Of the countless fig-related threats and insults that military leaders have hurled at one another over the course of human history, there’s one that really stands out for me. It was spoken by Xerxes the First, emperor of Persia, in about 480 BC, and was directed at the Athenians. It goes like this:
I shan’t buy my Attic figs in future, but grow them.
Kinda makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, doesn’t it? Those few words carried a clear and terrifying message for the Athenians: I mean business on the Greek peninsula. Xerxes, you see, had something of a chip on his shoulder as far as the Athenians were concerned. Ten years earlier the Athenians had defeated his father, Darius the First, at the Battle of Marathon, thwarting Persia’s attempt to dominate Greece.
In the ensuing years the Athenians pretty much went back to doing the things that Athenians did, including growing copious amounts of top-quality figs in the lands that surrounded Athens, an area known as Attica. The message Xerxes was sending was that in short order those orchards were going to be placed under new management. Luckily for the Athenians (and Western Civilization generally) things didn’t work out that way.
The Persians were the most formidable outside threat that classical Greek civilization ever faced. The Persian Empire was gigantic, stretching from what is now Turkey all the way east to India, and south around the Mediterranean into Egypt and Libya. Compared to that Greece was a tiny backwater, not even a country in the way we think of it, rather a smattering of independent (often warring) city states. Persia was the colossus next door: eager to expand, with an army of some 5 million men. What kept that army from sweeping over Greece like an Oriental rug was the fact that the Greek peninsula was hard to get to, surrounded by water on three sides with mountains to the North.
However there was one accessible pass. In extreme northeastern Greece there was a narrow, 1/4-mile-wide stretch of beach called Thermopylae that connected the two territories. The name literally meant the “Hot Gates”, and it lived up to its name when Xerxes, hungry for figs, tried to squeeze his entire 2-million-man invasion force through Thermopylae in a long skinny line.
What he didn’t expect was that waiting for him, instead of a rabble of artsy, philosophy-loving Athenians, was a tough-as-nails phalanx of 300 battle-hardened Spartans. Over the ensuing three days the forward end of Xerxes’ army was eaten up like a tree branch being fed into a wood chipper. In the end 300 hoplites (plus maybe a thousand or so of their support personnel) couldn’t hold out against 2 million determined Persians. The Spartans finally lost the battle — but not before they’d inflicted over 20,000 casualties.
Bloodied but still optimistic, the Persians swept down on foot and by ship toward Attica. Most Athenians evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis where they watched in horror as the Persians burned their beautiful city. Even so the Greeks still had a few tricks up their togas. In anticipation of the Persian invasion they had consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who told them that Salamis would bring death to “women’s sons”, but that a “wall of wood” would save them in the end. Some Athenians interpreted the Orcale literally and built a wooden wall around the Acropolis, then hid inside. The Persian response was to set fire to the wall, then slaughter everyone who came running out — a vivid reminder that interpretation is the really critical bit of fortune-telling.
It was the leader of the Greek army, Themistocles, who divined the oracle correctly. He interpreted the “wall of wood” as a reference to the wooden sides of the small, light and deadly Greek fighting ship, the trireme. He used those triremes to brilliant effect against the Persian fleet at the ensuing sea battle near Salamis. The Persians were once again defeated and Western civilization, which truly was on the verge of being snuffed out for good, was saved. Xerxes plodded home. He never again to set foot on Greek territory, and was forced to pay cash for his figs forever after.