Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the March of Xerxes

While Xerxes tarried at Sardis, they that were appointed to this business made a bridge over the Hellespont, from Abydos to a certain rocky land that runs out into the sea on the other side, the space between being seven furlongs. One line the Phœnicians made with cables of white flax, and the other the Egyptians, with cables of papyrus. But when the work was finished there arose a great storm and brake it all to pieces. So soon as Xerxes heard what had befallen, he was very wroth, and commanded that they should lay three hundred lashes of the whip upon the Hellespont, and should also throw into the sea a pair of fetters. It has been said that he even sent branders to brand the Hellespont. Certainly he commanded them that laid the stripes on the water to say therewith barbarous and impious words: "O evil water, thy master putteth this punishment on thee because thou hast worked him harm that had worked no harm to thee. Know that King Xerxes will cross thee whether thou will or no. Rightly doth no man offer sacrifice to thee, deceitful and salt river as thou art." This punishment he bade them put upon the sea, and he cut off the heads of them that were set over the making of the bridge. Then they that had this thankless office put upon them fulfilled their task; and afterward other builders set about the work and accomplished it. They joined together ships of war, three hundred and sixty on the one side toward the Black Sea, and three hundred and fourteen on the other, mooring them with very great anchors that they might not be moved by the winds that blow either way. And they left three spaces that such as would pass by in light vessels, to or from the Black Sea, might do so without let. And when the bridge was finished, they made planks of wood of the same breadth as was the bridge, and laid them on the top; and on the planks they put brushwood, and on the brushwood earth; and when they had trodden this down they set up a barrier on either side, that the beasts of burden and the horses might not be afraid looking upon the sea.

But when the bridge had been finished, and the trench by Mount Athos, and the breakwater about the mouth of the trench—for they had made breakwaters by reason of the surf, that the mouth of the trench might not be filled up—it was now winter. Xerxes therefore passed the winter in Sardis; and when it was spring the army set forth.

On the very day of its setting forth the sun left its place in the heavens; and though there were no clouds, but the sky was at its clearest, the day was turned into night. When Xerxes saw this he was not a little troubled, and asked the Magians what this sight might mean. And the Magians made answer that the things signified to the Greeks the leaving of their cities; for that the sun was the foreteller to the Greeks and the moon to the Persians. But when Pythius the Lydian saw this marvel that had happened in the heavens, being emboldened by the gifts that he made to the King, he stood before Xerxes and said: "O my lord, I pray thee that thou grant me a certain thing which is of small account to thee, but to me very much to be desired." And Xerxes, not thinking what he had in his mind, made answer, "Speak on and I will do for thee whatsoever thou desirest." When Pythius heard these words he took courage and said, "O my lord, I have five sons, and thou art taking them all with thee for this war which thou makest against the Greeks. Have pity, therefore, on me, O King, remembering my old age, and release from this service one of my sons, even the eldest, that he may have me and my possessions in charge." When Xerxes heard this he was very wroth, and made answer, "Vile fellow, hast thou dared, even when I am myself going against Greece, and bringing with me my sons and my brethren, and my ministers and friends, to make mention of thy sons, thou that art my slave, and art bound to follow me with thy whole household, and even with thy wife. When thou didst well and madest to me offers of good things, thou couldst not surpass the King in bounty, and now that thou doest ill, thou shalt have less than thy desert. Thy hospitality shall save thee and four of thy sons; but the life of him whom thou lovest above the rest is the forfeit." So soon as Xerxes had said this, forthwith he gave command to them that had the charge of such things to search out the eldest of the sons of Pythius and cut him in twain; and when they had cut him in twain to put the two halves one on the right hand of the way and the other on the left. And he bade the army pass between the two. So the army passed between the two halves. First came they that bare the baggage, and the beasts of burden, and after them a great army of many nations, without any space between the nations, in all more than half of the whole. Then there was left a space between the host and the King. Afterward there came a thousand horsemen, chosen out of all the Persians, and after the horsemen a thousand spearmen, these too being chosen men, bearing their spear-points turned toward the ground, and after the spearmen ten horses of Nisa, having very fair trappings. These horses came from the plain of Nisa in the land of Media, and are very great. Behind the horses came the sacred chariot of Zeus, drawn by eight white horses, and after the horses there walked the charioteer on foot, holding the reins in his hand, for on the seat of this chariot no man may sit. After this came Xerxes himself, on a chariot drawn by horses of Nisa, and by his side was a charioteer, Patiramphes the son of Otanes. And whenever the wish took him he would change from his chariot to a litter. Behind the King came a thousand spearmen, the noblest and bravest of the Persians, holding their spears in the usual fashion; and after these a thousand chosen horsemen; and after the horsemen ten thousand chosen men on foot. A thousand of these had golden pomegranates instead of spikes at the shafts of their spears. These compassed about the other nine thousand, who had their spears with pomegranates of silver. The spearmen that pointed their spears to the ground had also pomegranates of gold, and those that came next after the King had apples of gold. After the ten thousand that were on foot came ten thousand horsemen of the Persians. Behind the horsemen was a space of two furlongs, after which came the remainder of the host, mingled in one crowd.

Chariot Race


As the host passed by Mount Ida there fell upon it a great storm of thunder and lightning, and slew many men. After this it came to the river Scamander; this was the first of the rivers that failed, being drunk up by the army and the horses and the beasts of burden. Here the King went up into the citadel of Priam, desiring to see the place; and when he had seen and heard every thing he sacrificed a thousand heifers to Athene of Troy; and the Magi poured out libations to the heroes. That night a panic fell upon the host; and so soon as it was day they departed and came to Abydos.

