In the Footsteps of Xerxes


In the Footsteps of Xerxes
The Filming of the Persian Wars

The old Russian oil tanker was cutting its way up the Hellespont. It looked like it was going against the current and birds swirled effortlessly after it.

The labours of this ship reminded us that this narrow stretch of water - a couple of kilometres across - remains as important now as it has ever been as the link between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and the dividing line between Europe and Asia.

Along these shores history has been a close companion and the desire to control this vital stretch of water has been etched into our consciousness from the beginning of history - the Battle of Troy, the ultimate Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the Gallipoli campaigns of WWI - to name a few.

In May of 480 BC yet another moment of history was enacted here when King Xerxes of Persia, who had just advanced from the city of Sardis, marshalled his army and navy on the shores of the Hellespont.

His preparations for the invasion of Greece were nearly complete.

Across the waters of the Hellespont he had constructed two bridges to allow his army to pass to the west - out of Asia and towards Europe. Just before the army was to advance, a fierce storm blew up which destroyed the bridges. Xerxes - true to the oriental despot image promoted by the Greek writers - was said to be furious.

He had the royal executioner whip the water of the Hellespont 300 times and to throw in iron shackles to signify the Hellespont’s subjugation to Xerxes. As he whipped the water, the executioner told the Hellespont; "You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him".

Such high drama! But all things pass and today the site of Xerxes’ bridges is just another small beach along the Hellespont. But such was the impact of Xerxes’ exploits that here, roughly two and a half thousand years later, two brothers from Australia were recording his deeds on videotape. If we trust Herodotus’ portrait of the king - only an ego that grand could have possibly dared imagine such an occurrence coming to pass!

This was part of our fascination with the job at hand. Here was a momentous story - half as old as time itself - yet it can still be traced on the ground today.

Everywhere are poignant little reminders.

On the low hillock at Thermopylae where the Greeks made their last stand in 480 BC is a simple, modern monument commemorating the ancient battle. On this monument was a dried bunch of flowers - left sometime ago. We could not help thinking why it is was that anyone should leave flowers for a deed twenty five centuries old. Clearly the story of the Persian Wars means different things to different people, but it is still vivid today - in place and spirit.

Among the many vestiges of Xerxes’ power which survive today is the remains of the canal he had dug across the Athos peninsula. The first Persian invasion in 492 BC - under Xerxes’ predecessor - King Darius, had been stopped in its tracks when the navy was destroyed in a wild storm as it tried to round the Athos peninsula. This, combined with King Darius’ later defeat at Marathon in 490 BC, made Xerxes leave nothing to chance.

The king ordered that a canal be cut across the narrow neck of land at the base of the peninsula, wide enough for two warships to be rowed abreast. With this canal in place, his ships could safely pass to the west, without making the dangerous journey around the end of the peninsula.

This was all grandstanding of course - perhaps with a bit of superstition thrown in - as the canal can not be seen as any form of strategic imperative. But Xerxes was not to be deterred by such matters.

After following very rusted signs we were able to eventually track down what remains of Xerxes’ canal today. On its eastern side is a small settlement made up of refugees who fled Asia Minor in the 1920’s. Now the place is a rather run down Greek beach resort. Dotted about are little sheds with ‘DISCO’ painted in whitewash on the wall and steel frames on the beach which once had canvas on them.

Not much can be seen of the canal at this eastern end as the beach has filled in the landscape considerably. When you turn inland however and head to the west, the gradual contours of the original construction become clearer.

At its best, the canal today is nothing more than a small valley in the landscape - overgrown with vegetation and divided up into cattle paddocks. Quiet, unvisited and slowly but surely blending in with the surrounding landscape - but one can only imagine how different the scene was prior to the arrival of Xerxes’ forces.

Soldiers from all over the Persian Empire worked night and day under the lash to complete the task. The engineers of the canal had to grapple with landslides - some of which buried entire work crews in a moment - disease and a ‘dead line’ which literally decided their life or death.

