Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER TWO

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THERMOPYLAE

Stripped of its helmet, Leonidas’s head is framed by its long hair. The taut skin of the warrior’s face, its color gone, stands out all the more against a short and pointed beard. The dirt of battle is probably still upon Leonidas, and there is a dark purple bruise on his chin from the pooling of what little blood is left. Ragged bits of tissue and bone hang from his severed neck, and flies and beetles have landed on his skin. If the dead king’s eyes could see, they might look all the way to Athens, the road to which now lies open for Persia.

Leonidas son of Anaxandrides, king of Sparta, commander in chief of the Greek resistance to Persia at Thermopylae, died in a heroic last stand. After the battle, as Xerxes son of Darius, the Great King of Persia, toured the battlefield, he came upon Leonidas’s body and ordered the beheading of the corpse and the impalement of the severed head on a pole. One of those who no doubt saw Leonidas’s severed head was the former king of Sparta, Demaratus son of Ariston, now allied with the Persians.

Three kings were present at the aftermath of the battle of Thermopylae. One sat on the greatest throne in the world, the second was deposed and exiled, and the third was dead. Yet the actions of the dead man, as explained by the exile, almost turned the ruling monarch from his appointed course and changed the entire history of the Persian invasion of Greece. Leonidas almost kept the battle of Salamis from ever happening.

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Thermopylae was the turning point. It raised the stakes of everything that would follow. Xerxes had learned how high the price of victory would be, if Persia could pay it at all.

A humiliation for the Persians, Thermopylae had been Leonidas’s finest hour. He held off the Persians for three days. Fewer than eight thousand Greeks, spearheaded by an elite unit of three hundred Spartans, gave a savage beating to a Persian army that outnumbered them by a ratio of perhaps twenty to one. Men willing to die for the glory of the Great King came up against the most efficient killing machine in history.

On one side had stood the Spartan soldier. With his bronze helmet, breastplate, and greaves, each Spartan seemed to be sheathed in metal. There was bronze, too, in the plating of his shield, which was large, circular, and convex in shape. A crimson-colored, sleeveless wool tunic extended from shoulders to midthigh. The braids of his long hair ran out from under his helmet, while a horsehair plume swayed above it. The long hair, a Spartan trademark, was meant to look fearsome. Each Spartan was barefoot, itself a symbol of toughness, and carried a short iron sword and a long pike. The latter, which was his main weapon, was an ash-wood spear, about nine feet long, with an iron spearhead and a bronze butt-spike. Arranged in close order in the phalanx, shields interlocking, the Spartans thrust at the enemy with their pikes.

On the other side there had stood the Persian and Median infantrymen, soldiers of the two leading peoples of Iran. By comparison with the Spartans, they looked as if they were dressed for the parade ground rather than the battlefield. Each Iranian wore a brightly colored, sleeved, knee-length tunic, under which an iron-scaled breastplate protected the torso, but he had neither helmet nor greaves. He wore a felt hat or a turban on his head, while his lower body was covered either by a long draped robe or a pair of trousers. He wore gold jewelry, even into battle. His feet were protected by shoes. His shield was smaller than a Greek’s and made of wicker rather than of wood and bronze plating. The Persian spear was much shorter than the Greek pike, which put the Iranians at a disadvantage against an enemy with a longer reach. Nor could the dagger carried by an Iranian outreach the Spartan sword. Unlike the Greek infantryman, the typical Iranian soldier carried a quiver full of cane arrows with bronze or iron points and a bow with its ends shaped like animal heads. Yet Persian arrows could do little damage against a wall of Greek shields or a rapid charge by bronze-covered infantrymen. No wonder that a Spartan at Thermopylae is said to have quipped that he did not mind if the Persians’ barrage of arrows was so thick that it blocked out the sun, since he preferred to fight in the shade.

But equipment was only part of the story. Thermopylae was a triumph of Greek military science over Persian blundering. Leonidas chose his terrain wisely and his tactics logically. He reasoned that in the narrows of Thermopylae—at one point, only fifty feet wide—a small number of men could hold off the Persians. Wave after wave of Persians could attack, but each would break on the long spears and the rugged training of the Greek infantrymen.

The Spartans had the only full-time army in Greece. Their training exceeded anything that the Great King’s men—or the other Greeks—had undergone. With the exception of the kings, every Spartan citizen was schooled in a rigid, military education called, simply, “The Upbringing.” Only trained and hardened Spartans could have carried out a maneuver like this at Thermopylae: turning and retreating in an orderly way and then, once they had tricked the Persians into charging them with a roar, changing course in an instantaneous wheel and crushing the enemy.

For two days the slaughter continued. Then, on the third day, the Persians outflanked the Greeks by taking a path over the mountains. Once again as in the past, Greek treason saved the Persians. At Thermopylae, the Greek traitor was a native of the region, Ephialtes son of Eurydemus of Trachis. In exchange for money, he guided Xerxes’ elite soldiers over the steep, narrow, and hard-to-follow mountain track.

