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

The Story of Panthea

In the preceding chapters of this work, we have followed mainly the authority of Herodotus, except, indeed, in the account of the visit of Cyrus to his grandfather in his childhood, which is taken from Xenophon. We shall, in this chapter, relate the story of Panthea, which is also one of Xenophon's tales. We give it as a specimen of the romantic narratives in which Xenophon's history abounds, and on account of the many illustrations of ancient manners and customs which it contains, leaving it for each reader to decide for himself what weight he will attach to its claims to be regarded as veritable history. We relate the story here in our own language, but as to the facts, we follow faithfully the course of Xenophon's narration.

Panthea was a Susian captive. She was taken, together with a great many other captives and much plunder, after one of the great battles which Cyrus fought with the Assyrians. Her husband was an Assyrian general, though he himself was not captured at this time with his wife. The spoil which came into possession of the army on the occasion of the battle in which Panthea was taken was of great value. There were beautiful and costly suits of arms, rich tents made of splendid materials and highly ornamented, large sums of money, vessels of silver and gold, and slaves—some prized for their beauty, and others for certain accomplishments which were highly valued in those days. Cyrus appointed a sort of commission to divide this spoil. He pursued always a very generous policy on all these occasions, showing no desire to secure such treasures to himself, but distributing them with profuse liberality among his officers and soldiers.

The commissioners whom he appointed in this case divided the spoil among the various generals of the army, and among the different bodies of soldiery, with great impartiality. Among the prizes assigned to Cyrus were two singing women of great fame, and this Susian lady. Cyrus thanked the distributors for the share of booty which they had thus assigned to him, but said that if any of his friends wished for either of these captives, they could have them. An officer asked for one of the singers. Cyrus gave her to him immediately, saying, "I consider myself more obliged to you for asking her, than you are to me for giving her to you." As for the Susian lady, Cyrus had not yet seen her, but he called one of his most intimate and confidential friends to him, and requested him to take her under his charge.

The name of this officer was Araspes. He was a Mede, and he had been Cyrus's particular friend and playmate when he was a boy, visiting his grandfather in Media. The reader will perhaps recollect that he is mentioned toward the close of our account of that visit, as the special favorite to whom Cyrus presented his robe or mantle when he took leave of his friends in returning to his native land.

Araspes, when he received this charge, asked Cyrus whether he had himself seen the lady. Cyrus replied that he had not. Araspes then proceeded to give an account of her. The name of her husband was Abradates, and he was the king of Susa, as they termed him. The reason why he was not taken prisoner at the same time with his wife was, that when the battle was fought and the Assyrian camp captured, he was absent, having gone away on an embassage to another nation. This circumstance shows that Abradates, though called a king, could hardly have been a sovereign and independent prince, but rather a governor or viceroy—those words expressing to our minds more truly the station of such a sort of king as could be sent on an embassy.

Araspes went on to say that, at the time of their making the capture, he, with some others, went into Panthea's tent, where they found her and her attendant ladies sitting on the ground, with veils over their faces, patiently awaiting their doom. Notwithstanding the concealment produced by the attitudes and dress of these ladies, there was something about the air and figure of Panthea which showed at once that she was the queen. The leader of Araspes's party asked them all to rise. They did so, and then the superiority of Panthea was still more apparent than before. There was an extraordinary grace and beauty in her attitude and in all her motions. She stood in a dejected posture, and her countenance was sad, though inexpressibly lovely. She endeavored to appear calm and composed, though the tears had evidently been falling from her eyes.

The soldiers pitied her in her distress, and the leader of the party attempted to console her, as Araspes said, by telling her that she had nothing to fear; that they were aware that her husband was a most worthy and excellent man; and although, by this capture, she was lost to him, she would have no cause to regret the event, for she would be reserved for a new husband not at all inferior to her former one either in person, in understanding, in rank, or in power.

These well-meant attempts at consolation did not appear to have the good effect desired. They only awakened Panthea's grief and suffering anew. The tears began to fall again faster than before. Her grief soon became more and more uncontrollable. She sobbed and cried aloud, and began to wring her hands and tear her mantle—the customary Oriental expression of inconsolable sorrow and despair. Araspes said that in these gesticulations her neck, and hands, and a part of her face appeared, and that she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever beheld. He wished Cyrus to see her.

