In the Shadow of Xerxes Canal


by Constance Brewer

They were doing it wrong.

I glanced from our proper section of canal to the part assigned to the Sanites. Their walls formed a straight line from top to base, at least until the sides crumbled and huge chunks fell to the bottom of the trench. Work came to a halt as laborers shouted, cursed, and made plans to hand the excess dirt basket by basket to the top, dump it out, and start all over again.  Supervisors cracked lashes and added to the din, knocking one man off his ladder to the bottom of the hole some thirty cubits below. I could hear the thump as he hit from where I stood, overseeing my section and men. “Find me the location of Chief Engineer Bubares,” I ordered an assistant.

“Yes, Engineer Hasdrubal,” he replied and scampered off, relieved I’m sure, to do more than stand and stare at the multitude of workers toiling in the hot Aegean sun. I watched his progress through the digging site as he dodged workers laden with baskets of earth from the hole, slipped between youngsters hauling water in glazed hydriai, ducked under laborers carrying wood ladders over bare shoulders. He vanished from sight behind a massive mound of dirt heaped alongside the shallow channel. It was too late to call him back. No matter. I was sure Bubares, in his capacity as supervisor, would like to know of the delay these Greek excavators created.

My people labored steadily, secure in the knowledge I knew what I was doing. They had great faith in the skill of project overseer Artachaees, his assistant, Bubares, and by extension junior engineers such as myself. When I was but a young man I worked on the canal connecting the Nile to the Erythraian Sea for King Darius. I mention this not to brag of association with royalty, but to establish my background and expertise. Many of my countrymen were ship builders. I come from a long and distinguished line of such, who specialized in the construction of merchant vessels and the occasional trireme. I could still build a ship if need be, but my real interest was in moving those ships around the water through harbors and long canals.

Summoned by Artachaees to duty for the king, I hastened to the western border of the Empire well in advance of the hordes of laborers. I promptly became enamored of the thick forests, rocky slopes, and abundant wildlife in this part of the Aegean. Nightingales sang in trees, and Mount Athos loomed majestically on the horizon, rising from the dark depths of the Thracian Sea like a god. It was a wondrous place, far removed from the grandeur of Egypt and rough civility of my home in Tyre. I saw beauty in the untamed state, and my heart ached at the thought of the destruction we would soon create in the name of Xerxes. I was unaware this little part of the Empire even existed before my call to service. Not wishing to appear ignorant, when I arranged for transport from Egypt I asked for maps of the northern Aegean to study, because a ship captain’s charts were better than nothing. When we put in at Rhodes and Miletus I searched for additional maps, determined to arrive well prepared and ready to astound Artachaees with my knowledge. Unfortunately, I spent my sea voyage empty-handed. Maps for this area were woefully inadequate, and most concentrated on extolling the wonders of the Artimesium at Ephesus and ignored more far-flung reaches.

The day I finally disembarked from my ship at Akanthos a small earthquake shook the ground. When the dust and pebbles settled, I climbed to my feet to brush the dirt from my clothing. Artachaees’ laughter rumbled out as he heralded my arrival with a hearty wave. “Hasdrubal, old friend! Even the ground trembles at your appearance.”

I looked at my mentor, craning my neck, for Artachaees, at more than six cubits, towered over even the tallest of men by a good head and a half. He wore a magnificent silk tunic of sky blue, embroidered with white and gold flowers. The richly decorated straight cap on his head gave him another cubit in height.  I gazed upward and offered a smile. “I sailed by our fastest ship, for I desire as much as any to see the arrogant Greeks put in their place. Besides, you said the king demanded haste.”

“When does he not?” Artachaees patted me on the head in an absentminded fashion. I winced but took no offense, for everyone must seem a child to him from his vast height. I, a common Phoenician engineer, did not possess the brilliance of Artachaees that so captivated Xerxes. By rights I should have been beneath Artachaees’ notice. Instead, he offered advice and helped me secure construction projects. It was a testament to Artachaees’ greatness that he treated this lowly Phoenician engineer as worthy of his attentions.

“Come, Hasdrubal,” he said, “and I will show you the puny isthmus we must breach for the king. It is only about ten stadia wide. I could throw a goat from one side to the other.” He clapped a hand to my shoulder and almost knocked me off the dock. I picked up my belongings, scolded my servants to have a care with the gnomon and calibrated lines, then hurried to trot along beside Artachaees. We spent the next few days making our way to Mount Athos, and up the side, so I could observe from on high the task set before us.

