Annotations to Xerxes: The Fall of the House of Darius and the Rise of Alexander #2
by Jess Nevins
Page 1. Panel 1. "Ares is gorged on human blood. We fed him a bellyful. Thousands of Persian heroes. The war god likewise feasts on a tenth of our own -- something fewer than a hundred brave Athenians and Plateans."
Well, no. Or, rather, in the world of Xerxes this is so, but back here in the real world the Battle of Marathon didn't go like that. As I said in the notes to issue #1, the death toll among the Athenians and Plataeans was in the hundreds, or perhaps more. Herodotus, traditionally regarded as the most reliable historian on the Battle, said that only 192 Greeks fell, but modern historians have revised that number significantly upward, to as many as 3,000.
Panel 2. "We leave our dead behind us, unburied."
The Greeks--not unusually for peoples of this era--believed that proper funeral rites for the newly deceased were important for insuring that they successfully passed on to the afterlife. Not carrying out the proper rites for the recently expired was thought to create angry ghosts, who would haunt the living until they were properly supplicated. So, obviously, the Greeks here are in a hurry--a big enough hurry that they do not bury their dead and conduct the proper rites for them, but instead leave the corpses where they fell for the animals to get them.
Panel 3. "Guarding against defeat, King Darius dispatched the bulk of his armada for unprotected Athens itself."
"Exhausted, battered, wounded, we stagger toward our homes and lands and families--with no idea how we might defend them."
Well, kinda. To summarize: the Greeks have just won the Battle of Marathon, defeating the previously-unbeaten Persians. But in real life King Darius had set sail for Athens before the Battle of Marathon took place. The Greeks did have to hurry home after the battle, but they weren't clueless about how to defend Athens--they'd just beaten half the Persian Army, and they were filled with confidence that they could do it again. If only they could reach Athens before Darius' fleet did....
Panel 4. "That's if gray-eyed Athena feels generous--or if she graces one of us with an idea grand and bold enough to save the day. We pray to you, Athena. Please hear us."
A couple of things here.
First, the idea of praying to the Greek gods and goddesses for anything might seem ridiculous now, but the Greeks of the time really did believe in the gods and goddesses. Oh, sure, there were cynics and atheists--there always were--but the majority of the Greek men and women took the idea of gods and goddesses overseeing their lives quite seriously.
Second, "gray-eyed" is one of the epithets commonly used by Homer, among other poets, to describe Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Homer did it so often that "gray-eyed Athena" became a common phrase for her, although her usual epithets were things like "the Unwearying," "Virgin," "She Who Fights in Front," or simply "the Goddess." Athena was especially beloved by Athens--she was the patron goddess of the city, and it was much debated in the classical world whether she got her name from the city or whether the city was named after the goddess. So it makes sense that the Athenians here would pray to her.
Third, as I said, she was the goddess of wisdom and war. In The Odyssey, written somewhere over two hundred years before, Athena gives good ideas to Odysseus and his wife Penelope. It's logical that Greeks in need of inspiration would pray to Athena.
Page 2. The head of a giant owl--who is, of course, the symbol animal of Athena, one of whose epithets was "owl-eyed Athena."
Pages 3-5. A, ahem, rather fanciful depiction of the Acropolis of Athens, circa 490 B.C.E. Below is a more sober-minded and historically-accurate recreation of the Acropolis:
There are some statues visible in this illustration, but there was nothing like the statues Miller puts on the Acropolis in Xerxes #2.
On page 4 there are four major statues. Starting at the top and moving in a clockwise direction:
What actual statues of Athena looked like:
And the Athena Promachos looked like this:
albeit with a spear in her hand.
So there are a couple of problems with Miller's version of the Athena Promachos: the fact that Miller's version is nekkid and sexualized (Athena was, famously, a virgin, and always shown wearing long robes); the fact that she's holding thunderbolts in both hands (Athena's weapon was the spear; the thunderbolt was strictly and only the weapon of Zeus); the fact that it's as big as it is (seemingly a hundred feet high, which would put it on par with the Colossus of Rhodes, which was the tallest statue of antiquity, which Athena Promachos was not); oh, and the fact that the Athena Promachus was erected in 456 B.C.E to commemorate the Battle of Marathon. Major historical anomaly here.
(It's not an error, though, having Athena covered by a snake--snakes were one of Athena's chosen creatures).
Pages 6-7. Panels 2-4. "Our Day-Runner--with news from Marathon."
"Twenty-six miles he's come--at a full run. His heart pounds--"
The traditional story, as I mentioned in the notes to Xerxes #1, is that after the Battle of Marathon was won, the Athenians' herald (hemerodrome, or "day-runner") Pheidippedes ran the 26 miles from the battleground at Marathon to Athens, announced the Greek victory with one word (nikomen! "we win!"), and then promptly died. Sadly, it never happened--but it's a good story nonetheless, and I can't blame Miller for including it here.
