We had trodden on the foot of the lion and for three years, it seemed we had gotten away with it.
Long ago, the Greek people had empires that were the envy of the world. We had colonies in Asia, our special colony was called Ionia. My city-state is Athens, named after the goddess of both wisdom and war, Athena. We have the most sophisticated language of all the Greeks - of all the world. We have the greatest navy of them all. We invented Democracy, a radical form of government in which the people governed themselves. Our art is the first art to depict life. Not just rulers and slaves. Not just wars and victories.
However, our Golden Age was suddenly brought to an end by the Colossus of the East - the Persian Empire.
Some time ago, a man named Cyrus unified the tribes of the East. He plundered through Asia, taking down Babylon, Egypt and Mesopotamia. He conquered Lydia. He even conquered Iona. Our children in Iona were subjugated by the Persians. It is the duty of everyone mother to protect her children. That is why, 19 years ago, when the Ionians called for help, we provided it. Together with the revolutionaries, we burnt down the puppet capital of Ionia, Sardis. We killed Persian commanders and inflicted great grief.
Unfortunately, we couldn't keep up the resistance. After 6 years, we had to retreat. We left with our friends from Eritrea and many other states. We went back home. We had trodden on the foot of the lion and for three years, it seemed we had gotten away with it.
Then came the news. Emperor Darius of Persia was very unhappy with us. We burnt down Persian temples. Now, he wanted to destroy Greek temples. He set sail with a massive fleet and subjugated all who stood against him. He annexed the province of Thrake and turned Makedonia into his vassal state - a slave. He attacked our brothers-in-arms in Eritrea. After a six day seige, the gates were opened. He pillaged and looted the temples and surrounding city. Those who did not die were enslaved.
The Spartan cowards offered no resistance. It seemed the barbarians were unstoppable. That's what we call them, barbarians. When they talk, it sounds like they are saying "Bard bard bard." Only one city-state, one tiny state stood in their path. It seemed there was nothing which could stop them. The world would fall back into the dark ages. Only one thing, however. We were that last city-state.
They wanted to besiege Athens, but one of our generals, Miltiades, was determined they would never come close to reaching it. He suggested that we deploy our hoplites (heavy infantry) in the mountainous region of Marathon, where the Persians were to land. He reasoned that we could win on land, but not behind our walls, where the Persian archers would overwhelm us. I served as one of the ten generals under Miltiades and fought on the landing ground. He was a genius tactician, though a terrible politician. We destroyed the Persians. They had no room to manoeuvre their cavalry. Their arrows were useless. They fled and left Greece, never to return.
But if they are never to return, why don't I feel safe? It's been ten years, and I am now 44. I fear their return, but I've not been able to convince anyone else of it. My people have become complacent. "Calm down, Themistocles," they say, "there's no way the Persians are coming back. Not after what happened to them last time. What a humiliation! They'll never return after that."
That's just the problem! Someone humiliates you and shows you up. Shows you are not invincible and can be beaten. You suffer greatly at their hands. Are you going to leave them alone? Of course not! You want revenge. They will come back and they will come back stronger than ever. Darius died a failure. His son is determined not to suffer the same fate. Darius came to punish us first and subjugate us last. I have no doubt that Xerxes will come with a stronger army, with the point of destroying us once and for all.
We can't let that happen. We can't fall into another dark age. We cannot lose democracy or freedom. We cannot let our culture be lost to the world. Otherwise, there is no telling what might happen. The world is on the verge of reverting to barbarism and savagery. Only problem is, nobody believes me!
"As you all know, eight years ago, the Persian Empire set sail and left a trail of destruction in its wake. Our friend, Eritrea was razed and its people enslaved. They set sail for Athens and landed at Marathon. We stopped them there, 40 kilometres away from Athens. I was among the ten generals to have the honour of serving under Miltiades. The Persians then attempted to sail around and take Athens and we had to march all the way back and prevent their landing. Although we succeeded, it may have been too late. We may have been attacked and conquered. Persian naval supremacy gave them this freedom to move wherever they liked. If we want to prevent another invasion, we need an effective navy to stop them before they come close to our shores. We have discovered new silver deposits. We should use this money to build a fleet of two hundred new triremes." I inform the assembly of the best way to safeguard the future of Athens.