I could not believe my eyes. The distance was laughable; one could see the entire way across the Athos peninsula. A far cry from Egypt, where we were forced to traverse hundreds of stadia of varying terrain between waterways. “For the time, money and manpower it would take to dig, not to mention the small distance, why does the king not portage his warships? It would be far easier to bring timbers and slide them across. Quicker than digging our way from one side to the other, even as small as it is.”

Artachaees frowned. “Xerxes is well aware of the benefits of portage. Do not let others hear you question the decision of the king. If it is a canal Xerxes wants, a canal he will get.”

“So this is to be naught but a display then? Are we peacocks or engineers?”

The esteemed man looked down his strong nose at me so long I feared I overstepped the bounds of our friendship. When Artachaees spoke, his booming voice was quiet and pitched to remain between us. “If I did not think you could help me, I would not have sent for you. We will build the king a canal, Hasdrubal. Xerxes mind is made up. We will do as Xerxes desires, when he desires it. Never forget, my friend, that the king is not a patient man.”

I gave a weak smile. Xerxes temper was legendary. The last thing I wanted was to come to his attention in an unfavorable light. “I understand. Now, let me tell you of canal building in Egypt. Many of the same principles can be applied here.” Artachaees seemed happy to change the subject back to engineering logistics, and the next several days passed pleasantly as we spoke of the intricacies of moving water and earth.

The first of the conscripted laborers began to arrive late that week, along with stockpiles of ground grains to feed the projected crowds of workers. A small market and gathering place sprang up as gangs poured into the area near where we decided to begin the series of trenches that would, Kothar willing, become a waterway for the king. Artachaees, Bubares, other engineers, and I spent long days plotting just how to build Xerxes his canal. Using a plumb bob, cubit rod, and a calibrated rope we measured our way across the isthmus, marked boundaries with stakes and lines, and lectured the gang leaders on their daily digging responsibilities. Our schedule was tight if we were to meet our deadline. The consequences of failure hung over us like a night fog. Word of Xerxes displeasure with a Phrygian noble’s son had already reached us, and although none discussed it, the horror of the imagery was enough to ensure our complete dedication. We didn’t wish to end our days split and spitted like a goat for roasting.

I drew many variations of the proposed canal on wax tablets, transferring the best ideas to parchment. Time and again Artachaees or Bubares had to remind me that the canal was to be basic, a mere gaping wound carved through the belly of the peninsula. I understood, but on some level I wished to leave my mark by making the canal more than slash in the ground. Perhaps I thought to impress Xerxes with both the function and beauty of the canal. As time slipped away, my grandiose ideas scaled back as day to day construction problems overwhelmed us.

Laborers filled the countryside. Shovels, baskets, ladders and ropes were distributed. We started to dig. As the dirt piled up, my anxiety eased. As long as we continued our steady progress, Xerxes would have his canal. I was happy to see a gang of Phoenicians among the latest arrivals, and put them to work on the very beginning of the digging, near the earthwork dam holding back the Thracian Sea. Beveling the canal sides was my idea. When Artachaees gathered his engineers together to examine the mouth of the canal’s dam, I told of my experiences and recommended sloping the canal wider at the top and digging inward until we hit the proper length and depth at the bottom. I drew out my ideas in the dust and the Artachaees assistant copied them line for line onto parchment, along with my words in Aramaic. I greatly envied the host of scribes and servants that attended Artachaees and Bubares, and longed for the day I, too, would command such people. I wanted to be like the great engineer, confidant of kings and builder of an empire.

If I were honest with myself I would admit a far greater ambition. I wanted to be Artachaees. I envied the easy way he commanded, his poise when confronted with problems, the general air of competence that clung to the man. How much of it had to do with his great height and presence, I do not know. I was an average Phoenician, of sturdy build, and agreeable disposition. The advantage I had over other junior engineers was my expertise in constructing waterways, and fierce dedication to the craft. Somehow Artachaees saw this and gave me the opportunity to raise myself up another level. I was indebted to the man, and determined to give him no cause to regret his generous actions.

Once the actual digging of the canal began I did not see much of Artachaees. Whether he was unhappy with me or merely busy I did not know. Worried that displeasure was behind his absence, I pushed my men hard, determined to prove my worth.

Work progressed and I took to roaming the area at night, mainly to mourn the ruin we inflicted on the land. No longer could I hear the nightingales sing. Frightened of the digging and crowd of men, much of the wildlife departed for quieter realms. The landscape changed also. A pall of dust hung over everything and trees vanished, removed for the canal or for firewood. We managed to spare a magnificent plane tree located at the start of the canal, but that was all.

