Read this article to learn about the march of Xerxes in Persian Marathon.
The Persian repulse at Marathon was as unexpected as ignominious. When the news of the battle of Marathon was communicated to Darius who had already been incensed against the Athenians for their invasion of Sardis became still more exasperated and at once decided to invade Greece.
Preparations for a second expedition were set afoot. But in 486 Egypt revolted and its suppression called for immediate attention.
Besides, a quarrel broke out between Darius’ sons Artobazanes and Xerxes as to who would succeed him. Death of Darius in 485 B.C. delayed action against Egypt as also the second expedition against Greece. Darius having declared Xerxes his heir, he succeed to the Persian throne. Xerxes’ first task was to subdue Egypt which he accomplished in 484.
He then turned to the question of avenging the defeat at Marathon. Herodotus gives an account of the Persian magnates, all related to the royal house giving opposing counsels. Artabanus, uncle to Xerxes, counseled restraint after dwelling upon the valiance of the Greeks who routed the numerous troops of Datis and Artaphernes, the danger inherent in crossing the Hellespont with a huge army, possibility of storms in the sea putting the vast Persian fleet to difficulty, etc. But eventually the impetuous counsel of Xerxes’ cousin Mardonius who was also the general at that time prevailed and it was decided to lead an expedition against Greece, which must consist of a joint attack by sea and land.
Profiting by the lesson of the first expedition, it was decided that the new expeditionary force should be of irresistible strength and that it should act throughout in closest co-operation with the fleet. This naturally involved following a route by the northern Aegean and Thrace, and the provision of some safety in the neighbourhood of the dangerous promontory of Athos.
The engineers reported the practicability of avoiding the promontory entirely by cutting a canal through the neck of the peninsula. The canal of Athos dug by the Persians was no mere display of power as Herodotus suggests, but a really useful undertaking. For, the fundamental principle of the Persian strategy was that the army and the navy should co-operate and never lose touch. After the canal was dug a bridge was thrown over the great river Strymon for the passage of the army. Preparations were made all along the route for provisions for the army.
Xerxes made preparations rather leisurely and took four years to collect troops and materials from all the provinces of his empire and when in 481 B.C. he at last set forth, his army was perhaps the largest ever collected in whole history before the present century. Xerxes came down to Sardis in Autumn of 481, where he inspected his oriental contingent.
The place of mustering of his whole army was at the Hellespont across two bridges had been constructed in the neighbourhood of Sestos and Abydos by the phoenician and Egyptian engineers. At Dorsicus a grand review of the host was held.
The grand total according to Herodotus’ computation was “2,641,000 fighting men and an equal number of engineers, slaves, merchants, provisioners and prostitutes.” Historians have ever since doubted the veracity of the number mentioned by Herodotus without any moderation, and conceding that the army was the largest mustered ever in history, for the purpose of a single expedition, before the present century, there must have been great exaggerations. The vast army was naturally and fatally too, a highly heterogeneous force. Herodotus has given us a list of forty-six peoples’, with description of their dresses and weapons.
Towards the end of 481 B.C. the preparations for the expedition were completed, and the contingent of the eastern part of the empire mustered at Critalla in Cappadocia. In the autumn of the same year Xerxes here took command of the contingent. The army meandered its way to Sardis and by the spring of 480 it set forth for the Hellespont, There were footmen, cavalry men, chariots, elephants, and a fleet of transports and fighting triremes numbering 1207 ships in all, according to Herodotus.
By the spring of 480, the great host reached the Hellespont, where the Egyptian and Phoenician engineers had built a bridge across it using the most admired mechanical devices of the antiquity. It took seven days and nights for the great host comprising men and beasts to pass over the bride.
The army marched overland through Thrace and down to Macedonia and Thessaly; the Persian fleet proceeded hugging the coasts. Cities where the army had two meals, we are told, were utterly ruined; Thasos spent 400 talents about a million dollars in modern computation, to play the host to Xerxes for a day only.
The huge army struck terror among the northern Greeks who up to the Attic frontier, surrendered at times bribed to surrender, and allowed their troops to be added to Xerxes’ millions. Plataea and Thespiae who were the only exceptions in the north, prepared to fight.
“The Dorians and the lonians, that is to say, Sparta and Athens, were the flower of the patriotic half of Greece, which could justly consider itself the true Hellas. These Greeks resolved that the Hellenese who had submitted to the Persians should be compelled to pay a tribute to the Delphic god after the hoped-for victory of the Greeks”.
The Dorians, i.e. the Spartans were the most numerous of the patriotic Greeks, but the incentive or the leadership to a vigorous resistance came not from them but from the lonians, i.e. the Athenians. True that the Athenians were most directly threatened but it may be pointed out that if they so desired, they could have come to an understanding with the Persians at the expense of the rest of Greece.
The verdict of Herodotus that Greece owed her liberty to the Athenians holds good, for in a campaign by land, if Xerxes had played his card well the Greeks might have been crushed simply by the numerical strength of the Persian army. Safety lay in adequate number of good fleet and it was Athens who had not only good ships but good naval commanders as well. But among the Athenians, it was Themistocles to whom must go the chief credit. It was he who was the author of the fortification of Piraeus and effected the increase of the Athenian fleet.
The Greeks had ample warning of the blow which threatened them. In autumn of 480 a national congress, the Synedrium of the Probuli or representatives of the patriotic states was convened in the isthmus of Corinth in order to plan for a concerted resistance. The Congress of Corinth assembled under the influence of common fear from Persia had more of a Pan-Hellenic character than any political event which had yet occurred in Grecian history.
