The Story of the Persians, or the Battle of Salamis

Xerxes, King of Persia, made war against the men of Greece, being desirous to have them for his servants. For being a man of a haughty soul, he thought to make the whole world subject to him; and against the men of Greece he had especial wrath, seeing that in the days of King Darius his father the Persians had fled before them. Wherefore he gathered together a great army from all parts of his dominions, every tribe and nation that there was in the whole land of the East, Indians, and Arabs, and such as dwelt in the plain country of Asia, having waggons for their houses, and Egyptians, and men from the upper parts of Libya. But the chief strength of his army was of the Medes and Persians, that were his own people. And for sailors he had Phœnicians, dwellers in Tyre and Sidon, and in the coasts thereof. Also many Greeks with him, such as inhabited the cities of Asia that are near to the Greek sea, and the islands which are neighbours to them. But these loved him not, hating to fight against their brethren, but were constrained to join with him by fear. And when these were gathered together, being as the sand that is on the seashore for multitude, he marched into the land of Greece; and the ships also, being in number a thousand and more, sailed along as near as might be to the army, that there might be no escape for the Greeks either by land or sea.

But when the King had been gone now many days, and there came no tidings of him and the army, the old men, counsellors and princes, to whom had been committed the care of the realm while he should be absent, were gathered together before the palace in Susa, the royal city. Not a little troubled were they in mind, for the whole strength of the land was gone to the war. “Invincible,” they said, “is the host of the Persians, and the people is valiant; but yet what man that is mortal can escape from the craft of the Gods, when they lure him to his ruin? Who is so nimble of foot that he can spring out of the net which they lay for his feet? Now of old the Persians fought ever upon the land, but now have they ventured where the waves of the sea grow white with the wind; and my heart is sore afraid, lest there come evil news that the city of Susa is emptied of her men. Then should there be heard great wailing of women; and the fine linen of the daughters of Persia, who even now sit at home alone, would be rent for grief. But come, let us sit and take counsel together, for our need is sore, and reckon the chances which of the two hath prevailed—the Persian bow or the spear of Greece.”

But while they thus spake together there came forth to them from within the palace Queen Atossa, borne in a litter. And the old men did obeisance to her, bowing their heads to the ground. (Now Queen Atossa had been wife to Darius, and was the mother of King Xerxes.) And when they had greeted her, she told them for what cause she had come forth from the palace, for that she feared greatly lest the wealth which King Darius had gathered together should be overset. “For I know not,” she said, “which is the worse thing, store of wealth without manhood, or lack of riches to them that are strong.”

Then the old men bade her speak on, for that they would give her with all willingness such counsel as they could. After this the Queen set forth the matter to them, saying—

“I have been visited with many dreams and visions of the night since the day when King Xerxes my son departed hence with his army, purposing to subdue the men of Greece; but never have I seen vision so clear as that which I beheld in this night that is last past. I saw two women clothed with fair garments, the one being clad in Persian apparel, and the other in that which Grecian women used to wear. Very tall were they, above the stature of women in these days, and fair, so that no man might blame their beauty. Sisters also were they of the same race; but the one dwelt in the land of the Greeks, and the other in the land of Asia. Between these two there arose a strife; and my son took and soothed them, and would have yoked them to his chariot. Then she that wore the Persian garb was quiet and obedient to the bit; but the other fought against him, and tare with her hands the trappings of the chariot, and brake the yoke in the midst, so that my son fell upon the ground; and when he was fallen, lo! his father Darius stood over him, pitying him. This was my dream; and when I had risen and washed my hands in the running stream, I went to the altar, that I might offer incense to the Gods that avert evil from men; and there I saw an eagle fleeing to the altar of Phœbus, and a kite pursued after him, and flew upon him, and tare his head with his claws; nor did the eagle aught but yield himself up to his adversary. Now these are fearful things for me to see and also for you to hear. But remember that if my son shall prosper, all men will do him honour; and if he shall fail, yet shall he give account to no man, but be still ruler of this land.”

