Gateway to the Classics: Cyrus the Great by Jacob Abbott
Cyrus the Great by  Jacob Abbott

Accession of Cyrus to the Throne

While Crœsus had thus, on his side of the River Halys—which was the stream that marked the boundary between the Lydian empire on the west and the Persian and Assyrian dominions on the east—been employed in building up his grand structure of outward magnificence and splendor, and in contending, within, against an overwhelming tide of domestic misery and woe, great changes had taken place in the situation and prospects of Cyrus. From being an artless and generous-minded child, he had become a calculating, ambitious, and aspiring man, and he was preparing to take his part in the great public contests and struggles of the day, with the same eagerness for self-aggrandizement, and the same unconcern for the welfare and happiness of others, which always characterizes the spirit of ambition and love of power.

Though it is by no means certain that what Xenophon relates of his visit to his grandfather Astyages is meant for a true narrative of facts, it is not at all improbable that such a visit might have been made, and that occurrences, somewhat similar, at least, to those which his narrative records, may have taken place. It may seem strange to the reader that a man who should, at one time, wish to put his grandchild to death, should, at another, be disposed to treat him with such a profusion of kindness and attention. There is nothing, however, really extraordinary in this. Nothing is more fluctuating than the caprice of a despot. Man, accustomed from infancy to govern those around him by his own impetuous will, never learns self-control. He gives himself up to the dominion of the passing animal emotions of the hour. It may be jealousy, it may be revenge, it may be parental fondness, it may be hate, it may be love—whatever the feeling is that the various incidents of life, as they occur, or the influences, irritating or exhilarating, which are produced by food or wine, awaken in his mind, he follows its impulse blindly and without reserve. He loads a favorite with kindness and caresses at one hour, and directs his assassination the next. He imagines that his infant grandchild is to become his rival, and he deliberately orders him to be left in a gloomy forest alone, to die of cold and hunger. When the imaginary danger has passed away, he seeks amusement in making the same grandchild his plaything, and overwhelms him with favors bestowed solely for the gratification of the giver, under the influence of an affection almost as purely animal as that of a lioness for her young.

Favors of such a sort can awaken no permanent gratitude in any heart, and thus it is quite possible that Cyrus might have evinced, during the simple and guileless days of his childhood, a deep veneration and affection for his grandfather, and yet, in subsequent years, when he had arrived at full maturity, have learned to regard him simply in the light of a great political potentate, as likely as any other potentate around him to become his rival or his enemy.

This was, at all events, the result. Cyrus, on his return to Persia, grew rapidly in strength and stature, and soon became highly distinguished for his personal grace, his winning manners, and for the various martial accomplishments which he had acquired in Media and in which he excelled almost all his companions. He gained, as such princes always do, a vast ascendency over the minds of all around him. As he advanced toward maturity, his mind passed from its interest in games, and hunting, and athletic sports, to plans of war, of conquest, and of extended dominion.

In the mean time, Harpagus, though he had, at the time when he endured the horrid punishment which Astyages inflicted upon him, expressed no resentment, still he had secretly felt an extreme indignation and anger, and he had now, for fifteen years, been nourishing covert schemes and plans for revenge. He remained all this time in the court of Astyages, and was apparently his friend. He was, however, in heart a most bitter and implacable enemy. He was looking continually for a plan or prospect which should promise some hope of affording him his long-desired revenge. His eyes were naturally turned toward Cyrus. He kept up a communication with him so far as it was possible, for Astyages watched very closely what passed between the two countries, being always suspicious of plots against his government and crown. Harpagus, however, contrived to evade this vigilance in some degree. He made continual reports to Cyrus of the tyranny and misgovernment of Astyages, and of the defenselessness of the realm of Media, and he endeavored to stimulate his rising ambition to the desire of one day possessing for himself both the Median and Persian throne.

