As Xerxes' victorious legions triumphantly marched into Attica, panic swept the countryside. An estimated quarter million women, children, and elderly fled the region in one of the largest mass migrations of the ancient world. Themistocles decreed Athens must be abandoned. The entire population of the city and its immediate surroundings, some 100,000 souls, evacuated to the rugged island of Salamis where, as historian Victor Davis Hanson writes: “They were gambling that their own seaman, along with the still unconquered Greek allies from the Peloponnese, could wreck the Persian fleet before they all starved—and before the onset of autumn.” When the Persians made their way into Athens, what few defenders remained, holed up behind the wooden gate of the Acropolis, were slaughtered to a man. Then the Persians systematically destroyed Athens’ temples, shrines, and monuments while sacking the city and setting it ablaze.
Athens no longer existed. It was now but a looted, smoldering ash heap. The shocked citizens of this once proud hub of Attica had been reduced to living out in the open on the hillsides overlooking the Bay of Salamis, the smoking ruins of their razed capital visible in the distance. What now for them? A city that had stood for three centuries was within a matter of one week wiped off the face of the ancient world. How could they remain a people without their city, under whose soil their ancestors rested and where the now-charred Acropolis once stood as a symbol of Athenian prowess? But the people of Athens were still alive, and as Themistocles went from camp to camp he instilled in his people the idea that the Polis of Athens was not buildings, or temples or farms. Rather it was the idea that they were bound by a common heritage, history, culture and belief in the idea of democracy and self-rule. As Themistocles would explain: “It is true we Athenians have given up our houses and city walls, because we did not choose to become enslaved for the sake of things that have no life or soul. But what we still possess is the greatest city in all Greece!” Such an idea that a country, like the United States today, is not a physical place so much as a people united by core values and common understanding, was a powerful argument to keep fighting. So long as there were Athenians, scattered though they were, there was still an Athens.
Having won the prize that eluded his father a decade earlier, Xerxes could bask in this culminating achievement that should have capped off what was one of the most successful invasions in the history of warfare. Indeed, Europe would not see an invasion of such magnitude again until D-Day, over 2,400 years later. Having swallowed up Greek territory and replenishing his army with new conscripts who pledged allegiance to their new master while supplying his invasion force with “earth and water” all that remained was to deal with the retreating Hellenic fleet. Once his navy ruled the Aegean, Xerxes could land on the Peloponnese and bring this last bit of Greek territory under his yolk. It must have seemed to Xerxes, and many Greeks as well, that this war was all but over.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can order his book here: