From Marathon to Thermopylae Expurgating Persian War Myths (490–480 BC) II

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From Marathon to Thermopylae Expurgating Persian War Myths 490–480 BC II
First phase of the battle.
Second phase of the battle.

This plan was put into effect in a most shattering manner and gave the battle of Marathon the fame it has enjoyed ever since. The Athenians occupied the centre while Callimachus as the senior commander occupied the right wing, which was closest to Mount Pentelicon, while the Plataeans were assigned the very end of the left wing, which was probably supplemented with some of the Athenians or possibly other allies. These duly advanced down into the plain where no pronounced gradient is noticeable and once the level ground was reached the Greeks did not possess an advantage in terms of a slope down towards their opponents. Hence all speed was necessary. The Greek army numbering 11,000 opposed an opponent of about the same number, although the Persians probably had additional light armed skirmishers. It is evident that with these numbers they could not possibly have filled the entire plain as is often illustrated on maps in discussions about this engagement. A single horseman or heavily armoured infantryman might occupy as much as a metre each but neither side on this occasion stood in such a thin line. Each side will have formed up its troops in ranks that for infantry by the end of the century varied from eight to sixteen deep. On a plain that extends in length for some five kilometres the battle was confined to just the southern end near to where the tumulus in honour of the dead Athenians was erected. This is closer to the Pentelicon range of mountains where a tumulus to the dead Plataeans was also erected and which still stands near the site of the modern museum. It shows clearly enough that the battlefield was on the small rather than on the grand scale. While a Persian encampment to the northern end of the bay where the hills behind offered protection Herodotus appears to describe the Greeks attacking ships that can only have been beached at the southern end of the bay, although once again a dramatic element may be present.

At this point, it seems appropriate to voice some scepticism about the usual perception of the battle in that Marathon is represented as a great victory for the hoplite or heavily armoured infantry over the Persians whose force must have in some measure consisted of cavalry, or Herodotus would not have made the point about the horse transports. Descriptions of Marathon tend to dwell on the prowess or training of the hoplite but whether this was a vital factor at all is questionable. The terrain was ideal for cavalry being employed interspersed with light armed troops, which was indeed a feature of battles elsewhere in the Ancient World. The Persian invasion force was clearly a mix of cavalry, heavy and light armed infantry, and such a combination would surely have been most successfully met by a similar composition in the Athenian led defence. Furthermore, the Persians had with them Greeks from Asia Minor and the islands and therefore the ethnic composition of the two sides would not have been that discrete. The landscape quite clearly indicates that the battle took place on more or less a level space and this may well indicate, although Herodotus makes no mention of this, that the Athenians made use of cavalry among their ranks as well. To counteract any superiority their enemy possessed the Athenians could naturally draw on their own cavalry especially since they were well informed about the nature of the invaders long before they arrived from not only reports from Eretria and Oropus but also observation of the Persian fleet from Rhamnous. Finally, some strength in cavalry also then makes the account of the Athenians moving rapidly back to Phaleron to intercept any Persian attempt at landing there afterwards more understandable. This would have been more easily accomplished by cavalry units than by exhausted hoplites.

The battle according to Herodotus was hotly contested, although it is likely that a later and more heroic interpretation that became the tradition crept into the account of what was probably a short and sharp encounter. The Greek attack caught the Persians and their allies on the back foot, which is surprising if the latter had superiority in cavalry but comprehensible if they were evenly matched with similar troops moving rapidly towards them from the southwest. A late afternoon assault by the Greeks, as Munro suggests, would have placed the sun in the eyes of the enemy. Yet if they moved out of the Vrana Valley in the direction of the beach, a distance of not less than eight stadia states Herodotus (6.112) or roughly one thousand six hundred metres (a little under one mile) would such a long approach have caught the Persians in disarray? The Persians would have been caught unprepared only if they had not secured a bridgehead, although that seems improbable. If that were the case then Herodotus’ account of the Athenians waiting at Marathon becomes meaningless since a sudden attack would imply that the Athenians met up with their allies closer to Athens, marched down the Vrana Valley and went immediately into battle. The Persians would have had too short a time to fully organize their forces and were particularly badly beaten on their right and left wings by the unexpected superior numbers sent against them by the Athenians. In such a situation neither army could have formed up in much of a fashion if the Greeks were charging across the plain while their opponents hastily drew up their lines. This is not what Herodotus recounts since he is categorical about the components in each line, which suggests the usual drawing up of army formations prior to engagement. It is true that Herodotus claims (6.112) that the Greeks possessed no cavalry or archers but since this is contained in a section that is mostly devoted to material that is of dubious historicity it can probably be dismissed. Munro suggested that the Greeks advanced at a rush to avoid Persian archers but that tactic would only be effective if there had been none in position and this supposed charge in full armour was for nearly a mile. As regards the Athenian centre, right and left wings, Van Wees is rightly sceptical about the tactics ever working, as they are described by the Herodotus, simply because in the confusion of battle to have the two wings acting in perfect unison is at best implausible.

