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183. Meantime three of the ten vessels sent forward by the barbarians, advanced as far
as the sunken rock between Sciathus and Magnesia, which is called “The Ant,” and
there set up a stone pillar which they had brought with them for that purpose. After this,
their course being now clear, the barbarians set sail with all their ships from Therma,
eleven days from the time that the king quitted the town. The rock, which lay directly in
their course, had been made known to them by Pammon of Scyros. A day’s voyage
without a stop brought them to Sepias in Magnesia, and to the strip of coast which lies
between the town of Casthanæa and the promontory of Sepias.
184. As far as this point then, and on land as far as Thermopylæ, the armament of
Xerxes had been free from mischance; and the numbers were still, according to my
reckoning, of the following amount. First there was the ancient complement of the
twelve hundred and seven vessels which came with the king from Asia—the contingents
of the nations severally—amounting, if we allow each ship a crew of two hundred men,
to 241,400. Each of these vessels had on board, besides native soldiers, thirty fighting
men, who were either Persians, Medes, or Sacans; which gives an addition of 36,210.
To these two numbers I shall further add the crews of the penteconters; which may be
reckoned, one with another, at fourscore men each. Of such vessels there were (as I
said before) three thousand; and the men on board them accordingly would be 240,000.
This was the sea force brought by the king from Asia; and it amounted in all to 517,610
men. The number of the foot soldiers was 1,700,000; that of the horsemen 80,000; to
which must be added the Arabs who rode on camels, and the Libyans who fought in
chariots, whom I reckon at 20,000. The whole number, therefore, of the land and sea
forces added together amounts to 2,317,610 men. Such was the force brought from
Asia, without including the camp followers, or taking any account of the provision-ships
and the men whom they had on board.
185. To the amount thus reached we have still to add the forces gathered in Europe,
concerning which I can only speak from conjecture. The Greeks dwelling in Thrace, and
in the islands off the coast of Thrace, furnished to the fleet one hundred and twenty
ships; the crews of which would amount to 24,000 men. Besides these, footmen were
furnished by the Thracians, the Pæonians, the Eordians, the Bottiæans, by the
Chalcidean tribes, by the Brygians, the Pierians, the Macedonians, the Perrhæbians,
the Enianians, the Dolopians, the Magnesians, the Achæans, and by all the dwellers
upon the Thracian sea-board; and the forces of these nations amounted, I believe, to
three hundred thousand men. These numbers, added to those of the force which came
out of Asia, make the sum of the fighting men 2,641,610.
Source: From the book The History, written by Herodotus in the 450s-420s BCE.
Document B: Ctesius of Cnidus
Then Xerxes, having collected a Persian army, 800,000 men and 1000 triremes without
reckoning the chariots, set out against Greece, having first thrown a bridge across at
Abydus. Demaratus the Spartan, who arrived there first and accompanied Xerxes
across, dissuaded him from invading Sparta. His general Artapanus, with 10,000 men,
fought an engagement with Leonidas, the Spartan general, at Thermopylae; the Persian
host was cut to pieces, while only two or three of the Spartans were slain. The king then
ordered an attack with 20,000, but these were defeated, and although flogged to the
battle, were routed again. The next day he ordered an attack with 50,000, but without
success, and accordingly ceased operations. Thorax the Thessalian and Calliades and
Timaphernes, the leaders of the Trachinians, who were present with their forces, were
summoned by Xerxes together with Demaratus and Hegias the Ephesian, who told him
that the Spartans could never be defeated unless they were surrounded. A Persian
army of 40,000 men was conducted by the two leaders of the Trachinians over an
almost inaccessible mountain-path to the rear of the Lacedaemonians, who were
surrounded and died bravely to a man.
[§28] Xerxes sent another army of 120,000 men against Plataea under the command of
Mardonius, at the instigation of the Thebans. He was opposed by Pausanias the
Spartan, with only 300 Spartiates, 1000 perioeci, and 6000 from the other cities. The
Persians suffered a severe defeat, Mardonius being wounded and obliged to take to
Source: From Ctesias of Cnidus’s book Persica written in 398 BCE. This excerpt was
included in a book by the scholar Photius in the 9 th century.
Document C: Ernle Bradford
Other scholars and military historians have debated the size of the army — and
of the navy — but the most realistic viewpoint seems to be that Herodotus confused the
Persian term myriarchs, which meant the commander of 10,000 men, with the other
named commanders who, in their lesser sphere, commanded no more than thousands
or hundreds. (The Persians worked on the decimal system.) If one removes a nought
from all of Herodotus’ figures one comes up with an army of 170,000 infantrymen, 8000
cavalry, 2000 camel corps and charioteers, and 30,000 Greeks and Thracians. This
seems a far more likely figure in view of the populations (as far as they can be
conjected) at the time. It would still make sense, in that it would nevertheless suggest to
a Greek accustomed to battles involving at the most a few thousand men an almost
inexhaustible flood of troops.
General Sir Frederick Maurice, who had the opportunity of covering the area of
the march of the Great King not long after the First World War, came up with the
conclusion that the total of the Persian army was about 210,000. Unlike most deskbound scholars he had the opportunity to travel the whole area, and had excellent
military and logistical knowledge of the terrain. He based his conclusions particularly on
his observation of the water-supplies available. Maurice had also had experience of
moving British military units together with animal transport, and he reckoned that such a
force would probably have needed with them about 75,000 animals. Even at this, he
reasons that what has sometimes been taken as an unbelievable comment by
Herodotus, ‘except for the great rivers, their fighters drank the waters up’, was probably
correct. A river, of course, unlike a pond or even a lake, cannot be drunk dry in one
sense, for it is constantly being reinforced. One may also reasonably assume that the
rivers in Asia Minor at the time were somewhat larger than they are today. Centuries of
the ubiquitous goat, killing saplings, leading to deforestation, coupled with land changes
in the earthquake-prone area of Turkey have certainly depleted the forests as well as
interfering with natural water sources.
