by Paul Chrastina
Darius the Great, King of Persia, was the supreme ruler of lands stretching from the foothills of the Himalayas to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea during the fifth century, B.C. Darius commanded a large standing army of slaves and mercenaries, which he used to invade and dominate neighboring kingdoms.
This Persian army was defeated only once, in 490 B.C., when Darius sent 30,000 soldiers to attack the Greek city of Athens. The Persians were badly beaten by only 7,000 Greek soldiers at the Battle of Marathon.
Darius was enraged when his troops were forced to retreat back to Asia. He was making plans for a second invasion of Greece when he died unexpectedly, leaving the throne to his son, Xerxes, "He Who Rules Over Heroes,"
The new king was an ambitious and ruthless young man who was easily persuaded by his late father's generals to avenge the humiliating defeat at Marathon. The generals argued that, after punishing the hated Athenians, Xerxes could extend his empire by conquering all of Greece.
It took Xerxes four years to plan and prepare for his massive invasion of Greece. From every corner of the Persian Empire, Xerxes collected vast quantities of food, money, and weapons, which he stockpiled for the impending conquest. Meanwhile, the Persian army honed its skills by putting down a rebellion in Egypt.
Xerxes's army was the biggest that had ever been assembled in the ancient world, numbering at least several hundred thousand troops. The army's strongest regiment was an elite corps of ten thousand hand-picked warriors known as the Immortals. The greater part of the army was, however, drafted from the enslaved masses of the Persian Empire.
This army began marching toward Greece in the spring of 480 B.C. It took a full week for the entire force to pass by any given point along the line of march. As the thirsty army passed through the countryside, springs, wells and small rivers along its route were frequently drunk dry.
Xerxes ordered a fleet of a thousand warships to sail along the coast of the Aegean Sea, following his army and carrying provisions for the long march to Greece.
Xerxes called a temporary halt when his army reached the stormy straits of the Dardanelles, at the mouth of the Black Sea. To transport his army across the mile-wide waterway, Xerxes sent hundreds of ships from his fleet into the channel, where they were tied together with thick ropes to create a floating bridge. A violent storm destroyed this bridge before the Persian army was able to cross it.
Enraged, Xerxes ordered that the waters of the Dardanelles be whipped and branded with hot irons. The soldiers sent to perform this symbolic act of punishment recited the following royal proclamation:
"O vile waterway! Xerxes lays on you this punishment because you have offended him, although he has done you no wrong! The great king Xerxes will cross you even without your permission, for you are a treacherous and foul river!"
Xerxes also put to death the engineers responsible for building the bridge. He then recruited a second team of bridge-builders, who cleverly decided to build two floating bridges, one for the use of the army's troops, and a second, downstream, which would carry the large herds of horses and other animals across the straits. The engineers also made sure to use thicker ropes to tie the ships together. After the ropes were pulled taut by giant windlasses anchored to either shore, mile-long embankments of timber, stone and packed earth were laid across the ships' decks to form roadways.
In the weeks that it took to assemble the floating bridges, Xerxes ordered his naval commanders to allow grain-ships bound for Greece to pass through the Dardanelles unharmed. "Are we not bound for the same destination?" he asked. "I do not see that those ships are doing us any harm by carrying our grain for us."
When the bridges were completed, Xerxes and his army crossed the straits into the kingdom of Thrace. The Thracians knew that Xerxes's primary goal was to destroy the powerful city of Athens, far to the south, and so they offered no resistance to the overwhelming Persian army. As the army marched along the northern coast of the Aegean Sea into the kingdom of Macedonia, one city after another surrendered and was spared destruction.
In each submissive city, a great feast was ordered to be prepared especially for Xerxes and the 10,000 Immortals. These banquets were catered with the finest foods available, and were set with the costliest golden and silver tableware that could be offered up by the local nobility. Each morning, the Persians moved on to occupy a new city, taking with them everything of value that had been provided the night before.
Passing through northern Greece, Xerxes met no opposition until he reached the rocky seashore of Thermopylae, about ninety miles from Athens. There, a small army of eight thousand Greek soldiers had reinforced an ancient stone wall across the road, where it followed a narrow beach between steep cliffs and the sea. The Greek soldiers waiting behind the wall were emergency troops that had been hastily assembled from Greek city-states to the south.
Xerxes was astonished to see that this puny force of Greeks intended to challenge his giant army. He camped a few miles from the Greek wall and waited for the straggling mass of his army to arrive. While waiting, he sent a message to the Greeks: "King Xerxes orders you to surrender your weapons, retreat to your native lands, and become his allies. In return, Xerxes will reward you with more and better lands than you now possess."
The Greeks responded: "If we are to be your allies, we will need our weapons. If we resist you, we will also need our weapons. As for the better lands you promise, our fathers taught us to gain land by means of courage, not cowardice."
Xerxes fumed for three days, hoping for the arrival of his fleet, which he thought might be able to sail in behind the Greek position and launch an attack from the sea. The fleet, however, did not arrive. On the morning of the fourth day, Xerxes ordered his army to attack the Greek wall.
The front ranks of Xerxes's army were composed entirely of expendable slaves. Xerxes ordered waves of these men to charge against a defensive line of Greek soldiers, who stood together in formation and fought with long spears and large shields. By afternoon, the bodies of hundreds of Persians lay heaped in front of the Greek spearmen, who stood firm.