One man close to me is leaning on a marble column. His chiton (tunic) is more decorated than mine, as he is of a higher class. He is a member of the aristocracy and my arch-rival. His name is Aristides. He likes to promote himself as virtuous, honest and incorruptible. We all know that isn't the case, so I haven't a clue why he is still pretending. His friends and followers call him 'the just' that's just a load of rubbish, if you ask me. When I mention investing the money in something other than our pockets, his ears perk up and he suddenly stands up straight, removing his weight from the column.
"My comrade has much to gain from funding the construction of a new fleet," he accuses, "he is being paid by the ship builders to promote their business."
"Really now?" I reply, "It seems like an awful lot of fuss for a few drachmes, doesn't it? Now, how would you propose we spend the money?"
A drachma is a coin of silver with a mass of around 4.3 grammes. There are six obols in a drachma. Drachmes is the plural of drachma.
He folded his arms defensively, "Let the silver be distributed to all Athenian citizens. It may give them some trade leverage when dealing with other city-states."
Time to prove my point and destroy his accusation, "Wouldn't it be easier and indeed more profitable for me to keep the money? It appears you are greedy, not wanting to forfeit a few obols from your pocket. Look, would you rather a less money and freedom or more money that you will have to pay in tax to the Persians - if you survive?"
At this stage, the crowd in the assembly cheered me on.
Aristides was forced to abandon that argument in favour of another. "If the Persians come back, our hoplites will be more than enough to fight them off, there is no need for funding a navy. It's simply too expensive and pointless."
"Not quite. You see, our hoplites can only stop them once they've landed if they cannot be surrounded. In most cases, this is not the case. If not for the mountains, we would have lost at Marathon, we would have been surrounded and cut down. With a navy, however, we can prevent the Persians from even coming close to our shores. We can stop them from landing troops behind us." I argue. He seems finished.
Suddenly, someone calls out from the crowd, "This is nonsense, the Persians will never return, not after the humiliation they suffered last time. You are saying that the Persians, who were defeated and walked back with their tales between their legs would come back only to suffer another defeat? I have no time for this nonsense." With that, he stormed out and so did the large crowd.
Well, that's one opportunity gone. Aristides smirks at me with his arms folded. He walks off with a confident stride. The future of Athens, of the world is in danger. It can be snuffed out by the returning Persians. They will return with a vengeance. Though I can't be sure whether these people really believe the Persians will never come back, or just think it so hopeless when they do that they may as well just give up fighting.
But what if they don't think it's about the Persians? What if there is someone else they are worried about? Who does a Greek hate more than a Persian? The answer, of course, is another Greek. Most people don't fear Persians, but they fear Spartans. Mind you, Sparta is a land power, an army would be pointless. Corinth is also a major naval power whom we hate, perhaps they would appreciate building up against them. No, it has to be someone with whom we are already at war.
I think I my know just the city-state we need. But first, I can't let Aristides stand in my way any longer. Something has to be done about it.
While leaning back in a hard chair, I take a deep sip of wine. I place it on the wooden table and gently stroke my beard as I think.
I'm one of the only people here. Nevertheless, I hear a brief conversation. A familiar man places a few coins on the table and walks on. "I say, old boy," I am addressed, "you seem to be in a bit of a pickle here."
Aristides sits down on the chair opposite me and places his wine on the table. Aristides is starting to grey, for he is six years my elder, and even I am fast approaching old age. "Pardon me?"
"Don't tell me you forgot, old boy," he taunts me, "your bid to increase our navy. Your plan to profit from an old enemy."
"Come now, Aristides, we both know that's a lie," I say.
I splays out his arms, bends them up at the elbow and opens his hands – the gesture of a surrender. The smartarse is trying to play innocent, or dumb. While the latter may be true, the former most certainly isn't. Suddenly, his facial expression changes into a smirk. That seems to be his favoured expression. "Oh, and in case you haven't heard, there is going to be an ostracism today. The people will vote between removing me or you. I hope the common man has a chance against the just."
Of course I know about the ostracism today. I was the one who arranged it. Pity Aristides is too self-absorbed to find out anything. I'm sure he thinks one of his friends called for the ostracism to help him in his quest for political gain.
This could be the biggest gamble of my political career. If I succeed, I will be virtually unopposed; if, on the other hand, I lose, it will be the end of my political career. And you know what that means? Nobody will push for a bigger fleet. Nobody will push for more preparation and defences against the Persian menace. Basically, Athens would be doomed. I shouldn't worry, I can handle this. I'm the man of the people, Aristides is the rich snob, only favoured by aristocrats. There are more peasants than there are aristocrats. Aristides chose the wrong side.
