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Darius the Great by  Jacob Abbott




[167] IN the reigns of ancient monarchs and conquerors, it often happened that the first great transaction which called forth their energies was the suppression of a rebellion within their dominions, and the second, an expedition against some ferocious and half-savage nations beyond their frontiers. Darius followed this general example. The suppression of the Babylonian revolt established his authority throughout the whole interior of his empire. If that vast, and populous, and wealthy city was found unable to resist his power, no other smaller province or capital could hope to succeed in the attempt. The whole empire of Asia, therefore, from the capital at Susa, out to the extreme limits and bounds to which Cyrus had extended it, yielded without any further opposition to his sway. He felt strong in his position, and being young and ardent in temperament, he experienced a desire to exercise his strength. For some reason or other, he seems to have [168] been not quite prepared yet to grapple with the Greeks, and he concluded, accordingly, first to test his powers in respect to foreign invasion by a war upon the Scythians. This was an undertaking which required some courage and resolution; for it was while making an incursion into the country of the Scythians that Cyrus, his renowned predecessor, and the founder of the Persian empire, had fallen.

The term Scythians seems to have been a generic designation, applied indiscriminately to vast hordes of half-savage tribes occupying those wild and inhospitable regions of the north, that extended along the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas, and the banks of the Danube. The accounts which are given by the ancient historians of the manners and customs of these people, are very inconsistent and contradictory; as, in fact, the accounts of the characters of savages, and of the habits and usages of savage life, have always been in every age. It is very little that any one cultivated observer can really know, in respect to the phases of character, the thoughts and feelings, the sentiments, the principles and the faith, and even the modes of life, that prevail among uncivilized aborigines living in forests, or roaming wildly over unin- [169] closed and trackless plains. Of those who have the opportunity to observe them, accordingly, some extol, in the highest degree, their rude but charming simplicity, their truth and faithfulness, the strength of their filial and conjugal affection, and their superiority of spirit in rising above the sordid sentiments and gross vices of civilization. They are not the slaves, these writers say, of appetite and passion. They have no inordinate love of gain; they are patient in enduring suffering, grateful for kindness received, and inflexibly firm in their adherence to the principles of honor and duty. Others, on the other hand, see in savage life nothing but treachery, cruelty, brutality, and crime. Man in his native state, as they imagine, is but a beast, with just intelligence enough to give effect to his depravity. Without natural affection, without truth, without a sense of justice, or the means of making law a substitute for it, he lives in a scene of continual conflict, in which the rights of the weak and the defenseless are always overborne by brutal and tyrannical power.

The explanation of this diversity is doubtless this, that in savage life, as well as in every other state of human society, all the varieties [170] of human conduct and character are exhibited; and the attention of each observer is attracted to the one or to the other class of phenomena, according to the circumstances in which he is placed when he makes his observations, or the mood of mind which prevails within him when he records them. There must be the usual virtues of social life, existing in a greater or less degree, in all human communities; for such principles as a knowledge of the distinction of right and wrong, the idea of property and of individual rights, the obligation resting on every one to respect them, the sense of justice, and of the ill desert of violence and cruelty, are all universal instincts of the human soul, as universal and as essential to humanity as maternal or filial affection, or the principle of conjugal love. They were established by the great Author of nature as constituent elements in the formation of man. Man could not continue to exist, as a gregarious animal, without them. It would accordingly be as impossible to find a community of men without these moral sentiments generally prevalent among them, as to find vultures or tigers that did not like to pursue and take their prey, or deer without a propensity to fly from danger. The laws and [171] usages of civilized society are the expression and the result of these sentiments, not the origin and foundation of them; and violence, cruelty, and crime are the exceptions to their operation, very few, in all communities, savage or civilized, in comparison with the vast preponderance of cases in which they are obeyed.

This view of the native constitution of the human character, which it is obvious, on very slight reflection, must be true, is not at all opposed, as it might at first appear to be, by the doctrine of the theological writers in the Christian Church in respect to the native depravity of man; for the depravity here referred to is a religious depravity, an alienation of the heart from God, and a rebellious and insubmissive spirit in respect to his law. Neither the Scriptures nor the theological writers who interpret them ever call in question the universal existence and prevalence of those instincts that are essential to the social welfare of man.

But we must return to the Scythians.

The tribes which Darius proposed to attack occupied the countries north of the Danube. His route, therefore, for the invasion of their territories would lead him through Asia Minor, thence across the Hellespont or the Bosporus [172] into Thrace, and from Thrace across the Danube. It was a distant and dangerous expedition.

Darius had a brother named Artabanus. Artabanus was of opinion that the enterprise which the king was contemplating was not only distant and dangerous, but that the country of the Scythians was of so little value that the end to be obtained by success would be wholly inadequate to compensate for the exertions, the costs, and the hazards which he must necessarily incur in the prosecution of it. But Darius was not to be dissuaded. He thanked his brother for his advice, but ordered the preparations for the expedition to go on.

