March to Athens
Day 175-CI, from Παλαιοχώρι to Ελευσίνα, 17 km.
Eleusis, April 30
We are veterans. We have withstood all challenges. And crossing another ridge of hills is no problem for us. We took them head on and passed into Attica in only two days.
Still, after yesterday’s long leg to a non-existing place, some people had wanted to slow down and take an unscheduled day off in the meadow.
They didn’t convince the group. It wouldn’t have been a good idea for us to spend our last resting day in a meadow while we have our entry into Athens to prepare.
Before we left, we all gathered around the old lady of the tavern. We are her little babies, and she wanted to give us some advice before we wandered on into the wide world.
Respect, love, hope and faith. We don’t have to lose any of those. If we do, it’ll be the end of the revolution.
We descend towards the sea, and oh! Only the people who have witnessed it can imagine the joy to see fair Salamis at large! I cannot help but think of the Persians.
All the Greek tragedies we know of speak about mythological or legendary subjects. All but one. The oldest surviving play, The Persians by Aeschylos, is inspired by a historical event.
More than historical, at the time it was first represented, the subject was contemporary. Aeschylos himself had participated in all three decisive battles against the Persians.
The Persian invasions of Greece happened at the turn of the fifth century BC. There were two of them, ten years apart. The first one was massive, it was led by king Darius. And even though his army was many times bigger than that of the Greeks, the invasion was repelled at the battle of Marathon. A messenger was sent out to bring the news to Athens, forty-two kilometres down the road. The inhabitants of the town were preparing for the worst, they were ready to flee. Then the messenger arrived, running, he had just enough breath left to yell ‘Victory!’, before dropping dead on the ground.
The second invasion was led by Darius’ son Xerxes. If the first one was massive in size, the second one was astronomical. According to Herodotus, the Persians numbered in the zillions. And they were not only Persians. They came from Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, Cappadocia and every other nation that the Persians had conquered.
To make all those soldiers cross into Greece, Xerxes ordered a floating bridge to be built over the Dardanelles, connecting Europe to Asia. But the sea was wild, and the storms made it difficult to pass. They say that Xerxes wanted the sea to be lashed for not obeying his will.
The Persian army was much too big to be resisted. Nevertheless, three hundred Spartans tried to do so at the pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece. It was complete madness, but there was no alternative. A Spartan soldier may never surrender and never retreat. He may only win or die.
So they died, fighting. Up until this day there stands a sign at the Thermopylae which says ‘Stranger! Go to Sparta! And tell that we have died here, to obey her laws.’
One day I’ll go to Sparta. And even if there is no-one to hear it, I will bring the news that three hundred brave sons of Sparta died at the Thermopylae.
The Persians marched on south. They conquered Boiotia, they conquered Athens and they completely destroyed it. The only thing the Athenians could save was their navy, the ‘wooden walls’ of the city.
The Persians would have marched on to the Peloponnese. But their army was so large that it could only move if its supply lines were secure. For this, they depended on the Persian navy.
The Oracle had foretold that mighty Salamis would be the scene of Greece’s resurrection, and so it was.
With a strategem, the Greeks lured the entire Persian fleet into the narrows between the island and the mainland. Then they closed the entries and attacked. The huge numerical advantage of the Persians was cancelled out at once. Their navy had no space to manoeuver. They were caught in a trap and completely annihilated.
Salamis is a pivotal event in Greek and western history. After the battle, the bulk of the Persian army retreated. The remainder was defeated a year later at Plataea.
Aeschylos’ play is centered on the battle of Salamis. It couldn’t have been a hymn of victory, because then it wouldn’t be a tragedy. But anyway the point of view from which it is narrated is remarkable.
The protagonists of The Persians are the women in the royal palace of Susa. They are waiting for news from the front. Somewhere on the far western edge of the empire, their husbands, sons and fathers are subdueing a tiny rebellious province. They should be back soon.
Then the news of defeat comes in. Many of the men have found a sailor’s grave in the narrows of Salamis. They will never be back. At that point their world crumbles, and the Persian women join together in a heaven shaking lament of despair.
It’s a beautiful piece. It breaks your heart.
And yet, on his tomb stone Aeschylos, one of the founding fathers of theatre, didn’t want to be remembered for his plays, but for the part he played himself in the battle of Salamis.
We arrive in the mysterious town of Eleusis, at sea. We can’t see the metropolis yet, because it’s hidden by a low ridge of hills, but we can sense it’s there. The matter thickens.
In Eleusis the ancient city has turned into old rubble, and the modern city is suffering decline as well. Along the main street I count sixteen shops and bars that have gone out of business, almost half of the total. In the other streets around it, the situation isn’t very different.
When we take the square, various people come to talk to us. One of them is a girl who has finished more than one study. She speaks English and Italian. But she doesn’t have a job, and neither does she have the prospect to find one.
“I am twenty-six years old, and I don’t have any dreams.”
It’s one of the saddest things I heard since we arrived in Greece.