Ancient History & Civilisation

9

THE RETREAT

CHAPTER TWELVE

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PHALERON

As the west wind picks up in the evening of September 25, it bends the crowd of warships like a field of grain in the afternoon breeze. The Persian navy is in flight, its men all but dead in their seats. On one of the triremes, the lookout gives the word that the enemy has stopped his pursuit, but the petrified rowers keep pulling. As they pass Piraeus on the port side and the pilot starts adjusting the rudder for the turn into Phaleron Bay, the captain shifts her thoughts to the shore. The queen of Halicarnassus is always thinking, and she knows that Xerxes will call a war council. She has to ponder how best to make use of the credit she will have won from ramming what she hopes the high command will have thought was an enemy ship. She understands not to overplay her hand, now that her forecast of naval disaster has come true. Meanwhile, as Artemisia knows, she must keep her men content and quiet about what they really did at Salamis: or so we might imagine.

As the surviving ships pulled back up to the beach at Phaleron on the end of the worst day in the history of the Persian fleet, the men are likely to have scrambled ashore and rushed to their camp. The soldiers stationed there will have run down to the ships to help them, sending whatever slaves were available to carry off the wounded and the dead. The corpses would be cremated, the wounded brought to doctors.

And there were many corpses. In the days after the battle of Salamis, the shores of Attica became the most ethnically diverse graveyard in human history to that date. It was a testimony to the diversity of the Persian Empire and to the folly of its leaders.

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As for the men injured in battle, those with flesh wounds to their limbs, simple fractures, or sprains had a fair chance of surviving. Wounds would be swabbed with myrrh, fig juice, or wine to reduce infection and stop the bleeding, and then they would be bandaged with linen or cotton. A fractured limb would be extended and adjusted; rubbed with an ointment containing a mixture of fat, resin, and herbs; and then carefully bandaged to effect a light compression. After a few days, the bandages would have to be checked and changed. Sprains and dislocations could be adjusted and the pain managed with herbs and massage, but not always with success. Xerxes’ father, Darius, for example, once suffered so much from a dislocated anklebone that not even his Egyptian doctors—then considered the world’s best—could heal him; only Democedes of the Italian-Greek city of Croton, who happened to be in the Persian Empire, was able to do the trick.

The odds of survival were poor for anyone needing surgery. Ancient doctors carried bronze medicine chests, about five inches long by about three inches wide, whose tools included scalpels, hooks, forceps, and drills. Ancient surgeons were well aware of the importance of cleanliness. Greek and Near Eastern physicians had some success in extracting arrow- and spearheads from wounds. They had some ability to reinflate collapsed lungs, and they experimented with bores and augers to treat skull wounds. Yet the survival rates for most of these procedures were poor.

“A healer is worth many men in his ability to cut out arrows and smear soothing medicaments on wounds,” says Homer. But it is doubtful that there were enough doctors available at Phaleron Bay for all the wounded after Salamis. So, as ineffective as most ancient doctors were by our standards, some men had to settle for even worse: fumbling medical help from their comrades or attempts at magic from the camp followers, who offered nostrums, spells, prayers, and amulets. The numbers of dead surely mounted in the hours and days after the battle.

Meanwhile, the living could at least be fed and given water and wine to drink. After nearly twenty-four hours on the sea, they must have been as hungry and thirsty as they were tired. Still, the talk is likely to have turned to pulling out of Phaleron immediately that night, before the Greeks could attack them. As darkness fell, torches would have lit the dispirited camp. Moans of pain and crying for the dead would have mingled with rumor, blame, and scheming.

Whether or not Xerxes visited the fleet that night, he was not idle. He felt danger hanging over him. Xerxes knew that when Darius invaded Scythia (today’s Ukraine) in 513 B.C., the Persian army had nearly been trapped when its bridge over the Danube had almost been cut. Now Xerxes feared for his bridges over the Hellespont. He intended that the remnant of the Persian fleet race back across the Aegean in order to protect the expedition’s lifeline.