Once the Athenian wings had supposedly turned their opposites to flight but had not pursued them and instead turned together to attack the Persian centre from the rear the rout in which the enemy casualties are given precisely as six thousand four hundred began. The fugitives were pursued to the beach and attempts were made to capture or destroy the enemy ships. It was during the fighting around the ships that Callimachus and two of the other generals, Stesilaus and Cynegirus, were killed. If this is an accurate account by Herodotus why, if there had been a really serious rout with a substantial number of the enemy dead, were the Persians able to disengage with very little trouble? It is more likely therefore that the Persians put up a stiffer resistance on the field and at their ships, most of which they launched successfully from the beach. The senior Athenian commanders were killed in fierce fighting, which was certainly not against terrified fugitives who had thrown away their weapons. The loss of Persian ships was minimal, seven out of six hundred, and even if the fatalities given appear to be high in fact the Greeks probably inflicted more casualties on non-combatants and unarmed camp followers among the Persians trying to evacuate the beach than military personnel. This would naturally enough have not been remembered by any of the participants or entered the later historical accounts. Whereas large numbers of casualties were to be expected whenever a rout took place in the later stages of a battle, unlike in modern conflicts camp followers intermingled with the troops during the fighting in the hope of finding good plunder. It is these who are more likely to have been killed. The fact that the cavalry was clearly not much affected by the defeat has led some to believe that the Persians were about to sail and were in the process of loading their horses on to the waiting transports. This is an equally odd interpretation of the events since it presupposes such a lengthy delay between the beaching of the invasion force and the battle that the Persians rather than risk a battle on prepared ground were instead prepared to venture into less well chartered territory, even if they had Hippias with them who obviously knew Attica well enough. If the cavalry escaped largely unscathed then it must mean that the Athenians did not, in fact, manage to cause much damage to this section of the army.

To sum up, it seems probable that the Athenian attack was staged in the late afternoon brought on possibly by seeing the Persians about to sail off. The Athenian command may have assumed that the Persians either intended to return to Euboea or sailing on to Athens. If the first, the intention must have been to at least gain some credit before their enemy departed, if the second, then to disrupt any further invasion of southern Attica. Thus the Greeks erupted out of the Vrana Valley mostly in two columns of a rapidly moving combination of cavalry, heavy and light armed infantry. This meant that the Persians did not have the time to draw up their entire force especially since the cavalry may well have been already on the transports. They then paid the penalty for not taking the offensive when they could have marched south into Central Attica before the Athenians arrived or decided against forcing an assault on higher ground where the Athenians are said to have camped if they were there already waiting for the allies to arrive.

With very little certain detail to go on it is possible to suggest that, contrary to Herodotus’ statement (6.102), that the Persians remained in Eretria for only a few days, and that this period extended over some weeks. The Persians could have believed that the Athenians like the Eretrians would place their trust in their city’s fortifications rather than risk a battle. The fact that both sides made for Marathon shows that the Athenians had been forewarned of the Persian arrival and that it was one of two places that could accommodate the invader’s fleet and cavalry. Similarly, the Persians would probably have also been happier with an early battle before the Spartans arrived and had purposely landed during this Laconian festival because they had been informed about its significance by Hippias. Assuming that the Athenians were already encamped on Mount Pentelicon when the Persians beached at Marathon and refused to do battle they effectively debarred the Persians from attempting a march inland and once that route was denied then Datis and Artaphernes had to make for the alternative, which was the bay at Phaleron. Before they could make for southern Attica the Athenians had a successful engagement behind them, which may not have weakened the Persians by much but a defeated side was psychologically less willing to risk a second battle so soon after the last. A retreat would have seemed sensible in order to plan a more comprehensive second assault, perhaps the following spring.

