Xerxes I: Thermoplyӕ to the end


Thus far had the Greeks allowed the invader to penetrate their country without offering him any resistance. Originally there had been an intention of defending Thessaly, and an army under Evsenetus, a Spartan polemarch, and Themistocles, the great Athenian, had proceeded to Tempé, in order to cooperate with the Thessalian’s in guarding the pass. But the discovery that the Olympic range could be crossed in the, place where the army of Xerxes afterwards passed it had shown that the position was untenable; and it had been then resolved that the stand should be made at the next defensible position, Thermopylae.(Bk VII Histories Herodotus {(175) The Greeks on their return to the Isthmus took counsel…. The opinion which prevailed was that they should guard the pass of Thermoplyӕ….})

  Here, accordingly, a force was found–small, indeed, if it be compared with the number of the assailants, but sufficient to defend such a position as that where it was posted against the world in arms. Three hundred Spartans, with their usual retinue of helots, 700 Lacedaemonians, other Peloponnesians to the number of 2800, 1000 Phocians, the same number of Locrians, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans, formed an army of 9000 men–quite as numerous a force as could be employed with any effect in the defile they were sent to guard. The defile was a long and narrow pass shut in between a high mountain, Callidromus, and the sea, and crossed at one point by a line of wall in which was a single gateway. (BK VII Histories Herodotus {(176)…As for the entrance in to Greece by Trachis, it is, at its narrowest point, about fifty feet wide. This however is not the place where the passage is most contracted, for it is still narrower a little above and a little below Thermoplyӕ. At Alpêni, which is lower down than that place is only wide enough for a single carriage….The old wall had been built in very remote times… had gone to decay through age… however the Greeks had resolved to repair the breaches….}) Unless the command of the sea was gained, or another mode of crossing the mountains discovered, the pass could scarcely be forced.

(BK VII Histories Herodotus {(204) Linage of Leonidas..s/o Anaxandridas…s/o Leo….s/o Eurycratidas…. s/o Anaxander…s/o Eurycrates….s/o Polydôrus….s/o Alcamenes…s/o Têlecles…..s/o Archelaüs….s/o Agesilaüs….s/o Doryssus…s/o Labôtas….s/o Echestratus….s/o Agis….s/o Eurysthenes…s/o Aristodêmus….s/o Aristomachus….s/o Cleodӕus….s/o Hyluss who was the son of Herakles})

Xerxes, however, confident in his numbers–after waiting four days at Trachis, probably in the hope that his fleet would join him–preceded on the fifth day to the assault. First the Medes and Cissians, then the famous “Immortals” were sent into the jaws of the pass against the immovable foe; but neither detachment could make any impression. The long spears, large shields, and heavy armor of the Greeks, their skillful tactics, and steady array, were far more than a match for the inferior equipment’s and discipline of the Asiatics. Though the attack was made with great gallantry both on this day and the next it failed to produce the slightest effect. Very few of the Greeks were either slain or wounded; and it seemed as if the further advance of a million of men was to be stopped by a force less than a hundredth part of their number.

But now information reached Xerxes which completely changed the face of affairs. (BK VII Histories Herodotus {(213) Now, as the king was in a great strait,…..Ephialtes, son of Eutydêmus, a man of Mali, came to him…he had come to tell him of a pathway which led across the mountain to Thermoplyӕ…}) There was a rough mountain-path leading from Trachis up the gorge of the Asopus and across Callidromus to the rear of the Greek position, which had been unknown to the Greeks when they decided on making their first stand at Thermopylae, and which they only discovered when their plans no longer admitted of alteration. It was, perhaps, not much more than a goat-track, and apparently they had regarded it as scarcely practicable, since they had thought its defense might be safely entrusted to a thousand Phocians. Xerxes, however, on learning the existence of the track, resolved at once to make trial of it. His Persian soldiers were excellent mountaineers. He ordered Hydarnes to take the “Immortals,” and, guided by a native, to proceed along the path by night, and descend with early dawn into the rear of the Greeks, who would then be placed between two fires. The operation was performed with complete success. The Phocian guard, surprised at the summit, left the path free while they sought a place of safety. The Greeks in the pass below, warned during the night of their danger, in part fled, in part resolved on death. When morning came, Leonidas, at the head of about half his original army, moved forward towards the Malian plain, and there met the advancing Persians. A bloody combat ensued, in which the Persians lost by far the greater number; but the ranks of the Greeks were gradually thinned, and they were beaten back step by step into the narrowest part of the pass, where finally they all perished, except the four hundred Thebans, who submitted and were made prisoners.

