Xerxes - Jacob Abbott

Preparations of the Greeks for Defense

We must now leave, for a time, the operations of Xerxes and his army, and turn our attention to the Greeks, and to the preparations which they were making to meet the emergency.

The two states of Greece which were most prominent in the transactions connected with the invasion of Xerxes were Athens and Sparta. By referring to the map, Athens will be found to have been situated upon a promontory just without the Peloponnesus, while Sparta, on the other hand, was in the center of a valley which lay in the southern part of the peninsula. Each of these cities was the center and stronghold of a small but very energetic and powerful commonwealth. The two states were entirely independent of each other, and each had its own peculiar system of government, of usages, and of laws. These systems, and, in fact, the characters of the two communities, in all respects, were extremely dissimilar.

Both these states, though in name republics, had certain magistrates, called commonly, in history, kings. These kings were, however, in fact, only military chieftains, commanders of the armies rather than sovereign rulers of the state. The name by which such a chieftain was actually called by the people themselves, in those days, was tyrannus, the name from which our word tyrant  is derived. As, however, the word tyrannus  had none of that opprobrious import which is associated with its English derivative, the latter is not now a suitable substitute for the former. Historians, therefore, commonly use the word king instead, though that word does not properly express the idea. They were commanders, chieftains, hereditary generals, but not strictly kings. We shall, however, often call them kings, in these narratives, in conformity with the general usage. Demaratus, who had fled from Sparta to seek refuge with Darius, and who was now accompanying Xerxes on his march to Greece, was one of these kings.

It was a peculiarity in the constitution of Sparta that, from a very early period of its history, there had been always two kings, who had held the supreme command in conjunction with each other, like the Roman consuls in later times. This custom was sustained partly by the idea that by this division of the executive power of the state, the exercise of the power was less likely to become despotic or tyrannical. It had its origin, however, according to the ancient legends, in the following singular occurrences:

At a very early period in the history of Sparta, when the people had always been accustomed, like other states, to have one prince or chieftain, a certain prince died, leaving his wife, whose name was Argia, and two infant children, as his survivors. The children were twins, and the father had died almost immediately after they were born. Now the office of king was in a certain sense hereditary, and yet not absolutely so; for the people were accustomed to assemble on the death of the king, and determine who should be his successor, choosing always, however, the oldest son of the former monarch, unless there was some very extraordinary and imperious reason for not doing so. In this case they decided, as usual, that the oldest son should be king.

But here a very serious difficulty arose, which was, to determine which of the twins was the oldest son. They resembled each other so closely that no stranger could distinguish one from the other at all. The mother said that she could not distinguish them, and that she did not know which was the first-born. This was not strictly true; for she did, in fact, know, and only denied her power to decide the question because she wished to have both of her children kings.

In this perplexity the Spartans sent to the oracle at Delphi to know what they were to do. The oracle gave, as usual, an ambiguous and unsatisfactory response. It directed the people to make both the children kings, but to render the highest honors to the first-born. When this answer was reported at Sparta, it only increased the difficulty; for how were they to render peculiar honors to the first-born unless they could ascertain which the first-born was?

In this dilemma, some person suggested to the magistrates that perhaps Argia really knew which was the eldest child, and that if so, by watching her, to see whether she washed and fed one, uniformly, before the other, or gave it precedence in any other way, by which her latent maternal instinct or partiality might appear, the question might possibly be determined. This plan was accordingly adopted. The magistrates contrived means to place a servant maid in the house to watch the mother in the way proposed, and the result was that the true order of birth was revealed. From that time forward, while they were both considered as princes, the one now supposed to be the first-born took precedence of the other.

When, however, the children arrived at an age to assume the exercise of the governmental power, as there was no perceptible difference between them in age, or strength, or accomplishments, the one who had been decided to be the younger was little disposed to submit to the other. Each had his friends and adherents, parties were formed, and a long and angry civil dissension ensued. In the end the question was compromised, the command was divided, and the system of having two chief magistrates became gradually established, the power descending in two lines, from father to son, through many generations. Of course there was perpetual jealousy and dissension, and often open and terrible conflicts, between these two rival lines.