Alerted by scouts to the Persians’ movement, Leonidas dismissed most of the allied troops before the enemy could close off the far end of the pass. About a thousand other Greeks remained with the Spartans. Leonidas’s strategy is unclear. Perhaps he planned to have his men guard the rear and then escape at the last moment but in the end failed to do so, or perhaps he planned all along for them to stand and fight to the death. In any case, when the Persians attacked, the Greeks first fought with their spears, and when their spears were all broken, they used their swords. When their swords were gone, they went after the Persians with hands and teeth. When Leonidas finally fell, the Greeks drove the enemy off four times before recovering his body. Before the Greeks were at last overwhelmed by Persian spears and arrows, they killed two of Xerxes’ half brothers, Abrocomes and Hyperanthes.

Xerxes’ men cleared the pass in the end, but the image of Leonidas’s head loomed over it. In the pitiless Greek light of high summer it was a reminder of Persian weakness. Since the Persians normally took pride in treating their enemies with respect, they would not have insulted the body of a fallen foe like Leonidas unless he had enraged them by the force of his resistance. Leonidas’s head was a reminder that the butcher’s bill for killing four thousand Greeks (the others escaped) was twenty thousand Persians. Any more such victories and the Persians were ruined.

The Great King had hoped to win the war in central Greece. His army and navy would overwhelm the Greeks through Persian numbers and Greek defections. But the navy was defeated by a combination of Greek boldness, Persian strategic errors, and the very size of the fleet, which rendered it too big to find a harbor in a storm. The Persian army fared better, but only at a steep cost. Xerxes’ war was not going according to plan.

The Great King of Persia had crossed the Hellespont into Europe with his army three months before, in May. For almost the whole time since, Xerxes’ expedition had been less a war than a gigantic picnic. City after city had feted him and his men at its own expense.

Xerxes had marched his army through the northern regions of Greece in Thrace and Macedonia and past Mount Olympus into Thessaly. He marched them into central Greece, through Phthia, the legendary homeland of Achilles, and into Malis, where myth had Heracles spend his last years. Meanwhile, the Persian fleet sailed nearby, along the coast. The army stopped at the pass of Thermopylae, which it found blocked by the Greeks. The navy stopped about fifty miles to the north, at Aphetae, opposite the Greek fleet at Artemisium.

And then the war came. Xerxes should have relished the moment, because he had spent four years preparing for it. But he could not have foreseen the week in August that he had just endured. During that terrible week, his navy had not only failed in its plan to destroy the Greek fleet, but it had lost two hundred ships in a storm off the island of Euboea and perhaps seventy more in battle. Add the loss of four hundred ships in another storm off Cape Sepias on the Greek mainland the week before, and the Persian fleet was reduced to about half its original size. Meanwhile, at Thermopylae, Xerxes’ army had been pummeled by a paltry force of Greek infantrymen—and before his very eyes. He had to concede that when it came to soldiers he had “many people but few men.” Or so Herodotus says, but kings do not give up illusions easily.

That the Great King led the invasion of Greece in person was no surprise. Xerxes might have put on airs like a pharaoh, but he was a Persian and Persians made war. He advertised heroism in his very name: Xerxes is Greek for the Persian Khsha-yar-shan, the king’s throne name, which means “ruler of heroes.” Tall and handsome, Xerxes looked like a king. And he followed in the footsteps of Cyrus the Great, founder in 550 B.C. of the Achaemenid Empire (named for Achaemenes, the semilegendary founder of Cyrus’s clan). Every king since Cyrus had led an invasion, and every king had conquered new territory.

Xerxes struck a chord in the Persian soul when he declared in an inscription: “I am skilled both in hands and in feet. A horseman, I am a good horseman. A bowman, I am a good bowman, both on foot and on horseback. A spearman, I am a good spearman, both on foot and on horseback.”

At Thermopylae, Xerxes had stayed close enough to the fighting to inspire the men but far enough away to limit his danger. Surrounded by royal guards, he sat on a high-backed throne, where he is said to have jumped to his feet three times in horror at the mauling inflicted on his troops. Not that Xerxes’ position was risk free. The Greeks claimed afterward to have sent raiders into the Persian camp at night who penetrated even the royal tent before they were repelled. The story is so improbable that it might even be true. In any case, it highlights the risks that real leaders take.

The road to Thermopylae had started in eastern Anatolia a year before. There in 481 B.C., Xerxes had mustered the troops from Iran and the eastern provinces and begun the long march westward. They reached Sardis in the fall and after wintering there, left in April 480 B.C. But preparations for the war—the immense organization of men and arms, ships and supplies, the building of bridges and the carving of canals—had already been going on for three years. Indeed, the war had been on the horizon even before November 486 B.C., when Xerxes succeeded to the throne of his father, Darius. At the time of his death, the sixty-five-year-old Darius had been gearing up for an invasion of Greece in order to avenge Persia’s defeat at Marathon in 490 B.C. The new king, probably thirty two years old, would have to decide both whether to fight and what kind of war to wage.