They were doing it wrong.

Bubares responded to the complaint about the other laborers with brusqueness. I should have realized my actions would result in more work for myself. Somehow, I thought Artachaees and Bubares would appear, give orders, the other gangs would see the error of their ways and begin to construct the canal properly.

Instead, the task was delegated. Behind schedule, the responsibility for correcting canal progress rested on one overworked Phoenician—me. I often thought I would die before disappointing Artachaees, or even Bubares. If the canal was not ready when Xerxes arrived, I might get my wish.

I had many obstacles to overcome; there were language barriers, cultural differences, and outright obstinacy from the other overseers. They pretended not to understand my requests. Sometimes they nodded, then went and did things exactly as they had been doing them before. The project fell further behind, Bubares scowled as I gave my latest report. Requests to speak with Artachaees went unanswered. Word filtered back to me that the failure would be reported to Xerxes as mine. Even as I panicked, I could not blame my superiors. Better for them to sacrifice a few underlings than face the wrath of the king.

Unable to sleep, I walked away from the canal and across the peninsula hoping for a glimpse of the wildlife that comforted me early on. I saw nothing but undergrowth twisted to nightmare by the shadows. The majority of plants had spiny leaves and flower spikes bearing purple flowers; pretty, but painful if bumped. Overhead, clouds covered the moon and made the landscape treacherous. In the gnarled shrubs I imagined my body, hung for incompetence, buffeted by sea winds. Artachaees would shake his head at the mention of my name, and my family, disgraced, would pretend I never existed. My name would be chiseled from my projects and the space smoothed clean.

“Kothar, help me!” I cried out to the god as I fell to my knees. “How do I do this task set before me?” I kept my head bowed, but heard no answer. The smell of the sea filled my nostrils as I waited. The breeze was strong enough that I heard nothing out of the ordinary, but something, a musky scent, a prickle at the back of my neck, caused me to lift my head. Instead of a god, a small wolf pack stood opposite me in the clearing. The five animals stared with luminous yellow eyes, their brown fur glossy-coated and ruffled by the wind. One started forward, and another, the leader, gave a low-throated growl. When the first wolf didn’t stop instantly, the leader fell on him, snarling, until the other showed his belly and whimpered in submission. Blood flowed from a torn ear. I chanced a quick glance behind me for an escape route. When I looked back, they were gone. A shaft of moonlight pierced the clouds and illuminated the clearing. I knew then what I must do.

The next morning I borrowed several of Bubares’ biggest associates and approached the first of the gang leaders. When my polite request for an explanation on their failure to dig as instructed was answered with a shrug, I pointed at the man.

“Twenty lashes. If this section of canal is not dug properly, to my specifications within three days, it will be a hundred lashes.” Ramzin, one of my borrowed companions, unfurled his whip and proceeded to make good on my command. I ordered the section leader’s subordinates forward, and had Ramzin give them ten lashes each to reinforce my point. We moved to the next gang leader and repeated the procedure. By the time I visited with five of the gang leaders, the sixth came to find us and report on his section progress, reassuring me that the slope of the walls would be to tolerance and dug properly. The rest of the gang leaders were quick to follow.

I spent the next months walking the length of the rapidly growing canal with Ramzin at my heels, doling out punishment with a liberal hand. The men worked better under the threat of the lash than they did for my promises of rewards and glory. Bubares began to speak with me again when I reported on the progress of the canal. He made no mention of Ramzin, or my methods and neither did I, but soon after my last report, Ramzin and one of the Achaemenid scribes were assigned as my personal assistants.

One day, much to our relief, all that stood between the waters of the seas and the empty trench were two dams at the mouths of the canal. Artachaees informed us he’d sent word to Xerxes months earlier that we were complete. Was it faith or arrogance that made him send the message before the final basket of dirt was cleared out? The occasional small earthquake still shook the area. Parts of the canal could collapse before Xerxes arrived. We could be executed for failure, or lying. None of that concerned Artachaees. The big man smiled at our concerns and brushed them away like so many flies on fresh meat.

“Xerxes has faith in me,” he told us, “He would not be displeased with his Chief Engineer, even if the canal were not finished.”

“Because it would somehow be our fault,” another engineer muttered from behind me.

I would have turned to confront him, indignant, but the underlying truth to his words gave me pause. I had thought the same thing myself. Artachaees and Bubares were supervisors because they mastered the details of being in charge—when and how to blame others, use of force and bribery, and friendship with those in power who would lend assistance. If I wanted to rise to prominence I needed to do the same.