The Spartans were an agricultural people, cultivating the valley in the southeastern part of the Peloponnesus, the waters of which were collected and conveyed to the sea by the River Eurotas and its branches. They lived in the plainest possible manner, and prided themselves on the stern and stoical resolution with which they rejected all the refinements and luxuries of society. Courage, hardihood, indifference to life, and the power to endure without a murmur the most severe and protracted sufferings, were the qualities which they valued. They despised wealth just as other nations despise effeminacy and foppery. Their laws discouraged commerce, lest it should make some of the people rich. Their clothes were scanty and plain, their houses were comfortless, their food was a coarse bread, hard and brown, and their money was of iron. With all this, however, they were the most ferocious and terrible soldiers in the world.

They were, moreover, with all their plainness of manners and of life, of a very proud and lofty spirit. All agricultural toil, and every other species of manual labor in their state, were performed by a servile peasantry, while the free citizens, whose profession was exclusively that of arms, were as aristocratic and exalted in soul as any nobles on earth. People are sometimes, in our day, when money is so much valued, proud, notwithstanding their poverty. The Spartans were proud of their poverty itself. They could be rich if they chose, but they despised riches. They looked down on all the refinements and delicacies of dress and of living from an elevation far above them. They looked down on labor, too, with the same contempt. They were yet very nice and particular about their dress and military appearance, though every thing pertaining to both was coarse and simple, and they had slaves to wait upon them even in their campaigns.

The Athenians were a totally different people. The leading classes in their commonwealth were cultivated, intellectual, and refined. The city of Athens was renowned for the splendor of its architecture, its temples, its citadels, its statues, and its various public institutions, which in subsequent times made it the great intellectual center of Europe. It was populous and wealthy. It had a great commerce and a powerful fleet. The Spartan character, in a word, was stern, gloomy, indomitable, and wholly unadorned. The Athenians were rich, intellectual, and refined. The two nations were nearly equal in power, and were engaged in a perpetual and incessant rivalry.

There were various other states and cities in Greece, but Athens and Sparta were at this time the most considerable, and they were altogether the most resolute and determined in their refusal to submit to the Persian sway. In fact, so well known and understood was the spirit of defiance with which these two powers were disposed to regard the Persian invasion, that when Xerxes sent his summons demanding submission, to the other states of Greece, he did not send any to these. When Darius invaded Greece some years before, he had summoned Athens and Sparta as well as the others, but his demands were indignantly rejected. It seems that the custom was for a government or a prince, when acknowledging the dominion of a superior power, to send, as a token of territorial submission, a little earth and water, which was a sort of legal form of giving up possession of their country to the sovereign who claimed it. Accordingly, when Darius sent his embassadors into Greece to summon the country to surrender, the embassadors, according to the usual form, called upon the governments of the several states to send earth and water to the king. The Athenians, as has been already said, indignantly refused to comply with this demand. The Spartans, not content with a simple refusal, seized the embassadors and threw them into a well, telling them, as they went down, that if they wanted earth and water for the King of Persia, they might get it there.

Persian Envoy


The Greeks had obtained some information of Xerxes's designs against them before they received his summons. The first intelligence was communicated to the Spartans by Demaratus himself, while he was at Susa, in the following singular manner. It was the custom, in those days, to write with a steel point on a smooth surface of wax. The wax was spread for this purpose on a board or tablet of metal, in a very thin stratum, forming a ground upon which the letters traced with the point were easily legible. Demaratus took two writing-tablets such as these, and removing the wax from them, he wrote a brief account of the proposed Persian invasion, by tracing the characters upon the surface of the wood or metal itself, beneath; then, restoring the wax so as to conceal the letters, he sent the two tablets, seemingly blank, to Leonidas, king of Sparta. The messengers who bore them had other pretexts for their journey, and they had various other articles to carry. The Persian guards, who stopped and examined the messengers from time to time along the route, thought nothing of the blank tablets, and so they reached Leonidas in safety.

Leonidas being a blunt, rough soldier, and not much accustomed to cunning contrivances himself, was not usually much upon the watch for them from others, and when he saw no obvious communication upon the tablets, he threw them aside, not knowing what the sending of them could mean, and not feeling any strong interest in ascertaining. His wife, however—her name was Gorgo—had more curiosity. There was something mysterious about the affair, and she wished to solve it. She examined the tablets attentively in every part, and at length removed cautiously a little of the wax. The letters began to appear. Full of excitement and pleasure, she proceeded with the work until the whole cereous coating was removed. The result was, that the communication was revealed, and Greece received the warning.

