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Xerxes I.

Ξέρξης), king of Persia B. C. 485-465. The name is said by Herodotus (6.98) to signify the warrior, but it is probably the same word as the Zend ksathra and the Sanscrit kshatra, " a king." Xerxes was the son of Dareius and Atossa. Dareius was married twice. By his first wife, the daughter of Gobryas, he had three children before he was raised to the throne; and by his second wife, Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, he had four children after he had become king of Persia. Artabazanes, the eldest son of the former marriage, and Xerxes, the eldest son of the latter, each laid claim to the succession; but Dareius decided in favour of Xerxes, no doubt through the influence of his mother Atossa, who completely ruled Dareius.

Xerxes succeeded his father at the beginning of B. C. 485. Dareius had died in the midst of his preparations against Greece, which had been interrupted by a revolt of the Egyptians. The first care of Xerxes was to reduce the latter people to subjection. He accordingly invaded Egypt at the beginning of the second year of his reign (B. C. 484), compelled the people again to submit to the Persian yoke, and then returned to Persia, leaving his brother Achaemenes, governor of Egypt. The next four years were devoted to preparations for the invasion of Greece. It was his object to collect a mighty armament, which might not simply be sufficient to conquer Europe, but which might display the power and magnificence of the greatest monarch of the world. Troops were gathered together from all quarters of the wide-spread Persian empire, and even the most distant nations subject to his sway were required to send their contingents. Critalla in Cappadocia was the place of meeting, and there they came pouring in, nomad hordes from the steppes of central Asia, dark-coloured tribes from the rivers flowing into the Indus, and negroes from the inland parts of Africa, as well as from all the intermediate countries. Immense stores of provisions were at the same time collected from all parts of the Persian empire, and deposited at suitable stations along the line of march. The fleet was furnished by the Phoenicians, Ionians and other maritime nations subject to the Persians. An agreement also was made with the Carthaginians, that they should attack the Greek cities in Sicily and Italy, while Xerxes invaded the mother country. Two great works were at the same time undertaken, which might bear witness to the grandeur and power of the Persian monarch. He ordered that a bridge of boats should be thrown across the Hellespont, and that a canal should be cut through the isthmus of Mount Athos, on which the fleet of Mardonius had been wrecked in B. C. 492. The bridge across the Hellespont stretched from the neighbourhood or Abydos on the Asiatic side to the coast between Sestos and Madytus on the European, were the strait is about an English mile in breadth. The work was entrusted to Phoenicians and Egyptians; but after it had been completed, it was destroyed by a violent storm. Xerxes was so enraged that he caused the heads of the chief engineers to be cut off, and commanded that the strait itself should be scourged, and a set of fetters cast into it. A new bridge was constructed, of which Herodotus has left us a minute account (8.36). There were in fact two bridges formed of two lines of ships; but our limits prevent us from entering into the details of their construction. The canal cut through the isthmus of Mount Athos from the Strymonic to the Toronaic gulph was about a mile and a half long, and was broad and deep enough for two triremes to sail abreast. This work is said to have occupied a multitude of workmen for a space of three years. That these works were unnecessary is no proof that they were never executed; for Xerxes' invasion of Greece must not be judged by the necessities or probabilities of any ordinary war. It was rather a lavish display of human life and human labour to gratify the caprice and magnify the power of an Eastern despot, than simply a military force collected for the conquest of a formidable enemy. The cutting of the canal through Mount Athos has been rejected as a falsehood by numerous writers both ancient and modern. Juvenal speaks of it (10.174) as a specimen of Greek mendacity,

" creditur olim
Velificatus Athos, et quidquid Graecia mendax
Audet in historia,"

and Niebuhr denies it most positively as a thing quite incomprehensible. ( Vorträge über alte Geschichte, vol. i. p. 403.) But since it is evident that Herodotus went in person over the whole ground traversed by the Persian army, the mere fact that he gives a most minute description of this canal (7.37) ought to convince every one of its existence even without any further evidence, since he certainly never said that he saw what he did not see. There are, however, the most distinct traces of it at the present day, as is shown by Lieutenant Wolfe, who has given an account of its present condition in the article " Athos" which he wrote in the " Penny Cyclopaedia."