The remainder of our time before the king’s arrival was spent inspecting the canal. It was ready to be flooded. I pushed for letting in the seas, to have everything ready for the arrival of Xerxes so that nothing would slow his forward progress. Artachaees overruled me. “The king will want to watch for himself, to see the waters of the Aegean go exactly where he decrees, Hasdrubal.”

“What if a section of the wall fails? What if there was a miscalculation? I have never built a canal in such haste; there could be problems we did not foresee.”

Artachaees gave me a tolerant smile, patted me on the head, and said, “I’m sure everything will be fine, Hasdrubal. You worry too much.” He left with Bubares, and I set the gang leaders to clearing rubble and checking the walls for imperfections. It did not take me long to give the orders. By now everyone jumped at my command, fearful of Ramzin’s whip. My Phoenicians did not need the lash to work, for that alone they should be accorded the honor of breaching the earthwork dam blocking the eastern mouth of the canal. I forgot to ask Artachaees to grant them this tribute. Cursing my oversight, I made my way through the marketplace to the collection of tents that housed the head supervisor and his associates. The area was still a muddle of tents, crates, and materials. I picked the clearest, straightest path I could find through the mess. As fate would have it I came up behind the tent, just as I was to make my way around to the front I heard Bubares protest loudly. “Xerxes will not be pleased! You know how he gets.”

“Bubares, you worry overly much. I will handle the king. Why do you think I made a fuss about bringing the Phoenician here from Egypt? For his expertise?” Artachaees gave a booming laugh. “Really, Bubares, there is good reason he is but a junior engineer. His family does not allow him to make triremes or galleys. Hasdrubal favors form over function far too much, he wants to make things pretty. I just want them to work. Perhaps I’ll leave him here to administer the canal after we leave as he requested. Then he can design attractive fortifications to his heart’s content.” Artachaees gave a loud cough, then several more. “Dust will be the death of me…. No, if Xerxes is displeased with any part of the canal we have someone high enough up in our ranks to take the damage. If I offer gang leaders, Xerxes will be insulted. If I offer you, Bubares, it puts Xerxes in a bad position, because you are of the Achaemenid nobility. Hasdrabul is not. Xerxes is unhappy with the Phoenicians as it is.”

I strained to hear Bubares’ low voiced reply. “A perfect plan as usual, Artachaees. I applaud you.” There came the sharp sound of palms striking a deliberate beat. I backed up and returned the way I came, heart pounding.

The actions of the supervisors were to be expected. This was a valuable lesson. One did not become chief engineer to a king through bad planning. This was how things worked in the Empire, through intimidation, innuendo and fear, I reminded myself. It wasn’t about the engineering. Artachaees had every contingency covered. I must do the same.

Remaining behind to care for the canal after Xerxes made his way through sounded perfect to me. I already had plans to reinforce the mouths of the canal and build up the banks. In a few years it would be a magnificent example of Phoenician engineering skill, known throughout the Empire. I would be remembered as the engineer who brought the canal to its full glory.

In the final few weeks I redoubled the men checking the waterway, made sure the gates at the mouth were ready to release the sea, and did everything else I could think of to ensure operations went smoothly. Ramzin followed me like a vicious dog, snapping his whip if I even glared at a worker. The naval fleet arrived and anchored nearby, on the Thracian Sea. A week later I woke to a rumbling in the ground. At first I thought the gods tested my canal with an earthquake. When the reverberations remained steady, and a pall of dust hung on the horizon where the peninsula connected to the mainland, I understood.

King Xerxes had arrived.

If I considered the devastation made by the laborers bad, it was nothing compared to the destruction caused by the movement of hundreds of thousands of men and beasts. We heard tales of the army drinking rivers dry, I’d thought it an exaggeration. Now that I saw the size of the force commanded by the king, I could see where a mere river would barely slake their thirst. Xerxes approached with great ceremony, in the midst of a menagerie of men, horses, camels, and even a tiger on a leash. The king was surrounded by elite troops, ten thousand strong, known as the Immortals, men of legend, said to be unbeatable in battle. They looked through everyone as they passed, with eyes that measured and found us wanting.

It was several more days before Xerxes allowed us to breach the dams and flood the canal. He watched from a throne of gold and marble, surrounded by his Immortals, numerous silk-clad women, and the tiger. Artachaees stood by his side, arms sweeping grand gestures as he talked. Much to my relief, the flooding of the trench took place without incident. Triremes moved up near the mouth of the canal until there was no more room on the shore and they were forced to anchor at sea in rows. In two days they would make their way through my canal.

