Gateway to the Classics: Xerxes by Jacob Abbott
Xerxes by  Jacob Abbott

The Crossing of the Hellespont

A lthough the ancient Asia Minor was in the same latitude as New York, there was yet very little winter there. Snows fell, indeed, upon the summits of the mountains, and ice formed occasionally upon quiet streams, and yet, in general, the imaginations of the inhabitants, in forming mental images of frost and snow, sought them not in their own winters, but in the cold and icy regions of the north, of which, however, scarcely any thing was known to them except what was disclosed by wild and exaggerated rumors and legends.


There was, however, a period of blustering winds and chilly rains which was called winter, and Xerxes was compelled to wait, before commencing his invasion, until the inclement season had passed. As it was, he did not wholly escape the disastrous effects of the wintery gales. A violent storm arose while he was at Sardis, and broke up the bridge which he had built across the Hellespont. When the tidings of this disaster were brought to Xerxes at his winter quarters, he was very much enraged. He was angry both with the sea for having destroyed the structure, and with the architects who had built it for not having made it strong enough to stand against its fury. He determined to punish both the waves and the workmen. He ordered the sea to be scourged with a monstrous whip, and directed that heavy chains should be thrown into it, as symbols of his defiance of its power, and of his determination to subject it to his control. The men who administered this senseless discipline cried out to the sea, as they did it, in the following words, which Xerxes had dictated to them: "Miserable monster! this is the punishment which Xerxes your master inflicts upon you, on account of the unprovoked and wanton injury you have done him. Be assured that he will pass over you, whether you will or no. He hates and defies you, object as you are, through your insatiable cruelty, and the nauseous bitterness of your waters, of the common abomination of mankind."

As for the men who had built the bridge, which had been found thus inadequate to withstand the force of a wintery tempest, he ordered every one of them to be beheaded.

The vengeance of the king being thus satisfied, a new set of engineers and workmen were designated and ordered to build another bridge. Knowing, as, of course, they now did, that their lives depended upon the stability of their structure, they omitted no possible precaution which could tend to secure it. They selected the strongest ships, and arranged them in positions which would best enable them to withstand the pressure of the current. Each vessel was secured in its place by strong anchors, placed scientifically in such a manner as to resist, to the best advantage, the force of the strain to which they would be exposed. There were two ranges of these vessels, extending from shore to shore, containing over three hundred in each. In each range one or two vessels were omitted, on the Asiatic side, to allow boats and galleys to pass through, in order to keep the communication open. These omissions did not interfere with the use of the bridge, as the superstructure and the roadway above was continued over them.

The vessels which were to serve for the foundation of the bridge being thus arranged and secured in their places, two immense cables were made and stretched from shore to shore, each being fastened, at the ends, securely to the banks, and resting in the middle on the decks of the vessels. For the fastenings of these cables on the shore there were immense piles driven into the ground, and huge rings attached to the piles. The cables, as they passed along the decks of the vessels over the water, were secured to them all by strong cordage, so that each vessel was firmly and indissolubly bound to all the rest.

Over these cables a platform was made of trunks of trees, with branches placed upon them to fill the interstices and level the surface. The whole was then covered with a thick stratum of earth, which made a firm and substantial road like that of a public highway. A high and close fence was also erected on each side, so as to shut off the view of the water, which might otherwise alarm the horses and the beasts of burden that were to cross with the army.

When the news was brought to Xerxes at Sardis that the bridge was completed, and that all things were ready for the passage, he made arrangements for commencing his march. A circumstance, however, here occurred that at first alarmed him. It was no less a phenomenon than an eclipse of the sun. Eclipses were considered in those days as extraordinary and supernatural omens, and Xerxes was naturally anxious to know what this sudden darkness was meant to portend. He directed the magi to consider the subject, and to give him their opinion. Their answer was, that, as the sun was the guardian divinity of the Greeks, and the moon that of the Persians, the meaning of the sudden withdrawal of the light of day doubtless was, that Heaven was about to withhold its protection from the Greeks in the approaching struggle. Xerxes was satisfied with this explanation, and the preparations for the march went on.

The movement of the grand procession from the city of Sardis was inconceivably splendid. First came the long trains of baggage, on mules, and camels, and horses, and other beasts of burden, attended by the drivers, and the men who had the baggage in charge. Next came an immense body of troops of all nations, marching irregularly, but under the command of the proper officers. Then, after a considerable interval, came a body of a thousand horse, splendidly caparisoned, and followed by a thousand spearmen, who marched trailing their spears upon the ground, in token of respect and submission to the king who was coming behind them.