In the autumn of B. C. 481 Xerxes arrived at Sardis, and early in the spring of the following year commenced his march towards the Hellespont. So great was the number of the army that it was seven days and seven nights in crossing the bridges without a moment of intermission. The march was continued through the Thracian Chersonese till it reached the plain of Doriscus, which is near the sea, and is traversed by the river Hebrus. The army was here joined by the fleet, which had not entered the Hellespont, but had sailed westward round the southernmost promontory of the Thracian Chersonese. At this plain Xerxes resolved to number both his land and naval forces. The mode employed for numbering the foot soldiers was remarkable. Ten thousand men were first numbered and packed together as closely as they could stand; a line was drawn and a wall built round the place they had occupied, into which all the soldiers entered successively, till the whole army was thus measured. There were found to be a hundred and seventy of these divisions, thus making a total of 1,700,000 foot. Besides these there were 80,000 horse, and many war chariots and camels, with about 20,000 men. Herodotus has left us a most minute and interesting catalogue of the nations comprising this mighty army with their various military equipments and different modes of fighting. The land forces contained forty-six nations. (Hdt. 7.61, foll.) The fleet consisted of 1207 triremes, and 3000 smaller vessels. Each trireme was manned by 200 rowers and 30 fighting men; and each of the accompanying vessels carried 80 men according to the calculation of Herodotus. Thus the naval force would amount to 517,610. The whole armament, both military and naval, which passed over from Asia to Doriscus, would accordingly amount to 2,317,610 men. Nor was this all. In his march from Doriscus to Thermopylae, Xerxes received a still further accession of strength. The Thracian tribes, the Macedonians, and the other nations in Europe whose territories he traversed supplied 300,000 men, and 120 triremes containing an aggregate of 24,000 men. Thus when he reached Thermopylae the land and sea forces amounted to 2,641,610 fighting men. This does not include the attendants, the slaves, the crews of the provision ships, &c., which according to the supposition of Herodotus were more in number than the fighting men; but supposing them to have been equal, the total number of male persons who accompanied Xerxes to Thermopylae reach the astounding figure of 5,283,220! In addition to this, there were the eunuchs, concubines and female cooks, of whom no one could tell the amount, nor that of the beasts of burthen, cattle and Indian dogs. (Hdt. 7.184-187.)

Such vast numbers seem incredible, and have led many writers to impeach either the veracity or the good sense of the historian. They are rejected altogether by Niebuhr in his Lectures on Ancient History, who asserts that it is impossible that the seventh book of Herodotus can be an historical relation, and considers it as fonnded on the epic poem of Choerilus. On the other hand, Heeren is disposed to receive the numerical totals of Herodotus without question. The view which Mr. Grote takes is more cautious and is characterized by his usual good sense and critical acumen. As the subject has occasioned so much controversy, his remarks deserve to be quoted at length. " To admit this overwhelming total, or anything near to it, is obviously impossible : yet the disparaging remarks which it has drawn down upon Herodotus are no way merited. He takes pains to distinguish that which informants told him, from that which he merely guessed. His description of the review at Doriscus is so detailed, that he had evidently conversed with persons who were present at it, and had learnt the separate totals promulgated by the enumerators -- infantry, cavalry, and ships of war, great and small. As to the number of triremes, his statement seems beneath the truth, as we may judge from the contemporary authority of Aeschylus, who in the " Persae" gives the exact number of 1207 Persian ships as having fought at Salamis : but between Doriscus and Salamis Herodotus has himself enumerated 647 ships as lost or destroyed, and only 120 as added. No exaggeration therefore can well be suspected in this statement. which would imply about 276,000 as the number of the crews, though there is here a confuson or omission in the narrative which we cannot clear up. But the aggregate of 3000 smaller ships, and still more that of 1,700.000 infantry, are far less trustworthy. There would be little or no motive for the enumerators to be exact, and every motive for them to exaggerate--an immense nominal total would be no less pleasing to the army than to the monarch himself -- so that the military total of land-force and ships' crews which Herodotus gives as 2,641,000 on the arrival at Thermopylae, may be dismissed as unwarrantable and incredible..... Weighing the circumstances of the case well, and considering that this army was the result of a maximum of effort throughout the vast empire -- that a great numerical total was the thing chiefly demanded -- and that prayers for exemption were regarded by the great king as a capital offence -- and that provisions had been collected for three years before along the line of march -- we may well believe that the numbers of Xerxes were greater than were ever assembled in ancient times, or perhaps at any known epoch of history. But it would be rash to pretend to guess at any positive number, in the entire absence of any ascertained data; and when we learn from Thucydides that he found it impossible to find out the exact numbers of the small armies of Greeks who fought at Mantineia, we shall not be ashamed to avow our inability to count the Asiatic multitudes at Doriscus." (Hist. of Greece, vol. v. p. 46, foll.)

After the review of Doriscus Xerxes continued his march through Thrace in three divisions, and along three different lines of road. The tribes through which he marched had to furnish a day's meal for the immense host, and for this purpose had made preparations many months beforehand. The cost of feeding such a multitude brought many of the cities of Thrace to the brink of ruin : the city of Thasos alone, on account of their possessions on the main land, expended no less a sum for this purpose than 400 talents. . On reaching Acanthus, near the isthmus of Athos, Xerxes left his fleet, which received orders to sail through the canal that had been dug across the isthmus, to double the two peninsulas of Sithonia and Pallene, and await his arrival at Therme, afterwards called Thessalonica (now Saloniki), a little to the east of the mouth of the river Axius. After joining his fleet at Therme, Xerxes marched through Mygdonia and Bottiaeis, as far as the mouth of the Haliacmon. Hitherto his march had been through territory subject to the Persian empire, and he now entered Macedonia, the monarch of which reverently tendered his submission, and undertook to conduct him further.