And yet he wanted to hide his plans. So immediately after the defeat at Salamis, apparently the very next day, Xerxes ordered his engineers to begin constructing a causeway between the mainland and Salamis. They tied together Phoenician merchantmen, presumably ships that had brought supplies to Greece for Phoenician warships. The Persians planned to use these ships to serve both as a pontoon bridge and as a wall behind which they could build the causeway. In other words, since they had failed to reach Salamis by sea, they planned to attack it by land. They probably rowed the merchantmen into the straits along the Attic shore, guarding them with some of their remaining warships. With a large enough naval escort, the Persians might create the impression that they were planning another naval battle, which was just the disinformation that they wanted to feed the Greeks.

On September 26, the day after the battle, Xerxes called a war council. Unlike the last time, Xerxes did not meet with all the kings and squadron commanders in his service. This time, he consulted only Persians, with the exception of Artemisia. The queen of Halicarnassus had emerged from the wreckage of the straits like Aphrodite arisen from the sea. She was now not merely the most powerful woman in Xerxes’ entourage, she was the most influential of all the king’s non-Persian allies.

In council, Mardonius advised Xerxes to make little of Salamis. “Our struggle is not to be decided by pieces of wood but by men and horses.” And he added:

The Persians have nothing to do with what has happened, nor can you say that somehow we have been cowardly men. If the Phoenicians and Egyptians and Cypriots and Cilicians have been cowards, this disaster has nothing to do with the Persians.

It was a sentiment to strike a chord in the Persian elite. When the bad news from Salamis reached Susa, the Persians

all tore their tunics and cried and made boundless lamentations and blamed Mardonius. The Persians did this not so much because they grieved about the ships as because they feared for Xerxes himself.

In strategic terms, the ships were at least as important as the king, but the Persians thought just the opposite.

After hearing from Mardonius and his other Persian advisers, Xerxes did an extraordinary thing. He dismissed them and his bodyguards as well. For once, the royal tent was empty except for the Great King and the counselor who most inspired confidence. If he had listened to Artemisia’s advice before Salamis, he might now be the master of Greece. At least he had finally learned whom to trust.

Artemisia might be forgiven if she had stopped to savor the moment. After all, she was the half-Cretan widow of the petty ruler of a small Anatolian city nearly two thousand miles away from the imperial capital. She had barely escaped with her life from a naval disaster, and she had done so only by treacherously turning on her ally in full view of witnesses. She was a woman in a society whose ruling elite considered it the most terrible insult to call a man “worse than a woman.” And yet she had climbed the peak of power.

If he had not done so already, Xerxes was soon to honor her with the prize for bravery in battle. The story is told that Artemisia received a full suit of Greek armor as a sign of her achievement. At the same time, Xerxes gave a spindle and distaff to “the admiral of the fleet.” A distaff is a rod on which wool is wound before being spun into thread. In Greece, it was a symbol of womanhood. So to give a distaff to a naval commander was surely an insult.

We do not know which commander is meant by the phrase “admiral of the fleet”: the chief candidate is probably Megabazus son of Megabates, one of the two Persian commanders of the Phoenician squadrons (along with Prexaspes son of Aspathines). Megabazus may have held a hereditary position as “the admiral,” to judge from official documents at Persepolis. In the Roman era Megabazus was called the admiral in chief of 480 B.C., which may be an echo of such a status. But Megabazus’s fortune may have sunk after Salamis, since neither he nor the other two surviving Persian admirals, Achaemenes and Prexaspes, was reassigned to a naval command the following year.

If the spindle and distaff were an insult, the full suit of Greek armor was meant as a compliment. In both Greece and Persia, prowess in battle, especially land battle, was considered the height of manliness. And surely Xerxes’ gift represented nothing but the best in materials and craftsmanship: certainly something with the finest horsehair for the plume and with a design incised on helmet, breastplate, and greaves, and with a stunning blazon on the shield, perhaps one of the lions or winged bulls favored in Persian art.