In fact, Persia was not then independent of Media. It was more or less connected with the government of Astyages, so that Cambyses, the chief ruler of Persia, Cyrus's father, is called sometimes a king and sometimes a satrap, which last title is equivalent to that of viceroy or governor general. Whatever his true and proper title may have been, Persia was a Median dependency, and Cyrus, therefore, in forming plans for gaining possession of the Median throne, would consider himself as rather endeavoring to rise to the supreme command in his own native country, than as projecting any scheme for foreign conquest.

Harpagus, too, looked upon the subject in the same light. Accordingly, in pushing forward his plots toward their execution, he operated in Media as well as Persia. He ascertained, by diligent and sagacious, but by very covert inquiries, who were discontented and ill at ease under the dominion of Astyages, and by sympathizing with and encouraging them, he increased their discontent and insubmission. Whenever Astyages, in the exercise of his tyranny, inflicted an injury upon a powerful subject, Harpagus espoused the cause of the injured man, condemned, with him, the intolerable oppression of the king, and thus fixed and perpetuated his enmity. At the same time, he took pains to collect and to disseminate among the Medes all the information which he could obtain favorable to Cyrus, in respect to his talents, his character, and his just and generous spirit, so that, at length, the ascendency of Astyages, through the instrumentality of these measures, was very extensively undermined, and the way was rapidly becoming prepared for Cyrus's accession to power.

During all this time, moreover, Harpagus was personally very deferential and obsequious to Astyages, and professed an unbounded devotedness to his interests. He maintained a high rank at court and in the army, and Astyages relied upon him as one of the most obedient and submissive of his servants, without entertaining any suspicion whatever of his true designs.

At length a favorable occasion arose, as Harpagus thought, for the execution of his plan. It was at a time when Astyages had been guilty of some unusual acts of tyranny and oppression, by which he had produced extensive dissatisfaction among his people. Harpagus communicated, very cautiously, to the principal men around him, the designs that he had long been forming for deposing Astyages and elevating Cyrus in his place. He found them favorably inclined to the plan. The way being thus prepared, the next thing was to contrive some secret way of communicating with Cyrus. As the proposal which he was going to make was that Cyrus should come into Media with as great a force as he could command, and head an insurrection against the government of Astyages, it would, of course, be death to him to have it discovered. He did not dare to trust the message to any living messenger, for fear of betrayal; nor was it safe to send a letter by any ordinary mode of transmission, lest the letter should be intercepted by some of Astyages's spies, and thus the whole plot be discovered. He finally adopted the following very extraordinary plan:


The Secret Correspondence.

He wrote a letter to Cyrus, and then taking a hare, which some of his huntsmen had caught for him, he opened the body and concealed the letter within. He then sewed up the skin again in the most careful manner, so that no signs of the incision should remain. He delivered this hare, together with some nets and other hunting apparatus, to certain trustworthy servants, on whom he thought he could rely, charging them to deliver the hare into Cyrus's own hands, and to say that it came from Harpagus, and that it was the request of Harpagus that Cyrus should open it himself and alone. Harpagus concluded that this mode of making the communication was safe; for, in case the persons to whom the hare was intrusted were to be seen by any of the spies or other persons employed by Astyages on the frontiers, they would consider them as hunters returning from the chase with their game, and would never think of examining the body of a hare, in the hands of such a party, in search after a clandestine correspondence.

The plan was perfectly successful. The men passed into Persia without any suspicion. They delivered the hare to Cyrus, with their message. He opened the hare, and found the letter. It was in substance as follows:

"It is plain, Cyrus, that you are a favorite of Heaven, and that you are destined to a great and glorious career. You could not otherwise have escaped, in so miraculous a manner, the snares set for you in your infancy. Astyages meditated your death, and he took such measures to effect it as would seem to have made your destruction sure. You were saved by the special interposition of Heaven. You are aware by what extraordinary incidents you were preserved and discovered, and what great and unusual prosperity has since attended you. You know, too, what cruel punishments Astyages inflicted upon me, for my humanity in saving you. The time has now come for retribution. From this time the authority and the dominions of Astyages may be yours. Persuade the Persians to revolt. Put yourself at the head of an army, and march into Media. I shall probably myself be appointed to command the army sent out to oppose you. If so, we will join our forces when we meet, and I will enter your service. I have conferred with the leading nobles in Media, and they are all ready to espouse your cause. You may rely upon finding every thing thus prepared for you here; come, therefore, without any delay."

