1 - THE GREAT KING

The whole of the East was on the move. So indeed it must have seemed to some peasant, looking up bewildered from his patch of land, as the army surged past like a river in spate. Day after day, as if driven by the hunger that sometimes forces great masses of the human race to migrate in search of new pastures, thousands upon thousands of men had been passing through the lowlands of Asia Minor. They were men of many races: Persians, Medes, and Bactrians, Arabs on camels, mountain men from Caucasus, Libyans driving chariots, and horsemen from central Iran. There were even primitive Ethiopians painted in savage style, whose Stone Age weapons contrasted strangely with the sophisticated armour and swords of the immaculate Persian royal guard. It was the year 480 B.C. and Xerxes had given the order for the invasion of Europe.

The King’s writ had gone forth, and when he himself went to war, every nation, tribe and race within the vast Persian Empire was expected not only to furnish its due contingent of men, but those men must also be led by their own kings, leaders, or princes. All were vassals of the Great King, who had described himself in an inscription at Persepolis: ‘I am Xerxes, the King, King of Kings, King of the lands … son of Darius the king, the Achaemenian; a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, of Aryan stock.’

The eldest son of Darius by the elder daughter of Cyrus, Xerxes was thirty-eight years old. Although the picture of him that was subsequently drawn by Greek historians and dramatists shows us a traditional Oriental tyrant, it is noticeable that Herodotus himself concedes a number of virtues to this arch-enemy of his people. Xerxes, as he depicts him, is capable of compassion as well as of regal munificence. He had, as was natural for a Persian of his rank and breeding, not only a love of the chase but also a rich appreciation of the natural beauties of the world. A deeply religious man, he was a Zoroastrian. While the great achievements of Greece in philosophy, science, and speculation about the nature of the universe largely lay in the future, the amoral Gods of the Homeric world were still dominant in the religious conceptions of most Greeks. Xerxes, however, believed in the inspired message that Zoroaster, the prophet, had left behind many centuries before. What distinguished the religion of the Persians from that of the contemporary Greeks has been summed up by H. Humbach, the translator of verses which are ascribed to Zoroaster:

It is really the knowledge of the directly imminent beginning of the last epoch of the world, in which Good and Evil would be separated from one another, which he gave to mankind. It is the knowledge that it lies in every individual’s head to participate in the extirpation of Falsehood and in the establishing of the kingdom of God, before whom all men devoted to the pastoral life are equal, and so to re-establish the milk-flowing paradise on earth.

An inscription at Persepolis made early in the reign of Xerxes records the ruler’s dedication to his religious faith: ‘A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this earth, who created man, who created peace for man; who made Xerxes king, one king of many, one lord of many.’

Xerxes, as his conduct shows, was prepared to concede that other variants of religious belief were recognised in various guises by other nations. In his conquest of ‘rebellious lands’, primarily Egypt, he had done his best to uproot the polytheism that he had found rampant everywhere. But the one thing that the Greeks, against whom he was now to wage war, could not ever accept was the fact that Xerxes, like all Eastern potentates, claimed for himself the divine right of kings — ‘one lord of many’.

The invasion of Greece, which was about to take place, was in no sense a religious war: such a concept had hardly evolved, except, perhaps, among the Jews, who saw themselves as God’s chosen people destined to bring the light of their knowledge of God to the heathen by whom they were surrounded. No, what the Greeks resented above all - though almost every small area and city-state was at variance with the other - was the assumption that any man could call himself the God-appointed ruler of all other men. What, on the surface, almost united Greece in the struggle that was to follow was the simple survival instinct. The invasion of Greece made the turbulent, brilliant people of this mountainous and largely inhospitable land aware that they shared one thing in common: a belief in the individual human being’s right to dissent, to think his own way, and not to acknowledge any man as a ‘monarch of all I survey’. Curiously enough, the state of Sparta, which was to play a large part in the campaign, was the only one where men had evolved a constitution in which the individual was trained and disciplined to be totally subordinate. The difference was that the Spartans were indeed subject, although not to a ‘Great King’, but to the concept of the State itself. Perhaps Demaratus, the exiled king of Sparta, who actively helped Xerxes in his campaign, put it best: ‘Even though the Spartans are free, still they are not wholly free. The law is their master, and they fear this more than thy people fear thee.’