Every so often, Athenian citizens vote to settle disputes between two politicians. On shards of pottery, they inscribe the name of one of the politicians. They do not vote which one they believe to be correct, rather, they vote on whom to exile. They kick out one and give the opposition almost free reign. Today, the people are voting.
Aristides and I stand together. Aristides looks nervous. He shakes my hand sincerely, "Good luck, old boy."
"You too, my friend," I wish him well. Although I need him out, this is not an easy task, neither practically nor emotionally. Although my bitter rival, he is still a friend. We stand together and talk for a while in a casual conversation.
Suddenly, a man walks up to us and pats Aristides on the shoulder. "Excuse me, sir," he says, "I can't read or write. Can you write Aristides on my shard?"
He hands the shard to Aristides and a stylus. Aristides is upset. "Had Aristides wronged you in any way?"
The man shook his head, "No. I don't even know him. I'm just tired of him being called 'the just' all the time."
Aristides took the shard and inscribed 'ΑΡΙΣΤΕΙΔΗΣ' on the shard. He gave it and the stylus back to the man. The man thanked him and patted him on the shoulder once more.
"Well, that was unexpected," I say.
"What was unexpected?"
"You actually wrote your name on it and not mine. You know you could have written mine and he wouldn't have known?" I ask him.
He sighs, "I guess it just never occurred to me. Besides, that'd be wrong."
Maybe he is indeed virtuous and honest. Still, I have to remove him from my path. Finally, we count up and the votes and it is clear that Aristides must go. As I said, he had chosen the wrong side and now he was to pay for it. Maybe, when this is all over, we can bring him back. Maybe.
Time for my victory speech. I announce before a cheering crowd that I have won and Aristides shall be exiled and allowed to live in peace. Finally, I make the announcement, "With the new silver deposits we have uncovered, I believe we should fund the construction of two hundred new triremes to enable us to finish off our long war with Aegina. They cannot threaten our shipping or any of our interests. We shall finally prevail!"
At those words, the crowd cheers again. Even the aristocrats seem to have thrown their full support behind me. I just hope we get them built by the time the Persians come.
A year has passed since Aristides was banished and I began the construction of a new fleet of triremes. Persian envoys have visited all the Greek states, less Athens and Sparta. They made demands for "Earth and Water" or in other words, total surrender. They didn't even give us the option of surrender. They are going to destroy us, they are determined. They hate us for their humiliating defeat at Marathon. As for Sparta, they know their pride will never allow them to submit. What they don't understand is that no Greek shall submit. Over seventy of our city-states refuse their demands. The only ones who are siding with the Persians are those who hate us and Sparta.
We assemble at Corinth to decide the fate of Greece. Athens and Sparta shall stand and fight, regardless of the decision. However, I think it would be better to have as many allies as possible. Especially since Athens cannot stand alone as we cannot fight on both land and sea. We haven't the resources. Whether we like it or not, we need support from everyone.
I speak first to the crowd of delegates. "As you know, the Persians have demanded tribute. There is no doubt they shall return to take it by force if we don't give over our 'Earth and Water'. We can't do that. We can never submit to the Barbarians, less they destroy us. As we know, Sparta has the best land army in Greece, so we shall give them control over the combined army. Athens has the best navy of all the Greeks, so we shall assume control of the combined navy."
I see the Spartan delegate, King Leonidas nodding in approval. While the Spartan army is great, their navy is terrible and their admirals incompetent. If we've convinced our bitter enemies the Spartans, the others should be much easier. Unfortunately, the Spartans are not our only former enemies within the assembly. Corinth is also a naval power and one of our most bitter rivals, as the Corinthian delegate rudely reminds me.
I met with Leonidas beforehand and discussed what we should do. I shock the Corinthian and say "In that case, I believe the Spartans should have total control of both our combined military and navy. They will be the best leaders for a long war."
I lied, of course I did. The Spartans have no idea how to control a navy, which means they won't be able to interfere with the decisions of my admirals.
I can see the conflict in the Corinthian representative's eyes. He is weighing up the situation, trying to figure out not if I can use this to my advantage, but how I all ready did. He reluctantly agrees, "I suppose that wouldn't be a problem. Just... never mind." He then sits down.
"If you're done squabbling over power," Leonidas interrupted, "we need to decide how we are going to defend Greece from the Persians."
