B.C. 538 – The Conquests of Cyrus The Great by George Grote
Conquests of Cyrus The Great
Introduction by Charles F. Horne, Ph.D. & John Rudd, LL.D.
On the destruction of Nineveh three great Powers still stood on the stage of history, being bound together by the strong ties of a mutually supporting alliance. These were Media, Lydia, and Babylon. The capital of Lydia was Sardis. According to Herodotus, the first king of Lydia was Manes. In the semi-mythic period of Lydian history rose the great dynasty of the [Greek: Heraclidæ], which reigned for 505 years, numbering twenty-two kings—B.C. 1229 to B.C. 745. The Lydians are said by Herodotus to have colonized Tyrrhenia, in the Italic peninsula, and to have extended their conquests into Syria, where they founded Ascalon in the territory later known as Palestine.
In the reign of Gyges, B.C. 724, they began to attack the Greek cities of Asia Minor: Miletus, Smyrna, and Priene. The glory of the Lydian Empire culminated in the reign of [Greek: Croesus], the fifth and last historic king, B.C. 568. The well-known story of Solon’s warning to [Greek: Croesus] was full of ominous import with regard to the ultimate downfall of the Lydian Empire: “For thyself, O Croesus,” said the Greek sage in answer to the question, “Who is the happiest man?” I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations; but in respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily.”
The Median Empire occupied a territory indefinitely extending over a region south of the Caspian, between the Kurdish Mountains and the modern Khorassan. The Median monarchy, according to Herodotus, commenced B.C. 708. The Medes, which were racially akin to the Persians, had been for fifty years subject to the Assyrian monarchy when they revolted, setting up an independent empire. Putting aside the dates given by the Greek historians, we shall perhaps be correct in considering that the great Median kingdom was established by Cyaxares, B.C. 633; and that in B.C. 610 a great struggle of six years between Media and Lydia was amicably ended, under the terror occasioned by an eclipse, by the establishment of a treaty and alliance between the contending powers. With the death of Cyaxares, B.C. 597, the glory of the great Median Empire passed away, for under his son, Astyages, the country was conquered by Cyrus.
The rise of the Babylonian Empire seems to have originated B.C. 2234, when the Cushite inhabitants of southern Babylonia raised a native dynasty to the throne, liberated themselves from the yoke of the Zoroastrian Medes, and instituted an empire with several large capitals, where they built mighty temples and introduced the worship of the heavenly bodies in contradistinction to the elemental worship of the Magian Medes. The record of Babylonian kings is full of obscurity, even in the light of recent archæological discoveries. We can trace, however, a gradual expansion of Babylonian dominion, even to the borders of Egypt. Nabo Polassar, B.C. 625 to B.C. 604, was a great warrior, and at Carchemish defeated even the almost invincible Egyptians, B.C. 604.
His successor, Nebuchadnezzar, B.C. 604, immediately set about the fortification of his capital. A space of more than 130 square miles was enclosed within walls 80 feet in breadth and 300 or 400 in height, if we may believe the record. Meanwhile, with the assistance of Cyaxares, King of Media, he captured Tyre, in Phoenicia, and Jerusalem, in Syria; but fifteen years after Croesus had been taken prisoner and the Persian Empire extended to the shores of the Ægean, the Empire of Babylon fell before the conquering armies of Cyrus, the Persian.
The Ionic and Æolic Greeks on the Asiatic coast had been conquered and made tributary by the Lydian king Croesus: “Down to that time (says Herodotus) all Greeks had been free.” Their conqueror, Croesus, who ascended the throne in 560 B.C., appeared to be at the summit of human prosperity and power in his unassailable capital, and with his countless treasures at Sardis. His dominions comprised nearly the whole of Asia Minor, as far as the river Halys to the east; on the other side of that river began the Median monarchy under his brother-in-law Astyages, extending eastward to some boundary which we cannot define, but comprising, in a south-eastern direction, Persis proper or Farsistan, and separated from the Kissians and Assyrians on the east by the line of Mount Zagros (the present boundary-line between Persia and Turkey). Babylonia, with its wondrous city, between the Uphrates and the Tigris, was occupied by the Assyrians or Chaldæans, under their king Labynetus: a territory populous and fertile, partly by nature, partly by prodigies of labor, to a degree which makes us mistrust even an honest eye-witness who describes it afterward in its decline—but which was then in its most flourishing condition. The Chaldean dominion under Labynetus reached to the borders of Egypt, including as dependent territories both Judæa and Phenicia. In Egypt reigned the native king Amasis, powerful and affluent, sustained in his throne by a large body of Grecian mercenaries and himself favorably disposed to Grecian commerce and settlement. Both with Labynetus and with Amasis, Croesus was on terms of alliance; and as Astyages was his brother-in-law, the four kings might well be deemed out of the reach of calamity. Yet within the space of thirty years, or a little more, the whole of their territories had become embodied in one vast empire, under the son of an adventurer as yet not known even by name.
