Xerxes - Jacob Abbott

Preparations for the Invasion of Greece

As soon as the invasion of Greece was finally decided upon, the orders were transmitted to all the provinces of the empire, requiring the various authorities and powers to make the necessary preparations. There were men to be levied, arms to be manufactured, ships to be built, and stores of food to be provided. The expenditures, too, of so vast an armament as Xerxes was intending to organize, would require a large supply of money. For all these things Xerxes relied on the revenues and the contributions of the provinces, and orders, very full and very imperative, were transmitted, accordingly, to all the governors and satraps of Asia, and especially to those who ruled over the countries which lay near the western confines of the empire, and consequently near the Greek frontiers.

In modern times it is the practice of powerful nations to accumulate arms and munitions of war on storage in arsenals and naval depots, so that the necessary supplies for very extended operations, whether of attack or defense, can be procured in a very short period of time. In respect to funds, too, modern nations have a great advantage over those of former days, in case of any sudden emergency arising to call for great and unusual expenditures. In consequence of the vast accumulation of capital in the hands of private individuals, and the confidence which is felt in the mercantile honor and good faith of most established governments at the present day, these governments can procure indefinite supplies of gold and silver at any time, by promising to pay an annual interest in lieu of the principal borrowed. It is true that, in these cases, a stipulation is made, by which the government may, at a certain specified period, pay back the principal, and so extinguish the annuity; but in respect to a vast portion of the amount so borrowed, it is not expected that this repayment will ever be made. The creditors, in fact, do not desire that it should be, as owners of property always prefer a safe annual income from it to the custody of the principal; and thus governments in good credit have sometimes induced their creditors to abate the rate of interest which they were receiving, by threatening otherwise to pay the debt in full.

These inventions, however, by which a government in one generation may enjoy the pleasure and reap the glory of waging war, and throw the burden of the expense on another, were not known in ancient times. Xerxes did not understand the art of funding a national debt, and there would, besides, have probably been very little confidence in Persian stocks, if any had been issued. He had to raise all his funds by actual taxation, and to have his arms, and his ships and chariots of war, manufactured express. The food, too, to sustain the immense army which he was to raise, was all to be produced, and store-houses were to be built for the accumulation and custody of it. All this, as might naturally be expected, would require time; and the vastness of the scale on which these immense preparations were made is evinced by the fact that four years  were the time allotted for completing them. This period includes, however, a considerable time before the great debate on the subject described in the last chapter.

The chief scene of activity, during all this time, was the tract of country in the western part of Asia Minor, and along the shores of the Ægean Sea. Taxes and contributions were raised from all parts of the empire, but the actual material of war was furnished mainly from those provinces which were nearest to the future scene of it. Each district provided such things as it naturally and most easily produced. One contributed horses, another arms and ammunition, another ships, and another provisions. The ships which were built were of various forms and modes of construction, according to the purposes which they were respectively intended to serve. Some were strictly ships of war, intended for actual combat; others were transports, their destination being simply the conveyance of troops or of military stores. There were also a large number of vessels, which were built on a peculiar model, prescribed by the engineers, being very long and straight-sided, and smooth and flat upon their decks. These were intended for the bridge across the Hellespont. They were made long, so that, when placed side by side across the stream, a greater breadth might be given to the platform of the bridge. All these things were very deliberately and carefully planned.

Although it was generally on the Asiatic side of the Ægean Sea that these vast works of preparation were going on, and the crossing of the Hellespont was to be the first great movement of the Persian army, the reader must not suppose that, even at this time, the European shores were wholly in the hands of the Greeks. The Persians had, long before, conquered Thrace and a part of Macedon; and thus the northern shores of the Ægean Sea, and many of the islands, were already in Xerxes's hands. The Greek dominions lay further south, and Xerxes did not anticipate any opposition from the enemy, until his army, after crossing the strait, should have advanced to the neighborhood of Athens. In fact, all the northern country through which his route would lie was already in his hands, and in passing through it he anticipated no difficulties except such as should arise from the elements themselves, and the physical obstacles of the way. The Hellespont itself was, of course, one principal point of danger. The difficulty here was to be surmounted by the bridge of boats. There was, however, another point, which was, in some respects, still more formidable: it was the promontory of Mount Athos.

