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Xerxes by  Jacob Abbott

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HE arrangements which Darius had made to fix and determine the succession, before his death, did not entirely prevent the question from arising again when his death occurred. Xerxes was on the spot at the time, and at once assumed the royal functions. His brother was absent. Xerxes sent a messenger to Artobazanes informing him of their father's death, and of his intention of assuming the crown. He said, however, that if he did so, he should give his brother the second rank, making him, in all respects, next to himself in office and honor. He sent, moreover, a great many splendid presents to Artobazanes, to evince the friendly regard which he felt for him, and to propitiate his favor.

Artobazanes sent back word to Xerxes that he thanked him for his presents, and that he accepted them with pleasure. He said that he [34] considered himself, nevertheless, as justly entitled to the crown, though he should, in the event of his accession, treat all his brothers, and especially Xerxes, with the utmost consideration and respect.

Soon after these occurrences, Artobazanes came to Media, where Xerxes was, and the question which of them should be the king was agitated anew among the nobles of the court. In the end, a public hearing of the cause was had before Artabanus, a brother of Darius, and, of course, an uncle of the contending princes. The question seems to have been referred to him, either because he held some public office which made it his duty to consider and decide such a question, or else because he had been specially commissioned to act as judge in this particular case. Xerxes was at first quite unwilling to submit his claims to the decision of such a tribunal. The crown was, as he maintained, rightfully his. He thought that the public voice was generally in his favor. Then, besides, he was already in possession of the throne, and by consenting to plead his cause before his uncle, he seemed to be virtually abandoning all this vantage ground, and trusting instead to the mere chance of Artabanus's decision.

[35] Atossa, however, recommended to him to accede to the plan of referring the question to Artabanus. He would consider the subject, she said, with fairness and impartiality, and decide it right. She had no doubt that he would decide it in Xerxes's favor; "and if he does not," she added, "and you lose your cause, you only become the second man in the kingdom instead of the first, and the difference is not so very great, after all."

Atossa may have had some secret intimation how Artabanus would decide.

However this may be, Xerxes at length concluded to submit the question. A solemn court was held, and the case was argued in the presence of all the nobles and great officers of state. A throne was at hand to which the successful competitor was to be conducted as soon as the decision should be made. Artabanus heard the arguments, and decided in favor of Xerxes. Artobazanes, his brother, acquiesced in the decision with the utmost readiness and good humor. He was the first to bow before the king in token of homage, and conducted him, himself, to the throne.

Xerxes kept his promise faithfully of making his brother the second in his kingdom. He ap- [36] pointed him to a very high command in the army, and Artobazanes, on his part, served the king with great zeal and fidelity, until he was at last killed in battle, in the manner hereafter to be described.

As soon as Xerxes found himself established on his throne, he was called upon to decide immediately a great question, namely, which of two important wars in which his father had been engaged he should first undertake to prosecute, the war in Egypt or the war in Greece.

By referring to the map, the reader will see that, as the Persian empire extended westward to Asia Minor and to the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, the great countries which bordered upon it in this direction were, on the north, Greece, and on the south, Egypt; the one in Europe, and the other in Africa. The Greeks and the Egyptians were both wealthy and powerful, and the countries which they respectively inhabited were fertile and beautiful beyond expression, and yet in all their essential features and characteristics they were extremely dissimilar. Egypt was a long and narrow inland valley. Greece reposed, as it were, in the bosom of the sea, consisting, as it did, of an endless number of islands, promontories, peninsu- [37] las, and winding coasts, laved on every side by the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Egypt was a plain, diversified only by the varieties of vegetation, and by the towns and villages, and the enormous monumental structures which had been erected by man. Greece was a picturesque and ever-changing scene of mountains and valleys; of precipitous cliffs, winding beaches, rocky capes, and lofty headlands. The character and genius of the inhabitants of these two countries took their cast, in each case, from the physical conformations of the soil. The Egyptians were a quiet, gentle, and harmless race of tillers of the ground. They spent their lives in pumping water from the river, in the patient, persevering toil of sowing smooth and mellow fields, or in reaping the waving grain. The Greeks drove flocks and herds up and down the declivities of the mountains, or hunted wild beasts in forests and fastnesses. They constructed galleys for navigating the seas; they worked the mines and manufactured metals. They built bridges, citadels, temples, and towns, and sculptured statuary from marble blocks which they chiseled from the strata of the mountains. It is surprising what a difference is made in the genius and character of man by [38] elevations, here and there, of a few thousand feet in the country where his genius and character are formed.