Cyrus said, "No; he would not see her by any means." Araspes asked him why. He said that there would be danger that he should forget his duty to the army, and lose his interest in the great military enterprise in which he was engaged, if he should allow himself to become captivated by the charms of such a lady, as he very probably would be if he were now to visit her. Araspes said in reply that Cyrus might at least see her; as to becoming captivated with her, and devoting himself to her to such a degree as to neglect his other duties, he could certainly control himself in respect to that danger. Cyrus said that it was not certain that he could so control himself; and then there followed a long discussion between Cyrus and Araspes, in which Araspes maintained that every man had the command of his own heart and affections, and that, with proper determination and energy, he could direct the channels in which they should run, and confine them within such limits and bounds as he pleased. Cyrus, on the other hand, maintained that human passions were stronger than the human will; that no one could rely on the strength of his resolutions to control the impulses of the heart once strongly excited, and that a man's only safety was in controlling the circumstances which tended to excite them. This was specially true, he said, in respect to the passion of love. The experience of mankind, he said, had shown that no strength of moral principle, no firmness of purpose, no fixedness of resolution, no degree of suffering, no fear of shame, was sufficient to control, in the hearts of men, the impetuosity of the passion of love, when it was once fairly awakened. In a word, Araspes advocated, on the subject of love, a sort of new school philosophy, while that of Cyrus leaned very seriously toward the old.

In conclusion, Cyrus jocosely counseled Araspes to beware lest he should prove that love was stronger than the will by becoming himself enamored of the beautiful Susian queen. Araspes said that Cyrus need not fear; there was no danger. He must be a miserable wretch indeed, he said, who could not summon within him sufficient resolution and energy to control his own passions and desires. As for himself, he was sure that he was safe.

As usual with those who are self-confident and boastful, Araspes failed when the time of trial came. He took charge of the royal captive whom Cyrus committed to him with a very firm resolution to be faithful to his trust. He pitied the unhappy queen's misfortunes, and admired the heroic patience and gentleness of spirit with which she bore them. The beauty of her countenance, and her thousand personal charms, which were all heightened by the expression of sadness and sorrow which they bore, touched his heart. It gave him pleasure to grant her every indulgence consistent with her condition of captivity, and to do every thing in his power to promote her welfare. She was very grateful for these favors, and the few brief words and looks of kindness with which she returned them repaid him for his efforts to please her a thousand-fold. He saw her, too, in her tent, in the presence of her maidens, at all times; and as she looked upon him as only her custodian and guard, and as, too, her mind was wholly occupied by the thoughts of her absent husband and her hopeless grief, her actions were entirely free and unconstrained in his presence. This made her only the more attractive; every attitude and movement seemed to possess, in Araspes's mind, an inexpressible charm. In a word, the result was what Cyrus had predicted. Araspes became wholly absorbed in the interest which was awakened in him by the charms of the beautiful captive. He made many resolutions, but they were of no avail. While he was away from her, he felt strong in his determination to yield to these feelings no more; but as soon as he came into her presence, all these resolutions melted wholly away, and he yielded his heart entirely to the control of emotions which, however vincible they might appear at a distance, were found, when the time of trial came, to possess a certain mysterious and magic power, which made it most delightful for the heart to yield before them in the contest, and utterly impossible to stand firm and resist. In a word, when seen at a distance, love appeared to him an enemy which he was ready to brave, and was sure that he could overcome; but when near, it transformed itself into the guise of a friend, and he accordingly threw down the arms with which he had intended to combat it, and gave himself up to it in a delirium of pleasure.

Things continued in this state for some time. The army advanced from post to post, and from encampment to encampment, taking the captives in their train. New cities were taken, new provinces overrun, and new plans for future conquests were formed. At last a case occurred in which Cyrus wished to send some one as a spy into a distant enemy's country. The circumstances were such that it was necessary that a person of considerable intelligence and rank should go, as Cyrus wished the messenger whom he should send to make his way to the court of the sovereign, and become personally acquainted with the leading men of the state, and to examine the general resources of the kingdom. It was a very different case from that of an ordinary spy, who was to go into a neighboring camp merely to report the numbers and disposition of an organized army. Cyrus was uncertain whom he should send on such an embassy.

In the mean time, Araspes had ventured to express to Panthea his love for her. She was offended. In the first place, she was faithful to her husband, and did not wish to receive such addresses from any person. Then, besides, she considered Araspes, having been placed in charge of her by Cyrus, his master, only for the purpose of keeping her safely, as guilty of a betrayal of his trust in having dared to cherish and express sentiments of affection for her himself. She, however, forbore to reproach him, or to complain of him to Cyrus. She simply repelled the advances that he made, supposing that, if she did this with firmness and decision, Araspes would feel rebuked and would say no more. It did not, however, produce this effect. Araspes continued to importune her with declarations of love, and at length she felt compelled to appeal to Cyrus.

