Xerxes I: Crossing the Hellespont


Xerxes (Warrior), the eldest son of Darius by Atossa, succeeded his father by virtue of a formal act of choice. It was a Persian custom that the king, before he went out of his dominions on an expedition, should nominate a successor. Darius must have done this before his campaign in Thrace and Scythia; and if Xerxes was then, as is probable, a mere boy, it is impossible that he should have received the appointment. Artobazanes, the eldest of all Darius’s sons, whose mother, a daughter of Gobryas, was married to Darius before he became king, was most likely then nominated, and was thenceforth regarded as the heir-apparent. When, however, towards the close of his reign Darius again proposed to head a foreign expedition, an opportunity occurred of disturbing this arrangement, of which Atossa, Darius’s favorite wife, whose influence over her husband was unbounded, determined to take advantage. According to the law, a fresh signification of the sovereign’s will was now requisite; and Atossa persuaded Darius to make it in favor of Xerxes. The pleas put forward were, first, that he was the eldest son of the king, (first son born after Darius ascended the throne [CM]) and secondly, that he was descended from Cyrus. This latter argument could not fail to have weight. Backed by the influence of Atossa, it prevailed over all other considerations; and hence Xerxes obtained the throne.

If we may trust the informants of Herodotus, it was the wish of Xerxes on his accession to discontinue the preparations against Greece, and confine his efforts to the re-conquest of Egypt. Though not devoid of ambition, he may well have been distrustful of his own powers; and, having been nurtured in luxury, he may have shrunk from the perils of a campaign in unknown regions. But he was surrounded by advisers who had interests opposed to his inclinations (Onomacritus of Athens [CM]), and who worked on his facile temper till they prevailed on him to take that course which seemed best calculated to promote their designs. Mardonius (Cousin, son of a sister of Darius [CM])was anxious to retrieve his former failure, and expected, if Greece were conquered, that the rich prize would become his own satrapy. The refugee princes of the family of Pisistratus hoped to be reinstated under Persian influence as dependent despots of Athens. Demaratus of Sparta probably cherished a similar expectation with regard to that capital. The Persian nobles generally, who profited by the spoils of war, and who were still full of the military spirit, looked forward with pleasure to an expedition from which they anticipated victory, plunder, and thousands of valuable captives. (Book VII chp. 9-19 Herodotus) The youthful king was soon persuaded that the example of his predecessors required him to undertake some fresh conquest, while the honor of Persia absolutely demanded that the wrongs inflicted upon her by Athens should be avenged. Before, however, turning his arms against Greece, two revolts required his attention. In the year B.C. 485–the second of his reign–he marched into Egypt, which he rapidly reduced to obedience and punished by increasing its burthens. Soon afterwards he seems to have provoked a rebellion of the Babylonians by acts which they regarded as impious, and avenged by killing their satrap, Zopyrus, and proclaiming their independence. Megabyzus, the son of Zopyrus, recovered the city, which was punished by the plunder and ruin of its famous temple and the desolation of many of its shrines.

Xerxes was now free to bend all his efforts against Greece, and, appreciating apparently to the full the magnitude and difficulty of the task, resolved that nothing should be left undone which could possibly be done in order to render success certain. The experience of former years had taught some important lessons. The failure of Datis (Marathon)had proved that such an expedition as could be conveyed by sea across the Ægean would be insufficient to secure the object sought, and that the only safe road for a conqueror whose land force constituted his real strength was along the shores of the European continent. But if a large army took this long and circuitous route, it must be supported by a powerful fleet; and this involved a new danger. The losses of Mardonius off Athos had shown the perils of Ægean navigation, and taught the lesson that the naval force must be at first far more than proportionate to the needs of the army, in order that it might still be sufficient notwithstanding some considerable disasters. At the same time they had indicated one special place of danger, which might be avoided, if proper measures were taken. Xerxes, in the four years which followed on the reduction of Egypt, continued incessantly to make the most gigantic preparations for his intended attack upon Greece, and among them included all the precautions which a wise foresight could devise in order to ward off every conceivable peril. A general order was issued to all the satraps throughout the Empire, calling on them to levy the utmost force of their province for the new war; while, as the equipment of Oriental troops depends greatly on the purchase and distribution of arms by their commander, a rich reward was promised to the satrap whose contingent should appear at the appointed place and time in the most gallant array.