The rise and fall of oriental dynasties have been in all times distinguished by the same general features. A brave and adventurous prince, at the head of a population at once poor, warlike, and greedy, acquires dominion; while his successors, abandoning themselves to sensuality and sloth, probably also to oppressive and irascible dispositions, become in process of time victims to those same qualities in a stranger which had enabled their own father to seize the throne. Cyrus, the great founder of the Persian empire, first the subject and afterward the dethroner of the Median Astyages, corresponds to their general description, as far, at least, as we can pretend to know his history. For in truth even the conquests of Cyrus, after he became ruler of Media, are very imperfectly known, while the facts which preceded his rise up to that sovereignty cannot be said to be known at all: we have to choose between different accounts at variance with each other, and of which the most complete and detailed is stamped with all the character of romance. The Cyropædia of Xenophon is memorable and interesting, considered with reference to the Greek mind, and as a philosophical novel. That it should have been quoted so largely as authority on matters of history, is only one proof among many how easily authors have been satisfied as to the essentials of historical evidence. The narrative given by Herodotus of the relations between Cyrus and Astyages, agreeing with Xenophon in little more than the fact that it makes Cyrus son of Cambyses and Mandane and grandson of Astyages, goes even beyond the story of Romulus and Remus in respect to tragical incident and contrast. Astyages, alarmed by a dream, condemns the newborn infant of his daughter Mandane to be exposed: Harpagus, to whom the order is given, delivers the child to one of the royal herdsmen, who exposes it in the mountains, where it is miraculously suckled by a bitch. Thus preserved, and afterward brought up as the herdsman’s child, Cyrus manifests great superiority, both physical and mental; is chosen king in play by the boys of the village, and in this capacity severely chastises the son of one of the courtiers; for which offense he is carried before Astyages, who recognizes him for his grandson, but is assured by the Magi that the dream is out and that he has no further danger to apprehend from the boy—and therefore permits him to live. With Harpagus, however, Astyages is extremely incensed, for not having executed his orders: he causes the son of Harpagus to be slain, and served up to be eaten by his unconscious father at a regal banquet. The father, apprised afterward of the fact, dissembles his feelings, but meditates a deadly vengeance against Astyages for this Thyestean meal. He persuades Cyrus, who has been sent back to his father and mother in Persia, to head a revolt of the Persians against the Medes; whilst Astyages—to fill up the Grecian conception of madness as a precursor to ruin—sends an army against the revolters, commanded by Harpagus himself. Of course the army is defeated—Astyages, after a vain resistance, is dethroned—Cyrus becomes king in his place—and Harpagus repays the outrage which he has undergone by the bitterest insults.
Such are the heads of a beautiful narrative which is given at some length in Herodotus. It will probably appear to the reader sufficiently romantic; though the historian intimates that he had heard three other narratives different from it, and that all were more full of marvels, as well as in wider circulation, than his own, which he had borrowed from some unusually sober-minded Persian informants. In what points the other three stories departed from it we do not hear.
To the historian of Halicarnassus we have to oppose Ctesias—the physician of the neighboring town of Cnidus—who contradicted Herodotus, not without strong terms of censure, on many points, and especially upon that which is the very foundation of the early narrative respecting Cyrus; for he affirmed that Cyrus was no way related to Astyages. However indignant we may be with Ctesias for the disparaging epithets which he presumed to apply to an historian whose work is to us inestimable—we must nevertheless admit that, as surgeon in actual attendance on king Artaxerxes Mnemon, and healer of the wound inflicted on that prince at Cunaxa by his brother Cyrus the younger, he had better opportunities even than Herodotus of conversing with sober-minded Persians, and that the discrepancies between the two statements are to be taken as a proof of the prevalence of discordant, yet equally accredited, stories. Herodotus himself was in fact compelled to choose one out of four. So rare and late a plant is historical authenticity.
