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


We have given the story of Panthea, as contained in the preceding chapter, in our own language, it is true, but without any intentional addition or embellishment whatever. Each reader will judge for himself whether such a narrative, written for the entertainment of vast assemblies at public games and celebrations, is most properly to be regarded as an invention of romance, or as a simple record of veritable history.

A great many extraordinary and dramatic incidents and adventures, similar in general character to the story of Panthea, are interwoven with the narrative in Xenophon's history. There are also, besides these, many long and minute details of dialogues and conversations, which, if they had really occurred, would have required a very high degree of skill in stenography to produce such reports of them as Xenophon has given. The incidents, too, out of which these conversations grew, are worthy of attention, as we can often judge, by the nature and character of an incident described, whether it is one which it is probable might actually occur in real life, or only an invention intended to furnish an opportunity and a pretext for the inculcation of the sentiments, or the expression of the views of the different speakers. It was the custom in ancient days, much more than it is now, to attempt to add to the point and spirit of a discussion, by presenting the various views which the subject naturally elicited in the form of a conversation arising out of circumstances invented to sustain it. The incident in such cases was, of course, a fiction, contrived to furnish points of attachment for the dialogue—a sort of trellis, constructed artificially to support the vine.

We shall present in this chapter some specimens of these conversations, which will give the reader a much more distinct idea of the nature of them than any general description can convey.

At one time in the course of Cyrus's career, just after he had obtained some great victory, and was celebrating his triumphs, in the midst of his armies, with spectacles and games, he instituted a series of races, in which the various nations that were represented in his army furnished their several champions as competitors. The army marched out from the city which Cyrus had captured, and where he was then residing, in a procession of the most imposing magnificence. Animals intended to be offered in sacrifice, caparisoned in trappings of gold, horsemen most sumptuously equipped, chariots of war splendidly built and adorned, and banners and trophies of every kind, were conspicuous in the train. When the vast procession reached the race-ground, the immense concourse was formed in ranks around it, and the racing went on.

When it came to the turn of the Sacian nation to enter the course, a private man, of no apparent importance in respect to his rank or standing, came forward as the champion; though the man appeared insignificant, his horse was as fleet as the wind. He flew around the arena with astonishing speed, and came in at the goal while his competitor was still midway of the course. Every body was astonished at this performance. Cyrus asked the Sacian whether he would be willing to sell that horse, if he could receive a kingdom in exchange for it—kingdoms being the coin with which such sovereigns as Cyrus made their purchases. The Sacian replied that he would not sell his horse for any kingdom, but that he would readily give him away to oblige a worthy man.

"Come with me," said Cyrus, "and I will show you where you may throw blindfold, and not miss a worthy man."

So saying, Cyrus conducted the Sacian to a part of the field where a number of his officers and attendants were moving to and fro, mounted upon their horses, or seated in their chariots of war. The Sacian took up a hard clod of earth from a bank as he walked along. At length they were in the midst of the group.

"Throw!" said Cyrus.

The Sacian shut his eyes and threw.

It happened that, just at that instant, an officer named Pheraulas was riding by. He was conveying some orders which Cyrus had given him to another part of the field. Pheraulas had been originally a man of humble life, but he had been advanced by Cyrus to a high position on account of the greet fidelity and zeal which he had evinced in the performance of his duty. The clod which the Sacian threw struck Pheraulas in the mouth, and wounded him severely. Now it is the part of a good soldier to stand at his post or to press on, in obedience to his orders, as long as any physical capacity remains; and Pheraulas, true to his military obligation, rode on without even turning to see whence and from what cause so unexpected and violent an assault had proceeded.

The Sacian opened his eyes, looked around, and coolly asked who it was that he had hit. Cyrus pointed to the horseman who was riding rapidly away, saying, "That is the man, who is riding so fast past those chariots yonder. You hit him."

"Why did he not turn back, then?" asked the Sacian.

