Herodotus – The Histories, Book 7, “Polymnia” [1-55] – Persian Preparations

  1. When Darius heard of the news of the Battle of Marathon, he became enraged & even more determined to lead an army against Greece. He sent messengers around throughout the empire that fresh levies would be raised to fight Greece, as well as provisions, ships, horses & transports. All of Asia was gearing up for 3 years to attack Greece. However, the Egyptians began revolting. Now Darius had 2 problems he needed to solve.
  2. As the Persians prepared attacks on both Egypt & Greece, Darius’s sons began to compete for power. Persian law stated that the king could not leave with his army without appointing an heir, should he die on campaign. Darius had 3 sons with his first wife & 4 sons with his second wife. Artabazanes claimed inheritance because he was the eldest of all the children, which was an established custom. However, Xerxes’s mother, was Atossa, daughter of Cyrus, the one who’d given Persia its freedom.
  3. Before Darius had decided, Demaratus, the Spartan, who’d been kicked off his throne, went to live in Susa. He told Xerxes that he ought to challenge Artabazanes because Xerxes was the first child born when Darius was king. So, he was the first born a royal prince. However, Artabanazes was born before his father became king, when he was a private citizen. Xerxes persuaded Darius & was appointed successor. In spite of the argument, Xerxes would’ve done the same because Atossa was very persistent.
  4. Now that Darius had appointed an heir, he was determined to lead his armies. But he died the year after the Egyptian revolt. He had reigned 36 years – leaving Egypt & Athens unpunished. Now Xerxes was king.
  5. Xerxes, now king, was more interested in pursuing Egypt than Athens. But Mardonius, he cousin, was very influential with him & told him that he ought not let the Athenians get away with what they had done. It wasn’t purely out of vengeance, but Europe would be a wonderful addition to the empire & only Xerxes was worthy to own it.
  6. He also liked adventures like these & wanted to be Satrap of Greece under Xerxes. Messengers from Thessaly invited Xerxes into Greece, promising to help him. The Pisistratidae brought in an “Oracle monger”, Onomacritus to help the cause. When they were ruling Athens, he’d been banished from Athens for his illegal additions to the prophecy of Musaeus. Now that he was in Susa with the Pisistratidae, they made up & repeated Oracled to the king that a Persian king would bridge the Hellespont & bring his army into Europe. Finally, the king agreed to lead an expedition.
  7. First, he marched into Egypt & fought those revolting from him. He had defeated his enemies & put a strangle hold on the place & gave the government to Achaemenes, his brother. But Achaemenes was killed by Inaros, a Libyan.
    1. With Egypt taken care of, Xerxes called a council to learn various noblemen’s opinions on how to hand the invasion of Athens. Xerxes spoke: “Our country was once small but Cyrus beat Astyages & we conquered the Medes. Cambyses added Egypt. Darius added many more lands. I wish to add to the honor & power of Persia.
    2. “I wish to build a bridge over the Hellespont & march my army through Europe into Greece. I want revenge against Athens for the wrongs they’ve done to us. I won’t stop until Athens is burnt to the ground. They came to Asia with Aristagoras going up to Sardis, burning its temples & groves. When we went there with Datis & Artaphernes they beat us badly.
    3. “That’s why I want this war. Once we subdue Athens, I will go through all of Europe & take all the lands & make it one country. When that’s done, there’ll be no country, no city in the world that can fight us. All of humanity will be under our rule.
    4. “When I call the army together, I want you to come as quickly as possible. Those who provide much will get much. I’m laying out in front of you for you & me to discuss openly & freely.”
    1. Mardonius spoke: “Your goals not only surpass all living Persians but even those not yet born. I agree would shouldn’t let the Ionians & Greeks get away with this. It’d be terrible if we had gone through the trouble of conquering the Sacae, Indians, Ethiopians, Assryrians, etc. just to expand our empire & then let the Greeks get away with injuring us. What is scary about them? It’s not their numbers or wealth. We’ve already subdued their colonists – Ionians, Aeolians & Dorians. I myself marched all the way into Macedonia without anyone challenging me.