The Last Fight (BK VII Histories Herodotus { (224) By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they stove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely, together with many  other famous Spartans…..

(225)…And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and Lacedӕmonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body….drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except for the Thebans…Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and other resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians….encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant which was left beneath showers of missile weapons.

(238) When Xerxes ….proceeded to pass though the slain, and finding the body of Leonidas,… ordered that the head should be struck off , and the trunk fastened to a cross……

So terminated the first struggle on the soil of Greece: between the invaders and the invaded. It seemed to promise that, though at vast cost, Persia would be victorious. If her loss in the three days’ combat was 20,000 men, as Herodotus states, yet, as that of her enemy was 4000, the proportionate advantage was on her side.

But, for the conquest of such a country as Greece, it was requisite, not only that the invader should succeed on land, but also that he should be superior at sea. Xerxes had felt this, and had brought with him a fleet, calculated, as he imagined, to sweep the Greek navy from the Ægean. As far as the Pagasaean Gulf, opposite the northern extremity of Euboea, his fleet had advanced without meeting an enemy. It had encountered one terrible storm off the coast of Magnesia, and had lost 400 vessels; but

this loss was scarcely felt in so vast an armament. When from Aphetse, at the mouth of the gulf, the small Greek fleet, amounting to no more than 271 vessels, was seen at anchor off Artemisium, the only fear which the Persian commanders entertained was lest it should escape them. They at once detached 200 vessels to sail round the Coast of Euboea, and cut off the possibility of retreat. When, however, these vessels were all lost in a storm, and when in three engagements on three successive days, the Greek fleet showed itself fully able to contend against the superior numbers of its antagonist, the Persians themselves could not fail to see that their naval supremacy was more than doubtful.

The fleet at Artemisium was not the entire Greek naval force; on another occasion it might be augmented, while their own could scarcely expect to receive reinforcements. The fights at Artemisium foreshadowed a day when the rival fleets would no longer meet and part on equal terms, but Persia would have to acknowledge her-self inferior.

Meanwhile, however, the balance of advantage rested with the invaders. The key of Northern Greece was won, and Phocis, Locris, Boeotia, Attica, and the Megarid lay open to the Persian army. The Greek fleet could gain nothing by any longer maintaining the position of Artemisium, and fell back towards the south, while its leaders anxiously considered where it should next take up its station. The Persians pressed on both by land and sea. A rapid march through Phocis and Boeotia brought Xerxes to Athens, soon after the Athenians, knowing that resistance would be vain, had evacuated it. The Acropolis, defended by a few fanatics, was taken and burnt. One object of the expedition was thus accomplished. Athens lay in ruins; and the whole of Attica was occupied by the conqueror. The Persian fleet, too, finding the channel of the Euripus clear, sailed down it, and rounding Sunium, came to anchor in the bay of Phalerum.

In the councils of the Greeks all was doubt and irresolution. The army, which ought to have mustered in full force at Thermopylae and Callidromus, and which, after those passes were forced, might have defended Cithseron and Parnes, had never ventured beyond the Isthmus of Corinth, and was there engaged in building a wall across the neck of land from sea to sea. The fleet lay off Salamis, where it was detained by the entreaties of the Athenians, who had placed in that island the greater part of the non-combatant population; but the inclination was strong on the part of many to withdraw westward and fight the next battle, if a battle must be fought, in the vicinity of the land force, which would be a protection in case of defeat. Could Xerxes have had patience for a few days, the combined fleet would have broken up. The Peloponnesian contingents would have withdrawn to the isthmus; and the Athenians, despairing of success, would probably have sailed away to Italy. But the Great King, when he saw the vast disproportion between his own fleet and that of the enemy, could not believe in the possibility of the Greeks offering a successful resistance. Like a modern emperor, who imagined that, if only he could have been with his fleet, all would necessarily have gone well, Xerxes supposed that by having the sea-fight under his own eye he would be sure of victory. Thus again, as at Artemisium, the only fear felt was lest the Greeks should fly, and in that way escape chastisement. Orders were therefore issued to the Persian fleet to close up at once, and blockade the eastern end of the Salaminian strait, while a detachment repeated the attempted manoeuvre at Euboea, and sailed round the island to guard the channel at its western outlet.

