Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Xerxes

Fol­low­ing the re­mains of the Per­sian wars in to­day’s Greece

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The road from the Plain of Marathon to down­town Athens is, as we all know, around 40 km due to the length of the mod­ern marathon that sup­pos­edly com­mem­o­rates a run un­der­taken in 490 BCE to an­nounce to the Athe­ni­ans that they had de­feated the Per­sians. First, to put one thing straight, the run­ner was not, as the em­i­nent scholar Google tells me, made by a “Greek soldier Phei­dip­pi­des”. Phei­dip­pi­des was not a “soldier” but a pro­fes­sional long-dis­tance run­ner who, a few days be­fore the Bat­tle of Marathon, made a run from Athens to Sparta where he reached Sparta the day af­ter he left Athens. Se­condly, com­mon belief has it that when the run­ner reached Athens to an­nounce the vic­tory that he col­lapsed and died af­ter de­liv­er­ing his mes­sage. Again this is wrong.

Our pri­mary an­cient source for the Per­sian Wars, the his­to­rian Herodotus, fails to men­tion ei­ther a run­ner go­ing from Marathon to Athens and cer­tainly not that he died on reach­ing his des­ti­na­tion. Any­one who knows their Herodotus would find it in­cred­u­lous that such a vivid story was omit­ted from his history and so it seems that, 2,500 years later, we have wo­ven a myth of Phei­dip­pi­des run­ning from Marathon whereas in fact, in all like­li­hood, no such run ever oc­curred.

And don’t get me started on the his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity of re­cent films such as 300 that again piles on the myth when talk­ing about another fa­mous bat­tle of the Per­sian Wars: Ther­mopy­lae. Films of buffed and tat­tooed war­riors pur­port­ing to be an­cient Greeks be­long in the re­ject aisle at the lo­cal video store rather than be­ing in any way con­nected to his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity!

To sort myth from re­al­ity, I’ve had the plea­sure to travel to many of the lo­ca­tions where the main en­gage­ments of the Per­sian Wars took place. If noth­ing else, it was a chance for me to travel off the beaten track while in Greece and Tur­key but it has also al­lowed me to bet­ter vi­su­alise the scenes de­scribed by Herodotus so evoca­tively as he recorded a time, as he says, when “men fought in a way not to be for­got­ten”. What more could a young man trav­el­ling around Greece wish for?

Bat­tle of Marathon

The road to Marathon from Athens - even with­out epic runs - is unin­spir­ing. The first half snakes its way through outer Athens be­fore you climb a hill and have the Plain of Marathon spread out be­low you. The plain is dot­ted with vil­las, and a swamp, that once ex­isted at the north­ern end of the plain, has long-since been drained (iron­i­cally be­ing re-filled for the row­ing events of the Athens Olympic Games). Yet, of all places, this plain is piv­otal to western civil­i­sa­tion for it was here that the city of Athens, vir­tu­ally alone, de­feated the mighty Per­sian army. With the loss of 192 sol­diers and re­ly­ing on the tac­tics of the gen­eral Mil­ti­ades, the Athe­ni­ans on this plain smashed Per­sian hopes for re­venge and con­quest.

This event cat­a­pulted Athens into be­ing one of the lead­ing cities of Greece and ush­ered in the Golden Age of Athens when democ­racy be­came firmly en­trenched, theatre was de­vel­oped, his­to­ries writ­ten and phi­los­o­phy en­cour­aged. If Athens had lost at Marathon who knows what may have hap­pened but one thing is cer­tain: there is no way un­der Per­sian dom­i­na­tion that Athens could have flow­ered as it did and be­queath to the rest of us the pil­lars of western civil­i­sa­tion.

