Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
Xerxes by  Jacob Abbott





S soon as the expedition of Xerxes had crossed the Hellespont and arrived safely on the European side, as narrated in the last chapter, it became necessary for the fleet and the army to separate, and to move, for a time, in opposite directions from each other. The reader will observe, by examining the map, that the army, on reaching the European shore, at the point to which they would be conducted by a bridge at Abydos, would find themselves in the middle of a long and narrow peninsula called the Chersonesus, and that, before commencing its regular march along the northern coast of the Ægean Sea, it would be necessary first to proceed for fifteen or twenty miles to the eastward, in order to get round the bay by which the peninsula is bounded on the north and west. While, therefore, the fleet went directly westward along the coast, the army turned to the eastward, a place of rendezvous hav- [126] ing been appointed on the northern coast of the sea, where they were all soon to meet again.

The army moved on by a slow and toilsome progress until it reached the neck of the peninsula, and then turning at the head of the bay, it moved westward again, following the direction of the coast. The line of march was, however, laid at some distance from the shore, partly for the sake of avoiding the indentations made in the land by gulfs and bays, and partly for the sake of crossing the streams from the interior at points so far inland that the water found in them should be fresh and pure. Notwithstanding these precautions, however, the water often failed. So immense were the multitudes of men and of beasts, and so craving was the thirst which the heat and the fatigues of the march engendered, that, in several instances, they drank the little rivers dry.

The first great and important river which the army had to pass after entering Europe was the Hebrus. Not far from the mouth of the Hebrus, where it emptied into the Ægean Sea, was a great plain, which was called the plain of Doriscus. There was an extensive fortress here, which had been erected by the orders of Darius when he had subjugated this part of the [127] country. The position of this fortress was an important one, because it commanded the whole region watered by the Hebrus, which was a very fruitful and populous district. Xerxes had been intending to have a grand review and enumeration of his forces on entering the European territories, and he judged Doriscus to be a very suitable place for his purpose. He could establish his own head-quarters in the fortress, while his armies could be marshaled and reviewed on the plain. The fleet, too, had been ordered to draw up to the shore at the same spot, and when the army reached the ground, they found the vessels already in the offing.

The army accordingly halted, and the necessary arrangements were made for the review. The first thing was to ascertain the numbers of the troops; and as the soldiers were too numerous to be counted, Xerxes determined to measure the mighty mass as so much bulk, and then ascertain the numbers by a computation. They made the measure itself in the following manner: They counted off, first, ten thousand men, and brought them together in a compact circular mass, in the middle of the plain, and then marked a line upon the ground inclosing them. Upon this line, thus determined, they [128] built a stone wall, about four feet high, with openings on opposite sides of it, by which men might enter and go out. When the wall was built, soldiers were sent into the inclosure—just as corn would be poured by a husbandman into a wooden peck—until it was full. The mass thus required to fill the inclosure was deemed and taken to be ten thousand men. This was the first filling of the measure. These men were then ordered to retire, and a fresh mass was introduced, and so on until the whole army was measured. The inclosure was filled one hundred and seventy times with the foot soldiers before the process was completed, indicating, as the total amount of the infantry of the army, a force of one million seven hundred thousand men. This enumeration, it must be remembered, included the land forces alone.

This method of measuring the army in bulk was applied only to the foot soldiers; they constituted the great mass of the forces convened. There were, however, various other bodies of troops in the army, which, from their nature, were more systematically organized than the common foot soldiers, and so their numbers were known by the regular enrollment. There was, for example, a cavalry force of eighty thou- [129] sand men. There was also a corps of Arabs, on camels, and another of Egyptians, in war chariots, which together amounted to twenty thousand. Then, besides these land forces, there were half a million of men in the fleet. Immense as these numbers are, they were still further increased, as the army moved on, by Xerxes's system of compelling the forces of every kingdom and province through which he passed to join the expedition; so that, at length, when the Persian king fairly entered the heart of the Greek territory, Herodotus, the great narrator of his history, in summing up the whole number of men regularly connected with the army, makes a total of about five millions of men! One hundred thousand men, which is but one fiftieth part of five millions, is considered, in modern times, an immense army; and, in fact, half even of that number was thought, in the time of the American Revolution, a sufficient force to threaten the colonies with overwhelming destruction. "If ten thousand men will not do to put down the rebellion," said an orator in the House of Commons, "fifty thousand shall."