The Athenian victory at Marathon was therefore no seminal point in the history of ancient warfare, but it provided and excellent opportunity for propaganda, as the subsequent offering to Apollo at Delphi and which was proclaimed on an inscription erected at the Treasury of the Athenians, just below the temple (see plate). The tropaion or trophy consisted of armour taken from the Persian dead and was arranged on a triangular ledge on the lower side of the treasury building. The shape of this pediment probably intended to resemble the prow of one of the captured enemy ships, albeit that there were very few of those. Moreover, the victory became in later times attributed to the heavy infantry, although the evidence, such as it is, hardly supports that contention. And so the historical tradition clearly shows that this version became canonical but quite contrary to what was, in reality, just a moderate success and merely a setback for the enemy. The tumulus erected to the dead Athenian soldiers also provided another propaganda coup for the Greeks who admitted to just one hundred and ninety-two killed. Although Herodotus gives no figure for the Plataean dead these were also honoured in a similar fashion at the entrance to the valley of the Vrana River. However, it is likely that many other Greeks combatants died but were not honoured in the same way as those who possessed an elite status. The difference between the two casualty lists is probably far less than is presented by Herodotus.

The prominence in the deliberations before the battle given to Miltiades and the heroism attributed to the polemarch Callimachus (Herodt. 6.108; cf. Pausanias, 1.15.1) stems from the fame of one of the three frescoes in the Stoa Poikile (‘The Painted Colonnade’) in the Athenian agora which was commissioned by Cimon, the son of Miltiades, whose wife was also of the same family as Pericles. Although he died in disgrace soon after the battle, his relationship with Cimon and Pericles, the most prominent Athenians in the generation following the defeat of Xerxes, goes far to explain the fact that his fame endured. But Callimachus was also honoured with a stele, or dedicatory inscription, on the Acropolis, which suggests that for contemporaries of the victory he was regarded as a more significant figure than Miltiades, and that this memorial was in part erected to counter any alternative version put about by the latter. Herodotus has little to say about the two thousand Spartans who were sent out to help the Athenians after the end of their festival. Although they hurried to take part in the defence of Attica and reached Marathon just three days after leaving their home, they were still too late (Herodt. 6.120), but they nonetheless wished to view the scene of the hostilities. After they had viewed the dead and complimented the Athenians on their victory they returned to the Peloponnese. There is no mention about the identity of the commander of this force and whether or not it was one of the kings as would have been the standard practice. Indeed, there is also no clarification about whether this number represents the Spartiates alone, which if it did would mean that a substantial army had taken the field or whether this was the total number in this force. Also left unclear is whether or not Sparta had summoned its allies in the Peloponnese to provide troops to join this expedition.

Having made the point that cavalry were an important element in the Persian force Herodotus then makes no mention of their use by either side at Marathon. Yet there is a source that does highlight the importance of the cavalry (hippeis) in Athenian society and since that evidence is a commemoration of the Persian wars, especially Marathon, then it must surely indicate that the Athenian army had a strong element of mounted troops in its army. This would go some way to explain why the Persians were so at pains to transport their cavalry such a long distance from Cilicia. They had been warned what to expect from the Athenian exiles such as Hippias. Thus while the Athenian force is usually considered to have consisted of hoplite heavy infantry there is no mention of hoplites on the frieze of the Parthenon on the Acropolis that commemorates the victories over the Persians.

Besides Herodotus’ account there is little of substance about Marathon in later accounts. Diodorus covered this event in Book 10 of his history but a single fragment (10.27.1–3) remains in which an incident is related to be placed just prior to the start of the battle where Datis sent heralds with a message to the Athenians demanding their surrender. In this message he claimed that all Athenians were descendants of Medus, king of Media, just as he was and that he had come to reclaim his ancestor’s land from which he had been expelled. Miltiades, speaking on behalf of the Athenians generals, rejected Datis’ claim to Attica and stated that, in fact, the Medes ought to swear allegiance to Athens. Once rebuffed Datis prepared for battle. The episode is probably an invention but it does add certain points of interest, not least the prominence again given to Miltiades in the affair and reflects probably his dominating place in Diodorus’ overall coverage of this battle, which he obtained from Ephorus and not from Herodotus who does not retell this tale. The preparation for battle suggests that Ephorus or perhaps Diodorus did not believe the Athenians had taken their enemy unawares and that some time did elapse between the arrival of the Persians at Marathon and their departure to Phaleron.