I make a suggestion, "The Persian army is crossing over the Hellespont peninsular by a bridge built upon anchored boats. If we can destroy the bridge, they can't cross. We could even try to destroy it with many of them on it. Maybe we could put our hoplites at the other side of the bridge and fight them as they come off. It will be very narrow."
"Yes, that sounds good," said the representative of Thessaly, "stopping them from even landing on our shores, good. Go on."
The Corinthian is pleased, he says "Very well, we shall fight on the Hellespont."
There is a slight problem to the plan, "Well, problem is, we can't reach it. Our navy needs to remain in narrow straits, otherwise, it would be destroyed. We can't move by land unless we can overwhelm the Persian garrison in Thrake. Alexander, King of Macedon, do you think such a thing is possible?"
He shakes his head and it becomes depressingly obvious that we are going to have to fight them off on Greek soil.
A representative from Thessaly stands up. "Here," he says, pointing at a mountainous passage, "the Vale of Tempe is on our borders. It's the gateway to Northern Greece."
Alexander of Macedon shook his head. "Shere suicide," he dismissed the plan, "there are at least two other passages that lead behind your proposed position. The Persian army is massive, like nothing we've ever seen before. We will not be able to fight them like that."
The representative of Thessaly sits down, defeated. I can't help but feel bad for him. He basically surrendered his home to the Persians. I'm pretty sure Thessaly has now been knocked out of the alliance by that misfortune.
Time for an inspirational speech about Marathon and how we can use that to our advantage. I begin, "You all know about the battle of Marathon, exactly ten years ago. We won a resounding victory, but we only won because we could not be surrounded. It doesn't matter how many of them there are and how few of us. What matters is that hoplites can over come any threat head-on. Only head-on. If our formation breaks, we're doomed. Now, Marathon only worked because the Persians landed there. They are coming down from the north now. If they want to reach Athens and the Peloponnese, they will need to funnel themselves through the Thermopylae pass. That is where we shall defend."
The snarky Corinthian made a comment, "I suppose you are going to march Athenian army into the pass and claim all the glory for yourself."
"My dear child," I reply to my younger rival, "while it would be a pleasure to do so, Athens cannot fight both on land and sea. Sparta shall defend Thermopylae, Athens shall defend the Artemisium straits."
The Corinthian extends his hand and waves it around, "Why would you need to defend the straits for? More Athenian glory?"
Idiot. I speak to him slowly, expressing my frustration, "If we don't block the straits, they can land behind the Spartan position and out-flank them."
That seems to make sense to him and he shuts up.
"Only one problem," Leonidas interrupts, "we are celebrating the festival of Carneia. Spartan forces are not allowed to mobilise. However, I will be able to bring my personal bodyguard."
"How many men is that?"
"300," he replies, "so I'm counting on volunteers from other city-states to help us guard the pass. Who else will help?"
Numerous representatives raised their hands.
I tuck my black helmet under my arm. While I might need it for when things get close, right now, I must be able to see as clearly as possible. After a long night of sailing, my ships are positioned in the Artemisium straits, ready to stop and Persian landings.
The Persian fleet approaches. There are many more Persian ships than Greek. Lets hope we can funnel them in. I order my ships to make a circle formation. This way, the Persians cannot surround them and attack them. The Persians aren't ready to attack. That's just as well. We're not attacking either.
Why aren't we attacking? Well, we just need to stop the Persians from landing behind the Spartans. We don't need to destroy the Persian fleet, which, judging from their size, seems impossible. Messengers come and go, bringing news from Thermopylae. The news is good. Three hundred Spartans and around 7000 others have managed to hold the pass, suffering few losses compared to the Persian many.
It's almost night time and I feel like testing the waters, so to speak. I can attack now and see how things go. If things don't go well, we retreat at nightfall. It is not possible to fight in the dark, less crashing into rocks is part of your strategy. It is time to act because the Persians have now sent a fleet of warships around Euboea, they are trying to take us from behind.
At my signal, our ships depart from their circular formation and charge the Persian ships, catching them off-guard. Our bronze-coated battering rams smash through their hulls and incapacitate them, causing many to sink. Another tactic is to pull up our ores and slid by them, scraping their sides (and ours too) and more importantly, smashing their ores and stranding them. They do a great job in blocking the straits. The sun is setting and a storm is raging - it is time to withdraw. We rest for the night, and by the morning, we are reinvigorated and ready to fight.