Panel 8. "This rich brat--proudly named after sweet Aphrodite--spends her afternoons frolicing with eunuchs. Nobody asks why."
Sigh. Again, Miller shows his difficulties with women.
First of all, Athenian women didn't dress like this, showing cleavage and jewelry. They were more typically dressed like this:
Very modest--which is what their men demanded of them. (Women's lot in classical Athens was a wretched one, beginning with birth (female infanticide rate of 25%) and continuing through adulthood, when they were essentially trapped in their homes by their husbands. And even the most cosseted of daughters would not have been allowed to gambol about with eunuchs--the daughter would have spent her time helping her mother and preparing for marriage).
Second of all, eunuchs? In classical Athens? No, no. Eunuchs were a Persian thing, not a Greek thing; the Greeks scorned eunuchs.
Pages 8-9. Panel 4. "All I bring to you are the battered, battle-weary heroes of Marathon. Their courage alone can't save us."
Argh--no! Wrong! In real life, what happened was that the Persian fleet was beginning to approach the shore for a landing when the Athenian army arrived. Artaphernes saw them, realized he couldn't win a contested landing and then win a battle for Athens, and turned his fleet around and sailed back home. The Greeks won because their army arrived in time. Miller is making a serious departure from history in this issue. [OLD MAN VOICE] And I don't care for it. [/OLD MAN VOICE]
Panel 5. "There will be no Senate left alive to minister my punishment--which I would welcome, be it exile or death. So I beg you--any of you--take my sword and strike the life from me!"
Harrumph. As I mentioned in the notes to Xerxes #1, Miller's Militiades is a long damn way from the historical Miltiades, who was a hard-core survivor and committed anti-Persian politician general rather than the drama queen shown here.
Pages 10-11. Panel 2. "Themistokles. He's waited for this chance since he grew big enough to heft a shield."
This is Themistocles (Greek transcription is "Themistoklẽs," but the common English version of it is "Themistocles"), the Athenian politician and general.
However--and no doubt for reasons of narrative--Miller inverts Themistocles' personal history, just as he did Miltiades' personal history. Miltiades, at the time of the Battle of Marathon, was sixty-four years old, hard-bitten and experienced; Miller makes him young, beardless, and callow. Themistocles, at the time of the Battle of Marathon, was thirty-four years old and the archon (member of the ruling junta) of Athens representing and popular with the common people rather than the elites, and at Marathon he was (this is debated) one of the ten strategoi (generals). Miller makes Themistocles significantly older, a frontline grunt, and someone of no particular fame. Also, Miller gives him a close-cropped beard, whereas the historical Themistocles looked like this:
As I said, no doubt there are sound narrative reasons for these changes.
The big statue behind Themistocles? This thing:
That's a griffin. But--what the hell is a statue of a griffin doing in Athens in 490 B.C.E.? The griffin was one of the sacred animals of the Persians--they considered it "a protector from evil, witchcraft and secret slander." The Greeks did decorate using the griffin, but they never erected statues of griffins (that I've been able to find, anyhow), and given that it was sacred to Persia, Athens' (and Greece's) arch-enemy, it's extremely doubtful they would have a) made a giant statue of a griffin or b) not melted one down and used the gold to buy war supplies with.
This panel tells us what Themistocles' bright idea was. And his plan does, sorta, accord with history after all. So my caterwauling in the notes to Pages 8-9, Panel 4 was too hasty, I guess.
Pages 12-13. Panel 1. "The Royal flagship closes in, swarming with the Immortals--the hand-picked elite of the Persian Guard."
"Never has a Persian king suffered injury while in the company of the Immortals."
Okay, first of all, Darius wasn't in the Persian fleet at this time. He was back in the Persian capital, Babylon, juggling the various tasks required to rule the Empire. In 490 B.C.E. he was sixty years old and had been ruling for thirty years, and the last time he'd personally taken the field was the campaign in Scythia, twenty-three years before. (At least Miller depicts Darius as being roughly sixty years old here).
Second of all, the Immortals...well, Miller's design for them is a good one, but as I mentioned last time, they sure didn't look like men in black clothes wearing gold masks, they looked like this, per one reputable source:
or, this, from a set of glazed bricks at the Palace of Darius I in Susa--the clothing these Persian warriors wear is supposedly identical to what the Immortals wore:
The ninja look Miller gives his Immortals is both ahistorical and more evidence of Miller's Japanese fetish.