If it is really true that Xerxes gave Artemisia a Greek suit of armor, as opposed to Persian armor, that might reflect the standards of Caria, where Greek influence was very strong and soldiers were armed in the Greek fashion. In Athens, a suit of armor and a wreath were the standard prize for valor. The Persian monarchs were nothing if not sensitive to the customs of their subjects.

But no one at the time would have considered Xerxes overly generous in his gift to Artemisia. After all, Theomestor was rewarded with the tyranny of Samos, and Phylakes was given an estate and enrolled among the King’s Benefactors. Two generations later, the rather poor country of Acarnania rewarded an Athenian general with not one but three hundred suits of armor. But that general had won his battle; Artemisia merely salvaged some specious honor during a disaster.

The conference met in Xerxes’ tent on September 26: it was the hour of Xerxes’ anxiety, and Artemisia was there to reassure him. Leave aside her charm and coquetry: Artemisia was the best naval strategist in Xerxes’ service. His half brother, the Carians’ and Ionians’ commander, the admiral Ariabignes, was dead; his brother Achaemenes, commander of the undistinguished Egyptian fleet, was disgraced, as were the three Phoenician kings and the two Persian admirals, who outranked the kings. Samian and Samothracian captains had scored kills in the battle, and so had others. But Artemisia alone had predicted the disaster that would lie ahead if the Persians fought at Salamis. On top of that, she had fought brilliantly, or so it appeared to Xerxes and his courtiers.

We hear nothing of an interpreter at Artemisia’s private session with Xerxes. Unless one is to be supposed, we must conclude that the supple queen had learned to speak good Persian, since the King of Kings would hardly have stooped to speak in a language other than that of the ruling people.

Mardonius had suggested that Xerxes choose between two courses of action. Either the king should order the full Persian army into action against the Greeks at the Isthmus or he should have the entire navy and a portion of the army withdraw from Greece entirely, and Xerxes with them. In that case, Mardonius would stay and command the rest of the army; and he promised to subject all Greece to the Great King’s authority. Mardonius preferred the second course of action, says Herodotus, because it might allow him to reestablish his reputation after the failure of the expedition for which he had beaten the drum so loudly.

Xerxes asked Artemisia which course of action she recommended. She replied that Mardonius should be left in Greece with a portion of the army. In that case, the risks would all be his, while Xerxes could take the credit if Mardonius managed to succeed. Nor need the king concern himself about any Greek threat. “If you and your house survive,” Artemisia said, “the Greeks will have to run many races for their lives and possessions—and they will have to do so often.” Besides, she added, he had in fact burned Athens.

Artemisia had told Xerxes what he wanted to hear. Even if every man and woman in his entourage had told him to stay, Herodotus adds cattily, Xerxes was too frightened to have remained in Greece. Yet even Herodotus concedes that Xerxes made a considered and timely decision. Xerxes had lost a battle, but he did not give up the war. The only question was the strategy with which to fight. The king was quick to grasp the full extent of the naval disaster. With equal speed, he understood that the results of Salamis raised a more important issue than Greece: Ionia.

At Salamis, the Greeks had won control of the sea. Unchecked, they could in time use it to wrest back the empire’s hard-won gains of the last generation: northern Greece, the Aegean islands, and, the greatest prize of all, Ionia. The question was how to keep the Greeks in check.

In just a few days, in fact, in as little as twenty-four hours, Xerxes came up with an answer, a new strategy that he immediately began to put into practice. Conquering Greece was no longer his priority. Because it could no longer turn the enemy’s flank by sea, his army would not attack the Greeks at the Isthmus. Instead, his policy would be to withdraw all the Persian navy and part of the Persian army. Xerxes left just enough military force on the Greek mainland to keep the Greeks off balance and disunited. In the meantime, he would personally relocate to the part of the empire that most needed his attention: Ionia. Within two months of Salamis, Xerxes had moved to Sardis, the provincial capital. He would stay there for the next year, until the autumn of 479 B.C.