When ar­riv­ing at Marathon, I’d rec­om­mend head­ing straight to the small ar­chae­o­log­i­cal mu­seum that is lo­cated near the Tu­mu­lus of the Plataeans (the only other Greek city to aid Athens at Marathon). It was in the hills above the mu­seum where the Greeks made their camp. Here they waited out the Per­sians, hop­ing against hope, that Sparta or the other pow­er­ful Pelo­pon­nesian cities would come to their aid.

In the end it was re­alised that no help was com­ing and when Mil­ti­ades saw his op­por­tu­nity he or­dered his forces to lit­er­ally run at the en­emy. You can take the small road be­hind the mu­seum and climb the first foot slopes of the hills. Here you have a panoramic view of the bat­tle­field and can well imag­ine the Greek troops pour­ing past you: each soldier know­ing that they were go­ing up against the most so­phis­ti­cated and pow­er­ful em­pire the world had yet seen. In­deed, as Herodotus

Films of buffed and

tat­tooed war­riors pur­port­ing to be an­cient Greeks be­long in the re­ject aisle at the lo­cal video store rather than be­ing in any way con­nected to his­tor­i­cal re­al­ity

tells us, up till that time no Greek could even hear the men­tion of ‘Per­sia’ with­out be­ing afraid. Yet, be­cause the Greeks had noted that the Per­sians had em­barked their fear­some cav­alry on board their trans­port ships, they re­alised they stood a chance, and pour­ing out of the hills, ran to the Per­sian lines that had been drawn up in the mid­dle of the plain.

The re­mains to­day

I would now sug­gest that a mod­ern visi­tor re­trace the route of the Greeks and head to the Athe­nian tu­mu­lus that is pre­served in the mid­dle of the plain at the lo­ca­tion where the main en­gage­ment took place.

Nor­mally the Greeks did not bury their dead on the bat­tle­field but such was the hon­our given to the fallen at Marathon that a huge mound of earth was raised over their cre­mated re­mains. While all one sees to­day is a small grassed hillock, you can imag­ine the scene here in 490 BCE when the Greek and Per­sian lines first met. Mil­ti­ades in­ten­tion­ally kept his cen­tre lines weak so that the best Per­sian troops, also in the cen­tre lines, forced back the Greek cen­tre. Mil­ti­ades, how­ever, had strength­ened the wings of the Greek army and they held their ground. Even­tu­ally the two wings of the Athe­nian army came to­gether and en­cir­cled the Per­sian in­fantry.

Those Per­sians that es­caped the rout made their way to the nearby beach where Per­sian ships tried to evac­u­ate them. Herodotus tells us that a fierce bat­tle raged on the beach un­til the Per­sian fleet made its es­cape but not with­out sus­tain­ing se­vere ca­su­al­ties. The beach, nat­u­rally, is still there but is to­day lined with tav­er­nas and cafes.

Af­ter your visit to Marathon it is a good place to fin­ish, have a drink and watch the shal­low waves of the Aegean lap­ping against the sand. In your mind’s eye you can imag­ine the bed­lam here at the end of the bat­tle: Per­sians, wide-eyed with terror do­ing any­thing pos­si­ble to clam­ber aboard a ship while res­o­lute Greeks closed in around them.

With­out send­ing a run­ner to Athens first, the en­tire army marched in quick time back to their city as it was feared the Per­sians were go­ing to sail around Cape Sounion and at­tack the city. The Greeks made it there first and when the Per­sian ships ar­rived they saw the Acrop­o­lis de­fended and de­ject­edly sailed for home. The sec­ond Per­sian in­va­sion was at an end.

Cross­ing the Helle­spont

It took 10 years of prepa­ra­tion but in 480 BCE the Per­sians were ready to try again. This time, noth­ing was left to chance. The Per­sian troop num­bers were colos­sal and in­cluded the leg­endary 10,000: the Per­sian elite troops. Over­see­ing them all was the Per­sian king him­self, Xerxes.

