Gateway to the Classics: Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by F. J. Gould
Tales of the Greeks: The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould

In Olden Persia

T HE prince and his grandly-dressed nobles walked in procession into the temple, and there a priest stepped forward to meet them.

"Eat this cake of figs," said the priest; and the prince ate the sweetmeat. He was about to become king of the plains and mountains of Persia, and some of his life would be sweet and happy.

"Chew this resin," said the priest; and the prince made a wry face as he ate a piece of turpentine-gum from a pine-tree. Some parts of a king's life are very bitter.

"Drink this sour milk," said the priest; and the prince drank the unpleasant draught. Sweet milk turns sour, and things and people that once were charming may become hateful and disagreeable.

"Put on this old coat," said the priest; and the prince donned a coat which had once been worn by a mighty lord of Persia, named Cyrus. When he wore the coat of the dead lord the new king hoped he would be as great and powerful as Cyrus himself.

A cry rang loudly through the aisles (or passages) of the temple.

"Treason, treason, O king, your life is in danger! In yonder chamber is hiding your brother Cyrus, with intent to kill you."

Guards and nobles rushed to the chamber and dragged out the king's younger brother. Swords were raised to slay him, when the queen-mother flung herself upon the neck of Cyrus (whom she loved better than his brother the king), and twisted the long tresses of her hair about his shoulders; and when he was thus shielded by the queen's hair the soldiers dared not strike. Cyrus was forgiven, but was ordered to proceed to the province of Lydia by the sea, and rule the cities on the coast.

I wish the king had had an easier name for you to read. It was Artaxerxes (Ar-tags-erk-seez). He reigned from 405 B.C. to 359 B.C.

Cyrus had his eye on the throne. He meant to be king. To any Greeks who would help him he promised large sums of gold. Before long he had more than twelve thousand Greeks in brazen armor ready to march against his royal brother, and besides these he had one hundred thousand Persians and other folk of Asia.

The king was well liked by many of his people. He had a generous and liberal manner which pleased them. For instance, when he was travelling various gifts were brought to him. One man had nothing to offer, so he ran to a river and filled his hands with water, and held out this very cheap present to the king, who was much pleased, and ordered the man to be rewarded with one thousand darics (a daric was a gold coin).

Prince Cyrus advanced with his army of rebels toward the famous river Euphrates. Across the plain the king had a deep ditch cut, so that an army with horses and baggage could not pass. But the trench or ditch, though it extended for fifty miles, did not quite reach to the river. There was a passage twenty feet wide between the end of the ditch and the river; and the royal army did not think this narrow place was worth guarding. But the army of Cyrus marched that way, and came in face of the immense host led by the king. Then was heard the clash of war. Cyrus, at the head of a troop of horsemen, dashed into the midst of the Persians, killed a nobleman who had aimed a javelin at him, and threw the king from his horse. The king was wounded in the breast, and retreated. Then the rebel prince spurred hotly onward, shouting to the Persians:

"Make way, you slaves, make way."

But a spear pierced his forehead, and he fell from his steed, and soon afterward one of the enemy gave him a death-blow. It was dark when the news came to the king, and he sent thirty men with flaring torches to find the body of Cyrus. Meanwhile, he was glad enough to refresh himself with a drink of muddy water. So thirsty was he that he declared he had never drunk wine that was so delicious; and he gave a heap of treasure to the person who supplied him with the muddy drink. Of course, it is nice and proper to show our gratitude to those who do us a kindness; but it seems to me that the Persian king was intemperate in his gifts. I mean that he gave too much.

Well, you will wonder what became of the Greeks. They would not surrender to the Persians, and marched away, for hundreds of miles, over flat lands, through the mountains, burned by the sun, bitten by the frost, worried by the natives who attacked them by night and day, until at last they came to a certain hill. Those who led the way to the hilltop raised their hands and shouted:

"Thalatta! thalatta! thalatta!"

At this sound the Greeks who lagged behind hurried up, and all cried, as they reached the summit:

"Thalatta! thalatta! thalatta!"

The word "thalatta" is the Greek word for sea; they were looking at the Black Sea, and they knew that along its shores were cities inhabited by Greeks, and they would find friends to help them and ships to carry them back to their wives and children in Greece. This march of the Greeks from Persia to the Black Sea is called the Retreat of the Ten Thousand, and the story of it was written in a book called The Anabasis,  by one of the captains, named Xenophon (Zen-o-fon),  who was born about 430 B.C. and died about 357 B.C. Some Greeks were usually to be found at the Persian Court, but I fancy they could never feel quite at home there, for the Greeks were a free people, and the Persians were ready to obey the king in all that he willed. The Persian kings were despots, and their servants bowed to them as if to gods. A certain Greek who was visiting the court was so ashamed of bowing low before the king that he purposely dropped a ring, and stooped to pick it up; and thus he appeared to be bending in a proper manner, and yet he could tell his friends he was merely picking up his ring. What do you think you would have done if you had been in his place?

I have told you how generous the king was in his gifts, and will give you another instance. A Greek friend of his fell ill, and the doctors ordered him plenty of milk; and the king commanded that eighty cows might always be kept for his use, and follow him about if he travelled!

While the king was thus lavish in his gifts to other people, he was willing, when need arose, to live a very hard life himself. He once led an army against some rebel tribes who dwelt in a rugged land, where fogs often made the air dark, and where corn did not grow, and where the folk lived on wild pears, apples, etc. The Persian troops were half-starved; they killed their camels and asses for food, and an ass's head was sold at a very high price. A good example was set by the king. Clad as he was in gold, purple, and shining jewels, he would not shirk the toils of the march. On his back he carried a quiver of arrows, on his arm a buckler, or shield; and, if the army arrived at a rocky path where it was troublesome to climb, he would leap from his horse, and go on foot with hard breathing and heavy labor. And the soldiers stepped out with more spirit when they saw their master share in their hardships. At length they came to a fair place, well set with trees. It was one of the royal parks, kept for the king's pleasure in hunting.

Cold and shivering, the soldiers said to one another:

"If only we might cut down some of those pine-trees or cypress-trees, how we should warm ourselves at the roaring camp-fires."

The king gave order that the timber in the park should be hewn down for firewood. When he saw the men shrink from felling some of the forest trees, he seized an axe, and himself struck the first blow. So the soldiers went to work with a will, and made huge fires, and were happy that night.

In such countries as Persia the life of a king, however worthy he might be, was seldom safe from attack. The king was warned that plotters were coming to put him to death. So he had a door made in the wall of his bedroom, and covered with wall-hangings (or tapestry). In the night, the plotters crept into the royal bedchamber, and advanced with naked swords toward the bed. Then the king rose, slipped behind the tapestry, and through the secret door, and so escaped; and the baffled plotters were caught and punished. The king lived to the age of ninety-four, which was a very remarkable thing for an Eastern despot.

In our own country, as in France, England, Australia, and other countries, the people speak their mind, and meet in open assembly, and elect such men as they will to their Congress or House of Parliament. This is freedom. In Persia there is despotism. We want all the people of the world to be free:

O sorrowing hearts of slaves,

We heard you beat from far!

We bring the light that saves;

We bring the morning star;

And freedom's good we bring you,

Whence all good things are.

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