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

The Death of Cyrus

After having made the conquest of the Babylonian empire, Cyrus found himself the sovereign of nearly all of Asia, so far as it was then known. Beyond his dominions there lay, on every side, according to the opinions which then prevailed, vast tracts of uninhabitable territory, desolate and impassable. These wildernesses were rendered unfit for man, sometimes by excessive heat, sometimes by excessive cold, sometimes from being parched by perpetual drought, which produced bare and desolate deserts, and sometimes by incessant rains, which drenched the country and filled it with morasses and fens. On the north was the great Caspian Sea, then almost wholly unexplored, and extending, as the ancients believed, to the Polar Ocean.

On the west side of the Caspian Sea were the Caucasian Mountains, which were supposed, in those days, to be the highest on the globe. In the neighborhood of these mountains there was a country, inhabited by a wild and half-savage people, who were called Scythians. This was, in fact, a sort of generic term, which was applied, in those days, to almost all the aboriginal tribes beyond the confines of civilization. The Scythians, however, if such they can properly be called, who lived on the borders of the Caspian Sea, were not wholly uncivilized. They possessed many of those mechanical arts which are the first to be matured among warlike nations. They had no iron or steel, but they were accustomed to work other metals, particularly gold and brass. They tipped their spears and javelins with brass, and made brazen plates for defensive armor, both for themselves and for their horses. They made, also, many ornaments and decorations of gold. These they attached to their helmets, their belts, and their banners. They were very formidable in war, being, like all other northern nations, perfectly desperate and reckless in battle. They were excellent horsemen, and had an abundance of horses with which to exercise their skill; so that their armies consisted, like those of the Cossacks of modern times, of great bodies of cavalry.

The various campaigns and conquests by which Cyrus obtained possession of his extended dominions occupied an interval of about thirty years. It was near the close of this interval, when he was, in fact, advancing toward a late period of life, that he formed the plan of penetrating into these northern regions, with a view of adding them also to his domains.

He had two sons, Cambyses and Smerdis. His wife is said to have been a daughter of Astyages, and that he married her soon after his conquest of the kingdom of Media, in order to reconcile the Medians more easily to his sway, by making a Median princess their queen. Among the western nations of Europe such a marriage would be abhorred, Astyages having been Cyrus's grandfather; but among the Orientals, in those days, alliances of this nature were not uncommon. It would seem that this queen was not living at the time that the events occurred which are to be related in this chapter. Her sons had grown up to maturity, and were now princes of great distinction.

One of the Scythian or northern nations to which we have referred were called the Massagetæ. They formed a very extensive and powerful realm. They were governed, at this time, by a queen named Tomyris. She was a widow, past middle life. She had a son named Spargapizes, who had, like the sons of Cyrus, attained maturity, and was the heir to the throne. Spargapizes was, moreover, the commander-in-chief of the armies of the queen.

The first plan which Cyrus formed for the annexation of the realm of the Massagetæ to his own dominions was by a matrimonial alliance. He accordingly raised an army and commenced a movement toward the north, sending, at the same time, embassadors before him into the country of the Massagetæ, with offers of marriage to the queen. The queen knew very well that it was her dominions, and not herself, that constituted the great attraction for Cyrus, and, besides, she was of an age when ambition is a stronger passion than love. She refused the offers, and sent back word to Cyrus forbidding his approach.

Cyrus, however, continued to move on. The boundary between his dominions and those of the queen was at the River Araxes, a stream flowing from west to east, through the central parts of Asia, toward the Caspian Sea. As Cyrus advanced, he found the country growing more and more wild and desolate. It was inhabited by savage tribes, who lived on roots and herbs, and who were elevated very little, in any respect, above the wild beasts that roamed in the forests around them. They had one very singular custom, according to Herodotus. It seems that there was a plant which grew among them, that bore a fruit, whose fumes, when it was roasting on a fire, had an exhilarating effect, like that produced by wine. These savages, therefore, Herodotus says, were accustomed to assemble around a fire, in their convivial festivities, and to throw some of this fruit in the midst of it. The fumes emitted by the fruit would soon begin to intoxicate the whole circle, when they would throw on more fruit, and become more and more excited, until, at length, they would jump up, and dance about, and sing, in a state of complete inebriation.