Herodotus adds that, besides the five millions regularly connected with the army, there was [130] an immense and promiscuous mass of women, slaves, cooks, bakers, and camp followers of every description, that no human powers could estimate or number.

But to return to the review. The numbers of the army having been ascertained, the next thing was to marshal and arrange the men by nations under their respective leaders, to be reviewed by the king. A very full enumeration of these divisions of the army is given by the historians of the day, with minute descriptions of the kind of armor which the troops of the several nations wore. There were more than fifty of these nations in all. Some of them were highly civilized, others were semi-barbarous tribes; and, of course, they presented, as marshaled in long array upon the plain, every possible variety of dress and equipment. Some were armed with brazen helmets, and coats of mail formed of plates of iron; others wore linen tunics, or rude garments made of the skins of beasts. The troops of one nation had their heads covered with helmets, those of another with miters, and of a third with tiaras. There was one savage-looking horde that had caps made of the skin of the upper part of a horse's head, in its natural form, with the ears stand- [131] ing up erect at the top, and the mane flowing down behind. These men held the skins of cranes before them instead of shields, so that they looked like horned monsters, half beast and half bird, endeavoring to assume the guise and attitude of men. There was another corps whose men were really horned, since they wore caps made from the skins of the heads of oxen, with the horns standing. Wild beasts were personated, too, as well as tame; for some nations were clothed in lions' skins, and others in panthers' skins—the clothing being considered, apparently, the more honorable, in proportion to the ferocity of the brute to which it had originally belonged.

The weapons, too, were of every possible form and guise. Spears—some pointed with iron, some with stone, and others shaped simply by being burned to a point in the fire; bows and arrows, of every variety of material and form; swords, daggers, slings, clubs, darts, javelins, and every other imaginable species of weapon which human ingenuity, savage or civilized, had then conceived. Even the lasso—the weapon of the American aborigines of modern times—was there. It is described by the ancient historian as a long thong of leather wound into [132] a coil, and finished in a noose at the end, which noose the rude warrior who used the implement launched through the air at the enemy, and entangling rider and horse together by means of it, brought them both to the ground.

There was every variety of taste, too, in the fashion and the colors of the dresses which were worn. Some were of artificial fabrics, and dyed in various and splendid hues. Some were very plain, the wearers of them affecting a simple and savage ferocity in the fashion of their vesture. Some tribes had painted skins—beauty, in their view, consisting, apparently, in hideousness. There was one barbarian horde who wore very little clothing of any kind. They had knotty clubs for weapons, and, in lieu of a dress, they had painted their naked bodies half white and half a bright vermilion.

In all this vast array, the corps which stood at the head, in respect to their rank and the costliness and elegance of their equipment, was a Persian squadron of ten thousand men, called the Immortals. They had received this designation from the fact that the body was kept always exactly full, as, whenever any one of the number died, another soldier was instantly put into his place, whose life was considered in [133] some respects a continuation of the existence of the man who had fallen. Thus, by a fiction somewhat analogous to that by which the king, in England, never dies, these ten thousand Persians were an immortal band. They were all carefully-selected soldiers, and they enjoyed very unusual privileges and honors. They were mounted troops, and their dress and their armor were richly decorated with gold. They were accompanied in their campaigns by their wives and families, for whose use carriages were provided which followed the camp, and there was a long train of camels besides, attached to the service of the corps, to carry their provisions and their baggage.

While all these countless varieties of land troops were marshaling and arranging themselves upon the plain, each under its own officers and around its own standards, the naval commanders were employed in bringing up the fleet of galleys to the shore, where they were anchored in a long line not far from the beach, and with their prows toward the land. Thus there was a space of open water left between the line of vessels and the beach, along which Xerxes's barge was to pass when the time for the naval part of the review should arrive.

