This past month, for the third year in a row, I again participated in the half-marathon race as part of the 2010 Baltimore (Maryland) Running Festival. Just for the record, running does not really describe what I did, and this year was my worst effort to date. But enough about me, participation in the event prompted me to consider a bit more carefully the origin of the event, which led me back to Queen Esther. My own academic work and interests have always been in the earlier periods of Biblical history. In fact, I have tended to consider the Persian period as modern history. I have had minimal contact with Persian material in my archaeological field work and my interest in that period has basically centered on my annual cycle teaching the book of Esther.
As one of the two books of the Bible which does not mention “God” or “the LORD,” Esther is a wonderful lesson of how God operates daily in our lives. While not directly referenced, He is seen actively at work on every page. For me, that has been a great spiritual truth. Over the years I never doubted that He existed, but I just couldn’t see Him doing much in many situations I would found myself embroiled. I had to wrestle with the fact that He was alive and well and active in my life whether I felt it, saw it, understood it or liked it.
So, I have gradually learned that a commitment to being honest, open and willing in my daily spiritual walk empowered me to hold on. And, amazingly, He would always come through! While I usually didn’t get around to understanding much of this until later, I have learned to be confident that God has been there all the time – just like the book of Esther.
Admittedly, most of modern scholarship has dismissed Esther as not being historical, only a moral story to teach some of the very truths I just mentioned. Yet, I believe the book of Esther should be understood as historical and the events in the book do appropriately fit with recorded history.
All that has led to this article. The marathon run has its origin in the 490 BC Battle of Marathon between the Greeks (featuring the Athenians) and Darius I (the Great) of Persia. The 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks (featuring the 300 Spartans) and Xerxes I (also known as “the Great,” son of Darius the Great), was a follow up. This Xerxes is the Persian king in the book of Esther.
Darius the Great
Persian King Darius I is the Darius of Ezra 4-6 (see also Hag 1:1, 15; 2:10; Zech 1:1, 7: 7:1), during whose time the second Jewish temple was finished in Jerusalem. One of the best sources about his life and reign come from his Behistun inscription in southern Iran, carved into the vertical face of a cliff some 225 feet above the plain.
23 feet high and 59 feet wide, the relief includes one scene depicting a life-size Darius as victorious over his enemies (much smaller size) and trilingual cuneiform text. From 1835 to 1847, this text was carefully, even courageously, hand-copied by Sir Henry Rawlinson often while standing on the top rung of a ladder set directly against the cliff. Afterwards, he first deciphered the simplest text (Old Persian), then the Babylonian (a later form of Semetic Akkadian) and Elamite (Medianite) versions (Yamauchi 1996: 131-134). Darius’ inscription and Rawlinson’s work were the keys to our modern understanding of the cuneiform script, leading to the translation of thousands of cuneiform texts already excavated in Mesopotamia.
The Battle of Marathon
Our major source for the events of the Battle of Marathon is the Greek historian Herodotus. Born and living in western Turkey, then a Persian province, he was quite familiar with Persian culture and history. His The Histories (also known as The Persian Wars*) was written some 50 years after the battle of Marathon, and in Book VI he describes the battle and important events leading to it.
While the actual number of troops on both the Greek and Persian sides is unclear, scholars today suggest maybe 25,000 Persians and 10,000 Greeks who met at Marathon. It was an Athenian dominated effort supported by a contingent of Plataeans (the city of Plataea in Boeotia, northwest of Athens), because many other Greek cities were engaged in religious activities (including the powerful Spartan army). To leave their religious activities to go to war (when they would need their god’s help) would not be a good decision. The Athenians were on their own, although Herodotus noted that the Spartan army did march some 150 miles in only three days and arrived just after the battle (Book VI: 120).
Darius the Great was not present on this expedition. The Greeks were commanded by Athenian General Miltiades. After the Persians landed at Marathon, Miltides first blocked the two direct access routes from the Marathon Plain. Then the Greeks did something unusual, rather than stand or advance in their traditional and very effective phalanx formation. Miltiades launched a surprise frontal assault against the Persians camped on the shore near their ships (Book VI: 112). The Persians were routed, retreated to their ships and sailed away (Book VI: 113). If Herodotus’ numbers are to be believed, 6,400 Persian bodies were counted on the battlefield (an unknown number probably perished in the adjacent swamps), while the Athenians lost 192 men (The Histories Book VI: 117).