Among such savages as these, and through the forests and wildernesses in which they lived, Cyrus advanced till he reached the Araxes. Here, after considering, for some time, by what means he could best pass the river, he determined to build a floating bridge, by means of boats and rafts obtained from the natives on the banks, or built for the purpose. It would be obviously much easier to transport the army by using these boats and rafts to float  the men across, instead of constructing a bridge with them; but this would not have been safe, for the transportation of the army by such a means would be gradual and slow; and if the enemy were lurking in the neighborhood, and should make an attack upon them in the midst of the operation, while a part of the army were upon one bank and a part upon the other, and another portion still, perhaps, in boats upon the stream, the defeat and destruction of the whole would be almost inevitable. Cyrus planned the formation of the bridge, therefore, as a means of transporting his army in a body, and of landing them on the opposite bank in solid columns, which could be formed into order of battle without any delay.

While Cyrus was engaged in the work of constructing the bridge, embassadors appeared, who said that they had been sent from Tomyris. She had commissioned them, they said, to warn Cyrus to desist entirely from his designs upon her kingdom, and to return to his own. This would be the wisest course, too, Tomyris said, for himself, and she counseled him, for his own welfare, to follow it. He could not foresee the result, if he should invade her dominions and encounter her armies. Fortune had favored him thus far, it was true, but fortune might change, and he might find himself, before he was aware, at the end of his victories. Still, she said, she had no expectation that he would be disposed to listen to this warning and advice, and, on her part, she had no objection to his persevering in his invasion. She did not fear him. He need not put himself to the expense and trouble of building a bridge across the Araxes. She would agree to withdraw all her forces three days' march into her own country, so that he might cross the river safely and at his leisure, and she would await him at the place where she should have encamped; or, if he preferred it, she would cross the river and meet him on his own side. In that case, he must retire three days' march from the river, so as to afford her the same opportunity to make the passage undisturbed which she had offered him. She would then come over and march on to attack him. She gave Cyrus his option which branch of this alternative to choose.

Cyrus called a council of war to consider the question. He laid the case before his officers and generals, and asked for their opinion. They were unanimously agreed that it would be best for him to accede to the last of the two proposals made to him, viz., to draw back three days' journey toward his own dominions, and wait for Tomyris to come and attack him there.

There was, however, one person present at this consultation, though not regularly a member of the council, who gave Cyrus different advice. This was Crœsus, the fallen king of Lydia. Ever since the time of his captivity, he had been retained in the camp and in the household of Cyrus, and had often accompanied him in his expeditions and campaigns. Though a captive, he seems to have been a friend; at least, the most friendly relations appeared to subsist between him and his conqueror; and he often figures in history as a wise and honest counselor to Cyrus, in the various emergencies in which he was placed. He was present on this occasion, and he dissented from the opinion which was expressed by the officers of the army.

"I ought to apologize, perhaps," said he, "for presuming to offer any counsel, captive as I am; but I have derived, in the school of calamity and misfortune in which I have been taught, some advantages for learning wisdom which you have never enjoyed. It seems to me that it will be much better for you not to fall back, but to advance and attack Tomyris in her own dominions; for, if you retire in this manner, in the first place, the act itself is discreditable to you: it is a retreat. Then, if, in the battle that follows, Tomyris conquers you, she is already advanced three days' march into your dominions, and she may go on, and, before you can take measures for raising another army, make herself mistress of your empire. On the other hand, if, in the battle, you conquer her, you will be then six days' march back of the position which you would occupy if you were to advance now.

"I will propose," continued Crœsus, "the following plan: Cross the river according to Tomyris's offer, and advance the three days' journey into her country. Leave a small part of your force there, with a great abundance of your most valuable baggage and supplies—luxuries of all kinds, and rich wines, and such articles as the enemy will most value as plunder. Then fall back with the main body of your army toward the river again, in a secret manner, and encamp in an ambuscade. The enemy will attack your advanced detachment. They will conquer them. They will seize the stores and supplies, and will suppose that your whole army is vanquished. They will fall upon the plunder in disorder, and the discipline of their army will be overthrown. They will go to feasting upon the provisions and to drinking the wines, and then, when they are in the midst of their festivities and revelry, you can come back suddenly with the real strength of your army, and wholly overwhelm them."

Cyrus determined to adopt the plan which Crœsus thus recommended. He accordingly gave answer to the embassadors of Tomyris that he would accede to the first of her proposals. If she would draw back from the river three days' march, he would cross it with his army as soon as practicable, and then come forward and attack her. The embassadors received this message, and departed to deliver it to their queen. She was faithful to her agreement, and drew her forces bank to the place proposed, and left them there, encamped under the command of her son.