By looking at the map of Greece, placed at the commencement of the next chapter, the reader will see that there are two or three singular promontories jutting out from the main land in the northwestern part of the Ægean Sea. The most northerly and the largest of these was formed by an immense mountainous mass rising out of the water, and connected by a narrow isthmus with the main land. The highest summit of this rocky pile was called Mount Athos in ancient times, and is so marked upon the map. In modern days it is called Monte Santo, or Holy Mountain, being covered with monasteries, and convents, and other ecclesiastical establishments built in the Middle Ages.

Mount Athos is very celebrated in ancient history. It extended along the promontory for many miles, and terminated abruptly in lofty cliffs and precipices toward the sea, where it was so high that its shadow, as was said, was thrown, at sunset, across the water to the island of Lemnos, a distance of twenty leagues. It was a frightful specter in the eyes of the ancient navigators, when, as they came coasting along from the north in their frail galleys, on their voyages to Greece and Italy, they saw it frowning defiance to them as they came, with threatening clouds hanging upon its summit, and the surges and surf of the Ægean perpetually thundering upon its base below. To make this stormy promontory the more terrible, it was believed to be the haunt of innumerable uncouth and misshapen monsters of the sea, that lived by devouring the hapless seamen who were thrown upon the rocks from their wrecked vessels by the merciless tumult of the waves.

The plan which Xerxes had formed for the advance of his expedition was, that the army which was to cross the Hellespont by the bridge should advance thence through Macedonia and Thessaly, by land, attended by a squadron of ships, transports, and galleys, which was to accompany the expedition along the coast by sea. The men  could be marched more conveniently to their place of destination by land. The stores, on the other hand, the arms, the supplies, and the baggage of every description, could be transported more easily by sea. Mardonius was somewhat solicitous in respect to the safety of the great squadron which would be required for this latter service, in doubling the promontory of Mount Athos.

In fact, he had special and personal reason for his solicitude, for he had himself, some years before, met with a terrible disaster at this very spot. It was during the reign of Darius that this disaster occurred. On one of the expeditions which Darius had intrusted to his charge, he was conducting a very large fleet along the coast, when a sudden storm arose just as he was approaching this terrible promontory.

He was on the northern side of the promontory when the storm came on, and as the wind was from the north, it blew directly upon the shore. For the fleet to make its escape from the impending danger, it seemed necessary, therefore, to turn the course of the ships back against the wind; but this, on account of the sudden and terrific violence of the gale, it was impossible to do. The sails, when they attempted to use them, were blown away by the howling gusts, and the oars were broken to pieces by the tremendous dashing of the sea. It soon appeared that the only hope of escape for the squadron was to press on in the desperate attempt to double the promontory, and thus gain, if possible, the sheltered water under its lee. The galleys, accordingly, went on, the pilots and the seamen exerting their utmost to keep them away from the shore.

All their efforts, however, to do this, were vain. The merciless gales drove the vessels, one after another, upon the rocks, and dashed them to pieces, while the raging sea wrenched the wretched mariners from the wrecks to which they attempted to cling, and tossed them out into the boiling whirlpools around, to the monsters that were ready there to devour them, as if she were herself some ferocious monster, feeding her offspring with their proper prey. A few, it is true, of the hapless wretches succeeded in extricating themselves from the surf, by crawling up upon the rocks, through the tangled sea-weed, until they were above the reach of the surges; but when they had done so, they found themselves hopelessly imprisoned between the impending precipices which frowned above them and the frantic billows which were raging and roaring below. They gained, of course, by their apparent escape, only a brief prolongation of suffering, for they all soon miserably perished from exhaustion, exposure, and cold.

