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Darius the Great by  Jacob Abbott

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THE RETREAT FROM SCYTHIA

[189] THE motive which dictated Darius's invasion of Scythia seems to have been purely a selfish and domineering love of power. The attempts of a stronger and more highly civilized state to extend its dominion over a weaker and more lawless one, are not, however, necessarily and always of this character. Divine Providence, in making men gregarious in nature, has given them an instinct of organization, which is as intrinsic and as essential a characteristic of the human soul as maternal love or the principle of self-preservation. The right, therefore, of organizations of men to establish law and order among themselves, and to extend these principles to other communities around them, so far as such interpositions are really promotive of the interests and welfare of those affected by them, rests on precisely the same foundation as the right of the father to govern the child. This foundation is the existence and universality of an instinctive principle, [190] implanted by the Creator in the human heart; a principle which we are bound to submit to, both because it is a fundamental and constituent element in the very structure of man, and because its recognition and the acknowledgment of its authority are absolutely essential to his continued existence. Wherever law and order, therefore, among men do not exist, it may be properly established and enforced by any neighboring organization that has power to do it, just as wherever there is a group of children they may be justly controlled and governed by their father. It seems equally unnecessary to invent a fictitious and wholly imaginary compact  to justify the jurisdiction in the one case as in the other.

If the Scythians, therefore, had been in a state of confusion and anarchy, Darius might justly have extended his own well-regulated and settled government over them, and, in so doing, would have promoted the general good of mankind. But he had no such design. It was a desire for personal aggrandizement, and a love of fame and power, which prompted him. He offered it as a pretext to justify his invasion, that the Scythians, in former years, had made incursions into the Persian dominions; [191] but this was only a pretext. The expedition was a wanton attack upon neighbors whom he supposed unable to resist him, simply for the purpose of adding to his own already gigantic power.

When Darius commenced his march from the river, the Scythians had heard rumors of his approach. They sent, as soon as they were aware of the impending danger, to all the nations and tribes around them, in order to secure their alliance and aid. These people were all wandering and half-savage tribes, like the Scythians themselves, though each seems to have possessed its own special and distinctive mark of barbarity. One tribe were accustomed to carry home the heads of the enemies which they had slain in battle, and each one, impaling his own dreadful trophy upon a stake, would set it up upon his house-top, over the chimney, where they imagined that it would have the effect of a charm, and serve as a protection for the family. Another tribe lived in habits of promiscuous intercourse, like the lower orders of animals; and so, as the historian absurdly states, being, in consequence of this mode of life, all connected together by the ties of consanguinity, they lived in perpetual peace [192] and good will, without any envy, or jealousy, or other evil passion. A third occupied a region so infested with serpents that they were once driven wholly out of the country by them. It was said of these people that, once in every year, they were all metamorphosed into wolves, and, after remaining for a few days in this form, they were transformed again into men. A fourth tribe painted their bodies blue and red, and a fifth were cannibals.

The most remarkable, however, of all the tales related about these northern savages was the story of the Sauromateans and their Amazonian wives. The Amazons were a nation of masculine and ferocious women, who often figure in ancient histories and legends. They rode on horseback astride like men, and their courage and strength in battle were such that scarcely any troops could subdue them. It happened, however, upon one time, that some Greeks conquered a body of them somewhere upon the shores of the Euxine Sea, and took a large number of them prisoners. They placed these prisoners on board of three ships, and put to sea. The Amazons rose upon their captors and threw them overboard, and thus obtained possession of the ships. They immediately pro- [193] ceeded toward the shore, and landed, not knowing where they were. It happened to be on the northwestern coast of the sea that they landed. Here they roamed up and down the country, until presently they fell in with a troop of horses. These they seized and mounted, arming themselves, at the same time, either with the weapons which they had procured on board the ships, or fabricated, themselves, on the shore. Thus organized and equipped, they began to make excursions for plunder, and soon became a most formidable band of marauders. The Scythians of the country supposed that they were men, but they could learn nothing certain respecting them. Their language, their appearance, their manners, and their dress were totally new, and the inhabitants were utterly unable to conceive who they were, and from what place they could so suddenly and mysteriously have come.

At last, in one of the encounters which took place, the Scythians took two of these strange invaders prisoners. To their utter amazement, they found that they were women. On making this discovery, they changed their mode of dealing with them, and resolved upon a plan based on the supposed universality of the [194] instincts of their sex. They enlisted a corps of the most handsome and vigorous young men that could be obtained, and after giving them instructions, the nature of which will be learned by the result, they sent them forth to meet the Amazons.