That Cyrus was the first Persian conqueror, and that the space which he overran covered no less than fifty degrees of longitude, from the coast of Asia Minor to the Oxus and the Indus, are facts quite indisputable; but of the steps by which this was achieved, we know very little. The native Persians, whom he conducted to an empire so immense, were an aggregate of seven agricultural, and four nomadic tribes—all of them rude, hardy, and brave—dwelling in a mountainous region, clothed in skins, ignorant of wine, or fruit, or any of the commonest luxuries of life, and despising the very idea of purchase or sale. Their tribes were very unequal in point of dignity, probably also in respect to numbers and powers, among one another. First in estimation among them stood the Pasargadæ; and the first phratry or clan among the Pasargadæ were the Achæmenidæ, to whom Cyrus himself belonged. Whether his relationship to the Median king whom he dethroned was a matter of fact, or a politic fiction, we cannot well determine. But Xenophon, in noticing the spacious deserted cities, Larissa and Mespila, which he saw in his march with the ten thousand Greeks on the eastern side of the Tigris, gives us to understand that the conquest of Media by the Persians was reported to him as having been an obstinate and protracted struggle. However this may be, the preponderance of the Persians was at last complete: though the Medes always continued to be the second nation in the empire, after the Persians, properly so called; and by early Greek writers the great enemy in the East is often called “the Mede” as well as “the Persian.” The Median Ekbatana too remained as one of the capital cities, and the usual summer residence, of the kings of Persia; Susa on the Choaspes, on the Kissian plain farther southward, and east of the Tigris, being their winter abode.
The vast space of country comprised between the Indus on the east, the Oxus and Caspian Sea to the north, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the south, and the line of Mount Zagros to the west, appears to have been occupied in these times by a great variety of different tribes and people, yet all or most of them belonging to the religion of Zoroaster, and speaking dialects of the Zend language. It was known amongst its inhabitants by the common name of Iran or Aria: it is, in its central parts at least, a high, cold plateau, totally destitute of wood, and scantily supplied with water; much of it indeed is a salt and sandy desert, unsusceptible of culture. Parts of it are eminently fertile, where water can be procured and irrigation applied. Scattered masses of tolerably dense population thus grew up; but continuity of cultivation is not practicable, and in ancient times, as at present, a large proportion of the population of Iran seems to have consisted of wandering or nomadic tribes with their tents and cattle. The rich pastures, and the freshness of the summer climate, in the region of mountain and valley near Ekbatana, are extolled by modern travellers, just as they attracted the Great King in ancient times during the hot months. The more southerly province called Persis proper (Faristan) consists also in part of mountain land interspersed with valley and plain, abundantly watered, and ample in pasture, sloping gradually down to low grounds on the sea-coast which are hot and dry: the care bestowed both by Medes and Persians on the breeding of their horses was remarkable. There were doubtless material differences between different parts of the population of this vast plateau of Iran. Yet it seems that, along with their common language and religion, they had also something of a common character, which contrasted with the Indian population east of the Indus, the Assyrians west of Mount Zagros, and the Massagetæ and other Nomads of the Caspian and the Sea of Aral—less brutish, restless and blood-thirsty than the latter—more fierce, contemptuous and extortionate, and less capable of sustained industry, than the two former. There can be little doubt, at the time of which we are now speaking, when the wealth and cultivation of Assyria were at their maximum, that Iran also was far better peopled than ever it has been since European observers have been able to survey it—especially the north-eastern portion, Bactria and Sogdiana—so that the invasions of the Nomads from Turkestan and Tartary, which have been so destructive at various intervals since the Mohammedan conquest, were before that period successfully kept back.
The general analogy among the population of Iran probably enabled the Persian conqueror with comparative ease to extend his empire to the east, after the conquest of Ekbatana, and to become the full heir of the Median kings. If we may believe Ctesias, even the distant province of Bactria had been before subject to those kings. At first it resisted Cyrus, but finding that he had become son-in-law of Astyages, as well as master of his person, it speedily acknowledged his authority.
According to the representation of Herodotus, the war between Cyrus and Croesus of Lydia began shortly after the capture of Astyages, and before the conquest of Bactria. Croesus was the assailant, wishing to avenge his brother-in-law, to arrest the growth of the Persian conqueror, and to increase his own dominions. His more prudent counsellors in vain represented to him that he had little to gain, and much to lose, by war with a nation alike hardy and poor. He is represented as just at that time recovering from the affliction arising out of the death of his son.