Mardonius had no desire to encounter this danger again. Now the promontory of Mount Athos, though high and rocky itself, was connected with the main land by an isthmus level and low, and not very broad. Xerxes determined on cutting a canal through this isthmus, so as to take his fleet of galleys across the neck, and thus avoid the stormy navigation of the outward passage. Such a canal would be of service not merely for the passage of the great fleet, but for the constant communication which it would be necessary for Xerxes to maintain with his own dominions during the whole period of the invasion.

It might have been expected that the Greeks would have interfered to prevent the execution of such a work as this; but it seems that they did not, and yet there was a considerable Greek population in that vicinity. The promontory of Athos itself was quite extensive, being about thirty miles long and four or five wide, and it had several towns upon it. The canal which Xerxes was to cut across the neck of this peninsula was to be wide enough for two triremes to pass each other. Triremes were galleys propelled by three banks of oars, and were vessels of the largest class ordinarily employed; and as the oars by which they were impelled required almost as great a breadth of water as the vessels themselves, the canal was, consequently, to be very wide.

The engineers, accordingly, laid out the ground, and, marking the boundaries by stakes and lines, as guides to the workmen, the excavation was commenced. Immense numbers of men were set at work, arranged regularly in gangs, according to the various nations which furnished them. As the excavation gradually proceeded, and the trench began to grow deep, they placed ladders against the sides, and stationed a series of men upon them; then the earth dug from the bottom was hauled up from one to another, in a sort of basket or hod, until it reached the top, where it was taken by other men and conveyed away.

The work was very much interrupted and impeded, in many parts of the line, by the continual caving in of the banks, on account of the workmen attempting to dig perpendicularly down. In one section—the one which had been assigned to the Phœnicians—this difficulty did not occur; for the Phœnicians, more considerate than the rest, had taken the precaution to make the breadth of their part of the trench twice as great at the top as it was below. By this means the banks on each side were formed to a gradual slope, and consequently stood firm. The canal was at length completed, and the water was let in.

North of the promontory of Mount Athos the reader will find upon the map the River Strymon, flowing south, not far from the boundary between Macedon and Thrace, into the Ægean Sea. The army of Xerxes, in its march from the Hellespont, would, of course, have to cross this river; and Xerxes having, by cutting the canal across the isthmus of Mount Athos, removed an obstacle in the way of his fleet, resolved next to facilitate the progress of his army by bridging the Strymon.

The king also ordered a great number of granaries and store-houses to be built at various points along the route which it was intended that his army should pursue. Some of these were on the coasts of Macedonia and Thrace, and some on the banks of the Strymon. To these magazines the corn raised in Asia for the use of the expedition was conveyed, from time to time, in transport ships, as fast as it was ready, and, being safely deposited, was protected by a guard. No very extraordinary means of defense seems to have been thought necessary at these points, for, although the scene of all these preliminary arrangements was on the European side of the line, and in what was called Greek territory, still this part of the country had been long under Persian dominion. The independent states and cities of Greece were all further south, and the people who inhabited them did not seem disposed to interrupt these preparations. Perhaps they were not aware to what object and end all these formidable movements on their northern frontier were tending.

Xerxes, during all this time, had remained in Persia. The period at length arrived when, his preparations on the frontiers being far advanced toward completion, he concluded to move forward at the head of his forces to Sardis. Sardis was the great capital of the western part of his dominions, and was situated not far from the frontier. He accordingly assembled his forces, and, taking leave of his capital of Susa with much parade and many ceremonies, he advanced toward Asia Minor. Entering and traversing Asia Minor, he crossed the Halys, which had been, in former times, the western boundary of the empire, though its limits had now been extended very far beyond. Having crossed the Halys, the immense procession advanced into Phrygia.