The first ob­sta­cle that needed breach­ing was the Helle­spont; a nar­row strait of wa­ter sep­a­rat­ing Europe from Asia known to­day as the Dar­danelles. Herodotus tells us that

Xerxes or­dered two bridges to be built across the Helle­spont: not by the usual meth­ods of rig­ging ships to­gether but by us­ing flax and papyrus ropes as ‘thick as a man’ as the main sup­port struc­ture. Af­ter the bridges were com­plete, a se­vere storm blew down the Helle­spont and the bridges were de­stroyed. Xerxes was fu­ri­ous and he had the hap­less engi­neers be­headed be­fore or­der­ing the royal ex­e­cu­tioner to the shores of the Helle­spont where he was to whip the wa­ters and each time say “you salt and bit­ter stream, your master lays this pun­ish­ment upon you for in­jur­ing him”.

Such high drama! But all things pass and to­day the site of Xerxes’ bridges is just another small beach along the Helle­spont. The bridge spanned the Helle­spont at one of its nar­row­est points op­po­site the Greek city of Aby­dos where it is still over a kilo­me­tre-wide. The site can be easily reached on the Euro­pean shore from a road that hugs the shore of the Dar­danelles. In an en­vi­ron­ment of conifers and rock you can walk less than 50 me­tres from the road to the shore, step­ping around rub­bish, un­til you reach the nar­row beach, again with the plas­tic flot­sam from a dozen na­tions washed ashore. Be­tween you and the far shore Rus­sian oil tankers slug­gishly churn against the cur­rent as birds wheel over­head. The cur­rent is swift and the dis­tance far enough to stretch your in­credulity that once, 2,500 years ago, it was pos­si­ble to bridge such a dis­tance.

Af­ter the fail­ure of the first bridges, Xerxes or­dered two new bridges to be con­structed in the more tra­di­tional man­ner of lash­ing ships to­gether. Once com­plete, as Herodotus tells us, for seven days and seven nights the army of the Per­sians crossed the bridges into Europe hell-bent on teach­ing the Greeks a les­son.

Dig­ging a canal

Among the many ves­tiges of Xerxes’ power which sur­vive to­day is the re­mains of the canal he had dug across the Athos penin­sula. The first Per­sian in­va­sion in 492 BC—un­der Xerxes’ pre­de­ces­sor— King Dar­ius, had been stopped in its tracks when the navy was de­stroyed in a wild storm as it tried to round the Athos Penin­sula: the eastern most promon­tory of the Chalkidiki in north­ern Greece. This, com­bined with King Dar­ius’ later de­feat at Marathon in 490 BC, made Xerxes leave noth­ing to chance.

The king or­dered that a canal be cut across the nar­row neck of land at the base of the penin­sula, wide enough for two war­ships to be rowed abreast. With this canal in place, his ships could safely pass to the west, with­out mak­ing the dan­ger­ous jour­ney around the end of the penin­sula.

This was all grand­stand­ing of course— per­haps with a bit of su­per­sti­tion thrown in—as the canal can­not be seen as any form of strate­gic im­per­a­tive. But Xerxes was not to be de­terred by such mat­ters.

You can fol­low much rusted signs to even­tu­ally track down what re­mains of

Xerxes’ canal to­day lo­cated just north of the ter­ri­tory owned by the Ortho­dox Church that oc­cu­pies most of the Athos Penin­sula. On its eastern side is a small set­tle­ment made up of refugees who fled Asia Mi­nor in the 1920s. Now the place is a rather run down Greek beach re­sort: dot­ted about are lit­tle sheds with ‘DISCO’ painted in white­wash on the wall and steel frames, which once had can­vas on them, rust on the beach.

Not much can be seen of the canal at this eastern end as the beach has filled in the land­scape con­sid­er­ably. When you turn in­land, how­ever, and head to the west, the grad­ual con­tours of the orig­i­nal con­struc­tion be­come clearer. At its best, the canal to­day is noth­ing more than a small val­ley in the land­scape: over­grown with veg­e­ta­tion and di­vided up into cat­tle pad­docks. Quiet, un­vis­ited and slowly but surely blend­ing in with the sur­round­ing land­scape: one can only imag­ine how dif­fer­ent the scene was prior as Xerxes’ forces used the canal in their west­ward march.

