Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the Setting Forth of Xerxes

For the space of four years from the subduing of Egypt did the servants of King Xerxes gather together the host and all such things as were needful for it. And in the beginning of the fifth year the King set out upon his march, having such an army as had never before been seen. For indeed that which Darius led against the Scythians was as nothing in comparison of this, neither was that wherewith the Scythians invaded the land of Asia, and subdued the northern parts thereof (this was the cause why Darius invaded the land of the Scythians), nor that which the sons of Atreus led against Troy, nor that of the Mysians and Teucrians, who, in the days before the Trojan war, conquered the land of Thrace, and came as far as the river Peneus that is in the land of Thessaly. Not one of these armies is worthy to be compared with the army of Xerxes. For what people of Asia did he not lead against Greece? And what stream, saving only the great rivers, was not drunk up by his armies? Some were bidden to furnish foot soldiers, and some horsemen, and some ships for carrying of horses and men at arms, and some ships of war for the bridges, and others food and ships. First of all, seeing that they who had first sailed against Greece had suffered great loss at Mount Athos, Xerxes caused that there should be a fleet of ships of war at Elæus, and that men from the ships, taking turn by turn, should dig a great trench, digging under the lash of taskmasters, in which work the people of the country also took their part.

Now this Athos is a great and famous mountain, that stretches out into the sea, and the land by which it is joined to the continent is narrow, being of the breadth of a mile and a half. Across this Xerxes would have them dig a trench. And the men dug it after this fashion. A line was drawn across by the city Sane, and the nations divided the work among themselves. When the trench was now deep, some stood below and dug, and others handed up the earth to men that stood on ladders, and these again to others, till it was brought to the top, and so carried away. The greater part had double trouble with the digging, the sides breaking away continually; nor indeed could it have been otherwise, seeing that they made the measure of the top and the measure of the bottom to be the same. But with the Phœnicians it was not so, for they showed their wisdom in this as they commonly do in other things. When they had had their part allotted to them, they made their digging at the top twice as broad as was needed for the trench; but as they went down they made it narrower, till at the bottom it was of the same width as the rest. Near to the trench was a plain, wherein there was a market and a place for buying and selling; and much corn, ready ground, was brought to the place from Asia.

This work, it would seem, Xerxes did from pride, wishing to show his might, and to leave a memorial of himself. For when he might without trouble have had his ships drawn across the isthmus, he commanded that a trench should be made from one sea to the other, and this of such a breadth that two ships of war could pass. And he also commanded them that had the business of digging this trench that they should build a bridge over the river Strymon. Other preparations also were made, ropes of papyrus and of white flax for the bridges, and stores of food for the army and for the beasts of burden.

The place of gathering for the armies was Critalla in Cappadocia. Setting out thence, it marched through the land of Phrygia to the city of Celænæ, which is on the river Mæander. Here in the market-place is hung out the skin of Marsyas the Satyr, whom Apollo flayed, when he had vanquished him in a conquest of singing.

In this city there dwelt a certain Pythius, the son of Atys, a Lydian. This man entertained Xerxes and his whole army with very great hospitality, and said also that he was willing to give him money for the war. And when the King heard this talk of money, he asked them that stood by, saying, "Who is this Pythius, and what wealth has he that he makes such promises?" And they said, "O King, this is the man that gave the golden plane-tree to King Darius thy father, and the vine also; and he surpasses all men there are in wealth, thou only being excepted, O King." At the last words Xerxes marveled much; and he called Pythius and asked him, saying, "What is the sum of thy wealth?" And Pythius made answer, "I will hide nothing from thee, nor will I make any pretense that I do not know the sum of my substance. I know it, and will declare it truly to you. So soon as I knew that you were purposing to come down with your army to the sea of the Greeks, because I wished to furnish you with some money for the war, I reckoned up all that belongs to me, and found that I have two thousand talents of silver and four millions of gold darics, wanting seven thousand only. All this I willingly give thee for a gift; and I shall still have sufficient from my fields and from my slaves."

These words pleased King Xerxes much, and he said, "Since I came out from the land Persia I have not found a man who was willing to give entertainment to my whole army, and also to furnish money for the war, saving thee only. But thou hast entertained my army in royal fashion, and now makest offer of much money. Now for all this I will make thee this return. First of all thou shalt be my friend from this time forth, and thy four millions of darics I will complete out of my own treasury, giving thee the seven thousand that thou lackest, that the tale may be completed. Do thou therefore keep for thyself that which thou hast gained. And remember to be such always as thou hast shown thyself to-day, for he that doeth such things will in no wise repent himself of them either now or in the time to come."

