Story of the Persian War - Alfred J. Church

Of the March of Xerxes

Xerxes made Mascames governor of the fort of Doricus. This man he esteemed very highly, sending him gifts every year; and Artaxerxes after him sent gifts to the children of Mascames. Nor, indeed was any of the Persian governors held in greater honor, save Boges only. This Boges was besieged in Eion that is on the river Strymon by Cimon and the Athenians. And though he might have made an agreement with them and come out from Eion and returned safe to Asia, he would not, lest he should seem to the King to have failed in valor, but held out to the last. And when there was no food remaining in the fort, he caused a great pile of wood to be built, and slew his children and his wife and his concubines and his slaves, and cast them into the fire. After this he threw all the gold and silver that was in the fort into the river; and last of all he cast himself into the fire. With good cause, therefore, do the Persians honor him to this day.

Then Xerxes went on his way from Doricus westward; and whomsoever he found he compelled to take service with him. The road by which he went the Thracians in after time held in great honor, and did not plow it or sow it.

When the King came to Acanthus that is by Mount Athos, and saw what had been done with the trench, and knew that the people of Acanthus had been very zealous in the work, he sent them a Persian dress for a gift, and praised them much. While he tarried here Artachæes, a Persian, and of the royal house, who had been set over the digging of the trench, fell sick and died. He excelled in stature all the Persians, being but five fingers short of five cubits of the royal measure, and his voice surpassed that of other men. Wherefore the King was much troubled at his death, and buried him with great honor, and all the host made a mound over his grave. Afterward the people of Acanthus sacrificed to this man as to a hero, being bidden so to do by an oracle.



As for the Greeks that fed the army and entertained Xerxes, they were brought to great poverty, so that many of them were driven to forsake their homes. For when the people of Thasos, having possessions on the mainland, were commanded so to entertain the army of Xerxes, a certain Antipater, one of the chiefest of the citizens, having the charge of the matter, showed that there were expended on the meal four hundred talents of silver. In other cities also they that had this charge made the same reckoning. And, indeed, this entertainment was ordered many days beforehand, and was a matter of no small preparation. The manner of it was this. So soon as they received the commandment from the heralds that were sent to give them warning, then the citizens set about grinding wheat and barley. This they did for many months. Also they fatted beasts, finding the best that they could buy; and they reared birds, both land-birds and water-birds, in buildings and ponds for the entertaining of the army. Also they prepared cups and bowls of gold and silver and all other things for the furniture of the table. This indeed they did for the King and for them that sat at meat with him only; but for the rest of the army they made ready only such food as had been commanded. For Xerxes a tent was made ready wherein he might lodge; but the rest of the army lodged without shelter. So soon as the time of eating came they that entertained had great toil and trouble; and the soldiers ate their fill and staid that night in the same place. The next day they tare down the tent and took all the furniture, leaving nothing, but carrying all away with them. Well therefore did Megacreon of Abdera speak when he counseled the men of Abdera to go with their wives and children to the temples, and after putting up prayers for the time to come, thank the Gods that it was not the pleasure of King Xerxes to have two meals in the day, for that verily if he had desired not only dinner but breakfast also, then must the people of Abdera have either fled from before the King or, awaiting his coming, have been utterly ruined.

At this town of Acanthus Xerxes commanded the fleet that it should sail through the trench by Mount Athos and should await his coming at Therma; but he himself led his army through the land of Pæonia. Here the camels that carried the victuals for the host were set upon by lions, which coming by night from their dens touched neither man nor beast but the camels only; but what it was that drave them to this, considering that they had never before seen the beast, or made any trial of it, no man can say. There are many lions in this country, and wild oxen also with very long horns, which are brought into Greece. So Xerxes came to Therma; and being at Therma he saw the two mountains Olympus and Ossa, which are indeed marvelously high. And when he heard that there was between these mountains a narrow pass through which ran a river, and that this was the road into Thessaly, he conceived a desire to go on shipboard and see the place where the river flowed into the sea. Wherefore he embarked on a ship of Sidon, the same that he was wont to use when he would go on such a journey, and gave the signal for the others to set sail also. And when he came to the place, he marveled much at the outflow of the rivers, and calling to him the guide would fain know whether it were possible to bring the rivers into the sea by any other way.

Men say that in old time Thessaly was a great lake, being shut in on every side by high mountains. And indeed toward the east Ossa and Pelion are joined together at the base, and on the north is Olympus, and on the west Pindus, and on the south Othrys. In this land there are many rivers which all make their way into the sea by one channel, even the Peneus. But they say that in old time this channel was not, but that afterward Poseidon made it; which may well be if Poseidon brings earthquakes to pass, and if chasms are his handiwork. For it is manifest that the hills have been torn asunder by an earthquake. When therefore Xerxes asked the guides whether the water could pass by any other outlet into the sea, the men, as knowing the nature of the place, made answer, "There is no other way, O King, by which this water can pass into the sea save this which thou now seest; for Thessaly is girded about with hills."