    2. “I’m told the Greeks fight each other all the time in the dumbest possible ways. They go find a smooth, flat area where they gather & fight. The winners get hurt badly but the losers get destroyed. They all speak the same language. They ought to talk to one another to avoid these destructive battles. In the worst case scenario, where they had to fight, they ought to choose defensive positions & then fight. In my time in Macedonia, they never once picked a fight with me.
    3. “Who would dare fight your army? I don’t think the Greeks would be so stupid. Even if they were, they wouldn’t be able to handle our army. So, let’s go at them. Even if it’s hard – nothing worth doing is easy.”
    1. The other Persians were quiet. Xerxes’s uncle, Artabanus, spoke up: “No one can make the best choice if only one thing is said… I advised your father, Darius, not to attack the Scyths. He was unable to subdue them & marched into their territory & left with many lives lost. You’re about fight a much braver group of men than the Scyths.
    2. “You say you want to build a bridge across the Hellespont to lead your troops into Europe against Greece. If some bad event happens to you by land or sea & the bridge is destroyed, the whole army would be destroyed.
    3. “We barely escaped disaster in Thrace when we put a bridge over the Ister River & marched against the Scyths. We asked the Ionians to guard the bridge. The Scyths tried to get the Ionians to destroy it. If Histiaeus had sided with the Scyths, the army would have been stranded & ultimately destroyed. Our fate depended on one man loyal to the king.
    4. “We can talk all night about strengths & weaknesses. But you should end the meeting & sleep on it. & once you’ve made your decision, let us know.
    5. “Perhaps god will reveal something to you about the situation.
    6. “Hurrying into a situation always leads to disaster& suffering. But delaying will lead to unforeseen advantages.
    7. “As for you, Mardonius, don’t speak so foolishly about the Greeks. We should not take them so lightly. You are encouraging the king to be rash about leading troops into battle against formidable enemies.
    8. “If we have to go to war with Greece, let’s leave the king at home. You & I will stake our children’s lives on the outcome. If things go well, like you say they will, let me & my children be put to death. If you’re wrong, let you & your children be put to death. If you refuse the wager & still want to go to Greece, I’m positive bad news will find its way to Persia.”
  8. Xerxes responded angrily: “Only familial ties are saving you from punishment, Artabanus. You ought to be ashamed of your cowardice. You will not be joining me against the Greeks. I will gladly be proved unworthy of my lineage if I don’t take revenge on the Athenians. Remember, they invaded our country & burn Sardis to the ground. We can’t back down now. Either our empire will win or theirs will. This sniping at us will continue until we stop them from doing it. We must avenge ourselves.”
  9. Later that evening, Xerxes began to think about what Artabanus had said. He concluded it would be silly to lead an army into Greece. He then went to sleep. In his dream, he saw a figure who told him that he shouldn’t change his mind to invade Greece. None of his advisors would respect him. He should do as he said.
  10. The next day, he called the same council together to tell them that he had been convinced by Artabanus’s words. When Artabanus had spoken, Xerxes’s blood had boiled because he was emotionally charged by the argument. I treated him badly but now I know he was right. I’ve decided not to go to war with Greece.
  11. Later that night, Xerxes had another dream where the figure returned to him, berating him for going against his orders. The figure threatened him with a downfall if he didn’t go through with the invasion.
  12. Xerxes woke up & ran to see Artabanus & spoke to him: “I was wrong to yell at you for giving me good advice. But since I changed my mind, I’ve been having these dreams where a figure has been trying to convince me to go through with the invasion. Now it’s threatening me. If this is god, & it’s his will for us to invade Greece, you’ll have the same dream. This will most likely happen if you wear my pyjamas & sleep in my bed.
