Chapter 1             The Persians 

A cock crowed, and Euphorion son of Aeschylos awoke on the last day of his innocence.

He didn’t want to go to school. He was tired of learning Homer. There were twenty-seven thousand lines of it, by Zeus! And whenever the schoolmaster said ‘by your age, your father knew the whole thing by heart,’ Euphorion determined to forget whatever verses the master pounded into his head that day.

He yawned and turned face down. The cock crowed again. Euphorion heard the front door shut and his father’s feet march off down the narrow street toward the centre of Athens. How Euphorion wished he were eighteen and could enter the world of the citizen. A boy, even a wealthy poet’s son like him, had no more control over his life than a slave. Or a woman.

One of the slaves, Xanthias, entered the bedroom.

‘Time to rise, lazybones.’ Xanthias yanked the blanket off him and slapped his behind. ‘Your father’s gone to the Pnyx. Something to do with those Persians that came yesterday. He didn’t seem too happy about it, anyway.’

‘Leave me alone.’ It annoyed Euphorion that a mere slave was allowed to treat him so. Xanthias threw him his tunic.

‘I can look after myself. Buzz off.’

‘Yes, young master is quite the hoplite.’

Dawn rays lit the room. It was already warm and would no doubt be an August day as roasting as yesterday.

In the shady courtyard Euphorion sat by his five year-old brother Euaion. His mother Trygaea spooned honey into his porridge. She smiled.

‘One day your father’s going to catch me and it’ll be the end of that sweet tooth of yours.’

Morning dullness cleared from Euphorion’s head as he savoured the milky barley. A word flashed into his thoughts, something Xanthias had said.

‘Mummy, are the Persians here?’

‘The Persians! The Persians!’ cried Euaion.

‘Only two of them, Euphorion,’ said Trygaea. ‘Don’t worry about that. It’s time for school. Where’s your lyre?’

There was a knock at the front door. It was Philokles, panting from running. Although only a year older, Philokles had begun the change and had noticeably heftier shoulders than Euphorion. He even had a wispy moustache, of which he was far too proud. And his sweat stank a lot more than it had last summer.

‘School’s off!’ he blurted.

‘Why, Philokles?’ said Trygaea.

‘Schoolmaster’s gone to the Pnyx. He said they’ve all gone, every citizen for miles. He said Athens has to make a big, big decision.’

‘Is it about the Persians?’ said Euphorion. He saw his mother trying to hide a look of worry.

‘What about the Persians?’ said Philokles.

‘They’re here, dummy.’

‘The Persians are here?’

‘Is that all you can do, repeat what I say?’

Philokles sat and squeezed his shoulder hard. Euphorion tried to wriggle out. ‘No,’ said his cousin. ‘I can run faster than you, I can jump farther than you, I can throw a javelin and a discus farther than you, and…what else, Euaion?’

‘You can beat him at wrestling!’ cried Euaion.

Euphorion pushed his cousin off him. ‘Big deal.’

‘That’s enough, you two,’ said Trygaea.

‘Let’s go out,’ said Philokles. ‘Climb some trees.’

‘I don’t know…what would your father say?’ said Trygaea.

‘He won’t mind,’ said Philokles, getting up.

Euphorion glanced at his mother.

‘Don’t go far…Xanthias, watch them,’ she said as Philokles dragged Euphorion into the narrow street.

The boys darted off, Xanthias hobbling after. He had been captured long ago in some battle, during which he had wounded his leg. ‘Masters, wait!’ he called, but the boys were soon out of sight down an alley.

They left Athens and climbed a tall pine tree. Grey mountains arose all round the horizon, except to the south west where the Aegean Sea lay. They gazed over the sprawl of Athens, tightly packed whitewashed houses with red roofs. In the centre stood the Acropolis, the sacred hill of Athena, crowned with her marble temple and bronze statues. To the right of that rose the hill of the Pnyx. Through the dark trees it was impossible to see the Pnyx itself, but it had to be bristling with citizens.

‘What are they up to?’ Euphorion wondered out loud.


‘The assembly.’

‘It’s a trial.’

‘Oh. Who’s on trial?’

