast Persian army was invading Greece. An attempt by the Greeks to block the advance in the narrow pass at Thermopylae had failed, and Persian Emperor Xerxes led his army south into the lands of Boeotia.

While Xerxes was moving his army forward, gathering supplies from Boeotia and no doubt bringing his supply fleet forward, the Greek League was meeting at Corinth to discuss what to do in the light of the defeat at Thermopylae. The fleet, at the insistence of Themistocles of Athens had sought shelter in the narrow channel between the island of Salamis and the mainland, just southwest of Athens. The army, meanwhile, was somewhere a little north of the Isthmus of Corinth.

The delegates at the League meeting were divided. The Athenians and others from north of the Isthmus wanted to fight the Persians in or near Boeotia. But now that Thermopylae was fallen they could not offer a battlefield that had convincing merits. The Peloponnesians, as before, wanted to hold the line on the narrow Isthmus, but were as before unable to suggest a way of stopping the Persian fleet simply landing troops behind the defensive line.

The result was that a vote was dominated by the Peloponessians. The army would fall back on the Isthmus and begin building a defensive wall or earthwork, while the fleet would move south to try to guard the coast.

The commander of the Peloponnesian army that had been marching north to join Leonidas was none other than Cleombrotus, the younger brother of Leonidas. Receiving his orders, Cleombrotus set about the task of preparing a defensive position with all the thoroughness shown by his elder brother. With some 30,000 men to hand, he had not only enough labour to build a formidable barrier across the Isthmus but also to destroy the roads in front of the Isthmus. Everything was to be done to make the Persian approach as difficult as possible.

In the fleet, the decision of the League meeting caused fresh outbursts of argument. Eurybiades wanted to abandon the secluded waters of Salamis in favour of ports in the Peloponnese. Presumably he thought that if the fleet were stationed there it stood a better chance of driving off a landing by Persian troops. Themistocles, presumably supported by the men of Aegina, wanted the fleet to stay where it was. He knew that neither Athens nor Attica were yet properly evacuated and that the fleet would be needed to guard the refugees as they fled overseas. Although commander, Eurybiades had to bow to the will of his most powerful junior commanders if the fleet were to remain intact. It stayed at Salamis.

In Athens and across Attica the entire population was getting ready to flee. Those who lived too far from the capital to make it to the evacuation ships in time fled to the mountains and hoped the Persians did not stay long. Most however, flooded down to the port to be taken to Aegina or to Salamis, in accordance with the decree agreed some weeks earlier. The merchant ships of the League states were kept constantly busy shipping the mass of terrified humanity to safety.

The process was hurried along by what seemed to be a direct intervention by the goddess Athene herself. A great snake was said to live beneath the temples of the Acropolis, presumably in caverns or crevices, and to come out at night to patrol the sacred precincts of Athene to make sure the place was safe for the goddess. To ensure that the serpent did no harm to humans, such as the priests and priestesses, a piece of honeycake was left out every evening. By dawn it had always gone, consumed it was said by the snake. But now the honeycake was found uneaten at dawn. The High Priestess of Athene made this public, and many took it to mean that the goddess herself had left Athens. The rush to the ships increased dramatically.

from The Battle of Thermopylae by Rupert Matthews

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