"It is strange that he did not," said Cyrus; "he must be some madman."

The Sacian went in pursuit of him. He found Pheraulas with his face covered with blood and dirt, and asked him if he had received a blow. "I have," said Pheraulas, "as you see." "Then," said the Sacian, "I make you a present of my horse." Pheraulas asked an explanation. The Sacian accordingly gave him an account of what had taken place between himself and Cyrus, and said, in the end, that he gladly gave him his horse, as he, Pheraulas, had so decisively proved himself to be a most worthy man.

Pheraulas accepted the present, with many thanks, and he and the Sacian became thereafter very strong friends.

Some time after this, Pheraulas invited the Sacian to an entertainment, and when the hour arrived, he set before his friend and the other guests a most sumptuous feast, which was served in vessels of gold and silver, and in an apartment furnished with carpets, and canopies, and couches of the most gorgeous and splendid description. The Sacian was much impressed with this magnificence, and he asked Pheraulas whether he had been a rich man at home, that is, before he had joined Cyrus's army. Pheraulas replied that he was not then rich. His father, he said, was a farmer, and he himself had been accustomed in early life to till the ground with the other laborers on his father's farm. All the wealth and luxury which he now enjoyed had been bestowed upon him, he said, by Cyrus.

"How fortunate you are!" said the Sacian; "and it must be that you enjoy your present riches all the more highly on account of having experienced in early life the inconveniences and ills of poverty. The pleasure must be more intense in having desires which have long been felt gratified at last than if the objects which they rested upon had been always in one's possession."

"You imagine, I suppose," replied Pheraulas, "that I am a great deal happier in consequence of all this wealth and splendor; but it is not so. As to the real enjoyments of which our natures are capable, I can not receive more now than I could before. I can not eat any more, drink any more, or sleep any more, or do any of these things with any more pleasure than when I was poor. All that I gain by this abundance is, that I have more to watch, more to guard, more to take care of. I have many servants, for whose wants I have to provide, and who are a constant source of solicitude to me. One calls for food, another for clothes, and a third is sick, and I must see that he has a physician. My other possessions, too, are a constant care. A man comes in, one day, and brings me sheep that have been torn by the wolves; and, on another day, tells me of oxen that have fallen from a precipice, or of a distemper which has broken out among the flocks or herds. My wealth, therefore, brings me only an increase of anxiety and trouble, without any addition to my joys."

"But those things," said the Sacian, "which you name, must be unusual and extraordinary occurrences. When all things are going on prosperously and well with you, and you can look around on all your possessions and feel that they are yours, then certainly you must be happier than I am."

"It is true," said Pheraulas, "that there is a pleasure in the possession of wealth, but that pleasure is not great enough to balance the suffering which the calamities and losses inevitably connected with it occasion. That the suffering occasioned by losing our possessions is greater than the pleasure of retaining them, is proved by the fact that the pain of a loss is so exciting to the mind that it often deprives men of sleep, white they enjoy the most calm and quiet repose so long as their possessions are retained, which proves that the pleasure does not move them so deeply. They are kept awake by the vexation and chagrin on the one hand, but they are never kept awake by the satisfaction on the other."

"That is true," replied the Sacian. "Men are not kept awake by the mere continuing to possess their wealth, but they very often are by the original acquisition of it."

"Yes, indeed," replied Pheraulas; "and if the enjoyment of being  rich could always continue as great as that of first becoming so, the rich would, I admit, be very happy men; but it is not, and can not be so. They who possess much, must lose, and expend, and give much; and this necessity brings more of pain than the possessions themselves can give of pleasure."

The Sacian was not convinced. The giving and expending, he maintained, would be to him, in itself, a source of pleasure. He should like to have much, for the very purpose of being able to expend much. Finally, Pheraulas proposed to the Sacian, since he seemed to think that riches would afford him so much pleasure, and as he himself, Pheraulas, found the possession of them only a source of trouble and care, that he would convey all his wealth to the Sacian, he himself to receive only an ordinary maintenance from it.

