As all their allies were trying only to defend the Peloponnesus, the Athenians were left entirely alone. Many of their friends advised them to abandon their city, and follow the other Greeks southward, leaving all Attica a prey to the foe.
This the Athenians did not wish to do, so they sent in haste to Delphi, to inquire of the oracle whether they had better retreat, or attempt to defend their city. As was generally the case, the oracle did not give a plain answer, but merely said, “The wooden walls will defend you and your children.”
When this answer was brought to Athens, no one could tell exactly what it meant. Some of the citizens fancied that the oracle was advising them to retreat behind the ancient wooden stockade on the Acropolis, but Themistocles insisted that by “wooden walls” the oracle meant their ships.
He finally persuaded the Athenians to believe him. All the old men, women, and children were hastily brought on board the ships, and carried to the Peloponnesus, where they were welcomed by their friends. Then the men embarked in their turn, and the fleet sailed off to the Bay of Salamis, where it awaited a good chance to fight.
The Persians swept down into Attica, and entered the deserted city of Athens. Here they gazed in wonder at all they saw, and, after robbing the houses, set fire to the town, and burned down all the most beautiful buildings.
The Persians were so delighted at having attained their purpose, and reduced the proud city to ashes, that they sent messengers to bear the glad tidings to the Persian capital. Here the people became almost wild with joy, and the whole city rang with their cries of triumph for many a day.
As you will remember, Themistocles had allowed the Spartans to command both the army and the navy. It was therefore a Spartan king, Eurybiades, who was head of the fleet at Salamis. He was a careful man, and was not at all in favor of attacking the Persians.
Themistocles, on the contrary, felt sure that an immediate attack, being unexpected, would prove successful, and therefore loudly insisted upon it. His persistency in urging it finally made Eurybiades so angry that he exclaimed, “Those who begin the race before the signal is given are publicly scourged!”
Themistocles, however, would not allow even this remark to annoy him, and calmly answered, “Very true, but laggards never win a crown!” The reply, which Eurybiades thought was meant for an insult, so enraged him that he raised his staff to strike the bold speaker. At this, the brave Athenian neither drew back nor flew into a passion: he only cried, “Strike if you will, but hear me!”
Once more Themistocles explained his reasons for urging an immediate attack; and his plans were so good, that Eurybiades, who could but admire his courage, finally yielded, and gave orders to prepare for battle.