Herodotus: The Histories: Xerxes at the Hellespont (mid 5th Century BCE)

Whereas many Middle Eastern peopleswelcomed the advent of the Persian Empire, the Greeks viewed their own victories over the the Persians as making possible the very continuance of their civilization. The army of Darius was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE and that of Xerxes I at Salamis in 486 BCE. The Greeks considered their poleis many of them democracies as infinitely superior to the absolute monarchy of Persia. Europeans have traditionally maintained that if these battles had not been won, history would have been utterly changed, with Europe falling under the sway of Eastern despotism. Whether or not this theory is true can never be known; but the theory itself helped to shape centuries of European hostility to and contempt for the nations of the Middle East. Part of that contempt is expressed in the following story, in which the great Xerxes is depicted by the Greek historian Herodotus as a superstitious fool and a bloodthirsty tyrant. His massive army is preparing to cross the narrow strait (the Hellespont, now in Turkey) which separated Asia from Europe.

What incidents described below depict Xerxes as superstitious? As tyrannical?

They then began to build bridges across the Hellespont from Abydos to that headland between Sestus and Madytus, the Phoenicians building one of ropes made from flax, and the Egyptians building a second one out of papyrus. From Abydos to the opposite shore it is a distance of almost two-thirds of a mile. But no sooner had the strait been bridged than a great storm came on and cut apart and scattered all their work.

Xerxes flew into a rage at this, and he commanded that the Hellespont be struck with three hundred strokes of the whip and that a pair of foot-chains be thrown into the sea. It's even been said that he sent off a rank of branders (1) along with the rest to the Hellespont! He also commanded the scourgers to speak outlandish and arrogant words: "You hateful water, our master lays his judgement on you thus, for you have unjustly punished him even though he's done you no wrong! Xerxes the king will pass over you, whether you wish it or not! It is fitting that no man offer you sacrifices, (2) for you're a muddy and salty river!" In these ways he commanded that the sea be punished and also that the heads be severed from all those who directed the bridging of the Hellespont.

And this scourging was done by those appointed to this graceless honor, and other builders were chosen. The bridging was done in the following way: fifty-oared ships and triremes were set side by side, about three hundred and sixty to form the Euxinian bridge, and about three hundred and fourteen to form the other bridge, all of them at right angles to the Pontus and parallel to the Hellespont, thus taking off some of the tension from the ropes. Once the ships were alongside one another, they released huge anchors, both from the end near the Pontus because of the winds blowing from that sea, and on the other end towards the west and the Aegean because of the western and southern winds. A passage was left in the opening of the fifty-oared ships and triremes in order that, if he wished to go into or out of the Pontus, he could pass through in a small ship. Having done all this, they stretched ropes from the land and twisted them with wooden pulleys, and they did not keep each separate, but assigned two flaxen cables and four papyrus cables for each bridge. Each type of cable was thick and comely, but the report goes that the flaxen cables were heavier, a single yard weighing over 100 pounds. (3) When the sea was bridged, wooden timbers equal to the breadth of the floating ships were felled and were laid on the stretched cables, and laying them alongside one another they tied them fast. Having done this, they put down brushwood, laying it on the timbers, and they put down earth on top of the brushwood, stamping it down and building a fence on the earth on each side in order that the beasts of burden and the horses would not be frightened by the sea flowing beneath them.

When they had built the bridges, the work around Athos, and the dikes around the mouths of the canals, these built because of the sea breaking on the shore which would silt up the mouths of the canals, and these canals being reported as completely finished, the army then and there prepared to winter and, when spring came, was ready and set forth to Abydos from Sardis. When they had started to set forth, the sun eclipsed itself and was not to be seen in its place in the heavens, even though the sky was unclouded and as clear as can be, so that the day turned to night. When Xerxes perceived this he became anxious, and he asked the Magians to clarify what this omen meant. These said that the god, Pythian Apollo, was foreshowing to the Greeks the eclipse of their city, for the sun was a prophet to the Greeks, as the moon was to them. Hearing that, Xerxes' mood became exceedingly sunny and he continued the march.

As he marched out the army, Pythias the Lydian, dreading the heavenly omen and encouraged by the gifts given to him by Xerxes, came up to Xerxes and said, "Master, I wish to ask a favor of you, which would be a small favor for you to render, but would be a great favor for me to receive." Xerxes, thinking that he knew everything Pythias could ask for, answered that he would grant the favor and asked him to proclaim what it was he wished. "Master, it happens that I have five sons, and they are all bound to soldier for you against the Greeks. I pray you, king, that you have pity on one who has reached my age and that you set free one of my sons, even the oldest, from your army, so that he may provide for me and my possessions. Take the other four with you, and may you return having accomplished all you intended."

Xerxes flew into a horrible rage and replied, "You villainous man, you have the effrontery, seeing me marching with my army against the Greeks, with my sons and brothers and relatives and friends, to remind me of your son, you, my slave, who should rather come with me with your entire household, including your wife! You may now be certain of this, that since the spirit lives in a man's ears, hearing good words it fills the body with delight, when it hears the opposite it swells up. When you at one time performed well and promised more, you had no reason to boast that you outperformed your king in benefits; and now that you have turned most shameless, you shall receive less than what you deserve. You and four of your sons are saved because of your hospitality; but one of your sons, the one you most desire to hold your arms around, will lose his life!" Having answered thus, he commanded those charged to accomplish this to find the eldest of Pythias's sons and cut him in half, and having cut him in two to set one half of his corpse on the right side of the road and the other on the left side, and between these the army moved forth.

Translated by Richard Hooker


(1) Bodies of water were routinely treated as gods, and offered sacrifices.

(2) Men with hot branding irons.

(3) Literally: "18 1/2 inches weighing about 57 3/4 pounds."

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

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