It turned out very badly. Within a year of deciding to withdraw from Athens, Xerxes had lost not only the Peloponnese, but nearly all his possessions on the Greek mainland as well as the main Greek islands of the eastern Aegean, with the city-states of Ionia and Caria on the way out. The other islands would follow a year later. Twenty years after the outbreak of the Ionian Revolt, in 499 B.C., a Greek alliance on the mainland was driving the Great King out of the Aegean and back from the Aegean coast of Anatolia.

What went wrong? Xerxes made three mistakes, but calling off the Isthmus attack and withdrawing to Sardis was not one of them. In fact, it made perfect sense to pull back from Greece. Conquering the Peloponnese—the only part of Greece still free of the Persians—would have brought Xerxes glory and a source of mercenaries but little else. The Persian Empire was vast and rich, but Greece was small and poor. In spite of the elegant meters of Aeschylus’s choruses and the 200,000 words of Herodotus’s Histories,in spite of the stockpiles of booty taken from the Persians and the marble monuments that would commemorate Greek victory, in spite of the skill of its spearmen and the force of its fleets—in spite of all that, Greece had little to offer. The Persian kings already had more wealth in the city of Persepolis than there was in the entire Greek peninsula.

The main advantage of conquering Greece, besides glory, was defensive. Left unchecked, the Greeks might expand. The Aegean islands, Ionia, and Egypt were all waiting to be shaken loose from Persia. And leaving Greece unconquered set a bad example for the other restive peoples of the empire. In short, Greece represented less a resource than a threat.

On top of that, time and treasure added to the war in Greece had to be subtracted from the resources available to police the rest of the empire. On first glance, it might appear that by choosing to withdraw from Athens, Xerxes demonstrated his cowardice. In truth, the Great King showed his maturity. His presence represented a limited resource. Wherever the Great King went, his servants performed better. It would have been irresponsible to stay in Greece when he was needed in so many other parts of his realm.

Already at Phaleron after the battle of Salamis, Xerxes was thinking about his other border trouble spots. Or so we may conclude from a telltale detail: the Egyptian ships in his fleet, once two hundred strong, returned home. But their marines stayed behind, to form part of the Persian land army under Mardonius. It was an interesting choice.

On the one hand, the Egyptians had won the prize for bravery at Artemisium, where they captured five Greek ships, crews and all. With their boarding spears, large battle-axes, long knives, and large daggers, they made picturesque soldiers and perhaps potent ones. There were no Egyptian foot soldiers in the Persian land army, a gap that these marines could fill. On the other hand, the Egyptian squadron had found a place on Mardonius’s list of cowards at Salamis. Perhaps he blamed the captains and not the marines for their spinelessness. Or perhaps the decision to retain the Egyptians was more political than military. The admiral of the Egyptian fleet was Achaemenes, Xerxes’ brother, and governor of Egypt. Perhaps Mardonius chose to flatter Achaemenes in order to improve his standing with Xerxes’ family.

And then there was a negative reason to keep the Egyptians in Greece: they would not be in Egypt. The province on the Nile had revolted from Persian rule only half a dozen years earlier. If Egypt’s ships had survived storms and battles relatively unscathed—as their prowess at Artemisium and absence at Salamis might suggest—then the marines would have numbered two thousand or more. When two thousand armed men had seen the Great King’s failure firsthand, why send them home to a disloyal land? Within a generation, Egypt would rebel again; in 480 B.C., the Persians might have seen it coming.

Of course, Ionian marines also represented potential rebels, but unlike the Egyptians, the Ionians had proven themselves loyal and effective sailors at Salamis. Better to save their marines for another naval battle than to waste them opposite a Spartan hoplite’s spear.