Xerxes ruled what was, without exaggeration, the greatest empire in the history of the world to that date. His domain extended from what is today Pakistan in the east, westward through central and western Asia to Macedonia in the north, and across the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in the south. It took roughly four thousand miles of roads to travel from one end of the empire to the other. The empire covered nearly 3 million square miles and contained perhaps as many as 20 million people, which makes it about as big as the continental United States of America. Yet with an estimated total world population in 500 B.C. of only about 100 million, Xerxes’ empire held perhaps one-fifth of the people on the planet.

The immense majesty of the Persian peace brought order and prosperity to a huge range of peoples and cultures. Outstanding administrators and builders, the Persians built roads and palaces, inns and even parks—known in Greek as paradeisoi, from which comes our word paradise. They established provincial governments and codified the law. They created the world’s first large-scale coinage, which proved convenient for collecting the tribute (taxes) that they imposed on the various provinces.

Xerxes was born to this stupendous heritage probably in 518 B.C. He was both the son of Darius and, through his mother, Atossa, the grandson of Cyrus the Great. To be an heir of someone like Darius was a blessing and a curse. Darius was a self-made man who took power in a coup d’état: he went on to become a mighty conqueror, a brilliant administrator, a religious visionary, and an architectural genius. In fact, Darius was one of the greatest kings in the long history of the Near East. Darius had ruled as Great King for thirty-six years when he died.

The Persians set great store on the impression made by their king and did not leave matters to chance. Royal infants were fussed over by eunuchs, while adult kings were tended by hairdressers, makeup artists, and perfumers—the latter following the king even on military campaigns. Monarchs kept their looks by coating themselves with an ointment consisting of ground-up sunflower seeds mixed with saffron, palm wine, and fat from one of the rare lions to be found in Persian territory. The king always had a mustache and long beard; should nature fail him, toupees and false beards and mustaches were all available. In order to maintain his dignity, in public the king never spat, blew his nose, or turned to look behind him.

On formal occasions, Xerxes probably dressed like one of his successors, who wore a long purple robe, “interwoven with white at the center, and his gold-embroidered cloak bore a gilded motif of hawks attacking each other with their beaks.” Other descriptions mention gold-embroidered files of lions on the royal robe. The king’s sword, its scabbard encrusted with precious stones, was slung from his gilded belt. He wore a royal tiara encircled by a white-flecked blue ribbon.

Yet it was easier to look like a king than to be one. Xerxes faced the formidable task of confirming himself a worthy son of Darius. Few things could better earn Xerxes respect than avenging his father against the Greeks. “This is indeed my capability: that my body is strong. As a fighter of battles I am a good fighter of battles.” So Xerxes proclaimed in an inscription. But he would have to prove it.

And he would have to wait. Egypt rose in revolt in the last months of Darius’s life and it fell to Xerxes to suppress the uprising. In 485 B.C., Xerxes went in person to Egypt to lead an army against the rebels. This, his first campaign, was a decisive victory, and by January 484, Egypt was once again a loyal Persian province. There was trouble in Babylon, too, around the same time (the precise year is unclear), but it was easily crushed by troops under a general sent by Xerxes. In 484, with Egypt back in the fold, the Great King returned to the question of Greece. And a complex question the Greek war was. There was pressure on Xerxes from many sides to launch an invasion, yet there were good reasons to hold back.

The leading hawk at court that year was Xerxes’ cousin Mardonius, the son of Gobryas and Darius’s sister. The leading dove was Xerxes’ uncle, Artabanus son of Hystaspes, a full brother of Darius. Each man spoke from experience. Uncle Artabanus had advised Darius back in 513 B.C. not to invade Scythia (roughly, today’s Ukraine), and he had been right: the invasion proved to be a disaster. Artabanus had served as a commander in Scythia. Cousin Mardonius knew Greece, having led an abortive armada there in 492 B.C., two years before Marathon; it was destroyed by a storm in the northern Aegean. In the aftermath, Darius fired Mardonius from his command.

An ambitious man, Mardonius sought in 484 B.C. both to reverse his earlier disappointment and to win the power waiting for the first Persian governor of Greece. Most of the other courtiers shared his hard-line position. Not even the king’s eunuchs were neutral: one of them once brought Xerxes some figs from Athens for dessert, in order to remind the king of the expedition that he was supposed to lead.

Artabanus and Mardonius each advanced powerful arguments. One man emphasized opportunity, the other, danger. One maintained the prejudice that ignorant Greeks knew nothing other than to send their armies brutally to death. The other cited Greece’s win at Marathon. One grasped the chance to crush a rising power, the other fretted about a Greek counterattack.

Xerxes hesitated. He was a young and still relatively new king who depended on his advisers, and they were split. The Great King had so many demands on his time that it was difficult for him to be a strategist. However full his calendar, for example, he had to remember the annual festival in which he—alone in the court—danced and got drunk. He had to plant trees in the royal parks by his own hand—no doubt a symbol of fertility and prosperity. He had to know whom to honor with a seat on his right and whom on his left, who should receive a gift of a silver armchair and who a parasol bordered with precious stones, and he had to know whose good deed needed to be recorded by his secretary and whose deed could be forgotten.

