Down this road – on a sweltering summer’s day two and a half thousand years ago – the soldiers came. *
They didn’t stay long. But behind them they left pillaged villages, plains stripped of crops , empty granaries and weeping mothers.
Like an army of locusts they devoured everything in their path. It’s said their numbers were so vast , they drank the rivers dry. As they marched , they tore local men from their families. Conscripted and forced to fight and die alongside them at places whose names have echoed through the centuries. : Platea. Salamis.
The Persian Empire stretched from India to the shores of the Aegean Sea. And its king , Xerxes , was returning to punish the Greeks for the revolt and humiliating defeat inflicted upon his father Darius which ended at Marathon
We know this because the Greek historian Herodotus -the father of history – provides us with a detailed description of that war. And of Xerxes’ march through Greece.
He was born four years after the war but must have spoken to men who were there
We can trust many of the details he gives us. But not all
For example numbers don’t appear to have been his strong point.
A marvellous wordsmith , he estimated the Persian army and camp followers at around 5.2 million
Had that been the case most would have died of thirst and starvation long before they crossed from Asia into Europe across the waters of the Hellespont.
Today scholars estimate his fighting men at around 100,000. A bit of a discrepancy you might think.
Herodotus was a brilliant writer but obviously couldn’t add up for toffee.
I imagine the conversation with his literary agent after securing what must then have been the biggest book deal in history.
“Herodotus old chap , that villa you always wanted ? Well you can put down the deposit. I’ve done you the deal of the century……a thousand advanced copies at one drachma each….you’re rich my boy !
Herodotus :” indeed ! 3000 drachmas – such wealth …”
“Eh? No H, listen A thousand copies. At a drachma each- equals ?
“Ah yes my mistake. That’s 5100 drachmas! I am rich”
“Er H, I think we better take another look at those Persian army stats before we go to print”
Having waited fruitlessly at an isolated, shadeless bus stop in the burning sun for 2 hours after being told by a grizzled local that it would arrive in ” ten minutes” I’m inclined to think his descendants have inherited his gift for numbers.
Why am I rambling on about this.? Because in the short time i have before I return home for my son’s graduation ceremony I’ll be re-tracing the route of that army thorough Northern Greece (Macedonia and Thrace )
* yes – I nicked that intro from somewhere. A pint to anyone who recognises it and why it’s appropriate to plagiarise it in this case