When the Greeks heard that Xerxes was at Sardis, they sent three messengers in disguise, to ascertain the facts in respect to the Persian army assembled there, and, so far as possible, to learn the plans and designs of the king. Notwithstanding all the efforts of these men to preserve their concealment and disguise, they were discovered, seized, and tortured by the Persian officer who took them, until they confessed that they were spies. The officer was about to put them to death, when Xerxes himself received information of the circumstances. He forbade the execution, and directed, on the other hand, that the men should be conducted through all his encampments, and be allowed to view and examine every thing. He then dismissed them, with orders to return to Greece and report what they had seen. He thought, he said, that the Greeks would be more likely to surrender if they knew how immense his preparations were for effectually vanquishing them if they attempted resistance.

The city of Athens, being farther north than Sparta, would be the one first exposed to danger from the invasion, and when the people heard of Xerxes's approach, the whole city was filled with anxiety and alarm. Some of the inhabitants were panic-stricken, and wished to submit; others were enraged, and uttered nothing but threats and defiance. A thousand different plans of defense were proposed and eagerly discussed. At length the government sent messengers to the oracle at Delphi, to learn what their destiny was to be, and to obtain, if possible, divine direction in respect to the best mode of averting the danger. The messengers received an awful response, portending, in wild and solemn, though dark and mysterious language, the most dreadful calamities to the ill-fated city. The messengers were filled with alarm at hearing this reply. One of the inhabitants of Delphi, the city in which the oracle was situated, proposed to them to make a second application, in the character of the most humble supplicants, and to implore that the oracle would give them some directions in respect to the best course for them to pursue in order to avoid, or, at least, to mitigate the impending danger. They did so, and after a time they received an answer, vague, mysterious, and almost unintelligible, but which seemed to denote that the safety of the city, was connected in some manner with Salamis, and with certain "wooden walls," to which the inspired distich of the response obscurely alluded.

The messengers returned to Athens and reported the answer which they had received. The people were puzzled and perplexed in their attempts to understand it. It seems that the citadel of Athens had been formerly surrounded by a wooden palisade. Some thought that this was what was referred to by the "wooden walls," and that the meaning of the oracle was that they must rebuild the palisade, and then retreat to the citadel when the Persians should approach, and defend themselves there.

Others conceived that the phrase referred to ships, and that the oracle meant to direct them to meet their enemies with a fleet upon the sea. Salamis, which was also mentioned by the oracle, was an island not far from Athens, being west of the city, between it and the Isthmus of Corinth. Those who supposed that by the "wooden walls" was denoted the fleet, thought that Salamis might have been alluded to as the place near which the great naval battle was to be fought. This was the interpretation which seemed finally to prevail.

The Athenians had a fleet of about two hundred galleys. These vessels had been purchased and built, some time before this, for the Athenian government, through the influence of a certain public officer of high rank and influence, named Themistocles. It seems that a large sum had accumulated in the public treasury, the produce of certain mines belonging to the city, and a proposal was made to divide it among the citizens, which would have given a small sum to each man. Themistocles opposed this proposition, and urged instead that the government should build and equip a fleet with the money. This plan was finally adopted. The fleet was built, and it was now determined to call it into active service to meet and repel the Persians, though the naval armament of Xerxes was six times as large.

The next measure was to establish a confederation, if possible, of the Grecian states, or at least of all those who were willing to combine, and thus to form an allied army to resist the invader. The smaller states were very generally panic-stricken, and had either already signified their submission to the Persian rule, or were timidly hesitating, in doubt whether it would be safer for them to submit to the overwhelming force which was advancing against them, or to join the Athenians and the Spartans in their almost desperate attempts to resist it. The Athenians and Spartans settled, for the time, their own quarrels, and held a council to take the necessary measures for forming a more extended confederation.

All this took place while Xerxes was slowly advancing from Sardis to the Hellespont, and from the Hellespont to Doriscus, as described in the preceding chapter.

The council resolved on dispatching an embassy at once to all the states of Greece, as well as to some of the remoter neighboring powers, asking them to join the alliance.

The first Greek city to which these embassadors came was Argos, which was the capital of a kingdom or state lying between Athens and Sparta, though within the Peloponnesus. The states of Argos and of Sparta, being neighbors, had been constantly at war. Argos had recently lost six thousand men in a battle with the Spartans, and were, consequently, not likely to be in a very favorable mood for a treaty of friendship and alliance.