To this the chief of the old men made answer, “O lady, we would counsel thee first to ask the Gods that they turn away all evils, and bring to pass all that is good; and next to make offerings to Earth and to the dead, and specially to thy husband King Darius, whom thou sawest in visions of the night, that he may send blessings from below to thy son, and turn away all trouble into darkness and nothingness.”

“This will I do,” said the Queen, “so soon as I shall have gone back to the palace. But first I would hear certain things of you. Tell me, my friends, in what land is this Athens of which they speak?”

“It is far to the west,” the old men made reply, “towards the setting of the sun.”

“And why did my son seek to subdue this city?”

“Because he knew that if he prevailed against it all Greece should be subject unto him.”

“Hath it, then, so many men that draw the sword?”

“Such an army it hath as hath wrought great damage to the Medes.”

“And hath it aught else, as wealth sufficient?”

“There is a spring of silver, a treasure hid in their earth.”

“Do the men make war with bows?”

“Not so; they have spears for close fighting and shields.”

“And who is master of their army?”

“They are not slaves or subjects to any man.”

“How, then, can they abide the onset of the Persians?”

“Nay, but so well they abide it that they slew a great army of King Darius.”

“What thou sayest is ill to hear for the mothers of them that are gone.”

And when the Queen had thus spoken, the counsellors espied a man of Persia running to them with all speed, and knew that he bare tidings from the hosts, whether good or evil. And when the man was come, he cried out, “O land of Persia, abode of proud wealth, how are thy riches destroyed, and the flower of thy strength perished! ‘Tis an ill task to bring such tidings, yet I am constrained to tell all our trouble. O men of Persia, the whole army of our land hath perished.”

Then the old men cried out, bewailing themselves that they had lived to see this day. And the messenger told them how he had himself seen this great trouble befall the Persians, and had not heard it from others, and that it was at Salamis that the army had perished, and the city of Athens that had been chief among their enemies, the old men breaking in upon his story as he spake with their lamentations. But after a while the Queen Atossa stood forward, saying, “For a while I was dumb, for the trouble that I heard suffered me not to speak. But we must bear what the Gods send. Tell me, therefore, who is yet alive? and for whom must we make lamentation?”

“Know, O Queen,” said the messenger, “that thy son, King Xerxes, is yet alive.”

And the Queen cried, “What thou sayest is as light after darkness to me; but say on.”

And when the messenger had told the names of many chiefs that had perished, the Queen said, “Come, let us hear the whole matter from the beginning. How many in number were the ships of the Greeks that they dared to meet the Persians in battle array?”

Then the man made reply, “In numbers, indeed, they might not compare with us; for the Greeks had three hundred ships in all, and ten besides that were chosen for their swiftness; but King Xerxes, as thou knowest, had a thousand, and of ships excelling in speed two hundred and seven. Of a truth, we wanted not for strength; but some God hath destroyed our host, weighing us against our enemies in deceitful balances.”

And the Queen made reply, “‘Tis even so: the Gods preserve the city of Pallas.”

“Yea,” said the man, “Athens is safe, though it be laid waste with fire; for the city that hath true men hath a sure defence.”

“But say,” said the Queen, “who began this battle of ships? Did the Greeks begin, or my son, trusting in the greatness of his host?”