Next to these troops, and immediately in advance of the king, were certain religious and sacred objects and personages, on which the people who gazed upon this gorgeous spectacle looked with the utmost awe and veneration. There were, first, ten sacred horses, splendidly caparisoned, each led by his groom, who was clothed in appropriate robes, as a sort of priest officiating in the service of a god. Behind these came the sacred car of Jupiter. This car was very large, and elaborately worked, and was profusely ornamented with gold. It was drawn by eight white horses. No human being was allowed to set his foot upon any part of it, and, consequently, the reins of the horses were carried back, under the car, to the charioteer, who walked behind. Xerxes's own chariot came next, drawn by very splendid horses, selected especially for their size and beauty. His charioteer, a young Persian noble, sat by his side.

Then came great bodies of troops. There was one corps of two thousand men, the life-guards of the king, who were armed in a very splendid and costly manner, to designate their high rank in the army, and the exalted nature of their duty as personal attendants on the sovereign. One thousand of these life-guards were foot soldiers, and the other thousand horsemen. After the life-guards came a body of ten thousand infantry, and after them ten thousand cavalry. This completed what was strictly the Persian part of the army. There was an interval of about a quarter of a mile in the rear of these bodies of troops, and then came a vast and countless multitude of servants, attendants, adventurers, and camp followers of every description—a confused, promiscuous, disorderly, and noisy throng.

The immediate destination of this vast horde was Abydos; for it was between Sestos, on the European shore, and Abydos, on the Asiatic, that the bridge had been built. To reach Abydos, the route was north, through the province of Mysia. In their progress the guides of the army kept well inland, so as to avoid the indentations of the coast, and the various small rivers which here flow westward toward the sea. Thus advancing, the army passed to the right of Mount Ida, and arrived at last on the bank of the Scamander. Here they encamped. They were upon the plain of Troy.

The world was filled, in those days, with the glory of the military exploits which had been performed, some ages before, in the siege and capture of Troy; and it was the custom for every military hero who passed the site of the city to pause in his march and spend some time amid the scenes of those ancient conflicts, that he might inspirit and invigorate his own ambition by the associations of the spot, and also render suitable honors to the memories of those that fell there. Xerxes did this. Alexander subsequently did it. Xerxes examined the various localities, ascended the ruins of the citadel of Priam, walked over the ancient battle fields, and at length, when his curiosity had thus been satisfied, he ordered a grand sacrifice of a thousand oxen to be made, and a libation of corresponding magnitude to be offered, in honor of the shades of the dead heroes whose deeds had consecrated the spot.

Whatever excitement and exhilaration, however, Xerxes himself may have felt, in approaching, under these circumstances, the transit of the stream, where the real labors and dangers of his expedition were to commence, his miserable and helpless soldiers did not share them. Their condition and prospects were wretched in the extreme. In the first place, none of them went willingly. In modern times, at least in England and America, armies are recruited by enticing the depraved and the miserable to enlist, by tendering them a bounty, as it is called, that is, a sum of ready money, which, as a means of temporary and often vicious pleasure, presents a temptation they can not resist. The act of enlistment is, however, in a sense voluntary, so that those who have homes, and friends, and useful pursuits in which they are peacefully engaged, are not disturbed. It was not so with the soldiers of Xerxes. They were slaves, and had been torn from their rural homes all over the empire by a merciless conscription, from which there was no possible escape. Their life in camp, too, was comfortless and wretched. At the present day, when it is so much more difficult than it then was to obtain soldiers, and when so much more time and attention are required to train them to their work in the modern art of war, soldiers must be taken care of when obtained; but in Xerxes's day it was much easier to get new supplies of recruits than to incur any great expense in providing for the health and comfort of those already in the service. The arms and trappings, it is true, of such troops as were in immediate attendance on the king, were very splendid and gay, though this was only decoration, after all, and the king's decoration too, not theirs. In respect, however, to every thing like personal comfort, whether of food and of clothing, or the means of shelter and repose, the common soldiers were utterly destitute and wretched. They felt no interest in the campaign; they had nothing to hope for from its success, but a continuance, if their lives were spared, of the same miserable bondage which they had always endured. There was, however, little probability even of this; for whether, in the case of such an invasion, the aggressor was to succeed or to fail, the destiny of the soldiers personally was almost inevitable destruction. The mass of Xerxes's army was thus a mere herd of slaves, driven along by the whips of their officers, reluctant, wretched, and despairing.

This helpless mass was overtaken one night, among the gloomy and rugged defiles and passes of Mount Ida, by a dreadful storm of wind and rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Unprovided as they were with the means of protection against such tempests, they were thrown into confusion, and spent the night in terror. Great numbers perished, struck by the lightning, or exhausted by the cold and exposure; and afterward, when they encamped on the plains of Troy, near the Scamander, the whole of the water of the stream was not enough to supply the wants of the soldiers and the immense herds of beasts of burden, so that many thousands suffered severely from thirst.