Pausanias, writing still later, adds a further element to the mythical aspects surrounding this battle when he describes the Sanctuary (temenos) of Nemesis at Rhamnous and a costly error of Datis. He says that the deity was depicted on a block of Parian marble that the Persians brought with them to inscribe their victory over the Athenians and is therefore another instance of hubris (pride) meeting nemesis (downfall), which is so evident throughout Herodotus’ text. The origin of the marble block is interesting since Paros was occupied by the Persians after they had subjugated Naxos and Delos. Herodotus merely says that after they left Naxos the Persians took the remaining islands on their way to Euboea, but next after Delos is Paros. Yet if this block already contained the image of Nemesis then it may well have been pillaged from Rhamnous, which is not recorded, but would show that the Persians were active around the Bay of Marathon for some time. The authenticity of the statement is much less certain since Datis had taken particular care not to offend Apollo at Delos so why succumb to sacrilege elsewhere? Yet, with Hippias in his entourage Datis would have listened to any advice and a shrine to Nemesis almost visible from where the Persians were proposing to land would surely have made any show of arrogance in the vicinity, an act to avoid at all costs. The tale given by Pausanias is probably an invention designed to appeal to the Roman tourist of such cult sites in the second century AD rather than a reflection of Datis’ character. Meanwhile, Herodotus who had a predilection for such drama would have found it irresistible for inclusion in his narrative had he known it.

Datis immediately sailed for Athens hoping to find the city undefended but probably took several days to sail around Cape Sounion. Plutarch (Arist. 5.4) adds some interesting evidence about the Persian intention and of the date and timing of the battle. In his life of Aristides who was one of the generals at Marathon he states that when the Athenians saw the Persians setting their ships towards the south and clearly about to aim for Athens itself, the tribe commanded by his subject was left to patrol the battlefield to prevent looters and to bury the dead. This in itself was normal practice but he also claims that the Persians were obliged to head south because of the prevailing wind, which must have been blowing from the north. The etesian winds blow mid-May to mid-September and could make sailing very difficult, even impossible, in the Aegean hence the Persian command may have had no choice in their destination. Moreover, the winds are at their most severe in the afternoon and tend to die away overnight picking up again in mid-morning. Strong gales are more likely in the middle of the summer than towards autumn, which again places the battle in August rather than in September, but also in the afternoon. Datis arrived at Phaleron early in the morning perhaps and stayed only a short time in order to beat the afternoon winds, which would have hindered his easterly course towards Asia.

In 490 the broad crescent of Phaleron Bay, to the southwest of the city, was the main beaching place for vessels either bringing merchandise to Athens or of Athenian ships and even its war fleet. In 493/2 the archon Themistocles had supported a measure to relocate much of the city’s commercial activities to the Piraeus, which offered more secure harbour facilities and which could be fortified and protected in time of attack. This was mainly in response to the raiding of the coast of Attica by their neighbours the Aeginetans but since Aegina had recently been pacified at roughly the same time the work of the Piraeus was unfinished. However, the Athenians’ war fleet, by then at least forty triremes, had probably been moved to the new harbour especially when the Persians were reported to be moving down the coast from Marathon. For the Persians Phaleron would have been the obvious point for disembarking mounted and infantry troops. From there it was a short distance to the city’s fortifications which, without the army sent to Marathon, would have been inadequately defended and unable to withstand an assault. The walls of Athens were no doubt reasonably secure but it is worth remembering that in 490 they did not consist of the elaborate defensive circuit, which was to be completed only fifty years later by Pericles. Furthermore, any sympathizer of the Pisistratids or the Persians would have been ready to open a gate as had occurred at Eretria and may well have been planned in advance with Hippias and Datis. Indeed, the drawing away of the Athenian army to Marathon has an element of planning about it even if the Persians suffered a defeat. This was clearly not a disaster and perhaps been factored in as a tactical reverse to win the ultimate prize. It was Hippias who advised the plain of Marathon as the best suitable place for collecting the invaders’ forces before these advanced towards Athens from the northwest. Herodotus (6.115) was also aware of some reports that gained some credibility then or later that the family of Cleisthenes and Pericles possibly favoured a Persian occupation of the city and which understandably as an admirer of the latter he dismissed out of hand. The Alcmaeonids, descended from tyrants and probably not averse to desiring outright power themselves, may have been pro-Persian while at the same time hardly sympathetic towards their great rivals Hippias and Miltiades. For a generation, Pericles was a quasi-tyrant and his rule was benign with all the acceptable trappings of senior statesmanship than of an absolute ruler. Invective about his family’s activities during past events such as Marathon still became an inevitable accompaniment to the possession of power and influence from those who envied Pericles’ position or who wished to emulate him. Still, in 490 there were surely others in Athens who might have been or could have been persuaded to betray the city by a promise of wealth or power. This is indeed hinted at by Herodotus through the words he gives to Miltiades when speaking to Callimachus when urging him to attack the Persians. In ancient sieges at a time when siege machinery was either not transported with an army or was not available the easiest way to capture a town or city was by bribing a resident to allow the enemy entry. There are numerous examples of such conclusions to siege events, the capture of Athens might also have been accomplished in this fashion.