Then said Xerxes, "The men of Thessaly are wise. Good reason had they to change their minds in time and to make provision for their safety. For, not to speak of other things, they knew that they dwelt in a land which it was easy to subdue. For nothing was needed save to turn the river upon their lands, building up a mound in this channel,and so turning the stream from its course. So would all Thessaly be changed into a lake."

When the King said this he thought of the sons of Aleuas, who had made their submission to him first of all the Greeks, being Thessalians. And he thought that they had done this in the name of the whole people. After this the King went back to Therma. And here there came to him the heralds whom he had sent to the Greek cities demanding earth and water, some being empty-handed and some carrying that for which they had been sent. Many nations gave earth and water, as the Thessalians and the Locrians and the Bœotians; only the men of Platæa and Thespiæ, that are towns of the Bœotians, gave them not. Against all such the Greeks that stood up against the barbarians sware this oath: "From all people who being Greeks have given themselves up to the Persians, without necessity compelling, we will take a tithe of their goods, and offer it to the god at Delphi."

Now it must be remembered that Xerxes, though he said that he was marching against Athens, had it in his mind to subdue all Greece. And this the Greeks knew beforehand, though indeed they did not all regard the matter in the same way. For some had no fear of the barbarians, as having given them earth and water, and thinking therefore that they should receive from them no harm; but others, having not given these things, were in great fear. For whereas they thought that all the ships in Greece were not enough to meet the Persians, so also they knew that the greater part of the cities would take no part in the war, but greatly favored the enemy.

And here must be said a thing which because it is true ought to be said, though most men will mislike it. If the Athenians, for fear of the danger that was coming upon them, had left their country, or, not leaving it, had submitted themselves to Xerxes, then certainly none would have sought to withstand the Persians by sea; and if none had withstood the Persians by sea, then there would have come to pass on the land what shall now be set forth. Though many breastworks had been built across the Isthmus, yet would the Lacedæmonians have been betrayed by their allies; not of their free will, indeed, but because their cities would have been taken, one after the other, by the fleet of the barbarians. So would they in the end have been left alone, and being so left alone, after many deeds of valor, would have perished with great glory. Or if not, then seeing beforehand that all the other Greeks were submitting themselves to the Persians, they also would have made an agreement with Xerxes. So, in either case, would Greece have been made subject to the barbarians. For what would have been the profit of walls built across the Isthmus while the King had the mastery by sea? If a man then should say that in truth the Athenians were the saviours of Greece, he would speak truly; for to whichever side they had inclined that would have been the weightier. And they, having a fixed purpose that Greece should be free, stirred up all the nations that had not submitted themselves to the Persians, and so, next to the Gods, drave back the enemy.

And this they did though they were sorely terrified by the oracle. For when they sent messengers to inquire of the god at Delphi, and these had offered sacrifices after the custom, and were now come into the shrine, the priestess gave to them this answer. (The name of the priestess was Aristonice).

"Why sit ye still? Fly, wretched race,

To earth's far bounds the fatal place.

Fly hearth and home and craggy hill,

Round which the wheel-like city stands;

Through all her being fares she ill,

Body, and head, and feet, and hands.

The fire consumes them, and from far,

Wild Ares drives his Syrian car.

Full many a tower, both fair and tall,

Not thine alone, before him fall;

Full many a holy place and shrine

The fire's devouring flames shall seize;

Cold stands the sweat on face divine,

And shake with fear the trembling knees;

From high-pitched roof the blood-drops fall,

Fell signs of storm and coming woe;

Leave, suppliant band, Apollo's hall,

Prepare you for the fate ye know."

When the messengers from Athens heard these words they were greatly troubled. But Timon the son of Androbulus, a chief man among the citizens of Delphi, seeing how utterly cast down they were by the evil that was prophesied concerning their country, counseled them that they should take tokens of suppliants in their hands, and in this guise go and inquire of the oracle once more. This then the Athenians did, and spake, saying, "O King, prophesy unto us some better thing about our country, having regard to these tokens of suppliants which we bring into thy presence. Else will we not depart from thy sanctuary, but will abide here till the day of our death." Then the priestess prophesied to them a second time, using these words:

"Pallas desires with deep desire

To change the purpose of her sire.

Again entreats him, and again;

But vain her prayers, her counsel vain.

Yet sons of Athens, hear once more

The firm, unyielding word of fate;

Whene'er the fair Cecropian state,

From bound to bound and shore to shore

Before the foeman's might shall bow,

One boon will Zeus All-wise allow

To Pallas' prayer—that ne'er shall fall

Fair Athens' stay, her wooden wall:

Think not to wait that evil hour

Horsemen or footmen's dark array;

Fly, fly their host; yet comes the hour

Ye stand to meet the foemen's power.

Thou, holy Salamis, shalt bring

Dark death to sons of women born,

Or when abroad the seed they fling,

Or when they pluck the ripened corn."

These words seemed to be, as indeed they were, milder than the former words. So the envoys wrote them down, and returned with them to Athens.