Legends Of Persia In The Century Before Meeting The 300


[stories taken from Tom Holland’s readable history of the Greek-Persian conflict, Persian Fire]

Once upon a time, the Assyrians, ruling their empire from their capital city of Nineveh, dominated Mesopotamia. They were eventually defeated by the Medes, horse-tamers from the Northwest.

The last Medean king ruled in the late 500s B.C. His name was Astyages. Astyages believed in dream interpretation, employing advisors whom he charged with divining the meaning of his royal dreams (for the dreams of a King must, obviously, be full of meaning). Astyages would sometimes alter his plans according to the interpretation his dreams were given. In this way, the dreams of Astyages actually affected the real and waking world. The world, to this day, would look differently if Astyages had possessed better overnight digestion.

Astyages once dreamed that he saw his daughter urinating so much that all Medea was submerged. Astyages went to his wisemen, the Magi, who informed him that his dream was a warning that the offspring issuing from between the legs of his daughter would one day imperil the realm.

Astyages– acting like all those old-time kings always acted in the old stories when they received such information– thought he could get around the problem by making sure to give his daughter a weak and inconsequential husband– for how powerful could the offspring of a mere peon actually prove? Perhaps he even chose a nobody from one of the subjugated peoples of the land, perhaps someone from that dirty little tribe, the Persians.

In spite of this precaution, when his daughter (by the name of Mandane, by the way) was impregnated by this nobody, papa Astyages had another dream concerning his daughter’s nether regions. In this dream, a vine grew forth from her vagina, and kept growing, until it had covered all Asia. Boy, would Freudians have had a field day with this one!

The Magi told the Medean king that this was even a greater warning that the kingdom was imperiled by the spawn of his daughter. And so, as the kings in these old stories so often do, he ordered the newborn slain. He assigned the task to a man by the name of Harpagus. Harpagus was no low-ranking underling, but the top commander of the Median army. Perhaps assigning the highest ranking military officer in the land such a job seems strange, but as you’ll soon see, it makes for a good story…

As is also suspiciously common in these tales, the person assigned the grisly task of having the child murdered could not bring himself to carry out the deed, and instead chose to abandon the baby on a mountain side. In this way (under a morality which seems to have been shared by a lot of officials charged by their superiors with murdering a child), Harpagus thought he could remain guiltless if the baby died. This is because, by leaving the baby in nature, he felt he had effectively put the infant into the hands of the gods. Whatever happened now, would be their will and their doing.

The infant of course survived (the gods of those days were suckers for abandoned babies), and he was raised, depending on the version of the story, by a shepherd or a bandit or a mama-dog. However, in whichever version, one important fact to remember was that this infant probably grew up as a Persian– whether fathered by one or adopted by one of their families. And he was given the name, Cyrus.

When Astyages discovered– sometime later– that Harpagus had not fully carried out the order, the king was less than happy. He invited Harpagus to a banquet and secretly had the son of Harpagus, beloved of his father, butchered and served at the meal. After Harpagus had eaten, he was told the horrible truth.

Harpagus, caught in the weakest of positions, took no action against the king at the time. And in fact, he is said to have remained outwardly quite stoic about the whole thing.

Well, the years rolled by. These lowly Persians, meanwhile, were growing more powerful, and soon they had themselves a new, vigorous leader– none other than– surprise, surprise!– Cyrus himself, secret grandson of Astyages. Fearful of the growing power of these upstart Persians, Astyages sent his armies against them in an act of pre-emptive war.

However, this is where Harpagus finally sees his chance for a little payback. He defects to the Persians and, with his insider’s knowledge, assists them in capturing Astyages. With their king gone, the Medeans soon crumbled, and in 550 BC Cyrus assumed the kingship of the land, and history switches from calling the area “Medea” to calling it “Persia.” Cyrus also founded a new city, one which would become the leading city of Persia and one of the great cities of West Asia, Persepolis.

We see here how susceptible World History is to the smallest events… so far in this story, the entire future of the world has swung on the dual-hinges of a Bizarre Dream and a Morbid Meal.

