Twentieth logos: Persian preparations (7.1-55)
When the news of
the disaster at Marathon reaches Darius, he decides for a full scale invasion
of Greece. His goal no longer is the punishment of Athens, but the subjugation
of Europe. A rebellion in Egypt prevents him from attacking at once, and
the great king does not live to see his plans executed. He is succeeded
by his son Xerxes (picture), who first has to quell the Egyptian revolt,
and gives no thought to the Greek expedition.
He changes his mind, however. Mardonius, the luckless
commander of the first expedition to Greece (above),
the sons of Hippias, and the royal family of Thessaly (a Greek state) all
urge him not to let Greece go unpunished. Xerxes is persuaded to undertake
the large scale invasion of Europe. His uncle Artabanus (a brother of Darius)
objects to the plan; the stakes are too high. Although Xerxes thinks the
old man is a coward, he later admits that he is right and has some second
thoughts. This is not the end of his doubts. In a terrible nightmare, a
man announces that the king will be punished if he does not go to war.
When Artabanus has the same nightmare, they understand that the Greek war
is the will of god.
The Persians prepare themselves very well. They
start to cut a canal through the Athos peninsula,
to avoid the disaster that had befallen Mardonius. Herodotus considers
this transformation of the natural environment blasphemous. Worse is to
come: the Persians build a long bridge across the Hellespont. When this
construction is destroyed by a storm, Xerxes orders the god Hellespont
to be punished with three hundred lashes. A pair of fetters is thrown in
the waters. When the great king reaches the Hellespont a few weeks later,
he sacrifices to the god, leaving Herodotus confused about his intentions.
Xerxes -the biblical king Ahasverus, known from the book Esther-
became king in november 486. The rebellion of Egypt ended in January 484.
In the summer, he suppressed a rising in Babylon - maybe the one which
Herodotus mentions in Book one, chapter 184 (this may be verified in section
#4 of a text
by Xerxes himself).
In one of the speeches in the debate at the Persian
court, Xerxes mentions all his ancestors (click here).
This list has been corroborated in the prologue
of the Behistun
Traces of the Athos canal are still visible. Its
construction started in 483 and must have alarmed the Greek towns, as we
will see below. Xerxes reached Sardes in October
481, assembled his army during the winter, and crossed the Hellespont in
Twenty-first logos: the Persians cross to Europe (7.56-137)
This logos opens with evil omens, which Xerxes prefers to ignore. From
the Hellespont, his army moves to the west along the Thracian shores, until
the soldiers reach Doriscus, where the great king counts all his troops.
Here, Herodotus inserts a marvelous catalogue of all troops that took part
in Xerxes' invasion of Greece; he admits that he does not know the precise
number of men provided by the forty-something nations, but he estimates
the grand total at 1,700,000. The number of ships is 1207, transport ships
included. After his inspection of the army and the navy, Xerxes discusses
his prospectives with Demaratus, who a decade before had been exiled by
Cleomenes (see above) and had found
asylum at the Persian court. The former king of Sparta prophesies big difficulties,
an answer that Xerxes turns off with a laugh.
The army and the fleet move into Macedonia along
the coast. Finally, the entire force reaches the town Therma (modern Thessaloniki)
at the boards of the river Axios. Here, all men
can rest, while the great king sails along the coast to the mouth of the
river Peneus and to Tempe, the narrow gorge between the mountains Ossa
and Olympus through which this river runs (see picture below).
At the same time, Persian engineers are preparing roads through the Macedonian
forests, and heralds demand "earth and water" (above)
from the Greek towns. Among those surrendering to Xerxes are the Thessalians
and the Thebans.
To Athens and Sparta Xerxes does not send a request
for submission, since these proud cities had refused to listen to the heralds
that Darius had sent to them eleven years before (above).
In both cities, the messengers had been thrown into a pit - if they wanted
earth and water for their king, that was the place to get them from.
Probably, the catalogue goes back to a spies' report
for the story). In the first weeks of 480, the Persians caught three Greek
spies who were trying to find out all they could about the king's army,
which had assembled at Sardes. When Xerxes was told that they were about
to be executed, he ordered his guards to take them round and let them see
the whole army, infantry and cavalry, and then, when they were satisfied
that they had seen everything, to let them return to Greece. Xerxes' clemency
was calculated: he was confident that the report of the spies would induce
the Greeks to surrender before the actual invasion took place, so that
there would be no need to go to the trouble of fighting a war at all. Herodotus'
catalogue can be compared to contemporary Persian documents, like Xerxes'
own list of subject countries (click here).
Modern historians estimate the total of combatants
and non-combatants in the Persian army at 220,000 soldiers, a rearguard
of 22,000 men guarding the lines of communication, and some 408,000 men
serving on the ships. We may believe Herodotus' statement that they drunk
many a river dry; and we understand why Xerxes postponed his attack until
his Macedonian and Thessalian allies had stored their harvests. Xerxes
reached Therma in July, where he paused in the hot month of August.