Herodotus (6.116) states that the Athenians reached Phaleron and made their camp at Cynosarges near the precinct of a temple dedicated to Heracles before the Persian fleet rounded Cape Sounion. The Persians seeing the Greeks in possession of the beach chose not to attempt a landing, and perhaps rode the waves until such time that they were able to sail away. Where did they go? The first news of the Persians’ whereabouts comes in Herodotus’ account of another supernatural event, this time a vision or dream only when Datis had reached the island of Mykonos. Yet it is very unlikely that the Persians can have gone far from Phaleron before they would have been obliged to beach in order to rest the crews and attend to the horses. Carystus seems a likely harbour on their route to Ionia, which was not at too great a distance from Phaleron assuming that the coast of Attica was avoided altogether. However, depending on the time of day the Persians reached Phaleron then a halt in Attica perhaps near Sounion seems probable. During the retreat from Phaleron when he was at Mykonos Datis is said to have had a dream, the details of which were never spoken of, but as a result of this he ordered a search of the ships in the fleet. As a result of this search an image of the god Apollo was discovered (Herodt. 6.118) on a Phoenician vessel and he heard that it had been stolen from Delos. Datis immediately set sail for the island where he returned the image to the Delians, who had taken up their former residence but he requested that they transport it to its original home, which was at Delium on the Greek mainland opposite Chalcis. The Delians failed to fulfil this request probably because they knew that Datis was in no position to enforce it and wanted the image for their own cult centre.

There is a great deal of fabricated material in accounts of Marathon yet there is no mention of an oracle in connection with the battle. The Ionian War possesses neither oracles nor mythical material. It would seem therefore that there was a great deal of scientific evidence available for events in Asia Minor between 500 and 493, but much less secure information for Marathon. This again contrasts a great deal with the account of the invasion of Greece by Xerxes where oracular material is highlighted as indeed is the physical presence of the Persians at Delphi. Immediately after the end of his coverage of the fight at Marathon Herodotus goes on to describe the last year of Miltiades’ life in which he led an expedition against Paros, a campaign lavishly funded by the Athenians on the promise of great gains from the attack but which ultimately yielded very little. Miltiades’ hubris or pride, which led to a loss of popularity, and death soon after from an infected wound was, however, foretold by the oracle to the Parians (Herodt. 6. 135) and gave them the resolve to resist any Athenian attack on their island. It is therefore unlikely to have been merely by chance that Herodotus chose instead to dwell on more supernatural elements that he regarded in some way as more relevant to Marathon than for either the preceding or the following wars. Instead it is the presence of the gods themselves whose enmity is on occasion incurred or whose possible future anger must be avoided at all costs that is the more telling aspect. Thus the fear of and respect of deities is perhaps meant to reveal something about the beliefs of the time or the places which feature in the war. The god Pan puts in a physical appearance, Heracles and his cult centres are alluded to on more than one occasion, the goddess Nemesis was offended by the actions of Datis – according to Pausanias – who was concerned to ensure the goodwill of Apollo both at Delos and at Mykonos, while ghostly figures are also said to have joined the fight at Marathon. The battle of Marathon achieved mythic substance and the ingredients of myth filled up the gaps of an otherwise brief and unremarkable event.