These movements were executed late in the day on which the Persian fleet arrived at Phalerum. During the night intelligence reached the commanders that the retreat of the Greeks was about to commence at once; whereupon the Persian right wing was pushed forward into the strait, and carried beyond the Greek position so as to fill the channel where it opens into the bay of Eleusis. The remainder of the night passed in preparations for the battle on both sides. At daybreak both fleets advanced from their respective shores, the Persians being rather the assailants. Their thousand vessels were drawn up in three lines, and charged their antagonists with such spirit that the general inclination on the part of the Greeks was at first to retreat. Some of their ships had almost touched the shore, when the bold example of one of the captains, or a cry of reproach from unknown lips, produced a revulsion of feeling, and the whole line advanced in good order. The battle was for a short time doubtful; but soon the superiority of Greek naval tactics began to tell. The Persian vessels became entangled one with another, and crashing together broke each other’s oars. The triple line increased their difficulties. If a vessel, overmatched, sought to retreat, it necessarily came into collision with the ships stationed in its rear. These moreover pressed too eagerly forward, since their captains were anxious to distinguish themselves in order to merit the approval of Xerxes. The Greeks found themselves able to practice with good effect their favorite manoeuvre of the “periplus”, and thus increased the confusion. It was not long before the greater part of the Persian fleet became a mere helpless mass of shattered or damaged vessels. Five hundred are said to have been sunk–the majority by the enemy, but some even by their own friends. The sea was covered with wrecks, and with wretches who clung to them, till the ruthless enemy slew them or forced them to let go their hold.

This defeat was a death-blow to the hopes of Xerxes, and sealed the fate of the expedition. From the moment that he realized to himself the fact of the entire inability of his fleet to cope with that of the Greeks, Xerxes made up his mind to return with all haste to Asia. From over-confidence he fell into the opposite extreme of despair, and made no effort to retrieve his ill fortune. His fleet was ordered to sail straight for the Hellespont, and to guard the bridges until he reached them with his army. He himself retreated hastily along the same road by which he had advanced, his whole army accompanying him as far as Thessaly, where Mardonius was left with 260,000 picked men, to prevent pursuit, and to renew the attempt against Greece in the ensuing year. Xerxes pressed on to the Hellespont, losing vast numbers of his troops by famine and sickness on the way, and finally returned into Asia, not by his magnificent bridge, which a storm had destroyed, but on board a vessel, which, according to some, narrowly escaped shipwreck during the passage. Even in Asia disaster pursued him. Between Abydos and Sardis his army suffered almost as much from over-indulgence as it had previously suffered from want; and of the mighty host which had gone forth from the Lydian capital in the spring not very many thousands can have re-entered it in the autumn.

Still, however, there was a possibility that the success which his own arms had failed to achieve might reward the exertions of his lieutenants. Mardonius had expressed himself confident that with 300,000 picked soldiers he could overpower all resistance, and make Greece a satrapy of Persia. Xerxes had raised his forces to that amount by sending Artabazus back from Sestos at the head of a “corps d’armee” numbering 40,000 men. The whole army of 300,000 wintered in Thessaly; and Mardonius, when spring came, having vainly endeavored to detach the Athenians from the Grecian ranks, marched through Boeotia in Attica, and occupied Athens for the second time. Hence he proceeded to menace the