The architectural wonders of Egypt and of Greece were as diverse from each other as the natural features of the soil, and in each case the structures were in keeping and in harmony with the character of the landscape which they respectively adorned. The harmony was, however, that of contrast, and not of correspondence. In Greece, where the landscape itself was grand and sublime, the architect aimed only at beauty. To have aimed at magnitude and grandeur in human structures among the mountains, the cliffs, the cataracts, and the resounding ocean shores of Greece, would have been absurd. The Grecian artists were deterred by their unerring instincts from the attempt. They accordingly built beautiful temples, whose white and symmetrical colonnades adorned the declivities, or crowned the summits of the hills. They sculptured statues, to be placed on pedestals in groves and gardens; they constructed fountains; they raised bridges and aqueducts on long ranges of arches and piers; and the summits of ragged rocks crystallized, as it were, under their hands into towers, bat- [39] tlements, and walls. In Egypt, on the other hand, where the country itself was a level and unvarying plain, the architecture took forms of prodigious magnitude, of lofty elevation, and of vast extent. There were ranges of enormous columns, colossal statues, towering obelisks, and pyramids rising like mountains from the verdure of the plain. Thus, while nature gave to the country its elements of beauty, man completed the landscape by adding to it the grand and the sublime.

The shape and proportions of Egypt would be represented by a green ribbon an inch wide and a yard long, lying upon the ground in a serpentine form; and to complete the model, we might imagine a silver filament passing along the center of the green to denote the Nile. The real valley of verdure, however, is not of uniform breadth, like the ribbon so representing it, but widens as it approaches the sea, as if there had been originally a gulf or estuary there, which the sediment from the river had filled.

In fact, the rich and fertile plain which the alluvial deposits of the Nile have formed, has been protruded for some distance into the sea, and the stream divides itself into three great branches about a hundred miles from its mouth, [40] two outermost of which, with the sea-coast in front, inclose a vast triangle, which was called the Delta, from the Greek letter delta, Δ, which is of a triangular form. In ascending the river beyond the Delta, the fertile plain, at first twenty-five or thirty miles wide, grows gradually narrower, as the ranges of barren hills and tracts of sandy deserts on either hand draw nearer and nearer to the river. Thus the country consists of two long lines of rich and fertile intervals, one on each side of the stream. In the time of Xerxes the whole extent was densely populated, every little elevation of the land being covered with a village or a town. The inhabitants tilled the land, raising upon it vast stores of corn, much of which was floated down the river to its mouth, and taken thence to various countries of Europe and Asia, in merchant ships, over the Mediterranean Sea. Caravans, too, sometimes came across the neighboring deserts to obtain supplies of Egyptian corn. This was done by the sons of Jacob when the crops failed them in the land of Canaan, as related in the sacred Scriptures.

There were two great natural wonders in Egypt in ancient times as now: first, it never rained there, or, at least, so seldom, that rain [41] was regarded as a marvelous phenomenon, interrupting the ordinary course of nature, like an earthquake in England or America. The falling of drops of water out of clouds in the sky was an occurrence so strange, so unaccountable, that the whole population regarded it with astonishment and awe. With the exception of these rare and wonder-exciting instances, there was no rain, no snow, no hail, no clouds in the sky. The sun was always shining, and the heavens were always serene. These meteorological characteristics of the country, resulting, as they do, from permanent natural causes, continue, of course, unchanged to the present day; and the Arabs who live now along the banks of the river, keep their crops, when harvested, in heaps in the open air, and require no roofs to their huts except a light covering of sheaves to protect the inmates from the sun.

The other natural wonder of Egypt was the annual rising of the Nile. About midsummer, the peasantry who lived along the banks would find the river gradually beginning to rise. The stream became more turbid, too, as the bosom of the waters swelled. No cause for this mysterious increase appeared, as the sky remained as blue and serene as before, and the sun, then [42] nearly vertical, continued to shine with even more than its wonted splendor. The inhabitants, however, felt no surprise, and, asked for no explanation of the phenomenon. It was the common course of nature at that season. They had all witnessed it, year after year, from childhood. They, of course, looked for it when the proper month came round, and, though they would have been amazed if the annual flood had failed, they thought nothing extraordinary of its coming.

When the swelling of the waters and the gradual filling of the channels and low grounds in the neighborhood of the river warned the people that the flood was at hand, they all engaged busily in the work of completing their preparations. The harvests were all gathered from the fields, and the vast stores of fruit and corn which they yielded were piled in roofless granaries, built on every elevated spot of ground, where they would be safe from the approaching inundation. The rise of the water was very gradual and slow. Streams began to flow in all directions over the land. Ponds and lakes, growing every day more and more extended, spread mysteriously over the surface of the meadows; and all the time while this deluge [43] of water was rising to submerge the land, the air continued dry, the sun was sultry, and the sky was without a cloud.