The Marathon Race
The first marathon race was run at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. This long-distance running event, officially today 26 miles and 385 yards, commemorates the fabled run by the professional Greek runner Pheidippides (or sometimes Phillippides). He was to have run from the Plain of Marathon to the city of Athens (about 26 miles) to announce their victory over the Persians. Upon arriving and announcing the victory, he fell dead. Although, the historical accuracy of this story is in doubt, it is the origin of both the name and distance of the race.
The account of a different run by Pheidippides related to the Battle of Marathon is mentioned by Herodotus (Book VI: 105-106). Prior to the battle, he was sent by General Miltiades to run the approximately 150 miles from Athens to Sparta to recruit the Spartans to join the Athenians in the battle with the Persians. While eager to meet the Persians on the field of battle, the Spartans declined for the moment because of religious obligations (but did arrive just after the battle). Pheidippides then retraced his steps back to Athens. There is general scholarly agreement that this is the more historically accurate event.
The Spartathlon Race
In 1982, based on Herodotus’ account of Pheidippides’ Spartan run, five British Royal Air Force officers made an official expedition to test the possibility of covering the 150 miles from Athens to Sparta in a day and a half. Three runners successfully completed the distance, with Commander John Foden coming in first at 37 hours and 37 minutes. The following year, the first Open International Spartathlon Race was inaugurated and has been run every year since (the 2010 winners were a man from Italy and a woman from the United Kingdom). The Spartathon record time of 20:25:00 was run by Greek Yiannis Kouros in 1984. In 2005, he also decided to trace the total steps of Pheidippides, running the full Athens-Sparta-Athens distance (See bibliography below).
Xerxes the Great
King Darius of Persia intended to punish Athens after the defeat at Marathon, but died in 486 BC. His son, Xerxes I had already been appointed as his successor and took the throne. Xerxes was the son of Darius and Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus the Great, who Darius had married to legitimize his rule after seizing the throne (Book VII: 1-5). This is the Xerxes of Esther. He personally led the invasion of Greece which culminated in the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The primary historical source for these events was also The Histories by Herodotus.
While actual numbers for the Persian army are unclear, modern scholarship suggests a total from 100,000 – 200,000. While his total number for the Persian force is challenged, Herodotus does list 46 different nations which had contingents in his army (Book VII: 61-81).
Whatever the precise number were, it is generally believed that Xerxes amassed the largest army and navy the world had known up to that time. To transport this massive army from Asia (western Turkey) to Europe (eastern Greece) Xerxes had two bridges built across the Hellespont (Greek “Greek Sea;” also known as the Dardanelles) in 482 BC. This is the narrow channel connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea, near the site of ancient Troy. Both bridges were destroyed by a storm and Xerxes went into a rage. He had those responsible for the bridges beheaded and had his soldiers “punish” the sea by throwing a pair of fetter chains into it, whipping it with 300 lashes and branded it with red-hot irons all the while having his soldiers shout a curse at the water (Book VII: 34-36).
After a second attempt at bridge-building succeeded, Xerxes departed the royal provincial capital of Sardis in 480 BC, with his army and navy. After crossing the Hellespont, the Persians advanced along the coastline (including his navy using the canal Xerxes cut through the Isthmus of Mount Athos). Following the strategy devised by Athenian leader Themistocles, an alliance of Greek armies led by Sparta marched north to block the Persian army at the pass of Thermopylae while the Greek navy would simultaneously block the waterway from the Aegean into the Gulf of Malia at the constricted Straits of Artemisium. The Persian navy would not be allowed to support the army at Thermopylae (Book VII: 176-178).
The Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium
The cities of Greece were fiercely independent and had spent most of their history fighting each other. It was an historic event for them to band together against their common Persian invader (Book VII: 145-146). A number of cities sent small contingents (like the Spartan 300) to Thermopylae initially, planning to come in full force after the Carneian and Olympic festivals were ended. To skip these religious activities would conceivably offend their gods, whose help they were sure they would need (Book VII: 206)
Spartan General Leonidas would lead the Greek defense at the Thermopylae Pass. Extending some two miles, this narrow passage along the south side of the Gulf of Malia was limited by water on the north and the sheer mountain cliffs on the south. Along the path were a series of three constrictions (“gates”) and at the middle gate, the narrowest point, the Greeks set their defensive line. Here, too, the local Phocians had earlier constructed an additional short defensive wall. The name Thermopylae (Greek “hot/gates”) comes from the hot springs located near those constrictions. A single Greek phalanx could probably block the pass completely (Book VII: 175-176; 200-201).
