Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

Xerxes And His Army

The defeat of the Persian army at Marathon redoubled the wrath of King Darius against the Athenians. He resolved in his autocratic mind to sweep that pestilent city and all whom it contained from the face of the earth. And he perhaps would have done so had he not met a more terrible foe even than Miltiades and his army,—the all-conqueror Death, to whose might the greatest monarchs must succumb. Burning with fury, Darius ordered the levy of a mighty army, and for three years busy preparations for war went on throughout the vast empire of Persia. But, just as the mustering was done and he was about to march, that grisly foe Death struck him down in the midst of his schemes of conquest, and Greece was saved,—the great Darius was no more.

Xerxes, son of Darius, succeeded him on the throne. This new monarch was the handsomest and stateliest man in all his army. But his fair outside covered a weak nature; timid, faint-hearted, vain, conceited, he was not the man to conquer Greece, small as it was and great as was the empire under his control; and the death of Darius was in all probability the salvation of Greece.

Xerxes succeeded not only to the throne of Persia, but also to the vast army which his father had brought together. He succeeded, moreover, to a war, for Egypt was in revolt. But this did not last long; the army was at once set in motion, Egypt was quickly subdued, and the Egyptians found themselves under a worse tyranny than before.

Greece remained to conquer, and for that enterprise the timid Persian king was not eager. Marathon could not be forgotten. Those fierce Athenians who had defeated his father's great host were not to be dealt with so easily as the unwarlike Egyptians. He held back irresolute, now persuaded to war by one councillor, now to peace by another, and finally—so we are told—driven to war by a dream, in which a tall, stately man appeared to him and with angry countenance commanded him not to abandon the enterprise which his father had designed. This dream came to him again the succeeding night, and when Artabanus, his uncle, and the advocate of peace, was made to sit on his throne and sleep in his bed, the same figure appeared to him, and threatened to burn out his eyes if he still opposed the war. Artabanus, stricken with terror, now counselled war, and Xerxes determined on the invasion of Greece.

This story we are told by Herodotus, who told many things which it is not very safe to believe. What we really know is that Xerxes began the most stupendous preparations for war that had ever been known, and added to the army left by his father until he had got together the greatest host the world had yet beheld. For four years those preparations, to which Darius had already given three years of time, were actively continued. Horsemen and foot-soldiers, ships of war, transports, provisions, and supplies of all kinds were collected far and near, the vanity of Xerxes probably inciting him to astonish the world by the greatness of his army.

In the autumn of the year 481 b.c. this vast army, marching from all parts of the mighty empire, reached Lydia and gathered in and around the city of Sardis, the old capital of Crœsus. Besides the land army, a fleet of twelve hundred and seven ships of war, and numerous other vessels, were collected, and large magazines of provisions were formed at points along the whole line of march. For years flour and other food, from Asia and Egypt, had been stored in cities on the route, that the fatal enemy starvation might not attack the mighty host.

Two important questions occupied the mind of Xerxes. How was he to get his vast army on European soil, and how escape those dangers from storm which had wrecked his father's fleet? He might cross the sea in ships, as Datis had done,—and be like him defeated. Xerxes thought it safest to keep on solid land, and decided to build a bridge of boats across the Hellespont, that ocean river now known as the Dardanelles, the first of the two straits which connect the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. As for the other trouble, that of storms at sea, he remembered the great gale which had wrecked the fleet of Mardonius off the stormy cape of Mount Athos, and determined to avoid this danger. A narrow neck of land connects Mount Athos with the mainland. Xerxes ordered that a ship-canal should be cut through this isthmus, wide and deep enough to allow two triremes—war-ships with three ranks of oars—to sail abreast.

This work was done by the Phœnicians, the ablest engineers at that time in the world. A canal was made through which his whole fleet could sail, and thus the stormy winds and waves which hovered about Mount Athos be avoided.

This work was successfully done, but not so the bridge of boats. Hardly had the latter been completed, when there came so violent a storm that the cables were snapped like pack-thread and the bridge swept away. With the weakness of a man of small mind, on hearing of this disaster Xerxes burst into a fit of insane rage. He ordered that the heads of the chief engineers should be cut off, but this was far from satisfying his anger. The elements had risen against his might, and the elements themselves must be punished. The Hellespont should be scourged for its temerity, and three hundred lashes were actually given the water, while a set of fetters were cast into its depths. It is further said that the water was branded with hot irons, but it is hard to believe that even Xerxes was such a fool as this would make him.

The rebellious water thus punished, Xerxes regained his wits, and ordered that the bridge should be rebuilt more strongly than before. Huge cables were made, some of flax, some of papyrus fibre, to anchor the ships in the channel and to bind them to the shore. Two bridges were constructed, composed of large ships laid side by side in the water, while over each of them stretched six great cables, to moor them to the laud and to support the wooden causeway. In one of these bridges no less than three hundred and sixty ships were employed.