Cyrus was thrown into a fever of excitement and agitation on reading this letter. He determined to accede to Harpagus's proposal. He revolved in his mind for some time the measures by which he could raise the necessary force. Of course he could not openly announce his plan and enlist an army to effect it, for any avowed and public movement of that kind would be immediately made known to Astyages, who, by being thus forewarned of his enemies' designs, might take effectual measures to circumvent them. He determined to resort to deceit, or, as he called it, stratagem; nor did he probably have any distinct perception of the wrongfulness of such a mode of proceeding. The demon of war upholds and justifies falsehood and treachery, in all its forms, on the part of his votaries. He always applauds a forgery, a false pretense, or a lie: he calls it a stratagem.

Cyrus had a letter prepared, in the form of a commission from Astyages, appointing him commander of a body of Persian forces to be raised for the service of the king. Cyrus read the fabricated document in the public assembly of the Persians, and called upon all the warriors to join him. When they were organized, he ordered them to assemble on a certain day, at a place that he named, each one provided with a woodman's ax. When they were thus mustered, he marched them into a forest, and set them at work to clear a piece of ground. The army toiled all day, felling the trees, and piling them up to be burned. They cleared in this way, as Herodotus states, a piece of ground eighteen or twenty furlongs in extent. Cyrus kept them thus engaged in severe and incessant toil all the day, giving them, too, only coarse food and little rest. At night he dismissed them, commanding them to assemble again the second day.

On the second day, when they came together, they found a great banquet prepared for them, and Cyrus directed them to devote the day to feasting and making merry. There was an abundance of meats of all kinds, and rich wines in great profusion. The soldiers gave themselves up for the whole day to merriment and revelry. The toils and the hard fare of the day before had prepared them very effectually to enjoy the rest and the luxuries of this festival. They spent the hours in feasting about their camp-fires and reclining on the grass, where they amused themselves and one another by relating tales, or joining in merry songs and dances. At last, in the evening, Cyrus called them together, and asked them which day they had liked the best. They replied that there was nothing at all to like in the one, and nothing to be disliked in the other. They had had, on the first day, hard work and bad fare, and on the second, uninterrupted ease and the most luxurious pleasures.

"It is indeed so," said Cyrus, "and you have your destiny in your own hands to make your lives pass like either of these days, just as you choose. If you will follow me, you will enjoy ease, abundance, and luxury. If you refuse, you must remain as you are, and toil on as you do now, and endure your present privations and hardships to the end of your days." He then explained to them his designs. He told them that although Media was a great and powerful kingdom, still that they were as good soldiers as the Medes, and with the arrangements and preparations which he had made, they were sure of victory.

The soldiers received this proposal with great enthusiasm and joy. They declared themselves ready to follow Cyrus wherever he should lead them, and the whole body immediately commenced making preparations for the expedition. Astyages was, of course, soon informed of these proceedings. He sent an order to Cyrus, summoning him immediately into his presence. Cyrus sent back word, in reply, that Astyages would probably see him sooner than he wished, and went on vigorously with his preparations. When all was ready, the army marched, and, crossing the frontiers, they entered into Media.

In the mean time, Astyages had collected a large force, and, as had been anticipated by the conspirators, he put it under the command of Harpagus. Harpagus made known his design of going over to Cyrus as soon as he should meet him, to as large a portion of the army as he thought it prudent to admit to his confidence; the rest knew nothing of the plan; and thus the Median army advanced to meet the invaders, a part of the troops with minds intent on resolutely meeting and repelling their enemies, while the rest were secretly preparing to go over at once to their side.

When the battle was joined, the honest part of the Median army fought valiantly at first, but soon, thunderstruck and utterly confounded at seeing themselves abandoned and betrayed by a large body of their comrades, they were easily overpowered by the triumphant Persians. Some were taken prisoners; some fled back to Astyages; and others, following the example of the deserters, went over to Cyrus's camp and swelled the numbers of his train. Cyrus, thus re-enforced by the accessions he had received, and encouraged by the flight or dispersion of all who still wished to oppose him, began to advance toward the capital.

