Xerxes, Thermopylae, and Salamis: Books VII – IX

In Book VII of Herodotus’s Histories, Herodotus details the anger of Darius who was unable to seek vengeance on Athens and also Egypt that was revolting against the Persians. However, infighting between the sons of Darius began and Xerxes won out, thanks to the superior skills of persuasion he received from a Spartan defector.

Xerxes consults with his loyal followers about his plans to create an empire under which the sun does not set. Mardonios flatters Xerxes and tells him that the Hellenes are weak and inferior. Artabanos, however, reminds Xerxes of the failure and embarrassment of the Battle of Marathon. Xerxes responds that Artabanos is a coward and punishes him for his insolence. The first fleet of Persians failed in shipwreck around Mount Athos under Mardonios. However, Xerxes is visited by three visions encouraging him to attack Hellas, and also visiting Artabanos the skeptic, the final vision showing that the world will become slaves under Xerxes.

Among the deliberations in taking course to Athens, Artabanos and Xerxes exchange sentiments on the pitiable short length of human life, reminiscent of the despair Gilgamesh feels after the death of Enkidu, followed by short tempered Xerxes declaring that men who take action are far more successful than those who strategize endlessly. Xerxes, the youngest brother, clearly does not read the Homeric texts as advancing Odysseus’s tactical superiority. Artabanos is once again rejected by Xerxes for advising that he consider that fear is important for success, and that the end f every matter is not revealed in perfect clarity at the beginning, echoing Solon to Croesus much earlier. Xerxes, however, changes the scope of his war to the end goal being the “common good of all” rather than an empire under which the sun never sets.

The Hellenes learn that the Persians are marching through the Hellespont and decide to defend their cities at Thermopylae, the narrow pass that would bottleneck the Persians. Herodotus estimates that in the various fleets, the Persian men totaled 2,317,210; plus men from Asia bringing the total to 5,283,220 men. Leonidas leads his small Spartan force of 300 to Thermopylae, along with other small groups of Hellenes to fight the coming Persians, the rest of the Spartans were held back due to the sacred religious festival of Karneia for the month of September, the same festival they were delayed with for the Battle of Marathon ten years earlier.

Upon finding the few numbers of Hellenes at the pass of Thermopylae, Xerxes is alarmed at how few there are. He sends out small groups of Medes and Persians, but both fail. Therefore, the Persians come over the mountains and outflank the Hellenes by night. As they do so, Leonidas sends the other Hellenes away to gain glory for the Spartans alone -Herodotus praises the men and claims to know the names of the 300 men. Leonidas fell in battle and his corpse was dragged away by the Lacedaemonians to be brought back to Sparta -a stone lion was later erected at the pass in his memory. Another man Herodotus considers to be “the most valiant man of all” is Dienekes who upon hearing that the Persian forces block out the sun when their arrows fly replied that this was good news for they would fight in the shade. The men hold the pass for three days.

Xerxes consults with the defector, Demaratos, about how to Lacedaemonians might best be defeated. Demaratos advises Xerxes to attack the other Hellenes and weaken them before proceeding to the Spartans. However, Achaimenes advises Xerxes to attack the Spartans now while  they are weak after Thermopylae -Xerxes unwisely chooses the latter. Meanwhile, Demaratos sends a warning to the Spartans with a secret message pressed in hot wax.

Themistocles leads the Athenians -he calculates that if they can separate the Ionians from the barbarians, the Hellenes can defeat the Persians. The Persians are amazed at the Olympic games being celebrated by the Hellenes because they compete not for riches, but for excellence alone, an olive wreath.

As the Persians advance, Athens is evacuated save for a few who stay behind to defend the Acropolis, at first, until they capture the hill and burn the Acropolis. Still today, one can see the early construction of a Persian temple at the Acropolis in Athens. It was kept to never forget the sacrilege done against the Athenians. Themistocles persuades the Hellenes to stay put at Salamis to meet the Persians head on. The Greeks conduct the battle in a superior fashion due to organization and also their capacity to swim. Xerxes, embattled, returns to Asia but allows the general Mardonios to continue the battle until he is killed at the battle of Platea which Herodotus calls the “finest victory we have yet known” (9.64). They chase the Persians back to their walls and slaughter 3,000 of them.

The Greeks erected a column at Delphi commemorating their victory over the Persians and listed the cities that banded together to win. It was moved 800 years later by Constantine to Constantinople to adorn the Hippodrome where it stands today. It is composed of two coiled snakes wrapped around the pole.

Immediately following, the Hellenes inflict vengeance on the Thebans for their treachery and the Athenians take their hoards of treasure home. Though Herodotus hails from Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, he is clearly an Athenian at heart.

The text closes with a recollection of Cyrus, the “wise”. As the Athenians put a man named Artayktes on a plank and stone his son before his own eyes because they were Persians living in Thrace who attempted to buy the Athenians for their freedom, Herodotus notes that this man was the descendant of Artembares, a man who brought a proposal to Cyrus that they should move out to an easier part of the vast empire where the climate and soil is more favorable. However, Cyrus says that if they do this, they should expect not to be rulers any longer, but rather to be ruled by the people who live there for “soft places tend to produce soft men” and “the same land cannot produce wonderful crops and men who are noble and courageous in war” (9.122). The men chose to dwell in a poor land rather than be slaves to others and cultivate the plains.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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