Spar­tan brav­ery

With the ad­vance of Xerxes, the south­ern Greek cities came to­gether, for one of the few times in their history, to dis­cuss what to do. The Spar­tans, from one of the old­est and cer­tainly the most mil­i­taris­tic cities in Greece, ar­gued that the next line of de­fence should be the Isth­mus of Corinth.

Fine strat­egy for the Pelo­pon­nesian cities as the Isth­mus is easily de­fended but it would have meant aban­don­ing cities such as Athens and Thebes to the north of the Isth­mus. Nat­u­rally this did not go down well with the Athe­ni­ans who threat­ened to go over to the side of Per­sia if the Pelo­pon­nesian cities did not make an ef­fort to de­fend all of Greece, not just their home patch. The dan­ger of Athens, and par­tic­u­larly the Athe­nian navy, be­ing in the em­ploy of the Per­sians was enough for the south­ern cities to agree to keep Athens in the Greek league and de­fend the next best spot: the pass at Ther­mopy­lae.

We hear a lot about the 300 Spar­tans at Ther­mopy­lae but we also need to re­mem­ber that there were troops from other cities at Ther­mopy­lae, at least un­til just be­fore the end, and that Athens played a piv­otal role with her navy in stop­ping the south­ern ad­vance of the Per­sian fleet that would have been able to out­flank the Greeks at Ther­mopy­lae if un­hin­dered.

But this is not to take any­thing from the Spar­tans who did, un­der their king Leonidas, de­fend the pass to the death and rightly earned for their city the rep­u­ta­tion for Spar­tan brav­ery and the fact that a Spar­tan would never sur­ren­der.

It is rel­a­tively easy to get to the pass of Ther­mopy­lae to­day as, un­til re­cently, the main road be­tween Athens and Thes­sa­loniki passed within me­tres of where the ac­tion took place. Now by­passed by a mo­tor­way, traf­fic through the pass has less­ened but the road is still there and the lo­ca­tion of the main bat­tle marked by a re­cent statue of a Greek ho­plite, or in­fantry­man, with his spear held high.

What is needed at Ther­mopy­lae, how­ever, is a fair bit of imag­i­na­tion as the lo­ca­tion to­day does not look any­thing like a nar­row pass. This is due to the fact that lo­cal rivers have de­posited a lot of al­lu­vium over the mil­len­nia and has in-filled the Malian Gulf to the ex­tent that you can hardly see the wa­ter when at Ther­mopy­lae. In­stead, you have to imag­ine the wa­ter com­ing right in to where the road is to­day, leav­ing a nar­row pass be­tween the hills to the south and the wa­ter to the north. With a small amount of flat land in front of the pass that still con­tains a hot spring that gives the place its name and a wall built to pro­tect the pass, this was a per­fect lo­ca­tion for the Greeks to nul­lify the Per­sian nu­mer­i­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity and hold up their south­ward ad­vance.

Like most bat­tle­fields, there is not a lot to ac­tu­ally see at Ther­mopy­lae but if you have a copy of Herodotus with you the place comes alive. You can see (in your mind’s eye) the Spar­tans comb­ing their long hair as they pre­pared to die, the Per­sian of­fi­cers whip­ping their men to keep them ad­vanc­ing against the Greeks, the tus­sle over the body of the fallen Leonidas and the last, des­per­ate stand on top of a small hillock di­rectly op­po­site the mod­ern me­mo­rial. Here Herodotus tells us, the last of the Spar­tans fought to the death with their swords if they had them, with their

teeth and nails if they didn’t. They fell to a man and at the lo­ca­tion of their last stand is a mod­ern re­pro­duc­tion of the an­cient me­mo­rial that says, with typ­i­cal Spar­tan lugubri­ous­ness, “Go tell the Spar­tans, you who read: We took their or­ders, and here lie dead”. It is not un­com­mon to find a bunch of flow­ers on this me­mo­rial: tes­ti­mony of the never-end­ing power of this bat­tle when the Greeks gave their all to de­fend them­selves against the storm from the east.