Yet after hesitating about Greece, Xerxes needed first to make a decision and then to enforce it with a sledgehammer. He needed to be the rock against Mardonius’s ambition and Artabanus’s pessimism, the lightning that could galvanize the sluggish apparatus of the Persian state. Instead, Xerxes responded with finesse. He behaved more like a politician than a commander.

Xerxes dared not abandon his father’s war against Greece, but he dared not make war over the public opposition of Artabanus. To solve the problem, Xerxes referred to a dream. The ancients believed that dreams contained messages from the gods. Xerxes’ dream threatened ruin unless he went forward with the invasion. Artabanus backed down; in fact, he said he had the same dream himself. Like many shrewd politicians in history, Xerxes used revelation to impose consensus.

And so in 484 B.C. the decision was made to invade Greece. But the Great King and his advisers still had to hammer out the war’s strategy and tactics. And they had to do so in the heat of the smithy rather than in the leisure of the seminar room.

Like politics, war is the art of the possible. Not even the Great King had the luxury of choosing military strategy in a vacuum. Xerxes had to take many things into account. The king and his advisers had to engage in a net assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Greece and Persia. They had to factor in the constraints of Persian domestic politics. And before anything else, they had to define the mission’s goals.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes told the leading Persians that he planned to burn Athens, but that would be only the beginning. His army would conquer the Peloponnese as well. In the end, they would “make the land of Persia border only on the sky that belongs to Zeus himself”; they would “make all lands into one land.” No doubt Xerxes did say something like this, as it sounds like the official Persian ideology of universal kingship. But that doesn’t mean that he believed it. He might have promised world conquest, but he aimed at conquering Greece.

This was an ambitious but measured goal, since much of northern and central Greece already was in his hands. Darius had added Thrace and various Aegean islands to the empire and made Macedonia an ally. Xerxes had allies in Thessaly who eagerly supported his invasion plans. So Persia’s writ practically ran to a spot less than 200 miles from Athens, and Sparta lay only 135 miles beyond that. A Persian horseman could cover the distance in a few days.

Yet those three hundred miles might prove the longest distance in the world if defended by the Greek army and navy. Persia had unrivaled wealth in money and manpower; unparalleled ability in engineering and logistics; superiority in both projectiles and cavalry; superb ships, harbors, and seafaring allies; and diplomatic and psychological capabilities of such sophistication that only a state able to muster the resources of the world’s oldest civilization could have unleashed them. But Greece had better infantry and better seamanship than Persia as well as far shorter supply lines and superior knowledge of the terrain.

It would have made sense for Persia to respond with the force multiplier of cunning and innovative tactics. A raid on Athens’s unfortified harbor, for example, or a cavalry raid in central Greece that could destroy crops might bring friendly traitors to power in Athens. Persia could win the war at little cost.

Generations earlier, under Cyrus the Great, Persia had excelled at just such unconventional warfare. Now, however, it was deemed beneath the dignity of the King of Kings. The commanders of the world’s greatest empire, who ruled from a ceremonial capital that sat on a 350-acre terrace at the royal city of Persepolis, liked to think big. And so, Persia resorted to the least efficient and most expensive force multiplier: numbers.

Domestic politics may have played a role in this choice. Xerxes’ own men, no less than the enemy, needed to be impressed. What is more, they wanted jobs. “I give much to loyal men,” Xerxes had carved in stone—and he meant it. A big army offered more ways for the Great King to reward loyalty than a small strike force would have.

The high command of the Persian army that invaded Greece, to take a case in point, was a family affair. No fewer than ten of Xerxes’ brothers and half brothers served as officers, as did at least two sons of Darius’s brothers, two sons of Darius’s sisters, one son-in-law of Darius, Xerxes’ father-in-law, and at least two other members of the extended Achaemenid clan.

So it would be an attack in massive numbers, both by land and sea. After crossing the Hellespont, Persia’s armada amounted to 1,207 triremes in June. By mid-August, about a week before Artemisium, the Persians had added another 120 warships from allies in northern Greece, for a total of 1,327 triremes. The Greeks could not come close to matching that colossal sum. The figure of 1,207 comes from Herodotus and Aeschylus; it has often been questioned, but it does not have to be. It dovetails with the large number of ships at Lade in 494 B.C. and with Persia’s emphasis on logistics and supply in 480 B.C. Herodotus says that the triremes were followed by three thousand merchant vessels large and small, carrying food, supplies, and perhaps spare rowers.

But the grand fleet faced big problems. The units of this multinational navy varied greatly in quality and would be hard to turn into a single fighting force. Some of Persia’s naval allies, especially the Ionians, were of dubious loyalty. Besides, so large a fleet would have trouble finding harbors.