Xerxes in his great proclamation at Persepolis, after recording how he had put down a rebellion in what one presumes was Egypt, had it inscribed that:

Within these lands there were places where formerly the Daevas had been worshipped. Then by the will of Ahuramazda I uprooted the cult of the Daevas, and made proclamation: The Daevas shall not be worshipped. Where formerly the Daevas had been worshipped, there did I worship Ahuramazda according to Truth and with the proper rite. Much else that was ill done did I make good. All that I did, I did by the will of Ahuramazda. Ahuramazda brought me aid until I finished my work. Thou who shalt come after me, if thou shalt think, ‘May I be happy while alive and blessed when dead,’ have respect for the law which Ahuramazda has established, and worship Ahuramazda according to Truth and with the proper rite.

The false gods (Daevas) whose worship Xerxes had forbidden were, in this case, the vast pantheon of Egypt. It is significant that there are no statues of Xerxes in Egypt. Where the great Darius had been tolerant in his treatment of foreign religious practices, Xerxes would seem to have taken the commands of Zoroaster more literally. It was not without some crusading zeal that he now set in motion the invasion of Greece. With the aid of Ahuramazda he would avenge his father’s defeat at the hands of the Greeks, and bring these dissident worshippers of false gods within the divine rule of Persia and its monarchy.

He had set out from Susa in the spring of 481. On 10 April of that year there had been an eclipse of the sun (Herodotus wrongly assigns this to the year 480). Not unnaturally, in view of the immensity of the preparations, and the fact that Darius himself had suffered defeat on a similar expedition, this eclipse caused considerable concern, if not consternation, in the court and among the people.

However, the Magi (the wise men who watched the stars and attended to religious rituals), primed with knowledge of the Universe that had been largely acquired from the absorption of Babylon into the Persian Empire, hastened to reassure the Great King. It is possible that, from the Babylonian astronomers, they had learned that the moon is the eclipsing body. Their explanation of the event was completely consistent with this. The sun, they said, symbolised the Greeks and the moon the Persians. The eclipse was not an ill omen therefore. It showed that the Greeks were destined to be overshadowed and conquered by the Persian moon.

Having spent the winter in Sardis, while all the contingents of his army assembled ready for their march north in the following spring, Xerxes could certainly reflect that he and his advisers, his ministers and his overseers of the various work-forces had done all that was possible to obviate any obstacles in their path. His invasion of Europe was so well planned that one is astonished at such efficiency and logistical preparation at such an early date. When one compares the inefficiency of the Crusades many centuries later, or even the relatively poor comprehension of the necessity for long-scale planning and forethought in major wars and campaigns right up to the twentieth century, one can only marvel at the organisation and bureaucratic competence of the Persian Empire. While the Greeks were inclined to see in the preparations made by Xerxes no more than that hubris or megalomania which they associated with all despots and Oriental monarchs, there is - to modern eyes - nothing to show that Xerxes and his staff were anything other than magnificent planners, on a scale undreamed of at that period in history.

The preparations for this massive expedition against their country had been known to the Greeks for years. It was not possible that they could have been kept secret, for they involved an immense task force, and works of so extravagant a nature that they almost rivalled the building of the Pyramids. First of all, Xerxes had no intention of allowing his fleet to be brought to ruin off the stormy peninsula of Mount Athos - as had happened to the fleet of Darius during his invasion of Greece ten years previously. The expedition of Xerxes was four years in preparation, and one of the main projects was the digging of a canal through the isthmus of Mount Athos. The mountain, as Herodotus writes, ‘is very well-known and high and stands out into the sea. It is inhabited, and on the landward side where the heights end there is a kind of isthmus roughly a mile and a half wide. All of this is level land or small hillocks…. The inhabitants [of the mountain] Xerxes now intended to turn into islanders.’

He goes on to describe how the canal through the low land was cut. Conscripted Greeks from the neighbouring areas were used for much of the labour, while skilled workmen were also brought over from Asia Minor. Outstanding among them were the Phoenicians (one of the most technologically advanced people of that era, and the nation which also formed the backbone of the Persian fleet). Herodotus makes the comment that, while the other ‘nations’ engaged on the task of digging the canal had constant trouble with landslips, caused by the fact that they dug their part of the canal like a simple ditch with straight sides, only the Phoenicians realised that the digging must be much wider at the top in order to leave what engineers call an ‘angle of rest’. (Centuries later similar difficulties had to be overcome during the digging of the Suez Canal.) ‘They proved their remarkable skill,’ he writes, ‘for, in the section that had been allotted to them, they dug a trench twice the width required for the canal itself when finished. Digging at a slope they narrowed it as they went further down so that at the bottom their section was as wide as the rest.’