Philokles shrugged. ‘Something to do with those Persians, I bet. Is their army here?’

‘Holy Maiden! If the Persian army was here, I think we’d know about it. It’s just two of them. Heralds, I suppose.’

‘The Persians – they’re our enemies, right?’

Euphorion rolled his eyes. ‘Everyone knows that. Euaion knows that. My cat knows that.’

‘So do I,’ said Philokles, poking him in the ribs. ‘You think you’re so clever, but you aren’t any cleverer than me.’

‘Of course, you know all about the Persians.’

‘As much as you, Squeak.’

‘Go on then, genius. Tell me about them.’

Philokles pursed his lips. ‘They’re from Persia.’

‘Really? The Persians are from Persia?’ Euphorion guffawed.

‘Shut it. I’m just starting. Persia is in Asia. And it’s very big…and there’s a king – er…’


‘I know that.’

‘And it’s not Persia that’s big, it’s their empire. The biggest in the world. Forty-six countries they’ve conquered.’

Philokles stopped what he was about to say. ‘Forty-six?

‘Yes…so what?’

‘So what? You aren’t half as clever as you think you are. If the Persians are our enemies, what do you think their heralds are doing here?’ Philokles peered toward the Pnyx. ‘Let’s go and see.’

‘But we’re not allowed.’

‘Scaredy cat. It’s all right, I know a secret spot.’

‘But my father will kill me…and yours will kill you.’

‘Wah, wah, wah. Some hoplite you’ll make.’

Euphorion’s heart raced. Philokles was always daring him and he could never say no. Philokles climbed down the tree and darted off into the city.

‘Hey! Wait for me!’


The boys crept from rugged boulder to ruddy-barked pine. Euphorion grasped a trunk and got sticky resin on his fingers.

‘Let’s go back, Philo.’ He was terrified of the punishment his father would inflict, finding him on the citizen-only Pnyx.

Philokles grabbed his tunic and dragged him up to the next rock. ‘Stop bawling like a baby. We’re going to see the enemy.’

Euphorion caught his breath. Persians – sent by Darius, the Great King himself. Not even his father had seen a Persian. Philokles’ father had; Uncle Kynegeiros had even fought them, eight years ago. And lost.

But why were they here? Most people thought foreigners were savages. In Euphorion’s imagination they were gorgons, whose hideous features – snake hair, huge fangs and long tongues – were so terrifying, one glimpse would turn a man to stone.

But he was being ridiculous. Just over the brow of this hill about five thousand pairs of eyes were clapped on the two heralds, and from all the shouts, jeers, and applause, the assembly had not been petrified.

Philokles dragged him up to a tree and forced him flat onto the pine needle-scattered ground.

‘Get off me.’

Philokles seemed to enjoy any chance to show his superior strength. He grabbed Euphorion’s arm and wrenched it up his back. ‘Submit?’

‘Go to Hades.’ Euphorion tried to smack his cousin with his other hand. Philokles grabbed that too and twisted his wrist.

‘Ow! Stop it, they’ll hear us.’

Philokles let him go and scrambled to the lip of the hill.

A chorus of angry voices shook the air. Euphorion could not make out any words, but he sensed hate in those voices. Trembling, he crawled up like a centipede. And then he saw the Pnyx for the first time in his life.

A great mass of citizens was spread out over a rocky semicircle facing the speaker’s platform to his left. Nervously Euphorion looked for his father. He could not see him, but he did recognise some of those at the front. Miltiades, a white-haired, stocky old man, was famous. Some people thought he wanted to rule Athens as a tyrant, and feared him. Most loved him, though, and he had been voted general of his tribe for the last two years.

And there was Themistokles, another general. He had the meaty look of a boxer, with a tree-trunk neck and a bulldog jaw. He was famous for knowing every citizen by name. And on the platform was yet another general, Xanthippos, a tall, haughty fellow, and Miltiades’ sworn enemy. He had just finished speaking and the crowd was jeering him.

But far more interesting than all these generals were the Persians. They stood out a mile, their silk gowns shimmering gold, purple, green – bright beetle colours, unlike the earthy browns, blues and reds of the Athenians. Their black hair and beards were curled into long ringlets and their noses were thin and hawk-like. They stood under guard, lips tight in annoyance.

