Xerxes - Jacob Abbott

The Advance of Xerxes into Greece

From Therma—the last of the great stations at which the Persian army halted before its final descent upon Greece—the army commenced its march, and the fleet set sail, nearly at the same time, which was early in the summer. The army advanced slowly, meeting with the usual difficulties and delays, but without encountering any special or extraordinary occurrences, until, after having passed through Macedon into Thessaly, and through Thessaly to the northern frontier of Phocis, they began to approach the Straits of Thermopylę. What took place at Thermopylę will be made the subject of the next chapter. The movements of the fleet are to be narrated in this.

In order distinctly to understand these movements, it is necessary that the reader should first have a clear conception of the geographical conformation of the coasts and seas along which the path of the expedition lay. By referring to the map of Greece, we shall see that the course which the fleet would naturally take from Therma to the southeastward, along the coast, was unobstructed and clear for about a hundred miles. We then come to a group of four islands, extending in a range at right angles to the coast. The only one of these islands with which we have particularly to do in this history is the innermost of them, which was named Sciathus. Opposite to these islands the line of the coast, having passed around the point, of a mountainous and rocky promontory called Magnesia, turns suddenly to the westward, and runs in that direction for about thirty miles, when it again turns to the southward and eastward as before. In the sort of corner thus out off by the deflection of the coast lies the long island of Eubœa, which may be considered, in fact, as almost a continuation of the continent, as it is a part of the same conformation of country, and is separated from the main land only by submerged valleys on the north and on the east. Into these sunken valleys the sea of course flows, forming straits or channels. The one on the north was, in ancient times, called Artemisium, and the one on the west, at its narrowest point, Euripus. All these islands and coasts were high and picturesque. They were also, in the days of Xerxes, densely populated, and adorned profusely with temples, citadels, and towns.

On passing the southernmost extremity of the island of Eubœa, and turning to the westward, we come to a promontory of the main land, which constituted Attica, and in the middle of which the city of Athens was situated. Beyond this is a capacious gulf, called the Saronian Gulf. It lies between Attica and the Peloponnesus. In the middle of the Saronian Gulf lies the island of Ęgina, and in the northern part of it the island of Salamis. The progress of the Persian fleet was from Therma down the coast to Sciathus, thence along the shores of Eubœa to its southern point, and so round into the Saronian Gulf to the island of Salamis. The distance of this voyage was perhaps two hundred and fifty miles. In accomplishing it the fleet encountered many dangers, and met with a variety of incidents and events, which we shall now proceed to describe.

The country, of course, was every where in a state of the greatest excitement and terror. The immense army was slowly coming down by land, and the fleet, scarcely less terrible, since its descents upon the coast would be so fearfully sudden and overwhelming when they were made, was advancing by sea. The inhabitants of the country were consequently in a state of extreme agitation. The sick and the infirm, who were, of course, utterly helpless in such a danger, exhibited every where the spectacle of silent dismay. Mothers, wives, maidens, and children, on the other hand, were wild with excitement and terror. The men, too full of passion to fear, or too full of pride to allow their fears to be seen, were gathering in arms, or hurrying to and fro with intelligence, or making hasty arrangements to remove their wives and children from the scenes of cruel suffering which were to ensue. They stationed watchmen on the hills to give warning of the approach of the enemy. They agreed upon signals, and raised piles of wood for beacon fires on every commanding elevation along the coast; while all the roads leading from the threatened provinces to other regions more remote from the danger were covered with flying parties, endeavoring to make their escape, and carrying, wearily and in sorrow, whatever they valued most and were most anxious to save. Mothers bore their children, men their gold and silver, and sisters aided their sick or feeble brothers to sustain the toil and terror of the flight.

All this time Xerxes was sitting in his war chariot, in the midst of his advancing army, full of exultation, happiness, and pride at the thoughts of the vast harvest of glory which all this panic and suffering were bringing him in.