"You are in jest," said the Sacian.

"No," said Pheraulas, "I am in earnest." And he renewed his proposition, and pressed the Sacian urgently to accept of it.

The Sacian then said that nothing could give him greater pleasure than such an arrangement. He expressed great gratitude for so generous an offer, and promised that, if he received the property, he would furnish Pheraulas with most ample and abundant supplies for all his wants, and would relieve him entirely of all responsibility and care. He promised, moreover, to obtain from Cyrus permission that Pheraulas should thereafter be excused from the duties of military service, and from all the toils, privations, and hardships of war, so that he might thenceforth lead a life of quiet, luxury, and ease, and thus live in the enjoyment of all the benefits which wealth could procure, without its anxieties and cares.

The plan, thus arranged, was carried into effect. Pheraulas divested himself of his possessions, conveying them all to the Sacian. Both parties were extremely pleased with the operation of the scheme, and they lived thus together for a long time. Whatever Pheraulas acquired in any way, he always brought to the Sacian, and the Sacian, by accepting it, relieved Pheraulas of all responsibility and care. The Sacian loved Pheraulas, as Xenophon says, in closing this narrative, because he was thus continually bringing him gifts; and Pheraulas loved the Sacian, because he was always willing to take the gifts which were thus brought to him.

Among the other conversations, whether real or imaginary, which Xenophon records, he gives some specimens of those which took place at festive entertainments in Cyrus's tent, on occasions when he invited his officers to dine with him. He commenced the conversation, on one of these occasions, by inquiring of some of the officers present whether they did not think that the common soldiers were equal to the officers themselves in intelligence, courage, and military skill, and in all the other substantial qualities of a good soldier.

"I know not how that may be," replied one of the officers. "How they will prove when they come into action with the enemy, I can not tell; but a more perverse and churlish set of fellows in camp, than those I have got in my regiment, I never knew. The other day, for example, when there had been a sacrifice, the meat of the victims was sent around to be distributed to the soldiers. In our regiment, when the steward came in with the first distribution, he began by me, and so went round, as far as what he had brought would go. The next time he came, he began at the other end. The supply failed before he had got to the place where he had left off before, so that there was a man in the middle that did not get any thing. This man immediately broke out in loud and angry complaints, and declared that there was no equality or fairness whatever in such a mode of division, unless they began sometimes in the center of the line.

"Upon this," continued the officer, "I called to the discontented man, and invited him to come and sit by me, where he would have a better chance for a good share. He did so. It happened that, at the next distribution that was made, we were the last, and he fancied that only the smallest pieces were left, so he began to complain more than before. 'Oh, misery!' said he, 'that I should have to sit here!' 'Be patient,' said I; 'pretty soon they will begin the distribution with us, and then you will have the best chance of all.' And so it proved, for, at the next distribution, they began at us, and the man took his share first; but when the second and third men took theirs, he fancied that their pieces looked larger than his, and he reached forward and put his piece back into the basket, intending to change it; but the steward moved rapidly on, and he did not get another, so that he lost his distribution altogether. He was then quite furious with rage and vexation."

Cyrus and all the company laughed very heartily at these mischances of greediness and discontent; and then other stories, of a somewhat similar character, were told by other guests. One officer said that a few days previous he was drilling a part of his troops, and he had before him on the plain what is called, in military language, a squad  of men, whom he was teaching to march. When he gave the order to advance, one, who was at the head of the file, marched forward with great alacrity, but all the rest stood still. "I asked him," continued the officer, "what he was doing. 'Marching,' said he, 'as you ordered me to do.' 'It was not you alone that I ordered to march,' said I, 'but all.' So I sent him back to his place, and then gave the command again. Upon this they all advanced promiscuously and in disorder toward me, each one acting for himself, without regard to the others, and leaving the file-leader, who ought to have been at the head, altogether behind. The file-leader said, 'Keep back! keep back!' Upon this the men were offended, and asked what they were to do about such contradictory orders. 'One commands us to advance, and another to keep back!' said they; 'how are we to know which is obey?' "

Cyrus and his guests were so much amused at the awkwardness of these recruits, and the ridiculous predicament in which the officer was placed by it, that the narrative of the speaker was here interrupted by universal and long-continued laughter.