  13. Artabanus didn’t want to do that because he felt unworthy of taking the king’s place. He relented but said to Xerxes:
    1. “It seems to matter little if a man is wise or is willing to listen to good advice. But you are wise & you do listen. The advice of bad men will lead you astray. I wasn’t hurt so much by your harsh words to me but by the fact that when given the choice of 2 actions – one that would hurt Persia & the other that would help Persia – you chose to hurt it by wanting more than you have now.
    2. You say from the time you’d decided not to invade Greece, your dreams started coming to you – maybe sent by sent, maybe for some other reason. But dreams don’t have any divine meanings. They are just a manifestation of what has been on your mind lately & lately the discussion of invading Greece has come up.
    3. If God has something to do with it, let the dream come to me. But wearing your clothes & sleeping in your bed won’t bring it about. If you’re dead set on this, then I will do as you say.
  14. Artabanus was willing to go through the whole thing just to prove Xerxes wrong. He put on Xerxes’s pyjamas & slept in his bed. In his dreams, the same figure came to him, admonishing him for trying to dissuade Xerxes’s from invading Greece. He had warned Xerxes would suffer if he didn’t do as ordered.
  15. Artabanus felt the figure threaten him & try to burn his eyes out with red hot irons. He jumped up & ran to Xerxes, & explained his dream; “I’ve seen many empires fall to weaker ones. I didn’t want you’re youth to carry you away. I know it’s wrong to want more than what you have. I remember Cyrus dying trying to defeat to Massagetae. Cambyses’s march in to Ethiopia was a disaster. Darius’s attempt on the Scythians was a failure. I felt if I could temper your desire & make you at peace, your reign would be great. But this invasion must come from above & it must be that heaven has ordained the destruction of Greece. But this vision has changed my mind. We must do it & not anger the god. The next day, Xerxes explained to the council his plans & Artabanus agreed to them.
  16. Once Xerxes was determined to go to war with Greece, he had a third dream. He consulted the Magi & they said it was indicative that all of mankind would be his servants. He dreamt he was crowned with an olive tree & its boughs grew out to cover the whole earth. Then the garland vanished. The Persian council saw that they would benefit from taking over the world. They all started building up their armies as quickly as possible.
  17. After recovering Egypt, Xerxes spent 4 years building up his army. This was to be the largest army in the history of the world.
  18. Anything before this would pale in comparison. Not one Asian country would be spared from invading Greece. Each provided their specialty – ships, provisions, men, transport, horses, construction materials, etc.
  19. Because the fleet had such a disaster trying to get around Athos, they had to make special preparations for that. There was a fleet of triremes at Elaeus in the Chersonese. 2 Persians, Bubanes & Artachaees were tasked by building a trench across the peninsula.
  20. They would dig a canal near the city of Sané. Some workers would dig straight down so the bottom of the trench was as wide as the top. The Phoenicians had a trick but it doubled the work. They dug the top to be twice as wide as the bottom so the workers could actually climb out easily.
  21. Xerxes must have been doing the work to show the Greeks how powerful he was to have the resources for such a project & to leave it behind as a memorial of himself. To di a canal to change the flow of the sea & allow 2 triremes abreast to pass through. He did likewise in build a bridge across the River Strymon.
  22. Meanwhile in Egypt cables were made for the bridges of flax or papyrus. Other regions were responsible providing provisions & beasts of burden for the march into Greece. Stores of food & supplied were placed strategically around the country & in Thrace.
  23. While this was going on, Xerxes was moving towards Sardis. They crossed the River Halys through Phrygia to the city of Celaenae at the sources of the River Maeaner.
  24. In Celaenae, lived Pythius, a Lydian, who entertained Xerxes & the whole army. He offered the king as much money as he had for the war. Xerxes had no idea that Pythius was 2nd in wealth only to Xerxes himself.
  25. Xerxes asked him how rich he was. Pythius answered that he didn’t know precisely. But as soon as he heard Persia was going to war with Greece, he would give all he could to Xerxes. He counted 2000 talents of silver & 3993000 golden Daric staters. So he gave it all as a gift. He was still wealthy in land & slaves beyond money.
