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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsAthens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 1 - Book 2 - Chapter 5
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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 1 - Book 2 - Chapter 5 Post by :imported_n/a Category :Nonfictions Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :1134

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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 1 - Book 2 - Chapter 5

VOL I BOOK II CHAPTER V

The Persian Generals enter Europe.--Invasion of Naxos, Carystus, Eretria.--The Athenians Demand the Aid of Sparta.--The Result of their Mission and the Adventure of their Messenger.--The Persians advance to Marathon.--The Plain Described.--Division of Opinion in the Athenian Camp.--The Advice of Miltiades prevails.--The Dream of Hippias.--The Battle of Marathon.


I. On the Cilician coast the Persian armament encamped--thence, in a fleet of six hundred triremes, it sailed to Samos (B. C. 490)--passed through the midst of the clustering Cyclades, and along that part of the Aegaean Sea called "the Icarian," from the legendary fate of the son of Daedalus--invaded Naxos--burnt her town and temples, and sparing the sacred Delos, in which the Median Datis reverenced the traditionary birthplace of two deities analogous to those most honoured in the Persian creed (274)--awed into subjection the various isles, until it arrived at Euboea, divided but by a strait from Attica, and containing the city of the Eretrians. The fleet first assailed Carystus, whose generous citizens refused both to aid against their neighbours, and to give hostages for their conduct. Closely besieged, and their lands wasted, they were compelled, however, to surrender to the Persians. Thence the victorious armament passed to Eretria. The Athenians had sent to the relief of that city the four thousand colonists whom they had established in the island--but fear, jealousy, division, were within the walls. Ruin seemed certain, and a chief of the Eretrians urged the colonists to quit a city which they were unable to save. They complied with the advice, and reached Attica in safety. Eretria, however, withstood a siege of six days; on the seventh the city was betrayed to the barbarians by two of that fatal oligarchical party, who in every Grecian city seem to have considered no enemy so detestable as the majority of their own citizens; the place was pillaged--the temples burnt--the inhabitants enslaved. Here the Persians rested for a few days ere they embarked for Attica.

II. Unsupported and alone, the Athenians were not dismayed. A swift-footed messenger was despatched to Sparta, to implore its prompt assistance. On the day after his departure from Athens, he reached his destination, went straight to the assembled magistrates, and thus addressed them:

"Men of Lacedaemon, the Athenians supplicate your aid; suffer not the most ancient of the Grecian cities to be enslaved by the barbarian. Already Eretria is subjected to their yoke, and all Greece is diminished by the loss of that illustrious city."

The resource the Athenians had so much right to expect failed them. The Spartans, indeed, resolved to assist Athens, but not until assistance would have come too late. They declared that their religion forbade them to commence a march till the moon was at her full, and this was only the ninth day of the month (275). With this unsatisfying reply, the messenger returned to Athens. But, employed in this arduous enterprise--his imagination inflamed by the greatness of the danger--and its workings yet more kindled by the loneliness of his adventure and the mountain stillness of the places through which he passed, the Athenian messenger related, on his return, a vision less probably the creation of his invention than of his excited fancy. Passing over the Mount Parthenius, amid whose wild recesses gloomed the antique grove dedicated to Telephus, the son of Hercules (276), the Athenian heard a voice call to him aloud, and started to behold that mystic god to whom, above the rest of earth, were dedicated the hills and woods of Arcady--the Pelasgic Pan. The god bade him "ask at Athens why the Athenians forgot his worship--he who loved them well-- and might yet assist them at their need."

Such was the tale of the messenger. The lively credulities of the people believed its truth, and in calmer times dedicated a temple to the deity, venerated him with annual sacrifices, and the race of torches.