A very romantic tale is told of an interview between Xerxes and a certain nobleman named Pythius, who resided in one of the Phrygian towns. The circumstances were these: After crossing the Halys, which river flows north into the Euxine Sea, the army went on to the westward through nearly the whole extent of Phrygia, until at length they came to the sources of the streams which flowed west into the Ægean Sea. One of the most remarkable of these rivers was the Meander. There was a town built exactly at the source of the Meander—so exactly, in fact, that the fountain from which the stream took its rise was situated in the public square of the town, walled in and ornamented like an artificial fountain in a modern city. The name of this town was Celænæ.

When the army reached Celænæ and encamped there, Pythius made a great entertainment for the officers, which, as the number was very large, was of course attended with an enormous expense. Not satisfied with this, Pythius sent word to the king that if he was, in any respect, in want of funds for his approaching campaign, he, Pythius, would take great pleasure in supplying him.

Xerxes was surprised at such proofs of wealth and munificence from a man in comparatively a private station. He inquired of his attendants who Pythius was. They replied that, next to Xerxes himself, he was the richest man in the world. They said, moreover, that he was as generous as he was rich. He had made Darius a present of a beautiful model of a fruit-tree and of a vine, of solid gold. He was by birth, they added, a Lydian.

Lydia was west of Phrygia, and was famous for its wealth. The River Pactolus, which was so celebrated for its golden sands, flowed through the country, and as the princes and nobles contrived to monopolize the treasures which were found, both in the river itself and in the mountains from which it flowed, some of them became immensely wealthy.

Xerxes was astonished at the accounts which he heard of Pythius's fortune. He sent for him, and asked him what was the amount of his treasures. This was rather an ominous question; for, under such despotic governments as those of the Persian kings, the only real safeguard of wealth was, often, the concealment of it. Inquiry on the part of a government, in respect to treasures accumulated by a subject, was, often, only a preliminary to the seizure and confiscation of them.

Pythius, however, in reply to the king's question, said that he had no hesitation in giving his majesty full information in respect to his fortune. He had been making, he said, a careful calculation of the amount of it, with a view of determining how much he could offer to contribute in aid of the Persian campaign. He found, he said, that he had two thousand talents of silver, and four millions, wanting seven thousand, of staters  of gold.

The stater was a Persian coin. Even if we knew, at the present day, its exact value, we could not determine the precise amount denoted by the sum which Pythius named, the value of money being subject to such vast fluctuations in different ages of the world. Scholars who have taken an interest in inquiring into such points as these, have come to the conclusion that the amount of gold and silver coin which Pythius thus reported to Xerxes was equal to about thirty millions of dollars.

Pythius added, after stating the amount of the gold and silver which he had at command, that it was all at the service of the king for the purpose of carrying on the war. He had, he said, besides his money, slaves and farms enough for his own maintenance. Xerxes was extremely gratified at this generosity, and at the proof which it afforded of the interest which Pythius felt in the cause of the king. "You are the only man," said he, "who has offered hospitality to me or to my army since I set out upon this march, and, in addition to your hospitality, you tender me your whole fortune. I will not, however, deprive you of your treasure. I will, on the contrary, order my treasurer to pay to you the seven thousand staters necessary to make your four millions complete. I offer you also my friendship, and will do any thing in my power, now and hereafter, to serve you. Continue to live in the enjoyment of your fortune. If you always act under the influence of the noble and generous impulses which govern you now, you will never cease to be prosperous and happy."

If we could end the account of Pythius and Xerxes here, what generous and noble-minded men we might suppose them to be! But alas! how large a portion of the apparent generosity and nobleness which shows itself among potentates and kings, turns into selfishness and hypocrisy when closely examined. Pythius was one of the most merciless tyrants that ever lived. He held all the people that lived upon his vast estates in a condition of abject slavery, compelling them to toil continually in his mines, in destitution and wretchedness, in order to add more and more to his treasures. The people came to his wife with their bitter complaints. She pitied them, but could not relieve them. One day, it is said that, in order to show her husband the vanity and folly of living only to amass silver and gold, and to convince him how little real power such treasures have to satisfy the wants of the human soul, she made him a great entertainment, in which there was a boundless profusion of wealth in the way of vessels and furniture of silver and gold, but scarcely any food. There was every thing to satisfy the eye with the sight of magnificence, but nothing to satisfy hunger. The noble guest sat starving in the midst of a scene of unexampled riches and splendor, because it was not possible to eat silver and gold.