The corps of Scythian cavaliers went out to seek their female antagonists with designs any thing but belligerent. They advanced to the encampment of the Amazons, and hovered about for some time in their vicinity, without, however, making any warlike demonstrations. They had been instructed to show themselves as much as possible to the enemy, but by no means to fight them. They would, accordingly, draw as near to the Amazons as was safe, and linger there, gazing upon them, as if under the influence of some sort of fascination. If the Amazons advanced toward them, they would fall back, and if the advance continued, they would retreat fast enough to keep effectually out of the way. Then, when the Amazons turned, they would turn too, follow them back, and linger near them, around their encampment, as before.

The Amazonians were for a time puzzled with this strange demeanor, and they gradually [195] learned to look upon the handsome horsemen at first without fear, and finally even without hostility. At length, one day, one of the young horsemen, observing an Amazon who had strayed away from the rest, followed and joined her. She did not repel him. They were not able to converse together, as neither knew the language of the other. They established a friendly intercourse, however, by looks and signs, and after a time they separated, each agreeing to bring one of their companions to the place of rendezvous on the following day.

A friendly intercommunication being thus commenced, the example spread very rapidly; matrimonial alliances began to be formed, and, in a word, a short time only elapsed before the two camps were united and intermingled, the Scythians and the Amazons being all paired together in the most intimate relations of domestic life. Thus, true to the instincts of their sex, the rude and terrible maidens decided, when the alternative was fairly presented to them, in favor of husbands and homes, rather than continuing the life they had led, of independence, conflict, and plunder. It is curious to observe that the means by which they were won, namely, a persevering display of admira- [196] tion and attentions, steadily continued, but not too eagerly and impatiently pressed, and varied with an adroit and artful alternation of advances and retreats, were precisely the same as those by which, in every age, the attempt is usually made to win the heart of woman from hatred and hostility to love.

We speak of the Amazonians as having been won; but they were, in fact, themselves the conquerors of their captors, after all; for it appeared, in the end, that in the future plans and arrangements of the united body, they ruled their Scythian husbands, and not the Scythians them. The husbands wished to return home with their wives, whom, they said, they would protect and maintain in the midst of their countrymen in honor and in peace. The Amazons, however, were in favor of another plan. Their habits and manners were such, they said, that they should not be respected and beloved among any other people. They wished that their husbands, therefore, would go home and settle their affairs, and afterward return and join their wives again, and then that all together should move to the eastward, until they should find a suitable place to settle in by themselves. This plan was acceded to by the husbands, and was [197] carried into execution; and the result was the planting of a new nation, called the Sauromateans, who thenceforth took their place among the other barbarous tribes that dwelt upon the northern shores of the Euxine Sea.

Such was the character of the tribes and nations that dwelt in the neighborhood of the Scythian country. As soon as Darius had passed the river, the Scythians sent embassadors to all their people, proposing to them to form a general alliance against the invader. "We ought to make common cause against him," said they; "for if he subdues one nation, it will only open the way for an attack upon the rest. Some of us are, it is true, more remote than others from the immediate danger, but it threatens us all equally in the end."

The embassadors delivered their message, and some of the tribes acceded to the Scythian proposals. Others, however, refused. The quarrel, they said, was a quarrel between Darius and the Scythians alone, and they were not inclined to bring upon themselves the hostility of so powerful a sovereign by interfering. The Scythians were very indignant at this refusal; but there was no remedy, and they accordingly began to prepare to defend themselves as well [198] as they could, with the help of those nations that had expressed a willingness to join them.

The habits of the Scythians were nomadic and wandering, and their country was one vast region of verdant and beautiful, and yet, in a great measure, of uncultivated and trackless wilds. They had few towns and villages, and those few were of little value. They adopted, therefore, the mode of warfare which, in such a country and for such a people, is always the wisest to be pursued. They retreated slowly before Darius's advancing army, carrying off or destroying all such property as might aid the king in respect to his supplies. They organized and equipped a body of swift horsemen, who were ordered to hover around Darius's camp, and bring intelligence to the Scythian generals of every movement. These horsemen, too, were to harass the flanks and the rear of the army, and to capture or destroy every man whom they should find straying away from the camp. By this means they kept the invading army continually on the alert, allowing them no peace and no repose, while yet they thwarted and counteracted all the plans and efforts which the enemy made to bring on a general battle.

As the Persians advanced in pursuit of the [199] enemy, the Scythians retreated, and in this retreat they directed their course toward the countries occupied by those nations that had refused to join in the alliance. By this artful management they transferred the calamity and the burden of the war to the territories of their neighbors. Darius soon found that he was making no progress toward gaining his end. At length he concluded to try the effect of a direct and open challenge.

