In the autumn of 481 b.c. Xerxes led his vast hosts to Sardis. His warriors were of many different races, and each was clad in the dress of the country from which he came. Each, too, was armed with his own weapon, and each talked his own language. So you can picture to yourself with what a strange army Xerxes set out to conquer Greece.
From Sardis he sent heralds, with an interpreter, into Greece, to demand from the people earth and water, the signs of their subjection to the great king of Persia.
Themistocles was so angry with the interpreter, who was a barbarian, for daring to utter the demands of Xerxes in the Greek language, that he ordered him to be put to death.
Another messenger was then sent by Xerxes, and he brought with him gold to bribe the Athenians to join the Persians. Him also Themistocles punished.
Now that danger was near, the Athenians recalled Aristides from exile. They were afraid lest he should join the Persians, for they knew that if he did so, many of his friends would go over to the enemy with him. But it was a needless fear, and the citizens might well have trusted the exile not to betray his country. Even before he knew that his banishment was over, Aristides had begun to stir up the Greeks that were with him to fight against the Persians.
Themistocles, too, was using all his influence to persuade the different States to lay aside the quarrels they had with one another and to fight together against the force that was coming to invade their land.
Meanwhile Xerxes, to avoid sailing across the Hellespont with his vast army, ordered a bridge to be built across it. But soon after the bridge was finished, a violent storm dashed it into fragments.
When Xerxes heard of the disaster, his cruel and childish temper was roused. He ordered the engineers who had planned the bridge to be beheaded, and that was a cruel act. He also commanded that the Hellespont should be scourged with three hundred stripes and that a pair of fetters should be cast into the sea, and these were foolish acts. "He sent branders, too, as some say, to brand the Hellespont; and he charged them to rebuke the water and cry unto it, 'O bitter water, thus doth the king punish thee, because without wrong from him thou has done him harm.' "
Before long a new bridge was built, with hedges planted on either side, so that the horses as they passed across might not be frightened by seeing the water.
First of the great host came a thousand gallant Persian troops, followed by a thousand spearmen. The points of their lances were turned downward; on the handles, which were held aloft, shone golden pomegranates.
Ten sacred horses, with splendid trappings, stepped behind the spearmen, while after the horses came a chariot, dedicated to Zeus, and drawn by eight white horses. No driver was allowed to mount the sacred chariot, he might only walk behind, holding the reins in his hands.
Xerxes himself was in another chariot, surrounded by a thousand guards, bearing spears, upon which glistened apples of gold. Ten thousand of the king's own bodyguard were named the Immortals, for, if one of their number was slain or if one died, his place was at once filled, so that the number of the Immortals might never become less.
As I told you, the Persian army was made up of many different tribes.
"Æthiopians from beyond Egypt were there, clad in leopard skins, and carrying bows made of the central rib of the palm leaf, while their arrows were reeds tipped with sharp fragments of stone. They carried as well spears, pointed with gazelles' horns or knotted clubs. Half their body they painted white and half red before going into battle." Some had no arms but only a lasso and a long knife; others bore staves that had had their points hardened in the fire.
From Caucasus came wild tribes that had no armour to protect their bodies, and only wooden hats to guard their heads.
Xerxes's army was indeed vast, but with so many half-clad and but poorly armed barbarians in his ranks, he would, had he been wise, have feared to face the small but well-armed and well-trained forces of the Greeks.
On the shore of the Hellespont a throne of white stone or marble was placed, and here Xerxes took his seat to watch his army cross the bridge which led from Asia into Europe.
But before the vast host began to move "Xerxes poured wine from a golden cup into the sea and prayed to the Sun that no harm might happen to him, which might prevent him from conquering all Europe. Then he threw the cup into the Hellespont with a golden goblet and a Persian dagger."
It is said that the king called himself a happy man as he watched the countless numbers of his troops crossing the bridge. But soon after Artabanus was amazed to see him burst into tears.
"O king," he said, "thou doest strange things; even now thou didst call thyself happy and yet thou weepest."
"Thought came upon me and sorrow for the shortness of the life of man," answered Xerxes, "because after a hundred years, of all this great host not one shall remain alive."
When the army had crossed the bridge, it marched on toward the plain of Thessaly, while the fleet, sailing round the south-east point of the same country, anchored near the promontory of Magnesia. Here it was as near to the army as it was possible for it to be. Not long after the fleet had anchored, a sudden storm arose, and for three days did much damage to the ships.
The Greeks meanwhile had been preparing to fight the invaders. They had sent spies to Sardis to find out, not only the numbers of the Persian host, but its mettle.
As it chanced, the spies were captured and were on the point of being put to death, when Xerxes ordered them to be brought before him.
When they stood in his presence, he demanded why they had ventured into the camp of the enemy. On hearing the reason he bade an officer show them the strength of his army and then send them back unharmed to their own country. "For," said the king, "if the spies had been killed, the Greeks could not have heard beforehand of all my great might, yet it would do them but little hurt to slay three men. But now will I have no trouble by marching against them, when the spies have already told of my mighty army."
So confident was the king that he would conquer the enemy without difficulty, that when vessels filled with corn sailed past his fleet on the way to Athens, he would not allow any of his ships to pursue them.
"Whither are they sailing?" asked Xerxes when the corn ships were pointed out to him.
"To thy enemies, O king, laden with corn," answered his anxious councillors.
"Why, we are going thither also," said the king. "What harm do they do by taking corn for me?"
Now that the Persians were actually at hand the Spartans and Athenians summoned the Greek states to a council of war to be held at the Isthmus of Corinth. But some of the states were afraid, and instead of attending the council they sent earth and water to Xerxes.
Thessaly, in the north, would be the first to suffer from the invading army. So a Greek force was sent to the Pass of Tempe, between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa, to try to stop the advance of the Persians.
But there were other ways by which the enemy could slip past the Greeks, so after a time, they determined to withdraw from Thessaly. The northern people, being thus left defenceless, hastened to submit to Xerxes while there was still time.