Sparta by reason of her acknowledged leadership, and Athens by reason of her naval supremacy and victory at Marathon were the natural centres of the national resistance. As a preliminary it was resolved that all states must set aside their mutual feuds and disputes (between Thessaly and Phocis, Argos and Lacedaemon, Athens and Aegina) so that all might fight side by side like’ brothers for the common freedom.
The states, thirty- one in number, also vowed that they would utterly destroy the traitors who surrendered to the barbarian, A large number of states, the Thessalians, most of the Boeotian cities and smaller states of northern Greece took no part in the Congress. The inaction of the northern states was justified by their geographical position and by the natural instinct of self-preservation. It would be futile for them to think of resisting the Persians unless Sparta and her confederates would support them. This would mean relying entirely on the strength of Sparta and her confederates.
There was also no reason to suppose that Sparta and her confederates would throw their strength in the defence of northern Greece. In the circumstances it would have been imprudent on their part to compromise their position by openly joining the confederacy. They naturally decided to wait and see how things would turn out.
The question of leadership was somewhat ticklish. The claim of Sparta to the leadership of the army was at-once admitted, but that of the navy was rather complicated. Athens which would furnish the largest number of ships to the confederate navy as well as good naval commander had naturally a fair claim to the leadership of the naval force. But other cities which were jealous of Athens refused to be under the command of any leader other than a Spartan.
The Athenian representatives did not hesitate to forgo such a legitimate claim at once in the interest of the Greek freedom. Athenian concern for the common freedom exhibited on many more occasions besides this, made her the saviour of Greece against Persia. To renounce at the call of public obligation a claim in itself so reasonable and an opportunity for personal honour and glory, is perhaps the rarest of all virtues in a Greek.
The Congress then proceeded to send envoys and solicit co-operation from such cities as were yet either equivocal or indifferent specially Argos, Corcyra, and the Cretan and Sicilian Greeks. Spies were dispatched across to Sardis to gather information. These spies, having been detected and condemned to death by the Persian generals were released by the express order of Xerxes, returned to Greece.
They had been shown the full strength of the Persian armament before their release in the hope that the terror of the Greeks might be magnified on their report. Discouragement throughout Greece was already extreme and even to intelligent and well-meaning Greeks, much more to the careless, the timid or the treacherous, Xerxes with his countless host appeared irresistible and indeed something more than human. Such an impression was naturally encouraged by the large number of Greeks already his tributaries.
In fact, there were manifestation of a wish to get rid of the Athenians altogether as the chief objects of Persians vengeance and chief hindrance to tranquil submission. But the Greeks were nerved up to a pitch of resistance at the Congress of Corinth. The envoys from Argo, Crete, Corcyra, etc., returned with no more real hope of assistance except some fair words from the Corcyraeans. The endeavours of the deputies of Greeks at the Isthmus of Corinth had thus produced no other reinforcement to their cause.
After the preparations for the defence of Greece were made and the generals appointed, the Congress was convened again and the conduct of the military affairs was consigned to the military councils of commanders under the leadership of the Spartans. Spartan King Leonidas was leader of the confederate army and Eurybiades a Spartan of commoner was appointed the commander of the confederate fleet. Defences of cities were strengthened and new ships were built.
Athens was perhaps most energetic in adding to her fleet. She recalled those of her distinguished citizens who had been ostracised and banished for ten years. Aristides and Xanthippus returned home and the quarrel between them and Themistocles was buried in the face of the national danger.
Initially it seemed that opposition to the invader would be made on the frontier of Greece, on the most northernly line. About the time of the crossing of the Hellespont by Xerxes and his host, the Thessalians asked the confederates to adopt that line of defence and ten thousand men were sent to the vale of Tempe between Mount Olympus and Mount Ossa. But it was found that Xerxes was not likely to follow that route and might enter Thessaly either through the pass of Volustana or the pass of Petra.
As it was not possible to send more troops to the northern border, leaving the rest of Greece unprotected, in order to defend all the three passes, the troops were withdrawn from Tempe abandoning Thessaly to the enemy.
A second line of defence was constituted by the range of Mount Oeta and the mouth of the Euboean channel. On this line the pass of Thermopylae was the gateway to Greece. Its loss would mean loss of Boeotia, Athens and all the country north of the Isthmus of Corinth. At the eastern and the western end the pass was very narrow and at the centre the Phocians had constructed a wall as a barrier against Thessalian incursions.
The Greeks determined to defend Thermopylae and King Leonidas marched up to it at the head of his army seven thousand strong including four thousand Peloponnesians of whom again three hundred were Spartans. Needless to say three hundred Spartans constituted only a very small portion of their forces and it may very well be suspected that but for Athens the Spartans would have concentrated their full force on the defence of the Isthmus of Corinth. But their dependence on the Athenian fleet practically compelled them to consider the interest of the Athenians.
Despite their defending Thermopylae, the Spartans’ hearts were set on the defence of the Isthmus, for their policy was narrow, selfish and hence strictly Peloponnesian. To cover up their selfish and shortsighted policy in sending only a very small portion of their army for the defence of Thermopylae, they gave out that it was only an advance guard, the bulk of the army being delayed due to the celebration of Carnean festival and the Olympic games.
As the Persian land forces were closely supported by Persian navy, the Greeks decided to oppose the Persian fleet at the mouth of Euboea, and therefore the Greek fleet was placed to guard it near Artemisium. The Greek navy numbered 324 triremes and 9 pentaconters.