Ten years passed since Darius’ humiliating defeat in the Battle of Marathon. His son, Xerxes was now king of Persia and he wished to take revenge on the Greeks, especially on the Athenians and the Spartans. But he did not merely wish to take revenge: his goal was to extend his empire over the Greek mainland and beyond, “as far as God’s heaven reaches”. He aimed at creating the first empire on which the sun never set. (If you ever wondered where the phrase, first used about the Spanish empire, then the British, originated, Xerxes’s comment in VII.8, ie. “the sun will shine on no land beyond our borders” is a good contender.) Xerxes’ speech is also the reason why some historians see the Greek-Persian Wars as a crucial defining moment of Western civilisation; that moment in history in which the Greek idea of freedom (accompanied by the inevitable in-fighting) collided with the Eastern idea of the god-king…
Xerxes Prepares to Go to War
Xerxes left nothing to chance; his preparations to ensure the success of his campaign lasted years. Rivers were bridged…
“…he was having cables prepared for his bridges, some of papyrus and some of white flax, a business which he entrusted to the Phoenicians and the Egyptians.”
>…and provisions were collected to feed the army en route:
“He likewise laid up stores of provisions in divers places, to save the army and the beasts of burthen from suffering want upon their march into Greece. He inquired carefully about all the sites, and had the stores laid up in such as were most convenient, causing them to be brought across from various parts of Asia and in various ways, some in transports and others in merchantmen.” (VII.25)
And since the only way into Greece lay over the sea, he ordered his troops to construct a bridge made of boats – so the army, and all of its supplies and supporting personnel, could cross the Hellespont on foot. When this bridge was destroyed by a storm, he executed the engineers and had the Hellespont whipped before he had another bridge constructed.
The Canal Across the Athos Peninsula
Moreover, remembering how Darius’ fleet had been destroyed by a storm while rounding the dangerous headland of Mount Athos in northern Greece, he also had a canal cut across the narrow isthmus on the Athos peninsula so that his fleet could avoid the perilous waters.
…because the former fleet had met with so great a disaster about Athos, preparations were made, by the space of about three years… the various nations whereof the army was composed, which relieved one another at intervals, and worked at a trench beneath the lash of taskmasters; while the people dwelling about Athos bore likewise a part in the labour…
Athos is a great and famous mountain, inhabited by men, and stretching far out into the sea. Where the mountain ends towards the mainland it forms a peninsula; and in this place there is a neck of land about twelve furlongs across… Here, upon this isthmus where Athos ends, is Sand, a Greek city. Inside of Sand, and upon Athos itself, are a number of towns, which Xerxes was now employed in disjoining from the continent… (VII.22)
The Might of Persia
Only after completing these preparations did Xerxes set out with mightiest army the world had yet seen:
…Xerxes spent four full years in collecting his host and making ready all things that were needful for his soldiers. It was not till the close of the fifth year that he set forth on his march, accompanied by a mighty multitude.
For of all the armaments whereof any mention has reached us, this was by far the greatest; insomuch that no other expedition compared to this seems of any account, neither that which Darius undertook against the Scythians, nor the expedition of the Scythians… nor, again, that of the Atridae against Troy, of which we hear in story… (VII. 20)
(21) All these expeditions, and others, if such there were, are as nothing compared with this… One nation furnished ships; another was arrayed among the foot-soldiers; a third had to supply horses; a fourth, transports for the horse and men likewise for the transport service; a fifth, ships of war towards the bridges; a sixth, ships and provisions.
Herodotus goes on for pages, literally, to describe Xerxes’ army, giving a detailed description of their weapons and clothing, including even the names of their commanders. But the rhetorical questions of chapter 21 really drive the point home:
>For was there a nation in all Asia which Xerxes did not bring with him against Greece? Or was there a river, except those of unusual size, which sufficed for his troops to drink?
And then again in VII. 43:
“On reaching the Scamander, which was the first stream, of all that they had crossed since they left Sardis, whose water failed them and did not suffice to satisfy the thirst of men and cattle.”
Or the fact that it took Xerxes’ army seven day to cross the bridge of the Hellespont:
“And the crossing continued during seven days and seven nights, without rest or pause.”
Having seen this multitude of enemy passing, a man of Hellespont exclaimed:
“Why, O Jove, dost thou, in the likeness of a Persian man, and with the name of Xerxes instead of thine own, lead the whole race of mankind to the destruction of Greece? It would have been as easy for thee to destroy it without their aid!” (VII. 56)
Herodotus puts the number of the Persian army as one million seven hundred thousand – a number that is suspect, to say the least, although he describes an ingenious method of how the army was supposedly counted:
“What the exact number of the troops of each nation was I cannot say with certainty – for it is not mentioned by any one – but the whole land army together was found to amount to one million seven hundred thousand men.
The manner in which the numbering took place was the following. A body of ten thousand men was brought to a certain place, and the men were made to stand as close together as possible; after which a circle was drawn around them, and the men were let go: then where the circle had been, a fence was built about the height of a man’s middle; and the enclosure was filled continually with fresh troops, till the whole army had in this way been numbered.” (VII.60)
Modern historians estimate the size of Xerxes’ army at a much lower figure than Herodotus but even so, we’re probably talking of two or three hundred thousand men, plus the cavalry and the fleet. When you consider that Sparta, where practically the entire male population belonged to the army, could field a maximum of eight to ten thousand men at the very height of her powers, you get a fair idea of the disparity of numbers between the Persian army and the Greeks.
Xerxes Weeps at the Sight of His Army
Xerxes was delighted with the army he managed to muster; he inspected it more than once during the march into Greece. But as he inspected his men at Abydos before crossing into Europe, he was struck by the idea of mortality:
(VII.44) …Xerxes wished to look upon all his host; so as there was a throne of white marble upon a hill near the city, which they of Abydos had prepared beforehand, by the king’s bidding, for his especial use, Xerxes took his seat on it, and, gazing thence upon the shore below, beheld at one view all his land forces and all his ships.
(45) And now, as he looked and saw the whole Hellespont covered with the vessels of his fleet, and all the shore and every plain about Abydos as full as possible of men, Xerxes congratulated himself on his good fortune; but after a little while he wept.
(46) Then Artabanus, the king’s uncle (the same who at the first so freely spake his mind to the king, and advised him not to lead his army against Greece), when he heard that Xerxes was in tears, went to him, and said:
“How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago! Then thou didst congratulate thyself; and now, behold! thou weepest.”
“There came upon me,” replied he, “a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man’s life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by.”<
A realisation of mortality and the futility of human endeavours… And maybe a presentiment of things to come?
For the next time Xerxes will sit on his throne on a hillside observing his fleet will be at Salamis.