Xerxes - Jacob Abbott

The Return of Xerxes to Persia

Mardonius, it will be recollected, was the commander-in-chief of the forces of Xerxes, and thus, next to Xerxes himself, he was the officer highest in rank of all those who attended the expedition. He was, in fact, a sort of prime minister, on whom the responsibility for almost all the measures for the government and conduct of the expedition had been thrown. Men in such positions, while they may expect the highest rewards and honors from their sovereign in case of success, have always reason to apprehend the worst of consequences to themselves in case of failure. The night after the battle of Salamis, accordingly, Mardonius was in great fear. He did not distrust the future success of the expedition if it were allowed to go on; but, knowing the character of such despots as those who ruled great nations in that age of the world, he was well aware that he might reasonably expect, at any moment, the appearance of officers sent from Xerxes to cut off his head.

His anxiety was increased by observing that Xerxes seemed very much depressed, and very restless and uneasy, after the battle, as if he were revolving in his mind some extraordinary design. He presently thought that he perceived indications that the king was planning a retreat. Mardonius, after much hesitation, concluded to speak to him, and endeavor to dispel his anxieties and fears, and lead him to take a more favorable view of the prospects of the expedition. He accordingly accosted him on the subject somewhat as follows:

"It is true," said he, "that we were not as successful in the combat yesterday as we desired to be; but this reverse, as well as all the preceding disasters that we have met with, is, after all, of comparatively little moment. Your majesty has gone steadily on, accomplishing most triumphantly all the substantial objects aimed at in undertaking the expedition. Your troops have advanced successfully by land against all opposition. With them you have traversed Thrace, Macedon, and Thessaly. You have fought your way, against the most desperate resistance, through the Pass of Thermopylę. You have overrun all Northern Greece. You have burned Athens. Thus, far from there being any uncertainty or doubt in respect to the success of the expedition, we see that all the great objects which you proposed by it are already accomplished. The fleet, it is true, has now suffered extensive damage; but we must remember that it is upon the army, not upon the fleet, that our hopes and expectations mainly depend. The army is safe; and it can not be possible that the Greeks can hereafter bring any force into the field by which it can be seriously endangered."

By these and similar sentiments, Mardonius endeavored to revive and restore the failing courage and resolution of the king. He found, however, that he met with very partial success. Xerxes was silent, thoughtful, and oppressed apparently with a sense of anxious concern. Mardonius finally proposed that, even if the king should think it best to return himself to Susa, he should not abandon the enterprise of subduing Greece, but that he should leave a portion of the army under his (Mardonius's) charge, and he would undertake, he said, to complete the work which had been so successfully begun. Three hundred thousand men, he was convinced, would be sufficient for the purpose.

This suggestion seems to have made a favorable impression on the mind of Xerxes. He was disposed, in fact, to be pleased with any plan, provided it opened the way for his own escape from the dangers in which he imagined that he was entangled. He said that he would consult some of the other commanders upon the subject. He did so, and then, before coming to a final decision, he determined to confer with Artemisia. He remembered that she had counseled him not to attack the Greeks at Salamis, and, as the result had proved that counsel to be eminently wise, he felt the greater confidence in asking her judgment again.

He accordingly sent for Artemisia, and, directing all the officers, as well as his own attendants, to retire, he held a private consultation with her in respect to his plans.

"Mardonius proposes," said he, "that the expedition should on no account be abandoned in consequence of this disaster, for he says that the fleet is a very unimportant part of our force, and that the army still remains unharmed. He proposes that, if I should decide myself to return to Persia, I should leave three hundred thousand men with him, and he undertakes, if I will do so, to complete, with them, the subjugation of Greece. Tell me what you think of this plan. You evinced so much sagacity in foreseeing the result of this engagement at Salamis, that I particularly wish to know your opinion."