The fleet, at length—which was under the command of Xerxes's brothers and cousins, whom he had appointed the admirals of it—began to move down the coast from Therma, with the intention of first sweeping the seas clear of any naval force which the Greeks might have sent forward there to act against them, and then of landing upon some point on the coast, wherever they could do so most advantageously for co-operation with the army on the land. The advance of the ships was necessarily slow. So immense a flotilla could not have been otherwise kept together. The admirals, however, selected ten of the swiftest of the galleys, and, after manning and arming them in the most perfect manner, sent them forward to reconnoiter. The ten galleys were ordered to advance rapidly, but with the greatest circumspection. They were not to incur any needless danger, but, if they met with any detached ships of the enemy, they were to capture them, if possible. They were, moreover, to be constantly on the alert, to observe every thing, and to send back to the fleet all important intelligence which they could obtain.

The ten galleys went on without observing any thing remarkable until they reached the island of Sciathus. Here they came in sight of three Greek ships, a sort of advanced guard, which had been stationed there to watch the movements of the enemy.

The Greek galleys immediately hoisted their anchors and fled; the Persian galleys manned their oars, and pressed on after them.

They overtook one of the guard-ships very soon, and, after a short conflict, they succeeded in capturing it. The Persians made prisoners of the officers and crew, and then, selecting from among them the fairest and most noble-looking man, just as they would have selected a bullock from a herd, they sacrificed him to one of their deities on the prow of the captured ship. This was a religious ceremony, intended to signalize and sanctify their victory.

The second vessel they also overtook and captured. The crew of this ship were easily subdued, as the overwhelming superiority of their enemies appeared to convince them that all resistance was hopeless, and to plunge them into despair. There was one man, however, who, it seems, could not be conquered. He fought like a tiger to the last, and only ceased to deal his furious thrusts and blows at the enemies that surrounded him when, after being entirely covered with wounds, he fell faint and nearly lifeless upon the bloody deck. When the conflict with him was thus ended, the murderous hostility of his enemies seemed suddenly to be changed into pity for his sufferings and admiration of his valor. They gathered around him, bathed and bound up his wounds, gave him cordials, and at length restored him to life. Finally, when the detachment returned to the fleet, some days afterward, they carried this man with them, and presented him to the commanders as a hero worthy of the highest admiration and honor. The rest of the crew were made slaves.

The third of the Greek guard-ships contrived to escape, or, rather, the crew escaped, while the vessel itself was taken. This ship, in its flight, had gone toward the north, and the crew at last succeeded in running it on shore on the coast of Thessaly, so as to escape, themselves, by abandoning the vessel to the enemy. The officers and crew, thus escaping to the shore, went through Thessaly into Greece, spreading the tidings every where that the Persians were at hand. This intelligence was communicated, also, along the coast, by beacon fires which the people of Sciathus built upon the heights of the island as a signal, to give the alarm to the country southward of them, according to the preconcerted plan. The alarm was communicated by other fires built on other heights, and sentinels were stationed on every commanding eminence on the highlands of Eubœa toward the south, to watch for the first appearance of the enemy.

The Persian galleys that had been sent forward having taken the three Greek guard-ships, and finding the sea before them, now clear of all appearances of an enemy, concluded to return to the fleet with their prizes and their report. They had been directed, when they were dispatched from the fleet, to lay up a monument of stones at the furthest point which they should reach in their cruise: a measure often resorted to in similar cases, by way of furnishing proof that a party thus sent forward have really advanced as far as they pretend on their return. The Persian detachment had actually brought the stones for the erection of their landmark with them in one of their galleys. The galley containing the stones, and two others to aid it, pushed on beyond Sciathus to a small rocky islet standing in a conspicuous position in the sea, and there they built their monument or cairn. The detachment then returned to meet the fleet. The time occupied by this whole expedition was eleven days.

The fleet was, in the mean time, coming down along the coast of Magnesia. The whole company of ships had advanced safely and prosperously thus far, but now a great calamity was about to befall them—the first of the series of disasters by which the expedition was ultimately ruined. It was a storm at sea.

The fleet had drawn up for the night in a long and shallow bay on the coast. There was a rocky promontory at one end of this bay and a cape on the other, with a long beach between them. It was a very good place of refuge and rest for the night in calm weather, but such a bay afforded very little shelter against a tempestuous wind, or even against the surf and swell of the sea, which were sometimes produced by a distant storm. When the fleet entered this bay in the evening, the sea was calm and the sky serene. The commanders expected to remain there for the night, and to proceed on the voyage on the following day.