Twenty-second logos: the battle of Thermopylae (7.138-239)
Nominally, Xerxes' expedition was directed against Athens, but its real
objective was the conquest of the whole of Greece. Having stated this at
the beginning of the twenty-second logos, Herodotus feels compelled
to express an opinion which he knows to be unpopular: that Greece was saved
by the Athenians. If they had remained neutral, he points out, the Greeks
had not been able to resist the Persian navy, and Xerxes' army could easily
have been ferried to every part of Greece, including Sparta. Herodotus
adds to this encomium that the Athenian decision to join the war against
the Asian invaders was especially courageous because the oracle of Delphi
had predicted eminent doom if the Athenians were to stand firm.
When this oracle was read in front of the people's
assembly in the year preceding Xerxes' invasion, the Athenian leader Themistocles
(above) had pointed out that
it contained a cryptic reference to a "wooden wall that shall not fall".
He had suggested that this implied that Athens should rely on its large
navy. Herodotus adds that this navy had been build only recently. Several
years before, a rich vein of silver had been struck at Laurium (a village
near Athens) and Themistocles had suggested to use the money to construct
two hundred galleys.
Herodotus' opinion that Athens had saved
Greece, was indeed one to which many Greeks would have objected. In the
430's, when he composed The Histories, Athens was seen as the suppressor
of the other Greek towns; in 431 BCE, Sparta, Corinth and Thebes even decided
to go to war because they had become afraid of the further growth of Athenian
power. Nonetheless, Herodotus' judgment is correct. The Persian strategy
was to overwhelm the Greeks with a large army, and Xerxes needed his ships
to bring supplies to his troops. When the Athenians destroyed the Persian
navy at Salamis (below), it
was no longer possible to maintain an oversized army in hostile territory,
and it became clear to Xerxes that he would never reach his military aims.
The Athenian navy ensured that Greece remained independent, and gave Athens
an empire in the Aegean Sea, just like Polycrates
of Samos and Histiaeus
of Miletus had attempted.
While Xerxes is still at Sardes, Sparta organizes the Greek cities in a
military league. All struggles among the Greeks are to cease for the duration
of the war, in which the Spartans will have the command. Envoys are send
to the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily, but they return empty-handed.
(Herodotus interrupts his story to tell about a great Greek victory over
the Carthaginians.) In fact, the leading Greek city in the the west, Syracuse,
double-crosses the towns in homeland: it sends a herald to Greece, who
is to bring earth and water to Xerxes as soon as he is victorious.
Themistocles' shipbuilding program started
in 483. When the Athenian statesman tried to persuade the people's assembly,
he seems to have pointed at the threat of the Aeginetan navy (above).
But he could also have pointed at the canal through the Athos peninsula
The discussion about the oracle probably took
place in September 481, when Xerxes was on his way to Sardes. As a corollary
of the decision to trust on the "wooden wall that shall not fall", Athens
was evacuated. (It was a remarkable and bold decision to meet the Persian
attack with naval forces, because Marathon had suggested that infantry
could be successful too.) An inscription found
at Troezen in the Peloponnese mentions that all Athenian residents
will deposit their children and wives at Troezen, that the city is to be
entrusted to the goddess Athena, that one hundred will defend Greece at
Artemisium, and that one hundred ships will lie in wait and defend the
The military alliance that the Spartan diplomats
forged in the Autumn of 481, is usually called the Corinthian League. (Herodotus
does not use the name.) It gathered under bad auspices: we have already
seen the oracle to the Athenians (above).
The Spartans learned from Delphian prophetess that they would either see
their city in ruins or a dead king. The city of Argos did not join the
alliance, and could serve as a Persian "fifth column". The loyalty of Aegina
and Syracuse was wavering. The spies that they sent to Xerxes' camp at
Sardes, were caught (above). And the first action
the allies undertook, was a disaster, as we will see right now.
tells us about loyal Thessalian envoys, who visit the council of the allied
cities in the spring, when Xerxes is still at the Hellespont (above).
They request assistance, so that they may stop Xerxes at the northern border
of Greece. A Greek army sails to Halus in south Thessaly, and marches to
the pass of Tempe, the above mentioned gorge between
Ossa and Olympus. The allied commanders learn that the pass can be turned,
and they withdraw. The Thessalians are now without support, and as we have
already seen, surrender to Xerxes when he demands earth and water (above).
Meanwhile, the council at Corinth decides to guard
Thermopylae, which seems easily defensible. This narrow pass, which controls
the only road between Thessaly and central Greece, is only two meters wide;
on the northern side are cliffs that fall to the sea, on the southern side
are mountains. Here the Persian army can be stopped. The commander of the
allies is the Spartan king Leonidas, the half-brother of Cleomenes (above).