The news is good. The Persian advance has been halted. They have suffered many casualties, while we had suffered very few. Even better news for the Athenians, the Persian warships that sailed around Euboea were caught in a bad storm and wrecked on the coast. Poseidon, god of the sea is truly on the side of the Greeks.
In this day, the Persians lost around thirty triremes. This is the first time a Greek navy ever stood up to the Persian menace. Even if we lose, it will have a profound impact on the world. After Marathon, the Egyptians started a revolt against Persia. Even if Greece is subjugated, there is no telling how much grief we shall cause the Persians.
The next day, the Persian fleet is silent. It is repairing what ships it can. It faced two storms and Greeks. Most of the day is uneventful, until the sun starts to set. I release the order again and we attack a patrol group, with moderate success. Once again, we did it near night time and were able to withdraw before the Persians could retaliate properly.
The news from Thermopylae is mixed. Our allies were able to hold the pass and massacred the advancing Persians, even the famed (and frankly, over-rated) Immortals. It was a Persian bloodbath. Unfortunately, a traitor from Trachis named Ephialtes informed the Persian King of a route by which he could surround the Thermopylae pass. We knew of this. We stationed around a thousand Phocians to guard the pass. When the Persians came, they retreated to a hill and fortified. The Persians simply walked around them. Idiots. While the rest of the Greeks evacuated the pass, the Spartans and Thespians remained behind as a rear guard. Hopefully, they can allow the Greeks a head start. In the event of an all-out retreat, our men would be vulnerable to Persian cavalry. The soldiers are retreating to the Isthmus of Corinth.
It is now the third day at Salamis. We have received reinforcements from Athens, good. But now the Persians are attacking in full force. We have blocked the straits so it is still a fairly even battle. In the fray, a Persian ship boards my command ship. I don my black helmet, which makes me stand out as the leader (the others have copper-coloured helmets). I take my shield and spear. The Persian marines are very lightly armed and armoured, carrying short spears, javelins, swords and wearing scale armour, if any. I impale one with my spear and kick him away, loosening it. A Persian strikes the shaft of my spear with his sword, taking out but a small chip. I thrust my spear. He's dead.
I see one of my soldiers pushing a Barbarian overboard with his shield. One unlucky bugger lost both his spear and shield and is now fighting with his sword alone. Although Greeks aren't very trained in the sword, they can still be rather deadly. As with this person, who slaughters two Persians. The Persians are driven from my ship and then rammed.
By the end of the day, we suffer roughly equal losses. We cannot afford to keep this up. Then comes news from Thermopylae. The rear guard has been destroyed and the Persians can march through, unopposed. It is time to get out of here before we are trapped.
I climb up a large hill. I am panting by the time I reach the top. It's rather hot here. I can feel my tunic sticking to my body. I am here for one purpose - visiting the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle often gives great advice and you ignore it at your peril. She is often very cryptic, misconstrue it at your peril. The Oracle herself is a woman, blessed with prophetic powers by the god Apollo.
Not long ago, King Leonidas of Sparta visited the Oracle for advice on the Persian threat. They told him, "Either your great and glorious city must be wasted by Persian men,
Or if not that, then the bound of Lacedaemon must mourn a dead king, from Heracles' line." Leonidas believes himself to be a descendant of Heracles, the greatest hero ever known. Funny though, he was a Theban, according to the mythology.
Leonidas interpreted the oracle as saying that either Sparta will be destroyed, or he will die a heroic death. That is part of the reason he was so cooperative. I'm not sure how well the alliance will fare without him.
I reach the oracle, a small marble building. When I enter the room, it is filled with noxious fumes. I find it strange that anyone can survive in here. She probably goes out for breaks and fresh air when nobody is looking. I am sceptical of the oracle myself but my people will trust it. It's a cryptic message, so I can interpret it in which ever way suits me best.
"Oh wise Oracle," I say, "we seek advice. We have lost a battle against the Persians and they are advancing upon Athens. What must be do?"
She utters an incomprehensible series of babbling sounds. People say it is the language of the gods, but I'm pretty sure that it's rubbish. The gods speak Greek. Not the Makedonian or Spartan varieties, but the Attic (Athenian) variety. The gods are Athenians.
A man translates it as "Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail."
A wooden wall? That must mean the walls of the Acropolis. Since time immemorial, the Acropolis has been used as a fortress to keep out invaders. I'm not so sure about how effective a wooden wall will be against Persian fire arrows. They burn down a lot of things, there is nothing to stop them from burning down the Parthenon.