‘Silence for Themistokles,’ cried the Council leader.

The assembly applauded as Themistokles bounded onto the platform. He raised a fist and the cheers swelled.

‘Citizens,’ said Themistokles, ‘I am amazed. I did not know weasels could speak.’

Laughter burst out all over the Pnyx.

‘Submit to Darius? Clearly Xanthippos does not know you, citizens. Not as I do.’

Themistokles pointed to the middle of the crowd.

‘Ariston, how many times have I bought your fine shoes? Simon, how often have I tasted your eels? Lykis, did you not carve me a chair last week? All of you, is there any man who knows the hearts of his fellow citizens better than I? And I say to you, there is nothing more important to a free Athenian than his honour.’

The citizens gave a resounding cheer.

‘But what is it that gives us our honour? Above all, it is our freedom.’ He turned to the heralds. ‘Look, Persians: here before you stand rich men and poor, but all are equal. All may speak their mind, all decide their own laws. Tell me, in all your vast empire, is any man truly free? Only Darius, your king. But here on this assembly ground, no man calls another master, not even the cobbler, the fishmonger, or the carpenter. We submit only to our own laws. And you ask us to exchange this for slavery!’

He pointed at Xanthippos.

‘The weasel promises us defeat. But what does he know? General Miltiades, on the other hand, is an expert – he has spoken with the Great King, and many times defied him. And he is of a different opinion. Is it not true, citizens, that one hoplite is equal to ten Persian warriors? Has it not been said, they are weak and womanish – that they even wear trousers on the battlefield?’

This was met with more laughter.

‘And we are not the only city to refuse earth and water: Sparta too has denied Darius. What force in all the world could vanquish Athens and Sparta united? And we have faithful friends too - the great city of Eretria, and Plataia, and others. Greece will not fall to foreigners. The gods would not allow it.

‘And these foreigners dare to threaten us on our own soil! Condemn them, jurymen! But I see they would speak. Look, Persians: in Athens we allow a man to defend himself. Unlike you, we believe men should not impose their will by force, but by argument. By good, solid reasons.’

One of the Persians spoke. His accent was strong, but each word was clear as ringing steel.

‘If it is reasons you seek, we have plenty. If you will give His Majesty the submission he desires, you will receive the many blessings of his rule. Above all, you will know that greatest treasure of all mankind, peace – and her child, prosperity. As a member state of the Great King’s empire there will be no more silly wars with your Greek neighbours, which have devoured so many of your lives.’

‘My dear heralds,’ said Themistokles, ‘we would be delighted to receive all these wondrous benefits, if it were not for one little word in your charming speech: submission. We –’ he gestured to the whole of the Pnyx, ‘– do not submit.’

‘Then consider this,’ said the herald. ‘If you do agree, Sparta will stand alone against us. We shall surely destroy them, and you will have no rival in Greece. You will be masters of all.’

‘If you had it your way,’ replied Themistokles, ‘we would not even be masters of ourselves.’

The herald’s voice grew harsh. ‘Do you imagine the Great King will forget this? He will not allow one puny city to burn the temple of our god and escape unpunished!’

Miltiades stood. ‘Enough!’

Themistokles let him take the stand. The Pnyx hushed.

‘I have had my fill of these barbarians. I have accused them of threatening us with all manner of doom and death. It is time for the jury to decide.’

The Council leader joined him. ‘Now we shall vote.’

‘What do you think?’ whispered Euphorion.

Philokles gave him a look which said, ‘isn’t it obvious?’

‘All who vote guilty raise their hands,’ said the leader.

A forest of arms shot up. Many others followed more slowly.

‘Now the vote for not guilty.’

A group around Xanthippos raised their hands, and a few scattered others, to whistles and hisses from the rest.

‘The verdict is guilty,’ said the leader. ‘Miltiades, you are the accuser. What punishment do you propose?’

