Today, we visit an ancient bridge over troubled waters. The University of Houston
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
It's the rare bridge that goes nowhere. Most go
somewhere -- occasionally, they even span worlds. So it seemed in 480 BC when
the Persians, under Xerxes, invaded Greece.
The Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles, is a narrow body of water,
only a mile across at certain points. But it was a formidable geographical
and symbolic barrier between Asia and Europe. When Xerxes' engineers bridged
it, the consequences were seismic.
In Herodotus's history of the Persian Wars, Xerxes' forces are a juggernaut,
flattening everything in their path westward. The army was so vast, Herodotus
declares, that it dried the rivers where it stopped to water its horses.
Modern historians now agree that Herodotus dramatically inflated the size of the
Persian force: He claimed two million soldiers. More likely, no more than two
hundred thousand soldiers formed its ranks. Nevertheless, Xerxes' army dwarfed
the small, divided and panicking Greek city-states.
More credible is Herodotus' description of the Hellespont bridges. The engineers
first threw parallel structures across the straits, one using flax cables, the
other papyrus cables connected to windlasses on the shore. But a storm then
shattered the bridges. Xerxes' anger was directed not just at the engineers --
who literally lost their heads -- but also at the Hellespont. The waters were
whipped 300 times and shackles dropped into them as a mark of enslavement.
With a new batch of engineers more determined than their unhappy predecessors,
the bridges were rebuilt. This time each was girded by a combination of flax
and papyrus cables. Beaded along the two sets of cables were more than 600
side-by-side triremes serving as pontoons. The triremes, in turn, were, anchored
a both ends and spaced far enough part to allow other ships to pass between.
Laid from one side of the tethered ships to the other was a roadway, fenced
and covered with grass and earth so that
"the beasts of burden ... would not look out to the sea below and panic."
Herodotus then leads us to a second kind of bridge: one between meanings. For
the ancient Greeks, the word barbarian at first was descriptive: It
meant someone who didn't speak Greek, but, instead, garbled incomprehensibly:
bar-bar-bar. Herodotus often admires the non-Greeks and marvels at
their achievements. But he calls Xerxes a barbarian when he punishes the waters.
This act of hubris -- of overweening pride -- reflects the shift to the second
meaning: a barbarian is someone who violates the norms of reason and measure.
Herodotus already understood, over two millennia ago, a lesson we struggle with
in modern times: that technology, neutral in itself, provides tools. Xerxes' men
could build a great bridge. But Xerxes forgot what it was to be a man. Technology
can all too easily be abused by barbarians of any tongue or of any age.
I'm Rob Zaretsky, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Tr. by Andrea Purvis,
introduced by Rosalind Thomas, edited by Robert Strassler (New York:
The Herodotus history of Xerxes at the Hellespont may be read online here:
Thanks to Jim Bell, KUHF-FM, for suggesting the topic, to Google Earth for
the aerial photos of the Dardanelles, and Wikipedia
for the public domain image of Xerxes lashing the sea.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.