Everything was provided for: there was the equivalent of a canteen for the workmen, with grain brought from the homeland, as well as a forum or meeting-place, and an open market - proof in itself that the workmen were paid in coin. Herodotus’ conclusion about the gigantic labour of the canal was that the whole thing was no more than yet another example of the ostentation of Xerxes. ‘There would not have been any difficulty’, he wrote, ‘in having the ships dragged across the isthmus on land, yet he gave orders for the canal to be made so wide that two warships could be rowed abreast [down its length].’ The historian was thinking, of course, of the practice at Corinth of dragging ships across the isthmus which connects northern Greece with the Peloponnese. His great mistake, however, was to equate the routine passage of merchantmen and warships between the Gulf of Patras and the Aegean Sea with the emergent movement of a large fleet into hostile waters. While waiting to take their turn for haulage overland, they might well have been overwhelmed by one of the sudden and violent storms that quite often afflict the Aegean.

Nothing was left to chance. Dumps of provisions, both for men and for their animals, were sited at regular intervals along the route that the Grand Army was to take. The Persians, unlike the Greeks, were not principally bread- or grain-eaters (as most Mediterranean peoples are to this day). Meat was a staple part of their diet, and ‘meat on the hoof’ was brought into the principal supply depots long before the army moved. At the same time great quantities of salted-down meat were stockpiled. The army, of course, as it moved across Asia Minor, and later into Greece, was expected to live off the land to a large extent, but Xerxes and his commissariat organisers did not make the great mistake of many later armies in assuming that so large a force could necessarily supply itself in this hand-to-mouth fashion. In Persia and the Greeks A. R. Burn quotes the description of Persian preparations for war by Theopompos of Chios. It is true that Theopompos was writing much later about an expedition against Egypt, but there is little reason to believe that Persian thoroughness had changed since the time of Xerxes. He records the

tens of thousands of stand of arms, both Greek and oriental; vast herds of baggage animals and beasts for slaughter; bushels of condiments, and boxes and sacks, and bales of paper and all the other accessories. And there was so much salt meat of every kind, that it made heaps, so large that people approaching from a distance thought they were coming to a range of hills.

The reference to the bales of paper can only bring a wry smile to the face of anyone who has served in modern wars. Persia was nothing if not a bureaucratic state, and they had learned largely from the Egyptians, with their tradition of meticulous public records, that the organisation of a great country, and more especially an empire, required scribes and civil servants and departmental organisers. They were among the forerunners-in the large-scale use of paperwork - under which so much of the world groans today. (Byblos, one of the principal Phoenician cities, which came under the sway of Persia, was credited with having been the inventor of paper - made from papyrus. The word Bible (‘Book’) derives from Byblos.)

Especial provision was made in the way of stores for the army when it should have crossed into Greece. While in Asia Minor they might be expected to feed off the land to a great extent, since all of the area came under Persian rule. Such could not be expected in Greece itself once the army was south of the pro-Persian north. The River Strymon, which empties into the sea to the north of Mount Athos, was bridged for the passage of the army, and in several parts of this region of Thrace great provision dumps were established. The largest of these was at the White Cape on the Thracian coast and another was at the mouth of the Strymon near the new bridge. Yet others were sited to the south, in parts of Macedonia.

So much that Herodotus and later Greek historians considered as evidence of the megalomania of Xerxes and the hubris of a typical Oriental tyrant was no more than evidence of forethought, excellent logistics, and planning superiority over the Greeks of the period. The small Greek city-states could not understand what the organisation of a great empire and the movement of many thousands of men entailed: they themselves thought in terms of hundreds or at the most a few thousands. It would be well over a century until a Greece, unified under Alexander the Great, would have to tackle the problems of Empire. The principal source of amazement, not untinged with some reluctant admiration, was the great bridge of boats which Xerxes ordered to be constructed across the Hellespont at the narrows between Abydos on the Asian side to a point near Sestos on the European side: a distance of about seven furlongs or 1400 yards.

There were two bridges supported on 674 biremes and triremes which were used to form the floating platforms upon which the carriageway itself was laid. There were 360 vessels on the side towards the Black Sea and 314 on the southern section. One of these was allocated to the Egyptian workmen and the other to the Phoenicians. One may suspect that the Phoenicians built a better bridge (admirable though the Egyptians were as architects, they were not so distinguished a seafaring people as the masters of Tyre and Sidon). Nevertheless a storm of ‘great violence’ smashed both bridges shortly after they had been completed. Xerxes’ reaction was, in accordance with the Greek view of Herodotus, that of a maddened tyrant who expects that even the winds and the waves will respect his wishes. He gave orders that the Hellespont should be given three hundred lashes, that a pair of fetters be thrown into the sea, and even that it should be branded like a common criminal. Herodotus, like all Greeks (who made their living so largely from the sea and to whom the sea-god Poseidon was a deity always to be placated), regarded this not only as a barbarous, but indeed a maniacal act. ‘You salt and bitter current,’ Xerxes is said to have ordered the men who wielded the whips to say, cyour master inflicts this punishment upon you for doing harm to him, who never harmed you. Nevertheless Xerxes the King will cross you with or without your permission. No man makes sacrifice to you, and for this neglect you deserve your neglect because of your salty and dirty water.’