Three years after defeating the Medeans, Persia is attacked by a king from the ethnically Greek mini-nation calledLydia (located in modern-day Turkey– the almost-peninsula known throughout history as Asia Minor). Perhaps he thought Persia was unstable in the wake of the overthrow of the ruling dynasty and the ascension of a new king.

King Croesus, the ruler of Lydia, had prepared diligently for the war– including the requisite trip to Apollo’s priestess at the temple in Delphi. The priestess of Delphi was the most famous oracle in the Ancient world. I’ve never been quite clear if there were several priestesses at a time or a succession of them, but I have heard that their raving answers would be translated by priests– apparently often into little riddles which could stretch to contain a variety of interpretations (and thus, increase the probability of being correct).

The Delphic Oracle told Croesus (or his representative) that if he attacked Persia, “a great kingdom will fall.” Croesus was a rich and pretty self-confident man, but apparently he was a little too humble in this case… he assumed that the “great kingdom” to fall was Persia (or what he probably still called Medea). He was wrong.

At the climactic battle (according to accounts mythical, historical, or some mixture), Harpagus did Cyrus one last solid before he fades from history. Harpagus advised Cyrus to bring the Persian baggage-camels up to the battle-front. Perhaps the day was going ill for Cyrus and he was willing to try any crazy idea, for he did as suggested and had the camels brought up.

The Lydian horses– and probably most of the Lydians– had never seen camels before. More importantly, the horses had never SMELLED camels before. Spooked by the unfamiliar stench, the Lydian horses bolted. Croesus lost the day, and the war.

It was also during the reign of Cyrus that Persia conquered Babylonia…

Several decades before Cyrus came to power, the ruler of Babylonia (to the south of Persian) was a Chaldean by the name of Nebuchadnezzar. During his time on the throne, Nebuchadnezzar had conquered a quarrelsome little spot on the map to the West called Jerusalem. During the campaign, he had destroyed Jerusalem’s important temple and taken many of the city’s inhabitants back to Babylon (the Babylonian Captivity).

When Cyrus defeated the Chaldeans and took-over Babylonia, Nebuchadnezzar was already dead, but many Jerusalemites and their progeny were still being held against their will in Babylon. Cyrus saw no harm in sending the sulky lot back to Jerusalem, and so sent them on their merry way, and did not object to the rebuilding of their temple. This act got Cyrus some really good press, and probably was a big reason that we today know him as “Cyrus the Great” instead of something like “Cyrus The Grandfather-Killer” or “Cyrus With The Smelly Camels.”

Cyrus is said to have died in battle many years later, at the age of 70. He was captured and beheaded by the queen of an otherwise obscure northern tribe. According to legend, she had his severed head dropped in a wine-skin filled with blood so that, perhaps, the old man’s thirst for blood might at last be quenched.

Cyrus’s successor, his son Cambyses, was not treated as well by History. History, as you know, is written by the victors. Cyrus was a victor, and so his bloody acts have been largely white-washed– the blood-thirsty old man even gets to be called “The Great.”

If we accept that story that Cyrus was the grandson of Astyages, then both Cyrus and his son Cambyses would have been some percentage Medean. But their branch of the family, soon after the death of Cambyses, will be defeated by another branch of the family (led by a cousin named Darius)– and this branch is full-blooded Persian… and they will not hesitate to show their overthrown cousins in a very bad light indeed.

Thus, it is no surprise that we read that Cambyses supposedly practiced archery– using his cupbearers for targets. We also hear that he buried alive (and upside-down, history notes) twelve noblemen who had displeased him.

Cambyses also is said to have married his own sisters… which is believable enough… for not only did he have the excuse, “Well, the Egyptians are doing it!”, but by not allowing anyone else to marry his sisters, he reduced the risk of some upstart nephew attempting to lay claim to the throne in years to come. But of course, just marrying one’s sister is not evil enough when you’re on the defeated side of History… Cambyses is also said to have impregnated his sister-wife and then later kicked her so hard in the stomach that both her and the unborn baby were killed.