To ask advice of the oracle, before he took any final decision, was a step which no pious king would omit. But in the present perilous question, Croesus did more—he took a precaution so extreme, that if his piety had not been placed beyond all doubt by his extraordinary munificence to the temples, he might have drawn upon himself the suspicion of a guilty scepticism. Before he would send to ask advice respecting the project itself, he resolved to test the credit of some of the chief surrounding oracles—Delphi, Dodona, Branchidæ near Miletus, Amphiaraus at Thebes, Trophonius at Labadeia, and Ammon in Libya. His envoys started from Sardis on the same day, and were all directed on the hundredth day afterward to ask at the respective oracles how Croesus was at that precise moment employed. This was a severe trial: of the manner in which it was met by four out of the six oracles consulted we have no information, and it rather appears that their answers were unsatisfactory. But Amphiaraus maintained his credit undiminished, while Apollo at Delphi, more omniscient than Apollo at Branchidæ, solved the question with such unerring precision, as to afford a strong additional argument against persons who might be disposed to scoff at divination. No sooner had the envoys put the question to the Delphian priestess, on the day named, “What is Croesus now doing?” than she exclaimed in the accustomed hexameter verse, “I know the number of grains of sand, and the measures of the sea: I understand the dumb, and I hear the man who speaks not. The smell reaches me of a hard-skinned tortoise boiled in a copper with lamb’s flesh—copper above and copper below.” Croesus was awe-struck on receiving this reply. It described with the utmost detail that which he had been really doing, so that he accounted the Delphian oracle and that of Amphiaraus the only trustworthy oracles on earth—following up these feelings with a holocaust of the most munificent character, in order to win the favor of the Delphian god. Three thousand cattle were offered up, and upon a vast sacrificial pile were placed the most splendid purple robes and tunics, together with couches and censers of gold and silver; besides which he sent to Delphi itself the richest presents in gold and silver—statues, bowls, jugs, etc., the size and weight of which we read with astonishment; the more so as Herodotus himself saw them a century afterwards at Delphi. Nor was Croesus altogether unmindful of Amphiaraus, whose answer had been creditable, though less triumphant than that of the Pythian priestess. He sent to Amphiaraus a spear and shield of pure gold, which were afterward seen at Thebes by Herodotus: this large donative may help the reader to conceive the immensity of those which he sent to Delphi.
The envoys who conveyed these gifts were instructed to ask at the same time, whether Croesus should undertake an expedition against the Persians—and if so, whether he should solicit any allies to assist him. In regard to the second question, the answer both of Apollo and of Amphiaraus was deci sive, recommending him to invite the alliance of the most powerful Greeks. In regard to the first and most momentous question, their answer was as remarkable for circumspection as it had been before for detective sagacity: they told Croesus that if he invaded the Persians, he would subvert a mighty monarchy. The blindness of Croesus interpreted this declaration into an unqualified promise of success: he sent further presents to the oracle, and again inquired whether his kingdom would be durable. “When a mule shall become king of the Medes (replied the priestess) then must thou run away—be not ashamed.”
More assured than ever by such an answer, Croesus sent to Sparta, under the kings Anaxandrides and Aristo, to tender presents and solicit their alliance. His propositions were favorably entertained—the more so, as he had before gratuitously furnished some gold to the Lacedæmonians for a statue to Apollo. The alliance now formed was altogether general—no express effort being as yet demanded from them, though it soon came to be. But the incident is to be noted, as marking the first plunge of the leading Grecian state into Asiatic politics; and that too without any of the generous Hellenic sympathy which afterward induced Athens to send her citizens across the Ægean. At this time Croesus was the master and tribute-exactor of the Asiatic Greeks, whose contingents seem to have formed part of his army for the expedition now contemplated; an army consisting principally, not of native Lydians, but of foreigners.
The river Halys formed the boundary at this time between the Median and Lydian empires: and Croesus, marching across that river into the territory of the Syrians or Assyrians of Cappadocia, took the city of Pteria, with many of its surrounding dependencies, inflicting damage and destruction upon these distant subjects of Ekbatana. Cyrus lost no time in bringing an army to their defence considerably larger than that of Croesus; trying at the same time, though unsuccessfully, to prevail on the Ionians to revolt from him. A bloody battle took place between the two armies, but with indecisive result: after which Croesus, seeing that he could not hope to accomplish more with his forces as they stood, thought it wise to return to his capital, and collect a larger army for the next campaign. Immediately on reaching Sardis he despatched envoys to Labynetus king of Babylon; to Amasis, king of Egypt; to the Lacedæmonians, and to other allies; calling upon all of them to send auxiliaries to Sardis during the course of the fifth month. In the mean time he dismissed all the foreign troops who had followed him into Cappadocia.
Had these allies appeared, the war might perhaps have been prosecuted with success. And on the part of the Lacedæmonians, at least, there was no tardiness; for their ships were ready and their troops almost on board, when the unexpected news reached them that Croesus was already ruined. Cyrus had forseen and forestalled the defensive plan of his enemy. Pushing on with his army to Sardis without delay, he obliged the Lydian prince to give battle with his own unassisted subjects. The open and spacious plain before that town was highly favorable to Lydian cavalry, which at that time (Herodotus tells us) was superior to the Persian. But Cyrus, employing a strategem whereby this cavalry was rendered unavailable, placed in front of his line the baggage camels, which the Lydian horses could not endure either to smell or to behold. The horsemen of Croesus were thus obliged to dismount; nevertheless they fought bravely on foot, and were not driven into the town till after a sanguinary combat.