The bay was not sufficiently extensive to allow of the drawing up of so large a fleet in a single line along the shore. The ships were accordingly arranged in several lines, eight in all. The innermost of these lines was close to the shore; the others were at different distances from it, and every separate ship was held to the place assigned it by its anchors. In this position the fleet passed the night in safety, but before morning there were indications of a storm. The sky looked wild and lurid. A heavy swell came rolling in from the offing. The wind began to rise, and to blow in fitful gusts. Its direction was from the eastward, so that its tendency was to drive the fleet upon the shore. The seamen were anxious and afraid, and the commanders of the several ships began to devise, each for his own vessel, the best means of safety. Some, whose vessels were small, drew them up upon the sand, above the reach of the swell. Others strengthened the anchoring tackle, or added new anchors to those already down. Others raised their anchors altogether, and attempted to row their galleys away, up or down the coast, in hope of finding some better place of shelter. Thus all was excitement and confusion in the fleet, through the eager efforts made by every separate crew to escape the impending danger.

In the mean time, the storm came on apace. The rising and roughening sea made the oars useless, and the wind howled frightfully through the cordage and the rigging. The galleys soon began to be forced away from their moorings. Some were driven upon the beach and dashed to pieces by the waves. Some were wrecked on the rocks at one or the other of the projecting points which bounded the bay on either hand. Some foundered at their place of anchorage. Vast numbers of men were drowned. Those who escaped to the shore were in hourly dread of an attack from the inhabitants of the country. To save themselves, if possible, from this danger, they dragged up the fragments of the wrecked vessels upon the beach, and built a fort with them on the shore. Here they intrenched themselves, and then prepared to defend their lives, armed with the weapons which, like the materials for their fort, were washed up, from time to time, by the sea.

The storm continued for three days. It destroyed about three hundred galleys, besides an immense number of provision transports and other smaller vessels. Great numbers of seamen, also, were drowned. The inhabitants of the country along the coast enriched themselves with the plunder which they obtained from the wrecks, and from the treasures, and the gold and silver vessels, which, continued for some time to be driven up upon the beach by the waves. The Persians themselves recovered, it was said, a great deal of valuable treasure, by employing a certain Greek diver, whom they had in their fleet, to dive for it after the storm was over. This diver, whose name was Scyllias, was famed far and wide for his power of remaining under water. As an instance of what they believed him capable of performing, they said that when, at a certain period subsequent to these transactions, he determined to desert to the Greeks, he accomplished his design by diving into the sea from the deck of a Persian galley, and coming up again in the midst of the Greek fleet, ten miles distant!

After three days the storm subsided. The Persians then repaired the damages which had been sustained, so far as it was now possible to repair them, collected what remained of the fleet, took the shipwrecked mariners from their rude fortification on the beach, and set sail again on their voyage to the southward.

In the mean time, the Greek fleet had assembled in the arm of the sea lying north of Eubœa, and between Eubœa and the main land. It was an allied fleet, made up of contributions from various states that had finally agreed to come into the confederacy. As is usually the case, however, with allied or confederate forces, they were not well agreed among themselves. The Athenians had furnished far the greater number of ships, and they considered themselves, therefore, entitled to the command; but the other allies were envious and jealous of them on account of that very superiority of wealth and power which enabled them to supply a greater portion of the naval force than the rest. They were willing that one of the Spartans should command, but they would not consent to put themselves under an Athenian. If an Athenian leader were chosen, they would disperse, they said, and the various portions of the fleet return to their respective homes.

The Athenians, though burning with resentment at this unjust declaration, were compelled to submit to the necessity of the case. They could not take the confederates at their word, and allow the fleet to be broken up, for the defense of Athens was the great object for which it was assembled. The other states might make their peace with the conqueror by submission, but the Athenians could not do so. In respect to the rest of Greece, Xerxes wished only for dominion. In respect to Athens, he wished for vengeance. The Athenians had burned the Persian city of Sardis, and he had determined to give himself no rest until he had burned Athens in return.

It was well understood, therefore, that the assembling of the fleet, and giving battle to the Persians where they now were, was a plan adopted mainly for the defense and benefit of the Athenians. The Athenians, accordingly, waived their claim to command, secretly resolving that, when the war was over, they would have their revenge for the insult and injury.

A Spartan was accordingly appointed commander of the fleet. His name was Eurybiades.