[134] When all things were ready, Xerxes mounted his war chariot and rode slowly around the plain, surveying attentively, and with great interest and pleasure, the long lines of soldiers, in all their variety of equipment and costume, as they stood displayed before him. It required a progress of many miles to see them all. When this review of the land forces was concluded, the king went to the shore, and embarked on board a royal galley which had been prepared for him, and there, seated upon the deck under a gilded canopy, he was rowed by the oarsmen along the line of ships, between their prows and the land. The ships were from many nations as well as the soldiers, and exhibited the same variety of fashion and equipment. The land troops had come from the inland realms and provinces which occupied the heart of Asia, while the ships and the seamen had been furnished by the maritime regions which extended along the coasts of the Black, and the Ægean, and the Mediterranean Seas. Thus the people of Egypt had furnished two hundred ships, the Phœnicians three hundred, Cyprus fifty, the Cilicians and the Ionians one hundred each, and so with a great many other nations and tribes.

The various squadrons which were thus com- [135] bined in forming this immense fleet were manned and officered, of course, from the nations that severally furnished them, and one of them was actually commanded in person by a queen. The name of this lady admiral was Artemisia. She was the Queen of Caria, a small province in the southwestern part of Asia Minor, having Halicarnassus for its capital. Artemisia, though in history called a queen, was, in reality, more properly a regent, as she governed in the name of her son, who was yet a child. The quota of ships which Caria was to furnish was five. Artemisia, being a lady of ambitious and masculine turn of mind, and fond of adventure, determined to accompany the expedition. Not only her own vessels, but also those from some neighboring islands, were placed under her charge, so that she commanded quite an important division of the fleet. She proved, also, in the course of the voyage, to be abundantly qualified for the discharge of her duties. She became, in fact, one of the ablest and most efficient commanders in the fleet, not only maneuvering and managing her own particular division in a very successful manner, but also taking a very active and important part in the general consultations, where what she said was [136] listened to with great respect, and always had great weight in determining the decisions. In the great battle of Salamis she acted a very conspicuous part, as will hereafter appear.

The whole number of galleys of the first class in Xerxes's fleet was more than twelve hundred, a number abundantly sufficient to justify the apprehensions of Artabanus that no harbor would be found capacious enough to shelter them in the event of a sudden storm. The line which they formed on this occasion, when drawn up side by side upon the shore for review, must have extended many miles.

Xerxes moved slowly along this line in his barge, attended by the officers of his court and the great generals of his army, who surveyed the various ships as they passed them, and noted the diverse national costumes and equipments of the men with curiosity and pleasure. Among those who attended the king on this occasion was a certain Greek named Demaratus, an exile from his native land, who had fled to Persia, and had been kindly received by Darius some years before. Having remained in the Persian court until Xerxes succeeded to the throne and undertook the invasion of Greece, he concluded to accompany the expedition.

[137] The story of the political difficulties in which Demaratus became involved in his native land, and which led to his flight from Greece, was very extraordinary. It was this:

The mother of Demaratus was the daughter of parents of high rank and great affluence in Sparta, but in her childhood her features were extremely plain and repulsive. Now there was a temple in the neighborhood of the place where her parents resided, consecrated to Helen, a princess who, while she lived, enjoyed the fame of being the most beautiful woman in the world. The nurse recommended that the child should be taken every day to this temple, and that petitions should be offered there at the shrine of Helen that the repulsive deformity of her features might be removed. The mother consented to this plan, only enjoining upon the nurse not to let any one see the face of her unfortunate offspring in going and returning. The nurse accordingly carried the child to the temple day after day, and, holding it in her arms before the shrine, implored the mercy of Heaven for her helpless charge, and the bestowal upon it of the boon of beauty.

