The news of Xerxes’ crossing of the Hellespont, and of his approach to conquer Greece, soon reached Athens, where it filled all hearts with fear. The people then remembered Miltiades, and bitterly regretted his death, and their ingratitude, which had been its real cause.
As the mighty general who had already once delivered them was dead, they tried to think who could best replace him, and decided to recall Aristides the Just from his undeserved exile. Aristides generously forgave his fellowcitizens for all the harm they had done him, and he and Themistocles began to do all in their power to insure the safety of Athens.
Swift runners were dispatched in every direction with messages urging all the Greek cities to unite for the good of the country by sending as many brave men as possible to check the Persian army, and to try to hinder it from really entering Greece.
Themistocles was the most active in this attempt to induce the Greek cities to join forces, and it was he who planned a great council, or meeting, at Corinth, in 481 B.C. There it soon became evident that the cities were too jealous of each other to unite as they should.
Many of them promised help, which they never sent; others vowed they would neither send troops nor furnish aid of any kind, unless their generals had supreme command; and even the oracles gave vague and discouraging answers, when consulted as usual.
In spite of all these drawbacks, Themistocles managed to get a few allies; and, in order to induce the Spartans to lend their aid, he promised them the command not only of the army, but also of the fleet.
He next persuaded them that it would be wisest to send an armed force into Thessaly, so as to defend the narrow pass of Thermopylae, which was the only road by which the Persians could enter Greece. This natural causeway, as we have seen, lay between the mountains and the sea; and, because there were springs of warm water here, it was generally known as Thermopylae, which is the Greek for “Hot Gateway.”
Under the guidance of Leonidas, one of the Spartan kings, three hundred Lacedaemonian soldiers and six thousand allies marched thither, and undertook to guard the pass. This was a very small army; but it was impossible to get more soldiers at the time, as all the Greeks were more anxious to attend the Olympic games, which were just then being celebrated, than to defend their country and homes.
Many of them said they were afraid the gods would be angry if they did not keep the feast as usual, and declared that it was against the law to bear arms or make war during that time. This was perfectly true; but Xerxes did not care at all for the Greek gods, and the country would have been defenseless had it not been for Leonidas and his handful of men.
While this little army traveled northwards, the rest of the people thronged to Olympia, promising to come and fight as soon as the games were ended, and they could again bear arms without offending the gods.