Things were in this state when the two fleets came in sight of each other in the strait between the northern end of Eubœa and the main land. Fifteen of the Persian galleys, advancing incautiously some miles in front of the rest, came suddenly upon the Greek fleet, and were all captured. The crews were made prisoners and sent into Greece. The remainder of the fleet entered the strait, and anchored at the eastern extremity of it, sheltered by the promontory of Magnesia, which now lay to the north of them.

The Greeks were amazed at the immense magnitude of the Persian fleet, and the first opinion of the commanders was, that it was wholly useless for them to attempt to engage them. A council was convened, and, after a long and anxious debate, they decided that it was best to retire to the southward. The inhabitants of Eubœa, who had been already in a state of great excitement and terror at the near approach of so formidable an enemy, were thrown, by this decision of the allies, into a state of absolute dismay. It was abandoning them to irremediable and hopeless destruction.

The government of the island immediately raised a very large sum of money, and went with it to Themistocles, one of the most influential of the Athenian leaders, and offered it to him if he would contrive any way to persuade the commanders of the fleet to remain and give the Persians battle where they were. Themistocles took the money, and agreed to the condition. He went with a small part of it—though this part was a very considerable sum—to Eurybiades, the commander-in-chief, and offered it to him if he would retain the fleet in its present position. There were some other similar offerings made to other influential men, judiciously selected. All this was done in a very private manner, and, of course, Themistocles took care to reserve to himself the lion's share of the Eubœan contribution. The effect of this money in altering the opinions of the naval officers was marvelous. A new council was called, the former decision was annulled, and the Greeks determined to give their enemies battle where they were.

The Persians had not been unmindful of the danger that the Greeks might retreat by retiring through the Euripus, and so escape them. In order to prevent this, they secretly sent off a fleet of two hundred of their strongest and fleetest galleys, with orders to sail round Eubœa and enter the Euripus from the south, so as to cut off the retreat of the Greeks in that quarter. They thought that by this plan the Greek fleet would be surrounded, and could have no possible mode of escape. They remained, therefore, with the principal fleet, at the outer entrance of the northern strait for some days, before attacking the Greeks, in order to give time for the detachment to pass round the island.

The Persians sent off the two hundred galleys with great secrecy, not desiring that the Greeks should discover their design of thus intercepting their retreat. They did discover it, however, for this was the occasion on which the great diver, Scyllias, made his escape from one fleet to the other by swimming under water ten miles, and he brought the Greeks the tidings.

The Greeks dispatched a small squadron of ships with orders to proceed southward into the Euripus, to meet this detachment which the Persians sent round; and, in the mean time, they determined themselves to attack the main Persian fleet without any delay. Notwithstanding their absurd dissensions and jealousies, and the extent to which the leaders were influenced by intrigues and bribes, the Greeks always evinced an undaunted and indomitable spirit when the day of battle came. It was, moreover, in this case, exceedingly important to defend the position which they had taken. By referring to the map once more, it will be seen that the Euripus was the great highway to Athens by sea, as the pass of Thermopylę was by land. Thermopylę was west of Artemisium, where the fleet was now stationed, and not many miles from it. The Greek army had made its great stand at Thermopylę, and Xerxes was fast coming down the country with all his forces to endeavor to force a passage there. The Persian fleet, in entering Artemisium, was making the same attempt by sea in respect to the narrow passage of Euripus; and for either of the two forces, the fleet or the army, to fail of making good the defense of its position, without a desperate effort to do so, would justly be considered a base betrayal and abandonment of the other.

