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The Great Empires of Prophecy, from Babylon to the Fall of Rome

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    CHAPTER IX. EMPIRE OF PERSIA AND MEDIA—XERXES. THERMOPYLAE

    At Thermopylae—The Greeks Betrayed—Thermopylae Is Taken

    XERXES finally took up his march toward Greece, meeting with neither check nor mischance until he came to Thermopylae. Indeed, the Thessalians “warmly espoused the side of the Medes; and afterward, in the course of the war, they were of the greatest service to Xerxes.”GEP 101.1

    2. Thermopylae (thermo, heat; pylae, gates,—“gates of the hot springs”) is a pass from Thessaly into Greece, about seven feet wide, “only wide enough for a single carriage,” between the high mountains and the sea; and is the only means of entering Greece by land from north or east. Here the Greeks determined to make their stand, and resist the progress of the host of Xerxes. At this point the army of Xerxes, including those brought out of Asia and those gathered in Europe, amounted to 2,641,610 fighting men. “Such then being the number of the fighting men, it is my belief that the attendants who followed the camp, together with the crews of the corn-barks, and of the other craft accompanying the army, made up an amount rather above than below that of the fighting men. However, I will not reckon them as either fewer or more, but take them at an equal number. We have therefore to add to the sum already reached an exactly equal amount. This will give 5,283,220 as the whole number of men brought by Xerxes, the son of Darius, as far as Sepias and Thermopylae.” And “among all this multitude of men there was not one who, for beauty and stature, deserved more than Xerxes himself to wield so vast a power.”—Herodotus. 1[Page 101] Id., chaps. 186, 187.GEP 101.2

    3. The fleet, having sailed to the coast of Magnesia, was overtaken by a mighty tempest which continued for three days, and destroyed, at the lowest estimate, four hundred of the ships and a multitude of men. From Thessaly Xerxes with the army “passed on into Malis, along the shores of a bay, in which there is an ebb and flow of the tide daily. By the side of this bay lies a piece of flat land, in one part broad, but in another very narrow indeed, around which runs a range of lofty hills, impossible to climb, enclosing all Malis within them, and called the Trachinians Cliffs. The first city upon the bay, as you come from Achaea, is Anticyra, near which the river Spercheius, flowing down from the country of the Enianians, empties itself into the sea. About twenty furlongs from this stream there is a second river, called the Dyras, which is said to have appeared first to help Hercules when he was burning. Again, at the distance of twenty furlongs, there is a stream called the Melas, near which, within about five furlongs, stands the city of Trachis.GEP 101.3

    4. “South of Trachis there is a cleft in the mountain range which shuts in the territory of Trachinia; and the river Asopus, issuing from this cleft, flows for awhile along the foot of the hills. Further to the south, another river, called the Phenix, which has no great body of water, flows from the same hills, and falls into the Asopus. Here is the narrowest place of all, for in this part there is only a causeway wide enough for a single carriage. From the river Phenix to Thermopylae is a distance of fifteen furlongs; and in this space is situate the village called Anthela, which the river Asopus passes ere it reaches the sea.... King Xerxes pitched his camp in the region of Malis called Trachinia, while on their side the Greeks occupied the straits. These straits the Greeks in general call Thermopylae (the hot gates); but the natives and those who dwell in the neighborhood, call them Pylae (the Gates). Here then the two armies took their stand; the one master of all the region lying north of the Trachis, the other of the country extending southward of that place to the verge of the continent.” 2[Page 102] Id., chap. 198-201.GEP 102.1

    5. There were about six thousand men, from twelve of the different States of Greece, at the pass of Thermopylae to defend it against the host of Persia. “The various nations had each captains of their own under whom they served; but the one to whom all especially looked up, and who had command of the entire force, was the Lacedaemonian, Leonidas,” king of Sparta. After his arrival at Thermopylae, and when all the arrangements of defense had been made, Leonidas learned for the first time that there was a trail over the mountains, at some distance from Thermopylae, along which it would be possible for a sufficient force to pass, and by being able to attack them in the rear, destroy all the force of their defense. He therefore detached a thousand men (of the Phocians) to take their station on the top of the mountain and defend the trail against any force that would surely be sent that way if the knowledge of it should come to Xerxes. This left only about five thousand men at the pass of Thermopylae itself, to hold the place against the millions of the army of Xerxes.GEP 102.2