These petitions were, it seems, at length heard, for one day, when the nurse was coming [138] down from the temple, after offering her customary prayer, she was met and accosted by a mysterious-looking woman, who asked her what it was that she was carrying in her arms. The nurse replied that it was a child. The woman wanted to look at it. The nurse refused to show the face of the child, saying that she had been forbidden to do so. The woman, however, insisted upon seeing its face, and at last the nurse consented and removed the coverings. The stranger stroked down the face of the child, saying, at the same time, that now that child should become the most beautiful woman of Sparta.

Her words proved true. The features of the young girl rapidly changed, and her countenance soon became as wonderful for its loveliness as it had been before for its hideous deformity. When she arrived at a proper age, a certain Spartan nobleman named Agetus, a particular friend of the king's, made her his wife.

The name of the king of Sparta at that time was Ariston. He had been twice married, and his second wife was still living, but he had no children. When he came to see and to know the beautiful wife of Agetus, he wished to obtain her for himself, and began to revolve the [139] subject in his mind, with a view to discover some method by which he might hope to accomplish his purpose. He decided at length upon the following plan. He proposed to Agetus to make an exchange of gifts, offering to give to him any one object which he might choose from all his, that is, Ariston's effects, provided that Agetus would, in the same manner, give to Ariston whatever Ariston might choose. Agetus consented to the proposal, without, however, giving it any serious consideration. As Ariston was already married, he did not for a moment imagine that his wife could be the object which the king would demand. The parties to this foolish agreement confirmed the obligation of it by a solemn oath, and then each made known to the other what he had selected. Agetus gained some jewel, or costly garment, or perhaps a gilded and embellished weapon, and lost forever his beautiful wife. Ariston repudiated his own second wife, and put the prize which he had thus surreptitiously acquired in her place as a third.

About seven or eight months after this time Demaratus was born. The intelligence was brought to Ariston one day by a slave, when he was sitting at a public tribunal. Ariston seem- [140] ed surprised at the intelligence, and exclaimed that the child was not his. He, however, afterward retracted this disavowal, and owned Demaratus as his son. The child grew up, and in process of time, when his father died, he succeeded to the throne. The magistrates, however, who had heard the declaration of his father at the time of his birth, remembered it, and reported it to others; and when Ariston died and Demaratus assumed the supreme power, the next heir denied his right to the succession, and in process of time formed a strong party against him. A long series of civil dissensions arose, and at length the claims of Demaratus were defeated, his enemies triumphed, and he fled from the country to save his life. He arrived at Susa near the close of Darius's reign, and it was his counsel which led the king to decide the contest among his sons for the right of succession, in favor of Xerxes, as described at the close of the first chapter. Xerxes had remembered his obligations to Demaratus for this interposition. He had retained him in the royal court after his accession to the throne, and had bestowed upon him many marks of distinction and honor.

Demaratus had decided to accompany Xerx- [141] es on his expedition into Greece, and now, while the Persian officers were looking with so much pride and pleasure on the immense preparations which they were making for the subjugation of a foreign and hostile state, Demaratus, too, was in the midst of the scene, regarding the spectacle with no less of interest, probably, and yet, doubtless, with very different feelings, since the country upon which this dreadful cloud of gloom and destruction was about to burst was his own native land.

After the review was ended, Xerxes sent for Demaratus to come to the castle. When he arrived, the king addressed him as follows:

"You are a Greek, Demaratus, and you know your countrymen well; and now, as you have seen the fleet and the army that have been displayed here to-day, tell me what is your opinion. Do you think that the Greeks will undertake to defend themselves against such a force, or will they submit at once without attempting any resistance?"

Demaratus seemed at first perplexed and uncertain, as if not knowing exactly what answer to make to the question. At length he asked the king whether it was his wish that he should respond by speaking the blunt and honest truth, [142] or by saying what would be polite and agreeable.

Xerxes replied that he wished him, of course, to speak the truth. The truth itself would be what he should consider the most agreeable.