On land, Persia boasted magnificent cavalry, amazing archers, and supremacy in siegecraft. The ten thousand elite infantrymen whom Herodotus calls the Immortals (perhaps a mistranslation of the Persian for the Followers) were superbly trained. Unfortunately, they could not match the cohesion or heavy armor of the best Greek infantrymen. As for the cavalry, the mountainous countryside of Greece offers few opportunities for horse charges. And once the Greeks made the hard decision not to defend their cities, Persia’s sappers and rampart builders were of little worth.

The one sure thing about the number of soldiers who marched under Xerxes is that it was very large. At a muster of the army at Doriscus in Thrace in June, the infantry consisted of forty-seven different ethnic units from all over the empire. They wore everything from bronze armor to leopard skins, and they were armed with weapons ranging from spears and swords to arrows tipped with sharpened stones and to wooden clubs with iron studs. The cavalry consisted of ten different ethnic units and even included a corps of camels.

No camels and few men ever saw any fighting, which fell almost entirely to Iranian troops, that is, Persians and their near neighbors. Most of the men were there only to show the flag and to keep their necks from the vengeance of the king’s executioner, who was sure to descend on slackers. In truth, what Xerxes held at Doriscus was less a military review than the biggest pep rally in history.

Herodotus says that 1.7 million infantrymen and 80,000 cavalrymen mustered at Doriscus. But these figures go far beyond what ancient conditions allowed, and modern scholars have rightly whittled them down. The likeliest estimate for Xerxes’ army counts about 75,000 animals and about 200,000 men overall—150,000 combatants and 50,000 officials, slaves, eunuchs, concubines, family members, and other hangers-on.

To turn from numbers to tactics, the Persians did not appreciate unconventional warfare, but they understood diplomacy and psychology. They knew that the Greeks did well in war only when united, so Persia’s job was to divide them. Persia had managed that before: both at Lade in 494 B.C. and earlier, in Cyprus in 497, Persian commanders talked key Greek leaders into turning traitor and then crushed the rest. The same tactic almost worked again at Marathon in 490 B.C. Thanks to turncoats within the city’s gates, the Persians nearly took Athens in spite of defeat on the battlefield.

In short, the key to Persian victory against Greece was treason. Xerxes understood this in 480 B.C. and tried to bribe or threaten most of the Greek city-states into surrendering. It was an easy job, since few Greeks were prepared to resist.

The intriguing possibility exists that Xerxes’ diplomats went even farther afield. The other major invasion of 480 B.C. was Carthage’s attack on the Greek cities of Sicily. Carthage, the great naval and military power located in North Africa, was originally a colony of Phoenicia, in turn Persia’s ally. Carthage’s invasion occupied the Greek city-states of Sicily and kept them from sending help to their brethren in Greece. So Xerxes had incentive to help Carthage, but later reports of Persian-Carthaginian cooperation in 480 B.C.may merely be a guess.

What is certain is that Persia deployed the tools of psychological warfare in its buildup to invasion—and deployed those tools massively. The Persians mixed sweet talk with intimidation. For instance, they ostentatiously set up huge deposits of food for the troops at selected points on the invasion route in Thrace and Macedonia. The river Strymon in Macedonia was bridged near its mouth. In addition, Xerxes had thousands of his men undertake a gigantic engineering project in northern Greece: they dug a canal across a narrow isthmus—1.2 miles wide—on the peninsula of Mount Athos and built protective stone breakwaters at either end. It took three years to complete this project, which would allow the navy to avoid the stormy and dangerous southern tip of the Mount Athos peninsula.

Recent archaeological excavations on the peninsula have found traces of Xerxes’ canal. The absence of any building structures, harbor installations, or marine organisms in the sediment all point to one conclusion: the canal was abandoned as soon as the ships passed through. The excavators wrote that the evidence “suggests that Xerxes built the canal as much for prestige and a show of strength as for its purely functional role.”

Almost the same could be said for Xerxes’ bridges across the Hellespont. The Hellespont is a narrow ribbon of water, about thirty-eight miles long, separating Anatolia from the continent of Europe. Xerxes decided to bridge the waterway near its southwestern end, near the city of Abydos, where the Hellespont is only about one mile wide. Teams of Egyptian and Phoenician engineers were put in charge of the project.

It is exhausting merely to read Herodotus’s account of the building process. On each of two bridges nearly three hundred warships (a mixture of penteconters and triremes) were anchored after having been lashed together by cables—white flax for the Phoenicians and papyrus for the Egyptians. A gap was left at two points for small boats to pass through. Walkways were laid on each bridge: these were covered by soil and fenced on either side, to keep the animals from looking down and getting frightened. Cables were attached to the land and wound tight on wooden windlasses. And all of this happened on the second try: the engineers had nearly completed two bridges when a storm blew up and destroyed them.

After the first bridges were destroyed, Xerxes ordered the beheading of the bridge builders and the punishment of the recalcitrant waters: the Hellespont would receive three hundred lashes, a pair of fetters, and possibly even a branding with hot irons. Herodotus ridicules all this as the height of barbarian arrogance. Yet the men who were executed might have been guilty of criminal negligence, and the lashing of the Hellespont was no doubt a religious ritual.