Cyrus, instead of being incensed at what might have been considered a betrayal of trust on the part of Araspes, only laughed at the failure and fall in which all his favorite's promises and boastings had ended. He sent a messenger to Araspes to caution him in regard to his conduct, telling him that he ought to respect the feelings of such a woman as Panthea had proved herself to be. The messenger whom Cyrus sent was not content with delivering his message as Cyrus had dictated it. He made it much more stern and severe. In fact, he reproached the lover, in a very harsh and bitter manner, for indulging such a passion. He told him that he had betrayed a sacred trust reposed in him, and acted in a manner at once impious and unjust. Araspes was overwhelmed with remorse and anguish, and with fear of the consequences which might ensue, as men are when the time arrives for being called to account for transgressions which, while they were committing them, gave them little concern.

When Cyrus heard how much Araspes had been distressed by the message of reproof which he had received and by his fears of punishment, he sent for him. Araspes came. Cyrus told him that he had no occasion to be alarmed. "I do not wonder," said he, "at the result which has happened. We all know how difficult it is to resist the influence which is exerted upon our minds by the charms of a beautiful woman, when we are thrown into circumstances of familiar intercourse with her. Whatever of wrong there has been ought to be considered as more my fault than yours. I was wrong in placing you in such circumstances of temptation, by giving you so beautiful a woman in charge."

Araspes was very much struck with the generosity of Cyrus, in thus endeavoring to soothe his anxiety and remorse, and taking upon himself the responsibility and the blame. He thanked Cyrus very earnestly for his kindness; but he said that, notwithstanding his sovereign's willingness to forgive him, he felt still oppressed with grief and concern, for the knowledge of his fault had been spread abroad in the army; his enemies were rejoicing over him, and were predicting his disgrace and ruin; and some persons had even advised him to make his escape, by absconding before any worse calamity should befall him.

"If this is so," said Cyrus, "it puts it in your power to render me a very essential service." Cyrus then explained to Araspes the necessity that he was under of finding some confidential agent to go on a secret mission into the enemy's country, and the importance that the messenger should go under such circumstances as not to be suspected of being Cyrus's friend in disguise. "You can pretend to abscond," said he; "it will be immediately said that you fled for fear of my displeasure. I will pretend to send in pursuit of you. The news of your evasion will spread rapidly, and will be parried, doubtless, into the enemy's country; so that, when you arrive there, they will be prepared to welcome you as a deserter from my cause, and a refugee."

This plan was agreed upon, and Araspes prepared for his departure. Cyrus gave him his instructions, and they concerted together the information—fictitious, of course—which he was to communicate to the enemy in respect to Cyrus's situation and designs. When all was ready for his departure, Cyrus asked him how it was that he was so willing to separate himself thus from the beautiful Panthea. He said in reply, that when he was absent from Panthea, he was capable of easily forming any determination, and of pursuing any line of conduct that his duty required, while yet, in her presence, he found his love for her, and the impetuous feelings to which it gave rise, wholly and absolutely uncontrollable.

As soon as Araspes was gone, Panthea, who supposed that he had really fled for fear of the indignation of the king, in consequence of his unfaithfulness to his trust, sent to Cyrus a message, expressing her regret at the unworthy conduct and the flight of Araspes, and saying that she could, and gladly would, if he consented, repair the loss which the desertion of Araspes occasioned by sending for her own husband. He was, she said, dissatisfied with the government under which he lived, having been cruelly and tyrannically treated by the prince. "If you will allow me to send for him," she added, "I am sure he will come and join your army; and I assure you that you will find him a much more faithful and devoted servant than Araspes has been."

Cyrus consented to this proposal, and Panthea sent for Abradates. Abradates came at the head of two thousand horse, which formed a very important addition to the forces under Cyrus's command. The meeting between Panthea and her husband was joyful in the extreme. When Abradates learned from his wife how honorable and kind had been the treatment which Cyrus had rendered to her, he was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude, and he declared that he would do the utmost in his power to requite the obligations he was under.

Abradates entered at once, with great ardor and zeal, into plans for making the force which he had brought as efficient as possible in the service of Cyrus. He observed that Cyrus was interested, at that time, in attempting to build and equip a corps of armed chariots, such as were often used in fields of battle in those days. This was a very expensive sort of force, corresponding, in that respect, with the artillery used in modern times. The carriages were heavy and strong, and were drawn generally by two horses. They had short, scythe-like blades of steel projecting from the axle-trees on each side, by which the ranks of the enemy were mowed down when the carriages were driven among them. The chariots were made to contain, besides the driver of the horses, one or more warriors, each armed in the completest manner. These warriors stood on the floor of the vehicle, and fought with javelins and spears. The great plains which abound in the interior countries of Asia were very favorable for this species of warfare.