When the embassadors had delivered their message, the Argolians replied that they had anticipated such a proposal from the time that they had heard that Xerxes had commenced his march toward Greece, and that they had applied, accordingly, to the oracle at Delphi, to know what it would be best for them to do in case the proposal were made. The answer of the oracle had been, they said, unfavorable to their entering into an alliance with the Greeks. They were willing, however, they added, notwithstanding this, to enter into an alliance, offensive and defensive, with the Spartans, for thirty years, on condition that they should themselves have the command of half the Peloponnesian troops. They were entitled to the command of the whole, being, as they contended, the superior nation in rank, but they would waive their just claim, and be satisfied with half, if the Spartans would agree to that arrangement.

The Spartans replied that they could not agree to those conditions. They were themselves, they said, the superior nation in rank, and entitled to the whole command; and as they had two kings, and Argos but one, there was a double difficulty in complying with the Argive demand. They could not surrender one half of the command without depriving one of their kings of his rightful power.

Thus the proposed alliance failed entirely, the people of Argos saying that they would as willingly submit to the dominion of Xerxes as to the insolent demands and assumptions of superiority made by the government of Sparta.

The embassadors, among other countries which they visited in their attempts to obtain alliance and aid, went to Sicily. Gelon was the King of Sicily, and Syracuse was his capital. Here the same difficulty occurred which had broken up the negotiations at Argos. The embassadors, when they arrived at Syracuse, represented to Gelon that, if the Persians subdued Greece, they would come to Sicily next, and that it was better for him and for his countrymen that they should meet the enemy while he was still at a distance, rather than to wait until he came near. Gelon admitted the justice of this reasoning, and said that he would furnish a large force, both of ships and men, for carrying on the war, provided that he might have the command of the combined army. To this, of course, the Spartans would not agree. He then asked that he might command the fleet, on condition of giving up his claim to the land forces. This proposition the Athenian embassadors rejected, saying to Gelon that what they were in need of, and came to him to obtain, was a supply of troops, not of leaders. The Athenians, they said, were to command the fleet, being not only the most ancient nation of Greece, but also the most immediately exposed to the invasion, so that they were doubly entitled to be considered as the principals and leaders in the war.

Gelon then told the embassadors that, since they wished to obtain every thing and to concede nothing, they had better leave his dominions without delay, and report to their countrymen that they had nothing to expect from Sicily.

The embassadors went then to Corcyra, a large island on the western coast of Greece, in the Adriatic Sea. It is now called Corfu. Here they seemed to meet with their first success. The people of Corcyra acceded to the proposals made to them, and promised at once to equip and man their fleet, and send it round into the Ęgean Sea. They immediately engaged in the work, and seemed to be honestly intent on fulfilling their promises. They were, however, in fact, only pretending. They were really undecided which cause to espouse, the Greek or the Persian, and kept their promised squadron back by means of various delays, until its aid was no longer needed.

But the most important of all these negotiations of the Athenians and Spartans with the neighboring states were those opened with Thessaly. Thessaly was a kingdom in the northern part of Greece. It was, therefore, the territory which the Persian armies would first enter, on turning the northwestern corner of the Ęgean Sea. There were, moreover, certain points in its geographical position, and in the physical conformation of the country, that gave it a peculiar importance in respect to the approaching conflict.

By referring to the map placed at the commencement of the fifth chapter, it will be seen that Thessaly was a vast valley, surrounded on all sides by mountainous land, and drained by the River Peneus and its branches. The Peneus flows eastwardly to the Ęgean Sea, and escapes from the great valley through a narrow and romantic pass lying between the Mountains Olympus and Ossa. This pass was called in ancient times the Olympic Straits, and a part of it formed a romantic and beautiful glen called the Vale of Tempe. There was a road through this pass, which was the only access by which Thessaly could be entered from the eastward.

To the south of the Vale of Tempe, the mountains, as will appear from the map, crowded so hard upon the sea as not to allow any passage to the eastward of them. The natural route of Xerxes, therefore, in descending into Greece, would be to come down along the coast until he reached the mouth of the Peneus, and then, following the river up through the Vale of Tempe into Thessaly, to pass down toward the Peloponnesus on the western side of Ossa and Pelion, and of the other mountains near the sea. If he could get through the Olympic Straits and the Vale of Tempe, the way would be open and unobstructed until he should reach the southern frontier of Thessaly, where there was another narrow pass leading from Thessaly into Greece. This last defile was close to the sea, and was called the Straits of Thermopylę.