Cyrus seems to have felt some forebodings in respect to the manner in which this expedition was to end. He was advanced in life, and not now as well able as he once was to endure the privations and hardships of such campaigns. Then, the incursion which he was to make was into a remote, and wild, and dangerous country and he could not but be aware that he might never return. Perhaps he may have had some compunctions of conscience, too, at thus wantonly disturbing the peace and invading the territories of an innocent neighbor, and his mind may have been the less at ease on that account. At any rate, he resolved to settle the affairs of his government before he set out, in order to secure both the tranquility of the country while he should be absent, and the regular transmission of his power to his descendants in case he should never return.

Accordingly, in a very formal manner, and in the presence of all his army, he delegated his power to Cambyses, his son, constituting him regent of the realm during his absence. He committed Crœsus to his son's special care, charging him to pay him every attention and honor. It was arranged that these persons, as well as a considerable portion of the army, and a large number of attendants that had followed the camp thus far, were not to accompany the expedition across the river, but were to remain behind and return to the capital. These arrangements being all thus finally made, Cyrus took leave of his son and of Crœsus, crossed the river with that part of the army which was to proceed, and commenced his march.

The uneasiness and anxiety which Cyrus seems to have felt in respect to his future fate on this memorable march affected even his dreams. It seems that there was among the officers of his army a certain general named Hystaspes. He had a son named Darius, then a youth of about twenty years of age, who had been left at home, in Persia, when the army marched, not being old enough to accompany them. Cyrus dreamed, one night, immediately after crossing the river, that he saw this young Darius with wings on his shoulders, that extended, the one over Asia and the other over Europe, thus overshadowing the world. When Cyrus awoke and reflected upon his dream, it seemed to him to portend that Darius might be aspiring to the government of his empire. He considered it a warning intended to put him on his guard.

When he awoke in the morning, he sent for Hystaspes, and related to him his dream. "I am satisfied," said he, "that it denotes that your son is forming ambitious and treasonable designs. Do you therefore, return home, and arrest him in this fatal course. Secure him, and let him be ready to give me an account of his conduct when I shall return."

Hystaspes, having received this commission, left the army and returned. The name of this Hystaspes acquired a historical immortality in a very singular way, that is, by being always used as a part of the appellation by which to designate his distinguished son. In after years Darius did attain to a very extended power. He became Darius the Great. As, however, there were several other Persian monarchs called Darius, some of whom were nearly as great as this the first of the name, the usage was gradually established of calling him Darius Hystaspes; and thus the name of the father has become familiar to all mankind, simply as a consequence and pendant to the celebrity of the son.

After sending off Hystaspes, Cyrus went on. He followed, in all respects, the plan of Crœsus. He marched his army into the country of Tomyris, and advanced until he reached the point agreed upon. Here he stationed a feeble portion of his army, with great stores of provisions and wines, and abundance of such articles as would, be prized by the barbarians as booty. He then drew back with the main body of his army toward the Araxes, and concealed his forces in a hidden encampment. The result was as Crœsus had anticipated. The body which he had left was attacked by the troops of Tomyris, and effectually routed. The provisions and stores fell into the hands of the victors. They gave themselves up to the most unbounded joy, and their whole camp was soon a universal scene of rioting and excess. Even the commander, Spargapizes, Tomyris's son, became intoxicated with the wine.

While things were in this state, the main body of the army of Cyrus returned suddenly and unexpectedly, and fell upon their now helpless enemies with a force which entirely overwhelmed them. The booty was recovered, large numbers of the enemy were slain, and others were taken prisoners. Spargapizes himself was captured; his hands were bound; he was taken into Cyrus's camp, and closely guarded.

The result of this stratagem, triumphantly successful as it was, would have settled the contest, and made Cyrus master of the whole realm, if as he, at the time, supposed was the case, the main body of Tomyris's forces had been engaged in this battle; but it seems that Tomyris had learned, by reconnoiterers and spies, how large a force there was in Cyrus's camp, and had only sent a detachment of her own troops to attack them, not judging it necessary to call out the whole. Two thirds of her army remained still uninjured. With this large force she would undoubtedly have advanced without any delay to attack Cyrus again, were it not for her maternal concern for the safety of her son. He was in Cyrus's power, a helpless captive, and she did not know to what cruelties he would be exposed if Cyrus were to be exasperated against her. While her heart, therefore, was burning with resentment and anger, and with an almost uncontrollable thirst for revenge, her hand was restrained. She kept back her army, and sent to Cyrus a conciliatory message.

She said to Cyrus that he had no cause to be specially elated at his victory; that it was only one third of her forces that had been engaged, and that with the remainder she held him completely in her power. She urged him, therefore, to be satisfied with the injury which he had already inflicted upon her by destroying one third of her army, and to liberate her son, retire from her dominions, and leave her in peace. If he would do so, she would not molest him in his departure; but if he would not, she swore by the sun, the great god which she and her countrymen adored, that, insatiable as he was for blood, she would give it to him till he had his fill.