The Egyptian ships are not heard of again in 480 or 479 B.C. Apparently, Xerxes felt he could dispense with them, as well as with those of the Cilicians, Cypriots, Lycians, and Pamphylians. All that remained was the Carians, Ionians, and Phoenicians, the traditional core of the Persian fleet. And that fleet would now be based in the East.

This was part of Xerxes’ new strategy. By pulling his fleet back from Greece, Xerxes changed the power equation. Without that fleet, Persia would find it hard to stop the Greek fleet and maintain control of the Aegean. But it was not impossible. Paradoxical as it seems, the Persian army could defeat the Greek navy. It could do so by conquering Greece and cutting the Greek navy off from its base. But how could the Persian army conquer Greece without a Persian navy to give it the mobility to leapfrog Greek defenses?

Xerxes’ answer, after the disaster at Salamis, was for Persia to return to the old way of dealing with the Greeks: bribery. “Ares,” the god of war, says Timotheus in his poem about Salamis, “is king: Greece does not fear [Persian] gold.” It was a nice boast, but it was not true. The Great King’s riches could still buy Greek traitors. The pro-Persian leaders of Thebes thought so. They told their masters how to conquer all Greece without a battle:

Send money to the men who have the most power in the cities and you will divide Greece. Then, with their help, you will easily defeat those who are not on your side.

This was good advice. The Spartans were seriously worried that Athens would cut a deal with the Persians, and it might have happened. If the Persians had pursued a major charm offensive after Salamis, if they had made a grand gesture offering Athens a substantial concession in recognition of its victory at sea, then the Persians might have been able to make a deal. But the Persians made only a stingy offer, and they followed it with a painful but nonlethal attack.

Athens, the Persians reasoned, could be bought cheaply. Athenians had returned to what was left of their homes a few weeks after Salamis, when the Persian army withdrew northward. In the spring of 479 B.C. the Persians sent the king of Macedon, both a Persian vassal and an old friend of Athens, on an embassy. He reported that Xerxes now offered the Athenians an amnesty for their past crimes against him; he offered them autonomy, the expansion of their territory, and a promise to rebuild their temples at his expense. In return, Xerxes expected to add Athens’s naval power to his side.

When the Athenians turned down the proposition, Mardonius invaded Attica a second time, in June 479 B.C. Once again, the Athenians evacuated their territory for Salamis. Once again, Mardonius sent an ambassador to them, now on Salamis, to repeat Xerxes’ offer. When a member of the Athenian council named Lycides proposed hearing the ambassador out, he was stoned to death by his angry countrymen. Not to be outdone, a crowd of Athenian women made their way to Lycides’ house and stoned to death his wife and children.

To Mardonius, the Athenians were obstinate. An unbiased observer might have said “determined.” The second invasion of Attica only stiffened Athenian resistance. It galvanized them to threaten Sparta that unless it ventured out from Fortress Peloponnese and risked its crack army in defense of Attica, the Athenians would, in fact, make a deal with the Great King. The Spartans agreed: the Persians had provoked the very thing they most wanted to avoid. In short, the Persians proved no shrewder in negotiation than in naval warfare.

Diplomatic ineptitude was Xerxes’ first mistake; his second was trusting Mardonius to lead the remaining Persian forces in Greece. Once negotiations had failed, a more cautious general would have avoided a set battle with Greece’s heavily armed infantrymen. And if battle proved inevitable, he would have insisted on choosing terrain where he could make the most of Persia’s superiority in cavalry. But the bigheaded Mardonius plunged his men into a confrontation on ground where he could not deploy his horsemen. Left to face the iron advance of the Greek phalanx at the battle of Plataea in August 479 B.C., Mardonius lost both his army and his life.

Xerxes’ third mistake was failing to rebuild his fleet in the East. It turned out that Greece’s victory at Salamis was not merely naval but psychological, because it shook the enemy’s confidence in his sea forces. “They had been struck a great blow,” says Herodotus of the Persians: “On sea, they were broken in spirit.”