Third of all, it's not known that "never has a Persian king suffered injury while in the company of the Immortals," because we just don't know much about the Immortals' history. Everything we know about the Immortals, including their name, is the product of the Greek historian Herodotus. as the Encyclopedia Iranica entry on the Immortals says, "all the essential questions concerning this special corps—its origin (the assumption of successive enlargements of a much smaller group is rightly rejected by Gnoli, pp. 270 ff.), their exact tasks, and even their Iranian name—cannot be solved, because authentic sources are missing." We can't even be sure there was a unit called the "Immortals" at the time of the Battle of Marathon, since Herodotus' description of them comes from ten years after Marathon.
Panel 13. "His son and heir, Xerxes."
Xerxes, needless to say, was not at Marathon, either. At the time he was busy ruling Babylonia. Nor was he Darius' appointed heir at this time--Darius only named Xerxes his heir in 487 B.C.E. Nor was Xerxes Darius' only son--Darius had twelve sons.
Xerxes was only twenty-eight years old in 490 B.C.E., so at least he looks his age here. But like any Persian adult male the historical Xerxes had a beard, unlike the beardless youth Miller draws.
Pages 15-16. Panel 3. "Load three barges with Androsians. We can always spare Androsians."
This is a reference to the Greek island of Andros. But the Androsians only allied with the Persians in 480 B.C.E., not during the Battle of Marathon. (The Androsians hated Athens & the Athenians).
More importantly, though, this is unfair to Darius, who was notable both for his piety (he was a devout Zoroastrian) and for his careful use of his men. Now, the Androsians (in 480 B.C.E., at least), were Persian allies rather than part of the Persian Empire, and so it's at least possible that Darius would have seen the Androsians as less valuable than men from inside the Empire. But in all likelihood this is another one of Miller's fabrications.
Pages 17-18. Panels 5-6. "Greek fire."
But--you--they--GREEK FIRE WASN'T INVENTED FOR ANOTHER THOUSAND YEARS, MILLER, YOU GREAT NUMPTY!
Greek fire was a kind of incendiary chemical formula--a liquid--which burned on water and clung to flesh, not unlike modern napalm. It was, indeed, a bad way to die.
But the ancient Greeks didn't have Greek fire--the Byzantines invented it, around 672 C.E., and it wasn't called "Greek" in the classical world. The Byzantines had a variety of names for it, including "sea fire," "Roman fire," "war fire, "liquid fire," and "sticky fire." It was only labelled "Greek fire" during the Crusades.
Now, the Greeks did have flaming arrows, and arrows either dipped in tar and set aflame or hollowed out with burning coals loaded into the shaft of the arrow. (Holy trick arrow, Batman!). But the Greeks of 490 B.C.E. didn't have anything remotely resembling Greek fire, or even weapons that were capable of setting fire to enemy ships in the fashion seen here.
"Praise be to our alchemists."
Look. Not only was the world "alchemist" not invented yet, and not only was alchemy in the classical world strictly an Egyptian thing, but the Greek alchemists didn't appear until the turn of the millennium. I realize Miller's writing fiction and not history, but having the classical Athenians make use of Greek fire created by local alchemists is about as anomalous as showing the Confederates, in the American Civil War, wielding Uzis.
Pages 19-20. Panel 6. "The war is lost, Xerxes. Don't let me die here. Take me home."
More inventions from Miller. Darius died four years after the Battle of Marathon, in 486 B.C.E., in Babylon, of failing health. He was not assassinated by a Greek.
Pages 21-22. Panel 1. "The women will repeat nothing that they hear. They have no tongues."
The Persians didn't have topless women on their warships. Nor did they tear the tongues out of their servants.
"No. Don't repeat my mistake. Leave the Greeks to their ways. Their gods are too powerful here, on their seas, on their lands. No mortal man can defeat them. Let the women tend to me. You have a fleet to command."
This is the exact opposite of what the Persians thought about the Greeks after the Battle of Marathon. In fact, when Darius died, four years later, he was in the middle of preparing the second expedition to conquer and enslave the Greeks. The Persians had known defeat at the hands of the Greeks, but certainly didn't think they were invincible. They merely thought that they hadn't brought enough men.
Pages 23-24. "Najd."
This would be Najd, the center part of Saudi Arabia. Needless to say, the historical Xerxes did not visit Najd after the Persian defeat at Marathon. Nor, for that matter, was the Arabian peninsula a part of the Persian Empire.
Pages 25-26. This meeting and conversation are pure fantasy and inventions of Miller. Xerxes didn't go wandering after Marathon--he continued to rule over Babylonia, until 486 B.C.E., when Darius died. And, nope, Xerxes didn't go wandering then, either--he had rebellions in Egypt and Babylon to crush, and then the second military expedition to Greece to plan.
Not as much stuff to annotate and criticize in this issue--but I expect later issues, including the next issue, to make up for it.