"Since you desire it, then," said Demaratus, "I will speak the exact truth. Greece is the child of poverty. The inhabitants of the land have learned wisdom and discipline in the severe school of adversity, and their resolution and courage are absolutely indomitable. They all deserve this praise; but I speak more particularly of my own countrymen, the people of Sparta. I am sure that they will reject any proposal which you may make to them for submission to your power, and that they will resist you to the last extremity. The disparity of numbers will have no influence whatever on their decision. If all the rest of Greece were to submit to you, leaving the Spartans alone, and if they should find themselves unable to muster more than a thousand men, they would give you battle."

Xerxes expressed great surprise at this assertion, and thought that Demaratus could not possibly mean what he seemed to say. "I appeal to yourself," said he; "would you  dare to [143] encounter, alone, ten men? You have been the prince of the Spartans, and a prince ought, at least, to be equal to two common men; so that to show that the Spartans in general could be brought to fight a superiority of force of even ten to one, it ought to appear that you would dare to engage twenty. This is manifestly absurd. In fact, for any person to pretend to be able or willing to fight under such a disparity of numbers, evinces only pride and insolent presumption. And even this proportion of ten to one, or even twenty to one, is nothing compared to the real disparity; for, even if we grant to the Spartans as large a force as there is any possibility of their obtaining, I shall then have a thousand  to one against them.

"Besides," continued the king, "there is a great difference in the character of the troops. The Greeks are all freemen, while my soldiers are all slaves—bound absolutely to do my bidding, without complaint or murmur. Such soldiers as mine, who are habituated to submit entirely to the will of another, and who live under the continual fear of the lash, might, perhaps, be forced to go into battle against a great superiority of numbers, or under other manifest disadvantages; but free men, never. I do not [144] believe that a body of Greeks could be brought to engage a body of Persians, man for man. Every consideration shows, thus, that the opinion which you have expressed is unfounded. You could only have been led to entertain such an opinion through ignorance and unaccountable presumption."

"I was afraid," replied Demaratus, "from the first, that, by speaking the truth, I should offend you. I should not have given you my real opinion of the Spartans if you had not ordered me to speak without reserve. You certainly can not suppose me to have been influenced by a feeling of undue partiality for the men whom I commended, since they have been my most implacable and bitter enemies, and have driven me into hopeless exile from my native land. Your father, on the other hand, received and protected me, and the sincere gratitude which I feel for the favors which I have received from him and from you incline me to take the most favorable view possible of the Persian cause.

"I certainly should not be willing, as you justly suppose, to engage, alone, twenty men, or ten, or even one, unless there was an absolute necessity for it. I do not say that any sin- [145] gle Lacedæmonian could successfully encounter ten or twenty Persians, although in personal conflicts they are certainly not inferior to other men. It is when they are combined in a body, even though that body be small, that their great superiority is seen.

"As to their being free, and thus not easily led into battle in circumstances of imminent danger, it must be considered that their freedom is not absolute, like that of savages in a fray, where each acts according to his own individual will and pleasure, but it is qualified and controlled by law. The Spartan soldiers are not personal slaves, governed by the lash of a master, it is true; but they have certain principles of obligation and duty which they all feel most solemnly bound to obey. They stand in greater awe of the authority of this law than your subjects do of the lash. It commands them never to fly from the field of battle, whatever may be the number of their adversaries. It commands them to preserve their ranks, to stand firm at the posts assigned them, and there to conquer or die.

"This is the truth in respect to them. If what I say seems to you absurd, I will in future be silent. I have spoken honestly what I [146] think, because your majesty commanded me to do so; and, notwithstanding what I have said, I sincerely wish that all your majesty's desires and expectations may be fulfilled."

The ideas which Demaratus thus appeared to entertain of danger to the countless and formidable hosts of Xerxes's army, from so small and insignificant a power as that of Sparta, seemed to Xerxes too absurd to awaken any serious displeasure in his mind. He only smiled, therefore, at Demaratus's fears, and dismissed him.