Though confined within the walls of his capital, Croesus had still good reason for hoping to hold out until the arrival of his allies, to whom he sent pressing envoys of acceleration. For Sardis was considered impregnable—and one assault had already been repulsed, and the Persians would have been reduced to the slow process of blockade. But on the fourteenth day of the siege, accident did for the besiegers that which they could not have accomplished either by skill or force. Sardis was situated on an outlying peak of the northern side of Tmolus; it was well fortified everywhere except toward the mountain; and on that side the rock was so precipitous and inaccessible, that fortifications were thought unnecessary, nor did the inhabitants believe assault to be possible in that quarter. But Hyroeades, a Persian soldier, having accidentally seen one of the garrison descending this precipi tous rock to pick up his helmet which had rolled down, watched his opportunity, tried to climb up, and found it not impracticable; others followed his example, the stronghold was thus seized first, and the whole city speedily taken by storm.
Cyrus had given especial orders to spare the life of Croesus, who was accordingly made prisoner. But preparations were made for a solemn and terrible spectacle; the captive king was destined to be burned in chains, together with fourteen Lydian youths, on a vast pile of wood. We are even told that the pile was already kindled and the victim beyond the reach of human aid, when Apollo sent a miraculous rain to preserve him. As to the general fact of supernatural interposition, in one way or another, Herodotus and Ctesias both agree, though they described differently the particular miracles wrought. It is certain that Croesus, after some time, was released and well treated by his conqueror, and lived to become the confidential adviser of the latter as well as of his son Cambyses: Ctesias also acquaints us that a considerable town and territory near Ekbatana, called Barene, was assigned to him, according to a practice which we shall find not infrequent with the Persian kings.
The prudent counsel and remarks as to the relations between Persians and Lydians, whereby Croesus is said by Herodotus to have first earned this favorable treatment, are hardly worth repeating; but the indignant remonstrance sent by Croesus to the Delphian god is too characteristic to be passed over. He obtained permission from Cyrus to lay upon the holy pavement of the Delphian temple the chains with which he had at first been bound. The Lydian envoys were instructed, after exhibiting to the god these humiliating memorials, to ask whether it was his custom to deceive his benefactors, and whether he was not ashamed to have encouraged the king of Lydia in an enterprise so disastrous? The god, condescending to justify himself by the lips of the priestess, replied: “Not even a god can escape his destiny. Croesus has suffered for the sin of his fifth ancestor (Gyges), who, conspiring with a woman, slew his master and wrongfully seized the sceptre. Apollo employed all his influence with the Moeræ (Fates) to obtain that this sin might be expiated by the children of Croesus, and not by Croesus himself; but the Moeræ would grant nothing more than a postponement of the judgment for three years. Let Croesus know that Apollo has thus procured for him a reign three years longer than his original destiny, after having tried in vain to rescue him altogether. Moreover he sent that rain which at the critical moment extinguished the burning pile. Nor has Croesus any right to complain of the prophecy by which he was encouraged to enter on the war; for when the god told him that he would subvert a great empire, it was his duty to have again inquired which empire the god meant; and if he neither understood the meaning, nor chose to ask for information, he has himself to blame for the result. Besides, Croesus neglected the warning given to him about the acquisition of the Median kingdom by a mule: Cyrus was that mule—son of a Median mother of royal breed, by a Persian father at once of different race and of lower position.”