Curiously enough, although much of this might be taken as the ravings of a paranoiac oriental monarch (as the Greeks thought), Xerxes’ behaviour was not so irrational. To the Zoroastrian, for whom the dream of the pastoral life was - like the Garden of Eden to the Jews - the ultimate aim to which the Good must aspire, their heaven was essentially one conceived by landsmen. Flowing streams of clear water were naturally part of this concept. As a land-bound people, moreover, they had a dislike of the sea and an inability to cope with it (hence their employment of the Egyptians and the Phoenicians to man their fleets). ‘The bitter water’, the undrinkable water of the sea, was symbolic of Ahriman, the evil power against which the true follower of Ahuramazda was pledged to fight. Xerxes’ cursing and lashings of the sea, therefore, was possibly no more than a symbolic act done, as Xerxes might have put it, ‘according to Truth and with the proper rite’.

His rage against the designers of the two bridges was, however, entirely in accordance with what the Greeks expected of an Eastern tyrant. They were executed. A Greek engineer, Harpalus, is on record as having been the designer of the final two successful bridges; aided probably by Ionian and Phoenician technicians. They were moored slantwise to the Black Sea and at right angles to the Hellespont. Upstream and downstream specially constructed anchors were laid. Those to the east were to hold the bridging vessels against winds from the Black Sea, as well as against the strong current that flows down permanently as the cold river-fed water of the Black Sea pours in to replenish the Mediterranean. Those laid to the south were to hold the bridges, and especially the southerly bridge, against any gales that might strike from the less expected but still not uncommon quarter of the south-west. Despite their lack of modern scientific instruments the technicians of 2400 years ago were more familiar from centuries of experience with prevailing winds and tides than many a modern mariner who glides through the Hellespont with thousands of horsepower under his feet, assisted by efficient lighthouses, radar, and radio beacons. In three places between the bridges gaps were left so that boats might pass up or down the Hellespont. Since the freeboard, or height of deck above waterline, was little more than eight feet in the average bireme, there would have been little difficulty for such a vessel to pass under the three open sections of the bridges -especially when it is remembered that the sailors were constantly used to lowering masts and yards whenever the weather was foul. (The squaresails on vessels of that period were of little use except with a following wind, or one from slightly abaft of the beam.)

One of the astonishing mechanical triumphs of Xerxes’ bridges of boats was the strength and the weight of the cables that held them together. The Phoenicians, we learn, used cables of flax, while the Egyptians had theirs made out of papyrus. These large and heavy lengths of cable were almost certainly brought up the Aegean on barges. ‘Each bridge’, writes Herodotus, ‘had two flax cables and four of papyrus. The flax was the heavier - half a fathom of it weighing 114 lbs.’ This may be an exaggeration or a misunderstanding of Eastern weights and measures, for this would have meant that over a distance of 1400 yards the total weight of the flax cables alone would have been nearly 100 tons. In any case, the whole project was of such size and scale that it is doubtful whether anything equivalent could have been achieved to equal it in Europe for many centuries to come. (It is only recently, since the aqualung and many other improvements in diving techniques, that enough has been recovered of the remains of ancient ships to reveal how far from primitive were the seafaring vessels of ancient mariners.)

Manpower had built the Pyramids, and manpower and animal power were to remain the gauge of human mechanical achievement until the Industrial Revolution. ‘As soon as the vessels were on station’, Herodotus writes, ‘the cables were hauled taut by wooden winches on the shore.’ The next thing was to cut planks equal to the breadth of the floats. These were then laid edge to edge over the cables and were bound together. Finally, brushwood was laid on top, followed by soil, which the workmen spread evenly and trod down flat. Only one last thing remained to do (evidence again of considerable forethought) and that was to erect palisades on either side of the bridges so that the animals which were to pass over would not take fright at the sight of ‘the bitter water’. Nothing in the Crusades centuries later, almost nothing until amphibious operations of the twentieth century, was to equal the skill and technical ability of these engineers and craftsmen of the Persian Empire - working in the fifth century B.C.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!