Athens is de­stroyed

With the Spar­tans van­quished at Ther­mopy­lae, the Per­sians streamed south into the heart­land of Greece. Fol­low­ing ad­vice from Themis­to­cles, the Athe­nian leader, most of the Athe­ni­ans aban­doned their city and fled to the nearby is­land of Salamis. Apart from a few fool-hardy souls who in­sisted on de­fend­ing the Acrop­o­lis, the de­serted city was easily cap­tured by the Per­sians who had their re­venge for their de­feat at Marathon 10 years ear­lier by putting the city to the torch.

There is still ev­i­dence of this de­struc­tion when you visit Athens to­day. When in the Plaka, the pleas­ant dis­trict of Neo-Clas­si­cal build­ings, shops and restau­rants nes­tled un­der the Acrop­o­lis, you can look up at the Acrop­o­lis and no­tice that a num­ber of col­umn drums have been built into the perime­ter wall that crowns the cliffs. These drums came from the par­tially-built Parthenon that the Per­sians de­stroyed and were later used as ready raw ma­te­rial when the Athe­nian leader, Themis­to­cles, hur­riedly for­ti­fied Athens fol­low­ing the Per­sian Wars.

On the Acrop­o­lis it­self, just af­ter you’ve ex­ited the mon­u­men­tal gate­way or Propy­laea and ap­proach the back of the later, and more well-known, Parthenon you will no­tice that the sty­lo­bate (or base) of the Parthenon has been built from two dif­fer­ent types of stone. The lower, greyer and more weath­ered, was the sty­lo­bate of the orig­i­nal Parthenon de­stroyed by the Per­sians while the lighter coloured stones on top date to later in the 5th cen­tury BCE when the Parthenon was re­built dur­ing the time of Per­i­cles.

How­ever, for the best ev­i­dence of the Per­sian sack of Athens, you need to visit the new Acrop­o­lis Mu­seum that has been pur­pose-built at the foot of the Acrop­o­lis. This su­perb mu­seum should be on the itin­er­ary of ev­ery visi­tor to Athens, and when there, take note of the Ko­rai and

Kouroi that have been spread across the lower floor.

These vo­tive stat­ues of young women and men have been placed so that you can move around and be­tween them giv­ing you a mar­vel­lous feel­ing of lit­er­ally be­ing im­mersed among the youth of an­cient Athens. Many of these exquisitel­y carved stat­ues have frag­ments of the orig­i­nal paint that once cov­ered them: a rare re­minder that an­cient stat­ues were not al­ways bleached white. They do, how­ever, show dam­age: faces cropped off, arms lost, hack marks at the back of the head. Many of these stat­ues were found buried in a pit on the Acrop­o­lis where they had been rev­er­ently placed by the Athe­ni­ans fol­low­ing the clean-up of their city fol­low­ing the Per­sian de­struc­tion. This pre­served their orig­i­nal colour­ing, and while the dam­age made by the ma­raud­ing Per­sians is man­i­fest, their ‘de­struc­tion’ has pre­served for us some of the most de­light­ful sculp­ture from late 6th cen­tury BCE Athens.

Per­sian re­treat

From the is­land of Salamis the Athe­ni­ans could only watch as they saw the smoke from their beloved city curl­ing into the sky: but they would have their day. Now on the out­skirts of Athens and amid oil re­finer­ies and other in­dus­try, the nar­row stretch of wa­ter be­tween Salamis and the main­land was soon to wit­ness a re­mark­able vic­tory by the com­bined Greek navy over the Per­sians.