This triumphant justification extorted even from Croesus himself a full confession that the sin lay with him, and not with the god. It certainly illustrates in a remarkable manner the theological ideas of the time. It shows us how much, in the mind of Herodotus, the facts of the centuries preceding his own, unrecorded as they were by any contemporary authority, tended to cast themselves into a sort of religious drama; the threads of the historical web being in part put together, in part originally spun, for the purpose of setting forth the religious sentiment and doctrine woven in as a pattern. The Pythian priestess predicts to Gyges that the crime which he had committed in assassinating his master would be expiated by his fifth descendant, though, as Herodotus tells us, no one took any notice of this prophecy until it was at last fulfilled: we see thus the history of the first Mermnad king is made up after the catastrophe of the last. There was something in the main facts of the history of Croesus profoundly striking to the Greek mind, a king at the summit of wealth and power—pious in the extreme and munificent toward the gods—the first destroyer of Hellenic liberty in Asia—then precipitated, at once and on a sudden, into the abyss of ruin. The sin of the first parent helped much toward the solution of this perplexing problem, as well as to exalt the credit of the oracle, when made to assume the shape of an unnoticed prophecy. In the affecting story of Solon and Croesus, the Lydian king is punished with an acute domestic affliction because he thought himself the happiest of mankind—the gods not suffering any one to be arrogant except themselves; and the warning of Solon is made to recur to Croesus after he has become the prisoner of Cyrus, in the narrative of Herodotus. To the same vein of thought belongs the story, just recounted, of the relations of Croesus with the Delphian oracle. An account is provided, satisfactory to the religious feelings of the Greeks, how and why he was ruined—but nothing less than the overruling and omnipotent Moeræ could be invoked to explain so stupendous a result. It is rarely that these supreme goddesses—or hyper-goddesses, since the gods themselves must submit to them—are brought into such distinct light and action. Usually they are kept in the dark, or are left to be understood as the unseen stumbling block in cases of extreme incomprehensibility; and it is difficult clearly to determine (as in the case of some complicated political constitutions) where the Greeks conceived sovereign power to reside, in respect to the government of the world. But here the sovereignity of the Moeræ, and the subordinate agency of the gods, are unequivocally set forth. The gods are still extremely powerful, because the Moeræ comply with their requests up to a certain point, not thinking it proper to be wholly inexorable; but their compliance is carried no farther than they themselves choose; nor would they, even in deference to Apollo, alter the original sentence of punishment for the sin of Gyges in the person of his fifth descendant—sentence, moreover, which Apollo himself had formerly prophesied shortly after the sin was committed, so that, if the Moeræ had listened to his intercession on behalf of Croesus, his own prophetic credit would have been endangered. Their unalterable resolution has predetermined the ruin of Croesus, and the grandeur of the event is manifested by the circumstance that even Apollo himself cannot prevail upon them to alter it, or to grant more than a three years’ respite. The religious element must here be viewed as giving the form, the historical element as giving the matter only, and not the whole matter, of the story. These two elements will be found conjoined more or less throughout most of the history of Herodotus, though as we descend to later times, we shall find the latter element in constantly increasing proportion. His conception of history is extremely different from that of Thucydides, who lays down to himself the true scheme and purpose of the historian, common to him with the philosopher—to recount and interpret the past, as a rational aid toward pre-vision of the future.
In the short abstract which we now possess of the lost work of Ctesias, no mention appears of the important conquest of Babylon. His narrative, indeed, as far as the abstract enables us to follow it, diverges materially from that of Herodotus, and must have been founded on data altogether different.
“I shall mention (says Herodotus) these conquests which gave Cyrus most trouble, and are most memorable: after he had subdued all the rest of the continent, he attacked the Assyrians.” Those who recollect the description of Babylon and its surrounding territory, will not be surprised to learn that the capture of it gave the Persian aggressor much trouble. Their only surprise will be, how it could ever have been taken at all—or indeed how a hostile army could have even reached it. Herodotus informs us that the Babylonian queen Nitocris (mother of that very Labynetus who was king when Cyrus attacked the place) apprehensive of invasion from the Medes after their capture of Nineveh, had executed many laborious works near the Euphrates for the purpose of obstructing their approach. Moreover there existed what was called the wall of Media (probably built by her, but certainly built prior to the Persian conquest), one hundred feet high and twenty feet thick, across the entire space of seventy-five miles which joined the Tigris with one of the canals of the Euphrates: while the canals themselves, as we may see by the march of the ten thousand Greeks after the battle of Cunaxa, presented means of defence altogether insuperable by a rude army such as that of the Persians. On the east, the territory of Babylonia was defended by the Tigris, which cannot be forded lower than the ancient Nineveh or the modern Mosul. In addition to these ramparts, natural as well as artificial, to protect the territory—populous, cultivated, productive, and offering every motive to its inhabitants to resist even the entrance of an enemy—we are told that the Babylonians were so thoroughly prepared for the inroad of Cyrus that they had accumulated within their walls a store of provisions for many years. Strange as it may seem, we must suppose that the king of Babylon, after all the cost and labor spent in providing defences for the territory, voluntarily neglected to avail himself of them, suffered the invader to tread down the fertile Babylonia without resistance, and merely drew out the citizens to oppose him when he arrived under the walls of the city—if the statement of Herodotus is correct. And we may illustrate this unaccountable omission by that which we know to have happened in the march of the younger Cyrus to Cunuxa against his brother Artaxerxes Mnemon. The latter had caused to be dug, expressly in preparation for this invasion, a broad and deep ditch (thirty feet wide and eight feet deep) from the wall of Media to the river Euphrates, a distance of twelve parasangs or forty-five English miles, leaving only a passage of twenty feet broad close alongside of the river. Yet when the invading army arrived at this important pass, they found not a man there to defend it, and all of them marched without resistance through the narrow inlet. Cyrus the younger, who had up to that moment felt assured that his brother would fight, now supposed that he had given up the idea of defending Babylon: instead of which, two days afterward, Artaxerxes attacked him on an open plain of ground where there was no advantage of position on either side; though the invaders were taken rather unawares in consequence of their extreme confidence arising from recent unopposed entrance within the artificial ditch. This anecdote is the more valuable as an illustration, because all its circumstances are transmitted to us by a discerning eye-witness. And both the two incidents here brought into comparison demonstrate the recklessness, changefulness, and incapacity of calculation belonging to the Asiatic mind of that day—as well as the great command of hands possessed by these kings, and their prodigal waste of human labor. Vast walls and deep ditches are an inestimable aid to a brave and well-commanded garrison; but they cannot be made entirely to supply the want of bravery and intelligence.