There was an additional passage from the north by way of a narrow mountain foot path which only infantry could traverse, but which could be used to outflank the Greek defensive line. Leonidas assigned the contingent of Phocian soldiers, who lived in the region, to guard that path (Book VII: 212, 217).
After delaying four days, apparently hoping the Greeks would just disperse, Xerxes set his throne in position to watch the battle and attacked. While details are minimal, it appears the Greeks were able to rotate new phalanx units into place, standing in front of the Phocian wall. In two separate frontal assaults that first day (the second being Xerxes’ Immortals), the slaughter of Persians was so severe that Xerxes is said to have jumped up from his throne in frustration on three occasions (Book VII: 210-212).
The next day, Xerxes was said to have assumed that the Greeks were so few and disabled with wounds that they could no longer resist. Yet their assaults that day were no more effective than on the first day and they withdrew to their camp. But that day a Greek traitor informed Xerxes of the mountain footpath and that night he sent troops along that path to outflank the Greek defensive line. The Phocians who were to guard the pass did not engage the Persians and they proceeded unhindered (Book VII: 212-218).
Hearing that the Persians were outflanking his position, Leonidas called a council with his allies on the morning of the third day. There was disagreement on what to do, and many Greek armies departed, Leonidas said the Spartans would stay in the pass. Also noted as staying to fight that third and final day were 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans (Book VII: 219-222).
Knowing that part of the Persian army had now encircled them, the Spartans and their remaining allies marched out from their defensive position and attacked the Persian army in front of them. The Spartans fought until everyone had died. Herodotus said it this way, “Here they defended themselves to the last, those who still had swords using them, and the others resisting with their hands and teeth.” That day, along with Leonidas and every Spartan, the two brothers of Xerxes also fell in battle (Book VII: 223-227).
This last stand of the 300 Spartans was treated by Herodotus with great honor and respect. It represents the choice of soldiers to make a defensive stand while overwhelmingly outnumbered – consciously rejecting safety and committed to take to their death as many of the enemy as possible. The defeated dead were remembered for their valor, courage, steadfastness and skill at arms. It is the ultimate example of the literary genre known as “The Glorious Defeat.” Like the Alamo or Masada, it becomes a “Moral Victory” for their side to persevere and carry on the fight.
But the events of this last stand were not over. The strategically planned naval battle at the Straits of Artemisium was also recorded by Herodotus. Fighting took place here during the same three days that the armies fought on land. Both navies also suffered great losses. But upon hearing of their army’s defeat, the Greek navy made the strategic decision to leave the Straits of Artemisium (Book VIII: 15-16).
The Battles of Salamis and Plataea
Herodotus also wrote of the aftermath of the Battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium. The Greek navy withdrew to Salamis. Led by Themistocles of Athens, later in 480 BC, the Greeks decisively defeated the Persian navy at the famous Battle of Salamis, despite being outnumbered two-to-one. Xerxes watched the battle and when it was over decided he needed to return to Persia because he feared that the Greeks might destroy his bridges at the Hellespont and he might have trouble escaping (Book VIII: 83-97).
With the retreat of the larger part of their army from Thermopylae, the support of additional Greek cities and the legacy of the 300 Spartans still ringing in their ears, the Greek army prepared to meet the Persians on the field of battle again. But, before the end of 480 BC, Xerxes made the decision to withdraw himself back into Asia with much of his army. He left Mardonius (a member of the Persian royal family and the advisor who most encouraged Xerxes to invade Greece) to continue the invasion. The following year, at the Battle of Plataea, the Greeks decisively defeated him and his army (Book IX: 39-70). Never again did the Persian army invade the Greek mainland.
The Book of Esther
It is in the world of these events that the book of Esther is set. Admittedly she is not mentioned in secular history and the second Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes is not mentioned in the book of Esther. Consequently most modern scholars do not take the book as true history.