Whether by accident or design, the Greeks had hit the keystone of Persia’s naval policy at Salamis by devastating the Phoenician fleet. Never a sea power itself, Persia had put its confidence in the Phoenicians. For all the ships in his armada, even after the losses in storms and at Artemisium, Xerxes had little trust in any of them except for the Phoenicians. And it was precisely the Phoenicians who had most disappointed at Salamis.

After the Phoenicians, the two best squadrons in Xerxes’ fleet were the Carians and the Ionians (along with other Greeks). But the Carian contingent was never large and the Ionians were rarely trustworthy. Xerxes’ very first thought after Salamis was that the Ionians would betray the bridges at the Hellespont to the Greek fleet. Besides, precisely because the Ionians had stood so firm at Salamis, they, too, had suffered losses in the straits. The best squadrons in the Persian fleet were bleeding, and the unwounded units were dubious.

Persia had lost a naval battle, but rather than continue the war at sea, Persians found it all too easy to virtually write off their navy. Indeed, they seemed almost relieved to be forced back onto their natural element: the land. The war with the Greeks continued at high intensity for another year, but the Persian fleet hugged the coast of Anatolia. They did not expect the Greek fleet to venture across the Aegean to challenge them. When the Greeks did just that in August 479 B.C., the Persians were too afraid of the Greeks to fight them at sea. Instead, they beached their ships on the Anatolian coast at Mycale, opposite the island of Samos, only to lose the land battle that followed. The Greeks burned the Persian ships on the beach at Mycale.

Two other things are striking about the Persian fleet at Mycale. It amounted to only 300 triremes, a far cry from the around 700 triremes at Salamis, not to mention the 1,207 triremes after Persia crossed the Hellespont. Nor did it include the Phoenicians, whose units had been sent elsewhere before the battle. Whether the Persians wanted to use the Phoenician ships elsewhere, say, in Thrace, or whether the Persians wanted to ensure that at least one part of their fleet survived, is unclear. Either motive testifies to Persia’s naval weakness.

But the Great King’s treasury was not empty in 479 B.C., and he would have been wise to use it to build ships. To bribe Ionian admirals. To soothe the egos of unhappy Phoenicians. To buy his captains whatever equipment they said they needed. In the long run, the cheapest way to hold on to Persia’s Aegean empire was to fight for it at sea.

Xerxes had developed a new strategy, after the defeat at Salamis. It was a good strategy, but he and his generals executed it poorly. And so, Persia failed.

On top of everything else, Xerxes underestimated democracy. He understood neither its ferocity nor its ability to learn from its mistakes. The day after Salamis, Xerxes’ nightmare was pursuit to the Hellespont by a Greek fleet. A year later, he no longer considered that likely. Surely, he reasoned, if the Athenians had not sailed to Anatolia in their moment of triumph after Salamis, they would not do so in 479 B.C., after proving unable to defend Attica from a second invasion. The autocrat had no conception of the power of a people in arms who had been provoked.

But his captains did. Twenty-four hours after the end of the slaughter at Salamis, the remaining ships of Xerxes’ fleet left Phaleron Bay for the last time. They had timed their departure for night, in order to keep it secret from the Greeks. They managed to move undetected but not unafraid.

Near Cape Zoster, not far from Phaleron, the lookouts mistook a series of promontories for enemy ships. In their eagerness to flee them, the Persians broke formation. Eventually, they realized their mistake and regrouped.

The Persian ships were impatient to reach the bridges, so they set the fastest course, cutting directly northeastward across the Aegean toward the Hellespont. But at least one squadron followed the longer route along the coast of the Greek mainland, which offered more shelter from the wind. Or so we might guess, judging from the fate of two Carian ships captured by ships from Peparethos (today, Skopelos), a Greek island in the northwestern Aegean, north of Euboea.