He accordingly sent embassadors to the Scythian chief, whose name was Indathyrsus with a message somewhat as follows:

"Foolish man! how long will you continue to act in this absurd and preposterous manner? It is incumbent on you to make a decision in favor of one thing or the other. If you think that you are able to contend with me, stop, and, let us engage. If not, then acknowledge me as your superior, and submit to my authority."

The Scythian chief sent back the following reply:

"We have no inducement to contend with you in open battle on the field, because you are not doing us any injury, nor is it at present in your power to do us any. We have no cities and no cultivated fields that you can seize [200] or plunder. Your roaming about our country, therefore, does us no harm, and you are at liberty to continue it as long as it gives you any pleasure. There is nothing on our soil that you can injure, except one spot, and that is the place where the sepulchres of our fathers lie. If you were to attack that spot—which you may perhaps do, if you can find it—you may rely upon a battle. In the mean time, you may go elsewhere, wherever you please. As to acknowledging your superiority, we shall do nothing of the kind. We defy you."

Notwithstanding the refusal of the Scythians to give the Persians battle, they yet made, from time to time, partial and unexpected onsets upon their camp, seizing occasions when they hoped to find their enemies off their guard. The Scythians had troops of cavalry which were very efficient and successful in these attacks. These horsemen were, however, sometimes thrown into confusion and driven back by a very singular means of defense. It seems that the Persians had brought with them from Europe, in their train, a great number of asses, as beasts of burden, to transport the tents and the baggage of the army. These asses were accustomed, in times of excitement and dan- [201] ger, to set up a very terrific braying. It was, in fact, all that they could do. Braying at a danger seems to be a very ridiculous mode of attempting to avert it, but it was a tolerably effectual mode, nevertheless, in this case at least; for the Scythian horses, who would have faced spears and javelins, and the loudest shouts and vociferations of human adversaries without any fear, were appalled and put to flight at hearing the unearthly noises which issued from the Persian camp whenever they approached it. Thus the mighty monarch of the whole Asiatic world seemed to depend for protection against the onsets of these rude and savage troops on the braying of his asses!

While these things were going on in the interior of the country, the Scythians sent down a detachment of their forces to the banks of the Danube, to see if they could not, in some way or other, obtain possession of the bridge. They learned here what the orders were which Darius had given to the Ionians who had been left in charge, in respect to the time of their remaining at their post. The Scythians told them that if they would govern themselves strictly by those orders, and so break up the [202] bridge and go down the river with their boats as soon as the two months should have expired, they should not be molested in the mean time. The Ionians agreed to this. The time was then already nearly gone, and they promised that, so soon as it should be fully expired, they would withdraw.

The Scythian detachment sent back word to the main army acquainting them with these facts, and the army accordingly resolved on a change in their policy. Instead of harassing and distressing the Persians as they had done, to hasten their departure, they now determined to improve the situation of their enemies, and encourage them in their hopes, so as to protract their stay. They accordingly allowed the Persians to gain the advantage over them in small skirmishes, and they managed, also, to have droves of cattle fall into their hands, from time to time, so as to supply them with food. The Persians were quite elated with these indications that the tide of fortune was about to turn in their favor.

While things were in this state, there appeared one day at the Persian camp a messenger from the Scythians, who said that he had some presents from the Scythian chief for Da- [203] rius. The messenger was admitted, and allowed to deliver his gifts. The gifts proved to be a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. The Persians asked the bearer of these strange offerings what the Scythians meant by them. He replied that he had no explanations to give. His orders were, he said, to deliver the presents and then return; and that they must, accordingly, find out the meaning intended by the exercise of their own ingenuity.

When the messenger had retired, Darius and the Persians consulted together, to determine what so strange a communication could mean. They could not, however, come to any satisfactory decision. Darius said that he thought the three animals might probably be intended to denote the three kingdoms of nature to which the said animals respectively belonged, viz., the earth, the air, and the water; and as the giving up of weapons was a token of submission, the whole might mean that the Scythians were now ready to give up the contest, and acknowledge the right of the Persians to supreme and universal dominion.

The officers, however, did not generally concur in this opinion. They saw no indications, they said, of any disposition on the part of the [204] Scythians to surrender. They thought it quite as probable that the communication was meant to announce to those who received it threats and defiance, as to express conciliation and submission. "It may mean," said one of them, "that, unless you can fly like a bird into the air, or hide like a mouse in the ground, or bury yourselves, like the frog, in morasses and fens, you can not escape our arrows."