III. While the Athenians listened to the dreams of this poetical superstition, the mighty thousands of the Mede and Persian landed on the Attic coast, and, conducted by Hippias among their leaders, marched to the plain of Marathon, which the traveller still beholds stretching wide and level, amid hills and marshes, at the distance of only ten miles from the gates of Athens. Along the shore the plain extends to the length of six miles--inland it exceeds two. He who surveys it now looks over a dreary waste, whose meager and arid herbage is relieved but by the scanty foliage of unfrequent shrubs or pear-trees, and a few dwarf pines drooping towards the sea. Here and there may be seen the grazing buffalo, or the peasant bending at his plough:--a distant roof, a ruined chapel, are not sufficient evidences of the living to interpose between the imagination of the spectator and the dead. Such is the present Marathon--we are summoned back to the past.

IV. It will be remembered that the Athenians were divided into ten tribes at the instigation of Clisthenes. Each of these tribes nominated a general; there were therefore ten leaders to the Athenian army. Among them was Miltiades, who had succeeded in ingratiating himself with the Athenian people, and obtained from their suffrages a command. (277)

Aided by a thousand men from Plataea, then on terms of intimate friendship with the Athenians, the little army marched from the city, and advanced to the entrance of the plain of Marathon. Here they arrayed themselves in martial order, near the temple of Hercules, to the east of the hills that guard the upper part of the valley. Thus encamped, and in sight of the gigantic power of the enemy, darkening the long expanse that skirts the sea, divisions broke out among the leaders;--some contended that a battle was by no means to be risked with such inferior forces--others, on the contrary, were for giving immediate battle. Of this latter advice was Miltiades--he was supported by a man already of high repute, though now first presented to our notice, and afterward destined to act a great and splendid part in the drama of his times. Aristides was one of the generals of the army (278), and strenuously co-operated with Miltiades in the policy of immediate battle.

Despite, however, the military renown of the one, and the civil eminence of the other, the opposite and more tame opinion seemed likely to prevail, when Miltiades suddenly thus addressed the Polemarch Callimachus. That magistrate, the third of the nine archons, was held by virtue of his office equal in dignity to the military leaders, and to him was confided the privilege of a casting vote.

"On you, Callimachus," said the chief of the Chersonese, "on you it rests, whether Athens shall be enslaved, or whether from age to age your country, freed by your voice, shall retain in yours a name dearer to her even than those of Aristogiton and Harmodius (279). Never since the foundation of Athens was she placed in so imminent a peril. If she succumb to the Mede, she is rendered again to the tyranny of Hippias--but if she conquer, she may rise to the first eminence among the states of Greece. How this may be accomplished, and how upon your decision rests the event, I will at once explain. The sentiments of our leaders are divided--these are for instant engagement, those for procrastination. Depend upon it, if we delay, some sedition, some tumult will break out among the Athenians, and may draw a part of them to favour the Medes; but if we engage at once, and before a single dissension takes from us a single man, we may, if the gods give us equal fortune, obtain the victory. Consider the alternative--our decision depends on you."

V. The arguments of Miltiades convinced Callimachus, who knew well the many divisions of the city, the strength which Hippias and the Pisistratidae still probably possessed within its walls, and who could not but allow that a superior force becomes ever more fearful the more deliberately it is regarded. He interposed his authority. It was decided to give battle. Each general commanded in turn his single day. When it came to the turn of Aristides, he gave up his right to Miltiades, showing his colleagues that it was no disgrace to submit to the profound experience of another. The example once set was universally followed, and Miltiades was thus left in absolute and undivided command. But that able and keen-sighted chief, fearing perhaps that if he took from another his day of command, jealousy might damp the ardour of the general thus deprived, and, as it were, degraded, waited till his own appointed day before he commenced the attack.

VI. On the night before Hippias conducted the barbarians to the plains of Marathon, he is said to have dreamed a dream. He thought he was with his mother! In the fondness of human hopes he interpreted the vision favourably, and flattered himself that he should regain his authority, and die in his own house of old age. The morning now arrived (B. C. 490) that was to attest the veracity of his interpretation.