"Finally," continued the officer, "I sent the men all back to their places, and explained to them that, when a command was given, they were not to obey it in confusion and unseemly haste, but regularly and in order, each one following the man who stood before him. 'You must regulate your proceeding,' said I, 'by the action of the file-leader; when he advances, you must advance, following him in a line, and governing your movements in all respects by his.' "

"Just at this moment," continued the officer, "a man came to me for a letter which was to go to Persia, and which I had left in my tent. I directed the file-leader to run to my tent and bring the letter to me. He immediately set off, and the rest, obeying literally the directions which I had just been giving them, all followed, running behind him in a line like a troop of savages, so that I had the whole squad of twenty men running in a body off the field to fetch a letter!"

When the general hilarity which these recitals occasioned had a little subsided, Cyrus said he thought that they could not complain of the character of the soldiers whom they had to command, for they were certainly, according to these accounts, sufficiently ready to obey the orders they received. Upon this, a certain one of the guests who was present, named Aglaitadas, a gloomy and austere-looking man, who had not joined at all in the merriment which the conversation had caused, asked Cyrus if he believed those stories to be true.

"Why?" asked Cyrus; "what do you  think of them?"

"I  think," said Aglaitadas, "that these officers invented them to make the company laugh. It is evident that they were not telling the truth, since they related the stories in such a vain and arrogant way."

"Arrogant!" said Cyrus; "you ought not to call them arrogant; for, even if they invented their narrations, it was not to gain any selfish ends of their own, but only to amuse us and promote our enjoyment. Such persons should be called polite and agreeable rather than arrogant."

"If, Aglaitadas," said one of the officers who had related the anecdotes, "we had told you melancholy stories to make you gloomy and wretched, you might have been justly displaced; but you certainly ought not to complain of us for making you merry."

"Yes," said Aglaitadas, "I think I may. To make a man laugh is a very insignificant and useless thing. It is far better to make him weep. Such thoughts and such conversation as makes us serious, thoughtful, and sad, and even moves us to tears, are the most salutary and the best."

"Well," replied the officer, "if you will take my advice, you will lay out all your powers of inspiring gloom, and melancholy, and of bringing tears, upon our enemies, and bestow the mirth and laughter upon us. There must be a prodigious deal of laughter in you, for none ever comes out. You neither use nor expend it yourself, nor do you afford it to your friends."

"Then," said Aglaitadas, "why do you attempt to draw it from me?"

"It is  preposterous!" said another of the company; "for one could more easily strike fire out of Aglaitadas than get a laugh from him!"

Aglaitadas could not help smiling at this comparison; upon which Cyrus, with an air of counterfeited gravity, reproved the person who had spoken, saying that he had corrupted the most sober man in the company by making him smile, and that to disturb such gravity as that of Aglaitadas was carrying the spirit of mirth and merriment altogether too far.

These specimens will suffice. They serve to give a more distinct idea of the Cyropædia of Xenophon than any general description could afford. The book is a drama, of which the principal elements are such narratives as the story of Panthea, and such conversations as those contained in this chapter, intermingled with long discussions on the principles of government, and on the discipline and management of armies. The principles and the sentiments which the work inculcates and explains are now of little value, being no longer applicable to the affairs of mankind in the altered circumstances of the present day. The book, however, retains its rank among men on account of a certain beautiful and simple magnificence characterizing the style and language in which it is written, which, however, can not be appreciated except by those who read the narrative in the original tongue.

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