The attempted submission of Aegina in the late 490s to the Persians ought not to have caused the surprise Herodotus claims since the Aeginetans had been hostile towards Athens over a long period of time. They were close neighbours and their commercial interests and ambitions clashed so the goodwill of Persia would have given Aegina the edge. The intervention of the Spartans denied the Persians a base on the island in 490 and while a section of the population in Aegina which would have wanted revenge on Athens for holding hostages from among its citizens, the Athenians wanted to ensure that the Aeginetans would not be a source of trouble and possible enemy in the future. Intervention in the affairs of Aegina occurred in the middle years of the next decade and the defeat of Aegina came as a result of the Athenians investing in a much larger war fleet than they had possessed up to that time in order to strike at least a parity with their neighbour. In about 487 Themistocles persuaded the people to vote to build an extra one hundred triremes to be funded from the silver bullion produced from mines in Laurion near to Cape Sounion in which rich deposits had recently been discovered.

Naval matters must also have been prominent in the thoughts of Darius following his latest failure to move the Persian frontiers westward. It was quite clear that the failure of Mardonius’ campaign in 492 was not the result of the fighting with the Brygi but had everything to do with the loss of ships at Mount Athos. This point is emphasized in Herodotus’ account, although he does not explain that it impacted negatively on supplying a large army when the movement was meant to be rapid and even when there were allied states along the route. Climatic conditions also draw no comment from ancient writers yet one poor summer, or worse a series of cold summers, resulting in a failure in the harvests and hence the depletion in local supplies placed heavy or impossible burdens on communities who had to supply armies on the move. A lack of locally produced supplies placed a heavier reliance on an accompanying fleet and when that was severely damaged it put paid to Mardonius’ plans, and explains Darius’ decision to launch a seaborne expedition instead in 490. After Marathon, Darius is said to have planned (Herodt. 7.1) a new expedition against the Greeks, which would have involved a far greater army and fleet. Xerxes’ decision to make use of Darius’ plans meant also that the logistics had to be solved before he actually took command of his army and fleet. This, of course, meant that newly levied forces had to be moved from Asia to Europe and, while this could have been accomplished by ferrying men, animals and materials and many camp followers across in transport ships as Mardonius had done, the ambitious Xerxes chose another spectacular and ultimately memorable way. He ordered the bridging of the Hellespont. It is often forgotten that, in fact, he was not the first to bridge the waters between Asia and Europe since Darius had ordered this to be done at the Bosphorus thirty years before in his campaign against the Scythians. On that occasion the architect or engineer had been a Greek from Samos named Mandrocles (Herodt. 4.87). The first bridge at the northern end of the channel joining the Aegean to the Euxine was in effect an elongated pontoon construction probably of pentekonters or biremes lashed together with some sort of covering to allow the crossing of men and animals. The Bosphorus is a relatively narrow channel, and is today bridged at Istanbul, and probably in extent not that much larger than Darius’ bridging of the lower Danube later in the same campaign. Herodotus gives the impression that Xerxes, clearly wished not only to emulate but also to surpass Darius by instructing engineers to erect two bridges over the Hellespont (the Sea of Helle), which opens into Aegean (The Chief Sea or Archipelago).

