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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Heroism of Athens during the Persian Invasion
By Herodotus (c. 484–425 B.C.)
 
From ‘The History’: Translation of George Rawlinson

AND here I feel constrained to deliver an opinion which most men I know will mislike, but which, as it seems to me to be true, I am determined not to withhold. Had the Athenians from fear of the approaching danger quitted their country, or had they without quitting it submitted to the power of Xerxes, there would certainly have been no attempt to resist the Persians by sea; in which case the course of events by land would have been the following: Though the Peloponnesians might have carried ever so many breastworks across the Isthmus, yet their allies would have fallen off from the Lacedæmonians, not by voluntary desertion but because town after town must have been taken by the fleet of the barbarians; and so the Lacedæmonians would at last have stood alone, and standing alone, would have displayed prodigies of valor and died nobly. Either they would have done thus, or else, before it came to that extremity, seeing one Greek State after another embrace the cause of the Medes, they would have come to terms with King Xerxes, and thus either way Greece would have been brought under Persia. For I cannot understand of what possible use the walls across the Isthmus could have been, if the King had had the mastery of the sea. If then a man should now say that the Athenians were the saviors of Greece, he would not exceed the truth. For they truly held the scales, and whichever side they espoused must have carried the day. They too it was, who, when they had determined to maintain the freedom of Greece, roused up that portion of the Greek nation which had not gone over to the Medes; and so, next to the gods, they repulsed the invader. Even the terrible oracles which reached them from Delphi, and struck fear into their hearts, failed to persuade them to fly from Greece. They had the courage to remain faithful to their land and await the coming of the foe.  1
  When the Athenians, anxious to consult the oracle, sent their messengers to Delphi, hardly had the envoys completed the customary rites about the sacred precinct and taken their seats inside the sanctuary of the god, when the Pythoness, Aristonica by name, thus prophesied:—
  “Wretches, why sit ye here? Fly, fly to the ends of creation,
Quitting your homes, and the crags which your city crowns with her circlet.
Neither the head nor the body is firm in its place, nor at bottom
Firm the feet, nor the hands, nor resteth the middle uninjured.
All—all ruined and lost, since fire, and impetuous Ares
Speeding along in a Syrian chariot, haste to destroy her.
Not alone shalt thou suffer: full many the towers he will level,
Many the shrines of the gods he will give to a fiery destruction.
Even now they stand with dark sweat horribly dripping,
Trembling and quaking for fear, and lo! from the high roofs trickleth
Black blood, sign prophetic of hard distresses impending.
Get ye away from the temple, and brood on the ills that await ye!”
  2
  When the Athenian messengers heard this reply they were filled with the deepest affliction; whereupon Timon the son of Androbulus, one of the men of most mark among the Delphians, seeing how utterly cast down they were at the gloomy prophecy, advised them to take an olive-branch, and entering the sanctuary again, consult the oracle as suppliants. The Athenians followed this advice, and going in once more, said, “O King, we pray thee reverence these boughs of supplication which we bear in our hands, and deliver to us something more comforting concerning our country. Else we will not leave thy sanctuary, but will stay here till we die.” Upon this the priestess gave them a second answer, which was the following:—
  “Pallas has not been able to soften the lord of Olympus,
Though she has often prayed him, and urged him with excellent counsel.
Yet once more I address thee, in words than adamant firmer.
When the foe shall have taken whatever the limit of Cecrops
Holds within it, and all which divine Cithæron shelters,
Then far-seeing Jove grants this to the prayers of Athene:
Safe shall the wooden wall continue for thee and thy children.
Wait not the tramp of the horse, nor the footmen mightily moving
Over the land, but turn your back to the foe, and retire ye.
Yet shall a day arrive when ye shall meet him in battle.
Holy Salamis, thou shalt destroy the offspring of women,
When men scatter the seed, or when they gather the harvest.”
  3
  This answer seemed, as indeed it was, gentler than the former one; so the envoys wrote it down and went back with it to Athens. When, however, upon their arrival they produced it before the people, and inquiry began to be made into its true meaning, many and various were the interpretations which men put on it; two, more especially, seemed to be directly opposed to one another. Certain of the old men were of opinion that the god meant to tell them the citadel would escape, for this was anciently defended by a palisade; and they supposed that barrier to be the “wooden wall” of the oracle. Others maintained that the fleet was what the god pointed at; and their advice was that nothing should be thought of except the ships, which had best be at once got ready. Still, such as said the “wooden wall” meant the fleet were perplexed by the last two lines of the oracle:—
  “Holy Salamis, thou shalt destroy the offspring of women,
When men scatter the seed, or when they gather the harvest.”
  4
  These words caused great disturbance among those who took the wooden wall to be the ships; since the interpreters understood them to mean that if they made preparations for a sea fight, they would suffer a defeat of Salamis.  5
  Now, there was at Athens a man who had lately made his way into the first rank of citizens; his true name was Themistocles, but he was known more generally as the son of Neocles. This man came forward and said that the interpreters had not explained the oracle altogether aright: “For if,” he argued, “the clause in question had really referred to the Athenians, it would not have been expressed so mildly; the phrase used would have been ‘luckless Salamis’ rather than ‘holy Salamis,’ had those to whom the island belonged been about to perish in its neighborhood. Rightly taken, the response of the god threatened the enemy much more than the Athenians.” He therefore counseled his countrymen to make ready to fight on board their ships, since they were the wooden wall in which the god told them to trust. When Themistocles had thus cleared the matter, the Athenians embraced his view, preferring it to that of the interpreters. The advice of these last had been against engaging in a sea fight: “All the Athenians could do,” they said, “was, without lifting a hand in their defense, to quit Attica and make a settlement in some other country.”  6
  Themistocles had before this given a counsel which prevailed very seasonably. The Athenians, having a large sum of money in their treasury, the produce of the mines at Laureium, were about to share it among the full-grown citizens, who would have received ten drachmas apiece, when Themistocles persuaded them to forbear the distribution and build with the money two hundred ships, to help them in their war against the Æginetans. It was the breaking out of the Æginetan war which was at this time the saving of Greece, for hereby were the Athenians forced to become a maritime power. The new ships were not used for the purpose for which they had been built, but became a help to Greece in her hour of need. And the Athenians had not only these vessels ready before the war, but they likewise set to work to build more; while they determined, in a council which was held after the debate upon the oracle, that according to the advice of the god they would embark their whole force aboard their ships, and with such Greeks as chose to join them, give battle to the barbarian invader. Such, then, were the oracles which had been received by the Athenians.  7
 
 
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