Yet, there are a number of reasons why many scholars do accept the historicity of Esther. Yamauchi’s Persia and the Bible (1996) is a valuable resource to examine all the evidence. Here, we will briefly consider the character of Xerxes, focusing on Herodotus’ discussions of him around the Battle of Thermopylae.
As a starting point, consider one of Xerxes’ inscriptions found near Persepolis. Yamauchi (1996:188-189) discusses this partial reading:
I am not hot-tempered...I hold firmly under control by my will. I am ruling over myself. The man who cooperates, according to his cooperation this I protect, who does harm according to his damage thus I punish. It is not my desire that a man should do harm, nor is that my desire if he should do harm, he should not be punished.
As Yamauchi (1996:189) point out, this inscription is like most of Xerxes’ extant texts. It is a word-for-word adoption of an inscription by his father, Darius, at his tomb in the Naqsh-i Rustam necropolis. Of course neither classical nor Biblical sources would suggest Xerxes was known by this type of character. But what would one expect when this inscription is not even Xerxes own words about himself!
Herodotus’ report of Xerxes’ response to the storm destroying his bridges at the Hellespont was typical of the king in Esther (Book VII: 34-36). His anger, demonstrated at the beheading of the engineers who built the bridges, was extreme but was something an ancient king had the power to do and might well do. Again, having his soldiers actually brand the seawater with hot irons and whip the sea, while pronouncing a curse on it, is also something a king can make people do. While it may have had some symbolic value, it does suggest very out of control emotions.
Sandwiched around the Hellespont story is the account of Pythius, the rich Lydian. They meet while Xerxes is passing through his province in western Turkey on the way to the Hellespont (Book VII: 27-30). Pythius entertained the king and all his army traveling with him. He also promised to provide money for future war expenses. Xerxes was told that this man had given his father, Darius, wonderful gifts and was the wealthiest man in the world, after the king. So impressed with the man and his offer, Xerxes actually gave Pythius money and made him a special friend of the king.
But after the new bridges had been built across the Hellespont and the soldiers began to cross, Pythius came again to the king. As a new personal friend of the king, he felt he could ask a favor and requested “a small thing.” The king agreed to grant it and the old man noted that he had five sons in the king’s army and asked that the oldest be allowed to stay home and care for his father and the estate.
Xerxes was furious with Pythius, noting that he himself, his sons, brothers, kinsmen and friends were all marching to war. He announced that the very son Pythius wanted with him would be executed immediately. His body was then cut in two pieces and the army marched between the two pieces (Book VII: 38-40). Again, the king’s anger might be expected and this action no doubt had an important symbolic meaning. Such power to carry out his whim in a moment is in character with the king of Esther.
Treating those who were on his side as he did, there should be little wonder how Xerxes would treat the dead body of his enemy Leonidas. Surveying the Thermopylae battlefield afterwards, the body of Leonidas, king of Sparta, was identified for him. Xerxes ordered his head cut off and impaled on a stake. Herodotus especially commented on this display of anger and hatred against Leonidas, personally. He called it shameful and noted that the Persians usually honor those who show themselves valiant in fight more highly than any other nation he knew (Book VII: 238).
The king described in Herodotus displays many traits similar to the king in Esther. While it might be suggested that such traits could be used to describe almost any ancient king, the facts remain that the same man is described the same way in the two separate ancient accounts.
To date, the Persian period in the ancient Near East is not as well known as even earlier periods. The international conflicts in that region since 1979 have greatly inhibited archaeological excavations in both Iran and Iraq. In Iran (modern Persia), policies of the present government indicate little enthusiasm for such prospects in the near future.
Biblical connections to both Iran and the Persian period are also minimal and have not progressed greatly in recent decades. Over the years I have come to appreciate the message of Esther. The Baltimore Running Festival has also encouraged me to appreciate the historical context of the book of Esther even more.
Herodotus. 1942 The Persian Wars. Translated by George Rawlinson, (New York: Random House).
Herodotus. 1972 The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, (Baltimore: Penguin).
Spartathlon. Accessed 10/30/10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spartathlon
Yamauchi, Edwin M. 1996 Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
* For the sake of identification of paragraphs, the edition of Herodotus referenced in this article was Herodotus: the Persian Wars translated by George Rawlinson Random House: New York 1942.