Peparethos was not a member of the Hellenic League against Persia. It was a fertile island with a good harbor, and it probably could have managed to build and man a few triremes. Or perhaps it was Peparethian pirates who attacked the Carians; the ships might have been stragglers and therefore easy to pick off. In any case, the people of Peparethos commemorated the feat at Delphi after the war. There, they commissioned a prominent Athenian sculptor to set up a statue to Apollo, the patron god of Delphi. The statue, which was bronze and stood almost twice life-size, is long gone, but the inscription still exists. It reads:

Diopeithes the Athenian made this.

Because the Peparethians captured two ships of the Carians at spearpoint

They gave a tenth of the booty to far-darting Apollo.

Artemisia was not among the victims. Xerxes had given her the honor of bringing his illegitimate children to Ephesus, a port city in Ionia. Hermotimus the eunuch was assigned to join her and serve as the children’s guardian. We can imagine the two masters of cunning aboard the same ship, each trying to extract information from the other without giving up anything in return.

Xerxes had a less pleasant journey. He did not leave with the fleet. Xerxes and the Persian army stayed in Athens for about a week after the battle of Salamis. They left probably on October 2. The Spartans at the Isthmus were, it seems, ready to harass the enemy in his retreat, but they changed their minds because of a bad omen: while King Cleombrotus was sacrificing, there was a partial eclipse.

The Persians marched to Thessaly, about two hundred miles north of Athens. There, Xerxes left Mardonius and his forces for the following year’s campaign. The Great King and a portion of the Persian army continued about three hundred miles to the Hellespont. They kept up a rapid pace. All in all, it took forty-five days to travel the distance of about 550 miles from Athens to the bridges, about half the time of the Persians’ three-month trip to Athens. Xerxes probably reached the Hellespont around December 15.

It was a tough trip. The Persians planned to “live off the land,” to use the ancient euphemism for stealing and extorting food from the locals. But as a result of the Persians’ trip south a few months before, the northern Greeks knew what they were in for, and presumably many of them headed for the hills with their food stores. The Persians were reduced in some places to eating grass, herbs, leaves, and bark. Dysentery struck, and some men were sick and had to be left behind, while others died.

When they reached the Greek city of Abdera in Thrace, Xerxes made a treaty of friendship with the men there. As signs of friendship, he gave them a golden dagger and a tiara with gold detail. Presumably they fed the Persians better than the Persians had been used to. At any rate, the Abderans claimed that Xerxes had been so worried on his trip that Abdera was the first place that he loosened his belt since leaving Athens—but Herodotus discounts this story.

When Xerxes’ men finally made it to the Hellespont shortly afterward, they met up with the Persian fleet that had sailed north from Phaleron Bay at the end of September. The ships ferried the men across the Hellespont, because the bridges had been shaken loose by storms. In the city of Abydos on the Anatolian side of the strait, the men finally found plenty of food, but their troubles were not over. The hungry men gorged themselves, and that and the change in water led to many additional deaths. The rest of the army continued south to Sardis with Xerxes.

Herodotus, who has little regard for Xerxes as a warrior, says nothing about the Great King’s activity in the following year other than the passion he developed for one Artaünte. She was the wife of his brother Masistes, and Xerxes happened to spend time with her in Sardis. He did not consummate the affair until later, when they were both back in Susa. The results were ultimately disastrous, including murder and a rebellion. The moral drawn from all this by Herodotus is that Xerxes was a slave to his lust—and to women.

But although Xerxes may have embarrassed himself in this affair, he is likely to have done serious political and military work in Sardis. In fact, we may imagine him lobbying and pleading and threatening the Ionians to maintain their loyalty to the Great King. And it would be surprising if during the nine months that he spent in Sardis, Xerxes did not consult the strategist who lived only about two hundred miles to the south, the queen of Halicarnassus, who made him think that she fought better than any man in his fleet.

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