By the spring of 480 Xerxes had received the news that not only was the canal bypassing Mount Athos completed, but that both the bridges across the Hellespont were restored and ready for the army to cross. The time was ripe. The spring months, after the gales of winter, and long before the prevailing northerlies of summer set in, were ideal. True, there can sometimes be storms in this season, but they are rare. Most of the Aegean, from the Hellespont southward to the Sporades, Cape Sunium, and beyond that again to the Cyclades, is usually ruffled by no more than the winds known as prodroms - the variable forerunners of early summer.
Long in advance of his move out of Sardis Xerxes had sent messengers to all the Greek states asking for those formal tokens of surrender - the gifts of earth and water from their land. It is hardly surprising that many of them, and especially the vulnerable islands, sent back these necessary tributes. According to Herodotus, it was only to the two major states of Athens and Sparta that no heralds were despatched. On the previous occasion, ten years before, when Darius had sent similar heralds, the Athenians were said to have cast them into ‘The Pit’ - the place for condemned criminals -and the Spartans to have thrown them down a well. Part of this story is suspect, for Herodotus had a pro-Athenian bias and was inclined to enlarge upon their heroic legend. At the time of Darius it seems somewhat unlikely that the Athenians would have acted in a manner so contrary to the international law accepted by all civilised peoples. (Heralds were regarded as sacred and inviolable.) On the other hand, there is real evidence that the Spartans had indeed thrown the Persian ambassadors down a well, telling them to ‘get earth and water for their king from down there’. The drastic nature of the action is Spartan, the quoted remark suitably laconic, and it was a known fact that Sparta regarded herself as superior to the law of other States and nations, especially ‘Barbarians’: those who were not Greeks.
Xerxes and his advisers knew that, if it was intolerable to send heralds to Sparta, it was equally pointless to send them to Athens. The essential core of Greece which had to be destroyed was composed of these two small, even if so dissimilar, city-states. The one was the military muscle of Greece and the other provided by far the greater part of its naval arm. Many of the other Greeks had already ‘medised’, as the term was: they had, that is to say, shown their willingness to co-operate with the Persians. This was hardly surprising, since to many an intelligent citizen, whether of an Aegean island, or of a city on the mainland, it must have seemed more than clear that, even if all the Greeks were united (which was far from true), they would stand no chance against the massive army and navy that was coming against them out of the East.
Xerxes had made good use of the propaganda effect of his preparations. He had even deliberately allowed Greek spies to infiltrate and witness the gathering together of the army and the building of the navy. His own men, for their part, in the guise either of sailors or of merchants had long kept the king and his inner circle acquainted with the political groups and motivations within the cities and island-states of the Greeks. In nearly all of these there were power struggles between various rich families, or between ruling families and the demos or common people. It was easy to see that in many cases, in return for the plentiful Persian gold, one rich family would be prepared to ‘sell out’ to the Persians in return for becoming the local rulers in due course. Alternatively, an oligarchy, or aristocratic allied group of families, would do the same in return for the monetary and military help that would enable them to keep the demos in their proper place - down. (In so many subsequent wars similar arrangements have always been made between the potentially occupied and the apparently all-powerful invaders.) If the Greeks were - as they were indeed - a brilliant people, they were individualistic to a fault, and concerned with the fate and fortune of themselves first of all and, secondly, of their state. Athens and Sparta, although by the nature of their societies basically hostile to one another, were large and important enough to realise that co-operation between the two of them was the only possible way in which the Greeks as a people could survive the Juggernaut that had some years ago crushed the freedom of their fellow-Greeks in Asia Minor (Ionia).
Although it is true that Herodotus, who was born some four years after the invasion of Xerxes, had access to all the records available, it is impossible to accept the figures that he gives for the size of the Persian army and of the fleet. If one first of all bears in mind that Herodotus was trying to make his figures square with a famous war memorial that had been set up in the pass of Thermopylae, it is not so difficult to see where his added noughts come from in his computation of the Persian numbers. The memorial in traditional Spartan or laconic style reads :
Against three million men fought in this place Four thousand Peloponnesians, face to face.
The fact is that the Greeks, when it came to numbers beyond their normal usage, tended to use the term ‘myriads’ (tens of thousands) as we, centuries later, loosely use millions or billions - meaning no more than an almost uncountable amount.
The figures as given by Herodotus show an army totalling :
1,700,000 infantrymen, 80,000 horsemen, a camel corps and chariot contingent numbering 20,000, and a mixture of Greeks from Ionia, the islands, and Thrace, to the total of 300,000. Burn adds the dry but apt comment
… finding himself still short of the war-memorial’s three million, he cheerfully doubles the whole total to allow for noncombatants (cooks, drivers, women - the Guards are reported to have brought their women along in wagons) and reaches a grand total of 5,283,220. The most remarkable thing, he adds, with a decent descent into realism, is how such a multitude was fed.