And now, everything being ready, the mighty army began its march. It presented a grand spectacle as it made its way from Sardis to the sea. First of all came the baggage, borne on thousands of camels and other beasts of burden. Then came one-half the infantry. The other half marched in the rear, while between them were Xerxes and his great body-guard, which is thus described by the Greek historian:

First came a thousand Persian cavalry and as many spearmen, each of the latter having a golden pomegranate on the rear end of his spear, which was carried in the air, the point being turned downward. Then came ten sacred horses, splendidly caparisoned, and following them rolled the sacred chariot of Zeus, drawn by eight white horses. This was succeeded by the chariot of Xerxes himself, who was immediately attended by a thousand horse-guards, the choicest troops of the kingdom, of whose spears the ends glittered with golden apples. Then came detachments of one thousand horse, ten thousand foot, and ten thousand horse. These foot-soldiers, called the Immortals, because their number was always maintained, had pomegranates of silver on their spears, with the exception of one thousand, who marched in front and rear and on the sides, and bore pomegranates of gold. After these household troops followed the vast remaining host.

The army of Xerxes was, as we have said, superior in numbers to any the world had ever seen. Forty-six nations had sent their quotas to the host, each with its different costume, arms, mode of march, and system of fighting. Only those from Asia Minor bore such arms as the Greeks were used to fight with. Most of the others were armed with javelins or other light weapons, and bore slight shields or none at all. Some came armed only with daggers and a lasso like that used on the American plains. The Ethiopians from the Upper Nile had their bodies painted half red and half white, wore lion-and panther-skins, and carried javelins and bows. Few of the whole army bore the heavy weapons or displayed the solid fighting phalanx of those whom they had come to meet in war.

As to the number of men thus brought together from half the continent of Asia we cannot be sure. Xerxes, after reaching Europe, took an odd way of counting his army. Ten thousand men were counted and packed close together. Then a line was drawn around them, and a wall built about the space. The whole army was then marched in successive detachments into this walled enclosure. Herodotus tells us that there were one hundred and seventy of these divisions, which would make the whole army one million seven hundred thousand foot. In addition there were eighty thousand horse, many war-chariots, and a fleet of twelve hundred and seven triremes and three thousand smaller vessels. According to Herodotus, the whole host, soldiers and sailors, numbered two million six hundred and forty thousand men, and there were as many or more camp-followers, so that the whole number present, according to this estimate, was over five million men. It is not easy to believe that such a marching host as this could be fed, and it has probably been much exaggerated; yet there is no doubt that the host was vast enough almost to blow away all the armies of Greece with the wind of its coming.

On leaving Sardis a frightful spectacle was provided by Xerxes: the army found itself marching between two halves of a slaughtered man. Pythius, an old Phrygian of great riches, had entertained Xerxes with much hospitality, and offered him all his wealth, amounting to two thousand talents of silver and nearly four million darics of gold. This generous offer Xerxes declined, and gave Pythius enough gold to make up his darics to an even four millions. Then, when the army was about to march, the old man told Xerxes that he had five sons in the army, and begged that one of them, the eldest, might be left with him as a stay to his declining years. Instantly the despot burst into a rage. The request of exemption from military service was in Persia an unpardonable offence. The hospitality of Pythius was forgotten, and Xerxes ordered that his son should be slain, and half the body hung on each side of the army, probably as a salutary warning to all who should have the temerity to question the despot's arbitrary will.

On marched the great army. It crossed the plain of Troy, and here Xerxes offered libations in honor of the heroes of the Trojan war, the story of which was told him. Reaching the Hellespont, he had a marble throne erected, from which to view the passage of his troops. The bridges—which the scourged and branded waters had now spared—were perfumed with frankincense and strewed with myrtle boughs, and, as the march began, Xerxes offered prayers to the sun, and made libations to the sea with a golden censer, which he then flung into the water, together with a golden bowl and a Persian scimitar, perhaps to repay the Hellespont for the stripes he had inflicted upon it.

At the first moment of sunrise the passage began, the troops marching across one bridge, the baggage and attendants crossing the other. All day the march continued, and all night long, the whip being used to accelerate the troops; yet so vast was the host that for seven days and nights, without cessation, the army moved on, and a week was at its end before the last man of the great Persian host set foot on European soil.

Then down through the Grecian peninsula Xerxes marched, doubtless inflated with pride at the greatness of his host and the might of the fleet which sailed down the neighboring seas and through the canal which he had cut to baffle stormy Athos. One regret alone seemed to come into his mind, and that was that in a hundred years not one man of that vast army would be alive. It did not occur to him that in less than one year few of them might be alive, for all thought of any peril to his army and fleet from the insignificant numbers of the Greeks must have been dismissed with scorn from his mind.

Like locusts the army marched southward through Thrace, eating up the cities as it advanced, for each was required to provide a day's meals for the mighty host. For months those cities had been engaged in providing the food which this army consumed in a day. Many of the cities were brought to the verge of ruin, and all of them were glad to see the army march on. At length Xerxes saw before him Mount Olympus, on the northern boundary of the land of Hellas or Greece. This was the end of his own dominions. He was now about to enter the territory of his foes. With what fortune he did so must be left for later tales.

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