As the flood continued to rise, the proportion of land and water, and the conformation of the irregular and temporary shores which separated them, were changed continually, from day to day. The inhabitants assembled in their villages, which were built on rising grounds, some natural, others artificially formed. The waters rose more and more, until only these crowded islands appeared above its surface—when, at length, the valley presented to the view the spectacle of a vast expanse of water, calm as a summer's sea, brilliant with the reflected rays of a tropical sun, and canopied by a sky, which, displaying its spotless blue by day and its countless stars at night, was always cloudless and serene.

The inundation was at its height in October. After that period the waters gradually subsided, leaving a slimy and very fertilizing deposit all over the lands which they had covered. Though the inhabitants themselves, who had been accustomed to this overflow from infancy, felt no wonder or curiosity about its cause, the philosophers of the day, and travelers from oth- [44] er countries who visited Egypt, made many attempts to seek an explanation of the phenomenon. They had three theories on the subject, which Herodotus mentions and discusses.

The first explanation was, that the rising of the river was occasioned by the prevalence of northerly winds on the Mediterranean at that time of the year, which drove back the waters at the mouth of the river, and so caused the accumulation of the water in the upper parts of the valley. Herodotus thought that this was not a satisfactory explanation; for sometimes, as he said, these northerly winds did not blow, and yet the rising of the river took place none the less when the appointed season came. Besides, there were other rivers similarly situated in respect to the influence of prevailing winds at sea in driving in the waters at their mouths, which were, nevertheless, not subject to inundations like the Nile.

The second theory was, that the Nile took its rise, not, like other rivers, in inland lakes, or among inland mountains, but in some remote and unknown ocean on the other side of the continent, which ocean the advocates of this theory supposed might be subject to some great annual ebb and flow; and from this it might [45] result that at stated periods an unusual tide of waters might be poured into the channel of the river. This, however, could not be true, for the waters of the inundation were fresh, not salt, which proved that they were not furnished by any ocean.

A third hypothesis was, that the rising of the water was occasioned by the melting of the snows in summer on the mountains from which the sources of the river came. Against this supposition Herodotus found more numerous and more satisfactory reasons even than he had advanced against the others. In the first place, the river came from the south—a direction in which the heat increased in intensity with every league, as far as travelers had explored it; and beyond those limits, they supposed that the burning sun made the country uninhabitable. It was preposterous to suppose that there could be snow and ice there. Then, besides, the Nile had been ascended to a great distance, and reports from the natives had been brought down from regions still more remote, and no tidings had ever been brought of ice and snow. It was unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that the inundations could arise from such a cause.

These scientific theories, however, were dis- [46] cussed only among philosophers and learned men. The common people had a much more simple and satisfactory mode of disposing of the subject. They, in their imaginations, invested the beneficent river with a sort of life and personality, and when they saw its waters rising so gently but yet surely, to overflow their whole land, leaving it, as they withdrew again, endued with a new and exuberant fertility, they imagined it a living and acting intelligence, that in the exercise of some mysterious and inscrutable powers, the nature of which was to them unknown, and impelled by a kind and friendly regard for the country and its inhabitants, came annually, of its own accord, to spread over the land the blessings of fertility and abundance. The mysterious stream being viewed in this light, its wonderful powers awakened their veneration and awe, and its boundless beneficence their gratitude.



Among the ancient Egyptian legends, there is one relating to a certain King Pheron which strikingly illustrates this feeling. It seems that during one of the inundations, while he was standing with his courtiers and watching the flow of the water, the commotion in the stream was much greater than usual on account of a [49] strong wind which was blowing at that time, and which greatly increased the violence of the whirlpools, and the force and swell of the boiling eddies. There was given, in fact, to the appearance of the river an expression of anger, and Pheron, who was of a proud and haughty character, like most of the Egyptian kings, threw his javelin into one of the wildest of the whirlpools, as a token of his defiance of its rage. He was instantly struck blind!

The sequel of the story is curious, though it has no connection with the personality of the Nile. Pheron remained blind for ten years. At the end of that time it was announced to him, by some supernatural communication, that the period of his punishment had expired, and that his sight might be brought back to him by the employment of a certain designated means of restoration, which was the bathing of his eyes by a strictly virtuous woman. Pheron undertook compliance with the requisition, without any idea that the finding of a virtuous woman would be a difficult task. He first tried his own wife, but her bathing produced no effect. He then tried, one after another, various ladies of his court, and afterward others of different rank and station, selecting those [50] who were most distinguished for the excellence of their characters. He was disappointed, however, in them all. The blindness continued unchanged. At last, however, he found the wife of a peasant, whose bathing produced the effect. The monarch's sight was suddenly restored. The king rewarded the peasant woman, whose virtuous character was established by this indisputable test, with the highest honors. The others he collected together, and then shut them up in one of his towns. When they were all thus safely imprisoned, he set the town on fire, and burned them all up together.