He sent emissaries forward, in advance, over the route that his army was destined to take, transmitting orders to the several provinces which were situated on the line of his march to prepare the way for the passage of his troops. Among other preparations, they were to construct a bridge of boats across the Bosporus at Chalcedon. This work was intrusted to the charge and superintendence of an engineer of Samos named Mandrocles. The people of the provinces were also to furnish bodies of troops, both infantry and cavalry, to join the army on its march.

[173] The soldiers that were enlisted to go on this remote and dangerous expedition joined the army, as is usual in such cases, some willingly, from love of adventure, or the hope of opportunities for plunder, and for that unbridled indulgence of appetite and passion which soldiers so often look forward to as a part of their reward; others from hard compulsion, being required to leave friends and home, and all that they held dear, under the terror of a stern and despotic edict which they dared not disobey. It was even dangerous to ask for exemption.

As an instance of this, it is said that there was a Persian named Œbazus, who had three sons that had been drafted into the army. Œbazus, desirous of not being left wholly alone in his old age, made a request to the king that he would allow one of the sons to remain at home with his father. Darius appeared to receive this petition favorably. He told Œbazus that the request was so very modest and considerate that he would grant more than he asked. He would allow all three of his sons to remain with him. Œbazus retired from the king's presence overjoyed at the thought that his family was not to be separated at all. Darius ordered his guards to kill the three young [174] men, and to send the dead bodies home, with a message to their father that his sons were restored to him, released forever from all obligation to serve the king.

The place of general rendezvousfor the various forces which were to join in the expedition, consisting of the army which marched with Darius from Susa, and also of the troops and ships which the maritime provinces of Asia Minor were to supply on the way, was on the shores of the Bosporus, at the point where Mandrocles had constructed the bridge. The people of Ionia, a region situated in Asia Minor, on the shores of the Ęgean Sea, had been ordered to furnish a fleet of galleys, which they were to build and equip, and then send to the bridge. The destination of this fleet was to the Danube. It was to pass up the Bosporus into the Euxine Sea, now called the Black Sea, and thence into the mouth of the river. After ascending the Danube to a certain point, the men were to land and build a bridge across that river, using, very probably, their galleys for this purpose. In the mean time, the army was to cross the Bosporus by the bridge which [175] had been erected there by Mandrocles, and pursue their way toward the Danube by land, through the kingdom of Thrace. By this arrangement, it was supposed that the bridge across the Danube would be ready by the time that the main body of the army arrived on the banks of the river. The idea of thus building in Asia Minor a bridge for the Danube, in the form of a vast fleet of galleys, to be sent round through the Black Sea to the mouths of the river, and thence up the river to its place of destination, was original and grand. It strikingly marks the military genius and skill which gave the Greeks so extended a fame, for it was by the Greeks that the exploit was to be performed.

Darius marched magnificently through Asia Minor, on his way to the Bosporus, at the head of an army of seventy thousand men. He moved slowly, and the engineers and architects that accompanied him built columns and monuments here and there, as he advanced, to commemorate his progress. These structures were covered with inscriptions, which ascribed to Darius, as the leader of the enterprise, the most extravagant praise. At length the splendid array arrived at the place of rendezvous on the [176] Bosporus, where there was soon presented to view a very grand and imposing scene.

The bridge of boats was completed, and the Ionian fleet, consisting of six hundred galleys, was at anchor near it in the stream. Long lines of tents were pitched upon the shore, and thousands of horsemen and of foot soldiers were drawn up in array, their banners flying, and their armor glittering in the sun, and all eager to see and to welcome the illustrious sovereign who had come, with so much pomp and splendor, to take them under his command. The banks of the Bosporus were picturesque and high, and all the eminences were crowded with spectators, to witness the imposing magnificence of the spectacle.

Darius encamped his army on the shore, and began to make the preparations necessary for the final departure of the expedition. He had been thus far within his own dominions. He was now, however, to pass into another quarter of the globe, to plunge into new and unknown dangers, among hostile, savage, and ferocious tribes. It was right that he should pause until he had considered well his plans, and secured attention to every point which could influence success.

[177] He first examined the bridge of boats. He was very much pleased with the construction of it. He commended Mandrocles for his skill and fidelity in the highest terms, and loaded him with rewards and honors. Mandrocles used the money which Darius thus gave him in employing an artist to form a piece of statuary which should at once commemorate the building of the bridge and give to Darius the glory of it. The group represented the Bosporus with the bridge thrown over it, and the king on his throne reviewing his troops as they passed over the structure. This statuary was placed, when finished, in a temple in Greece, where it was universally admired. Darius was very much pleased both with the idea of this sculpture on the part of Mandrocles, and with the execution of it by the artist. He gave the bridge builder new rewards; he recompensed the artist, also, with similar munificence. He was pleased that they had contrived so happy a way of at the same time commemorating the bridging of the Bosporus and rendering exalted honor to him.