As I disembark, the salty breeze blows through my hair and I begin to think. What if we wet the wood? Would it work? Probably not. They would still be able to scale the wall and we'll be surrounded anyway. Would salty water make a different? I don't think so, ships still catch on fire. Ships. "Eureka!" I cry, startling my captain.
He looks at me, perplexed, "What is it, Themistocles?"
"I know what it means, the wooden wall, I understand!"
"Well," he says "what does it mean?"
I look at him and lean on a wall of the ship, "Wooden wall, what could it possibly be?"
"Walls of the Parthenon?"
"No, what wooden wall do we see right now? What am I leaning on?"
"A wooden wall... OH, I SEE, the wooden wall of a trireme!"
I nod in approval. Then I say, "Look, we just need to evacuate the people of Athens and transport them to the island of Salamis. We can protect them with our navy. Maybe we can lure them into the straits and destroy them."
"Are you sure we can destroy them?" He says "We had enough trouble at Artemisium as it was."
I tap my nose, "Don't worry, I have a plan." Oh, I have a very good plan, built upon all I've learnt from Marathon and Artemisium. It's amazing how similar land and naval combat are. They are different in that instead of separate men fighting, many are controlling one ship. However, they are similar in the you can use factors such as narrow passages to turn greater numbers into a liability. A small force is much easier to keep organised than a larger one. Not to mention, the Persians are incapable of keeping even basic order.
First, I'm going to need to call for the return of all political exiles of Athens, including Aristides - the just. Athens shall win this war, and we shall win it by sea.
We must, however, evacuate Athens, as nobody will remain to defend it.
The Greek city-states have called a council of war. The remaining allies, those who have yet to surrender have fortified the isthmus of Corinth and destroyed the only road that leads to it. They are virtually impenetrable. And since they can't be surrounded, they can supply themselves as much as they like. There is one problem, however - the navy. If the Persians have naval supremacy, they can land troops behind the fortifications and re-enact the Battle of Thermopylae.
I debate with the Corinthian admiral, Adeimantus about the best course of action in the war. Adeimantus believed we should create a blockade to prevent a Persian landing. I, on the other hand, favoured an offensive strategy to ward off the Persians and destroy their fleet as much as possible. The Corinthian objects to this, citing valid concerns about it being dangerous.
"No need to worry, as I have seen at Artemisium, when we get up close, it tends to work in our favour."
He wishes to disagree, but knowing the Athenians will provide the majority of the fleet, he knows they cannot resist. Despite the supposed Spartan naval leadership, everyone knows that I am the one in charge. We agree on defending the narrow straits of Salamis and attempting to lure the Persians into the trap.
Then comes the next part of my plan. Salamis is strategically insignificant and the Persians won't attack without good reason. I send a servant to Xerxes to deliver a message. He tells Xerxes that I am on the side of the Persians and wish to defeat the Peloponnesians. He tells the emperor that the Peloponnesians were planning to evacuate the straits. Now, Xerxes believes that if he wishes to win, all he needs to do is block the straits.
That night, I received word that admiral Ariabignes, brother of Xerxes was leading his ships into the straits.
When they got within in hearing range, I spoke as loudly as I could and every sailor of every ship shouted the same, creating an all mighty roar, "O sons of the Greeks, go, liberate your country, liberate your children, your women, the altars of your ancestral gods and the tombs of your ancestors. Now is the struggle for all things."
Upon hearing this massive rally, the Persian ships began to panic. They tried to withdraw but their great numbers proved a liability and all order collapsed. Our ships advanced in good order and cut-off the Persian retreat. We rammed them. Each of our ships had twenty hoplites on them, making them much heavier and slower than the Persian ones. It did give us a few advantages - we could ram harder and fight better when boarding ships.
We rammed and boarded many of their ships, sinking and capturing them. This time, their superior numbers counted for nothing. Their admiral's ship boards mine. Time for a final battle between the two naval leaders. I place my black helmet on my head and take up my spear and shield. As they board our ship, we scream and shout. The Persians board in silence, a sharp contrast to our shouts.
With my hoplites, I form a shield wall. They board and attempt to smash through it. With our spears, we impale them and with our shields, we throw their corpses overboard. The Persians unleash a hail of arrows. It bounces off our helmets and shields. One unfortunate person is struck by an arrow in the shoulder. He will live - nothing fatal. We are thrown over by a ship ramming ours. Fortunately, it causes minimal damage. Unfortunately, my spear and shield were thrown overboard and the Persians took their opportunity to board. I withdraw my xiphos sword. It is fairly short, only around 60 cm long. I hope it doesn't disadvantage me.