The real point of the bridges in the first place is open to discussion. Artabanus feared them as a target of the Greeks, who might cut them as the Scythians nearly had cut Darius’s bridge over the Danube. Nor did Persian logistics require the bridges, as their forces could have been ferried across the Hellespont. In that case, however, the public would have been deprived of the spectacle of the Persian army crossing the bridges. Herodotus reports on the ceremony on the day that the expedition began.

At dawn, the men burned perfumed spices on the bridges and covered the roadways with myrtle branches. At sunrise, Xerxes poured an offering of wine from a golden cup into the Hellespont and asked for the sun god’s assistance. Then he threw the cup, a golden bowl, and a Persian sword into the water. The crossing took seven days and seven nights, and only the unstinting use of whips kept things moving. In that time, 200,000 men and 75,000 animals could well have crossed.

Most commanders like to keep their army’s size and strength secret, but not Xerxes. On the contrary, when his men found Athenian spies in Anatolia, Xerxes released them and had them sent back home. Likewise, when his triremes captured a squadron of merchant ships carrying grain, bound for Greece, Xerxes did not impound them. Quipping that they were carrying grain for his men to eat when they got to Athens, he let the ships pass. Xerxes didn’t want to surprise the enemy; he wanted to overwhelm the enemy with information.

And it looks as if Xerxes gave the same message to his own allies, if a report in a Roman-era collection of stratagems may be trusted:

When Xerxes was campaigning against Greece he brought together many nations by dispersing agents to say that Greece’s leading men had agreed to betray their country. Since it looked less like a battle than a profit-making expedition, many of the barbarians became his allies voluntarily.

Numbers, psychology, and politicking all combined in April 480 B.C. when the Great King’s army marched out of Sardis in procession. The support services, the pack animals, and a mass of non-Persian troops came first. Then, after a gap, came 1,000 elite cavalrymen and 1,000 elite spearmen, Persians all. Next came the holy chariot, drawn by a team of ten Nisaean horses, from a region in Iran famous for its horses. It was followed by Xerxes himself in his royal chariot, also drawn by Nisaeans. Then marched two more elite groups of cavalrymen and spearmen, each of 1,000 Persians, followed by 10,000 Persian infantry and 10,000 Persian horse. After another gap, the rest of the army followed, all mixed together. They marched one and all between the two sides of the corpse of the unfortunate son of Pythius.

Pythius the Lydian was a local lord who had welcomed Xerxes and his forces to Anatolia in 481 B.C. Pythius offered to feed them all lavishly, at enormous cost to himself, and moreover to contribute most of his fortune to Xerxes’ war chest—and Pythius’s wealth nearly rivaled the king’s. Xerxes responded chivalrously: not only did he refuse the old man’s offer, but he actually increased the lord’s wealth with a gift from the royal treasury. More important, he made Pythius what Herodotus calls his hereditary friend—perhapsbandaka is to be understood by this. The Great King’s bandaka were his dependents or, literally, “those who wear the belt (banda) of vassalage.”

Poor Pythius let it all go to his head. A few months afterward, at Sardis in the spring of 480 B.C., he asked Xerxes for a favor. Pythius had sent his five sons to Xerxes’ army. He had experienced second thoughts and, in order to ensure an heir, begged Xerxes to release his eldest—and favorite—son from service.

Xerxes was furious; such defeatism on the part of the Great King’s bandaka had to be punished. In return for the earlier generosity, Xerxes would spare four of his sons, but the king ordered his servants “to find the eldest son of Pythius and to cut him in half, and having done so, to place one half on the right side of the road and the other half on the left side, and to order the army to march between them.”

And so, at this signal of his ferocity, Xerxes unleashed the grandest military force that had ever marched and sailed. The bridges across the Hellespont, the gigantic magnitude of forces, the canal cut through the Mount Athos peninsula, the huge dumps of food along the anticipated route—these were all tools of psychological as well as physical warfare. By dividing their enemies and by terrifying them with displays of force, Persia would soften them up. The Great King’s massive number of soldiers and ships would take care of the rest.

And that, in fact, was the flaw in the plan: the rest. If the Greeks declined to play the role of terrified natives before what amounted to Persia’s gunboats, then the Persian invasion might come crashing into walls of bronze and wood. The intriguing question is whether Xerxes was aware of the risk that he was taking.

Herodotus describes a remarkable conversation at the Hellespont in the spring of 480 B.C. between a skeptical Artabanus and a confident Xerxes. Artabanus had earlier reminded Xerxes of the famous defeats of his dynasty: Cyrus’s loss to the Massagetae of Kazakhstan in 530 B.C., at the cost of his life; Cambyses’ failed campaign against the Ethiopians in 524, Darius’s Scythian expedition in 513, and Darius’s disappointment at Marathon in 490. The land and the sea were both Persia’s enemies, Artabanus supposedly said. The sea had no harbor big enough to shelter Xerxes’ fleet in case of storm. The land would beckon the army onward, but the further they went, the more precarious would be their supply lifeline. Artabanus also doubted the reliability of the Ionians in Persia’s fleet: no small qualm, since the Ionians were, with the Phoenicians, the best divisions in the Persian navy.