The bridge was situated about the middle of the Bosporus; and as the strait itself is about eighteen miles long, it was nine miles from the bridge to the Euxine Sea. There is a small [178] group of islands near the mouth of this strait, where it opens into the sea, which were called in those days the Cyanean Islands. They were famed in the time of Darius for having once been floating islands, and enchanted. Their supernatural properties had disappeared, but there was one attraction which still pertained to them. They were situated beyond the limits of the strait, and the visitor who landed upon them could take his station on some picturesque cliff or smiling hill, and extend his view far and wide over the blue waters of the Euxine Sea.

Darius determined to make an excursion to these islands while the fleet and the army were completing their preparations at the bridge. He embarked, accordingly, on board a splendid galley, and, sailing along the Bosporus till he reached the sea, he landed on one of the islands. There was a temple there, consecrated to one of the Grecian deities. Darius, accompanied by his attendants and followers, ascended to this temple, and, taking a seat which had been provided for him there, he surveyed the broad expanse of water which extended like an ocean before him, and contemplated the grandeur of the scene with the greatest admiration and delight.

[179] At length he returned to the bridge, where he found the preparations for the movement of the fleet and of the army nearly completed. He determined, before leaving the Asiatic shores, to erect a monument to commemorate his expedition, on the spot from which he was to take his final departure. He accordingly directed two columns of white marble to be reared, and inscriptions to be cut upon them, giving such particulars in respect to the expedition as it was desirable thus to preserve. These inscriptions contained his own name in very conspicuous characters as the leader of the enterprise; also an enumeration of the various nations that had contributed to form his army, with the numbers which each had furnished. There was a record of corresponding particulars, too, in respect to the fleet. The inscriptions were the same upon the two columns, except that upon the one it was written in the Assyrian tongue, which was the general language of the Persian empire, and upon the other in the Greek. Thus the two monuments were intended, the one for the Asiatic, and the other for the European world.

At length the day of departure arrived. The fleet set sail, and the immense train of the army [180] put itself in motion to cross the bridge. The fleet went on through the Bosporus to the Euxine, and thence along the western coast of that sea till it reached the mouths of the Danube. The ships entered the river by one of the branches which form the delta of the stream, and ascended for two days. This carried them above the ramifications into which the river divides itself at its mouth, to a spot where the current was confined to a single channel, and where the banks were firm. Here they landed, and while one part of the force which they had brought were occupied in organizing guards and providing defenses to protect the ground, the remainder commenced the work of arranging the vessels of the fleet, side by side, across the stream, to form the bridge.

In the mean time, Darius, leading the great body of the army, advanced from the Bosporus by land. The country which the troops thus traversed was Thrace. They met with various adventures as they proceeded, and saw, as the accounts of the expedition state, many strange and marvelous phenomena. They came, for example, to the sources of a very wonderful river, which flows west and south toward the Ęgean [181] Sea. The name of the river was the Tearus. It came from thirty-eight springs, all issuing from the same rock, some hot and some cold. The waters of the stream which was produced by the mingling of these fountains were pure, limpid, and delicious, and were possessed of remarkable medicinal properties, being efficacious for the cure of various diseases. Darius was so much pleased with this river, that his army halted to refresh themselves with its waters, and he caused one of his monuments to be erected on the spot, the inscription of which contained not only the usual memorials of the march, but also a tribute to the salubrity of the waters of this magical stream.

At one point in the course of the march through Thrace, Darius conceived the idea of varying the construction of his line of monuments by building a cairn. A cairn is a heap of stones, such as is reared in the mountains of Scotland and of Switzerland by the voluntary additions of every passer by, to commemorate a spot marked as the scene of some accident or disaster. As each guide finishes the story of the incident in the hearing of the party which he conducts, each tourist who has listened to it adds his stone to the heap, until the rude struc- [182] ture attains sometimes to a very considerable size. Darius, fixing upon a suitable spot near one of his encampments, commanded every soldier in the army to bring a stone and place it on the pile. A vast mound rose rapidly from these contributions, which, when completed, not only commemorated the march of the army, but denoted, also, by the immense number of the stones entering into the composition of the pile, the countless multitude of soldiers that formed the expedition.

There was a story told to Darius, as he was traversing these regions, of a certain king, reigning over some one of the nations that occupied them, who wished to make an enumeration of the inhabitants of his realm. The mode which he adopted was to require every man in his dominions to send him an arrow head. When all the arrow heads were in, the vast collection was counted by the official arithmeticians, and the total of the population was thus attained. The arrow heads were then laid together in a sort of monumental pile. It was, perhaps, this primitive mode of census-taking which suggested to Darius the idea of his cairn.

