Conquests Of Cyrus The Great


Conquests Of Cyrus The Great

Author: Grote, George

Conquests Of Cyrus The Great

B.C. 538


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 Heraclidae,

which reigned for 505 years, numbering twenty-two kings - B.C. 229 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 Croesus, the fifth and last historic king, B.C.

568. The well-known story of Solon's warning to 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 archaeological 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 Aegean, the Empire of Babylon fell before the conquering

armies of Cyrus, the Persian.

Conquests Of Cyrus The Great

The Ionic and Aeolic 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 Chaldaeans, 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 Judaea 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 has 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 Cyropaedia 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 Pasargadae; and the first phratry or clan

among the Pasargadae were the Achaemenidae, 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 Massagetae 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,

Branchidae 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 Branchidae, 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 - ingots,

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 decisive,

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 Lacedaemonians 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 Aegean. 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


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 Lacedaemonians, 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 Lacedaemonians, 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

foreseen 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

precipitous 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 Moerae (Fates) to obtain that this

sin might be expiated by the children of Croesus, and not by Croesus himself;

but the Moerae would grant nothing more than a postponement of the judgement

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

prohecy 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 Moerae could be

invoked to explain so stupendous a result. It is rarely that these supreme

goddesses - or hypergoddesses, 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 sovereignty of the Moerae, and the subordinate agency of

the gods, are unequivocally set forth. The gods are still extremely powerful,

because the Moerae 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 - a sentence, moreover, which Apollo himself

had formerly prophesied shortly after the sin was committed, so that, if the

Moerae 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 prevision 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


"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 vary 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 Massagetae, 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 Pasargadae, 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 Judaea 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 Pasargadae, 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 not 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 Plataea and

Salamis; after which the Persians became content with defending themselves at

home and playing a secondary game.

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