Herodotus: The History (Book 7)

Xerxes Flogs the Hellespont

'Xerxes at the Hellespont' by Jean Adrien Guignet

Whereas many Middle Eastern peoples welcomed the advent of the Persian Empire, the Greeks viewed their own victories over the Persians as making possible the very continuance of their civilization. The army of Darius was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and that of Xerxes I at Salamis in 480 BCE. The Greeks considered their poleis, many of them democracies, as infinitely superior to the absolute monarchy of Persia. Europeans have traditionally maintained that if these battles had not been won, history would have been utterly changed, with Europe falling under the sway of Eastern despotism. Whether or not this theory is true can never be known, but the theory itself helped to shape centuries of European hostility to and contempt for the nations of the Middle East. Part of that contempt is expressed in the following story, in which the great Xerxes is depicted by the Greek historian Herodotus as a superstitious fool and a bloodthirsty tyrant. His massive army is preparing to cross the narrow strait (the Hellespont, now in Turkey) which separated Asia from Europe. (Build your own bridge.)



They then began to build bridges across the Hellespont from Abydos to that headland between Sestus and Madytus, the Phoenicians building one of ropes made from flax, and the Egyptians building a second one out of papyrus. From Abydos to the opposite shore it is a distance of almost two-thirds of a mile. But no sooner had the strait been bridged than a great storm came on and cut apart and scattered all their work.

Xerxes flew into a rage at this, and he commanded that the Hellespont be struck with three hundred strokes of the whip and that a pair of foot-chains be thrown into the sea. It's even been said that he sent off a rank of branders (1) along with the rest to the Hellespont! He also commanded the scourgers to speak outlandish and arrogant words:

You hateful water, our master lays his judgement on you thus, for you have unjustly punished him even though he's done you no wrong! Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you wish it or not! It is fitting that no man offer you sacrifices, (2) for you're a muddy and salty river!

In these ways he commanded that the sea be punished and also that the heads be severed from all those who directed the bridging of the Hellespont.

And this scourging was done by those appointed to this graceless honor, and other builders were chosen. The bridging was done in the following way: fifty-oared ships and triremes were set side by side, about three hundred and sixty to form the Euxinian bridge, and about three hundred and fourteen to form the other bridge, all of them at right angles to the Pontus and parallel to the Hellespont, thus taking off some of the tension from the ropes. Once the ships were alongside one another, they released huge anchors, both from the end near the Pontus because of the winds blowing from that sea, and on the other end towards the west and the Aegean because of the western and southern winds. A passage was left in the opening of the fifty-oared ships and triremes in order that, if he wished to go into or out of the Pontus, he could pass through in a small ship. Having done all this, they stretched ropes from the land and twisted them with wooden pulleys, and they did not keep each separate, but assigned two flaxen cables and four papyrus cables for each bridge. Each type of cable was thick and comely, but the report goes that the flaxen cables were heavier, a single yard weighing over 100 pounds. (3) When the sea was bridged, wooden timbers equal to the breadth of the floating ships were felled and were laid on the stretched cables, and laying them alongside one another they tied them fast. Having done this, they put down brushwood, laying it on the timbers, and they put down earth on top of the brushwood, stamping it down and building a fence on the earth on each side in order that the beasts of burden and the horses would not be frightened by the sea flowing beneath them.

When they had built the bridges, the work around Athos, and the dikes around the mouths of the canals, these built because of the sea breaking on the shore which would silt up the mouths of the canals, and these canals being reported as completely finished, the army then and there prepared to winter and, when spring came, was ready and set forth to Abydos from Sardis. When they had started to set forth, the sun eclipsed itself and was not to be seen in its place in the heavens, even though the sky was unclouded and as clear as can be, so that the day turned to night. When Xerxes perceived this he became anxious, and he asked the Magians to clarify what this omen meant. These said that the god, Pythian Apollo, was foreshowing to the Greeks the eclipse of their city, for the sun was a prophet to the Greeks, as the moon was to them. Hearing that, Xerxes' mood became exceedingly sunny and he continued the march.