Other scholars and military historians have debated the size of the army - and of the navy - but the most realistic viewpoint seems to be that Herodotus confused the Persian term ?nyriarchs, which meant the commander of 10,000 men, with the other named commanders who, in their lesser sphere, commanded no more than thousands or hundreds. (The Persians worked on the decimal system.) If one removes a nought from all of Herodotus’ figures one comes up with an army of 170,000 infantrymen, 8000 cavalry, 2000 camel corps and charioteers, and 30,000 Greeks and Thracians. This seems a far more likely figure in view of the populations (as far as they can be conjected) at the time. It would still make sense, in that it would nevertheless suggest to a Greek accustomed to battles involving at the most a few thousand men an almost inexhaustible flood of troops.
General Sir Frederick Maurice, who had the opportunity of covering the area of the march of the Great King not long after the First World War, came up with the conclusion that the total of the Persian army was about 210,000. Unlike most desk-bound scholars he had the opportunity to travel the whole area, and had excellent military and logistical knowledge of the terrain. He based his conclusions particularly on his observation of the water-supplies available. Maurice had also had experience of moving British military units together with animal transport, and he reckoned that such a force would probably have needed with them about 75,000 animals. Even at this, he reasons that what has sometimes been taken as an unbelievable comment by Herodotus, ‘except for the great rivers, their fighters drank the waters up’, was probably correct. A river, of course, unlike a pond or even a lake, cannot be drunk dry in one sense, for it is constantly being reinforced. One may also reasonably assume that the rivers in Asia Minor at that time were somewhat larger than they are today. Centuries of the ubiquitous goat, killing saplings, leading to deforestation, coupled with land changes in the earthquake-prone area of Turkey have certainly depleted the forests as well as interfering with natural water sources.
Nevertheless, working on whatever system one prefers, it seems that there is no possibility of the army of Xerxes having exceeded 250,000 men. Even this number, together with all their animals, baggage train and (possibly) camp followers, would have been sufficient to exhaust the water resources at a number of places along their route.
The figures which Herodotus gives for the invasion fleet of the Great King are again, like those of the army, subject to some doubt, although in this case they do bear more likelihood to reality. The Phoenicians, as was to be expected, provided the largest contingent, and it was almost certainly the most efficient. This is given as 300. The next largest contingent, 200, was that of the Egyptians, who specialised in having heavily armed parties of marines aboard their vessels. Cyprus produced 150 ships, Cilicia and Pamphylia between them 130, and Lycia and Caria 120. The Asian Greeks contributed a fighting force of 290 warships, the islands of the Cyclades 17, and in addition there were an estimated 120 triremes from the Thracian Greeks and the adjacent islands. This gives a grand total of 1327 warships, not counting the transport vessels of all and every size, which Herodotus again ‘estimates’ at about 3000.
It is quite clear from the later history of the campaign at sea that the Persian fleet, when it came into action, did not have anything like the preponderance over the Greek which these figures would suggest. They are nearer, in fact, to what may have been the total of all the shipping available in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean under Persian control at the time. The fact remains that Herodotus gives his list with some confidence, as if he had access to records -and it would seem that that is exactly what he had. Now, Xerxes had encouraged Greek spies well in advance of the campaign to penetrate the shipyards and to count the forces that were being mustered against them. This was all good propaganda. Anything that made his navy and his army seem larger than it really was suited his design of intimidating as many Greeks as possible from taking up arms against him. One may reasonably surmise that Greek intelligence was bamboozled into thinking that the numbers of ships and of men were vastly in excess of the real figures. Naturally enough, after the campaign was over, no Greek, whether soldier or sailor, was likely to reduce the number of ships and men that had come against him. With the passage of years, of course, especially when oral tradition was still the standard method of transmitting information, the numbers were certain to increase, not diminish. (It is only since the Second World War, when the records of both sides have been published, that the reality of the numbers of aircraft engaged in the Battle of Britain, and the casualties inflicted, have proved how erroneous were the reports issued by both sides at the actual time.) It is a natural instinct of man to exaggerate, especially when comparing his prowess with that of an enemy. Herodotus went to such sources as he could find, when he wrote TheHistories, and it is hardly surprising that the figures he received were usually inflated.
Another reason why, whether exaggerated or not, the numbers of ships involved on the Persian side have seemed excessive to scholars is that so many of them have overlooked the ships involved in supporting the two floating bridges. Even allowing for the fact that the first of these bridges was smashed up in a storm, Herodotus states with conviction that the number of ships required for the second, successful, bridging of the Hellespont was 674. Deducting this figure from the overall 1327 vessels, one is left with 65 3 ships before the subsequent engagement at Artemisium. Storm losses (quite apart from those in battle) left the Persians with a fleet that, when it came to the ultimate test at Salamis, was little superior in numbers to that which the Greeks had mustered.
Even after the necessary reductions in the numbers of ships and men in the army and fleet of Xerxes it is still true that to any Greek, whose island or city-state counted its inhabitants in a few thousands, the host of the Great King seemed so prodigious as to invite a terrified response. The Persian army justified the lines written by
A. E. Housman:
The King with half the East at heels Is marched from lands of morning.