Eventually, all was ready and the canal became one of the wonders of its day. It cut across the peninsula - a distance of several kilometres - and was over 70 metres wide. Opened in the presence of King Xerxes himself, the canal was soon full of the Empire’s ships - with their flags flying and trumpets blasting - as they passed through on their way to the conquest of Greece.

These are the special moments of history. Grand as the major sites are it is the lonely places where the full effect of the passing of time is evident. To stand in a silted up canal in the far north of Greece allows your mind to wander to a very different time when this particular spot had its moment in the focus of the spotlight.

Later in year which saw the opening of the canal, King Xerxes took his seat just as dawn was beginning to light the scene in front of him. To his left the massed squadrons of his navy pulled heavily on their oars as they made their way up from beaches near Athens which the Persian forces had just looted and destroyed. As the king looked before him, he saw the Greek navy putting out from their beaches on the island of Salamis. The Battle of Salamis was about to begin.

At the end of the day Xerxes had witnessed the crushing of his navy and the destruction of his plans of conquest. It is an emotive spot because from here Xerxes retreated directly to Asia Minor - never to return to Greece.

Today the Strait of Salamis is just on the edge of the industrial belt of Athens. Oil storage tanks, ships of every size and wharves fight for position. The hill on which Xerxes sat was dry and litter strewn when we caught up with it and barking dogs made filming frustrating.

Below us, however, was the one of the most famous stretch of water in Greek naval history. Forgotten and a little forlorn today, these waters saw the combined Greek navy - with Athenian ships in the majority - turn back the most serious threat ever to face their country. When you stand on the hill and see the view as Xerxes saw it, you can not help but have a twinge of sorrow for his personal disappointment on that day.

But then you survey the waters and pick up the delight of the Greeks below as they towed off enemy ships and erected their trophies. The underdog had triumphed and the threat of oriental despotism had been removed. When you stand there and reflect on the future course of history, you can only be glad that Xerxes’ was in retreat - with his tail between his legs.

This point of the campaign was one of the defining moments of world history. Just like the Ottomans being stopped at the gates of Vienna many years later, the campaigns of the Persian Wars defined Europe - both geographically and philosophically.

For us, the journey of retracing Xerxes’ footsteps was both one of fascination and perhaps our own paean for the eventual success of the Greeks - a society which has contributed so much to our way of life today.

Essay by Ben Churcher

To find out about our video on The Persian Wars, Click Here.

The Hellespont, looking north. In this view, Europe is to the left and Asia to the right. The Hellespont is a vital stretch of water linking the Aegean with the Black Sea. Today, both banks of the Hellespont are under Turkish sovereignty.

In 480 BC King Xerxes of Persia built a bridge between the two points in this photograph to allow his troops to invade Greece.


A portion of the classical temple to Artemis at the site of Sardis in western Turkey. This city, once the capital city of the Lydian Empire became the Persian capital of Asia Minor after the defeat of the Lydians by the Persians in 546 BC. The cliffs in the background show where the ancient citadel was once located.


A general view of the pass at Thermopylae looking to the west from the spur of hills held by the Greek forces. The Persians would have been attacking towards the photographer. In 480 BC when the battle occurred here, the coastline was roughly in the same position as the road today.


A view of the hillock where the Spartan troops made their last stand. In this view, the main pass of Thermopylae is behind the photographer and a wall, controlled by the Greeks, would have blocked the pass at about the point where the photo was taken.


A view of the site of Xerxes’ Canal which was constructed prior to the 480 BC campaign. Now filled in, only the general contours of the original construction can be seen to day.

View to east across the Athos peninsula. The canal would have run diagonally across the centre of this photo, roughly in line with the dark green vegetation.


A view of the western extremity of Xerxes’ canal showing the cutting through the coastal spur of hills that had to be made by the engineers constructing the canal. The line of reeds show the original location of the canal.


A view from the mainland across the Straits of Salamis on a day thick with smog. The island of Salamis can just be seen in the distance and the main naval engagement during the battle in 480 BC would have taken place directly in front of the photographer.


A rare depiction of a fifth century BC Greek trireme or battle ship from the Acropolis Museum, Athens. In this stone relief the artist has tried to portray the three banks of oars while only showing the top most rank of rowers.