The Greeks therefore advanced, one morning, to the attack of the Persians, to the utter astonishment of the latter; who believed that their enemies were insane when they thus saw them coming into the jaws, as they thought, of certain destruction. Before night, however, they were to change their opinions in respect to the insanity of their foes. The Greeks pushed boldly on into the midst of the Persian fleet, where they were soon surrounded. They then formed themselves into a circle, with the prows of the vessels outward, and the sterns toward the center within, and fought in this manner with the utmost desperation all the day. With the night a storm came on, or, rather, a series of thunder-showers and gusts of wind, so severe that both fleets were glad to retire from the scene of contest. The Persians went back toward the east, the Greeks to the westward, toward Thermopylę—each party busy in repairing their wrecks, taking care of their wounded, and saving their vessels from the tempest. It was a dreadful night. The Persians, particularly, spent it in the midst of scenes of horror. The wind and the current, it seems, set outward, toward the sea, and carried the masses and fragments of the wrecked vessels, and the swollen and ghastly bodies of the dead, in among the Persian fleet, and so choked up the surface of the water that the oars became entangled and useless. The whole mass of seamen in the Persian fleet, during this terrible night, were panic-stricken and filled with horror. The wind, the perpetual thunder, the concussions of the vessels with the wrecks and with one another, and the heavy shocks of the seas, kept them in continual alarm; and the black and inscrutable darkness was rendered the more dreadful, while it prevailed, by the hideous spectacle which, at every flash of lightning, glared brilliantly upon every eye from the wide surface of the sea. The shouts and cries of officers vociferating orders, of wounded men writhing in agony, of watchmen and sentinels in fear of collisions, mingled with the howling wind and roaring seas, created a scene of indescribable terror and confusion.

The violence of the sudden gale was still greater further out at sea, and the detachment of ships which had been sent around Eubœa was wholly dispersed and destroyed by it.

The storm was, however, after all, only a series of summer evening showers, such as to the inhabitants of peaceful dwellings on the land have no terror, but only come to clear the sultry atmosphere in the night, and in the morning are gone. When the sun rose, accordingly, upon the Greeks and Persians on the morning after their conflict, the air was calm, the sky serene, and the sea as blue and pure as ever. The bodies and the wrecks had been floated away into the offing. The courage or the ferocity, whichever we choose to call it, of the combatants, returned, and they renewed the conflict. It continued, with varying success, for two more days.

During all this time the inhabitants of the island of Eubœa were in the greatest distress and terror. They watched these dreadful conflicts from the heights, uncertain how the struggle would end, but fearing lest their defenders should be beaten, in which case the whole force of the Persian fleet would be landed on their island, to sweep it with pillage and destruction. They soon began to anticipate the worst, and, in preparation for it, they removed their goods—all that could be removed—and drove their cattle down to the southern part of the island, so as to be ready to escape to the main land. The Greek commanders, finding that the fleet would probably be compelled to retreat in the end, sent to them here, recommending that they should kill their cattle and eat them, roasting the flesh at fires which they should kindle on the plain. The cattle could not be transported, they said, across the channel, and it was better that the flying population should be fed, than that the food should fall into Persian hands. If they would dispose of their cattle in this manner, Eurybiades would endeavor, he said, to transport the people themselves and their valuable goods across into Attica.

How many thousand peaceful and happy homes were broken up and destroyed forever by this ruthless invasion!

In the mean time, the Persians, irritated by the obstinate resistance of the Greeks, were, on the fourth day, preparing for some more vigorous measures, when they saw a small boat coming toward the fleet from down the channel. It proved to contain a countryman, who came to tell them that the Greeks had gone away. The whole fleet, he said, had sailed off to the southward, and abandoned those seas altogether. The Persians did not, at first, believe this intelligence. They suspected some ambuscade or stratagem. They advanced slowly and cautiously down the channel. When they had gone half down to Thermopylę, they stopped at a place called Histięa, where, upon, the rocks on the shore, they found an inscription addressed to the Ionians—who, it will be recollected, had been brought by Xerxes as auxiliaries, contrary to the advice of Artabanus—entreating them not to fight against their countrymen. This inscription was written in large and conspicuous characters on the face of the cliff, so that it could be read by the Ionian seamen as they passed in their galleys.

The fleet anchored at Histięa, the commanders being somewhat uncertain in respect to what it was best to do. Their suspense was very soon relieved by a messenger from Xerxes, who came in a galley up the channel from Thermopylę, with the news that Xerxes had arrived at Thermopylę, had fought a great battle there, defeated the Greeks, and obtained possession of the pass, and that any of the officers of the fleet who chose to do so might come and view the battle ground. This intelligence and invitation produced, throughout the fleet, a scene of the wildest excitement, enthusiasm, and joy. All the boats and smaller vessels of the fleet were put into requisition to carry the officers down. When they arrived at Thermopylę the tidings all proved true. Xerxes was in possession of the pass, and the Greek fleet was gone.