War, destruction and fleeing refugees are unfortunately nothing new; they have been part of human experience for millennia. In 480 and 479 BCE, during the Persian Invasion, many thousands of Greeks lived through them.
The first to flee
The first to become refugees were the residents of Phocis, who fled to the slopes of Parnassus, when king Xerxes’ troops started pillaging their cities, after their victory in Thermopylae.
After them, it was the turn of the Plataeans to abandon their city to the Persians and seek refuge in Athens. The same happened to the small city of Thespiae, which had lost a great part of its citizens, as 700 of them had been killed in Thermopylae, right along the 300 Spartans.
As the Persian army advanced southwards, it was the turn of the Athenians to flee too. Historian Herodotus informs us that most of the city’s population was evacuated to the nearby cities of Troezen, Salamis and Aegina.
The Athenian decision
In 1959 an inscription was found in Troezen, bearing a large part of the Athenian assembly’s decree (introduced by Athenian general Themistocles) on how to prepare the city in the face of the Persian invasion.
Two were the major measures agreed upon. The first was to man the Athenian fleet with every able-bodied citizen or resident alien; half of the city’s 200 ships would be sent to Artemision, in support of the Greek army at Thermopylae, and the other half would remain near the island of Salamis, protecting the coast.
The second major decision was that the city would be abandoned and its entire population evacuated. Women and children would go to Troezen, whereas the elderly and the domestic animals would go to Salamis. The city itself and its surrounding land (the area of Attica) would be left to the protection of its patron goddess, Athena, with a few priests and priestesses attending to her sanctuary on the Acropolis. There is no mention in the inscription of leaving a small garrison, despite it being mentioned in historic sources.
Modern historians have yet to agree on exactly when the evacuation of Athens took place, even though Herodotus states that it was decided and executed a few days after the return of the Athenian fleet from the naval battle of Artemision. A major factor in their decision was the decision of the Greek allied states to fortify the Isthmus of Corinth and abandon every city to the north of this line as non defensible.
Based on the inscription, many researchers believe that the decision to evacuate had been made already by June 480, before the Greek forces made their stand in Thermopylae; a good part of the populace may well have been evacuated already. Naturally, the evacuation of such a large city would have been quite a feat, even in the space of two months. In the space of a mere week and an atmosphere of panic before the advancing Persian army, it would have been a nightmare.
Evacuating the city was an enormous undertaking: the population of both the city and the countryside was huge, more than 200,000 people. Then there was the volume of baggage and food, not to mention the herds and flocks that had to be evacuated too. Another problem was that Athens is in a peninsula: as the Persians advanced from the north, the only way to go was south, towards the sea. As the capacity of ships (whether triremes or merchantmen) was rather limited, a staggering number of trips would have had to be made.
We can only imagine the conditions under which the evacuation was made. The men (Athenian citizens or resident aliens) were away, in the army or navy, so it fell to the women and the elderly, together with a fraction of the slave population, to grab the children and what necessities they could carry and run to the ports of Piraeus or Phaleron where they would wait for the first available ship to take them to the islands of Salamis or Aegina, or the city of Troezen, across the Saronic gulf. Some residents opted to wait out the occupation hiding in the mountains of Attica; it is said that about 500 of them were apprehended by the Persians.
The refugees left behind houses, fields and pastures; they abandoned their shrines, sanctuaries and family graves. The new harvest had just been taken to storage; grapes and figs were just beginning to ripen. Yet they left, not knowing whether they would ever come back and what they would find if they did.
In the ancient Greek system of city-states, leaving one’s city meant leaving one’s homeland. Even if he went to a city where Greek was spoken and the same gods worshipped, a Greek from another city felt and was a foreigner, a stateless alien. Exile was a devastating punishment, surpassed only by the death penalty, because statelessness was equivalent to losing one’s identity and place in the world; being a refugee must have been no different.
The Troezenians’ example
Herodotus says little about the conditions the refugees lived in, but we may imagine them making do in makeshift camps. Other sources provide more information. For instance, in a 4th century BCE speech of Hyperides, the orator mentions the help Athenian refugees received in Troezen. It was considered so important and Athenians felt so indebted to their hosts, that they readily agreed to provide Troezenian exiles with assistance as their due, never mind the passage of so many years.
Plutarch (end of 1st, beginning of 2nd century CE) mentions that the Troezenian assembly passed a decree (proposed by a citizen named Nikagoras) that the refugees would be provided food by the state, whereas each refugee would receive financial support at the sum of two oboloi (each worth a sixth of a drachma). Athenian children would be free to pick fruit and vegetables from any garden or orchard, and teachers would be hired for them. Salamis belonged to Athens, while Aegina was a former enemy; we have no information regarding the treatment of refugees there.
It seemed that the plight of the Athenians would be short-lived. By the end of September 480, after the Greek victory in the battle of Salamis, they were able to return to Athens. They found it destroyed and had scarcely begun rebuilding when, next summer, the Persian army, led by general Mardonius, invaded Attica again. However, this flight would also be short-lived and the Athenians would return after his death in the battle of Plataea.
The memory of a good deed
It was not just the Athenians who remembered the Troezenians’ benefaction. Pausanias mentions that in the Troezenian agora (civic centre) there was a stoa (portico) with statues of Athenian women and children. The Troezenians were proud of the way they had treated the refugees, also evident by their mounting of the inscription mentioned earlier, of the Athenian assembly’s decision (where special mention is made of Troezen).
The experts still debate the authenticity of the inscription, which dates a century or more after the fact. It is also debated whether the Troezenians really were so hospitable and did all they are said to have done. It is also unknown how many refugees the city had to host.
In the end, the exact details are not so important. What matters is that for several generations after the traumatic experience of fleeing, the support and solidarity provided by the Troezenians remained vivid in the memory of both beneficiaries and benefactors. All ancient authors, whether Athenian or not, agree that the Troezenian behavior towards the refugees was a significant choice; it made a huge difference to the stranded families and helped forge a strong bond between the two states.