Xerxes was furious. He ordered his elite troops, the Immortals, to attack the Greek line. They had no better luck than the slaves, and retreated at the end of the day after suffering heavy losses.
The next morning, Xerxes ordered another attack on the Greek stronghold, but again the Persians failed to break through the Greek defenses.
Messengers arrived from the Persian fleet, informing the king that 200 of his warships had been driven aground and wrecked during a fierce storm at sea.
After these disasters, Xerxes was cheered when a Greek traitor slipped into the Persian encampment with some useful information. The turncoat told Xerxes of a hidden mountain pass that could be used by the Persians to completely bypass the Greek defenses.
Xerxes's soldiers followed the Greek traitor up the steep, wooded mountain trail that led through the pass. At one point they could look down onto the Greek camp at Thermopylae below them.
When the Greeks realized that they were being surrounded, most of them retreated, leaving behind a rear guard of three hundred men from the Greek city-state of Sparta. Xerxes quickly massacred this small force of Spartans at Thermopylae.
After that, no obstacle stood between Xerxes and the city of Athens, which lay only three day's march to the south. He learned that the Greek army was retreating to a position south of Athens, abandoning the city to its enemy.
Instead of attacking Athens immediately, Xerxes sent his army into the surrounding countryside to pillage. Clouds of smoke hung heavy over the land as crops, farms, forests and entire villages were burned to the ground by the rampaging Persians. Temples and marketplaces were desecrated and looted. For three weeks the Persian army plundered the rich Greek countryside.
By the time Xerxes decided that the time had come to destroy Athens, the civilian population of the city had escaped to an offshore island called Salamis.
The Persians ravaged the abandoned city of Athens anyway. A few Greek holdouts who tried to defend the sacred hilltop of the Acropolis were massacred by Xerxes's troops.
The stated goal of the Persian invasion was fully accomplished. Xerxes had avenged his father's defeat by the Athenians at Marathon.
All that remained was to round up and enslave the Athenian refugees on the island of Salamis. The mountainous terrain of the island provided some protection for the refugees, who were concentrated on the landward side of Salamis. The island refuge was separated from the mainland by a long, narrow sea channel, which was being guarded by about two hundred Greek warships. The channel was not wide enough to accommodate the full force of the larger Persian fleet.
Xerxes soon realized that he faced an impasse similar to the one that had frustrated his early attempts to force the pass at Thermopylae. The Greeks had backed themselves into a strong defensive position, where their small navy could fight on equal terms with Xerxes's large navy.
A siege was certain to starve the Athenians into submission, but Xerxes was impatient to enslave the Athenian refugees and to finish off the Greek fleet. He ordered his ships into the channel. To witness the final destruction of the Athenian fleet, Xerxes ordered that a golden throne be set up on a mountain that overlooked Salamis.
Watching from this high vantage point, Xerxes observed the Greek ships waiting in defensive formation as his Persian fleet approached the narrow channel. Suddenly, many Greek ships broke formation and fled back toward the beach at Salamis, where hundreds of Athenian refugees stood nervously. The Greek fleet was disintegrating before Xerxes's eyes.
Xerxes commanded more of his ships to attack.
As the Persian ships jammed into the narrow channel between Salamis and the mainland, the retreating Greek ships suddenly paused in their flight. At the sound of a trumpet, the Greek ships encircled and attacked the Persians.
Soon, hundreds of separate battles were raging on the decks of the outermost Persian warships. As damaged Persian ships began backing out of the channel, they stalled the progress of new ships that were trying to get to the fighting. In the confusion, shipwrecks tangled the Persian fleet.
From his golden throne, Xerxes watched helplessly as the Greek navy systematically destroyed his fleet. By the end of the day, according to the Greek playwright Aeschylus, who was present at the battle, "Crushed ships lay upturned on the sea so thick that none could see the water, choked with wrecks and slaughtered men; while the shores and reefs were strewn with Persian corpses."
Xerxes decided that it was time to go back to Persia. He called off the attack on the Greek navy. Leaving part of his army behind to occupy Greece, the great king marched north and east to the Dardanelles, where he found that storms and high tides had severely damaged the floating bridges. Ferried across the straits by the surviving ships of the Persian fleet, Xerxes returned to his old empire.
A year later, Xerxes heard that the army he had left behind in Greece had been destroyed.
Xerxes spent the rest of his life in his luxurious capital at Persepolis, where he devoted himself to "the intrigues of the harem." Fifteen years after the defeat at Salamis, Xerxes was murdered in his sleep by one of his ministers, setting off a chain of assassinations that left the Persian Empire to his son Artaxerxes, "He Whose Empire is Perfected."
The History. by Herodotus. Trans. by David Grene. U. of Chicago, 1987.
History of Xerxes the Great. by Jacob Abbott. London, 1850.
The Great Persian War. by G.B. Grundy. London, 1901.
Xerxes' Invasion of Greece. by Charles Hignett. Oxford/Clarendon, 1963.
Xerxes at Salamis. by Peter Green. Praeger, 1970.
The Persian Empire. by J.M. Cook. Schocken Books, 1983.
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