The War Chariot of Abradates.

Abradates immediately fitted up for Cyrus a hundred such chariots at his own expense, and provided horses to draw them from his own troop. He made one chariot much larger than the rest, for himself, as he intended to take command of this corps of chariots in person. His own chariot was to be drawn by eight horses. His wife Panthea was very much interested in these preparations. She wished to do something herself toward the outfit. She accordingly furnished, from her own private treasures, a helmet, a corslet, and arm-pieces of gold. These articles formed a suit of armor sufficient to cover all that part of the body which would be exposed in standing in the chariot. She also provided breast-pieces and side-pieces of brass for the horses. The whole chariot, thus quipped, with its eight horses in their gay trappings and resplendent armor, and with Abradates standing within it, clothed in his panoply of gold, presented, as it drove, in the sight of the whole army, around the plain of the encampment, a most imposing spectacle. It was a worthy leader, as the spectators thought, to head the formidable column of a hundred similar engines which were to follow in its train. If we imagine the havoc which a hundred scythe-armed carriages would produce when driven, with headlong fury, into dense masses of men, on a vast open plain, we shall have some idea of one item of the horrors of ancient war.

The full splendor of Abradates's equipments were not, however, displayed at first, for Panthea kept what she had done a secret for a time, intending to reserve her contribution for a parting present to her husband when the period should arrive for going into battle. She had accordingly taken the measure for her work by stealth, from the armor which Abradates was accustomed to wear, and had caused the artificers to make the golden pieces with the utmost secrecy. Besides the substantial defenses of gold which she provided, she added various other articles for ornament and decoration There was a purple robe, a crest for the helmet, which was of a violet color, plumes, and likewise bracelets for the wrists. Panthea kept all these things herself until the day arrived when her husband was going into battle for the first time with his train, and then, when he went into his tent to prepare himself to ascend his chariot, she brought them to him.

Abradates was astonished when he saw them. He soon understood how they had been provided, and he exclaimed, with a heart full of surprise and pleasure, "And so, to provide me with this splendid armor and dress, you have been depriving yourself of all your finest and most beautiful ornaments!"

"No," said Panthea, "you are yourself my finest ornament, if you appear in other people's eyes as you do in mine, and I have not deprived myself of you."

The appearance which Abradates made in other people's eyes was certainly very splendid on this occasion. There were many spectators present to see him mount his chariot and drive away; but so great was their admiration of Panthea's affection and regard for her husband, and so much impressed were they with her beauty, that the great chariot, the resplendent horses, and the grand warrior with his armor of gold, which the magnificent equipage was intended to convey, were, all together, scarcely able to draw away the eyes of the spectators from her. She stood, for a while, by the side of the chariot, addressing her husband in an under tone, reminding him of the obligations which they were under to Cyrus for his generous and noble treatment of her, and urging him, now that he was going to be put to the test, to redeem the promise which she had made in his name, that Cyrus would find him faithful, brave, and true.

The driver then closed the door by which Abradates had mounted, so that Panthea was separated from her husband, though she could still see him as he stood in his place. She gazed upon him with a countenance full of affection and solicitude. She kissed the margin of the chariot as it began to move away. She walked along after it as it went, as if, after all, she could not bear the separation. Abradates turned, and when he saw her coming on after the carriage, he said, waving his hand for a parting salutation, "Farewell, Panthea; go back now to your tent, and do not be anxious about me. Farewell." Panthea turned—her attendants came and took her away—the spectators all turned, too, to follow her with their eyes, and no one paid any regard to the chariot or to Abradates until she was gone.

On the field of battle, before the engagement commenced, Cyrus, in passing along the lines, paused, when he came to the chariots of Abradates, to examine the arrangements which had been made for them, and to converse a moment with the chief. He saw that the chariots were drawn up in a part of the field where there was opposed to them a very formidable array of Egyptian soldiers. The Egyptians in this war were allies of the enemy. Abradates, leaving his chariot in the charge of his driver, descended and came to Cyrus, and remained in conversation with him for a few moments, to receive his last orders. Cyrus directed him to remain where he was, and not to attack the enemy until he received a certain signal. At length the two chieftains separated; Abradates returned to his chariot, and Cyrus moved on. Abradates then moved slowly along his lines, to encourage and animate his men; and to give them the last directions in respect to the charge which they were about to make on the enemy when the signal should be given. All eyes were turned to the magnificent spectacle which his equipage presented as it advanced toward them; the chariot, moving slowly along the line, the tall and highly-decorated form of its commander rising in the center of it, while the eight horses, animated by the sound of the trumpets, and by the various excitements of the scene, stepped proudly, their brazen armor clanking as they came.