Peloponnese, where he formed an alliance with the Argives, who promised him that they would openly embrace the Persian cause. At the same time the Athenians, finding that Sparta took no steps to help them, began to waver in their resistance, and to contemplate accepting the terms which Mardonius was still willing to grant them. The fate of Greece trembled in the balance, and apparently was determined by the accident of a death and a succession, rather than by any wide-spread patriotic feeling or any settled course of policy. Cleombrotus, regent for the young son of Leonidas, died, and his brother Pausanias–a brave, clever, and ambitious man–took his place. We can scarcely be wrong in ascribing–at least in part–to this circumstance the unlooked-for change of policy, which electrified the despondent ambassadors of Athens almost as soon as Pausanias was installed in power. It was suddenly announced that Sparta would take the offensive. Ten thousand hoplites and 400,000 light-armed–the largest army that she ever levied–took the field, and, joined at the isthmus by above 25,000 Peloponnesians, and soon afterwards by almost as many Athenians and Megarians, proceeded to seek the foreigners, first in Attica, and then in the position to which they had retired in Boeotia. On the skirts of Citheeron, near Plataea, a hundred and eight thousand Greeks confronted more than thrice their number of Persians and Persian subjects; and now at length the trial was to be made whether, in fair and open fight on land, Greece or Persia would be superior. A suspicion of what the result would be might have been derived from Marathon. But there the Persians had been taken at a disadvantage, when the cavalry, their most important arm, was absent. Here the error of Datis was not likely to be repeated. Mardonius had a numerous and well-armed cavalry, which he handled with no little skill. It remained to be seen, when the general engagement came, whether, with both arms brought fully into play, the vanquished at Marathon would be the victors.

Battle of Plataea

The battle of Plataea was brought on under circumstances very unfavorable to the Greeks. Want of water and a difficulty about provisions had necessitated a night movement on their part. The cowardice of all the small contingents, and the obstinacy of an individual Spartan, disconcerted the whole plan of the operation, and left the Lacedaemonians and the Athenians at daybreak separated from each other, and deserted by the whole body of their allies. Mardonius attacked at once, and prevented the junction of the two allies, so that two distinct and separate engagements went on at the same time. In both the Greeks were victorious. The Spartans repulsed the Persian horse and foot, slew Mardonius and were the first to assail the Persian camp. The Athenians defeated the “medizing” Greeks, and affected a breach in the defenses of the camp, on which the Spartans had failed to make any impression. A terrible carnage followed. The contingent of 40,000 troops under Artabazus alone drew off in good order.

The remainder was seized with panic, and were either slaughtered like sheep or fled in complete disarray. Seventy thousand Greeks not only defeated but destroyed the army of 300,000 barbarians, which melted away and disappeared making no further stand anywhere. The disaster of Marathon was repeated on a larger scale, and without the resource of an embarkation. Henceforth the immense superiority of Greek troops to Persian was well known on both sides; and nothing but the distance from Greece of her vital parts, and the quarrels of the Greek states among themselves, preserved for nearly a century and a half the doomed empire of Persia.

The immediate result of the defeats of Salamis and Platæa was a contraction of the Persian boundary towards the west. Though a few Persian garrisons maintained themselves for some years on the further side of the straits, soothing thereby the wounded vanity of the Great King, who liked to think that he had still a hold on Europe; yet there can be no doubt that, after the double flight of Xerxes and Artabazus, Macedonia, Pseonia, and Thrace recovered their independence.

Persia lost her European provinces, and began the struggle to retain those of Asia. Terminus receded, and having once receded never advanced again in this quarter. The Greeks took the offensive. Sailing to Asia, they not only liberated from their Persian bondage the islands which lay along the coast, but landing their men on the continent, attacked and defeated an army of 60,000 Persians at Mycale, and destroyed the remnant of the ships that had escaped from Salamis. Could they have made up their minds to maintain a powerful fleet permanently on the coast of Asia, they might at once have deprived Persia of her whole sea-hoard on the Propontis and the Ægean; but neither of the two great powers of Greece was prepared for such a resolve. Sparta disliked distant expeditions; and Athens did not as yet see her way to undertaking the protection of the continental Greeks. She had much to do at home, and had not yet discovered those weak points in her adversary’s harness, which subsequently enabled her to secure by treaty the freedom of the Greek cities upon the mainland. For the present, therefore, Persia only lost the bulk of her European possessions, and the islands of the Propontis and the Ægean.