Thus Xerxes and his hosts, in continuing their march to the southward, must necessarily traverse Thessaly, and in doing so they would have two narrow and dangerous defiles to pass: one at Mount Olympus, to get into the country, and the other at Thermopylę, to get out of it. It consequently became a point of great importance to the Greeks to determine at which of these two passes they should make their stand against the torrent which was coming down upon them.

This question would, of course, depend very much upon the disposition of Thessaly herself. The government of that country, understanding the critical situation in which they were placed, had not waited for the Athenians and Spartans to send embassadors to them, but, at a very early period of the war—before, in fact, Xerxes had yet crossed the Hellespont, had sent messengers to Athens to concert some plan of action. These messengers were to say to the Athenians that the government of Thessaly were expecting every day to receive a summons from Xerxes, and that they must speedily decide what they were to do; that they themselves were very unwilling to submit to him, but they could not undertake to make a stand against his immense host alone; that the southern Greeks might include Thessaly in their plan of defense, or exclude it, just as they thought best. If they decided to include it, then they must make a stand at the Olympic Straits, that is, at the pass between Olympus and Ossa; and to do that, it would be necessary to send a strong force immediately to take possession of the pass. If, on the contrary, they decided not  to defend Thessaly, then the pass of Thermopylę would be the point at which they must make their stand, and in that case Thessaly must be at liberty to submit on the first Persian summons.

The Greeks, after consultation on the subject, decided that it would be best for them to defend Thessaly, and to take their stand, accordingly, at the Straits of Olympus. They immediately put a large force on board their fleet, armed and equipped for the expedition. This was at the time when Xerxes was just about crossing the Hellespont. The fleet sailed from the port of Athens, passed up through the narrow strait called Euripus, lying between the island of Eubœa and the main land, and finally landed at a favorable point of disembarkation, south of Thessaly. From this point the forces marched to the northward until they reached the Peneus, and then established themselves at the narrowest part of the passage between the mountains, strengthened their position there as much as possible, and awaited the coming of the enemy. The amount of the force was ten thousand men.

They had not been here many days before a messenger came to them from the King of Macedon, which country, it will be seen, lies immediately north of Thessaly, earnestly dissuading them from attempting to make a stand at the Vale of Tempe. Xerxes was coming on, he said, with an immense and overwhelming force, one against which it would be utterly impossible for them to make good their defense at such a point as that. It would be far better for them to fall back to Thermopylę, which, being a narrower and more rugged pass, could be more easily defended.

Besides this, the messenger said that it was possible for Xerxes to enter Thessaly without going through the Vale of Tempe at all. The country between Thessaly and Macedon was mountainous, but it was not impassable, and Xerxes would very probably come by that way. The only security, therefore, for the Greeks, would be to fall back and intrench themselves at Thermopylę. Nor was there any time to be lost. Xerxes was crossing the Hellespont, and the whole country was full of excitement and terror.

The Greeks determined to act on this advice. They broke up their encampment at the Olympic Straits, and, retreating to the southward, established themselves at Thermopylę, to await there the coming of the conqueror. The people of Thessaly then surrendered to Xerxes as soon as they received his summons.

Xerxes, from his encampment at Therma, where we left him at the close of the last chapter, saw the peaks of Olympus and Ossa in the southern horizon. They were distant perhaps fifty miles from where he stood. He inquired about them, and was told that the River Peneus flowed between them to the sea, and that through the same defile there lay the main entrance to Thessaly. He had previously determined to march his army round the other way, as the King of Macedon had suggested, but he said that he should like to see this defile. So he ordered a swift Sidonian galley to be prepared, and, taking with him suitable guides, and a fleet of other vessels in attendance on his galley, he sailed to the mouth of the Peneus, and, entering that river, he ascended it until he came to the defile.

Seen from any of the lower elevations which projected from the bases of the mountains at the head of this defile, Thessaly lay spread out before the eye as one vast valley—level, verdant, fertile, and bounded by distant groups and ranges of mountains, which formed a blue and beautiful horizon on every side. Through the midst of this scene of rural loveliness the Peneus, with its countless branches, gracefully meandered, gathering the water from every part of the valley, and then pouring it forth in a deep and calm current through the gap in the mountains at the observer's feet. Xerxes asked his guides if it would be possible to find any other place where the waters of the Peneus could be conducted to the sea. They replied that it would not be, for the valley was bounded on every side by ranges of mountainous land.

"Then," said Xerxes, "the Thessalians were wise in submitting at once to my summons; for, if they had not done so, I would have raised a vast embankment across the valley here, and thus stopped the river, turned their country into a lake, and drowned them all."