Orders for ships and transports of different kinds were given to the maritime states, with such effect that above 1200 triremes and 3000 vessels of an inferior description were collected together. Magazines of corn were formed at various points along the intended line of route.

To Bridge the Hellespont

Above all, it was determined to bridge the Hellespont by a firm and compact structure, which it was thought would secure the communication of the army from interruption by the elements (Bubares s/o Megabazus & Artachæes s/o Artæus); and at the same time it was resolved to cut through the isthmus which joined Mount Athos to the continent (Book VII Chp. 22 Herodotus), in order to preserve the fleet from disaster at that most perilous part of the proposed voyage. These remarkable works, which made a deep impression on the minds of the Greeks, have been ascribed to a mere spirit of ostentation on the part of Xerxes; the vain-glorious monarch wished, it is supposed, to parade his power, and made a useless bridge and an absurd cutting merely for the purpose of exhibiting to the world the grandeur of his ideas and the extent of his resources. But there is no necessity for travelling beyond the line of ordinary human motive in order to discover a reason for the works in question. The bridge across the Hellespont was a mere repetition of the construction by which Darius had passed into Europe when he made his Scythian expedition, and probably seemed to a Persian not a specially dignified or very wonderful way of crossing so narrow a strait, but merely the natural mode of passage. The only respect in which the bridge of Xerxes differed from constructions, with which the Persians were thoroughly familiar, was in its superior solidity and strength. The shore-cables were of unusual size and weight, and apparently of unusual materials(…he having cables prepared for his bridges, some of papyrus and some of white flax..{Herodotus}); the formation of a double line–of two bridges, in fact, instead of one–was almost without a parallel; and the completion of the work by laying on the ordinary plank-bridge a solid causeway composed of earth and brushwood, with a high bulwark on either side, was probably, if not unprecedented, at any rate very uncommon. Boat-bridges were usually, as they are even now in the East, somewhat rickety constructions, which animals unaccustomed to them could with difficulty be induced to cross. The bridge of Xerxes was a high-road, as Æschylus calls it along, which men, horses, and vehicles might pass with as much comfort and facility as they could move on shore.

The utility of such a work is evident. Without it Xerxes must have been reduced to the necessity of embarking in ships, conveying across the strait, and disembarking, not only his entire host, but all its stores, tents, baggage, horses, camels, and sumpter-beasts. If the numbers of his army approached even the lowest estimate that has been formed of them, it is not too much to say that many weeks must have been spent in this operation. As it was, the whole expedition marched across in seven days. In the case of ship conveyance, continual accidents would have happened: the transport would from time to time have been interrupted by bad weather; and great catastrophes might have occurred. By means of the bridge the passage was probably affected without any loss of either man or beast. Moreover, the bridge once established there was a safe line of communication thenceforth between the army in Europe and the headquarters of the Persian power in Asia, along which might pass couriers, supplies, and reinforcements, if they should be needed.

Further, the grandeur, massiveness, and apparent stability of the work were calculated to impose upon the minds of men, and to diminish their power of resistance by impressing them strongly with a sense of the irresistible greatness and strength of the invader.

The canal of Athos was also quite a legitimate and judicious undertaking. No portion of the Greek coast is as dangerous as that about Athos. Greek boatmen even at the present day refuse to attempt the circumnavigation; and probably any government less apathetic than that of the Turks would at once re-open the old cutting. The work was one of very little difficulty, the breadth of the isthmus being less than a mile and a half, the material sand and marl, and the greatest height of the natural ground above the level of the sea about fifty feet. The construction of a canal in such a locality was certainly better than the formation of a ship-groove or Diolcus–the substitute for it proposed by Ferodotus, not to mention that it is doubtful whether at the time that this cutting was made ship-grooves were known even to the Greeks.