For Herodotus the immensity of the project, which matched or was made to match the ego of the king, was, even so, successfully accomplished only at the second attempt. He says that the Hellespont was spanned by two bridges of almost fantastic design, and modern scholarship is divided between those rather sceptical of the historicity of this episode and those who see elements of historical fact admittedly mixed with the historian’s desire to denigrate the character of the Persian king. The scepticism arises from the scale of construction in an age when such technical knowledge did not exist. Large buildings could be raised on land using stone with little or no use of concrete, bridges over streams and rivers could be accomplished but the Hellespont or the modern Dardanelles is a rather different proposition. The depth of the channel and the strong current plus the length of the construction all combine to make the venture extremely hazardous with a good chance of failure. Of course, seventy-five years later in September 413 BC the Syracusans threw up a barricade of ships across the entrance to their Great Harbour in just three days, according to Diodorus (13.14.2). These ships were almost certainly aging triremes, numbering about forty and linked bow to stern by chains and planks of wood and the entire cordon was garrisoned with troops. In contrast to the Hellespont, the main harbour at Syracuse has quite a gentle swell with little obvious current and in the event of a storm the ships could easily be disengaged and moored in safety in the smaller harbour to the north of Ortygia. This does not seem to have been necessary during the fairly short period that the boom was in place and which effectively prevented the escape of the Athenian besiegers. The entrance to the harbour at Syracuse is approximately fifteen hundred metres (just short of a mile), and forty triremes each a little less than forty metres or roughly forty yards in length uses up that space in a single boom (40 × 40 = 1600 metres). The Hellespont between Abydos and Sestos at the point stipulated by Herodotus (Herodt. 7.36) was roughly seven stadia across (1400 metres, about three quarters of a mile) and he states categorically that the bridges were brought from the Asia side of the channel to a headland between Sestos and Madytus (Herodt. 7.33–34). Herodotus (Herodt. 7.36) is also firm in claiming that the more northerly of the two bridges required three hundred and sixty vessels of both pentekonter and trireme design, while the southern bridge required three hundred and fourteen ships. Unlike the fortified boom that the Syracusans built across their harbour mouth this Persian bridge cannot have had the ships linked bow to stern on account of the strong current running into the Aegean, which means that the ships must have been joined by their beams facing the Bosphorus. Triremes had a beam of five metres and pentekonters a metre less, so the northernmost bridge if using all three hundred and sixty triremes measures 1800 metres (roughly the same in yards), the southern bridge with three hundred and fourteen pentekonters 1256 metres. This means that Herodotus’ figures are either incorrect or that a bridging point a little to the north of Abydos must be sought. This is also difficult since good stretches of beaches were also needed on both sides and where these exist, the current is markedly less but the distances at 3.87 and 3.39 kilometres for the two bridges would require more than double the number of vessels specified. In the end Herodotus’ position probably comes fairly close to the actual bridging point but neither the specific situation nor the number of ships employed in the construction can have been accurate.

The number of ships claimed for the bridges is remarkable since the figure must be double that stated by Herodotus since the first attempt to bridge the Hellespont failed. This is assuming that a large number of the original six hundred or so ships were destroyed in a violent storm and that even if some were salvaged for the second attempt then the total number of ships must exceed one thousand. Where did Xerxes’ engineers lay their hands on so many warships? According to Herodotus (6.8–9) there were about six hundred Persian warships and three hundred and fifty-three warships manned by the Ionian Greeks and their allies in the battle of Lade in 494. A number of these vessels would have been destroyed in the fighting but the majority would have remained operational. Xerxes had access to massive resources but he does not appear to have ordered the building of new ships as the foundation for the bridges, whereas he certainly ordered cables to be manufactured to join the vessels together. Therefore the ships were already in service or in harbour and must have been requisitioned from the cities in the region. Ships in any age have a limited working life but with limited technology the use of wooden vessels was fairly brief. A trireme probably served as a warship for no more than ten years, perhaps less, and after that as a transport for men or horses. Triremes or pentekonters would probably not have been re-employed as merchant ships because of the lack of space in the hold and the need for so many rowers. Twenty years’ use would have been followed by decay on a beach or reuse as firewood. But decayed ships would have been useless for the bridging project since they would be unstable in the water – especially in the strong current of the Hellespont – and highly susceptible to damage in adverse conditions. The engineers appointed by Xerxes for the second attempt, perhaps Ionian Greeks, at the bridging point must have sought out ships in good condition and either of relatively recent construction but not much more than ten years old. In 481 BC this points to warships from the 490s and a little later. Many of the warships used at Lade were no longer available since Mardonius lost at least three hundred at Mount Athos in 492. Any that survived had probably been retired from service. The Persian fleet that went to Marathon came back virtually unscathed and consisted of at least six hundred warships. Warships built after Mardonius’ Thracian campaign and any built on the orders of Darius in the months following the defeat at Marathon were therefore the building blocks of the bridging project and not much older. Xerxes will also have ordered new warships to be built for his campaigns in Egypt from 487 and still more once he had decided on the new invasion of the Greek mainland. This all points to almost frenetic activity in the regions closest to the future theatre of war, but also indicates that there were financial benefits from funding a new war and the investment this brought from the centre of the empire. The communities in Asia Minor especially benefited from Xerxes’ territorial ambitions. These same communities in the 490s had suffered from the lengthy war with Persia but would now have seen a full and rapid recovery in their wealth. It is hardly surprising that among Xerxes’ war fleet that accompanied him to Greece between a quarter and a third came from Greek-speaking cities.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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