The icing on the bad-boy cake was when Cambyses fought the Egyptians. Hearing that felines were sacred to the Egyptians, he is said to have had his men pin cats to their shields. Due to his this tactic or not, Cambyses was able to defeat Egypt (who didn’t?) and had himself proclaimed Pharaoh.

And you can’t have the members of History’s defeated side dying heroically… Oh no… Cambyses died from a self-inflicted wound. Seems that when he was leaping upon his horse, he sliced himself in the thigh with his own sword and was dead before the week was out.

Darius, as I mentioned earlier, was a distant cousin of Cambyses (on the Persian side… specifically, on the side that claimed descent from the semi-legendary Archaemenes, and thus, they were called the Achaemenid Dynasty; Cyrus and Cambyses were also of this dynasty, but as I said, of another branch from Darius). Darius was a cupbearer to Cambyses (although there is no mention he was ever shot at). If Cambyses was even fractionally as evil as the stories contend, then Darius, being so up close and personal– and worst of all, subservient– to a man like Cambyses, probably grew to detest the man with a special vehemence.

When Cambyses died, his brother Bardiya succeeded to the crown. However, his enemies circulated rumors that this was not REALLY Bardiya, but an imposter. The real Bardiya had been executed by his big brother Cambyses years before. And, of course, the REAL Bardiya had suffered the loss of at least one ear– supposedly cut off by none of then Cyrus for some misbehavior or another. However, the ersatz-Bardiya made the mistake of allowing his wife to see that, behind his long hair, both ears were present and accounted-for. Once word of the charade gets out, Darius joins the conspiracy to kill the old two-eared faker.

One of the stranger stories in History tells of HOW Darius– this mere cupbearer (actually probably a prestigious post)– came to LEAD the rebellion. According the story, the conspirators had agreed that whoever’s horse first neighed at the next dawn would become king once their rebellion succeeded. To make sure Darius’s horse neighed first, and with or without Darius’s knowledge, one of Darius’s grooms, to quote our author, “dabbled his fingers inside a mare’s vulva” and then placed his fingers beside the nose of Darius’s horse just at dawn, causing the horse to neigh and Darius to be granted the kingship. You can add Mare-Vulva to Bizarre Dream and Morbid Meal in our building list of the strange things that can determine History.

After the success of the rebellion, one of the tasks falling to the new ruler is to put down the revolt of Ionia– those Greek colonies in western Asia Minor, on the outskirts of the growing Persian Empire. Darius successful puts down the Ionian revolt by 494 B.C. However, this does not end it as far as the Persians are concerned, for Darius knows that the Greek mainland, especially the city-states of Athens and Eretria, had been assisting the rebel ethnic-Greeks of Asia Minor in their rebellion. Therefore, Darius decides to teach the Greeks a lesson, and he begins a multi-year campaign against them.

The Persians suffered several setbacks in their war against the Greeks– including the destruction of their fleet by storm. Nevertheless, they finally did succeed in destroying Eretria. However, when they came for Athens, the Athenians, fighting almost alone, were able to defeat the great Persian host at the battle of Marathon. According to Herodotus, 6,400 Persians were killed at Marathon and only 192 Athenians.

On top of this near-miraculous military victory against far superior numbers, the Athenians after their victory had to double-time it back to Athens from the plains of Marathon to protect their city from a second Persian attack. According to our author, it was this 26-mile quick-march that was TRULY what inspired the long races which would take their name from the plains of Marathon– not the legendary run by Philippides from the battle-field back to Athens to tell them– with his dying breath– of the incredible victory.

The defeat at Marathon effectively ended the war between Greece and Persia for ten years. But during that time, Darius is said to have had a servant whisper into his ear at every meal, “Sire, remember the Athenians.” This was done so that Darius could keep his hatred for Greece stoked until such time that he could launch the next wave of assaults.

Alas, Darius would never live to teach the Greeks the lesson he felt they deserved. Persia had first to put down a revolt by the Egyptians, and before Darius could turn his attention back to Greece, he was dead.

It would be left to his son Xerxes to try again to destroy the Greeks. But by the time Xerxes attacks, Greece has had ten years to prepare… and then there are those 300 Spartans to deal with.


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