Astyages, when he heard of the defection of Harpagus and of the discomfiture of his army, was thrown into a perfect phrensy of rage and hate. The long-dreaded prediction of his dream seemed now about to be fulfilled, and the magi, who had taught him that when Cyrus had once been made king of the boys in sport, there was no longer any danger of his aspiring to regal power, had proved themselves false. They had either intentionally deceived him, or they were ignorant themselves, and in that case they were worthless impostors. Although the danger from Cyrus's approach was imminent in the extreme, Astyages could not take any measures for guarding against it until he had first gratified the despotic cruelty of his nature by taking vengeance on these false pretenders. He directed to have them all seized and brought before him, and then, having upbraided them with bitter reproaches for their false predictions, he ordered them all to be crucified.

He then adopted the most decisive measures for raising an army. He ordered every man capable of bearing arms to come forward, and then, putting himself at the head of the immense force which he had thus raised, he advanced to meet his enemy. He supposed, no doubt, that he was sure of victory; but he underrated the power which the discipline, the resolution, the concentration, and the terrible energy of Cyrus's troops gave to their formidable array. He was defeated. His army was totally cut to pieces, and he himself was taken prisoner.

Harpagus was present when he was taken, and he exulted in revengeful triumph over the fallen tyrant's ruin. Astyages was filled with rage and despair. Harpagus asked him what he thought now of the supper in which he had compelled a father to feed on the flesh of his child. Astyages, in reply, asked Harpagus whether he thought that the success of Cyrus was owing to what he had done. Harpagus replied that it was, and exultingly explained to Astyages the plots he had formed, and the preparations which he had made for Cyrus's invasion, so that Astyages might see that his destruction had been effected by Harpagus alone, in terrible retribution for the atrocious crime which he had committed so many years before, and for which the vengeance of the sufferer had slumbered, during the long interval, only to be more complete and overwhelming at last.

Astyages told Harpagus that he was a miserable wretch, the most foolish and most wicked of mankind. He was the most foolish, for having plotted to put power into another's hands which it would have been just as easy for him to have secured and retained in his own; and he was the most wicked, for having betrayed his country, and delivered it over to a foreign power, merely to gratify his own private revenge.

The result of this battle was the complete overthrow of the power and kingdom of Astyages, and the establishment of Cyrus on the throne of the united kingdom of Media and Persia. Cyrus treated his grandfather with kindness after his victory over him. He kept him confined, it is true, but it was probably that indirect and qualified sort of confinement which is all that is usually enforced in the case of princes and kings. In such cases, some extensive and often sumptuous residence is assigned to the illustrious prisoner, with grounds sufficiently extensive to afford every necessary range for recreation and exercise, and with bodies of troops for keepers, which have much more the form and appearance of military guards of honor attending on a prince, than of jailers confining a prisoner. It was probably in such an imprisonment as this that Astyages passed the remainder of his days. The people, having been wearied with his despotic tyranny, rejoiced in his downfall, and acquiesced very readily in the milder and more equitable government of Cyrus.

Astyages came to his death many years afterward, in a somewhat remarkable manner. Cyrus sent for him to come into Persia, where he was himself then residing. The officer who had Astyages in charge, conducted him, on the way, into a desolate wilderness, where he perished of fatigue, exposure, and hunger. It was supposed that this was done in obedience to secret orders from Cyrus, who perhaps found the charge of such a prisoner a burden. The officer, however, was cruelly punished for the act; but even this may have been only for appearances, to divert the minds of men from all suspicion that Cyrus could himself have been an accomplice in such a crime.

The whole revolution which has been described in this chapter, from its first inception to its final accomplishment, was effected in a very short period of time, and Cyrus thus found himself very unexpectedly and suddenly elevated to a throne.

Harpagus continued in his service, and became subsequently one of his most celebrated generals.

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