The Immortals, the crack Guards division which was now ordered out against the Greeks, will have advanced with something of the same military precision as that of the Spartans. They represented the dignity of the most highly professional men-at-arms in the Persian Empire. It was the regiment into which every Elamite, Mede or Persian soldier wished to enrol. They went out across the plain with their general Hydarnes under the keen eye of their monarch. ‘They advanced to the attack full of confidence that they would overcome the opposition without much trouble.’
Brave they were and disciplined they were, but they found, as had the Medes and others before them, that in the confines of the pass their numbers were a hindrance rather than a help. Once again their short spears could not penetrate that formidable bristling line of the Greeks, nor their arrows pierce the great bronze shields. As countless wars have shown, courage is not enough. Against superior weaponry even the bravest must fail, and when those better weapons were wielded by men whose whole life had been nothing but a preparation for war the outcome was inevitable. Herodotus memorably describes one of the Spartan battle-tactics that caused havoc among the Immortals.
One of the feints they used was to pretend to turn and fly all at once. Seeing them apparently taking to their heels, the barbarians would pursue them with a great clatter and shouting; whereupon, just as the Persians were almost upon them, the Spartans would wheel and face them, and in this about-turn they would inflict innumerable casualties upon them. In doing this, the Spartans had some losses too, but only a few. In the end, since they could make no headway towards winning the pass, whether they attacked in companies or whatever they did, the Persians broke off the engagement and withdrew. It is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle from his throne, three times sprang to his feet in fear for his army.
To watch his finest troops, who came under his own personal command, suffering such savage losses, must have been intolerable and dismaying to the Great King. No doubt Demaratus found it a convenient moment to be absent from the royal circle and to hold his tongue.
The Spartans and the allies could now withdraw, bandage their wounds, eat some very necessary food and take their rest. Even for the hardest of men it had been a hard day and, although the sight of the dead in the pass served to remind them of the heavy losses they had inflicted on the enemy, all of them knew that tomorrow would be an inevitable repetition of the day that was over. The night, too, was to prove a savage one. Yet another storm blew up, ‘with torrential rain and with loud thunder from Mount Pelion5. The fact that Herodotus mentions the rain and the thunder indicates that this storm was of quite a different vintage from the ‘Helles-ponter5 that had caused the damage to the Persian fleet before. Some scholars in the past have confused or combined these two storms into one, but it is abundantly clear that they were of a completely different nature. When the Persian task-force had been despatched to round Euboea and cut off the Athenians from the south the first storm had blown over. No doubt it was reckoned, on a good average estimate of Aegean conditions, that several days or more of clear weather might follow upon this first hard gale. It is not all that unusual, however, after the first imbalance in the weather has taken place, for subsidiary bad weather to follow as the barometric levels sort themselves out and the air temperatures over land and sea re-adjust. Herodotus remarks, as with some surprise, that ‘it was now the middle of Summer5 - that is, that it was a very strange thing to happen. But this was not so; it was the third week in August and, as the meteorological tables show, the continuity of the good weather associated with the meltemi is no longer to be relied upon. The wind that now blew up, with its accompanying torrential rainfall, was a typical sirocco from the south-east. (Somewhere down over Egypt the khamsin, the hot desert wind, had started to blow and, picking up water-vapour from the sea on its way, now discharged it as the swollen air struck the mountainous flanks of Greece.)
The result was yet another disaster for the Persians at sea. (Rightly had the Delphic oracle advised the Athenians to ‘pray to the winds’.) The 200-ship force which, showing remarkable speed, had nearly rounded Euboea was caught off the area known as ‘The Hollows’ near Carystus, at the very southern end of the island. A few hours more and they would have been into the Euboea Channel but, as it happened, they could not have been in a worse place when the roaring southerly struck. ‘It found them in the open sea - and miserable was their end. The storm and rain caught them … and every ship, unable to see where they were going for the rain, was forced to drive before the wind and ran upon the rocks.’
The claim of Herodotus that every ship was destroyed seems suspect. If the sirocco did indeed strike the ships while they were off the series of bays at the head of which Carystus stands, it seems unlikely that none of them will have been able to make port in Carystus itself - and Carystus was pro-Persian. If, on the other hand, the Persians were still off the eastern end of Euboea (more likely in view of the time factor), then some of them will certainly have been able to run back north with the wind under their sterns. But of one thing there can be absolutely no doubt; they never rounded Euboea. The southerly gale finally put paid to the clever, but always risky, stratagem of despatching the 200 ships to take the Athenians in the rear. Of this we can be quite certain, for the fifty-three Athenian ships which had been guarding the approaches by Chalcis picked up some of the storm-shattered advance-guard of the Persians, interrogated them and, having discovered the extent of the disaster, the Athenians promptly sailed north to join Themistocles at Artemisium.
