The Destruction of Athens (Best Stories of Herodotus)

It appears that I went like a month without blogging about Herodotus. I don’t know what I’m coming to. All this reading of 20th century literature! It’s time I got my act together, so here we go:

The last episode of the Greek-Persian Wars à la Waterblogged saw the Persians chased away from Delphi by no less personage than the handsome Apollo himself. (No, I don’t mean the one in Battlestar Galactica. I mean the god of the silver bow.)


But even while his men were fleeing for their lives from Delphi, Xerxes continued his march straight towards Athens with the main body of the Persian army …

The Athenians Evacuate

After the destruction of the army at Thermopylae, the Greek fleet left Artemision and sailed for Salamis. But – finding that the Peloponnesians failed to march north into Boeotia to face the Persians and instead made preparations to fight at the Isthmus of Corinth – the Athenians went home “in order that they might remove out of Attica to a place of safety their children and their wives” (VIII. 40.) Once back in Athens, they “made a proclamation that every one of the Athenians should endeavour to save his children and household as best he could” (VIII.41); and acting upon this, most of the population fled to Troizen, a town across the Saronic Gulf on the Peloponnese, or to the nearby islands of Aegina and Salamis.

A Note on the Margin

This evacuation of Athens is actually a point of some debate among historians.

Herodotus clearly attributes the decision to abandon the city to the fact that the Peloponnesians decided to stay at the Isthmus and defend the Peloponnese only, leaving the rest of Greece – Athens included – to its fate:

“…for in their present case they [the Athenians] meant to take counsel afresh, because they had been deceived in their expectation. For they had thought to find the Peloponnesians in full force waiting for the Barbarians in Boeotia; they found however nothing of this, but they were informed on the contrary that the Peloponnesians were fortifying the Isthmus with a wall, valuing above all things the safety of the Peloponnese and keeping this in guard; and that they were disposed to let all else go.” (VIII. 40.)

There was, however, a stele found in Troizen in 1959, inscribed with a text known as ‘the decree of Themistocles’, the decree to evacuate Athens. Although the text of the decree does not contradict Herodotus as such, it is evident that it was passed before the Battle of Thermopylae and clearly talks about an evacuation to Troizen and Salamis. Some historians therefore interpreted it as proof (or at least indication) that the abandonment of Attica was part of a deliberate strategy to draw the Persians into a naval battle at Salamis… leading to a hot academic debate on both the authencity of the text and its implications.

And as a further note for the note on the margin: one has to wonder about the farmer who used a more than two thousand year old inscribed marble slab as a… doorstep

But back to Herodotus:

Abandoning the city was obviously not an easy decision for a large part of the population, and Herodotus explains how they were persuaded:

VIII. 41. …the Athenians say that a great serpent lives in the temple and guards the Acropolis; and they not only say this, but also they set forth for it monthly offerings, as if it were really there; and the offering consists of a honey-cake. This honey-cake, which before used always to be consumed, was at this time left untouched. When the priestess had signified this, the Athenians left the city much more and with greater eagerness than before, seeing that the goddess also had (as they supposed) left the Acropolis.

Having saved their families and belongings, the Athenians then “sailed to the encampment of the fleet”: Salamis.

Not long after, the Persian army arrived at Athens.

The Persians Enter Athens

Taking Herodotus’ word for it, the Persian record was not really good when it came to conquered cities. By and large, cities and temples burned wherever the Persians passed. And given that one of the main – and publicly avowed – purposes of Xerxes’ expedition was to punish the Athenians, it cannot come as a surprise to anybody that the Persians proceeded in a straightforward fashion to destroy the deserted city…

Until they came to the Acropolis.

51. …And they [the Persians] took the lower city, which was deserted, and then they found that there were still a few Athenians left in the temple, either stewards of the temple or needy persons, who had barred the entrance to the Acropolis with doors and with a palisade of timber and endeavoured to defend themselves against the attacks of the enemy, being men who had not gone out to Salamis partly because of their poverty, and also because they thought that they alone had discovered the meaning of the oracle which the Pythian prophetess had uttered to them, namely that the “bulwark of wood” should be impregnable, and supposed that this was in fact the safe refuge according to the oracle, and not the ships.

In every evacuation of a civilian population, whether to escape war or natural disaster, there always seem to be some people who refuse to leave. Because they are too piss-poor to leave. Or because they know better than everybody else. Or because they’re just plain, terminally stupid. Clearly, the Athenians of two thousand and five hundred years ago were no different.

The Siege of the Acropolis

52. So the Persians taking their post upon the rising ground opposite the Acropolis, which the Athenians call the Hill of Ares, proceeded to besiege them…

With the Athenians having taken refuge behind a wooden palisade, the Persians fired burning arrows, and soon the defenders came “to the extremity of distress and their palisade had played them false”. Nevertheless, they refused to “accept proposals for surrender, when the sons of Peisistratos brought them forward” and continued to fight on:

…and among the rest they rolled down large stones when the Barbarians approached the gates; so that for a long time Xerxes was in a difficulty, not being able to capture them.

But – heroic or simply desperate as the defenders were – the oracle, says Herodotus, “destined that all of Attica which is on the mainland should come to be under the Persians”. (VIII. 53.) In other words, the defenders were doomed to lose the fight.

53. …Thus then it happened that on the front side of the Acropolis behind the gates and the way up to the entrance, in a place where no one was keeping guard, nor would one have supposed that any man could ascend by this way, here men ascended by the temple of Aglauros… although indeed the place is precipitous: and when the Athenians saw that they had ascended up to the Acropolis, some of them threw themselves down from the wall and perished, while others took refuge in the sanctuary of the temple. Then those of the Persians who had ascended went first to the gates, and after opening these they proceeded to kill the suppliants; and when all had been slain by them, they plundered the temple and set fire to the whole of the Acropolis.

But the Sacred Olive-Tree Survives the Fire

55 …there is in this Acropolis a temple of Erechtheus, who is said to have been born of the Earth, and in this there is an olive-tree and a sea, which (according to the story told by the Athenians) Poseidon and Athene, when they contended for the land, set as witnesses of themselves.

The old story about the contest of Athena and Poseidon to claim the city of Athens, to which Herodotus here makes reference is quite well-known, even regularly finding its way into collections of Greek myths for children. No prizes for guessing which god won (the clue is in the name of the city!). Faced with a choice between undrinkable sea water – courtesy of Poseidon – or having an olive-tree, the gift of Athena, the local populace sensibly opted for the second… Obviously, Athena’s olive-tree was thereafter considered sacred. Well, the Erechtheion – the temple dedicated to Erechtheus – was rebuilt on the Acropolis after the Persian invasion, and there’s an olive tree still too… although it’s hardly Athena’s.

'Athena's' olive'tree by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis. Photo by cb_agulto via Flickr.
The olive-tree on the Acropolis. Photo by cb_agulto via Flickr.

Now it happened to this olive-tree to be set on fire with the rest of the temple by the Barbarians; and on the next day after the conflagration those of the Athenians who were commanded by the king to offer sacrifice, saw when they had gone up to the temple that a shoot had run up from the stock of the tree about a cubit in length.

By the time the geographer Pausanias wrote about this (some two hundred years after Herodotus), the olive-tree had grown somewhat:  “Legend also says that when the Persians fired Athens the olive was burnt down, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.”  (The Description of Greece by Pausanias, Book I, Chapter 27, Section 2). This is how legends grow: an extra cubit every second century!

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