The Greeks had originally intended to defend the defile of Tempe, the northernmost entrance of Greece, and they sent thither a force of 10,000 men, in accordance with the urgent desires of the Thessalians. But upon arriving there the Greeks found that it would be impossible to hold the pass, as the Persians could land troops in their rear, and there was another pass across the mountains east of Tempe, by which the Persians could enter Thessaly. The Greeks therefore returned to the isthmus about the same time as Xerxes crossed the Hellespont. Their retreat was followed by the submission of the whole of Thessaly to Xerxes, who accordingly met with no opposition till he reached Thermopylae. Here the Greeks resolved to make a stand. This pass was in one important respect better adapted for defence than that of Tempe, for the mainland was here separated from the island of Euboea only by a narrow strait, so that by defending the strait with their fleet the Persians could not land troops in their rear on the mainland. Accordingly, while Leonidas, king of Sparta, conducted a land force to Thermopylae, his colleague Eurybiades sailed with the combined Greek fleet to the north of Euboea, and took up his position on the northern coast, which faced Magnesia, and which was called Artemisium from the temple of Artemis belonging to the town of Histiaea.

The remainder of the history of the invasion of Xerxes is so fully related in other articles in this work [THEMISTOCLES; EURYBIADES; LEONIDAS ; ARISTEIDES; MARDONIUS], that it is only necessary in this place to give a very brief enumeration of the subsequent events. Xerxes arrived in safety with his land forces before Thermopylae, but his fleet was overtaken by a violent storm and hurricane off the coast of Sepias in Magnesia, by which at least four hundred ships of war were destroyed, as well as an immense number of transports. The Greeks, who had in a panic deserted Artemisium and sailed to Chalcis in Euboea, thus leaving Xerxes at full liberty to communicate with his fleet, now took courage, and sailed back to their former position at Artemisium. On their arrival they found the Persian fleet, which had recovered from the effects of the storm, drawn up on the opposite coast in the neighbourhood of Aphetae. Meantime Xerxes had attempted to force his way through the pass of Thermopylae, but his troops were repulsed again and again by Leonidas and his gallant band. At last a Malian, of the name of Ephialtes, showed the Persians a pass over the mountains of Oeta, and thus enabled them to fall on the rear of the Greeks. Leonidas and his Spartans disdained to fly, and were all slain after performing miracles of valour [LEONIDAS]. On the same days on which Leonidas was fighting with the land forces of Xerxes, the Greek ships at Artemisium attacked the Persian fleet. In the first battle, which was not fought till late in the day, the Greeks had the advantage, and in the following night the Persian ships suffered still more from a violent storm, which blew right upon the shore at Aphetae The same storm completely destroyed a squadron of the Persian fleet, which had been sent to sail round Euboea in order to cut off the retreat of the Greeks. The Persian ships at Aphetae had been too much damaged to renew the fight on the following day, but the day after they again sailed out and offered battle to the Greeks. The contest lasted the whole day, and both sides fought with the greatest courage. Although the Greeks at the close still maintained their position, and had destroyed a great number of the enemy's ships, yet their own loss was considerable, and half the Athenian ships was disabled. Under these circumstances the Greek commanders saw that it was impossible to remain at Artemisium any longer, and their resolution to retreat was quickened by the disastrous intelligence that Xerxes was master of the pass at Thermopylae. Upon this they forthwith abandoned Artemisium and retired to Salamis, opposite the southwestern coast of Attica.

