Xerxes invades Greece

Darius' wish to “remember the Athenians” was fulfilled by his son Xerxes. After intimidating preparations, the Persians overwhelmed the Spartan attempt to hold the line in northern Greece (at the Battle of Thermopylae).The Greeks rallied however, and under Athenian leadership, defeated the Persian fleet (largely Phoenicians and Ionian Greeks in fact) at the Battle of Salamis. Aeschylus, an Athenian poet who probably fought in the battle gives a dramatic account in his play The Persians.

It's important for the students to distinguish Xerxes from his predecessors Cyrus and Darius – he's altogether a lesser man. There  are several opportunities for interesting digressions: on the importance of archaeology (Athos canal); on the trireme – which was recently reconstructed from ancient references. See the Trireme Trust's website: www.atm.ox.ac.uk/rowing/trireme/ and Wikipedia, under Olympias. For the technically minded, there is the possibility of examining the Athenian silver mines in some detail: see Follow-up section below.

Crossing the Hellespont: There is a very fast current (scene for the tragic tale of Hero and Leander ? and also of Byron's famous swim). Difficult technology to weave and transport two mile long cables (and they had to do it twice, after the first ones were destroyed in a storm). How many boats would be needed and where would they come from? How would the causeway/floor be made? How would it keep stable? Herodotus believes it was an ego trip ? Xerxes over-reaching himself, like flogging the sea. But it would have been very difficult to ferry all the men and equipment across.

Mention the story in Herodotus of Xerxes's rage – and his orders to flog the sea and throw fetters into it! The first cables were destroyed. Technical discussion about the length and strength of these cables, how they were fixed, where they were made is quite likely!

Troop numbers: Maybe compare with troop numbers used in the invasion of Iraq 2003 ? and the size of Alexander's force, or any other military expedition where numbers are known (Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Falklands).

Mount Athos canal: The Roman poet Juvenal, called out the Greeks (meaning Herodotus) for lying about the canal through Mt Athos, as part of a general diatribe against Greeks, and their propensity to lie. But it has been shown to be true by modern archaeologists. In fact it shows up on the aerial photo quite well. Check on Google Earth? Info about archaeology here: https://www.livius.org/he-hg/herodotus/hist05.htm. An interesting discussion could develop around the Persians' readiness to undertake huge projects in defiance of nature: eg the 'Suez' canal, the Royal Road, Persepolis, Cyrus's attack on Babylon.

Xerxes canal

The Athos peninsula: there's a line of darker vegetation between the two small red dots.


Triremes were unsinkable wooden warships propelled by rowers that could be aimed at an enemy ship, and destroy it. It was the WMD of its day ? 120 feet long by 18 feet wide, needing 170 oarsmen, who took an oar each in three tiers. It needed to reach a speed of over 10 mph when ramming.

On Thermopylae, maybe you could show the students extracts or stills from the controversial 2007 film “300” (an adaptation from Frank Miller's graphic novel ? see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/300_(film). Plenty on YouTube. If you do show them '300' prepare the ground carefully first! I'd hope they would be outraged by the film's treatment of Xerxes and the Persians , after what they now know ? although this the film's intention would seem to be to show the ancient Persians as every bit as unsympathetic as modern Iran to the US government and popular opinion!

At most, Thermopylae can have delayed the Persian advance by a few days. But death in battle ? compare the? Iliad - was seen as the best way to die (see Herodotus' story about Cleobis and Biton). So Leonidas' choice for the Spartans to stand firm and die resonated with normal Greek sentiment. The uselessness of the sacrifice was immaterial.



1. Task: the Silver Mines ?how did the Athenians “make money”?

You are Themistocles,? an Athenian, elected? by your tribe as one of the ten generals. It is 8 years since the Athenian army defeated the Persians at Marathon. The Persians are building up massive forces in Asia, and are intending to launch a combined land and sea offensive.? Athens has few ships, and is exposed to sea-borne attack. The city has little money. You are only one among 10 elected leaders, and the city prefers to listen to your rival, Aristides? known as “the fair dealer”. If war with the Persians is inevitable, what do you need?