All these things conspired greatly to depress the spirits of the men, so that, at last, when they arrived in the vicinity of Abydos, the whole army was in a state of extreme dejection and despair. This, however, was of little consequence. The repose of a master so despotic and lofty as Xerxes is very little disturbed by the mental sorrows of his slaves. Xerxes reached Abydos, and prepared to make the passage of the strait in a manner worthy of the grandeur of the occasion.

The first thing was to make arrangements for a great parade of his forces, not, apparently, for the purpose of accomplishing any useful end of military organization in the arrangement of the troops, but to gratify the pride and pleasure of the sovereign with an opportunity of surveying them. A great white throne of marble was accordingly erected on an eminence not far from the shore of the Hellespont, from which Xerxes looked down with great complacency and pleasure, on the one hand, upon the long lines of troops, the countless squadrons of horsemen, the ranges of tents, and the vast herds of beasts of burden which were assembled on the land, and, on the other hand, upon the fleets of ships, and boats, and galleys at anchor upon the sea; while the shores of Europe were smiling in the distance, and the long and magnificent roadway which he had made lay floating upon the water, all ready to take his enormous armament across whenever he should issue the command.

Any deep emotion of the human soul, in persons of a sensitive physical organization, tends to tears; and Xerxes's heart, being filled with exultation and pride, and with a sense of inexpressible grandeur and sublimity as he looked upon this scene, was softened by the pleasurable excitements of the hour, and though, at first, his countenance was beaming with satisfaction and pleasure, his uncle Artabanus, who stood by his side, soon perceived that tears were standing in his eyes. Artabanus asked him what this meant. It made him sad, Xerxes replied, to reflect that, immensely vast as the countless multitude before him was, in one hundred years from that time not one of them all would be alive.

The tender-heartedness which Xerxes manifested on this occasion, taken in connection with the stern and unrelenting tyranny which he was exercising over the mighty mass of humanity whose mortality he mourned, has drawn forth a great variety of comments from writers of every age who have repeated the story. Artabanus replied to it on the spot by saying that he did not think that the king ought to give himself too much uneasiness on the subject of human liability to death, for it happened, in a vast number of cases, that the privations and sufferings of men were so great, that often, in the course of their lives, they rather wished to die than to live; and that death was, consequently, in some respects, to be regarded, not as in itself a woe, but rather as the relief and remedy for woe.

There is no doubt that this theory of Artabanus, so far as it applied to the unhappy soldiers of Xerxes, all marshaled before him when he uttered it, was eminently true.

Xerxes admitted that what his uncle said was just, but it was, he said, melancholy subject, and so he changed the conversation. He asked his uncle whether he still entertained the same doubts and fears in respect to the expedition that he had expressed at Susa when the plan was first proposed in the council. Artabanus replied that he most sincerely hoped that the prognostications of the vision would prove true, but that he had still great apprehensions of the result. "I have been reflecting," continued he, "with great care on the whole subject, and it seems to me that there are two dangers of very serious character to which your expedition will be imminently exposed."

Xerxes wished to know what they were.

"They both arise," said Artabanus, "from the immense magnitude of your operations. In the first place, you have so large a number of ships, galleys, and transports in your fleet, that I do not see how, when you have gone down upon the Greek coast, if a storm should arise, you are going to find shelter for them. There are no harbors there large enough to afford anchorage ground for such an immense number of vessels."

"And what is the other danger?" asked Xerxes.

"The other is the difficulty of finding food for such a vast multitude of men as you have brought together in your armies. The quantity of food necessary to supply such countless numbers is almost incalculable. Your granaries and magazines will soon be exhausted, and then, as no country whatever that you can pass through will have resources of food adequate for such a multitude of mouths, it seems to me that your march must inevitably end in a famine. The less resistance you meet with, and the further you consequently advance, the worse it will be for you. I do not see how this fatal result can possibly be avoided; and so uneasy and anxious am I on the subject, that I have no rest or peace."

"I admit," said Xerxes, in reply, "that what you say is not wholly unreasonable; but in great undertakings it will never do to take counsel wholly of our fears. I am willing to submit to a very large portion of the evils to which I expose myself on this expedition, rather than not accomplish the end which I have in view. Besides, the most prudent and cautious counsels are not always the best. He who hazards nothing gains nothing. I have always observed that in all the affairs of human life, those who exhibit some enterprise and courage in what they undertake are far more likely to be successful than those who weigh every thing and consider every thing, and will not advance where they can see any remote prospect of danger. If my predecessors had acted on the principles which you recommend, the Persian empire would never have acquired the greatness to which it has now attained. In continuing to act on the same principles which governed them, I confidently expect the same success. We shall conquer Europe, and then return in peace, I feel assured, without encountering the famine which you dread so much, or any other great calamity."