As he marched out the army, Pythias the Lydian, dreading the heavenly omen and encouraged by the gifts given to him by Xerxes, came up to Xerxes and said, "Master, I wish to ask a favor of you, which would be a small favor for you to render, but would be a great favor for me to receive." Xerxes, thinking that he knew everything Pythias could ask for, answered that he would grant the favor and asked him to proclaim what it was he wished.

Master, it happens that I have five sons, and they are all bound to soldier for you against the Greeks. I pray you, king, that you have pity on one who has reached my age and that you set free one of my sons, even the oldest, from your army, so that he may provide for me and my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you return having accomplished all you intended.

Xerxes flew into a horrible rage and replied,

You villainous man, you have the effrontery, seeing me marching with my army against the Greeks, with my sons and brothers and relatives and friends, to remind me of your son, you, my slave, who should rather come with me with your entire household, including your wife! You may now be certain of this, that since the spirit lives in a man's ears, hearing good words it fills the body with delight, when it hears the opposite it swells up. When you at one time performed well and promised more, you had no reason to boast that you outperformed your king in benefits; and now that you have turned most shameless, you shall receive less than what you deserve. You and four of your sons are saved because of your hospitality; but one of your sons, the one you most desire to hold your arms around, will lose his life!

Having answered thus, he commanded those charged to accomplish this to find the eldest of Pythias's sons and cut him in half, and having cut him in two to set one half of his corpse on the right side of the road and the other on the left side, and between these the army moved forth.

Xerxes Weeps

On reaching the Scamander, which was the first stream, of all that they had crossed since they left Sardis, whose water failed them and did not suffice to satisfy the thirst of men and cattle, Xerxes ascended into the Pergamus of Priam, since he had a longing to behold the place. When he had seen everything, and inquired into all particulars, he made an offering of a thousand oxen to the Trojan Minerva, while the Magians poured libations to the heroes who were slain at Troy. The night after, a panic fell upon the camp: but in the morning they set off with daylight, and skirting on the left hand the towns Rhoeteum, Ophryneum, and Dardanus (which borders on Abydos), on the right the Teucrians of Gergis, so reached Abydos.

Arrived here, Xerxes wished to look upon all his host; so as there was a throne of white marble upon a hill near the city, which they of Abydos had prepared beforehand, by the king's bidding, for his especial use, Xerxes took his seat on it, and, gazing thence upon the shore below, beheld at one view all his land forces and all his ships. While thus employed, he felt a desire to behold a sailing-match among his ships, which accordingly took place, and was won by the Phoenicians of Sidon, much to the joy of Xerxes, who was delighted alike with the race and with his army.

And now, as he looked and saw the whole Hellespont covered with the vessels of his fleet, and all the shore and every plain about Abydos as full as possible of men, Xerxes congratulated himself on his good fortune; but after a little while he wept.

Then Artabanus, the king's uncle (the same who at the first so freely spake his mind to the king, and advised him not to lead his army against Greece), when he heard that Xerxes was in tears, went to him, and said:

"How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago! Then thou didst congratulate thyself; and now, behold! thou weepest."

"There came upon me," replied he, "a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man's life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by."

"And yet there are sadder things in life than that," returned the other. "Short as our time is, there is no man, whether it be here among this multitude or elsewhere, who is so happy, as not to have felt the wish- I will not say once, but full many a time- that he were dead rather than alive. Calamities fall upon us; sicknesses vex and harass us, and make life, short though it be, to appear long. So death, through the wretchedness of our life, is a most sweet refuge to our race: and God, who gives us the tastes that we enjoy of pleasant times, is seen, in his very gift, to be envious."

"True," said Xerxes; "human life is even such as thou hast painted it, O Artabanus! But for this very reason let us turn our thoughts from it, and not dwell on what is so sad, when pleasant things are in hand. Tell me rather, if the vision which we saw had not appeared so plainly to thyself, wouldst thou have been still of the same mind as formerly, and have continued to dissuade me from warring against Greece, or wouldst thou at this time think differently? Come now, tell me this honestly."

"O king!" replied the other, "may the dream which hath appeared to us have such issue as we both desire! For my own part, I am still full of fear, and have scarcely power to control myself, when I consider all our dangers, and especially when I see that the two things which are of most consequence are alike opposed to thee."

