Bitter Water

“Here he is, making his way to Sardis with his army. He spots a plane-tree along the road which was so beautiful that he presented it with golden decorations and appointed one of the Immortals as guardian to look after it. He is still under the spell of the tree’s charms when news reaches him that a great storm in the straits of the Hellespont has destroyed the bridges which he had ordered built so that his army could cross from Asia into Europe in its advance on Greece. Upon hearing this, Xerxes flew into a rage. He ordered his men to give the Hellespont three hundred lashes and to sink a pair of shackles into the sea. I once heard that he also dispatched men to brand the Hellespont as well. Be that as it may, he did tell the men he had thrashing the sea to revile it in terms you would never hear from a Greek. ‘Bitter water,’ they said, ‘this is your punishment for wronging your master when he did no wrong to you. King Xerxes will cross you, with or without your consent. People are right not to sacrifice to a muddy, brackish stream like you!’ So the sea was punished at his orders, and he had the supervisors of the bridging of the Hellespont beheaded.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus

 

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