Miltiades scanned the crowd gravely. ‘One month ago two other Persians arrived in Sparta, for the same evil purpose. King Kleomenes cast them into a well, saying, “there you shall find your earth and water.” We in Athens should do no less. I call for the penalty of death.’

Euphorion shivered.

‘Excellent,’ said Philokles.

‘Persians, you have been found guilty,’ said the leader. ‘What punishment do you propose?’

‘We do not recognise this court, this jury, this so-called justice!’ yelled the herald who had spoken earlier.

His companion seized his arm. ‘Wise citizens, if you love justice as you say you do, you will fine us one thousand silver drachmas, which we have with us, and send us on our way.’

‘Gentlemen of the jury,’ said the leader, ‘the choice is death, or a fine of one thousand drachmas. Raise your hands for a fine.’

Euphorion saw arms held up all over the Pnyx, but fewer than half, he felt sure.

‘Now for the penalty of death.’

There was pause, as if the citizens sensed they were about to make a dreadful decision. Then hands arose everywhere.

Euphorion’s heart pounded. ‘They’re going to do it.’

‘The penalty is death,’ said the leader. He met Miltiades’ eyes for a moment. Miltiades gave him a nod. ‘Sentence to be carried out immediately.’

The guards drove the heralds at sword point through the crowd. They vanished down the stone steps toward the city, the citizens following in a dense, chattering throng.

‘I want to see it,’ said Philokles.

Euphorion gulped. He knew there was no point in arguing.

They climbed down the hill and joined the crowd, now trickling through the streets to the northwest corner of Athens.

To the barathron.


The citizens streamed out of the city like a pack of wolves. At last they reached a craggy hill covered in thorn bushes. The boys wormed their way toward the front. The eagerness in Philokles’ eyes was growing, as was the horror in Euphorion’s heart. He looked around for their fathers.

The crowd came to a stop, bodies tightly pressed. Euphorion felt he would choke in the stifling heat. They flowed forward again, into a bowl-shaped dip in the hill. Soon the hollow was packed with citizens peering down. Philokles squeezed through, dragging Euphorion by the wrist. Suddenly he stopped.

They were at the edge of a pit, eye-shaped, as deep as a pine tree was tall. It had been hacked out of a natural chasm and its sides had been fitted with iron hooks. On the far side stood the heralds, hands tied behind their backs. Near them were Miltiades, Themistokles, and the Council leader.

‘They’ll see us, Philo.’ Euphorion tried to pull his cousin back into the crowd but Philokles gripped his arm. On one side the crowd surged and a man stumbled on the edge of the pit. He cried out and two of his neighbours seized him just in time.

‘Be still!’ cried the Council leader.

Everyone was panting. Euphorion could not tell whether it was because of the hot climb, or what was about to happen.

‘Heralds of Darius,’ announced the leader, ‘you have been convicted by a jury and sentenced to death. You may utter your final words.’

One herald raised his eyes to the sky and spoke in his own tongue. The second stared wildly about.

A priest poured red wine into the chasm. ‘Zeus of the Lower Earth, lord of justice, send up Your righteous vengeance from hell, and crush the doer of reckless wrong.’

‘You will curse this day!’ cried the second Persian. ‘Our blood will cry for vengeance, and the Great King will answer. He will not forget Sardis. He will not forget Eretria. And he will not forget Athens!’

‘Carry out the sentence,’ said the Council leader.

Two soldiers forced the first herald to the edge of the barathron and drove him in with their swords. He gave a horrible moan as he fell. Euphorion saw his body crumple at the bottom. It twitched a few times then sagged.

The second herald was taken to a different point on the pit edge. ‘Miletos!’ he shrieked. As he trembled on the brink he looked at Euphorion and Philokles. ‘Your fathers will regret this.’

With a final poke the Persian tumbled into the chasm. His skull cracked on the rocks. A scarlet pool formed by his neck, staining his silk robes.

Euphorion felt faint. He leant on his knees, gasping for air. There was a movement behind him in the crowd. A powerful hand seized Philokles’ hair and spun him round. It was a heavyset, red-faced man with a silvery beard: his father, Kynegeiros.

Another hand grabbed Euphorion. He was not surprised to find it was his own father, Aeschylos.