Artemisia, after pausing a little to reflect upon the subject, saying, as she hesitated, that it was rather difficult to decide, under the extraordinary circumstances in which they were placed, what it really was best to do, came at length to the conclusion that it would be wisest for the king to accede to Mardonius's proposal. "Since he offers, of his own accord, to remain and undertake to complete the subjugation of Greece, you can, very safely to yourself, allow him to make the experiment. The great object which was announced as the one which you had chiefly in view in the invasion of Greece, was the burning of Athens. This is already accomplished. You have done, therefore, what you undertook to do, and can, consequently, now return yourself, without dishonor. If Mardonius succeeds in his attempt, the glory of it will redound to you. His victories will be considered as only the successful completion of what you began. On the other hand, if he fails, the disgrace of failure will be his alone, and the injury will be confined to his destruction. In any event, your person, your interests, and your honor are safe, and if Mardonius is willing to take the responsibility and incur the danger involved in the plan that he proposes, I would give him the opportunity."

Xerxes adopted the view of the subject which Artemisia thus presented with the utmost readiness and pleasure. That advice is always very welcome which makes the course that we had previously decided upon as the most agreeable seem the most wise. Xerxes immediately determined on returning to Persia himself, and leaving Mardonius to complete the conquest. In carrying out this design, he concluded to march to the northward by land, accompanied by a large portion of his army and by all his principal officers, until he reached the Hellespont. Then he was to give up to Mardonius the command of such troops as should be selected to remain in Greece, and, crossing the Hellespont, return himself to Persia with the remainder.

If, as is generally the case, it is a panic that causes a flight, a flight, in its turn, always increases a panic. It happened, in accordance with this general law, that, as soon as the thoughts of Xerxes were once turned toward an escape from Greece, his fears increased, and his mind became more and morn the prey of a rest- less uneasiness and anxiety lest he should not be able to effect his escape. He feared that the bridge of boats would have been broken down, and then how would he be able to cross the Hellespont? To prevent the Greek fleet from proceeding to the northward, and thus intercepting his passage by destroying the bridge, he determined to conceal, as long as possible, his own departure. Accordingly, while he was making the most efficient and rapid arrangements on the land for abandoning the whole region, he brought up his fleet by sea, and began to build, by means of the ships, a floating bridge from the main land to the island of Salamis, as if he were intent only on advancing. He continued this work all day, postponing his intended retreat until the night should come, in order to conceal his movements. In the course of the day he placed all his family and family relatives on board of Artemisia's ship, under the charge of a tried and faithful domestic. Artemisia was to convey them, as rapidly as possible, to Ephesus, a strong city in Asia Minor, where Xerxes supposed that they would be safe.

In the night the fleet, in obedience to the orders which Xerxes had given them, abandoned their bridge and all their other undertakings, and set sail. They were to make the best of their way to the Hellespont, and post themselves there to defend the bridge of boats until Xerxes should arrive. On the following morning, accordingly, when the sun rose, the Greeks found, to their utter astonishment, that their enemies were gone.

A scene of the greatest animation and excitement on board the Greek fleet at once ensued. The commanders resolved on an immediate pursuit. The seamen hoisted their sails, raised their anchors, and manned their oars, and the whole squadron was soon in rapid motion. The fleet went as far as to the island of Andros, looking eagerly all around the horizon, in every direction, as they advanced, but no signs of the fugitives were to be seen. The ships then drew up to the shore, and the commanders were convened in an assembly, summoned by Eurybiades, on the land, for consultation.

A debate ensued, in which the eternal enmity and dissension between the Athenian and Peloponnesian Greeks broke out anew. There was, however, now some reason for the disagreement. The Athenian cause was already ruined. Their capital had been burned, their country ravaged, and their wives and children driven forth to exile and misery. Nothing remained now for them but hopes of revenge. They were eager, therefore, to press on, and overtake the Persian galleys in their flight, or, if this could not be done, to reach the Hellespont before Xerxes should arrive there, and intercept his passage by destroying the bridge. This was the policy which Themistocles advocated. Eurybiades, on the other hand, and the Peloponnesian commanders, urged the expediency of not driving the Persians to desperation by harassing them too closely on their retreat. They were formidable enemies after all, and, if they were now disposed to retire and leave the country, it was the true policy of the Greeks to allow them to do so. To destroy the bridge of boats would only be to take effectual measures for keeping the pest among them. Themistocles was outvoted. It was determined best to allow the Persian forces to retire.