When he had said this, and had made good his promises, he went on his way. And he came to Colossæ, a great city of Phrygia, where the river Lycus entering a great gulf flows for five furlongs under the earth, and from Colossæ to Cydrara, where King Crœsus had set up a pillar to mark the boundaries of Lydia. After this he saw a plane-tree which was so fair that for the sake of its beauty he gave it ornaments of gold, and appointed one of the Immortals to have the charge of it. So he came to the city of Sardis.

Being arrived at this city he straightway sent heralds to Greece who should ask for earth and water, as tokens that they gave themselves and their country to the King. To Athens, indeed, and to Sparta he sent not, but to all other cities he sent, for he thought that they who had refused to give them on the sending of King Darius would now give them for fear of his host.

Now the cause why he sent not heralds to Athens and Sparta was this, that these cities had dealt evilly with the heralds which King Darius had sent on this errand, the Athenians throwing them down into the pit, which is the place of punishment for such as are appointed to die, and the Spartans casting them into a well and bidding them take earth and water for themselves. What ill thing befell the Athenians by reason of their having dealt so unrighteously with the heralds it is not possible to discern, unless indeed it be that their city and country were laid waste; but for this laying waste there was doubtless another cause. But on the Spartans there came trouble from the wrath of Talthybius, the same that was herald to King Agamemnon. (There is a temple of this Talthybius in Sparta, and when there is any sending of heralds from Sparta, his descendants, who are called the sons of Talthybius, are sent.) After the doing of this deed the Spartans found no good tokens in their sacrifices. And when this had been so for many days, the Spartans were much troubled, and called many assemblies of the people about this matter. At the last they made proclamation inquiring whether any Spartan were willing to die for his country. Whereupon two men, Sperthias the son of Aneristus, and Bulis the son of Nicolaus, nobles both of them, and than whom there were none more wealthy in Sparta, of their own free-will offered themselves as an offering of atonement to Xerxes, and the Spartans sent them to the Persians as men that were doomed to die. In their journey to Susa they came to Hydarnes. This Hydarnes was a Persian, and governor of all them that dwelt on the sea-coast of Asia. This man showed them hospitality; and as they sat at the banquet, he said to them, "Men of Sparta, why are you not willing to be friends with the King? Ye see that the King knows how to honor good men, for consider me and my fortune. And ye also, if you would give yourselves to the King—for the King knows that ye are good men—would be rulers of the land of Greece by the King's favor." To this the men answered, "Thy counsel, Hydarnes, is not the counsel of one that knows the whole matter. Thou knowest indeed what it is to be a slave, but of freedom thou hast never made trial, whether it be sweet or no. Surely if thou hadst made such trial thou wouldst counsel us to fight for it, not with the spear only, but also with the battle-ax."

Such was the answer which the men made to Hydarnes. After this they went unto Susa, and came before the King. And when the guards would have had them fall down before the King and do obeisance, these two Spartans refused. "We will not do it," said they; "no, not if ye thrust our heads down to the ground, for it is not our custom to fall down before any man, neither are we come hither for any such thing." In this manner they escaped the doing such obeisance. Afterward they spake to the King, saying, "King of the Medes, the Lacedæmonians have sent us to make atonement for thy heralds that were slain in Sparta." But Xerxes, for greatness of heart, would not take such atonement. "The Spartans," he said, "when they do such things overthrow all law and justice among men; but I will not make myself like unto them. I will neither do the thing for the doing of which I reproach them, nor will I loose them from their guilt by slaying the men that they have sent to me."

By these means the anger of Talthybius was staid awhile, and this though Sperthias and Bulis came back safe to Sparta. Nevertheless many years afterward it fell on the Spartans, as they themselves say, in the great war that was waged between them and the Athenians. That this wrath should fall on envoys of the Spartans, and should not cease till it was satisfied, seems to be just; but that the men on whom it fell should be children of these same two that were sent to the King at Susa, this is passing strange. Yet so it fell out. For Nicolaüs the son of Bulis, and Aneristus the son of Sperthias, having been sent as ambassadors to Asia, were betrayed by Sitalces, King of Thrace, to the Athenians, and being carried to Attica, there perished, and with them Aristeas of Corinth. These things came to pass many years after the expedition of King Xerxes.

When the messengers, then, had been sent to the cities of the Greeks, the King prepared to march to Abydos, purposing to pass over thence into Europe.