DAVID KRONEMYER: It was 480 BCE and Xerxes was pissed. His father, Darius, had passed away several years earlier, and those pesky Greeks hadn’t budged an inch. Worse yet, a coalition of Athenian and Platean hoplites had made mincemeat of his much-larger army at the Battle of Marathon. He therefore determined to send a huge expeditionary force to subjugate this unruly people, once and for all. Some say it comprised over five million men, though contemporary scholars put it more in the neighborhood of 250,000 – still formidable by any definition. In order to get there, though, he had to dig a massive channel through the isthmus of the Mount Athos peninsula. He stored provisions at various stations along the road through Thrace. He also had to bridge the Hellespont, in order for his men to cross.
The Hellespont (now, the Dardanelles) is a long narrow strait dividing the Balkans (Europe) along the Gallipoli peninsula, from Asia Minor. It now is known as the Dardanelles. British and French forces later made their headquarters at Gallipoli during the Crimean War, in 1854. Gallipoli also was the scene of intensive fighting during the Great War (World War I), when Britain and its allies were trying to capture Constantinople, in order to support Imperial Russia.
Xerxes assigned his Phoenician and Egyptian engineers to build the bridge – some seven furlongs long. A furlong is 660 feet, so seven furlongs would be 4,620 feet (a mile is 5,280 feet). This was one big bridge, way before concrete, reinforced steel girders, and the like. The closest comparison in the U.S. is the George Washington Bridge, crossing the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey, at 4,760 feet. I’ve crossed the George Washington Bridge on numerous occasions, and it seems pretty long to me (not to mention the wait caused by heavy traffic, surely similar to the one experienced by Xerxes’ troops).
Unfortunately, though, after the bridge was built, “it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done,” Herodotus vii:34. Herodotus continues:
“So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: ‘Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou has wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at this hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honor thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavory river.’”
Herodotus vii:35. For good measure, Xerxes also “commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.”
What was Xerxes trying to accomplish when he flogged the Hellespont? Clearly, he was punishing it for its insubordination; a storm had arisen off of it, as a result of which, his bridge was destroyed. He also most likely was attempting to motivate his troops, by demonstrating his alacrity for their welfare, and his decisiveness in overcoming obstacles to their success.
The decapitation of the overseers also undoubtedly emphasized his message: he would brook no tolerance for lack of initiative, and failure was not an option – a form of graphic communication particularly intended for his corps of engineers. Rather than using words to convey the intended propositional content of his message, what better way to make his point, than cutting off a few heads? This lends new meaning to the concept of “illocutionary act” – the act performed in saying something. Though here we would need to characterize Xerxes’ cutting off of the heads as a form of “symbolic speech,” which nonetheless quite clearly can communicate a message, the meaning of which its recipients understand.
From Xerxes’ perspective, these remedial measures were efficacious, at least insofar as the Hellespont was concerned. His engineers built two new bridges (I have no doubt they made doubly sure their work was secure). Taking a further step to boost troop morale, Xerxes cut the eldest son of Pythius in half, placing the two halves “one on the right, the other on the left, of the great road, so that the army might march out between them,” Herodotus vii:39. [Pythius had the effrontery to request his eldest son not be sent to fight with his four brothers, so he could take care of Pythius in his old age.] These elements all in place, the troops crossed the Hellespont successfully.
The verdict is mixed, however, when it comes to subsequent combat. At first, Xerxes prevailed. He beat the Greeks at the Battle of Thermopylae, and conquered Athens. A naval battle at Artemisium ended indecisively, as large storms destroyed ships from both sides. Taking advice from the Greek turncoat Themistocles, Xerxes attacked the Greek fleet again, at the Battle of Salamis. This proved to be his undoing and the turning-point of the war, as Xerxes lost the battle and retreated to Sardis. The Persians later lost battles at Plataea and Mycale, whereupon they decamped back to Persia.
History doesn’t know for sure what religion Xerxes practiced. Zoroastrianism was migrating into Persia during the Achaemenid period during which Xerxes ruled. His father, Darius I, most certainly was a devotee of Ahura Mazda, the deity of an ancient proto-Iranian religion. Under Zoroastrianism, Mr. Mazda later transformed into God himself, but this occurred somewhat later. This is significant, because Zoroastrianism was monotheistic, a characteristic it shared with Judaism and, later, Christianity and Islam.
Belief in Zoroastrianism, however, seems incompatible with Xerxes’ evident belief that flogging the Hellespont would be an efficacious methodology to indicate his displeasure. Herodotus states Xerxes was communicating with the “bitter water” itself. This suggests Xerxes believed in a form of Animism – attributing a soul to a natural phenomenon, in this case, the Hellespont. If the Hellespont had a soul, or some kind of incorporeal characteristic similar to a soul, then it would receive and understand Xerxes’ message. The Hellespont “deserved” its punishment, because it had “intended” to wrong Xerxes, by destroying his bridges. More along the lines of monotheism, Xerxes may have been an emergent Pantheist, believing God and nature are one and the same. Either way, Xerxes not only gave the Hellespont a good dose of its own medicine, but also (undoubtedly) felt better after this exercise.