When the Athenians learned what happened at Thermopylae, they knew the road to Athens would be open to Persian invaders. Nearly everyone fled the city before Xerxes arrived.
Some years before, silver had been discovered near Athens. How would this new-found wealth be spent? Themistocles, the Athenian leader, insisted that his city-state must build-up its navy. On the day Xerxes sacked their city, Athenians must have been greatly relieved at that decision. Most fled to the sea where, sitting in Athenian triremes, evacuees watched smoke rise from the acropolis.
Trusting their oracle, and their leader, Athenians gave up their city. Xerxes ordered Athens destroyed and burnt. In their lighter and faster ships (this is a virtual battle scene) Athenians, fighting with others at the Straits of Salamis, had a chance to defeat the Persian navy.
Wishing to draw the Persians into a sea battle, Themistocles (it is said by Aeschylus and others) sent an ersatz messenger to tell Xerxes a tall tale. If he wanted to enjoy an easy victory, Xerxes should attack immediately since the Athenians were planning to leave Salamis by dawn. The Greeks, in other words, were reportedly running away.
Taking the bait, Xerxes and his fleet of slower ships sailed into the bay during the dark of night. By dawn the next morning, the Athenians had not left. Instead, they attacked. The Persian ships were trapped, thereby losing the naval battle in September of 480 BC. Thermopylae may have been a Spartan defeat, but it directly led to victory at Salamis. Soon thereafter, the Great King left Greece.
Although he was gone, Xerxes left behind an enormous amount of infantry. The Greeks wanted all-things Persian out of the country. On a plain at Plataea, where Persians could use their cavalry, Sparta took command of a huge, combined Greek army determined to force the invaders to leave Greece, once and for all.
Faking a retreat, Spartans - again - lured the Persians where they did not want to be. Then, using the phalanx - a large group of men tied together in a synchronized line - the Greeks fought mercilessly. It is difficult, from a distance, to comprehend the battle. Their shields were unbelievably heavy. Greeks fought until they were sixty years old, but it became difficult for some to hold their equipment. Heavy helmets would block the soldier's ears, making it difficult to hear.
In this Thermopylae-inspired stand, in 479 BCE, Greek forces stopped Xerxes (this is an animated battlefield) and his millions of troops from conquering, and subjecting, Greece. To the Persians, the loss was not that significant. What was Greece, given the size of Xerxes' empire? But to the Greeks, the victory at Plataea was huge. The Athenians marked that victory by creating the Parthenon, which remains one of the wonders of the ancient Greek world.
Wanting to rule themselves, most Greeks scorned Persian rule. Attempting to create equality of rights under the law, they did not want those rights stripped away. To be sure, not everyone was equal, and at least fifty percent of the people living in Athens were enslaved. But Greeks liked competition. They liked to argue. They liked competitive athletics.
Persians had a different way. They wanted a calm social order. They appreciated strength through solidarity. Each side condemned each other for their own ideals. But something significant was happening in Greece and, with the defeat of the Persians, a kind of Greek enlightenment could begin to flourish.
Greek thinkers were beginning to develop ideas. There had always been "medicine," but now we see a theory of medicine. There had always been politics, but now we see a philosophy of politics. Competition allows that type of explicit theory to take place. And while the theory of democracy develops against a background of slavery, at least those who are free begin to understand how important liberty is to one's life. As a stele called the "Daiva Inscription" - found at Persepolis - makes clear, democracy and Persian rule were incompatible:
King Xerxes says: By the grace of Ahuramazda these are the countries of which I was king apart from Persia. I had lordship over them. They bore me tribute. What was said to them by me, that they did. My law...held them...
Listing many subject countries, Xerxes makes a limiting comment about Greece:
Yaunˆ [the ancient word for Greeks] those who dwell on this side of the sea [in what is now Turkey] and those [who surrendered before Xerxes sacked Athens] who dwell across the sea ...
But not all the Greeks.
Had it not been for the Spartans and Thespians who fought so courageously at Thermopylae, the Greek ideas of democracy - and the rule of law - may have died in their cradles. Perhaps Simonides of Ceos had such thoughts in mind when he wrote this memorial to the Three Hundred:
Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.