Xerxes continues to read the transcribed reports from Xeo even as the Persians advance deep into Greece, reaching the Three-Cornered Way, the famous waypoint two hours from Athens. Xerxes has been having troubling dreams, which he attributes to his desecration of Leonidas’s corpse. The king’s advisors worry that he is becoming emotionally disturbed. Meanwhile, Athens offers no resistance to the invaders, except for a small band who occupy the Acropolis, trusting in an oracle of Apollo which said, “the wooden wall alone shall not fail you.” They believe the oracle refers to wooden palisade that had once bounded the site. The resisters were quickly slain.
Xerxes continues to be captivated by what Xeo has to say, even in the midst of trying to capture Greece as a whole. But he’s also having bad dreams which he attributes to his own poor actions. The slaying of the small band of resisters, trusting in an apparently misunderstood oracle, suggests that humans’ understanding of the supernatural is limited at best.
After making their reports, Xerxes’ advisers leave, except for the two most trusted: Mardonius, his field marshal, and Artemisia, warrior-queen of Halicarnassus. He relays his dream to them in detail. In the dream, when he approached the spike on which Leonidas’s decapitated head was placed, he realized with horror that the head was actually his own. Artemisia encourages the King that this dream signifies nothing; it only means that Xerxes recognizes the mortality of all kings. Mardonius encourages Xerxes to sail home to Susa and allow him to mop up the rest of Greece.
Xerxes shows his own vulnerability in the presence of his trusted advisers. He has his doubts about the way he’s conducted the war. Mardonius seems to have some designs to get Xerxes out of the way and act in his stead.
Artemisia warns that the still-intact, highly motivated Spartan army and allies will pose a great threat; it would be disgraceful for Xerxes to leave now. Let the Greeks rely on superstition, she says: “We must be men and commanders, exploiting oracles and portents when they suit the purposes of reason and dismissing them when they do not.” Xerxes considers this and finally says, without rancor, “It seems my women have become men, and my men women.” He declares that they will burn Athens to the ground tomorrow and then grind the Spartans into dust.
Artemisia rejects the idea that oracles are inherently trustworthy. It’s up to rulers to exploit them as suits their purposes best. Mardonius continues to press the king to retreat. Xerxes jokes that there’s been a role reversal between his advisers. He sides with Artemisia, aligning himself with a more honorable display regardless of its dangers.