See an illustrative video clip here
THE ORACLE AT DELPHI
The Greeks consulted the Oracle at Delphi in fear, hoping for reassurance that they would be saved. The priestess of the Oracle at Delphi was known as the Pythia. The god Apollo spoke through this Oracle, who had to be an older woman of blameless life chosen from among the peasants .
The Oracle was considered infallible in prophesying the future, but the message this time was not encouraging. The battle “would bring death to women’s sons” said the Oracle. Only “the wooden wall” would save the Athenians. The maddeningly enigmatic nature of this verdict created panic amongst the Greeks as the Persians rampaged across Greece, burning, looting and laying waste.
Only Themistocles stayed calm. He argued that the “wooden wall” signified the wooden sides of the fleet of triremes and the Athenians should abandon their homes and wait for deliverance at the forthcoming sea battle at Salamis. This seemed a perilous course and one that demanded a sacrifice from every citizen. They would have to abandon their homes to the enemy.
It was a terrifying situation. The Persian fleet was three times the size of the Greek fleet of triremes, (1,200 Persian warships against 450 triremes) and their land force was gigantic. However, Themistocles had laid his trap carefully and the Athenians trusted him. Bravely they abandoned their homes.
The Greek navy lay in wait near the mouth of the Salamis channel. As bait, Themistocles pretended to be a traitor and fed false intelligence to the Persian commanders, who believed it and immediately sent their warships into the Salamis channel. It was the perfect place for an ambush. When the ungainly Persian warships entered the channel, they were annihilated by the Greek triremes, and suffered a horrible defeat. The Persians lost 200 ships, their navy was broken and the safety of their commander was in doubt. Against the odds, the Greeks had won a stunning victory.
See an illustrative video clip here
Boris Johnson has spoken of the value of the classics in understanding modern politics. For example, in the popular press, as well as in the classics, the same theme is played out again and again: political leaders who let power go to their heads and then pay the price. There are many other parallels, but Greek history is also full of inspirational stories. Over the next few weeks, we will be posting some incidents from Greek history that still have lessons for us today.
THE FIRST MARATHON RUNNER
In 490 BC, Athens was under attack by the Persians, led by King Darius. The world’s first democracy was under threat of extinction. The vastly outnumbered Athenians desperately needed the help of Sparta’s military base to help fend off the attack. With danger imminent, the Athenian generals sent Phidippides, a professional runner, on a two-day 140 mile run over mountainous terrain to Sparta to ask for help.
Phidippides’s brave effort was in vain – the Spartans would not come until the Moon was full, due to their religious laws. Phidippides had to run back to Athens with the terrible news that the Athenians would have to fight alone.
The small Athenian army, vastly outnumbered, with Phidippides, marched to the Plains of Marathon. They launched an amazing surprise offensive thrust, and by the end of the day, 6,400 Persians lay dead on the field while only 192 Athenian soldiers had been killed. The surviving Persians fled, hoping to launch an attack by sea, and Phidippides had to run another 26 miles to carry news of the victory to Athens and warn them of the impending naval threat. He had already fought all day in the battle.
Phidippides pushing himself to the limits of human endurance, reached Athens, delivered his message and died of exhaustion. Sparta came to the aid of Athens and the Persian threat was overthrown. Centuries later, the modern Olympic Games introduced a “marathon” race in memory of the brave Athenian runner who gave his life to deliver his message.