I backpedal as I exchange slashes with who looks to be their admiral. I slash at his legs, he blocks it. I slash at his head, he blocks it. I thrust at his chest and he deflects it. Now he's on the offensive. He lunges at me and slashes at my arm. His curved blade leaves a laceration on my arm. My reflexes are slower than during the battle of Marathon. It's been 10 years and I'm now 44. That being said, Leonidas was about 60 when he was killed in battle. He thrusts into my chest.
My armour is made from many layers of linen glued together. It's cheap and basic, but it's the strongest armour in the Mediterranean. His sword simply bounces off, though I still feel a thump in my stomach. I grin and thrust. He parries and spins, slashing at my shin. Fortunately, it simply bounces off my bronze shin greave. He is beginning to tire and has become noticeably frustrated. He smacks me on my helmet in an obvious attempt to rattle me. It doesn't work. I take advantage of his exhaustion and thrust into his chest.
Persian armour is made of many scales tied together with leather beneath it. It is expensive an ornamental. It can easily block slashes from swords and arrows. However, it is useless against a direct strike from Greek weaponry. My sword pierces straight through him. He coughs and spews blood. I quickly pull my sword out and kick him into the sea below.
I return to my command post and by the end of it, the straits of Salamis are choking with ship wrecks and dead bodies. The Persians have turned and fled. By my estimates, we lost 40 ships, while the Persians lost 200. The final figure shall never be known, nor does it matter. What matters is, with the Persian fleet destroyed and their morale in shatters, the threat to Greece is over.
Now it is time to win the war. We must remember, even though the Peloponnese is safe, Athens is still occupied by the Persians. It will be a long time before Greece is safe.
The Battle of Salamis was a decisive victory. It seems to have struck a nerve on Xerxes. He is afraid. He feared we might burn down the pontoon bridge at the Hellespont and trap him in Greece. I can think of a few things worse than being trapped in Greece – like being trapped in Persia, for example. Xerxes retreated and took most of the army with him, leaving behind his general, Mardonius with a hand-picked army and 1000 immortals.
For a long time, he did nothing. He just stood there, occupying Athens. He wouldn't attack the Corinthian position. Problem is, the Peloponnesians aren't fighting. They're not going to march out and liberate us. They have betrayed us.
When I return home after debating with the generals and urge them to march out and honour the alliance, a messenger from Mardonius approaches me and speaks, "Great Themistocles, Mardonius would like to make peace with you."
I sit down and offer him some wine, which he accepts. I encourage him to continue, "Speak his terms, messenger and I shall send another one, should I accept."
"Mardonius says that in exchange for a truce, he will return Attica to you and the Athenians and shall even help to rebuild. He also asks you to fight the Peloponnesians, who have betrayed you."
"So, you're saying that he wants to be my ally?" I try to clarify.
The messenger nods, "Yes, he wants an alliance with the Athenians."
I stand up and shake his hand, "Go back to Mardonius, tell him that I shall consider his generous offer. Tell him that I shall send another messenger once I've made my decision."
With that, the messenger leaves. This is too perfect.
I confront the leaders of Corinth and Sparta, the two other most powerful nations in the alliance. I walk up to them menacingly, "Well, you'll never believe who just visited me. Anyone fancy a guess."
They respond to me with silence. I carry on, "A messenger on behalf of Mardonius. Anyone know what he wanted? He wanted an alliance. He offered to give back Attica to the Athenians and to help rebuild it. He wanted me to turn on you and fight you."
"Would you," the Spartan speaks up in a grizzled voice, "would you betray us?"
I circle around them and occasionally make eye contact. "Well, it depends," I say, "if you betray us, we shall betray you. Wait, you have betrayed us. Now, we won't turn on you, but we may leave the alliance and take our ships with us."
The Corinthian tries to call my supposed bluff, "You wouldn't."
"Oh, are you so sure?" I goad him, "Athens never expected this betrayal, not from Sparta and Corinth."
"Fine," says the Spartan.
"Pardon?" I respond.
"We shall send men to Platea and liberate Athens. Just keep your fleet involved, otherwise, no deal."
We also agree on a naval battle at Mycale to destroy the Persian fleet. This one will be lead by Athenian generals.
Surely enough, the Battle of Platea is a success and Mardonius is killed in battle. The battle of Mycale is also a decisive victory.