And as for Xerxes's professions of gratitude and friendship for Pythius, they were put to the test, a short time after the transactions which we have above described, in a remarkable manner. Pythius had five sons. They were all in Xerxes's army. By their departure on the distant and dangerous expedition on which Xerxes was to lead them, their father would be left alone. Pythius, under these circumstances, resolved to venture so far on the sincerity of his sovereign's professions of regard as to request permission to retain one of his sons at home with his father, on condition of freely giving up the rest.

Xerxes, on hearing this proposal, was greatly enraged. "How dare you," said he, "come to me with such a demand? You and all that pertain to you are my slaves, and are bound to do my bidding without a murmur. You deserve the severest punishment for such an insolent request. In consideration, however, of your past good behavior, I will not inflict upon you what you deserve. I will only kill one of your sons—the one that you seem to cling to so fondly. I will spare the rest." So saying, the enraged king ordered the son whom Pythius had endeavored to retain to be slain before his eyes, and then directed that the dead body should be split in two, and the two halves thrown, the one on the right side of the road and the other on the left, that his army, as he said, might "march between them."

On leaving Phrygia, the army moved on toward the west. Their immediate destination, as has already been said, was Sardis, where they were to remain until the ensuing spring. The historian mentions a number of objects of interest which attracted the attention of Xerxes and his officers on this march, which mark the geographical peculiarities of the country, or illustrate, in some degree, the ideas and manners of the times.

There was one town, for example, situated, not like Celænæ, where a river had its origin, but where one disappeared. The stream was a branch of the Meander. It came down from the mountains like any other mountain torrent, and then, at the town in question, it plunged suddenly down into a gulf or chasm and disappeared. It rose again at a considerable distance below, and thence flowed on, without any further evasions, to the Meander.

On the confines between Phrygia and Lydia the army came to a place where the road divided. One branch turned toward the north, and led to Lydia; the other inclined to the south, and conducted to Caria. Here, too, on the frontier, was a monument which had been erected by Crœsus, the great king of Lydia, who lived in Cyrus's day, to mark the eastern boundaries of his kingdom. The Persians were, of course, much interested in looking upon this ancient landmark, which designated not only the eastern limit of Crœsus's empire, but also what was, in ancient times, the western limit of their own.

There was a certain species of tree which grew in these countries called the plane-tree. Xerxes found one of these trees so large and beautiful that it attracted his special admiration. He took possession of it in his own name, and adorned it with golden chains, and set a guard over it. This idolization of a tree was a striking instance of the childish caprice and folly by which the actions of the ancient despots were so often governed.

As the army advanced, they came to other places of interest and objects of curiosity and wonder. There was a district where the people made a sort of artificial honey from grain, and a lake from which the inhabitants procured salt by evaporation, and mines, too, of silver and of gold. These objects interested and amused the minds of the Persians as they moved along, without, however, at all retarding or interrupting their progress. In due time they reached the great city of Sardis in safety, and here Xerxes established his head-quarters, and awaited the coming of spring.

In the mean time, however, he sent heralds into Greece to summon the country to surrender to him. This is a common formality when an army is about to attack either a town, a castle, or a kingdom. Xerxes's heralds crossed the Ægean Sea, and made their demands, in Xerxes's name, upon the Greek authorities. As might have been expected, the embassage was fruitless; and the heralds returned, bringing with them, from the Greeks, not acts or proffers of submission, but stern expressions of hostility and defiance. Nothing, of course, now remained, but that both parties should prepare for the impending crisis.