  26. Xerxes was charmed by this speece & told him that he was the only man who had offered to host the army & to give his entire fortune to the cause. What he had given was enough & he should never change.
  27. They pressed on to Colossae in Phrygia at the River Lycus & then on to Lydia in a city called Cydrara, where Croesus had had a boundary pillar built.
  28. The road split there. Go left & you go down to Caria. Go right & you go to Sardis. Following this route, you cross the Maeander River & go by the city of Callatebus where they make honey from wheat & tamarisk fruit. Xerxes chose this route & found the plane-trees beautiful. They passed into Sardis.
  29. His first task was to send out messengers to Greek cities to demand submission. He didn’t do that for Athens or Sparta. He sent the demands out to scare all the cities that refused to submit to Darius. They might be too scared to do it again.
  30. Xerxes mad preparations to head to Abydos, where the bridge across the Hellespont had been finished. Halfway between Sestos & Madytus, was a rocky tongue of land running out into the sea. This is where, much later, Xanthippus nailed Sestos, governor of the region, to a plank for bringing women into the temple of Protesilaüs at Elaeus & doing some very unholy deeds there.
  31. This tongue of land is where the double bridge from Abydos was built. The Phoenicians constructed one line of cables of flax & the Egyptians made one from papyrus. It’s 7 furlongs (7/8 mile) across from Abydos to the other side. The bridge was built but then a big storm broke the bridge, destroying all the work done.
  32. When Xerxes heard about the bridge, he was completely enraged. He ordered the Hellespont (a body of water!!) to be given 300 lashes & chained. The sea was punished for destroying the bridge. The foremen were also beheaded.
  33. They began building a new bridge. They lined up 360 triremes & penteconters on the Euxine side & 314 on the other side. The boats were placed at right angles & were held together to the shore via the cables. The ships were anchored in the sea so the winds wouldn’t blow them away. Gaps were left between the ships in 3 places to allow passage between the bridges. The cables were made taut from the shore. The cables were mixed of papyrus & flax to make them stronger. Now planks were laid side by side across the bridge. Brushwood & earth was taken & placed on top & a bulwark was set up on each side to allow the animals to cross without being spooked by crossing over the water.
  34. The bridge was finished & so was the canal at Athos. Xerxes was wintering in Sardis & now began the march to Abydos as spring began. As soon as the march began, there was an eclipse. Xerxes consulted the Magians about is meaning – they said it was god foreshadowing to the Greeks they’d be destroyed. Xerxes started the war happy.
  35. As the army started marching, Pythius was sacred to lose his sons in the upcoming war. So, he asked Xerxes, if he could have just his eldest son stay behind, while the other 4 went off to war.
  36. This pissed Xerxes off. He told Pythius that no one was exempted from the war, no matter how much money he’d given to the cause. He told Pythius that just for that, he’d have his eldest son killed. The guy was cut in half & left on the road.
  37. The army marched with its baggage & animal in front, then one half of the army of various nations. Then came 1000 horsemen, 1000 spearmen, sacred horses & the holy chariot of Jupiter. Then came Xerxes in his chariot.
  38. They went from Sardis. Xerxes would switch between riding in his chariot & riding in his litter. Behind the king were another 1000 spearmen, Persian horses & then 10000 men on foot, 1000 of which had golden apples on their spears. Then the Persian cavalry. There was ¼ mile gap & then the rest of the army in a chaotic crowd.
  39. They left Lydia went up to Mysia, through the Atarnean plain, across the plain of Thebé, by the cities of Adrymyttium & Antandrus, around Mt. Ida in Trojan territory. The Persians lost men there. Many men bivouacked at the foot of the mountain when a terrible storm hit them & killed many men.
  40. They stopped by the Scamander River. The men & animals did not get enough to drink from it. Xerxes went to the Pergamus of Priam, & made an offering of 1000 cattle & had libations poured for the heroes killed at Troy. They moved on until they reached the Hellespont at Abydos.