The Peloponnesians had resolved to retire within the peninsula, and to build a wall across the isthmus. It was now too late to send an army into Boeotia, and Attica thus lay exposed to the full vengeance of the invader. The fleet had been ordered to assemble at Troezen in order to co-operate with the land forces for the protection of the Peloponnesus, and Eurybiades had only remained at Salamis at the earnest entreaty of the Athenians, in order to assist them in the transport of their families. They had no time to lose. Themistocles urged them at once to remove the women, children, and infirm persons to Salamis, Aegina, and Troezen, and within six days the whole population with few exceptions left the country. The greater number were conveyed to Troezen, where they were received most hospitably, and maintained at the public expense. Meantime Xerxes had entered Phocis, which he laid waste with fire and sword. At Panopeus he sent a detachment of his army to plunder Delphi, while he himself marched into Boeotia with the main body of his forces. All the people of Boeotia submitted to him with the exception of the inhabitants of Thespiae and Plataea, which were deserted by their citizens, and were both burnt by Xerxes. Thus he reached Athens without encountering any resistance. But the detachment which had been sent against Delphi met with a signal defeat : according to tradition it was by no mortal hands that they were turned to flight, but the god defended his own sanctuary, and hurled down immense crags upon the invaders. That the Persians failed in their attempt upon Delphi must be received as an historical fact; for the offerings of the Lydian kings, and others of an earlier time, were still seen there by Herodotus ; but the means by which they were repulsed must remain unknown. About the same time as Xerxes entered Athens, his fleet arrived in the bay of Phalerum. He now resolved upon an engagement with the Greek fleet. The history of this memorable battle, of the previous dissensions among the Greek commanders, and of the glorious victory of the Greeks at the last, is fully related elsewhere. [THEMISTOCLES.] Xerxes witnessed the battle from a lofty seat, which was erected for him on the shore of the mainland on one of the declivities of Mount Aegaleos, and thus beheld with his own eyes the defeat and dispersion of his mighty armament. The Greeks expected a renewal of the battle on the following day, but Xerxes now became alarmed for his own safety, and resolved to leave Greece immediately. He was confirmed in his resolution by Mardonius, who undertook to complete the conquest with 300,000 of his troops. Xerxes accordingly ordered the fleet to sail to the Hellespont, and there to guard the bridge till his arrival; he left Mardonius the number of troops which he requested, and with the remainder set out on his march homewards. His own personal escort consisted of 60,000 men under the command of Artabazus, and he reached the Hellespont in fortyfive days from the time of his departure from Attica. His troops suffered much in the retreat from the want of provisions, and many died of hunger; but the account which Aeschylus gives in the " Persae " of the dreadful calamities which overtook the retreating army is probably much exaggerated. 1 On arriving at the Hellespont, Xerxes found the bridge of boats destroyed by a storm, and he crossed over to Asia by ship. He entered Sardis towards the end of the year, B. C. 480, humbled and defeated, only eight months after he had left it full of arrogance and sure of victory.

In the following year, B. C. 479, the war was continued in Greece; but Mardonius was defeated at Plataea by the combined forces of the Greeks, and on the same day another victory was gained over the Persians at Mycale in Ionia. [MARDONIUS.] Next year, B. C. 478, the Persians lost their last possession in Europe by the capture of Sestos on the Hellespont. Thus the struggle was virtually brought to an end, though the war still continued for several years longer. We know little more of the personal history of Xerxes. Soon after his arrival at Sardis he fell in love with the wife of his brother Masistes, whom he solicited in vain to yield to his desires. In order to gain her, he married her daughter Artaynte to his own son Dareius; but shortly afterwards he transferred his affections from the mother to the daughter. His amour with Artaynte became known to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, by his giving to his favourite a cloak which Amestris had woven for him with her own hands. Amestris meditated and took dire revenge. She obtained possession of the wife of Masistes, and mutilated her in a horrible manner. Masistes therefore attempted to escape to Bactria with his sons, of which country he was satrap, intending there to raise the standard of revolt; but Xerxes, who anticipated his object, sent some troops after him, who killed both him and his sons. (Hdt. 9.108-113.) In B. C. 465 Xerxes, after a reign of twenty years, was murdered by Artabanus and the eunuch Spamitres, or Mithridates, as he is also called. Artabanus was an Hyrcanian by birth, and one of the highest officers of his court. He had seven sons in the prime of life, and resolved to place himself upon the throne of Persia and found a new dynasty. For this purpose it was necessary to get rid of the sons of Xerxes. According to Ctesias and Justin, Xerxes had left only two sons, Dareius and Artaxerxes, but Diodorus mentions a third, Hystaspes, who was satrap of Bactria and absent from court at his father's death. As soon as Xerxes was slain, the conspirators informed Artaxerxes that Dareius had been the murderer of his father, and persuaded the young prince to give instant orders for the execution of his brother. Artabanus shortly afterwards attempted to murder Artaxerxes, but the plot was discovered, and Artabanus and his sons were put to death. (Diod. 11.69; Ctesias, Pers. 100.29; Justin, 3.1.)

Herodotus (7.187) describes Xerxes as the tallest and handsomest man amidst the vast host which he led against Greece. His character appears to have been worse than most of the Persian monarchs; for, according to Herodotus, he was a coward as well as a cruel tyrant. The three last books of Herodotus are the great authority for the invasion of Greece by Xerxes; and long modern writers the history is best related by Mr. Grote in the fifth volume of his History of Greece, to which we have been much indebted in drawing up the preceding narrative.

1 * See Grote, History of Greece, vol. v. pp. 190, 191, note, where forcible reasons are adduced to show that the loss of the army in crossing the river Strymon is probably a fable.

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  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Diodorus, Historical Library, 11.69
    • Herodotus, Histories, 9.108
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.98
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.184
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.187
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.61
    • Herodotus, Histories, 9.113
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