Money and ships ? and to get rid of Aristides. But ships cost money, and there is none! So what else?

Luck! - a huge new vein of silver has been discovered on Athenian territory at Laurion, where small amounts of silver had always been mined. [Remember that in the ancient world you actually? made money by getting it out of the ground: what were the only other ways to get it?] You persuade the people that Aristides’s idea of giving every citizen an equal share would be foolish, with the Persians about to invade. They vote to banish him for ten years. The city now owns the silver, but how to turn an underground deposit of metal into cash? What do you need?

Labour of course. When Greeks captured a city, they would take the women and children as slaves ? but kill the men. Why? Because free men can’t be made into slaves ? normally. But anyone could be chained and sent underground to dig out the precious silver-bearing ores. We know that 20,000 slaves escaped from slavery in the silver mines in the years 413- 404 BC, when the Spartans were occupying Athenian territory. Mining was thus big business: if you were rich you could buy a year’s “concession” from the city ? handing over an agreed amount to the city by the end of the year. You would then need to buy or hire slaves and equipment. An Athenian general, Nikias, made a fortune hiring out 1000 slaves to work in the mines. But, assuming you have the man-power, there are still problems. The ore was deep underground, and the silver was mixed up with lead and other materials: how would you turn it into silver for coinage?

Mining skills would be the first priority. Once you know where to dig, you sink deep vertical holes (shafts), from which narrow horizontal galleries would lead off, following the veins of ore. The workforce are all slaves, and expendable, so it doesn’t matter about health and safety, or how uncomfortable it would be crawling along a narrow tunnel with no room to stand or sit or even turn round. [How do we know what it would have been like?] Your miners would be sent down shafts to the galleries: what would they need to take with them?

A pick and an oil lamp. And some means of passing the excavated ore back to the gallery, from where it would be sent up to the surface. We know from the hundreds of lamps found how long they would burn for. Why would this be important?

Shifts. When their lamp went out, the miners would know it was the end of their shift, and they could crawl back to the? main shaft. We know that the lamps burned for about 8 hours ? so we would assume they did 8 hours on and the 8 hours off, 24/7, not knowing whether it was day or night. So the ore is brought to the surface: there were hundreds of mine-shafts in the area, which could easily be supervised by a few trusted slaves. Then what? How to separate the silver from the rest of the stuff?

Three processes: crushing into powder, washing so that the heavier particles sank to the bottom, and then heating in a crucible (cupellation) to separate the silver from the lead. But what would be essential while these processes were going on?

Security! Once the silver is separated it’s very valuable ? it actually is the raw material of money, and would be acceptable whether actually coined or not (market traders would weigh it and assess its purity using a “touchstone” - on which metal? would leave a black mark if it contained too much lead). Athenian coins (“owls”) had a reputation for being extremely pure. So you would make sure your washeries were enclosed with high walls ? with only one entrance. You also had towers at intervals through out the mining area so you could keep an eye on all movements between mines and washeries. What else would be necessary for the processing to happen?

Plenty of water! Attica is the driest part of Greece (which is a very dry part of Europe) ? so water conservation was vital. Washeries were built in such a way that maximised the possibilities for re-using water. Waste water from one would flow on to the next and so on down the hill. There would be many storage cisterns so that as little rainfall as possible would be lost. Cupellation involves heating the washed material, so that the silver runs off while the rest forms slag.
Text Box:  Illustration 2: The drawing shows all the processes from digging to cupellation. Describe what?s happening in each process.

And finally?? with the money from the silver you can buy timber, make it into warships (triremes), and afford to pay men to row them. Then you are ready for the Persian navy. In 480 BC, you defeat them at the Battle of Salamis. Job done! (And then what do you use the ships and money for? See chapter 6)


2. Invent an oracle's reply on a contemporary problem (Brexit? global warming? peace in the Middle East? drugs?)

3. Compare the Graves poem about Marathon with the Persian messenger's speech.


More on the website: https://www.the-persians.co.uk/xerxes1.htm