When he was come to Abydos Xerxes greatly desired to see his army. Now there had been prepared beforehand for him by the men of Abydos a seat of white marble on a hill that was nigh unto the city, for so he had bidden them. On this therefore he sat, and looking down upon the shore saw his army and his ships. And as he looked upon them he had a desire to see a race of ships; and there was made a race, and the Phœnicians of Sidon prevailed. Xerxes was greatly delighted with the contest and with the sight of his army. For when he saw all the Hellespont covered with ships, and all the shores and all the plains of Abydos filled with men, he counted himself a happy man. But afterward he wept.

And Artabanus, his uncle, the same that at the first spake boldly to the King that he should not make war against the Greeks, when he knew that Xerxes wept, went to him, and said, "O King, how different is this that thou doest now from that which thou didst but a short time ago? For then thou calledst thyself happy, but now thou weepest." Then said the King, "There came upon me of a sudden a thought of pity how short is the whole life of man, seeing that of all this great army not one shall be alive one hundred years hence." Then said Artabanus, "We men have to endure in life things more piteous than this. For in this life, for all its shortness, there is no man so happy but that he will wish, and this not once but many times, to die rather than to live. For misfortunes come upon us, and diseases harass us, so that life, though it be short, yet seems to be overlong, and death, so full of trouble is life, to be the best refuge to which a man can fly. For the Gods that give us a taste of the sweetness of life, yet are jealous so that we may not enjoy it to the full." To this Xerxes made answer, "Let us not so think of human life, though it be such as thou sayest, nor keep evil things in our minds when we have good things in our hands. But come now tell me, if thou hadst not seen that vision wouldst thou have been still of the same opinion, advising me that I should not make war against the Greeks." Artabanus answered, "O King, may the vision which we saw be accomplished as we would have it. Yet am I full of fear, seeing that there are two things, and these the greatest of all, that are against us." And the King said, "What are these two? Thinkest thou that the Greeks will bring against us more men or more ships?" Then said Artabanus, "No man that had any understanding could find any thing that he might blame either in thy host or thy fleet. Yet are two things against us, even the land and the sea. For there is, I suppose, no harbor in the sea so great that it could receive all this great multitude of ships; and yet we should have not one harbor, but many, one after the other, along the whole coast of the land. Seeing then that such harbors are not to be found, remember that chances are rulers of men rather than men of chances. And if the sea be hostile, much more is the land, and not the less so if none seek to withstand thee, seeing that the further thou shalt go the greater will be the danger of famine. This I say thinking it best for men to fear all things when they take counsel, and to fear nothing when they are in action."

Then said the King, "What thou sayest, Artabanus, thou sayest not without reason. Yet if a man will always look to all chances that may happen he will never accomplish great deeds. Thou seest to what greatness this realm of Persia has grown. Yet if the kings that were before me had followed such councils as thine it had never grown in such fashion. Not without peril did they attain this glory, for great things are achieved by great dangers. We therefore follow in their steps, and having now set forth in the fairest season of the year, will return safe, when we have subdued all Europe; neither shall we meet with famine nor any evil thing whatsoever. For much food we carry with us, and we shall have the food of such nations as we shall subdue. And remember that it is against men that till the earth and not against wanderers that we go."

To this Artabanus made answer, "At the least, O King, hearken to one counsel which I would give thee. Cyrus the son of Cambyses subdued all the Ionians, save the Athenians only. I counsel thee, therefore, that thou do not by any means compel these Ionians to fight against their fathers. Surely without them we shall be stronger than our enemies. But if thou compel them, then must they either do a great wrong in fighting against the land that sent them forth, or do a righteous act going over from us to our enemies and thereby greatly injuring us.

To this Xerxes answered, "There is naught, Artabanus, in which thou hast gone further from the truth than in this judgment of thine, concerning the Ionians. Have we not a sure proof of their truth—a thing of which both thou and all they that went with King Darius against the Scythians are witnesses—that it was in their hands to destroy the army of the Persians or to save it alive. And they behaved themselves righteously, and did nothing unjust. And besides this, they have left their wives and children in our land. Why then should they think to rebel against us? But be of good heart; and go, take charge of my house and my kingdom. For to thee only of all the Persians do I commit my scepter."

So Xerxes sent Artabanus to Susa. And when he was departed he called together the noblest of the Persians, and said to them, "Men of Persia, I have called you together that I may bid you bear yourselves bravely, and do no shame to the deeds which the Persians in former days have wrought, for these have been great and worthy of renown. Do ye therefore one and all be zealous in this war, for we seek that which concerns us all. And, indeed, I am told that they are good men against whom we make war, and that if we conquer them there are none on the earth who can resist them. And now let us pray to the gods that have rule over Persia, and pass over the bridge."

So all that day they made preparations for the passing over; and the next day they waited for the rising of the sun, desiring to see it before they should begin to cross. And when the sun was risen, Xerxes, pouring drink offerings into the sea from a cup of gold, made his prayer with his face turned to the sun, that no misfortune might befall him before he should conquer all Europe, even to the uttermost. borders. And when he had finished praying, he cast the cup into the Hellespont, and also a mixing bowl of gold, and a Persian sword which they call a cimeter. But whether he cast these things into the sea because he would offer them to the sun, or whether he repented him of having laid stripes upon the Hellespont and gave these gifts in atonement to the sea, can not certainly be known.