Themistocles, when he found that his counsels were overruled, resorted to another of the audacious stratagems that marked his career, which was to send a second pretended message of friendship to the Persian king. He employed the same Sicinnus on this occasion that he had sent before into the Persian fleet, on the eve of the battle of Salamis. A galley was given to Sicinnus, with a select crew of faithful men. They were all put under the most solemn oaths never to divulge to any person, under any circumstances, the nature and object of their commission. With this company, Sicinnus left the fleet secretly in the night, and went to the coast of Attica. Landing here, he left the galley, with the crew in charge of it, upon the shore, and, with one or two select attendants, he made his way to the Persian camp, and desired an interview with the king. On being admitted to an audience, he said to Xerxes that he had been sent to him by Themistocles, whom he represented as altogether the most prominent man among the Greek commanders, to say that the Greeks had resolved on pressing forward to the Hellespont, to intercept him on his return, but that he, Themistocles, had dissuaded them from it, under the influence of the same friendship for Xerxes which had led him to send a friendly communication to the Persians before the late battle; that, in consequence of the arguments and persuasions of Themistocles, the Greek squadrons would remain where they then were, on the southern coasts, leaving Xerxes to retire without molestation.

All this was false, but Themistocles thought it would serve his purpose well to make the statement; for, in case he should, at any future time, in following the ordinary fate of the bravest and most successful Greek generals, be obliged to fly in exile from his country to save his life, it might be important for him to have a good understanding beforehand with the King of Persia, though a good understanding, founded on pretensions so hypocritical and empty as these, would seem to be worthy of very little reliance. In fact, for a Greek general, discomfited in the councils of his own nation, to turn to the Persian king with such prompt and cool assurance, for the purpose of gaining his friendship by tendering falsehoods so bare and professions so hollow, was an instance of audacious treachery so original and lofty as to be almost sublime.

Xerxes pressed on with the utmost diligence toward the north. The country had been ravaged and exhausted by his march through it in coming down, and now, in returning, he found infinite difficulty in obtaining supplies of food and water for his army. Forty-five days were consumed in getting back to the Hellespont. During all this time the privations and sufferings of the troops increased every day. The soldiers were spent with fatigue, exhausted with hunger, and harassed with incessant apprehensions of attacks from their enemies. Thousands of the sick and wounded that attempted at first to follow the army, gave out by degrees as the columns moved on. Some were left at the encampments; others lay down by the road-sides, in the midst of the day's march, wherever their waning strength finally failed them; and every where broken chariots, dead and dying beasts of burden, and the bodies of soldiers, that lay neglected where they fell, encumbered and choked the way. In a word, all the roads leading toward the northern provinces exhibited in full perfection those awful scenes which usually mark the track of a great army retreating from an invasion.

The men were at length reduced to extreme distress for food. They ate the roots and stems of the herbage, and finally stripped the very bark from the trees and devoured it, in the vain hope that it might afford some nutriment to re-enforce the vital principle, for a little time at least, in the dreadful struggle which it was waging within them. There are certain forms of pestilential disease which, in cases like this, always set in to hasten the work which famine alone would be too slow in performing. Accordingly, as was to have been expected, camp fevers, choleras, and other corrupt and infectious maladies, broke out with great violence as the army advanced along the northern shores of the Ęgean Sea; and as every victim to these dreadful and hopeless disorders helped, by his own dissolution, to taint the air for all the rest, the wretched crowd was, in the end, reduced to the last extreme of misery and terror.

At length Xerxes, with a miserable remnant of his troops, arrived at Abydos, on the shores of the Hellespont. He found the bridge broken down. The winds and storms had demolished what the Greeks had determined to spare. The immense structure, which it had cost so much toil and time to rear, had wholly disappeared, leaving no traces of its existence, except the wrecks which lay here and there half buried in the sand along the shore. There were some small boats at hand, and Xerxes, embarking in one of them, with a few attendants in the others, and leaving the exhausted and wretched remnant of his army behind, was rowed across the strait, and landed at last safely again on the Asiatic shores.