  41. Here Xerxes wanted to look at his army. The locals built a marble throne for him to sit on. Looking at the sea, he wanted to watch a sailing match. The Phoenicians won – providing the army some entertainment before continuing their march.
  42. He saw the Hellespont covered with ships & the whole shore covered with men. While he was happy, he began to cry.
  43. Artabanus heard him cry & spoke to him: “What’s going on? Just a moment ago you were so happy to get here & now you’re crying!!” Xerxes replied: “A thought just occurred to me – how short life is. I look at this enormous army & in 100 years, not a single soldier will be alive.” Artabanus answered: “But there are sadder things that that. As short as our time here is, who is so happy that he never once felt that he’d rather be dead than alive? Disasters happen. Illnesses bother us & make life seem long. In that case, death is a welcome change but God, who gives us pleasant thing in life, will deny us that.”
  44. Xerxes: “True, but we shouldn’t dwell on the sadness when we can think of pleasant things. Tell me, if that dream hadn’t come to you, would you have continued to dissuade me? Would you even be here right now?” Artabanus: “King, I’m still afraid & I can barely control myself when I think of the danger that lies ahead. 2 things are working against us.”
  45. Xerxes: “What are these 2 things? Is our army not big enough? Is our navy not powerful enough?”
  46. Artabanus: “No, the army & army are large enough. But the bigger you make either one, the worse those 2 things will be for us – the land & sea. There’s no harbor to receive all the vessels we have. & in the case of a storm, they’ll have no protection. Without these harbors, we are taking a massive risk. The land also poses a threat. If no one resists our advances, we will go farther & farther being lured onwards because we’d be so successful. With the distance growing, we may starve. It’s best for men to be careful & plan for calamities. But when it’s time for action, then we’ll be bold.”
  47. Xerxes: “You are right. But we shouldn’t be afraid of everything & overanalyze things. If you analyze all risks, you’ll never actually do anything. It’s best to be brave & take what roughness life gives us them to be afraid of everything & never take a chance. Plus, if you just refuse everything because of that, & never try to plan a success, we’ll definitely fail. No mortal can know the safest route – it’s not possible. Success favors the bold, not the overanalyzing. An insecure would never have grown to its power if its kings were happy with things as they were. Brave, adventurous men did. Great empires can only be won by taking great risks. We are following the examples of our fathers in this expedition. We chose the right time of year to set out. We have prepared in our food. We are not attacking nomads, we are attacking farmers – so we can take their food if we need to.”
  48. Artabanus: “If you’re convinced that we have nothing to fear, please just listen to one piece of advice… Cyrus was able to conquer all Ionians, except Attica. You ought not make the Ionians fight on behalf of their brethren. There’d be nothing more wicked than to make men to march against their father land. Nothing would be so righteous for them than to set it free. If we make them act unjustly, they still won’t do us any good. But giving them a righteous cause will be very bad for us.”
  49. Xerxes: “This is where you’re absolutely wrong. You saw how they fought the Scythians. They had the fate of the Persian Empire in their hands & they helped us. Plus, with their wives & children back home as hostages will ensure that they fight for us. Don’t worry… Please take care of my empire while I am gone.
  50. Xerxes sent Artabanus back to Susa. He called the Persian advisors to meet up. He spoke to them: “I call you here to remind you to do the Persian race proud. Let’s give this everything we’ve got. Our opponents are brave. If the reports are true, when we defeat them, there’s not an army on earth that can defeat us. Let’s offer our prayer to the gods.”
  51. The preparations to cross began. They burnt incense & Xerxes poured a libation into the sea & threw a golden cup & bowl, & a Persian sword into the sea. I don’t know if this was an offering to the sun god or an apology for having the Hellespont whipped.
  52. The army began to cross. The horsemen, foot soldiers, etc. passed over the bridge on the Euxine side while the supply train crossed on the Aegean side. Then came the 10000 Persian soldiers, then a giant mix of nations crossed. The next day, the horsemen, more fancy soldiers & Xerxes himself crossed. The ships also crossed. The King was said to be the last one to have crossed over.

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