‘It’s an ill wind… .’ The southerly that had wreaked havoc on their enemies boosted the Athenians up the Euripus Channel to give Themistocles fifty-three new vessels at the very moment that the most needed them. Emboldened by this great good news the reinforced Athenian fleet (and this time, one imagines, there were no protests from Eurybiades) proceeded to adopt the same hit-and-run tactics they had found fruitful before. Once again in the late afternoon or early evening they swept up from Artemisium. They found an enemy almost totally demoralised by this second gale.
They had huddled in Aphetae, thinking they were doomed, as the wind and the rain had swept up from the south. Themistocles and his commanders fell upon them like a lightning bolt that evening, attacked and destroyed the Cilician squadron, and moved back to Artemisium before a major action could possibly take place. Once more their withdrawal was covered by the swift fall of darkness. It was another brilliant small victory, boosting the pride of the Greeks at the same time as their confidence was reassured by the news of the destruction of the Persians off Euboea.
On the morning of this day, 19 August, Xerxes threw in fresh crack troops, encouraging them with lavish promises of the rewards that would be theirs if they succeeded, but dire warnings of what would happen to them if they failed. He had calculated also that since the Greeks ‘were so few in number, they would be too exhausted and too worn down by wounds to put up much of a resistance’. The Great King was to be bitterly disappointed. The Greeks, as we have seen - with the exception of the Phocians guarding the pass - were organised in divisions according to their states and, in the intervals between the attacks, were able to replace the narrow front line with men who had come up fresh (or as much so as possible) from behind. To judge from a later observation of Herodotus, it seems likely that even by this second day the Persian morale was so low that they had to be driven forward by the whips of overseers (military police have never been over-popular!). In the confusion of those in front trying to turn back from the bronze wall bristling with spears and those at the back running forward to escape the blows across their shoulders the chaos was complete. Yard upon yard in front of the Greek line was piled with slain and wounded while the sickly sweet smell of death was everywhere on the air. ‘So, finding that they were doing no better than on the previous day, the Persians once again withdrew.’
Xerxes was in despair and had no idea how to deal with the situation. As has been said, the Persians would no doubt within a matter of days have found the way over the mountain and down to take the Greeks in the rear, but what was the pressing cause for concern was the provisioning of the army. By this time, one imagines, except for a straggling ‘tail’, the whole host must have been up and encamped around. No store-ships had come up from the south and, although one can only guess at the amount of communication there may have been by sea between the fleet and the army, such news as did come through from the south will all have been bad. Indeed, at about this time when Xerxes and his staff were debating their next move, Themistocles was making the second of his lightning raids on the demoralised Persian fleet.
It was at this moment of gloom in the Great King’s camp that Ephialtes so opportunely put in his appearance. Like many others he had no doubt expected the pass to have fallen on the first day, and certainly on the second. The sight of the bedraggled troops returning yet again defeated across the plain must have prompted him to come to the Great King in person (possibly before someone else did?). It will have been clear by now that such information had acquired a real value, so ‘in hope of a rich reward’ he made his way to the king. Burn comments: ‘What the guide Ephialtes had to show his masters was not the existence of a route leading east on top of the mountains, which was locally common knowledge (Hdt. 7, 175), but exactly where to turn east9 (My italics.) Ephialtes was not only prepared to tell them where to cross the Asopus, so as to begin their climb to the easy ground between the two ridges of Kallidromos, but he was prepared to act in person as their guide. It was this that made all the difference. It was one night before the full moon - that Carneian moon which had held back the full Spartan army - so that the Persians and their guide would have the benefit of it all night long, as they made their way by the track about which this man from Malis was now telling the Great King.
Xerxes wasted no more time. He sent for Hydarnes, commander of the Immortals. The Persian Guards may have suffered fairly heavy losses and a blow to their morale the day before, but the losses will have been made up and their morale could now be restored. In the pass of the Hot Gates they had been fighting under conditions that were thoroughly unfavourable to them. But these were men familiar with another kind of warfare, and their training and their weaponry were ideal for hard, fast marching under mountain conditions. *
Xerxes was sending them where they could prove to all the army that they were indeed the Great King’s chosen Ten Thousand, and he was sending them where they could take their revenge.