Nevertheless, working on whatever system one prefers, it seems that there is no
possibility of the army of Xerxes having exceeded 250,000 men. Even this number,
together with all their animals, baggage train and (possibly) camp followers, would have
been sufficient to exhaust the water resources at a number of places along their route.
The figures which Herodotus gives for the invasion fleet of the Great King are
again, like those of the army, subject to some doubt, although in this case they do bear
more likelihood to reality. The Phoenicians, as was to be expected, provided the largest
contingent, and it was almost certainly the most efficient. This is given as 300. The next
largest contingent, 200, was that of the Egyptians, who specialised in having heavily
armed parties of marines aboard their vessels. Cyprus produced 150 ships, Cilicia and
Pamphylia between them 130, and Lycia and Caria 120. The Asian Greeks contributed
a fighting force of 290 warships, the islands of the Cyclades 17, and in addition there
were an estimated 120 triremes from the Thracian Greeks and the adjacent islands.
This gives a grand total of 1327 warships, not counting the transport vessels of all and
every size, which Herodotus again ‘estimates’ at about 3000.
Source: Ernle Bradford, The Year of Thermopylae, 1980.
Document D: Rupert Matthews
No aspect of the Thermopylae campaign has given rise to greater controversy
than the size and composition of the army led by Xerxes into Greece. It is generally
agreed that the army was very large by the standards of the day, though how numerous
the host was is a matter of great dispute. . . .
No records have survived from the Persian Empire to help us decide just how
large was the force that Xerxes had gathered at Sardis by the end of winter. Herodotus
puts the strength of Xerxes’ army at around two million men and says that they drank
the rivers dry as they advanced. Many historians have dismissed this as a wild
exaggeration. Some have guessed that Herodotus was out by a factor of ten, a not
uncommon error; but one that Herodotus does not make elsewhere. Few historians
have made an attempt to produce an accurate picture of the vast force advancing
And yet there is enough information available to come up with what may be a
reasonable assessment of the size and fighting qualities of the army that marched with
Xerxes. To understand what happened at Thermopylae and to set the campaign in
context it is essential to understand, or attempt to understand, the capabilities of the
Persian host. To do otherwise is to duck the issue.
As with so much about the Thermopylae campaign, it is best to start with
Herodotus, while always bearing in mind that he wrote with hindsight and that those
who gave him his information may have had reasons to add their own viewpoint.
Herodotus uses the grand review held by Xerxes of his forces at Doris’s in the spring of
480BC as the setting for a dramatized account of the army and navy under the control
of the King of Kings. The information that Herodotus gives about the Persian army is not
simply a bald total, he lists all the subject nations that provided troops and how they
were brigaded together for active service. . . .
As usual, Herodotus does not tell us where he got this information from, but it
does bear all the hallmarks of being an official document of the Persian Empire. The
neat rounding of all numbers is typical of the Mesopotamian bureaucracy. We know
from other sources that Persian generals preferred to have units of uniform strength for
logistical purposes and would group together small units to achieve this, as on
Herodotus’ list. . . .
Whatever the sources of information given by Herodotus, it is quite clear that the
list is not an accurate record of the army Xerxes led into Greece. It would have been
physically impossible to march that many men along the roads available, and to keep
them supplied. However, the document on which Herodotus based his figures cannot be
simply ignored or dismissed. It is most likely to have been an official list of the total
military forces available to Xerxes. The Persian bureaucracy would have needed such a
list, and Herodotus could quite easily have obtained a copy. . . .
Quite how many of the 1.85 million men recorded by Herodotus were needed for
garrison duties across the empire is unknown. Most likely it was the majority of men
available for armed service. All armies suffer from natural wastage, in the form of
sickness, death and desertion. The Persian army would have been no different. Added
to that was the need to allow for units to be in transit, repairing fortifications and other
tasks. . . .
On route from Sardis to Greece, the Persian army marched up what is now
known as the Gallipoli peninsula. The British World War I commander, Major-General
Sir Frederick Barton Maurice (187-1951) had occasion to study the water supply of the
Gallipoli peninsula. He estimated that in spring and summer, the season when Xerxes
marched through, the area could provide enough water to supply an army of 210,000
men, together with the pack animals and horses needed to move their supplies.
This brings us to the famous statement, often dismissed at the end, that the
Persian army drank the rivers dry as they advanced. In the summer months the rivers of
Thrace, Macedonia and northern Greece are often little more than streams as the
rainfall declines. We know that Xerxes sent an advance guard of labourers and
engineers forward to prepare the route for his invasion. Thrace was already within the
empire, but King Alexander II of Macedonia was compelled to assist and supply these
workmen as a sign of his friendship to the Persian Empire.
While it is not recorded exactly what these men did, it is clear that they were
undertaking construction work that would aid the army. Mending and improving roads
would be an obvious task to be tackled, but so too would be the preparation of food and
water supplies. If streams were dammed to create reservoirs of water, it could be quite
literally true that the advancing army ensured that the riverbeds were dry where they
entered the sea. And it must be remembered that the swift Greek galleys would have
been taking every opportunity to scout out the Persian army from off the coast. From
their ships, the Greeks would have seen the empty rivers and taken note.
By preparing water supplies in this way, Xerxes would have been able to move
an army considerably larger than the 210,000 men that General Maurice thought the
land could support. Even so, it is unlikely that the increase would have been more than
around 50%, say a total of 300,000 to 350,000.
Source: Rupert Matthews, The Battle of Thermopylae: A Campaign in Context, 2006.
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