EPISODE 2: GOLDEN AGE
The second part recounts the Greeks' heroic victory against the mighty Persian empire through the life of Themistocles, one of Athens' greatest generals.The episode opens in 490 B.C. when tiny Athens prepares to safeguard its growing economy and infant democracy against an invasion by Persian armies of Darius the Great. When the Persians arrive for battle, the Greek courier Phidippides runs 140 miles to Sparta in two days to solicit help from its army, according the historian Herodotus. But Sparta, Athens' rival, refuses to participate. The outnumbered Athenians, fighting to uphold their life of freedom, defeat the Persians and send them in humiliation back to Asia. But one Athenian, Themistocles, realizes Athens has not seen the last of the proud Persians. He persuades city leaders to build a fleet of war ships. These ships, called triremes, are "floating missiles" with projecting bows designed specifically to ram enemy vessels. While the Athenians execute their plans, the Persian ruler Darius dies and his son Xerxes succeeds to the throne. Under pressure to take revenge against the Greeks, he assembles an army of two million men. When the terrified Greeks ask the Delphic Oracle for advice, she simply tells them to flee. But Themistocles refuses to panic. Instead, he again petitions the Delphic Oracle, and this time she predicts that a "wooden wall" will protect the Greeks. First, he orders Athens abandoned, installs his fleet at the Aegean island of Salamis, and sends a "traitor" to the Persians to tell them that the Athenians are fleeing and are easy prey for the Persian fleet. When Persian ships move into the strait between Salamis and the Greek mainland, the triremes ram and sink 200 Persian vessels, and Athens wins the war. Greece, now master of the Mediterranean, undergoes one of the most startling intellectual and physical transformations in history. Pericles, the elected leader of Athens, oversees the building of the Parthenon and an extraordinary flourishing of the arts and sciences, laying the foundation for what is now called "Western culture."