Xerxes, having brought his preparations into a state of forwardness, having completed his canal and his bridge–after one failure with the latter, for which the constructors and the sea were punished (NOTE 1)–proceeded, in the year B.C. 481, along the “Royal Road” from Susa to Sardis, and wintered at the Lydian capital. His army is said to have accompanied him; but more probably it joined him in the spring, flocking in, and contingent after contingent, from the various provinces of his vast Empire. Forty-nine nations, according to Herodotus, served under his standard; and their contingents made up a grand total of eighteen hundred thousand men. Of these, eighty thousand were cavalry, while twenty thousand rode in chariots or on camels; the remainder served on foot. There are no sufficient means of testing these numbers. Figures in the mouth of an Oriental are vague and almost unmeaning; armies are never really counted: there is no such thing as a fixed and definite “strength” of a division or a battalion. Herodotus tells us that a rough attempt at numbering the infantry of the host was made on this occasion; but it was of so rude and primitive a description that little dependence can be placed on the results obtained by it. Ten thousand men were counted, and were made to stand close together; a line was then drawn round them, and a wall built on the line to the height of a man’s waist; within the enclosure thus made all the troops in turn entered, and each time that the enclosure appeared to be full, ten thousand were supposed to be within it. Estimated in this way, the infantry was regarded as amounting to 1,700,000. It is clear that such mode of counting was of the roughest kind, and might lead to gross exaggeration. Each commander would wish his troops to be thought more numerous than they really were, and would cause the enclosure to appear full when several thousands more might still have found room within it. Nevertheless there would be limits beyond which exaggeration could not go; and if Xerxes was made to believe that the land force which he took with him into Europe amounted to nearly two millions of men, it is scarcely doubtful but that it must have exceeded one million. [there were 22 Satrapes [CM]]

The motley composition of such a host has been described in a former chapter. Each nation was armed and equipped after its own fashion, and served in a body, often under a distinct commander. The army marched through Asia in a single column, which was not, however, continuous, but was broken into three portions. The first portion consisted of the baggage animals and about half of the contingents of the nations; the second was composed wholly of native Persians, who preceded and followed the emblems of religion and the king; the third was made up of the remaining national contingents. The king himself rode alternately in a chariot and in a litter. He was preceded immediately by ten sacred horses, and a sacred chariot drawn by eight milk-white steeds. Round him and about him were the choicest troops of the whole army, twelve thousand horse and the same number of foot, all Persians, and those too not taken at random, but selected carefully from the whole mass of the native soldiery. Among them seem to have been the famous “Immortals“–a picked body of 10,000 footmen, always maintained at exactly the same number, and thence deriving their appellation.

The line of march from Sardis to Abydos was only partially along the shore. The army probably descended the valley of the Hermus nearly to its mouth, and then struck northward into the Caicus vale, crossing which it held on its way, with Mount Kara-dagh (Cane) on the left, across the Atarnean plain, and along the coast to Adramytium (Adramyti) and Antandros, whence it again struck inland, and, crossing the ridge of Ida, descended into the valley of the Scamander. Some losses were incurred from the effects of a violent thunderstorm amid the mountains; but they cannot have been of a any great consequence. On reaching the Scamander the army found its first difficulty with respect to water.

That stream was probably low, and the vast host of men and animals were unable to obtain from it a supply sufficient for their wants. This phenomenon, we are told, frequently recurred afterwards; it surprises the English reader, but is not really astonishing, since, in hot countries, even considerable streams are often reduced to mere threads of water during the summer.

Rounding the hills which skirt the Scamander valley upon the east, the army marched past Rhoeteum, Ophrynium, and Dardanus to Abydos. Here Xerxes, seated upon a marble throne, which the people of Abydos had erected for him on the summit of a hill, was able to see at one glance his whole, armament, and to feast his eyes with the sight. It is not likely that any misgivings occurred to him at such a moment. Before him lay his vast host, covering with its dense masses the entire low ground between the hills and the sea; beyond was the strait, and to his left the open sea, white with the sails of four thousand ships; the green fields of the Chersonese smiled invitingly a little further on; while, between him and the opposite shore, the long lines of his bridges lay darkling upon the sea, like a yoke placed upon the neck of a captive. Having seen all, the king gave his special attention to the fleet, which he now perhaps beheld in all its magnitude for the first time. Desirous of knowing which of his subjects were the best sailors, he gave orders for a sailing-match, which were at once carried out. The palm was borne off by the Phoenicians of Sidon, who must have beaten not only their own countrymen of Tyre, but the Greeks of Asia and the islands.