At the same time, the council sends 147 Athenian and 124 other warships
to Artemisium, where they will lie in wait for the Persian navy. If Leonidas'
army is victorious, the war is over; when the Greek navy defeats its opponent,
Xerxes has to withdraw his army. Religious precautions are taken: the oracle
at Delphi orders the Greeks to "pray to the winds, which will be staunch
allies of Greece".
Fire signals inform the Greeks at Artemisium that
Xerxes' navy has left Therma. When the 1207 Persians vessels are sailing
along the coast of the Thessalian district known as Magnesia, they anchor
at a place named Squid's Cape. The place is too small to contain all ships.
They have to lay off-shore in lines, eight deep, and are an easy victim
of a sudden and violent storm. Only eight hundred ships reach the save
haven of Aphetae, opposite Artemisium.
The Persian army invades Thessaly along the
pass of Tempe, and reaches Thermopylae without further incidents. The Greek
garrison is small (4000 men, including 300 heavily armored Spartans, 400
Corinthians and 400 Thebans), and Leonidas sends heralds to the Greek towns,
asking for reinforcements. Meanwhile, a Persian spy is ordered to find
out if it is true that Thermopylae is guarded by a very small number. He
confirms the earlier report, and adds that he has seen the Spartans combing
their hair. Demaratus explains that the Spartans are preparing themselves
Xerxes waits four days before he orders his soldiers to attack the contemptibly
small Greek army. Then he sends the Median and Elamite contingents, which
are easily repelled by the defenders of the narrow road. A second wave
of troops consists of the ten thousand Immortals, the royal bodyguard,
but these elite troops do no better. The Persian position does not improve
during the second day of the battle. When Xerxes' soldiers pass through
the narrow gap, they are killed by their opponents, who have longer spears
and better armor. Many of them fall into the sea and drown. Then, a Greek
named Ephialtes informs the great king of the possibility to turn the position
of the Greek army: there is a mountain path.
At the beginning of the third day, Leonidas learns
that the Immortals will soon descend from the mountains and attack his
rear. He sends away the other troops, but orders the Spartans and Thebans
to stay. The Thespian contingent and a seer named Megistias refuse to leave.
Herodotus explains why Leonidas decides to stay: because the oracle had
announced that Sparta would either be destroyed or lose its king (above).
Leonidas choose the second alternative. Then, he orders his men to go forward
against their opponents, who are flogged towards the Spartans by their
officers. When Leonidas falls, a bitter struggle over his body breaks out;
Herodotus knows that the Greeks had to drive the enemy off four times,
but finally succeed in dragging it away. Then, the Thebans desert their
allies and surrender; the Spartans and Thespians retreat to a small hill
(picture), where they are killed by Persian archers.
After the fall of Thermopylae, the road to Greece lies open. Xerxes orders
Leonidas' body to be crucified. Herodotus quotes the epitaph of the Spartan
soldiers: "Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we are buried, obedient
to their orders."
The battle of Thermopylae can be dated with some accuracy: 17, 18 and
19 September (or one day later). The site has been identified by the discovery
of Persian arrowheads (picture).
Book 1 Book
2 Book 3 Book
4 Book 5 Book
6 Book 8 Book
Xerxes' hesitation to attack for several days can
easily be explained: he was waiting until his fleet had reached Aphetae.
The three days of fighting at Thermopylae coincided with the fighting at
the sea between off Artemisium. (Click here
for an explanation of the contemporanity.)
The fact that Leonidas asked for reinforcements
when the Persian army was already at close quarters, does not say much
for his military abilities. Maybe there is some truth in the statement
of the famous historian Julius Beloch that the death of the three hundred
Spartans was a stupid mistake: their self-sacrifice did not serve any military
purpose, except -of course- the removal of an incompetent commander. On
the other hand, it may be that Leonidas' kamikaze had a religious motivation:
if the oracle announced that the Spartans would loose their town or their
king, it was reasonable to sacrifice the king to save the city.
We happen to know two of Leonidas' sayings during the battle. When a Persian
herald demanded the surrender of arms, the king replied "come here to get
them"; when he had seen that he was surrounded, he commanded his men to
have a good breakfast since their dinner would be served in hell.
From Persian sources, nothing is known about a corps
called Immortals. Herodotus makes an unconvincing attempt to explain their
name from the fact that each casualty would immediately be replaced, so
that the corps was immortal. Probably, Herodotus' informer knew the real
name of the royal guard Anûšya ("companions"), but had understood
("Immortals"). This suggests that Herodotus knew a Greek who had accompanied
Xerxes, perhaps an attendant or even a relative of Demaratus.
Herodotus' judgment about
the Theban soldiers is unfair. In every Greek city, there was a pro-Persian
and a pro-Greek party. These men belonged to the latter group, and cannot
be blamed for the fact that Thebes surrendered to Xerxes after they had