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Herodotus' twentieth logos: Persian preparations

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The Aegean region in the fifth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering.

Persian preparations (7.1-55)

When the news of the disaster at Marathon reaches Darius, he decides for a full scale invasion of Greece. His goal no longer is the punishment of Athens, but the subjugation of Europe. A rebellion in Egypt prevents him from attacking at once, and the great king does not live to see his plans executed. He is succeeded by his son Xerxes, who first has to quell the Egyptian revolt, and at first gives no thought to the Greek expedition.
Herodotus;
Diary of Xerxes' campaign;
Xerxes' canal trough
the Athos
Gold coin of Xerxes.
Xerxes (!!)

After a dream, he changes his mind, however. Mardonius, the luckless commander of the first expedition to Greece (above), the sons of Hippias, and the royal family of Thessaly (a Greek state) all urge him not to let Athens go unpunished. Xerxes is persuaded to undertake the large scale invasion of Europe. His uncle Artabanus (a brother of Darius) objects to the plan; the stakes are too high. Although Xerxes thinks the old man is a coward, he later admits that he is right and has some second thoughts. This is not the end of his doubts, however. In a terrible nightmare, a man announces that the king will be punished if he does not go to war. When Artabanus has the same nightmare, they understand that the Greek war is the will of a god.
 
Remains of Xerxes' canal. Photo Jona Lendering.
Xerxes' canal (**)

The Persians prepare themselves very well. They start to cut a canal through the Athos peninsula, to avoid the disaster that had befallen Mardonius. Herodotus considers this transformation of the natural environment blasphemous. Worse is to come: the Persians build a long bridge across the Hellespont, the small strait between Europe and Asia near Troy. When this construction is destroyed by a storm, Xerxes orders the god Hellespont to be punished with three hundred lashes. A pair of fetters is thrown in the waters. When the great king reaches the Hellespont a few weeks later, he sacrifices to the god, leaving Herodotus confused about his true intentions.
 


Herodotus also tells that Xerxes, seeing his large fleet and army at Abydus, suddenly felt sad, because all these people would be death within 100 years. According to the Greek researcher, Xerxes' uncle Artabanus was even more pessimistic: none of the hundreds of thousands present at Abydos "would be so happy, that there will not come to him many times the desire to be dead rather than to live" (text).

The strait between Sestus and Abydus. Photo by Jona Lendering.
The strait between Sestus and Abydus, where Xerxes built his bridge.

Comment

From cuneiform texts, it is clear that Darius died and that Xerxes -the biblical king Ahasverus, known from the book Esther- became king in the second half of November 486.

It was not uncommon in the Achaemenid empire that provinces revolted when a new king had succeeded to the throne; the Egyptian rebellion fits into this pattern. It was suppressed in January 484.There were other revolts. We know the names of two rebel kings in Babylon: Bl-šimnni and Šamaš-eriba, who were both active in 484.

In one of the speeches in the debate at the Persian court, Xerxes mentions all his ancestors (text). This list has been corroborated in the prologue of the Behistun inscription.

Traces of the Athos canal are still visible. Its construction started in 483 and must have alarmed the Greek towns, as we will see in the next logos. The building of the bridge across the Hellespont may have had a religious significance. Xerxes reached Sardes in October 481, assembled his army during the winter at Sardes, and crossed the Hellespont in June 480.
 



Literature

  • Andrew R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks. The Defence of the West, c.546-478 B.C. (1962 London) pages 313-336
  • N.G.L. Hammond, 'The expedition of Xerxes', in: the Cambridge ancient history, 2nd ed, vol.4, pages 518-590
  • C. Hignett, Xerxes' invasion of Greece (1963, Oxford)
  • C. Waerzeggers, 'The Babylonian Revolts Against Xerxes and the "End of Archives"' in: Archiv fr Orientforschung 50 (2003/2004), 150-173

 
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