His fighters drink the rivers up,
Their shafts benight the air… .
Before the invasion of Europe began and the army started to cross the Hellespont bridges Xerxes decided to hold a review of his forces. Herodotus implies that he reviewed the whole army and navy in a day, but this is clearly impossible. The army itself, when it was on the march, moved in columns, baggage train ahead, with half the infantry as escort; then came two brigades of Xerxes’ noble guards, the Immortals; the sacred chariot of Ahuramazda drawn by ten stallions, then the Great King, followed by two further brigades of crack infantry and cavalry; the rest of the Immortals; and finally all the other infantry divisions. The whole array, it has been calculated, would have taken seven days to cross the bridges from Asia Minor into Europe. It is clear that what Xerxes witnessed was a selection of the host, together with a few picked squadrons of
ships which put on a display of nautical skills just offshore. The throne of white marble, from which he witnessed this evidence of his power and might, was set up at Abydos on the eastern side of the Dardanelles. Here, on a day early in May, while the main body of the army together with all the animals was assembling for the crossing, Xerxes ‘saw the whole Hellespont covered in ships, and all the beaches and plains of Abydos filled with men’.
Xerxes, not unnaturally, was filled with exultation at the sight before him - the strait studded with ships, the great bridges, the dust cloud of the assembling army, the brilliant march past of the Immortals and other selected troops, the gleam of spring sunlight on cavalry and armoured men, and all the panoply of war. He then sent orders for some of the ships in his navy to give an exhibition of their prowess. A race was arranged between picked squadrons, the final heat of which was won by the Phoenicians of Sidon. (Sidon, along with Tyre and Arvad, produced the greatest mariners and pilots of antiquity.) ‘Xerxes was as pleased with the race as with the sight of his army … He congratulated himself - and the next moment burst into tears.5 His uncle Artabanus, who had tried from the very beginning to dissuade him from ‘Operation Europe’, said to him: ‘My lord, there is surely some contradiction between this behaviour and that of a minute ago. Then you called yourself a fortunate man - and yet now you weep.’
Xerxes answered him: ‘I paused for thought, and it occurred to me that human life is so sadly short. Out of all these thousands of men, not one will be alive in a hundred years.’
Artabanus was quick to seize the chance, while his monarch was temporarily out of spirits, to point out the dangers of the expedition. He was wise for his time. He realised that logistics very largely governed the success or failure of a campaign such as this. The farther the army advanced, the longer its lines of communications, and the greater the difficulty of food supplies. The land itself and the sea, he warned, were the king’s greatest enemies. The land that they were now invading would prove hostile and would not afford enough supplies for an army which, he admitted, was quite large enough for the task of subduing the Greeks. The sea was ever a treacherous element and there was no harbour on the Greek coast large enough to accommodate all the fleet in the event of bad weather. Xerxes, his serenity restored by the glory of the hour, was
not prepared to listen to the older man. He was determined to succeed where the great Darius had failed, and he had every confidence in the careful preparations that had been made to ensure the Persian success.
‘We are following’, he said, ‘in the footsteps of our fathers. We are marching to war at the ideal season of the year. We shall conquer all Europe and, without either being starved or suffering any other unpleasant circumstance, we shall return in triumph to our homeland.’
(It is difficult for the twentieth-century reader not to be reminded of the German Fuehrer in 1940 looking across the narrow seas of the Channel at the cliffs of Dover.)
Xerxes did not wish to be reminded of the possibility of failure, and the reward of Artabanus for his counsel was to be sent back home to the capital Susa. There he might act as Viceroy, and there an older man’s slow but sure approach might be useful in the government of the Empire. For the moment, it was clear that optimism and zestful confidence were what was needed around the throne of the Great King. Shortly afterwards Xerxes held a meeting of the Persian senior commanders and dispensed to them those standard platitudes that have been used throughout the ages by kings and generals. Courage was called for, the reputation of their ancestors must not be disgraced, utmost exertion, noble aims, brave enemy not to be despised, and then - ‘If we defeat them there is no other army in the world which will ever dare confront us.’
On the following day spices were burned on the bridges and boughs of myrtle were spread along the surface that the army would tread. The gods were being propitiated, and now Xerxes himself waited for sunrise. He was imploring the blessing of Ahuramazda upon the whole enterprise. The Shining One lifted above the land-mass of Asia. The men out of the East were about to conquer the lands that still lay in the darkness to the West. The Great King poured a libation of wine out of a golden goblet into the sea that he had previously chastised. He turned his face to the glory of the sun and prayed ‘that no chance might prevent him from conquering Europe or turn him back before he reached its utmost limits’. He threw the goblet into the sea, its shining flight to be followed a few seconds later by a golden bowl, and then a
Persian scimitar. All due rites had been attended to. Nothing now remained but to equal promise with performance. The Sun-God beading their swords, their spears, and their armour, the 10,000 Immortals, wreaths of victory on their heads, began the crossing of the upper bridge.