In the year 480 BC, leaders of the alliance of Greek city-states were in peril. Recent losses at Thermopylae and an unsuccessful stalemate at Artemisium had hampered their cause to remain independent of Persia. To make matters worse, Boeotia and Attica, with proud Athens within, were under control of the Persians. Athens was obliterated. The Greek Alliance was to pull back their hoplites to the Isthmus of Corinth to defend what remained of free Greece. The navy, however, was to stay at the island of Salamis, south of Attica, to prevent the Persians from landing their navy behind the Greek lines in Corinth. The other Allies, however preferred to sail to the coast south of Corinth to consolidate with the army. OTL, Themistocles persuaded the other Allies to keep the navy at Salamis, under threat of him leaving with the Athenian refugees for Sicily, and the Greeks scored a major victory at Salamis that ensured the immediate freedom of Greece. What if, however, the other Allies were more stubborn, and believed that the Athenian navy would not desert them for Themistocles' Sicily plan. This timeline explores that possibility.
Themistocles, in a fit of rage, and as threatened, went to the Athenian refugees in Salamis and told them that they were sailing to Sicily. The forces of the other Allies quickly tried to subdue him, but him and several other ships full of Athenians escaped to a small island in the Aegean Sea. Eventually, approximately 5000 Athenians, including Aeschylus and Herodotus, who was a seasoned traveler who was to guide the refugees to their destination, Sicily. Originally planning to land north of Catania, a storm blew them off-course, and they landed in Malta, near OTL Birzebbuga.
Back in Greece, the remaining Allies held Corinth, and the Persian fleet, as predicted, was to try to land at the Peloponnesus. The Greek navy, however, awaited them near the island of Kalaureia. A battle was fought, but eventually the Persians came out victorious, with the Greeks lacking the leadership and cunning of Themistocles. The Persians then landed their ships, and took the Peloponnesus from the metaphorical "back door". The final stand for the Greeks was at Corinth, but they were overrun by the Persians' superior numbers. Xerxes I was there and saw the Greek commanders executed. Corinth then, was burnt to the ground. A Persian regional capital was set up in Thebes, a city loyal to the Persians, and Greece became a Persian satrapy.
Xerxes, fearing the Greeks' rebellious nature, destroyed several cities such as Sparta that were not fully loyal, and were known for their rebellious nature. Greece became, almost overnight, even more of an agrarian backwater than it was before. Greeks no longer lived (for the most part) in isolated city-states, many were now huddled in small villages spread across the peninsula. Despite Persia being relatively decentralized and the taxation system being relatively fair, the proud Greek polis culture had ended. Thus, the Golden Age of Greece was stillborn.
On Malta, however it was a different story. The island had been a small Phoenician trade-hub, and the Athenians were easily able to conquer the Phoenicians, setting off a long period of rivalry between New Athens and Carthage, the Phoenician city-state that controlled the island. Malta, however, was not very important to Carthage, and it was mostly ignored. New Athens began to grow, and a navy was built, fearing a disaster akin to Salamis that would wipe out the state. Allies were also searched for, and eventually they were found in the Greek city-states in Magna Graecia, most notably being Syracuse. In the end, however, Malta could not support a large city-state, as there were no permanent lakes or rivers, and few forests for timber. The ever-ambitious New Athenians founded several small colonies in southern Sicily.
This leads to an interesting world, where the glory days of Greece never existed, opening it to a world of new possibilities. This will be fleshed out when much of the rest of the timeline is done.