Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, December 1, 2019


August of 2020 marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Leading up to that anniversary, I am posting a series of entries on key events and personalities relevant to that historical event.
 Today I continue the series with a brief biographical sketch of the man who would lead the invading Persian forces in 480 BC: Xerxes

As highlighted last month, the Persian campaign ending in the Battle of Marathon was viewed by both sides as a victory and settled nothing. The Persian King Darius became more determined than ever to crush Athens because he now felt he had to punish both Athens' support for the Ionian rebellion and for humiliating his army at Marathon. He announced his intention to personally lead an army -- greater than any before -- against Athens. To provide that army with the necessary ships, horses, weapons and provisions, however, took time and taxes. The Egyptians objected to the taxes and rebelled, and as it turned out Darius did not have the time he needed either. He died in 486 at 64 years of age. 

Darius was succeeded not by his eldest son, but a younger son born to a daughter of Cyrus the Great. He was at the time of his succession already 36 years old and had been carefully groomed for his future as king by serving twelve years as governor in Babylon. After coming to power, he successfully quelled rebellions in both Egypt and Babylon. Significantly, in the later he broke with his father's tradition of religious tolerance and melted down the most important statue of the God Bel. 

By 483 his attentions had turned to Greece. Xerxes' actions suggest that he was anxious to complete his father's unfinished campaign against Greece and thereby avenge the "humiliation" of his father. Herodotus, however, suggests that he was goaded into action by his cousin Mardonius.

Herodotus puts the following speech into Mardonius' mouth:
" will not allow the wretched Ionians in Europe to make fools of us. It would indeed be a fearsom thing if we who have defeated and enslaved the Sacae, Indians, Ethiopians, Assyrians, and many other great nations who did us no injury ... should fail now to punish the Greeks who have been guilty of injuring us without provocation. (Book 7:9)
Once Xerxes had made up his mind to attack Greece, there is no question that he undertook a campaign with single-mindedness, determination, and foresight. Massive amounts of provisions were pre-positioned along the invasion route. In addition, to avoid losing his fleet as Mardonius had done in 492, he ordered a canal cut across the Athos peninsula.  Herodous, however, dismisses the later as "mere ostentation" because (he claims) there would have been "no difficulty" hauling the ships overland. Xerxes built the canal, Herodotus says "to show his power and to leave something to be remembered by." (Book 7: 34)

This is the tone of Herodotus' commentary, which he underlines with examples Xerxes arrogance and cruelty. On the one hand, we have the story of Xerxes ordering the waters of the Hellespont lashed 300 times (like a disobedient slave) because a storm had destroyed his pontoon bridge -- an action that epitomizes the stupid arrogance of a man obsessed with his own allegedly "divine" power. On the other hand, he tells the gruesome story of the Lydian noble Pythius. The latter voluntarily offered lavish hospitality to Xerxes and his army and also put his fortune at Xerxes disposal for the war -- to the tune of 3,993,000 gold Darics (a vast fortune). Yet when he asked that the eldest of his five sons be exempted from service in the army, Xerxes gave the following answer (according to Herodotus):
"You miserable fellow," he cried, "have you the face to mention your son, when I, in person, am marching to war against Greece with my sons and brothers and kinsmen and friends -- you, my slave, whose duty it was to come to me with every member of your house, including your wife? ... now your punishment will be less than your impudence deserves. Yourself and four of your sons are saved by the entertainment you gave me; but you shall pay with the life of the fifth, whom you cling to most."
Herodotus continues:
Having answered Pythius in these words Xerxes at once gave orders that the men to whom such duties fell should find Pythius' eldest son and cut him in half and put the two halves one on each side of the road, for the army to march out between them. The order was performed.

Propaganda? Maybe, but Herodotus was capable of showing respect and offering praise to Xerxes predecessors Cyrus and Darius. That the tone of his commentary is so decidedly different must have a cause beyond mere prejudice or politics. The fact that he can site incident after incident of Xerxes' bizarre behavior also suggests that there is at least some basis for his characterization. 

Tellingly, Xerxes had thrones set up in safe places from which to watch his battles -- whether Thermopylae or Salamis. Xerxes sent other men to die, often under the lashing of whips, rather than leading from the front. And when things went badly, he just went home with some of his army while abandoning the rest of his "slaves," those he expected to bleed for him. 

After returning to Susa, he appears to have lost interest in military affairs and to have focused on grandiose construction projects, including a palace that was twice the size of his father's. It is hard to escape parallels with other dictators like Hitler and Stalin. 

In 465, Xerxes was assassinated by the commander of the royal bodyguard. That too tells us something about his popularity among his closest associates.

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