Leaving a garrison and a governor in possession of the castle of Doriscus, Xerxes resumed his march along the northern shores of the Ægean Sea, the immense swarms of men filling all the roads, devouring every thing capable of being used as food, either for beast or man, and drinking all the brooks and smaller rivers dry. Even with this total consumption of the food and the water which they obtained on the march, the supplies would have been found insufficient if the whole army had advanced through one tract of country. They accordingly divided the host into three great columns, one of which kept near the shore; the other marched far in the interior, and the third in the [147] intermediate space. They thus exhausted the resources of a very wide region. All the men, too, that were capable of bearing arms in the nations that these several divisions passed on the way, they compelled to join them, so that the army left, as it moved along, a very broad extent of country trampled down, impoverished, desolate, and full of lamentation and woe. The whole march was perhaps the most gigantic crime against the rights and the happiness of man that human wickedness has ever been able to commit.

The army halted, from time to time, for various purposes, sometimes for the performance of what they considered religious ceremonies, which were intended to propitiate the supernatural powers of the earth and of the air. When they reached the Strymon, where, it will be recollected, a bridge had been previously built, so as to be ready for the army when it should arrive, they offered a sacrifice of five white horses to the river. In the same region, too, they halted at a place called the Nine Ways, where Xerxes resolved to offer a human sacrifice to a certain god whom the Persians believed to reside in the interior of the earth. The mode of sacrificing to this god was to bury the wretched [148] victims alive. The Persians seized, accordingly, by Xerxes's orders, nine young men and nine girls from among the people of the country, and buried them alive!

Marching slowly on in this manner, the army at length reached the point upon the coast where the canal had been cut across the isthmus of Mount Athos. The town which was nearest to this spot was Acanthus, the situation of which, together with that of the canal, will be found upon the map. The fleet arrived at this point by sea nearly at the same time with the army coming by land. Xerxes examined the canal, and was extremely well satisfied with its construction. He commended the chief engineer, whose name was Artachæes, in the highest terms, for the successful manner in which he had executed the work, and rendered him very distinguished honors.

It unfortunately happened, however, that, a few days after the arrival of the fleet and the army at the canal, and before the fleet had commenced the passage of it, that Artachæes died. The king considered this event as a serious calamity to him, as he expected that other occasions would arrive on which he would have occasion to avail himself of the engineer's [149] talents and skill. He ordered preparations to be made for a most magnificent burial, and the body was in due time deposited in the grave with imposing funeral solemnities. A very splendid monument, too, was raised upon the spot, which employed, for some time, all the mechanical force of the army in its erection.

While Xerxes remained at Acanthus, he required the people of the neighboring country to entertain his army at a grand feast, the cost of which totally ruined them. Not only was all the food of the vicinity consumed, but all the means and resources of the inhabitants, of every kind, were exhausted in the additional supplies which they had to procure from the surrounding regions. At this feast the army in general ate, seated in groups upon the ground, in the open air; but for Xerxes and the nobles of the court a great pavilion was built, where tables were spread, and vessels and furniture of silver and gold, suitable to the dignity of the occasion, were provided. Almost all the property which the people of the region had accumulated by years of patient industry was consumed at once in furnishing the vast amount of food which was required for this feast, and the gold and silver plate which was to be used [150] in the pavilion. During the entertainment, the inhabitants of the country waited upon their exacting and insatiable guests until they were utterly exhausted by the fatigues of the service. When, at length, the feast was ended, and Xerxes and his company left the pavilion, the vast assembly outside broke up in disorder, pulled the pavilion to pieces, plundered the tables of the gold and silver plate, and departed to their several encampments, leaving nothing behind them.

The inhabitants of the country were so completely impoverished and ruined by these exactions, that those who were not impressed into Xerxes's service and compelled to follow his army, abandoned their homes, and roamed away in the hope of finding elsewhere the means of subsistence which it was no longer possible to obtain on their own lands; and thus, when Xerxes at last gave orders to the fleet to pass through the canal, and to his army to resume its march, he left the whole region utterly depopulated and desolate.

He went on to Therma, a port situated on the northwestern corner of the Ægean Sea, which was the last of his places of rendezvous before his actual advance into Greece.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: Crossing of Hellespont  |  Next: Preparations of the Greeks for Defense
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.