VII. To the left of the Athenians was a low chain of hills, clothed with trees (and which furnished them timber to break the charge of the Persian horse)--to their right a torrent;--their front was long, for, to render it more imposing in extent, and to prevent being outflanked by the Persian numbers, the centre ranks were left weak and shallow, but on either wing the troops were drawn up more solidly and strong. Callimachus, the polemarch, commanded the right wing--the Plataeans formed the left. They had few, if any, horsemen or archers. The details which we possess of their arms and military array, if not in this, in other engagements of the same period, will complete the picture. We may behold them clad in bright armour, well proof and tempered, which covered breast and back--the greaves, so often mentioned by Homer, were still retained--their helmets were wrought and crested, the cones mostly painted in glowing colours, and the plumage of feathers or horse-hair rich and waving, in proportion to the rank of the wearer. Broad, sturdy, and richly ornamented were their bucklers--the pride and darling of their arms, the loss of which was the loss of honour; their spears were ponderous, thick, and long-- a chief mark of contradistinction from the slight shaft of Persia-- and, with their short broadsword, constituted their main weapons of offence. No Greek army marched to battle without vows, and sacrifice, and prayer--and now, in the stillness of the pause, the soothsayers examined the entrails of the victims--they were propitious, and Callimachus solemnly vowed to Diana a victim for the slaughter of every foe. Loud broke the trumpets (280)--the standards wrought with the sacred bird of Athens were raised on high (281);--it was the signal of battle--and the Athenians rushed with an impetuous vehemence upon the Persian power. "The first Greeks of whom I have heard," says the simple Halicarnassean, "who ever ran to attack a foe--the first, too, who ever beheld without dismay the garb and armour of the Medes; for hitherto in Greece the very name of Mede had excited terror."

VIII. When the Persian army, with its numerous horse, animal as well as man protected by plates of mail (283)--its expert bowmen--its lines and deep files of turbaned soldiers, gorgeous with many a blazing standard,--headed by leaders well hardened, despite their gay garbs and adorned breastplates, in many a more even field;--when, I say, this force beheld the Athenians rushing towards them, they considered them, thus few, and destitute alike of cavalry and archers (284), as madmen hurrying to destruction. But it was evidently not without deliberate calculation that Miltiades had so commenced the attack. The warlike experience of his guerilla life had taught him to know the foe against whom he fought. To volunteer the assault was to forestall and cripple the charge of the Persian horse--besides, the long lances, the heavy arms, the hand-to-hand valour of the Greeks, must have been no light encounter to the more weakly mailed and less formidably-armed infantry of the East. Accustomed themselves to give the charge, it was a novelty and a disadvantage to receive it. Long, fierce, and stubborn was the battle. The centre wing of the barbarians, composed of the Sacians and the pure Persian race, at length pressed hard upon the shallow centre of the Greeks, drove them back into the country, and, eager with pursuit, left their own wings to the charge of Callimachus on the one side and the Plataean forces on the other. The brave polemarch, after the most signal feats of valour, fell fighting in the field; but his troops, undismayed, smote on with spear and sword. The barbarians retreated backward to the sea, where swamps and marshes encumbered their movements, and here (though the Athenians did not pursue them far) the greater portion were slain, hemmed in by the morasses, and probably ridden down by their own disordered cavalry. Meanwhile, the two tribes that had formed the centre, one of which was commanded by Aristides (285), retrieved themselves with a mighty effort, and the two wings, having routed their antagonists, now inclining towards each other, intercepted the barbarian centre, which, thus attacked, front and rear (large trees felled and scattered over the plain obstructing the movements of their cavalry), was defeated with prodigious slaughter. Evening came on (286):--confused and disorderly, the Persians now only thought of flight: the whole army retired to their ships, hard chased by the Grecian victors, who, amid the carnage, fired the fleet. Cynaegirus, brother to Aeschylus, the tragic poet (himself highly distinguished for his feats that day), seized one of the vessels by the poop: his hand was severed by an axe; he died gloriously of his wounds. But to none did the fortunes of that field open a more illustrious career than to a youth of the tribe Leontis, in whom, though probably then but a simple soldier in the ranks, was first made manifest the nature and the genius destined to command. The name of that youth was Themistocles (287). Seven vessels were captured--six thousand four hundred of the barbarians fell in the field--the Athenians and their brave ally lost only one hundred and ninety-two; but among them perished many of their bravest nobles. It was a superstition not uncharacteristic of that imaginative people, and evincing how greatly their ardour was aroused, that many of them (according to Plutarch) fancied they beheld the gigantic shade of their ancestral Theseus, completely armed, and bearing down before them upon the foe.