The circumstances which caused a renewal of Greek aggressions upon Asia towards the close of the reign of Xerxes are not very clearly narrated by the authors who speak of them. It appears, however, that after twelve years of petty operations, during which Eion was recovered, and Doriscus frequently attacked, but without effect, the Athenians resolved, in B.C. 466, upon a great expedition to the eastward. Collecting a fleet of 300 vessels, which was placed under the command of Cimon, the son of

Miltiades, they sailed to the coast of Caria and Lycia, where they drove the Persian garrisons out of the Greek towns, and augmenting their navy by fresh contingents at every step, proceeded along the shores of Pamphylia as far as the mouth of the river Eurymedon, where they found a Phoenician fleet of 340 vessels, and a Persian army, stationed to protect the territory. Engaging first the fleet they defeated it, and drove it ashore, after which they disembarked and gained a victory over the Persian army. As many as two hundred triremes were taken or destroyed. They then sailed on towards Cyprus, where they met and destroyed a squadron of eighty ships, which was on its way to reinforce the fleet at the Eurymedon. Above a hundred vessels, 20,000 captives, and a vast amount of plunder were the prize of this war; which had, however, no further effect on the relations of the two powers.

In the following year the reign of Xerxes came to an end abruptly.

With this monarch seems to have begun those internal disorders of the seraglio, which made the Court during more than a hundred and forty years a perpetual scene of intrigues, assassinations, executions, and conspiracies. Xerxes, who appears to have only one wife, Amestris, the daughter (or grand-daughter) of the conspirator, Otanes, permitted himself the free indulgence of illicit passion among the princesses of the Court, the wives of his own near relatives. The most horrible results followed. Amestris vented her jealous spite on those whom she regarded as guilty of stealing from her the affections of her husband; and to prevent her barbarities from producing rebellion, it was necessary to execute the persons whom she had provoked, albeit they were near relations of the monarch. The taint of incontinence spread among the members of the royal family; and a daughter of the king, who was married to one of the most powerful nobles, became notorious for her excesses. Eunuchs rose into power, and fomented the evils which prevailed. The king made himself bitter enemies among those whose position was close to his person. At last, Artabanus, chief of the guard, a courtier of high rank, and Aspamitres, a eunuch, who held the office of chamberlain, conspired against their master, and murdered him in his sleeping apartment, after he had reigned twenty years.

The character of Xerxes falls below that of any preceding monarch. Excepting that he was not wholly devoid of a certain magnanimity, which made him listen patiently to those who opposed his views or gave him unpalatable advice and which prevented him from exacting vengeance on some occasions, he had scarcely a trait whereon the mind can rest with any satisfaction. Weak and easily led, puerile in his gusts of passion and his complete abandonment of himself to them–selfish, fickle, boastful, cruel, superstitious, licentious–he exhibits to us the Oriental despot in the most contemptible of all his aspects–that wherein the moral and the intellectual qualities are equally in defect, and the career is one unvarying course of vice and folly. From Xerxes we have to date at once the decline of the Empire in respect of territorial greatness and military strength, and likewise its deterioration in regard to administrative vigor and national spirit. With him commenced the corruption of the Court–the fatal evil, which almost universally weakens and destroys Oriental dynasties. His expedition against Greece exhausted and depopulated the Empire; and though, by abstaining from further military enterprises, he did what lay in his power to recruit its strength, still the losses which his expedition caused were certainly not repaired in his lifetime.

As a builder, Xerxes showed something of the same grandeur of conception which is observable in his great military enterprise and in the works by which it was accompanied. His Propylaea, and the sculptured staircase in front of the Chebl Minar, which is undoubtedly his work, are among the most magnificent erections upon the Persepolitan platform; and are quite sufficient to place him in the foremost rank of Oriental builders. If we were to ascribe the Chehl Minar itself to him, we should have to give him the palm above all other kings of Persia; but on the whole it is most probable that that edifice and its duplicate at Susa were conceived, and in the main, constructed, by Darius.

Xerxes left behind him three sons–Darius, Hystaspes, and Artaxerxes–and two daughters, Amytis and Rhodogune. Hystaspes was satrap of Bactria, and at the time of their father’s death, only Darius and Artaxerxes were at the Court.


TITLE: Great Monarchies of The Ancient Eastern World

AUTHOR: George Rawlinson

CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick