Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the Flight of Xerxes

When King Xerxes perceived what damage his ships had suffered he resolved that he would flee without delay to Persia. Yet, to hide this purpose, he made as if he would carry on the war, making a mound across the channel that is between Salamis and the mainland, and doing other things. But though he deceived others he did not deceive Mardonius.

In the meanwhile he sent a messenger to Susa, whither he had before sent the tidings of how he was master of Athens, and as before the people had rejoiced, strewing myrtle boughs in the streets, and burning incense, and feasting and making merry, so now they were greatly troubled, rending their garments, and making much ado with weeping and wailing. Nor was it for the damage of the ship that they lamented, but for fear lest the King himself should suffer harm. Nor would they be comforted till he came back in safety.

Now when Mardonius saw that the King purposed to flee, fearing lest he should suffer punishment for that he had advised the marching against Greece, he made this resolve, that either he would himself conquer Greece—and this indeed he hoped to do—or perish honorably. Wherefore he said to Xerxes, "Trouble not thyself overmuch, O master, for this loss that has befallen us; for these fellows, whom thou thinkest to have conquered us, will not dare to stand against us. And, if we wish, we may deal with them without delay, or, if we will, we may wait awhile. But if, O King, thou art minded to depart straightway, hear my counsel. Make not thy Persians a laughing-stock to the Greeks. For if the Phœnicians and Egyptians and the like have played the coward, yet have not the Persians so done. Depart then, therefore, if thou art so minded, but let me choose out three hundred thousand men of the army, with whom I may conquer these Greeks."

Xerxes when he heard these words was very glad, and made answer to Mardonius that he would deliberate about these things. And because before Artemisia only had perceived what should be done, he sent for her, and when she was come, sent away his other counselors, and inquired of her what he should do, setting before her the counsel of Mardonius. To this she made answer in these words: "I counsel thee to depart straightway, O King. And if Mardonius promises to conquer Greece for thee, let him stay behind and do it. For if he succeed, thine will be the gain; and if he fail, there will follow no great damage, so that thou and thy house be safe. For of a surety, so long as these remain, the Greeks will often be in peril of their lives. And if they prevail over this Mardonius, he is nothing more than thy slave." This counsel seemed very good to the King, being altogether to his mind; and if all the men and women in the world had counseled him to remain, hardly would he have done it, so terrified was he. He commended therefore Artemisia, and sent her on to Ephesus with certain of his children in her charge, in which charge was joined also one Hermotimus of Pedasus. The people of Pedasus say that when a mischance is about to befall any of their neighbors the priestess of Athene in their city has a beard, and that this has happened twice.

The next day Xerxes commanded the ships to sail with all speed to the Hellespont, that they might guard the bridges against his coming. So they departed; and sailing by Cape Zoster, where certain rocks jut out from the land, they took the rocks for ships, and fled far away. But afterward, when they knew the truth, they gathered themselves together again.

For awhile the Greeks, seeing the army of the barbarians in the same place, supposed that the ships also remained, and made ready for battle. But when they knew the truth, they pursued after them; but having sailed as far as Andros, and not seeing them, they held a council of war. Then Themistocles would have had them make with all speed for the Hellespont that they might break down the bridges, but Eurybiades was of the contrary opinion, saying, "There can no worse thing befall the Greeks than that we should break down the bridges. For if the Persians be thus cut off and driven to remain, see what will follow. If they be quiet they must come to ruin, for their host will perish of hunger; but if they bestir themselves they will conquer all Europe, city by city, and for food they will have our harvests. Now, indeed, because his ships have been vanquished, he is minded to depart; and this we should suffer him to do. Only when he has departed, we may, if we will, strive with him for the mastery of his own country."

To this counsel the other leaders of the Peloponnesians consented. And when Themistocles saw that he could not persuade them, he changed his purpose, and said to the Athenians, for these were vexed beyond all the rest that the Persians were suffered to escape, "Often have I seen with my own eyes or heard from others that men having been worsted and driven to despair have recovered their own and become conquerors in their turn. Now we have found great good fortune, saving ourselves and Greece from this mighty host of men. Let us therefore be content and not pursue them when they flee. For we have not done this of our own might. The Gods and the heroes have done it, having jealousy that one man should be lord both of Asia and Europe, and he, too, a destroyer of images and temples, and that scourged the sea and threw fetters into it. Let us, therefore, now that the barbarians have departed, return each man to his home and sow our land, and in the spring will we sail to the Hellespont!!"

With these words he persuaded the Athenians; but he did it that he might bind the King to him by this service, desiring to have a refuge, if any evil should come upon him at Athens. Wherefore he sent certain men to Attica, faithful men that would not betray him even under torture, and among them the man Sicinnus. This Sicinnus went to the King and said, "Themistocles the Athenian, wishing to do thee a service, has sent me to tell thee that he has restrained the Greeks who would have broken the bridges of the Hellespont, and that thou mayest return at thy leisure."

After this the Greeks laid siege to Andros. For Themistocles had demanded money of this city for the Greeks, saying "You must needs pay the money, for we come bringing with us two great gods, even Persuasion and Necessity." But the Andrians made answer, "Well may Athens be great and happy, seeing that it has such gods; but we have two that are unprofitable, yet dwell with us and will not leave us, even Poverty and Helplessness." For this cause the Greeks besieged their city. As for Themistocles, he ceased not to get riches for himself, without the knowledge of the others, taking money from the islanders and others that the fleet should not sail against them.

Meanwhile Mardonius chose out of the host such as he would have for his army. All the Immortals he chose, save Hydarnes, who was not willing to leave the King, and such of the Persians as wore corslets, and the thousand horsemen, and the Medes and the Sacæ and Bactrians and the Indians, both horse and foot. These nations he took wholly, and out of the rest of the host he chose such as excelled in stature or had done some valiant deed. The number was three hundred thousand in all. This choosing was done in Thessaly; and before it was finished there came a herald from Sparta, seeking satisfaction from the King for the death of Leonidas and his companions, for the god at Delphi had bidden the Spartans seek for it. The herald stood before Xerxes and said, "King of the Medes, the Spartans and the sons of Hercules ask of thee satisfaction for blood-guiltiness, because thou didst slay their King Leonidas when he defended Greece." The King laughed but after a while he pointed to Mardonius, who chanced to be present, and said, "This man will give such satisfaction as is due." And the herald said, "I accept the satisfaction," and so departed.

After this Xerxes, leaving Mardonius in Thessaly, made for the Hellespont with all haste. In forty and five days he came to it, having but a small part of his army. These had laid their hands on all the corn in the countries through which they passed; and where corn was wanting they had devoured the bark and the leaves of all manner of trees, leaving nothing at all, so that many died of sundry diseases, and some were left behind sick in the cities on the way. When they came to the Hellespont they found the bridges broken, and crossed over in ships as they best could. And many, when they had abundance of food and drink, using these without measure, so died.

There is told another tale of the flight of Xerxes. He left Hydarnes, it is said, to have charge of the army, and himself embarked on a Phœnician ship, and so sailed to Asia. But as he sailed there fell upon the ship a great wind from the north; and, being overladen, it was ready to sink, for there were many Persians with the King upon the deck. Then Xerxes cried aloud to the helmsman, saying, "Is there any help?" And the helmsman answered, "There is no help except we be rid of these many passengers." Then said Xerxes to the Persians, "Let now any that will, show that he cares for his King, for my life is in your hands." Then the Persians made obeisance to him and leaped into the sea; so the ship being lightened came safe to Asia. And when Xerxes was come to the shore he dealt thus with the helmsman. For that he had saved the life of the King he gave him a crown of gold; but for that he had caused the death of many Persians, he commanded that he should be beheaded. But this story is scarcely to be believed. For why did not the King rather send down these Persians, being the first men in the realm, into the lower part of the ship, and cause the like number of rowers, being Phœnicians, to leap into the sea? But in truth Xerxes returned by way of the land, whereof we have a proof that he passed through Abdera, and making a covenant with the people of that city, gave them a cimeter of gold and a turban broidered with gold.

And now the Greeks were assembled at the Isthmus that they might adjudge the prize of valor to him that of all the Greeks had shown himself most worthy in the war. The captains then being met laid their votes on the altar of Poseidon, a vote for the first place and a vote for the second. Each man gave the first place to himself, but the greater part gave the second to Themistocles. But though the captains could not agree for jealousy, yet was Themistocles commonly reported among Greeks to have shown himself by far the wisest man of all in the war. And when he went to Sparta the Spartans received him with great honor. The prize of valor indeed, which was a crown of olive, they gave to Eurybiades; but the prize of wisdom and dexterity, also a crown of olive, they gave to Themistocles. Also they gave him the fairest chariot that was in all Sparta; and when he departed three hundred chosen men, that are called the Knights, went with him so far as the borders of Tegea. Nor has any man, save Themistocles only, been so sent out of their country by the Spartans.

When he came back to Athens a certain citizen of Aphidnæ, that came from Belbis, being his enemy, a man of no repute, reproached him, saying, "Thou hast these honors from the Spartans for Athens' sake, not for thine own." And when the man said this many times, Themistocles answered him, "Surely I had not been so honored had I been of Belbis, nor thou hadst thou been of Athens."