So perished the hopes of the unfortunate Hippias; obscure and inglorious in his last hour, the exiled prince fell confounded amid the general slaughter. (288)

IX. Despite the capture of some vessels, and the conflagration of others, the Persians still retained a considerable fleet, and, succeeding in boarding their Eretrian plunder (which they had left on the Euboean Isle), they passed thence the promontory of Sunium, with the intention of circumventing the Athenians, and arriving at Athens before them--a design which it was supposed they were induced to form by the treachery of some one suspected, without sufficient proof, to belong to the house of the Alcmaeonids, who held up a shield as a signal to the Persians while they were under sail (289). But the Athenians were under a prompt and vigilant commander, and while the barbarian fleet doubled the Cape of Sunium, they reached their city, and effectually prevented the designs of the foe. Aristides, with the tribe under his command, was left on the field to guard the prisoners and the booty, and his scrupulous honesty was evinced by his jealous care over the scattered and uncounted treasure (290). The painter of the nobler schools might find perhaps few subjects worthier of his art than Aristides watching at night amid the torches of his men over the plains of Marathon, in sight of the blue Aegean, no longer crowded with the barbarian masts;--and the white columns of the temple of Hercules, beside which the Athenians had pitched their camp.

The Persian fleet anchored off Phalerum, the Athenian harbour, and remaining there, menacing but inactive, a short time, sailed back to Asia.

X. The moon had passed her full, when two thousand Spartans arrived at Athens: the battle was over and the victory won; but so great was their desire to see the bodies of the formidable Medes, that they proceeded to Marathon, and, returning to Athens, swelled the triumph of her citizens by their applause and congratulations.

XI. The marble which the Persians had brought with them, in order to erect as a trophy of the victory they anticipated, was, at a subsequent period, wrought by Phidias into a statue of Nemesis. A picture of the battle, representing Miltiades in the foremost place, and solemnly preserved in public, was deemed no inadequate reward to that great captain; and yet, conspicuous above the level plain of Marathon, rises a long barrow, fifteen feet in height, the supposed sepulchre of the Athenian heroes. Still does a romantic legend, not unfamiliar with our traditions of the north, give a supernatural terror to the spot. Nightly along the plain are yet heard by superstition the neighings of chargers and the rushing shadows of spectral war (291). And still, throughout the civilized world (civilized how much by the arts and lore of Athens!) men of every clime, of every political persuasion, feel as Greeks at the name of Marathon. Later fields have presented the spectacle of an equal valour, and almost the same disparities of slaughter; but never, in the annals of earth, were united so closely in our applause, admiration for the heroism of the victors, and sympathy for the holiness of their cause. It was the first great victory of OPINION! and its fruits were reaped, not by Athens only, but by all Greece then, as by all time thereafter, in a mighty and imperishable harvest,--the invisible not less than the actual force of despotism was broken. Nor was it only that the dread which had hung upon the Median name was dispelled--nor that free states were taught their pre-eminence over the unwieldy empires which the Persian conquerors had destroyed,--a greater lesson was taught to Greece, when she discovered that the monarch of Asia could not force upon a petty state the fashion of its government, or the selection of its rulers. The defeat of Hippias was of no less value than that of Darius; and the same blow which struck down the foreign invader smote also the hopes of domestic tyrants.

One successful battle for liberty quickens and exalts that proud and emulous spirit from which are called forth the civilization and the arts that liberty should produce, more rapidly than centuries of repose. To Athens the victory of Marathon was a second Solon.

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