Now with the Greeks as mas­ters of the sea, the Per­sian in­va­sion force was

vul­ner­a­ble as it meant that the Greeks could sail to the Helle­spont, break apart the Per­sian bridges and trap the Per­sian army in Greece. Re­al­is­ing this, Xerxes high­tailed it for home leav­ing the bulk of his army to win­ter in the north of Greece.

The fol­low­ing year, in 479 BCE, the Per­sians ad­vanced south and were met by the com­bined Greek army in front of the city of Plataea: the cit­i­zens of which, you may re­mem­ber, were the only al­lies to fight with the Athe­ni­ans at Marathon.

At this un­vis­ited spot to the north­west of Athens, later-pe­riod tow­ers and walls can still be seen over­look­ing a broad val­ley where the main en­gage­ment took place. It was a spread out af­fair and again it was Spar­tan mil­i­tary might that car­ried the day when their forces cap­tured the Per­sian camp and brought about the de­feat of the Per­sian army.

This ac­tion ended the third and most se­ri­ous in­va­sion by the Per­sians who never again ven­tured to dream of con­quer­ing the Greeks. Fol­low­ing the Bat­tle of Plataea, Herodotus re­counts that the leader of the Greeks, Pau­sa­nias, amazed at the sump­tu­ous splen­dour he found in the Per­sian camp, asked the Per­sian cooks to pre­pare a typ­i­cal meal that they would have once pre­pared for the Per­sian com­man­der Mar­do­nius. As a joke he then asks the Spar­tan cooks to pre­pare their usual meal and when the two were ready he calls in the other Greek com­man­ders and shows them the stag­ger­ing dif­fer­ence be­tween the spreads. As they marvel at the Per­sian bro­cades, silks and golden plates, Pau­sa­nias says to them, “Gen­tle­man, I have called you here to see the folly of the Per­sians, who, liv­ing in this man­ner, came to Greece to rob us of our poverty”.

This bon­homie among the Greeks was not to last and within a gen­er­a­tion they would be at each other’s throats in a war that was to sap the vi­tal­ity of an­cient Greece and al­low a new kid on the block to emerge: Mace­don. But for the mo­ment Greece was safe and the undis­puted master of the eastern Mediter­ranean. The Clas­si­cal Pe­riod flow­ered dur­ing this time and we, even to­day, live with the legacy of these years ev­ery time we cast a vote, visit a theatre or ask our­selves “am I happy?”

Nat­u­rally there is much, much more to visit in Greece but to walk in the foot­steps of Xerxes and his pre­de­ces­sors, Herodotus in hand, is a chance to re­live a time when the small, frac­tious and bel­li­cose cities of Greece with­stood a force so pow­er­ful that its ef­fects still re­ver­ber­ate to­day.

Ther­mopy­lae hills and plain: scene of Spar­tan brav­ery

Statue of Leonidas, Ther­mopy­lae

View from Tem­ple of Po­sei­don at Cape Sounion

The re­cently opened Acrop­o­lis Mu­seum has been pur­pose built to pay homage to the nearby Acrop­o­lis and its crown­ing trea­sure, the Parthenon. The mu­seum houses the Parthenon Mar­bles, as well as stat­ues and other vo­tive of­fer­ings that have been un­earthed...

The tu­mu­lus raised over the 192 Athe­nian dead fol­low­ing the Bat­tle of Marathon in 490 BCE still ex­ists at the plain’s cen­tre. The mound has been in­ves­ti­gated by ar­chae­ol­o­gists and it was con­firmed that the cre­mated re­mains of the Greeks are still...

This view shows the western-most end of Xerxes’ canal which cre­ated the cut­ting seen here (with the first tele­graph pole in the cen­tre): the chan­nel of the canal has al­most com­pletely filled in now and sup­ports swampy veg­e­ta­tion such as the reeds seen...

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