Episode Sixteen: “Sire, Remember The Athenians”
The Persian king Darius had never heard of the Greeks, their nations were so distant and so remote on the periphery of his empire.
Then the Athenians burned Sardis, one of the king’s cities.
Thereafter at each evening meal, a servant was instructed to whisper in the monarch’s ear, “Sire, remember the Athenians.”
From this reminder of revenge came wars that went on for centuries and are still shaping our world today.
“Sire, remember the Athenians”
Who was Xerxes? When we get into the blow-by-blow recounting of the battle of Thermopylae, we should know who the enemy was.
The Persian king was the ruler of the greatest empire Earth had ever seen. he was the son of emperors going back through Darius to Cambyses to Cyrus the Great.
Xerxes’ title was “King of Kings, king of the Lands.” He ruled over the following nations: India, Bactria, Parthia, Aria, Arachosia, Dragiana, Persia, Media, Babylonia, Assyria, Armenia, Egypt, Libya, Samaria, Syria, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Lydia, Caria, Phrygia, Thrace. I could go on. Everything from the western Mediterranean to today’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
How rich was he? When Alexander the Great captured Persepolis a hundred years after Xerxes and sacked the royal treasury, the gold he made away with was packed upon sixteen thousand pairs of mules.
Advancing out of Asia against Greece, the engineers of Xerxes’ army built a bridge of boats a mile long across the Hellespont at the mouth of the Black Sea. A sudden storm wrecked this span. In fury, Xerxes ordered his overseers to form up on the shoreline carrying their whips. He commanded them to scourge the waterway for daring to defy him.
But Xerxes was not an utter megalomaniac. He was an educated man, who had his thoughtful side as well. Crossing the wide sandy stretches of the shoreline of Thrace on the way to Greece, he was inspired to hold a review of his army. He just wanted to see that many men and horses and chariots in one place at one time. He had a throne set up a throne on a hill and beneath this, the entire army passed in review. As Xerxes was watching, he suddenly began to weep. “Sire,” said one of his advisors, “what grief can possibly trouble your heart at such a moment?”
“It struck me now, beholding this spectacle,” Xerxes replied, “that within a hundred years not a single man or beast here today will still be beneath the sun, so brief is man’s span of years upon this Earth.”
Why did Xerxes march against Greece?
In fact, a few years earlier, he had never even heard of Greece, the region was so far on the periphery of his empire. Then the Athenians, in one of their small wars, happened to burn the city of Sardis, in what would be Turkey today. Sardis was one of Persia’s tributary states.
Xerxes’ father Darius sat upon the throne then.
Who were these upstarts he wanted to know, to dare burn one of his cities?
Darius vowed revenge.
He commanded his chief servant to whisper into his ear before each meal,
“Sire, remember the Athenians.”
Sure enough, Darius mounted an army and dispatched them across the Mediterranean to attack and destroy Athens. The Persians landed at a place called Marathon. Yes, that Marathon. 26.2 miles from Athens.
The Athenians and their allies met the Persians there and defeated them. Drove them back into the sea.
Now Darius was royally pissed. He died, alas, before he could seek revenge for this catastrophe.
But his son Xerxes, now on the throne, took up the cause.
Ten years after Marathon, the new king mounted the greatest army and armada in history and marched to revenge that prior defeat. Envoys ride ahead demanding tokens of submission–earth and water. Every country caved. Cities would be bankrupted when the Persian army came through, even for one day, because they had to feed them. The horses and men drank rivers dry.
Ahead in Greece, the alarm was spreading. Cities were already surrendering. Greece was not a nation at that time but a collection of city-states which warred constantly with one another. But they rallied. A fleet, mostly Athenian, would be organized to block the Persians at the straits of Artemisium, north of Athens. Simultaneously a land force, led by the Spartan king Leonidas, would defend the land entrance to central Greece at a narrow pass called Thermopylae, the “Hot Gates,” because of the thermal springs there.
Why Thermopylae? Because northern Greece, across which the invading Persians must march to reach the main Greek cities, is so mountainous it’s impassable to a large army. There is only one track, several wagon widths wide, at this narrow pass between the mountains and the Malian Gulf, the sea. The idea was that Xerxes’ strength, his colossal numbers of men, would be neutralized by the narrowness of the pass. Only a limited number could enter the fighting space at one time. No cavalry could get through in numbers to be effective.
The Greeks thought that a small but brave force of heavily-armored foot warriors could form a human wall here at the Hot Gates and, if not halt, at least delay the Persian advance. This force could buy time for the other cities of Greece to organize and mount a defense in the heartland of Greece.
Why were the Spartans chosen to lead this defense? Because they were recognized by all as the supreme land force in Greece, the only army that was truly professional in the sense that its men were not citizen-soldiers like the forces of other cities—that is, farmers who took down their armor and spear from above the fireplace and went to fight—but full-time warriors trained from birth for fighting and schooled in the warrior ideal that to give one’s life for his country was the noblest end and the highest expression of honor.
The Spartans would lead, under their king Leonidas. Their contingent would number 300, a sacred number recognized in all the Greek cities as a representation of the nation as a whole. An allied force of about 4000 from ther Greek cities would support these Three Hundred. The force would depart as quickly as possible, march north to the pass at Thermopylae. and take possession of the ground before the Persian army could get there. That was the plan as the Spartans and their allies sent forth.
The stage was set for what would come to be remembered as one of the most famous battles in history and the struggle that would, in the end, preserve Western civilization.