Xerxes dismissed these objections, according to Herodotus. And he sent Artabanus back to Persia to protect Xerxes’ “household and tyrannical rule” as sole guardian of the royal scepter. Xerxes demonstrated his political skill by deftly disposing of a defeatist while also showing him respect. But the king also took Artabanus’s words to heart. He called a meeting of the leading Persians and warned them to steel themselves in order not to shame their glorious heritage. The Greeks were brave men, he said, and the Persians would have to be braver if they were to prevail.

At Abydos in about May 480 B.C., before his men crossed the Hellespont, Xerxes ordered a marble throne, which was now placed on a hillside. From there, the king had a panoramic view of the plains and beaches filled with his soldiers and the Hellespont crowded with his ships. He ordered a trireme race; his wish was carried out immediately; the winners were the Phoenician ships of the city of Sidon. Xerxes rejoiced at the splendor of his forces and then he did a strange thing: the Great King began to cry.

Herodotus reports the reason for Xerxes’ tears. It had suddenly occurred to the king that in a century, he writes, not one of the men he saw would still be alive. So brief is our time on earth. But perhaps there was another reason for his tears. Maybe he had reflected on the huge risks that lay ahead for his magnificent army and navy, and maybe that was what made Xerxes weep.

The Great King might have remembered those tears after Thermopylae. Perhaps he had to fight them back in a conversation after the battle with one of the most striking of his advisers: Demaratus, the exiled king of Sparta.

Demaratus had not seen Sparta in seven years. He was a middle-aged man who might have yearned for his lost throne, but Demaratus is unlikely to have harbored illusions about Sparta’s willingness to take back a traitor. But because he was a Spartan and, as he believed, a descendant of Heracles himself, he might not have cared. Demaratus was a man who relished vengeance. And, as Herodotus points out, whoever took on Demaratus came to a bad end.

The Spartans had the greatest infantrymen in the ancient Mediterranean. Demaratus knew it, but it had taken Thermopylae to convince the Persians. Xerxes could no longer deny what his men were up against. Nor could he take lightly the advice of his resident Spartan.

In Herodotus, Demaratus plays the role of the wise exile who tells the king a hard truth at his own life’s risk. Demaratus warns Xerxes that the Greeks will fight; that the Spartans will fight hardest; and that the Great King, therefore, had better scrap his strategy and come up with a new war plan. It is a good story, flattering to Demaratus, and many scholars doubt it. They suggest that Herodotus picked up the tale from one of Demaratus’s sons and passed it on.

But the historian was no pushover. He may well have interviewed Demaratus’s descendants, but he was not about to buy snake oil from them. Rather than going into rapture over Demaratus’s straight talk, Herodotus reveals the Spartan as a swindler. It took an exile like the historian to expose the confidence job of a sacked king and fugitive turncoat like Demaratus.

Demaratus was as unsentimental a veteran of political infighting as Sparta’s stubborn society had ever produced. His reported comments at the Persian court, that he feared flattery more than insult and bribery more than rejection, have the sour flavor of personal knowledge. On a likely reconstruction, Demaratus reigned in Sparta for over twenty years, from ca. 515 to ca. 491 B.C. After a very hard-fought power struggle, Demaratus was deposed, fell afoul of the new king, and eventually fled Sparta. He made his way to the man known as the friend of the friendless: the Great King.

It was about 487 B.C. and Persia had already become a haven for losers in Greece’s power battles. Darius welcomed Demaratus in the grand manner, making Demaratus his bandaka, and a favored one at that. Darius knew that Demaratus was an invaluable source of information and potentially an ally, if restored to his throne.

But Demaratus’s qualifications as military adviser were mixed. On the one hand, as a former king, Demaratus knew Spartan politics and had commanded the army. On the other hand, there is no evidence that he ever had gone into battle, except for a late and questionable report that he led an army against the walls of Argos—when they were defended by the city’s women! The men, it seems, had been slaughtered in battle by a Spartan force led by a rival of Demaratus. Headed by the Argive poet Telesilla, the Argive women are supposed to have circled the walls and defeated Demaratus and his men.

As far as is known, therefore, Demaratus was no great warrior. Nor did his advice to Xerxes attest to military genius. Herodotus records three conversations during the Persian invasion of Greece between the Great King and the Spartan exile: one at Doriscus and two at Thermopylae.

They must have made an odd pair, the King of Kings in his purple robes and gold jewelry and the austere Spartan, raised in a country whose citizens slept on straw pallets and allowed their sons only one cloak a year. Nor did Xerxes have to rough it on the road. The royal tent was a veritable palace in miniature. To judge from later copies, the tent stood about fifty feet high and was about twenty-five hundred feet in circumference. It boasted embroidered hangings lavishly decorated with animal themes as well as precious metals everywhere. Gourmet meals were served on gold and silver tables for diners on beautifully draped gold and silver couches. There were even golden bridles and a bronze manger for the horses.

