Herodotus' Histories, book 7

summary and comments by Jona Lendering


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.

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.

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. 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. Herodotus 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 to die.
    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."
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