    6. Xerxes waited four whole days before he made any advance, “expecting that the Greeks would run away.” He, however, sent out “a mounted spy to observe the Greeks, and note how many they were, and what they were doing. He had heard, before he came out of Thessaly, that a few men were assembled at this place, and that at their head were certain Lacedaemonians, under Leonidas, a descendant of Hercules. The horseman rode up to the camp, and looked about him, but did not see the whole army; for such as were on the further side of the wall (which had been rebuilt and was now carefully guarded) it was not possible for him to behold; but he observed those on the outside, who were encamped in front of the rampart. It chanced that at this time the Lacedaemonians held the outer guard, and were seen by the spy, some of them engaged in gymnastic exercises, others combing their long hair. At this the spy greatly marveled, but he counted their number, and when he had taken accurate note of everything, he rode back quietly; for no one pursued after him, or paid any heed to his visit. So he returned, and told Xerxes all that he had seen.GEP 103.1

    7. “When, however, he found on the fifth day that they were not gone, thinking that their firm stand was mere impudence and recklessness, he grew wroth, and sent against them the Medes and Cissians, with orders to take them alive and bring them into his presence. Then the Medes rushed forward and charged the Greeks, but fell in vast numbers; others, however, took the places of the slain, and would not be beaten off, though they suffered terrible losses. In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king, that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors. The struggle, however, continued during the whole day.GEP 103.2

    8. “Then the Medes, having met so rough a reception, withdrew from the fight; and their place was taken by the band of Persians under Hydarnes, whom the king called his ‘Immortals:’ they, it was thought, would soon finish the business. But when they joined battle with the Greeks, ’t was with no better success than the Median detachment; things went much as before—the two armies fighting in a narrow space, and the barbarians using shorter spears than the Greeks, and having no advantage from their numbers. The Lacedaemonians fought in a way worthy of note, and showed themselves far more skilful in fight than their adversaries, often turning their backs, and making as though they were all flying away, on which the barbarians would rush after them with much noise and shouting, when the Spartans at their approach would wheel round and face their pursuers, in this way destroying vast numbers of the enemy. Some Spartans likewise fell in these encounters, but only a very few. At last the Persians, finding that all their efforts to gain the pass availed nothing, and that whether they attacked by divisions or in any other way, it was to no purpose, withdrew to their own quarters. During these assaults, it is said that Xerxes, who was watching the battle, thrice leaped from the throne on which he sat, in terror for his army.GEP 104.1

    9. “Next day the combat was renewed, but with no better success on the part of the barbarians. The Greeks were so few that the barbarians hoped to find them disabled, by means of their wounds, from offering any further resistance, and so they once more attacked them. But the Greeks were drawn up in detachments according to their cities, and bore the brunt of the battle in turns,—all except the Phocians, who had been stationed on the mountain to guard the pathway. So when the Persians found no difference between that day and the preceding, they again retired to their quarters.GEP 104.2

    10. “Now, as the king was in a great strait, and knew not how he should deal with the emergency, Ephialtes, the son of Eurydemus, a man of Malis, came to him and was admitted to a conference. Stirred by the hope of receiving a rich reward at the king’s hands, he had come to tell him of the pathway which led across the mountain to Thermopylae; by which disclosure he brought destruction on the band of Greeks who had there withstood the barbarians.... Great was the joy of Xerxes on this occasion; and as he approved highly of the enterprise which Ephialtes undertook to accomplish, he forthwith sent upon the errand Hydarnes, and the Persians under him. The troops left the camp about the time of the lighting of the lamps. The pathway along which they went at first was discovered by the Malians of these parts, who soon afterwards led the Thessalians by it to attack the Phocians, at the time when the Phocians fortified the pass with a wall, and so put themselves under covert from danger. And ever since, the path has always been put to an ill use by the Malians.GEP 105.1

    11. “The course which it takes is the following: Beginning at the Asopus, where that stream flows through the cleft in the hills, it runs along the ridge of the mountain (which is called, like the pathway over it, Anopaea), and ends at the city of Alpenus—the first Locrian town as you come from Malis—by the stone called Melampygus and the seats of the Cercopians. Here it is as narrow as at any other point. The Persians took this path, and crossing the Asopus, continued their march through the whole of the night, having the mountains of Eta on their right hand, and on their left those of Trachis. At dawn of day they found themselves close to the summit. Now the hill was guarded, as I have already said, by a thousand Phocian men-at-arms, who were placed there to defend the pathway, and at the same time to secure their own country. They had been given the guard of the mountain path, while the other Greeks defended the pass below, because they had volunteered for the service, and had pledged themselves to Leonidas to maintain the post.GEP 105.2