That night I was invited to dine with Artachaees, Bubares and the king. I spent hours preparing, cursing the Aegean sun that faded the magnificence of my formal robes. My worries were for naught, as I was seated several tables away from Artachaees and the king, along with the other junior engineers and local nobility. Throughout the feast the king paused to heap honors and gold Darics upon Artachaees. Xerxes even stood and threw a handful of the coins to the tables surrounding him. I disdained to scramble in the dirt like a starved dog for scraps. Between lulls in the music I could hear Artachaees’ booming voice as he regaled the king with stories of the canal’s construction. At one point the barbat music stopped, and over the clink of knives and serving platters, I heard Artachaees tell the king, “Yes, it was my idea to bevel the sides of the canal to hasten the digging. Without my technique, we never would have finished in time. Everyone started out digging straight sides, but I soon put them straight.” He let out a booming laugh. “Once I convinced my junior engineers to do things the proper way, work went smoothly.”

“A wonderful job, as usual, Artachaees,” Xerxes replied. “We’ll move our triremes through in a few days. When my army is clear of the canal, what do you wish to do with it?”

“It is of little consequence, Your Majesty. My work here is finished,” Artachaees said with the wave of a hand, “I accomplished what you asked me to do. Let it fall in and the land reclaim it, I care not. What is one puny canal to the might of the Empire?”

I could not believe my ears. Artachaees promised me that he would recommend to Xerxes that I be placed in charge of the canal once the army departed. He let me borrow another scribe and encouraged me to make detailed plans on its maintenance and expansion. Had he been laughing at me all the while? I stared at the table where Artachaees sat with the king, but the two talked, laughed, and drank wine as if nothing were wrong. I stared until one of the Immortals noticed and began to walk my way. Hastily, I dropped my eyes to the half-empty platter of rice and lamb, mind in a whirl. I still couldn’t believe the big man lied. Not about the canal.

The feasting went on far into the night. Artachaees put away massive quantities of wine, drinking from a special gold goblet embellished with four winged oxen, a present from Xerxes. I noticed he favored a wine brought from Persepolis, no doubt at great expense. It arrived with the king’s massive baggage train, now parked and corralled close by. The wonderful thing about the marketplace that flourished by the worksite was that one could find practically anything, if one was willing to pay. Even wine reserved for the king’s entourage. I sampled from the small amphora, then filled a cup and walked. Persepolis grapes were far superior to the weak Aegean vines. After a visit to an herbalist, then the makeshift Phoenician temple and finally after making an offering to Kothar, I made my way through the tents and crates to the supervisor area. It was deserted, everyone still attended the feasting. I stood before Artachaees’ tent, wine cup and herbalist packet in hand. It only took two deep breathes for me to make my decision. Shortly afterwards I returned to my own tent and slept, ignoring the tombak, ney, and barbat melody that wailed in the distance. In two days the triremes of Xerxes would traverse my canal, and I wanted to be ready.

I woke refreshed, dressed in clean clothing and washed my hands from the hydriai outside my tent before I strolled down to the canal, and stood, staring at the gentle lap of Aegean water that stretched sixty-seven cubits to the other side. It was a dark blue-green, the canal too deep at thirty cubits to hold the sunlight as the water on the beach did. The morning wore on and I walked the canal for several stadion in both directions, making a last inspection before Xerxes ordered his ships through. A series of shouts went up behind me.

I ordered my shadow, Rimza, to find the Sanite gang boss and have him reinforce the barrier around the plane tree. Xerxes had hung jewels and gold chains in its branches, and decorated the trunk with bolts of bright silks. I didn’t want the loose animals to nibble the cloth. Rimza moved off at a trot, and took my scribe with him. It wasn’t until the sun was high overhead that Bubares huffed up to me, face flushed from exertion and dark eyes wide. His straight cap was askew and made him look as if he would tip over at any moment. I studied him from the corner of my eye.

“Hasdrubal! Hasdrubal, it’s terrible! Tragedy has befallen us. What will we do without him? Oh, Kothar save us,” Bubares said, waving his hands. He paused as if overwhelmed by the gravity of his next words. “The mighty Artachaees has died!”

I examined the dark waters of Xerxes canal a lingering moment, then turned, and pretended to be surprised.


© Constance Brewer All Rights Reserved

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