On the next day the passage took place. It was accompanied by religious ceremonies. Waiting for the sacred hour of sunrise, the leader of the host, as the first rays appeared, poured a libation from a golden goblet into the sea, and prayed to Mithra that he might affect the conquest of Europe. As he prayed he cast into the sea the golden goblet, and with it a golden bowl and a short Persian sword. Meanwhile the multitude strewed all the bridge with myrtle boughs, and perfumed it with clouds of incense. The “Immortals” crossed first, wearing garlands on their heads. The king, with the sacred chariot and horses passed over on the second day. For seven days and seven nights the human stream flowed on without intermission across one bridge, while the attendants and the baggage-train made use of the other. The lash was employed to quicken the movements of laggards. At last the whole army was in Europe, and the march resumed its regularity.

It is unnecessary to follow in detail the advance of the host along the coast of Thrace, across Chalcidice, and round the Thermaic Gulf into Pieria. If we except the counting of the fleet and army at Doriscus no circumstances of much interest diversified this portion of the march, which lay entirely through territories that had previously submitted to the Great King. The army spread itself over a wide tract of country, marching generally in three divisions, which proceeded by three parallel lines–one along the coast, another at some considerable distance inland, and a third, with which was Xerxes himself, midway between them. At every place where Xerxes stopped along his line of route the natives had, besides furnishing corn for his army, to entertain him and his suite at a great banquet, the cost of which was felt as a heavy burthen.

Contributions of troops or ships were also required from all the cities and tribes; and thus both fleet and army continually swelled as they advanced onward. In crossing the track between the Strymon and the Axius some damage was suffered by the baggage-train from lions, which came down from the mountains during the night and devoured many of the camels; but otherwise the march was affected without loss, and the fleet and army reached the borders of Thessaly intact, and in good condition.

Here it was found that there was work for the pioneers, and a reconnaissance of the enemy’s country before entering it was probably also thought desirable. The army accordingly halted some days in Pieria, while preparations were being made for crossing the Olympic range into the Thessalian lowland.

During the halt intelligence arrived which seemed to promise the invader an easy conquest. Xerxes, while he was staying at Sardis, had sent heralds to all the Grecian states, excepting Athens and Sparta, with a demand for earth and water, the recognized symbols of submission. His envoys now returned, and brought him favorable replies from at least one-third of the continental Greeks–from the Perrhaebians, Thessalians, Dolopians, Magnetians, Achaeans of Phthiotis, Enianians, Malians, Locrians, and from most of the Boeotians. Unless it was the insignificant Phocis, no hostile country seemed to intervene between the place where his army lay and the great object of the expedition, Attica.

Xerxes, therefore, having first viewed the pass of Tempé, (NOTE 2) and seen with his own eyes that no enemy lay encamped beyond, passed over the Olympic range by a road cut through the woods by his army, and proceeded southwards across Thessaly and Achaea Phthiotis into Malis, the fertile plain at the mouth of the Spercheius river. Here, having heard that a Greek force was in the neighborhood, he pitched his camp not far from the small town of Trachis.


TITLE: Great Monarchies of The Ancient Eastern World

AUTHOR: George Rawlinson

CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

(NOTE 1: Book VII Chapter 34-35 Herodotus; Towards this tongue of land then, the men to whom the business was assigned carried out a double bridge from Abydos; and while the Phoenicians constructed one line of cables of white flax, the Egyptians in the other used ropes of papyrus….it happened a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroying all that had been done…So  when Xerxes heard of it he was so in wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellesponte should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it….that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellesponte… those who scourged the waters to utter.. “ Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee. Whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honour thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavourly river”…he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads}

(NOTE 2: Book VII Chapter 173 [Herodotus] Hereupon the Greeks determined to send a body of foot to Thessaly by sea, which should defend the pass of Olympus. Accordingly a force was collected, which passed up the Euripus, and disembarking at Alus, on the coast of Achæa, left the ships there, and marched by land into Thessaly. Here they occupied the defile of Tempé; which leads from lower Macedonia into Thessaly along the course of the Peneus….in this palace the Greeks force ..amounting to about 10,00 heavy-armed men, pitched their camp.. The Commanders ..Evænetus s/o Carênus–Themistocles s/o Neocles.) {they abandoned the pass thinking it indefensiveable [CM]}


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