The place of his landing was Sestos. From Sestos he went to Sardis, and from Sardis he proceeded, in a short time, to Susa. Mardonius was left in Greece. Mardonius was a general of great military experience and skill, and, when left to himself, he found no great difficulty in reorganizing the army, and in putting it again in an efficient condition. He was not able, however, to accomplish the undertaking which he had engaged to perform. After various adventures, prosperous and adverse, which it would be foreign to our purpose here to detail, he was at last defeated in a great battle, and killed on the field. The Persian army was now obliged to give up the contest, and was expelled from Greece finally and forever.

When Xerxes reached Susa, he felt overjoyed to find himself once more safe, as he thought, in his own palaces. He looked back upon the hardships, exposures, and perils through which he had passed, and, thankful for having so narrowly escaped from them, he determined to encounter no such hazards again. He had had enough of ambition and glory. He was now going to devote himself to ease and pleasure. Such a man would not naturally be expected to be very scrupulous in respect to the means of enjoyment, or to the character of the companions whom he would select to share his pleasures, and the life of the king soon presented one continual scene of dissipation, revelry, and vice. He gave himself up to such prolonged carousals, that one night was sometimes protracted through the following day into another. The administration of his government was left wholly to his ministers, and every personal duty was neglected, that he might give himself to the most abandoned and profligate indulgence of his appetites and passions.

He had three sons who might be considered as heirs to his throne—Darius, Hystaspes, and Artaxerxes. Hystaspes was absent in a neighboring province. The others were at home. He had also a very prominent officer in his court, whose name, Artabanus, was the same with that of the uncle who had so strongly attempted to dissuade him from undertaking the conquest of Greece. Artabanus the uncle disappears finally from view at the time when Xerxes dismissed him to return to Susa at the first crossing of the Hellespont. This second Artabanus was the captain of the king's body-guard, and, consequently, the common executioner of the despot's decrees. Being thus established in his palace, surrounded by his family, and protected by Artabanus and his guard, the monarch felt that all his toils and dangers were over, and that there was nothing now before him but a life of ease, of pleasure, and of safety. Instead of this, he was, in fact, in the most imminent danger. Artabanus was already plotting his destruction.

One day, in the midst of one of his carousals, he became angry with his oldest son Darius for some cause, and gave Artabanus an order to kill him. Artabanus neglected to obey this order. The king had been excited with wine when he gave it, and Artabanus supposed that all recollection of the command would pass away from his mind with the excitement that occasioned it. The king did not, however, so readily forget. The next day he demanded why his order had not been obeyed. Artabanus now began to fear for his own safety, and he determined to proceed at once to the execution of a plan which he had long been revolving, of destroying the whole of Xerxes's family, and placing himself on the throne in their stead. He contrived to bring the king's chamberlain into his schemes, and, with the connivance and aid of this officer, he went at night into the king's bed-chamber, and murdered the monarch in his sleep.

Leaving the bloody weapon with which the deed had been perpetrated by the side of the victim, Artabanus went immediately into the bed-chamber of Artaxerxes, the youngest son, and, awaking him suddenly, he told him, with tones of voice and looks expressive of great excitement and alarm, that his father had been killed, and that it was his brother Darius that had killed him. "His motive is," continued Artabanus, "to obtain the throne, and, to make the more sure of an undisturbed possession of it, he is intending to murder you next. Rise, therefore, and defend your life."

Artaxerxes was aroused to a sudden and uncontrollable paroxysm of anger at this intelligence. He seized his weapon, and rushed into the apartment of his innocent brother, and slew him on the spot. Other summary assassinations of a similar kind followed in this complicated tragedy. Among the victims, Artabanus and all his adherents were slain, and at length Artaxerxes took quiet possession of the throne, and reigned in his father's stead.