There was a tribe of barbarians through whose dominions Darius passed on his way from [183] the Bosporus to the Danube, that observed a custom in their religious worship, which, though in itself of a shocking character, suggests reflections of salutary influence for our own minds. There is a universal instinct in the human heart, leading it strongly to feel the need of help from an unseen and supernatural world in its sorrows and trials; and it is almost always the case that rude and savage nations, in their attempts to obtain this spiritual aid, connect the idea of personal privation and suffering on their part, self inflicted if necessary, as a means of seeking it. It seems as if the instinctive conviction of personal guilt, which associates itself so naturally and so strongly in the minds of men with all conceptions of the unseen world and of divine power, demands something like an expiation as an essential prerequisite to obtaining audience and acceptance with the King of Heaven. The tribe of savages above referred to manifested this feeling by a dreadful observance. Once in every five years they were accustomed to choose by lot, with solemn ceremonies, one of their number, to be sent as a legate or embassador to their god. The victim, when chosen, was laid down upon the ground in the midst of the vast as- [184] sembly convened to witness the rite, while officers designated for the purpose stood by, armed with javelins. Other men, selected for their great personal strength, then took the man from the ground by the hands and feet, and swinging him to and fro three times to gain momentum, they threw him with all their force into the air, and the armed men, when he came down, caught him on the points of their javelins. If he was killed by this dreadful impalement, all was right. He would bear the message of the wants and necessities of the tribe to their god, and they might reasonably expect a favorable reception. If, on the other hand, he did not die, he was thought to be rejected by the god as a wicked man and an unsuitable messenger. The unfortunate convalescent was, in such cases, dismissed in disgrace, and another messenger chosen.

The army of Darius reached the banks of the Danube at last, and they found that the fleet of the Ionians had attained the point agreed upon before them, and were awaiting their arrival. The vessels were soon arranged in the form of a bridge across the stream, and as there was no enemy at hand to embarrass them, the army soon accomplished the passage. They [185] were now fairly in the Scythian country, and immediately began their preparations to advance and meet the foe. Darius gave orders to have the bridge broken up, and the galleys abandoned and destroyed, as he chose rather to take with him the whole of his force, than to leave a guard behind sufficient to protect this shipping. These orders were about to be executed, when a Grecian general, who was attached to one of the bodies of troops which were furnished from the provinces of Asia Minor, asked leave to speak to the king. The king granted him an audience, when he expressed his opinion as follows:

"It seems to me to be more prudent, sire, to leave the bridge as it is, under the care of those who have constructed it, as it may be that we shall have occasion to use it on our return. I do not recommend the preservation of it as a means of securing a retreat, for, in case we meet the Scythians at all, I am confident of victory; but our enemy consists of wandering hordes who have no fixed habitation, and their country is entirely without cities or posts of any kind which they will feel any strong interest in defending, and thus it is possible that we may not be able to find any enemy to combat. Be- [186] sides, if we succeed in our enterprise as completely as we can desire, it will be important, on many accounts, to preserve an open and free communication with the countries behind us."

The king approved of this counsel, and countermanded his orders for the destruction of the bridge. He directed that the Ionian forces that had accompanied the fleet should remain at the river to guard the bridge. They were to remain thus on guard for two months, and then, if Darius did not return, and if they heard no tidings of him, they were at liberty to leave their post, and to go back, with their galleys, to their own land again.

Two months would seem to be a very short time to await the return of an army going on such an expedition into boundless and trackless wilds. There can, however, scarcely be any accidental error in the statement of the time, as the mode which Darius adopted to enable the guard thus left at the bridge to keep their reckoning was a very singular one, and it is very particularly described. He took a cord, it is said, and tied sixty knots in it. This cord he delivered to the Ionian chiefs who were to be left in charge of the bridge, directing them to [187] untie one of the knots every day. When the cord should become, by this process, wholly free, the detachment were also at liberty. They might thereafter, at any time, abandon the post intrusted to them, and return to their homes.

We can not suppose that military men, capable of organizing a force of seventy thousand troops for so distant an expedition, and possessed of sufficient science and skill to bridge the Bosporus and the Danube, could have been under any necessity of adopting so childish a method as this as a real reliance in regulating their operations. It must be recollected, however, that, though the commanders in these ancient days were intelligent and strong-minded men, the common soldiers were but children both in intellect and in ideas; and it was the custom of all great commanders to employ outward and visible symbols to influence and govern them. The sense of loneliness and desertion which such soldiers would naturally feel in being left in solitude on the banks of the river, would be much diminished by seeing before them a marked and definite termination to the period of their stay, and to have, in the cord hanging up in their camp, a visible token that the remnant of time that remained was steadily [188] diminishing day by day; while, in the mean time, Darius was fully determined that, long before the knots should be all untied, he would return to the river.

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