Xerxes I (or Khshayarsa) was the son of Darius I and the grandson of Cyrus the Great. With two great kings as his predecessors and ancestors, Xerxes would need to be bold and ambitious to be seen as an equal among the likes of his forefathers. When Xerxes’ reign began around 486 BCE, his immediate action was to crush rebellion and dissent in his empire. Only after putting down rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia, did Xerxes hesitantly begin to amass an army for an invasion of Greece.
Xerxes’ father, Darius I, had launched his own campaign against the Greeks, but was thwarted after a major defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. After that, until the day he died in 486 BCE, Darius I continuously prepared for another invasion of Greece to seek revenge and to regain lost face. Although Darius was never able to lead this invasion, his son eventually carried out the plan.
Xerxes apparently never had much enthusiasm for the invasion of Greece, yet pressure from his courtiers and a series of mystical dreams convinced him to go forward with the campaign. He mustered an army more than 300,000 men strong, inflated by Herodotus to be in the millions. The Persian forces crossed from Asia into Europe across the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles), using rows of ships as a bridge. According to Herodotus, Xerxes marched through Greece to make camp at Thessalonica, in the modern region of Saloniki.
One particularly horrifying event stands out in Herodotus’ account of the Persian army’s voyage from the Hellespont to Thessalonica. In his usual style, Herodotus included folklore and popular hearsay in his description of the Persian movements. There is no way to know if the following story really occurred, but Herodotus and many of his contemporary Greeks believed in the tale and thought that the Persians were capable and willing enough to carrying out the atrocity.
The story took place when Xerxes was near Mt. Pangaeum and the Strymon River. He needed to cross the river, and found his crossing point in the territory of the Edoni. The place he chose to bridge the Strymon was apparently named Nine Ways, a title that would cause the deaths of numerous local inhabitants.
Upon reaching Nine Ways, Herodotus wrote that Xerxes was suddenly inspired to make a sacrifice. Perhaps, he was worried about crossing the river. An earlier storm had momentarily thwarted his crossing at the Hellespont, for which he allegedly had the water whipped for its impudence. Whatever the cause, Herodotus wrote that Xerxes wanted divine support for the crossing at Nine Ways.
Xerxes had his priests, the Magi, conduct rituals and sacrifice horses in honor of the river, but there was one more action the Persians would take before leaving the region. Inspired by the name, Nine Ways, Xerxes supposedly was struck by a horrendous idea. According to Herodotus, the Persians rounded up nine boys and nine girls from the local inhabitants of Nine Ways, and buried them all under the earth while they were still alive. With eighteen youths left suffocating in the ground, Xerxes continued on his march to Thessalonica and his ultimately destructive, but unsuccessful, invasion of Greece.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.