Then the messenger answered, “Some evil demon set on foot all this trouble. For there came a man from the army of the Athenians to King Xerxes, saying that when night should come the Greeks would not abide in their place, but, taking with haste to their ships, would fly as best they could, and so save their lives. And he straightway, not knowing that the man lied, and that the Gods were jealous of him, made a proclamation to all the captains. “So soon as the sun be set upon the earth and the heavens dark, order your ships in three companies, and keep the channels this way and that, and compass about the whole island of Salamis; for if by any means the Greeks escape, know that ye shall pay your lives for their lives.” This commandment did he give in his pride, not knowing what should come to pass. Whereupon all the people in due order made provision of meat and fitted their oars to the rowlocks; and when night was come, every man-at-arms embarked upon the ships. And the word of the command passed from line to line, and they sailed each to his appointed place. They then watched the channels all the night, yet nowhere was there seen any stir among the Greeks as of men that would fly by stealth. And when the fiery chariot of the Sun was seen in heaven, the Greeks set up with one accord a great shout, to which the echo from the rocks of the island made reply; and the Persians were troubled, knowing that they had been deceived, for the Greeks shouted not as men that were afraid. And after this there came the voice of a trumpet exceeding loud, and then, when the word was given, the dash of many oars that struck the water together, and, clearly heard above all, the sound of many voices, saying, ‘RISE, CHILDREN OF THE GREEKS; SET FREE YOUR COUNTRY AND YOUR CHILDREN AND YOUR WIVES, AND THE HOUSES OF YOUR GODS, AND THE SEPULCHRES OF YOUR FOREFATHERS. NOW MUST YE FIGHT FOR ALL THAT YE HOLD DEAR.’ And from us there came a great tumult of Persian speech, and the battle began, ship striking against ship. And a ship of the Greeks led the way, breaking off all the forepart of a ship of Phœnicia. For a while, indeed, the Persian fleet bare up; but seeing that there were many crowded together in narrow space, and that they could not help one another, they began to smite their prows together, and to break the oars one of the other. And the ships of the Greeks in a circle round about them drave against them right skilfully; and many hulls were overset, till a man could not see the sea, so full was it of wrecks and of bodies of dead men, with which also all the shores and rocks were filled. Then did all the fleet of the Persians take to flight without order, and our enemies with oars and pieces of wreck smote us, as men smite tunnies or a shoal of other fish; and there went up a dreadful cry, till the darkness fell and they ceased from pursuing. But all the evils that befell us I could not tell, no, not in ten days; only be sure of this, that never before in one day died such a multitude of men.”

Then the Queen said, “‘Tis surely a great sea of troubles that hath broken upon our race.”

But the messenger made reply, “Listen yet again, for I have yet more to tell. There is an island over against Salamis, small, not easy of approach to ships. Hither the King, thy son, sent the chosen men of his army, being in the vigour of their age, and noble of birth, and faithful to himself. For it was in his mind that they should slay such of the Greeks as should seek to save themselves out of the ships, and should help any of his own people that might be in need. But he judged ill of what should come to pass. For when the ships of the Greeks had prevailed as I have said, certain of their host clad themselves in arms, and leapt out of the ships on to the island, which they circled about so that the Persians knew not whither they should turn. And many were smitten down with stones, and many with arrows, till at the last the men of Greece, making an onslaught together, slew them with their swords so that there was not a man left alive. Which thing when the King beheld, for he sat on a hill nigh unto the shore of the sea, whence he could regard the whole army, he uttered a great cry, and rent his garments, and bade his army that was on the land fly with all speed.”

And when the Queen heard these things she said, “O my son, ill hast thou avenged thyself on this city of Athens! But tell me, messenger, what befell them that escaped from the battle?”

“As for the ships,” he said; “O Queen, such as perished not in the bay fled without order, the wind favouring them. But of the army many indeed perished of thirst in the land of Bœotia, and the rest departed with all speed through the land of Phocis and the coasts of Doris till we came to the region of Thessaly, being in sore straits for food. And here also many perished of hunger and thirst; but such as were left came into the land of Macedonia, and thence to the coasts of Thrace, even to the great river of Strymon. And there the Gods caused that there should be a frost out of season, so that the river was covered with ice in one night; which marvel when we beheld we worshipped the Gods, yea, such as had said before in their hearts that there were no Gods. And when our prayers were ended we crossed over; and with such as crossed before the sun was risen high upon the earth, it was well; for as the day grew towards noon, the ice was melted in the midst of the river, and the people fell through, one upon the other, and perished miserably, so that he might be counted happiest that died most speedily. But such as remained fled across the plains of Thrace with much toil and trouble, and are now come to our homes, being but a very few out of many.”

