Saturday, 16 April 2011

Thermopylae, Spartans and Persians prepare for battle

Behind the Phocian Wall that blocked the pass at Thermopylae, Leonidas King of Sparta was likewise getting ready for the battle. He brought a young female goat to the wall, watched by the commanders of the other troops. The flautists who played the marching songs of the Spartans began to play sacred hymns. Leonidas called out to the skies, invoking the aid of Artemis Agrotera, who was the goddess of hunters and the forest. Then he killed the goat with a single stroke of his sword. The religious preliminaries over, he set to work ordering his forces to meet the attack that was obviously coming.

Xerxes had already decided on the plan of attack and must have discussed it at some length with his senior officers. Foremost among these were Mardonius and Hydarnes. Mardonius had commanded the army that had put down the revolt of the Ionian Greeks and had long been a supporter of war with Athens and Sparta. He was the son of Gobryas, one of the six Persian noblemen who had organised the coup that put Darius on the throne. This made Mardonius a member of one of the richest and most noble families in Persia, so it is no surprise that he was married to the daughter of Xerxes. He was now in overall command of the infantry.

Hydarnes was in command of the Immortals, the elite unit of the entire army and had responsibility for the 1,000 Royal Guards although these men were under the direct control of Xerxes and stayed with him at all times. Like Mardonius, Hydarnes was a highly placed Persian nobleman. His father, also named Hydarnes, had joined Gobryas in the coup that put Xerxes’ father on the throne. He was never far from the Great King and there are clues that he was more of a professional soldier than some others on the expedition.

The other two men who formed the high command with Xerxes were the brothers Harmamithras and Tithaeus. These noblemen commanded the cavalry, so their men were not to be heavily involved at Thermopylae. No doubt the cavalry were busy elsewhere, perhaps patrolling the surrounding areas, keeping an eye on the Thessalians to the rear or scouting the roads to the west. The brothers were sons of Datis, the commander of the Persian army at Marathon who had been killed by a Spartan executioner after the battle. They would have had a very keen and personal interest in the Spartan hoplites now facing the Persians at Thermopylae.

Of rather more immediate importance was one of the second rank commanders: Tigranes. This man was a member of the royal family, but seems to have come from a fairly junior branch as nobody bothers to record the names of his parents. Perhaps he was illegitimate. In 490bc, Tigranes was in command of the Median infantry. The Medes were tough mountain men who were counted almost as Persians within the empire, enjoying many of the honours and privileges of the ruling nation.

It was Tigranes that Xerxes now ordered to advance with his Medes to attack the Phocian Wall. The Medes had been chosen by Xerxes and his commanders as they believed these men had the best chance of success.


No comments:

Post a Comment