On hearing these words, and observing how fixed and settled the determinations of Xerxes were, Artabanus said no more on the general subject, but on one point he ventured to offer his counsel to his nephew, and that was on the subject of employing the Ionians in the war. The Ionians were Greeks by descent. Their ancestors had crossed the Ægean Sea, and settled at various places along the coast of Asia Minor, in the western part of the provinces of Caria, Lydia, and Mysia. Artabanus thought it was dangerous to take these men to fight against their countrymen. However faithfully disposed they might be in commencing the enterprise, a thousand circumstances might occur to shake their fidelity and lead them to revolt, when they found themselves in the land of their forefathers, and heard the enemies against whom they had been brought to contend speaking their own mother tongue.

Xerxes, however, was not convinced by Artabanus's arguments. He thought that the employment of the Ionians was perfectly safe. They had been eminently faithful and firm, he said, under Histiæus, in the time of Darius's invasion of Scythia, when Darius had left them to guard his bridge over the Danube. They had proved themselves trustworthy then, and he would, he said, accordingly trust them now. "Besides," he added, "they have left their property, their wives and their children, and all else that they hold dear, in our hands in Asia, and they will not dare, while weretain such hostages, to do any thing against us."

Xerxes said, however, that since Artabanus was so much concerned in respect to the result of the expedition, he should not be compelled to accompany it any further, but that he might return to Susa instead, and take charge of the government there until Xerxes should return.

A part of the celebration on the great day of parade, on which this conversation between the king and his uncle was held, consisted of a naval sea fight, waged on the Hellespont, between two of the nations of his army, for the king's amusement. The Phœnicians were the victors in this combat. Xerxes was greatly delighted with the combat, and, in fact, with the whole of the magnificent spectacle which the day had displayed.

Soon after this, Xerxes dismissed Artabanus, ordering him to return to Susa, and to assume the regency of the empire. He convened, also, another general council of the nobles of his court and the officers of the army, to announce to them that the time had arrived for crossing the bridge, and to make his farewell address to them before they should take their final departure from Asia. He exhorted them to enter upon the great work before them with a determined and resolute spirit, saying that if the Greeks were once subdued, no other enemies able at all to cope with the Persians would be left on the habitable globe.

On the dismission of the council, orders were given to commence the crossing of the bridge the next day at sunrise. The preparations were made accordingly. In the morning, as soon as it was light, and while waiting for the rising of the sun, they burned upon the bridge all manner of perfumes, and strewed the way with branches of myrtle, the emblem of triumph and joy. As the time for the rising of the sun drew nigh, Xerxes stood with a golden vessel full of wine, which he was to pour out as a libation as soon as the first dazzling beams should appear above the horizon. When, at length, the moment arrived, he poured out the wine into the sea, throwing the vessel in which it had been contained after it as an offering. He also threw in, at the same time, a golden goblet of great value, and a Persian cimeter. The ancient historian who records these facts was uncertain whether these offerings were intended as acts of adoration addressed to the sun, or as oblations presented to the sea—a sort of peace offering, perhaps, to soothe the feelings of the mighty monster, irritated and chafed by the chastisement which it had previously received.


Xerxes Crossing the Hellespont.

One circumstance indicated that the offering was intended for the sun, for, at the time of making it, Xerxes addressed to the great luminary a sort of petition, which might be considered either an apostrophe or a prayer, imploring its protection. He called upon the sun to accompany and defend the expedition, and to preserve it from every calamity until it should have accomplished its mission of subjecting all Europe to the Persian sway.

The army then commenced its march. The order of march was very much the same as that which had been observed in the departure from Sardis. The beasts of burden and the baggage were preceded and followed by immense bodies of troops of all nations. The whole of the first day was occupied by the passing of this part of the army. Xerxes himself, and the sacred portion of the train, were to follow them on the second day. Accordingly, there came, on the second day, first, an immense squadron of horse, with garlands on the heads of the horsemen; next, the sacred horses and the sacred car of Jupiter. Then came Xerxes himself, in his war chariot, with trumpets sounding, and banners waving in the air. At the moment when Xerxes's chariot entered upon the bridge, the fleet of galleys, which had been drawn up in preparation near the Asiatic shore, were set in motion, and moved in a long and majestic line across the strait to the European side, accompanying and keeping pace with their mighty master in his progress. Thus was spent the second day.

Five more days were consumed in getting over the remainder of the army, and the immense trains of beasts and of baggage which followed. The officers urged the work forward as rapidly as possible, and, toward the end, as is always the case in the movement of such enormous masses, it became a scene of inconceivable noise, terror, and confusion. The officers drove forward men and beasts alike by the lashes of their whips—every one struggling, under the influence of such stimulants, to get forward—while fallen animals, broken wagons, and the bodies of those exhausted and dying with excitement and fatigue, choked the way. The mighty mass was, however, at last transferred to the European continent, full of anxious fears in respect to what awaited them, but yet having very faint and feeble conceptions of the awful scenes in which the enterprise of their reckless leader was to end.

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