Then said the Queen, “Truly my dream is fulfilled to the utmost. But now let us do what we may. For the past no man may change; but for the future we may take thought. Wherefore I will offer incense to the Gods and to the dead; and do you take faithful counsel together, and if the King my son should come before I be returned, comfort him and bring him to the palace, lest a yet worse thing befall us.”

Then the Queen departed; and the old men made lamentation for the dead, and bewailed themselves for the trouble that had befallen the land of Persia. But after a while she returned, walking on her feet and in sober array, for she would put away all pride and pomp, knowing that the Gods were wroth with the land and its rulers. And she brought with her such things as men are wont to offer to the dead—milk and honey, and pure water from a fountain, and pure juice of a wild vine; also the fruit of the olive, and garlands of flowers; and she bade the old men sing a hymn to the dead, and call up the spirit of King Darius, while she offered her offerings to them that bear rule in hell.

So the old men chanted their hymn. To Earth they cried and to Hermes that they would send up the spirit of King Darius; also to the King himself they cried, that he would come and give them counsel in their need.

And after a while the spirit of the King rose up from his sepulchre, having a royal crown upon his head, and a purple robe about him, and sandals of saffron upon his feet. And the spirit spake, saying, “What trouble is this that seemeth to have come upon the land? For my wife standeth near to my tomb with offerings; and ye have called me with the cries that raise the dead. Of a truth this is a hard journey to take; for they that bear rule below are more ready to take than to give back. Yet am I come, for I have power among them. Yet hasten, for my time is short. Tell me, what trouble hath come upon the land of Persia?”

But the old men could not answer him for fear. Whereupon he turned him to the Queen, and said, “My wife that was in time past, cease awhile from these lamentations and tell me what hath befallen this land.”

And when she had told him all, he said, “Truly the Gods have brought speedy fulfilment to the oracles, which I had hoped might yet be delayed for many years. But what madness was this in Xerxes my son! Much do I fear lest our wealth be the prey of the spoiler.”

Then the Queen made reply, “O my lord, Xerxes hath been taught by evil counsellors; for they told him that thou didst win great wealth for thy country by thy spear, but that he sat idly at home; wherefore he planned this thing that hath now had so ill an end.”

With this the old men, taking heart, would know of the King what counsel he gave them for the time to come. And he said, “Take heed that ye make not war again upon these men of Greece.” And when they doubted whether they might not yet prevail, he said, “Listen, for ye know not yet all that shall be. When the King, my son, departed, he took not with him his whole army, but left behind him many chosen men of war in the land of Bœotia by the river Æsopus. And for these there is a grievous fate in store. For they shall suffer punishment for all that they have done against Gods and men, seeing that they spared not the temples of the Gods, but threw down their altars, and brake their images in pieces. Wherefore they shall perish miserably, for the spear of the Greeks shall slay them in the land of Platæa. For the Gods will not that a man should have thoughts that are above the measure of a man. Also full-flowered insolence groweth to the fruit of destructions, and men reap from it a harvest of many tears. Do ye then bear Athens and the land of Greece in mind, and let no man, despising what is his and coveting another man’s goods, so bring great wealth to ruin. For Zeus is ever ready to punish them that think more highly than they ought to think, and taketh a stern account. Wherefore do ye instruct the King with counsels that he cease to sin against the Gods in the pride of his heart. And do thou that art his mother go to thy house, and take from it such apparel as is seemly, and go to meet thy son, for the many rents that he hath made for grief gape in his garments about him. Comfort him also with gentle words; for I know that ’tis thy voice only that he will hear. And to you old men, farewell; and live happily while ye may, for there is no profit of wealth in the grave whither ye go.”

And with these words the spirit of King Darius departed.

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