There was no means of deciding positively between these contradictory interpretations, but it soon became evident that the former of the two was very far from being correct; for, soon after the present was received, the Scythians were seen to be drawing up their forces in array, as if preparing for battle. The two months had expired, and they had reason to suppose that the party at the bridge had withdrawn, as they had promised to do. Darius had been so far weakened by his harassing marches, and the manifold privations and sufferings of his men, that he felt some solicitude in respect to the result of a battle, now that it seemed to be drawing near, although such a trial of strength had been the object which he had been, from the beginning, most eager to secure.

The two armies were encamped at a moder- [205] ate distance from each other, with a plain, partly wooded, between them. While in this position, and before any hostile action was commenced by either party, it was observed from the camp of Darius that suddenly a great tumult arose from the Scythian lines. Men were seen rushing in dense crowds this way and that over the plain, with shouts and outcries, which, however, had in them no expression of anger or fear, but rather one of gayety and pleasure. Darius demanded what the strange tumult meant. Some messengers were sent out to ascertain the cause, and on their return they reported that the Scythians were hunting a hare, which had suddenly made its appearance. The hare had issued from a thicket, and a considerable portion of the army, officers and soldiers, had abandoned their ranks to enjoy the sport of pursuing it, and were running impetuously, here and there, across the plain, filling the air with shouts of hilarity.

"They do indeed despise us," said Darius, "since, on the eve of a battle, they can lose all thoughts of us and of their danger, and abandon their posts to hunt a hare!"

That evening a council of war was held. It was concluded that the Scythians must be very [206] confident and strong in their position, and that, if a general battle were to be hazarded, it would be very doubtful what would be the result. The Persians concluded unanimously, therefore, that the wisest plan would be for them to give up the intended conquest, and retire from the country. Darius accordingly proceeded to make his preparations for a secret retreat.

He separated all the infirm and feeble portion of the army from the rest, and informed them that he was going that night on a short expedition with the main body of the troops, and that, while he was gone, they were to remain and defend the camp. He ordered the men to build the camp fires, and to make them larger and more numerous than common, and then had the asses tied together in an unusual situation, so that they should keep up a continual braying. These sounds, heard all the night, and the light of the camp fires, were to lead the Scythians to believe that the whole body of the Persians remained, as usual, at the encampment, and thus to prevent all suspicion of their flight.

Toward midnight, Darius marched forth in silence and secrecy, with all the vigorous and able-bodied forces under his command, leaving [207] the weary, the sick, and the infirm to the mercy of their enemies. The long column succeeded in making good their retreat, without exciting the suspicions of the Scythians. They took the route which they supposed would conduct them most directly to the river.

When the troops which remained in the camp found, on the following morning, that they had been deceived and abandoned, they made signals to the Scythians to come to them, and, when they came, the invalids surrendered themselves and the camp to their possession. The Scythians then, immediately, leaving a proper guard to defend the camp, set out to follow the Persian army. Instead, however, of keeping directly upon their track, they took a shorter course, which would lead them more speedily to the river. The Persians, being unacquainted with the country, got involved in fens and morasses, and other difficulties of the way, and their progress was thus so much impeded that the Scythians reached the river before them.

They found the Ionians still there, although the two months had fully expired. It is possible that the chiefs had received secret orders from Darius not to hasten their departure, even [208] after the knots had all been untied; or perhaps they chose, of their own accord, to await their sovereign's return. The Scythians immediately urged them to be gone. "The time has expired," they said, "and you are no longer under any obligation to wait. Return to your own country, and assert your own independence and freedom, which you can safely do if you leave Darius and his armies here."

The Ionians consulted together on the subject, doubtful, at first, what to do. They concluded that they would not comply with the Scythian proposals, while yet they determined to pretend to comply with them, in order to avoid the danger of being attacked. They accordingly began to take the bridge to pieces, commencing on the Scythian side of the stream. The Scythians, seeing the work thus going on, left the ground, and marched back to meet the Persians. The armies, however, fortunately for Darius, missed each other, and the Persians arrived safely at the river, after the Scythians had left it. They arrived in the night, and the advanced guard, seeing no appearance of the bridge on the Scythian side, supposed that the Ionians had gone. They shouted long and loud on the shore, and at length an Egyptian, who [209] was celebrated for the power of his voice, succeeded in making the Ionians hear. The boats were immediately brought back to their positions, the bridge was reconstructed, and Darius's army recrossed the stream.

The Danube being thus safely crossed, the army made the best of its way back through Thrace, and across the Bosporus into Asia, and thus ended Darius's great expedition against the Scythians.


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