Of course Cyrus was not to be frightened by such threats as these. He refused to deliver up the captive prince, or to withdraw from the country, and both parties began to prepare again for war.

Spargapizes was intoxicated when he was taken, and was unconscious of the calamity which had befallen him. When at length he awoke from his stupor, and learned the full extent of his misfortune, and of the indelible disgrace which he had incurred, he was overwhelmed with astonishment, disappointment, and shame. The more he reflected upon his condition, the more hopeless it seemed. Even if his life were to be spared, and if he were to recover his liberty, he never could recover his honor. The ignominy of such a defeat and such a captivity, he knew well, must be indelible.

He begged Cyrus to loosen his bonds and allow him personal liberty within the camp. Cyrus, pitying, perhaps, his misfortunes, and the deep dejection and distress which they occasioned, acceded to this request. Spargapizes watched watched an opportunity to seize a weapon when he was not observed by his guards, and killed himself.

His mother Tomyris, when she heard of his fate, was frantic with grief and rage. She considered Cyrus as the wanton destroyer of the peace of her kingdom and the murderer of her son, and she had now no longer any reason for restraining her thirst for revenge. She immediately began to concentrate her forces, and to summon all the additional troops that she could obtain from every part of her kingdom. Cyrus, too, began in earnest to strengthen his lines, and to prepare for the great final struggle.

At length the armies approached each other, and the battle began. The attack was commenced by the archers on either side, who shot showers of arrows at their opponents as they were advancing. When the arrows were spent, the men fought hand to hand, with spears, and javelins, and swords. The Persians fought desperately, for they fought for their lives. They were in the heart of an enemy's country, with a broad river behind them to cut off their retreat, and they were contending with a wild and savage foe, whose natural barbarity was rendered still more ferocious and terrible than ever by the exasperation which they felt, in sympathy with their injured queen. For a long time it was wholly uncertain which side would win the day. The advantage, here and there along the lines, was in some places on one side, and in some places on the other; but, though overpowered and beaten, the several bands, whether of Persians or Scythians, would neither retreat nor surrender, but the survivors, when their comrades had fallen, continued to fight on till they were all slain. It was evident, at last, that the Scythians were gaining the day. When night came on, the Persian army was found to be almost wholly destroyed; the remnant dispersed. When all was over, the Scythians, in exploring the field, found the dead body of Cyrus among the other ghastly and mutilated remains which covered the ground. They took it up with a ferocious and exulting joy, and carried it to Tomyris.

Tomyris treated it with every possible indignity. She cut and mutilated the lifeless form, as if it could still feel the injuries inflicted by her insane revenge. "Miserable wretch!" said she; "though I am in the end your conqueror, you have ruined my peace and happiness forever. You have murdered my son. But I promised you your fill of blood, and you shall have it." So saying, she filled a can with Persian blood, obtained, probably, by the execution of her captives, and, cutting off the head of her victim from the body, she plunged it in, exclaiming, "Drink there, insatiable monster, till your murderous thirst is satisfied."

This was the end of Cyrus. Cambyses, his son, whom he had appointed regent during his absence, succeeded quietly to the government of his vast dominions.

In reflecting on this melancholy termination of this great conqueror's history, our minds naturally revert to the scenes of his childhood, and we wonder that so amiable, and gentle, and generous a boy should become so selfish, and unfeeling, and overbearing as a man. But such are the natural and inevitable effects of ambition and an inordinate love of power. The history of a conqueror is always a tragical and melancholy tale. He begins life with an exhibition of great and noble qualities, which awaken in us, who read his history, the same admiration that was felt for him, personally, by his friends and countrymen while he lived, and on which the vast ascendency which he acquired over the minds of his fellow-men, and which led to his power and fame, was, in a great measure, founded. On the other hand, he ends life neglected, hated, and abhorred. His ambition has been gratified, but the gratification has brought with it no substantial peace or happiness; on the contrary, it has filled his soul with uneasiness, discontent, suspiciousness, and misery. The histories of heroes would be far less painful in the perusal if we could reverse this moral change of character, so as to have the cruelty, the selfishness, and the oppression exhaust themselves in the comparatively unimportant transactions of early life, and the spirit of kindness, generosity, and beneficence blessing and beautifying its close. To be generous, disinterested, and noble, seems to be necessary as the precursor of great military success; and to be hard-hearted, selfish, and cruel is the almost inevitable consequence of it. The exceptions to this rule, though some of them are very splendid, are yet very few.

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