In whatever manner the difficulties of approaching Babylon may have been overcome, the fact that they were overcome by Cyrus is certain. On first setting out for this conquest, he was about to cross the river Gyndes (one of the affluents from the east which joins the Tigris near the modern Bagdad, and along which lay the high road crossing the pass of Mount Zagros from Babylon to Ekbatana) when one of the sacred white horses, which accompanied him, entered the river in pure wantonness and tried to cross it by himself. The Gyndes resented this insult and the horse was drowned: upon which Cyrus swore in his wrath that he would so break the strength of the river as that women in future should pass it without wetting their knees. Accordingly he employed his entire army, during the whole summer season, in digging three hundred and sixty artificial channels to disseminate the unit of the stream. Such, according to Herodotus, was the incident which postponed for one year the fall of the great Babylon. But in the next spring Cyrus and his army were before the walls, after having defeated and driven in the population who came out to fight. These walls were artificial mountains (three hundred feet high, seventy-five feet thick, and forming a square of fifteen miles to each side), within which the besieged defied attack, and even blockade, having previously stored up several years’ provision. Through the midst of the town, however, flowed the Euphrates. That river which had been so laboriously trained to serve for protection, trade and sustenance to the Babylonians, was now made the avenue of their ruin. Having left a detachment of his army at the two points where the Euphrates enters and quits the city, Cyrus retired with the remainder to the higher part of its course, where an ancient Babylonian queen had prepared one of the great lateral reservoirs for carrying off in case of need the superfluity of its water. Near this point Cyrus caused another reservoir and another canal of communication to be dug, by means of which he drew off the water of the Euphrates to such a degree it became not above the height of a man’s thigh. The period chosen was that of a great Babylonian festival, when the whole population were engaged in amusement and revelry. The Persian troops left near the town, watching their opportunity, entered from both sides along the bed of the river, and took it by surprise with scarcely any resistance. At no other time, except during a festival, could they have done this (says Herodotus) had the river been ever so low, for both banks throughout the whole length of the town were provided with quays, with continuous walls, and with gates at the end of every street which led down to the river at right angles so that if the population had not been disqualified by the influences of the moment, they would have caught the assailants in the bed of the river “as in a trap,” and overwhelmed them from the walls alongside. Within a square of fifteen miles to each side, we are not surprised to hear that both the extremities were already in the power of the besiegers before the central population heard of it, and while they were yet absorbed in unconscious festivity.
Such is the account given by Herodotus of the circumstances which placed Babylon—the greatest city of Western Asia—in the power of the Persians. To what extent the information communicated to him was incorrect or exaggerated, we cannot now decide. The way in which the city was treated would lead us to suppose that its acquisition cannot have cost the conqueror either much time or much loss. Cyrus comes into the list as king of Babylon, and the inhabitants with their whole territory become tributary to the Persians, forming the richest satrapy in the empire; but we do not hear that the people were otherwise ill-used, and it is certain that the vast walls and gates were left untouched. This was very different from the way in which the Medes had treated Nineveh, which seems to have been ruined and for a long time absolutely uninhabited, though reoccupied on a reduced scale under the Parthian empire; and very different also from the way in which Babylon itself was treated twenty years afterward by Darius, when reconquered after a revolt.
