Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Greatest Army

Darius did not forgive or forget his great defeat at Marathon. He spent three years in gathering an army larger than the first, but before he could lead it against Greece he died. His son Xerxes became king, and during four more years was busy in collecting soldiers and building ships. When all was ready he set out upon the march, thinking that he would punish the Greeks for the disgrace and shame which they had made his father suffer.

At Abydos he held a great review of his army. He had ordered a throne of white marble to be built on a hill which was near the city and which overlooked both land and sea. There he sat and saw his vessels covering the narrow sea called the Hellespont, and his soldiers filling the shore and the plains about Abydos. At first he was glad and proud, but after a while he burst into tears.

When his uncle heard of this he went to him, and said, "0 king and lord! why are your feelings changed? Not long ago you were smiling and happy because your greatness lay before you. Nothing is altered, and yet your eyes are dim and your face is wet with tears. Why this sudden change?"

The king replied, "When I saw this great company of men a sudden pity came upon me to think that human life is so short, and that of all these soldiers not one will be alive in a hundred years."

But that thought did not prevent him from leading these men to war, in which many thousands of them died in a few weeks.

The Hellespont is three miles wide at Abydos. Xerxes had a bridge of boats built that his armies might cross. A storm arose, broke up the bridge, and scattered the boats. The king was furious.

"Take whips," he cried out, "take whips, and lash those waves that dare to rise against me! Throw chains into those waters and bind them to my will! I am their master and they shall obey me."

When the storm was over two new bridges of boats were built and the army marched safely across into Thrace. It was the largest company of soldiers the world had ever seen. It had been gathered from every part of the Persian empire, which included forty-six different nations of Asia and Africa. Some were barbarians and dressed in skins; others were in shining brass armor; others wore light, thin clothing Suited to a hot climate. Some had their bodies painted, half red and half white. One tribe had arrows tipped with stone instead of iron.

In the wide plain of Doriscus the Persian king commanded that his army should be counted. It was done in this way: ten thousand men were numbered and ordered to stand together as closely as possible. A line was drawn around the spot on which they stood, and the soldiers were marched away. Then a wall was built to enclose the space marked by the line. That space was filled one hundred and seventy times before the whole army had been included; making a total of 1,700,000 men. There were also 80,000 horses, a number of war chariots and many camels, with about 20,000 men as drivers and caretakers.

There was a fleet of 1,207 triremes and 3,000 smaller vessels. The triremes were galleys with three rows of oars on each side. Each of these vessels had 200 rowers and 30 fighting-men on board. The lesser vessels had each eight men.

As this great army marched from Doriscus toward Thermopylae it was joined by soldiers from Thrace, Macedonia, and other nations. Other war galleys were also added to the fleet; so that by land and sea the Persians brought against the Greeks many more than two millions of fighting-men. There were also slaves, crews of the provision vessels, and other men of various kinds, so that Herodotus says the total number was 5,283,220.

Many writers think this cannot possibly be true, but it is certain that it was the largest army ever brought together in the history of the world.

As they marched Xerxes sent messages to the principal cities along their road, requiring each to furnish a day's food for the army. This cost so much that several cities were nearly ruined. The island of Thasos, which owned property on the mainland, was compelled to spend in this way what would equal nearly 500,000 dollars in our money.

While Xerxes was making preparations to conquer Greece, a congress of the Greek states was held at Corinth. Some were afraid of the Persians and others were jealous of Athens and Sparta; so that those two cities were left almost alone to meet and fight the invader. Their brave citizens resolved to resist Xerxes to the utmost of their power. At the worst they could only die, and death, they thought, was better than slavery.

An Athenian named Themistocles was the very life of the congress. His eloquent and fiery speeches aroused the courage and fixed the resolution of every one who listened to him. His hearers were determined that the Persian monarch with his army of slaves should never conquer the free men of Greece.