To return to the Nile. Certain columns were erected in different parts of the valley, on which cubits and the subdivisions of cubits were marked and numbered, for the purpose of ascertaining precisely the rise of the water. Such a column was called a Nilometer. There was one near Memphis, which was at the upper point of the Delta, and others further up the river. Such pillars continue to be used to mark the height of the inundations to the present day.

The object of thus accurately ascertaining the rise of the water was not mere curiosity, for there were certain important business operations which depended upon the results. The [51] fertility and productiveness of the soil each year were determined almost wholly by the extent of the inundation; and as the ability of the people to pay tribute depended upon their crops, the Nilometer furnished the government with a criterion by which they regulated the annual assessments of the taxes. There were certain canals, too, made to convey the water to distant tracts of land, which were opened or kept closed according as the water rose to a higher or lower point. All these things were regulated by the indications of the Nilometer.

Egypt was famed in the days of Xerxes for those enormous structures and ruins of structures whose origin was then, as now, lost in a remote antiquity. Herodotus found the Pyramids standing in his day, and presenting the same spectacle of mysterious and solitary grandeur which they exhibited to Napoleon. He speculated on their origin and their history, just as the philosophers and travelers of our day do. In fact, he knew less and could learn less about them than is known now. It helps to impress our minds with an idea of the extreme antiquity of these and the other architectural wonders of Egypt, to compare them with things which are considered old in the Western world. The [52] ancient and venerable colleges and halls of Oxford and Cambridge are, many of them, two or three hundred years old. There are remains of the old wall of the city of London which has been standing seven hundred years. This is considered a great antiquity. There are, however, Roman ruins in Britain, and in various parts of Europe, more ancient still. They have been standing eighteen hundred years! People look upon these with a species of wonder and awe that they have withstood the destructive influences of time so long. But as to the Pyramids, if we go back twenty-five hundred  years, we find travelers visiting and describing them then—monuments as ancient, as venerable, as mysterious and unknown in their eyes, as they appear now in ours. We judge that a mountain is very distant when, after traveling many miles toward it, it seems still as distant as ever. Now, in tracing the history of the pyramids, the obelisks, the gigantic statues, and the vast columnar ruins of the Nile, we may go back twenty-five hundred years, without, apparently, making any progress whatever toward reaching their origin.

Such was Egypt. Isolated as it was from the rest of the world, and full of fertility and [53] riches, it offered a marked and definite object to the ambition of a conqueror. In fact, on account of the peculiar interest which this long and narrow valley of verdure, with its wonderful structures, the strange and anomalous course of nature which prevails in it, and the extraordinary phases which human life, in consequence, exhibits there, has always excited among mankind, heroes and conquerors have generally considered it a peculiarly glorious field for their exploits. Cyrus, the founder of the Persian monarchy, contemplated the subjugation of it. He did not carry his designs into effect, but left them for Cambyses his son. Darius held the country as a dependency during his reign, though, near the close of his life, it revolted. This revolt took place while he was preparing for his grand expedition against Greece, and he was perplexed with the question which of the two undertakings, the subjugation of the Egyptians or the invasion of Greece, he should first engage in. In the midst of this uncertainty he suddenly died, leaving both the wars themselves and the perplexity of deciding between them as a part of the royal inheritance falling to his son.

Xerxes decided to prosecute the Egyptian [54] campaign first, intending to postpone the conquest of Greece till he had brought the valley of the Nile once more under Persian sway. He deemed it dangerous to leave a province of his father's empire in a state of successful rebellion, while leading his armies off to new undertakings. Mardonius, who was the commander-in-chief of the army, and the great general on whom Xerxes mainly relied for the execution of his schemes, was very reluctant to consent to this plan. He was impatient for the conquest of Greece. There was little glory for him to acquire in merely suppressing a revolt, and reconquering what had been already once subdued. He was eager to enter upon a new field. Xerxes, however, overruled his wishes, and the armies commenced their march for Egypt. They passed the land of Judea on their way, where the captives who had returned from Babylon, and their successors, were rebuilding the cities and reoccupying the country. Xerxes confirmed them in the privileges which Cyrus and Darius had granted them, and aided them in their work. He then went on toward the Nile. The rebellion was easily put down. In less than a year from the time of leaving Susa, he had reconquered the whole land of Egypt, [55] punished the leaders of the revolt, established his brother as viceroy of the country, and returned in safety to Susa.

All this took place in the second year of his reign.

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