"Thou strange man!" said Xerxes in reply- "what, I pray thee, are the two things thou speakest of? Does my land army seem to thee too small in number, and will the Greeks, thinkest thou, bring into the field a more numerous host? Or is it our fleet which thou deemest weaker than theirs? Or art thou fearful on both accounts? If in thy judgment we fall short in either respect, it were easy to bring together with all speed another armament."

"O king!" said Artabanus, "it is not possible that a man of understanding should find fault with the size of thy army or the number of thy ships. The more thou addest to these, the more hostile will those two things, whereof I spake, become. Those two things are the land and the sea. In all the wide sea there is not, I imagine, anywhere a harbour large enough to receive thy vessels, in case a storm arise, and afford them a sure protection. And yet thou wilt want, not one such harbour only, but many in succession, along the entire coast by which thou art about to make thy advance. In default then of such harbours, it is well to bear in mind that chances rule men, and not men chances. Such is the first of the two dangers; and now I will speak to thee of the second. The land will also be thine enemy; for if no one resists thy advance, as thou proceedest farther and farther, insensibly allured onwards (for who is ever sated with success?), thou wilt find it more and more hostile. I mean this, that, should nothing else withstand thee, yet the mere distance, becoming greater as time goes on, will at last produce a famine. Methinks it is best for men, when they take counsel, to be timorous, and imagine all possible calamities, but when the time for action comes, then to deal boldly."

Whereto Xerxes answered- "There is reason, O Artabanus! in everything which thou hast said; but I pray thee, fear not all things alike, nor count up every risk. For if in each matter that comes before us thou wilt look to all possible chances, never wilt thou achieve anything. Far better is it to have a stout heart always, and suffer one's share of evils, than to be ever fearing what may happen, and never incur a mischance. Moreover, if thou wilt oppose whatever is said by others, without thyself showing us the sure course which we ought to take, thou art as likely to lead us into failure as they who advise differently; for thou art but on a par with them. And as for that sure course, how canst thou show it us when thou art but a man? I do not believe thou canst. Success for the most part attends those who act boldly, not those who weigh everything, and are slack to venture. Thou seest to how great a height the power of Persia has now reached- never would it have grown to this point if they who sate upon the throne before me had been like-minded with thee, or even, though not like-minded, had listened to councillors of such a spirit. 'Twas by brave ventures that they extended their sway; for great empires can only be conquered by great risks. We follow then the example of our fathers in making this march; and we set forward at the best season of the year; so, when we have brought Europe under us, we shall return, without suffering from want or experiencing any other calamity. For while on the one hand we carry vast stores of provisions with us, on the other we shall have the grain of all the countries and nations that we attack; since our march is not directed against a pastoral people, but against men who are tillers of the ground."

Then said Artabanus- "If, sire, thou art determined that we shall not fear anything, at least hearken to a counsel which I wish to offer; for when the matters in hand are so many, one cannot but have much to say. Thou knowest that Cyrus the son of Cambyses reduced and made tributary to the Persians all the race of the Ionians, except only those of Attica. Now my advice is that thou on no account lead forth these men against their fathers; since we are well able to overcome them without such aid. Their choice, if we take them with us to the war, lies between showing themselves the most wicked of men by helping to enslave their fatherland, or the most righteous by joining in the struggle to keep it free. If then they choose the side of injustice, they will do us but scant good; while if they determine to act justly, they may greatly injure our host. Lay thou to heart the old proverb, which says truly, 'The beginning and end of a matter are not always seen at once.'

"Artabanus," answered Xerxes, "there is nothing in all that thou hast said, wherein thou art so wholly wrong as in this, that thou suspectest the faith of the Ionians. Have they not given us the surest proof of their attachment- a proof which thou didst thyself witness, and likewise all those who fought with Darius against the Scythians? When it lay wholly with them to save or to destroy the entire Persian army, they dealt by us honourably and with good faith, and did us no hurt at all. Besides, they will leave behind them in our country their wives, their children, and their properties- can it then be conceived that they will attempt rebellion? Have no fear, therefore, on this score; but keep a brave heart and uphold my house and empire. To thee, and thee only, do I intrust my sovereignty."