    12. “The ascent of the Persians became known to the Phocians in the following manner: During all the time that they were making their way up, the Greeks remained unconscious of it, inasmuch as the whole mountain was covered with groves of oak. But it happened that the air was very still, and the leaves which the Persians stirred with their feet made, as it was likely they would, a loud rustling, whereupon the Phocians jumped up and flew to seize their arms. In a moment the barbarians came in sight, and perceiving men arming themselves, were greatly amazed; for they had fallen in with an enemy when they expected no opposition. Hydarnes, alarmed at the sight, and fearing lest the Phocians might be Lacedaemonians, inquired of Ephialtes to what nation these troops belonged. Ephialtes told him the exact truth, whereupon he arrayed his Persians for battle. The Phocians, galled by the showers of arrows to which they were exposed, and imagining themselves the special object of the Persian attack, fled hastily to the crest of the mountain, and there made ready to meet death; but while their mistake continued, the Persians, with Ephialtes and Hydarnes, not thinking it worth their while to delay on account of Phocians, passed on and descended the mountain with all possible speed.”GEP 105.3

    13. Before the night was ended, “deserters came in, and brought the news that the Persians were marching round by the hills.... Last of all, the scouts came running down from the heights, and brought in the same accounts, when the day was just beginning to break. Then the Greeks held a council to consider what they should do, and here opinions were divided: some were strong against quitting their post, while others contended to the contrary. So when the council had broken up, part of the troops departed and went their ways homeward to their several States; part however resolved to remain, and to stand by Leonidas to the last.” 3[Page 106] Id., chaps. 208, 210-213, 215-219.GEP 106.1

    14. There were fourteen hundred who thus remained—three hundred Spartans, seven hundred Thespians, and four hundred Thebans. The Spartans by their own laws were obliged to remain, even had they desired to go. There is some doubt as to whether the Thebans remained of their own accord, or were required by Leonidas to do so, “for it is certain that in the midst of the last battle they deserted their companions, and with hands upraised, advanced toward the barbarians, exclaiming—as was indeed most true—that they for their part wished well to the Medes.” But with the Thespians it was altogether an act of self-sacrifice freely chosen; for they could have departed without fear of disgrace.GEP 106.2

    15. “At sunrise Xerxes made libations, after which he waited until the time when the forum is wont to fill, and then began his advance. Ephialtes had instructed him thus, as the descent of the mountain is much quicker, and the distance much shorter, than the way round the hills, and the ascent. So the barbarians under Xerxes began to draw nigh; and the Greeks under Leonidas, as they now went forth determined to die, advanced much farther than on previous days, until they reached the more open portion of the pass. Hitherto they had held their station within the wall, and from this had gone forth to fight at the point where the pass was the narrowest. Now they joined battle beyond the defile, and carried slaughter among the barbarians, who fell in heaps. Behind them the captains of the squadrons, armed with whips, urged their men forward with continual blows. Many were thrust into the sea, and there perished; a still greater number were trampled to death by their own soldiers; no one heeded the dying. For the Greeks, reckless of their own safety and desperate, since they knew that, as the mountain had been crossed, their destruction was nigh at hand, exerted themselves with the most furious valor against the barbarians.GEP 107.1

    16. “By this time the spears of the greater number were all shivered, and with their swords they hewed down the ranks of the Persians; and here, as they strove, Leonidas fell fighting bravely.... And now there arose a fierce struggle between the Persians and the Lacedaemonians over the body of Leonidas, in which the Greeks four times drove back the enemy, and at last by their great bravery succeeded in bearing off the body. This combat was scarcely ended when the Persians with Ephialtes approached; and the Greeks, informed that they drew nigh, made a change in the manner of their fighting. Drawing back into the narrowest part of the pass, and retreating even behind the cross wall, they posted themselves upon a hillock, where they stood all drawn up together in one close body, except only the Thebans.... Here they defended themselves to the last, such as still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth; till the barbarians, who in part had pulled down the wall and attacked them in front, in part had gone round and now encircled them upon every side, overwhelmed and buried the remnant left, beneath showers of missile weapons.GEP 107.2

    17. “The slain were buried where they fell; and in their honor, nor less in honor of those who died before Leonidas sent the allies away, an inscription was set up which said:—GEP 108.1

    “‘Here did four thousand men from Pelops’ land,
    Against three hundred myriads bravely stand.’
    GEP 108.2

    “This was in honor of all. Another was for the Spartans alone:—GEP 108.3

    “‘Go, stranger, and to Lacedaemon tell
    That here, obeying her behests, we fell.’
    GEP 108.4

    “This was for the Lacedaemonians. The seer had the following:—GEP 108.5

    “‘The great Megistias’ tomb you here may view,
    Whom slew the Medes, fresh from Spercheius’ fords.
    Well the wise seer the coming death foreknew,
    Yet scorned he to forsake his Spartan lords.’
    GEP 108.6

    “Thus fought the Greeks at Thermopylae.” 4[Page 108] Id., 223-225, 228, 234.GEP 108.7

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