Ancient History & Civilisation


The romantic Cyrus—His enlightened policies—Cambyses—Darius the Great—The invasion of Greece

Cyrus was one of those natural rulers at whose coronation, as Emerson said, all men rejoice. Royal in spirit and action, capable of wise administration as well as of dramatic conquest, generous to the defeated and loved by those who had been his enemies—no wonder the Greeks made him the subject of innumerable romances, and—to their minds—the greatest hero before Alexander. It is a disappointment to us that we cannot draw a reliable picture of him from either Herodotus or Xenophon. The former has mingled many fables with his history,10 while the other has made theCyropædia an essay on the military art, with incidental lectures on education and philosophy; at times Xenophon confuses Cyrus and Socrates. These delightful stories being put aside, the figure of Cyrus becomes merely an attractive ghost. We can only say that he was handsome—since the Persians made him their model of physical beauty to the end of their ancient art;11 that he established the Achæmenid Dynasty of “Great Kings,” which ruled Persia through the most famous period of its history; that he organized the soldiery of Media and Persia into an invincible army, captured Sardis and Babylon, ended for a thousand years the rule of the Semites in western Asia, and absorbed the former realms of Assyria, Babylonia, Lydia and Asia Minor into the Persian Empire, the largest political organization of pre-Roman antiquity, and one of the best-governed in history.

So far as we can visualize him through the haze of legend, he was the most amiable of conquerors, and founded his empire upon generosity. His enemies knew that he was lenient, and they did not fight him with that desperate courage which men show when their only choice is to kill or die. We have seen how, according to Herodotus, he rescued Croesus from the funeral pyre at Sardis, and made him one of his most honored counselors; and we have seen how magnanimously he treated the Jews. The first principle of his policy was that the various peoples of his empire should be left free in their religious worship and beliefs, for he fully understood the first principle of statesmanship—that religion is stronger than the state. Instead of sacking cities and wrecking temples he showed a courteous respect for the deities of the conquered, and contributed to maintain their shrines; even the Babylonians, who had resisted him so long, warmed towards him when they found him preserving their sanctuaries and honoring their pantheon. Wherever he went in his unprecedented career he offered pious sacrifice to the local divinities. Like Napoleon he accepted indifferently all religions, and—with much better grace—humored all the gods.

Like Napoleon, too, he died of excessive ambition. Having won all the Near East, he began a series of campaigns aimed to free Media and Persia from the inroads of central Asia’s nomadic barbarians. He seems to have carried these excursions as far as the Jaxartes on the north and India on the east. Suddenly, at the height of his curve, he was slain in battle with the Massagetæ, an obscure tribe that peopled the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. Like Alexander he conquered an empire, but did not live to organize it.

One great defect had sullied his character—occasional and incalculable cruelty. It was inherited, unmixed with Cyrus’ generosity, by his half-mad son. Cambyses began by putting to death his brother and rival, Smerdis; then, lured by the accumulated wealth of Egypt, he set forth to extend the Persian Empire to the Nile. He succeeded, but apparently at the cost of his sanity. Memphis was captured easily, but an army of fifty thousand Persians sent to annex the Oasis of Ammon perished in the desert, and an expedition to Carthage failed because the Phoenician crews of the Persian fleet refused to attack a Phoenician colony. Cambyses lost his head, and abandoned the wise clemency and tolerance of his father. He publicly scoffed at the Egyptian religion, and plunged his dagger derisively into the bull revered by the Egyptians as the god Apis; he exhumed mummies and pried into royal tombs regardless of ancient curses; he profaned the temples and ordered their idols to be burned. He thought in this way to cure the Egyptians of superstition; but when he was stricken with illness—apparently epileptic convulsions—the Egyptians were certain that their gods had punished him, and that their theology was now confirmed beyond dispute. As if again to illustrate the inconveniences of monarchy, Cambyses, with a Napoleonic kick in the stomach, killed his sister and wife Roxana, slew his son Prexaspes with an arrow, buried twelve noble Persians alive, condemned Croesus to death, repented, rejoiced to learn that the sentence had not been carried out, and punished the officers who had delayed in executing it.12 On his way back to Persia he learned that a usurper had seized the throne and was being supported by widespread revolution. From that moment he disappears from history; tradition has it that he killed himself.13

The usurper had pretended to be Smerdis, miraculously preserved from Cambyses’ fratricidal jealousy; in reality he was a religious fanatic, a devotee of the early Magian faith who was bent upon destroying Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the Persian state. Another revolution soon deposed him, and the seven aristocrats who had organized it raised one of their number, Darius, son of Hystaspes, to the throne. In this bloody way began the reign of Persia’s greatest king.

Succession to the throne, in Oriental monarchies, was marked not only by palace revolutions in strife for the royal power, but by uprisings in subject colonies that grasped the chance of chaos, or an inexperienced ruler, to reclaim their liberty. The usurpation and assassination of “Smerdis” gave to Persia’s vassals an excellent opportunity: the governors of Egypt and Lydia refused submission, and the provinces of Susiana, Babylonia, Media, Assyria, Armenia, Sacia and others rose in simultaneous revolt. Darius subdued them with a ruthless hand. Taking Babylon after a long siege, he crucified three thousand of its leading citizens as an inducement to obedience in the rest; and in a series of swift campaigns he “pacified” one after another of the rebellious states. Then, perceiving how easily the vast empire might in any crisis fall to pieces, he put off the armor of war, became one of the wisest administrators in history, and set himself to reëstablish his realm in a way that became a model of imperial organization till the fall of Rome. His rule gave western Asia a generation of such order and prosperity as that quarrelsome region had never known before.

He had hoped to govern in peace, but it is the fatality of empire to breed repeated war. For the conquered must be periodically reconquered, and the conquerors must keep the arts and habits of camp and battlefield; and at any moment the kaleidoscope of change may throw up a new empire to challenge the old. In such a situation wars must be invented if they do not arise of their own accord; each generation must be inured to the rigors of campaigns, and taught by practice the sweet decorum of dying for one’s country.

Perhaps it was in part for this reason that Darius led his armies into southern Russia, across the Bosphorus and the Danube to the Volga, to chastise the marauding Scythians; and again across Afghanistan and a hundred mountain ranges into the valley of the Indus, adding thereby extensive regions and millions of souls and rupees to his realm. More substantial reasons must be sought for his expedition into Greece. Herodotus would have us believe that Darius entered upon this historic faux pas because one of his wives, Atossa, teased him into it in bed;14 but it is more dignified to believe that the King recognized in the Greek city-states and their colonies a potential empire, or an actual confederacy, dangerous to the Persian mastery of western Asia. When Ionia revolted and received aid from Sparta and Athens, Darius reconciled himself reluctantly to war. All the world knows the story of his passage across the Ægean, the defeat of his army at Marathon, and his gloomy return to Persia. There, amid far-flung preparations for another attempt upon Greece, he suddenly grew weak, and died.

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