When, at length, the signal was given, Abradates, calling on the other chariots to follow, put his horses to their speed, and the whole line rushed impetuously on to the attack of the Egyptians. War horses, properly trained to their work, will fight with their hoofs with almost as much reckless determination as men will with spears. They rush madly on to encounter whatever opposition there may be before them, and strike down and leap over whatever comes in their way, as if they fully understood the nature of the work that their riders or drivers were wishing them to do. Cyrus, as he passed along from one part of the battle field to another, saw the horses of Abradates's line dashing thus impetuously into the thickest ranks of the enemy. The men, on every side, were beaten down by the horses' hoofs, or overturned by the wheels, or cut down by the scythes; and they who here and there escaped these dangers, became the aim of the soldiers who stood in the chariots, and were transfixed with their spears. The heavy wheels rolled and jolted mercilessly over the bodies of the wounded and the fallen, while the scythes caught hold of and cut through every thing that came in their way—whether the shafts of javelins and spears, or the limbs and bodies of men—and tore every thing to pieces in their terrible career. As Cyrus rode rapidly by, he saw Abradates in the midst of this scene, driving on in his chariot, and shouting to his men in a phrensy of excitement and triumph.

The battle in which these events occurred was one of the greatest and most important which Cyrus fought. He gained the victory. His enemies were every where routed and driven from the field. When the contest was at length decided, the army desisted from the slaughter and encamped for the night. On the following day, the generals assembled at the tent of Cyrus to discuss the arrangements which were to be made in respect to the disposition of the captives and of the spoil, and to the future movements of the army. Abradates was not there. For a time, Cyrus, in the excitement and confusion of the scene did not observe his absence. At length he inquired for him. A soldier present told him that he had been killed from his chariot in the midst of the Egyptians, and that his wife was at that moment attending to the interment of the body, on the banks of a river which flowed near the field of battle. Cyrus, on hearing this, uttered a loud exclamation of astonishment and sorrow. He dropped the business in which he had been engaged with his council, mounted his horse, commanded attendants to follow him with every thing that could be necessary on such an occasion, and then, asking those who knew to lead the way, he drove off to find Panthea.

When he arrived at the spot, the dead body of Abradates was lying upon the ground, while Panthea sat by its side, holding the head in her lap, overwhelmed herself with unutterable sorrow. Cyrus leaped from his horse, knelt down by the side of the corpse, saying, at the same time, "Alas! thou brave and faithful soul, and art thou gone?"

At the same time, he took hold of the hand of Abradates; but, as he attempted to raise it, the arm came away from the body. It had been out off by an Egyptian sword. Cyrus was himself shocked at the spectacle, and Panthea's grief broke forth anew. She cried out with bitter anguish, replaced the arm in the position in which she had arranged it before, and told Cyrus that the rest of the body was in the same condition. Whenever she attempted to speak, her sobs and tears almost prevented her utterance. She bitterly reproached herself for having been, perhaps, the cause of her husband's death, by urging him, as she had done, to fidelity and courage when he went into battle. "And now," she said, "he is dead, while I, who urged him forward into the danger, am still alive."

Cyrus said what he could to console Panthea's grief; but he found it utterly inconsolable. He gave directions for furnishing her with every thing which she could need, and promised her that he would make ample arrangements for providing for her in future. "You shall be treated," he said, "while you remain with me, in the most honorable manner; or, if you have any friends whom you wish to join, you shall be sent to them safely whenever you please."

Panthea thanked him for his kindness. She had a friend, she said, whom she wished to join, and she would let him know in due time who it was. In the mean time, she wished that Cyrus would leave her alone, for a while, with her servants, and her waiting-maid, and the dead body of her husband. Cyrus accordingly withdrew. As soon as he had gone, Panthea sent away the servants also, retaining the waiting-maid alone. The waiting-maid began to be anxious and concerned at witnessing these mysterious arrangements, as if they portended some new calamity. She wondered what her mistress was going to do. Her doubts were dispelled by seeing Panthea produce a sword, which she had kept concealed hitherto beneath her robe. Her maid begged her, with much earnestness and many tears, not to destroy herself; but Panthea was immovable. She said she could not live any longer. She directed the maid to envelop her body, as soon as she was dead, in the same mantle with her husband, and to have them both deposited together in the same grave; and before her stupefied attendant could do any thing to save her, she sat down by the side of her husband's body, laid her head upon his breast, and in that position gave herself the fatal wound. In a few minutes she ceased to breathe.

Cyrus expressed his respect for the memory of Abradates and Panthea by erecting a lofty monument over their common grave.

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