The importance of Babylon, marking as it does one of the peculiar forms of civilization belonging to the ancient world in a state of full development, gives an interest even to the half-authenticated stories respecting its capture. The other exploits ascribed to Cyrus—his invasion of India, across the desert of Arachosia—and his attack upon the Massagetæ, Nomads ruled by Queen Tomyris and greatly resembling the Scythians, across the mysterious river which Herodotus calls Araxes—are too little known to be at all dwelt upon. In the latter he is said to have perished, his army being defeated in a bloody battle. He was buried at Pasargadæ, in his native province of Persis proper, where his tomb was honored and watched until the breaking up of the empire, while his memory was held in profound veneration among the Persians. Of his real exploits we know little or nothing, but in what we read respecting him there seems, though amid constant fighting, very little cruelty. Xenophon has selected his life as the subject of a moral romance which for a long time was cited as authentic history, and which even now serves as an authority, express or implied, for disputable and even incorrect conclusions. His extraordinary activity and conquests admit of no doubt. He left the Persian empire extending from Sogdiana and the rivers Jaxartes and Indus eastward, to the Hellespont and the Syrian coast westward, and his successors made no permanent addition to it except that of Egypt. Phenicia and Judæa were dependencies of Babylon, at the time when he conquered it, with their princes and grandees in Babylonian captivity. As they seem to have yielded to him, and became his tributaries without difficulty; so the restoration of their captives was conceded to them. It was from Cyrus that the habits of the Persian kings took commencement, to dwell at Susa in the winter, and Ekbatana during the summer; the primitive territory of Persis, with its two towns of Persepolis and Pasargadæ, being reserved for the burial-place of the kings and the religious sanctuary of the empire. How or when the conquest of Susiana was made, we are not informed. It lay eastward of the Tigris, between Babylonia and Persis proper, and its people, the Kissians, as far as we can discern, were of Assyrian and not of Aryan race. The river Choaspes near Susa was supposed to furnish the only water fit for the palate of the great king, and it is said to have been carried about with him wherever he went.
While the conquests of Cyrus contributed to assimilate the distinct types of civilization in Western Asia—not by elevating the worse, but by degrading the better—upon the native Persians themselves they operated as an extraordinary stimulus, provoking alike their pride, ambition, cupidity, and warlike propensities. Not only did the territory of Persis proper pay no tribute to Susa or Ekbatana—being the only district so exempted between the Jaxartes and the Mediterranean—but the vast tributes received from the remaining empire were distributed to a great degree among its inhabitants. Empire to them meant—for the great men, lucrative satrapies or pachalics, with powers altogether unlimited, pomp inferior only to that of the great king, and standing armies which they employed at their own discretion sometimes against each other—for the common soldiers, drawn from their fields or flocks, constant plunder, abundant maintenance, and an unrestrained license, either in the suite of one of the satraps, or in the large permanent troops which moved from Susa to Ekbatana with the Great King. And if the entire population of Persis proper did not migrate from their abodes to occupy some of those more inviting spots which the immensity of the imperial dominion furnished—a dominion extending (to use the language of Cyrus the younger before the battle of Cunaxa) from the region of insupportable heat to that of insupportable cold—this was only because the early kings discouraged such a movement, in order that the nation might maintain its military hardihood and be in a situation to furnish undiminished supplies of soldiers. The self-esteem and arrogance of the Persians were no less remarkable than their avidity for sensual enjoyment. They were fond of wine to excess; their wives and their concubines were both numerous; and they adopted eagerly from foreign nations new fashions of luxury as well as of ornament. Even to novelties in religion, they were not strongly averse. For though disciples of Zoroaster, with Magi as their priests and as indispensable companions of their sacrifices, worshipping sun, moon, earth, fire, etc., and recognizing neither image, temple, nor altar—yet they had adopted the voluptuous worship of the goddess Mylitta from the Assyrians and Arabians. A numerous male offspring was the Persian’s boast. His warlike character and consciousness of force were displayed in the education of these youths, who were taught, from five years old to twenty, only three things—to ride, to shoot with the bow, and to speak the truth. To owe money, or even to buy and sell, was accounted among the Persians disgraceful—a sentiment which they defended by saying that both the one and the other imposed the necessity of telling falsehood. To exact tribute from subjects, to receive pay or presents from the king, and to give away without forethought whatever was not immediately wanted, was their mode of dealing with money. Industrial pursuits were left to the conquered, who were fortunate if by paying a fixed contribution and sending a military contingent when required, they could purchase undisturbed immunity for their remaining concerns. They could not thus purchase safety for the family hearth, since we find instances of noble Grecian maidens torn from their parents for the harem of the satrap.
To a people of this character, whose conceptions of political society went no farther than personal obedience to a chief, a conqueror like Cyrus would communicate the strongest excitement and enthusiasm of which they were capable. He had found them slaves, and made them masters: he was the first and greatest of national benefactors, as well as the most forward of leaders in the field: they followed him from one conquest to another, during the thirty years of his reign, their love of empire growing with the empire itself. And this impulse of aggrandizement continued unabated during the reigns of his three next successors—Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes—until it was at length violently stifled by the humiliating defeats of Platæa and Salamis; after which the Persians became content with defending themselves at home and playing a secondary game.