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In 480 BC, one of the largest invasion forces in history was assembled by the Persian King, Xerxes I, to conquer Greece. The contemporary historian Herodotus put the number of the invading force at around 5.2 million men. 1 If this is true, then what Greece faced was not so much a war but an apocalypse.
Knowing that a great force was heading their way, the Greek city states all sought aid from their gods. The Oracle at Delphi was regarded as an intermediary of divine wills, and was as such the most renowned prophet of the time. It was to her that the city states turned. After consulting her, it would be Athens and Sparta – the two most powerful cities – that would set the agenda for the Greek confederation that was forming to defend against the Persians.
The Oracle at Delphi was the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo, a woman who was, without doubt, the most powerful woman of the classical world. Her prophecies, it was believed, were inspired by being possessed by the spirit of the god Apollo. To those who approached her, she would bestow counsel, influenced by her visions of a future dictated by the gods.
When the Spartans approached the Oracle they were told the following.
“Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons [the Persians],
Or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon [Sparta]
Shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles,
For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him,
Strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus,
And will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.” 2
Her prophecy suggested that the only way to stop the Persian king from sacking the entire city of Sparta was for a Spartan king to fall.
When the Athenians approached the Oracle, the answer they got was also full of dread.
“Await not in quiet the coming of the horses, the marching feet, the armed host upon the land. Slip away. Turn your back. You will meet in battle anyway. O holy Salamis, you will be the death of many a woman’s son between the seedtime and the harvest of the grain […] a wall of wood alone shall be uncaptured, a boon to you and your children.”3
The Athenian’s interpreted the Oracle’s words as indicating they should withdraw their troops to the Greek island of Salamis, where they would face the Persian army in bloody battle.
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For all her talk of “death” and conflict, the Oracle did offer a tone of hope. When the Delphians themselves asked the Oracle how Greece could be saved from the Persians, she instructed them to “Pray to the Winds.
“They will prove to be mighty allies of Greece.” 4
Soon after visiting the Oracle, King Leonidas I of Sparta, along with an estimated 7,000 men from all over Greece stood against Xerxes’ great host at Thermopylae. Leonidas claimed to be descended from the demigod Heracles, and his name meant “son of the lion”. He and his troops occupied a narrow pass in the area known as the “hot gates”, believing that they could keep the apocalypse at bay. There, they “cut to ribbons” tens of thousands of Persians. They seemed invincible until one of their own betrayed them. On the third day, the traitor showed the Persian army a secret pass that allowed them to encircle the Greek army. Faced with annihilation, many were able to retreat and fight another day, however, it came at a price. King Leonidas, 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians sacrificed themselves to cover their withdrawal. And so, the “king of the house of Heracles” with the “strength of lions” fell to save the city.
The Oracle was also right when she predicted that the “Winds” would be “mighty allies of Greece”. A large portion of the Persian navy was destroyed by storms, enabling the Athenians to inflict a naval defeat on the rest of their navy, capturing thirty ships in the process. Thus, whilst Xerxes might have been master on land, he was losing the sea, which was critical to keeping his vast army supplied.
In an attempt to crush Greek morale, the Persian king pillaged the great city of Athens. Believing in the Oracle’s prophecy, the Athenians decided to retreat with their navy to the island of Salamis, which was less than ten miles off the coast of Athens. In the straits of Salamis, Xerxes thought he would hammer the final nail of his conquest with a decisive naval victory. However, the Athenians presented his army with a “wooden wall” of boats. With this, they were able to destroy the Persian navy. Thus, without any supplies, the majority of Persian army had to retreat back to Asia. Those who remained were defeated by a coalition of Greek forces, inspired by what had become the martyrdom of King Leonidas and his men at Thermopylae. 5
Thus, the Oracle’s prophecy was fulfilled. Athens was sacked, but its people found refuge in island of Salamis; a King died to save Greece; and the winds helped to crush the Persian invasion. And, since the war had encouraged the Athenians to build a strong navy, that navy would afterwards dominate the Aegean Sea and would truly be a “boon” to them and their “children”.
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