At Doriscus, Demaratus warned Xerxes that no matter how greatly they were outnumbered, the Spartans would fight. And the Spartans, he pointed out, were great warriors. They would obey the command of their law and fight to the death.

At Thermopylae, Demaratus appeared on the scene to decipher a strange report brought back from the Greek camp by a Persian spy. The spy had caught the Spartans outdoors drawn up in lines, but they practiced maneuvers that left him baffled. While some of the Spartans exercised naked, others combed their hair. Xerxes, too, found this behavior odd, but Demaratus explained that the Spartans were in the habit of grooming their hair before risking their lives. What the scout had seen, therefore, was a deadly sign of Spartan ferocity.

After the battle at Thermopylae, Xerxes summoned Demaratus again. The Spartan had correctly predicted Sparta’s tough stand, so Xerxes asked Demaratus for information and advice. How many more Spartans were there? And how might Persia defeat them?

Demaratus might have been thrilled at these questions because they opened the door for revenge on Sparta. He told Xerxes that Sparta had eight thousand soldiers, all as good as the men who had fought at Thermopylae. In order to beat them, he advised the Great King to change his strategy. Xerxes should force the Greeks to divide their armies by sending a force to attack Sparta’s home territory and thereby compel the Spartan army to return home. Meanwhile, the main Persian forces could defeat the rest of the Greeks.

Demaratus had a plan all ready: send three hundred triremes—almost half of the remaining Persian fleet—to Cythera, an island off the south coast of the Peloponnese. Using Cythera as a base, the Persians could raid Spartan territory and perhaps raise a revolt of Sparta’s enserfed agricultural laborers, the Helots. These workers, always eager to rebel against the lords who mistreated them, represented Sparta’s Achilles’ heel.

“If you spring from this island,” Demaratus said, “you will frighten the Spartans. And with a foreign war in their own land, they will no longer be fearsome and even if the rest of Greece is under siege they will not come to the aid with their infantry. When the rest of Greece is enslaved, only a weak Sparta will be left.”

If Xerxes had followed Demaratus’s advice, the Great King would never have risked his entire navy in a single battle. After his losses of ships and men to the wind and Greece’s gains at Artemisium, Xerxes could hardly have been eager to take a chance like that. And if he could keep his navy intact, Xerxes might win the war. But Demaratus had outlined a bad strategy. Had the Persians followed it, they would not have faced a do-or-die naval battle: they would have faced two die-or-die naval battles.

The Persian fleet of about 650 triremes still outnumbered the Greeks, who could not muster more than about 350. But the Greeks had the advantages of home waters, short supply lines, and maritime expertise. If Persia divided its fleet, then the Greeks would equal its numbers and could attack the Persians at will and in two stages. The Persians would have risked losing everything.

Xerxes’ brother Achaemenes, commander of the fleet, was present at the conference, and he seethed at Demaratus’s proposal. After pointing out its strategic weakness, he accused Demaratus of treason and jealousy, which he said was typically Greek.

Xerxes offered a courtly defense of his bandaka while conceding Achaemenes’ point about the prevalence of jealousy. But Demaratus was Xerxes’ guest, and Achaemenes would have to keep his hands off the Spartan. Still, the Great King accepted Achaemenes’ policy advice. The fleet would remain united. There would be no expedition to Cythera.

This was a key moment in the war. The Persian high command considered an alternative strategy but rejected it. Like most military decisions, the choice was made not on military grounds alone but in the heat and dust of the political arena.

In his three dialogues with Xerxes, Demaratus displayed the single-mindedness of a delusional man. His Spartans were ten feet tall. Before Thermopylae, he made the Spartans into supermen. After the battle, he had them represent the sole obstacle to a Persian victory in Greece. Never mind the Athenians and their navy: focus on the Spartans and win the war. This was less the advice of a strategist than the obsession of an avenger.

Sparta’s infantrymen did pose a threat to Xerxes’ troops. But Xerxes’ best strategy against Sparta was to destroy the Greek navy. After doing so, Persia could move its soldiers by sea and land them anywhere in Greece at will. Persia could crack the Greek alliance and pick off its enemies one by one. So Xerxes kept the fleet undivided and headed for Athens. Everything would depend on his making the right decisions there, of course, but without a united fleet, he would not have even the chance.

One Spartan king had died trying to stop Persia’s march southward, and another had put his life on the line in an endeavor to deflect it. Leonidas would be remembered as a Greek hero, Demaratus as a traitor, but neither succeeded in keeping Xerxes from his determined course. Whether it was the will of the gods or the stubbornness of the Great King, the Persians would not be denied their appointment in Athens.

One day after his men had finally broken through at Thermopylae and Artemisium, Xerxes gave the order. The mighty force began to march, sail, and row its way south. All eyes now turned toward Athens.

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