The war is still not over, however. The Persians still occupy the city of Byzantium [modern day Constantinople/İstanbul], Cyprus and Sestos. Twenty years after the Battle of Thermopylae, Athens will be the only Greek state still fighting the Persians. It will invade Egypt and succeed for some time, only to retreat back to Greece. They may loose, but they have glory.
The same cannot be said for me, however. I shall suffer a very different fate, one chosen by the Spartans, Corinthians and my enemies in Athens.
There is an ugly side to Democracy. Ostracism is frequently practised. When people get too powerful, too big, too important and influential, the people can vote to have them removed. War and politics are very similar. In war, as in politics, you can start with nothing, you can be the bottom of the bottom. Through experience and service, you can rise through the ranks and become great. That's where the similarities end. In war, if you serve your nation to the greatest possible ability, you become a general and receive countless honours. If you do the same in politics, you are abandoned, expelled from the nation to which you dedicated your life.
After the war was over and Athens was no longer under threat, I was ostracised. I was accused of treason and my property was confiscated. I had to get out. I couldn't stay in Greece, any city-state would turn me in. With help from friends, I managed to escape to the other side of the Aegean - Persia. I presented myself before their new king, Artaxerxes I and pledged to him my service. He accepted and granted me a year to learn the Persian language and customs. Being the skilled politician that I am, I quickly gained favour within the Emperor's court. I was made the governor of Magnesia and given the revenues of many regions, allowing me to live a life of luxury.
I became the first Greek to go on hunting trips with a Persian Emperor. Artaxerxes appointed me as the advisor for Greek affairs. I can't help but regret leaving Athens and siding with the enemy, but I'm afraid I had no choice. I would either die in Greece or live in Persia. Besides, there was always a chance for a political comeback.
Alas, I am too old. I am now 65 years of age and well past my prime. I still have pride, remembering the old days of Marathon and Salamis. For so long in my life, I was in charge of the navy, the top politician in Athens and the greatest general of all time. With both my genius and my cunning, I united the Greeks and came out at the top. Things came crashing down on me eventually, but now I'm back on my feet, albeit, serving a different nation. Athens is no longer my state, but it I can still see something special in it. Something lacking here in Persia, in Sparta, Corinth and Thebes. Something that would have been lost from the world if Persia won. Persia and the others mentioned are cultured, but only Athens is truly civilised. My actions may seem insignificant, saving a few tiny cities from a giant empire, but I know that Athens will change the world.
Now comes bad news. The Athenian general and son of Miltiades has invaded the province of Egypt. Artaxerxes demands I fulfil promise to deal with the Greeks. I can't bring myself to do it. I do not hate the Athenians for what they have done. Politics is politics. Although Cimon was the one responsible for my demise, I see no sense in fighting him. Regardless, I am too old to fight. I excuse myself to my room.
I am still a Greek. I shall die as a Greek, not a traitor. I take a drink of bull's blood and it kills me.
Thank you for reading my story. I hope you enjoyed it very much. It was a lot of fun writing it. Please favourite and review it, if you wish.
Very few men in history can be considered as important to the fate of western civilisation as Themistocles. It is common consensus that Greece is the birth place of western civilisation – being the cradle of democracy and philosophy. It is also important to note that most of these great developments flourished after the defeat of Persia. Thus, it seems likely that had Greece been defeated, the world would be a very different place.
This story is about standing up to harsh odds when everyone is against you – a giant, your neighbours and many of your people. It is a story that has been immortalised and replayed for generations, all under different contexts. It was replayed when Napoleon ravaged Europe; when Greece fought for its freedom from Ottoman occupation; when the Ottomans fought for their freedom from Greek occupation; and, perhaps most significantly, when the British Empire spoke out against Nazi Germany and paid the price. It is the same story every time, just replayed in different contexts.
With the rise of the Greek individual, human individual and human dignity were invented. A being worthy of
thinking himself one with the gods. When lunacy, thinking itself deity, arrived from the east with the mightiest force the world had until then seen, the tiny Greece raised its head and said:
"I shall not surrender, because I am a free human being. I shall not bow before any ruler, because I alone can rule my own world. I shall not be herded, because all my human siblings are each individuals worthy of equal respect. You may kill me, because you are powerful, but you shall not enslave me, because I cannot be beaten into submission. I submit only to my own mind and convictions. These convictions may be changed by intelligent argument, but not by force."