Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

Darius And The Scythians

The conquest of Asia Minor by Cyrus and his Persian army was the first step towards that invasion of Greece by the Persians which proved such a vital element in the history of the Hellenic people. The next step was taken in the reign of Darius, the first of Asiatic monarchs to invade Europe. This ambitious warrior attempted to win fame by conquering the country of the Scythian barbarians,—now Southern Russia,—and was taught such a lesson that for centuries thereafter the perilous enterprise was not repeated.

It was about the year 516 b.c. that the Persian king, with the ostensible purpose—invented to excuse his invasion—of punishing the Scythians for a raid into Asia a century before, but really moved only by the thirst for conquest, reached the Bosphorus, the strait that here divides Europe from Asia. He had with him an army said to have numbered seven hundred thousand men, and on the seas was a fleet of six hundred ships. A bridge of boats was thrown across this arm of the sea,—on which Constantinople now stands,—and the great Persian host reached European soil in the country of Thrace.

Happy was it for Greece that the ambitious Persian did not then seek its conquest, as Democedes, his physician, had suggested. The Athenians, then under the rule of the tyrant Pisistratus, were not the free and bold people they afterwards became, and had Darius sought their conquest at that time, the land of Greece would probably have become a part of the overgrown Persian empire. Fortunately, he was bent on conquering the barbarians of the north, and left Greece to grow in valor and patriotism.

While the army marched from Asia into Europe across its bridge of boats, the fleet was sent into the Euxine, or Black Sea, with orders to sail for two days up the Danube River, which empties into that sea, and build there also a bridge of boats. When Darius with his army reached the Danube, he found the bridge ready, and on its swaying length crossed what was then believed to be the greatest river on the earth. Reaching the northern bank, he marched onward into the unknown country of the barbarous Scythians, with visions of conquest and glory in his mind.

What happened to the great Persian army and its ambitious leader in Scythia we do not very well know. Two historians tell us the story, but probably their history is more imagination than fact. Ctesias tells the fairy-tale that Darius marched northward for fifteen days, that he then exchanged bows with the Scythian king, and that, finding the Scythian bow to be the largest, he fled back in terror to the bridge, which he hastily crossed, having left a tenth of his army as a sacrifice to his mad ambition.

The story told by Herodotus is probably as much a product of the imagination as that of Ctesias, though it reads more like actual history. He says that the Scythians retreated northward, sending their wives and children before them in wagons, and destroying the wells and ruining the harvests as they went, so that little was left for the invaders to eat and drink. On what the vast host lived we do not know, nor how they crossed the various rivers in their route. With such trifling considerations as these the historians of that day did not concern themselves. There were skirmishes and combats of horsemen, but the Scythian king took care to avoid any general battle. Darius sent him a herald and taunted him with cowardice, but King Idanthyrsus sent word back that if the Persians should come and destroy the tombs of the forefathers of the Scythians they would learn whether they were cowards or not.

Day by day the monster Persian army advanced, and day by day its difficulties increased, until its situation grew serious indeed. The Scythians declined battle still, but Idanthyrsus sent to his distressed foe the present of a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. This signified, according to the historian, "Unless you take to the air, like a bird; to the earth, like a mouse; or to the water, like a frog, you will become the victim of the Scythian arrows."

This warning frightened Darius. In truth, he was in a desperate strait. Leaving the sick and weak part of his army encamped with the asses he had brought,—animals unknown to the Scythians, who were alarmed by their braying,—he began a hasty retreat towards his bridge of boats. But rapidly as he could march, the swifter Scythians reached the bridge before him, and counselled with the Ionian Greeks, who had been left in charge, and who were conquered subjects of the Persian king, to break down the bridge and leave Darius and his army to their fate.

And now we get back into real history again. The story of what happened in Scythia is all romance. All we really know is that the expedition failed, and what was left of the army came back to the Danube in hasty retreat. And here comes in an interesting part of the narrative. The fleet of Darius was largely made up of the ships of the Ionians of Asia Minor, who had long been Persian subjects. It was they who had bridged the Danube, and who were left to guard the bridge. After Darius had crossed the bridge, on his march north, he ordered the Ionians to break it down and follow him into Scythia, leaving only the rowers and sea-men in the ships. But one of his Greek generals advised him to let the bridge stand under guard of its builders, saying that evil fortune might come to the king's army through the guile and shrewdness of the Scythians.

Darius found this advice good, and promised to reward its giver after his return. He then took a cord and tied sixty knots in it. This he left with the Ionians. "Take this cord," he said. "Untie one of the knots in it each day after my advance from the Danube into Scythia. Remain here and guard the bridge until you shall have untied all the knots; but if by that time I shall not have returned, then depart and sail home."

Such were the methods of counting which then prevailed. And the knowledge of geography was not more advanced. Darius had it in view to march round the Black Sea and return to Persia along its eastern side,—with the wild idea that sixty days would suffice for this great march.

Fortunately for him, as the story goes, the Ionians did not obey orders, but remained on guard after the knots were all untied. Then, to their surprise, Scythians instead of Persians appeared. These told the Ionians that the Persian army was in the greatest distress, was retreating with all speed, and that its escape from utter ruin depended on the safety of the bridge. They urged the Greeks to break the bridge and retire. If they should do so the Persians would all be destroyed, and Ionia would regain its freedom.

This was wise advice. Had it been taken it might have saved Greece from the danger of Persian invasion. The Ionians were at first in favor of it, and Miltiades, one of their leaders, and afterwards one of the heroes of Greek history, warmly advised that it should be done. But HistiŠus, the despot of Miletus, advised the other Ionian princes that they would lose their power if their countries became free, since the Persians alone supported them, while the people everywhere were against them. They determined, therefore, to maintain the bridge.

But, to rid themselves of the Scythians, they pretended to take their advice, and destroyed the bridge for the length of a bow-shot from the northern shore of the stream. The Scythians, thinking that they now had their enemies at their mercy, departed in search of their foes. That night the Persian army, in a state of the greatest distress and privation, reached the Danube; the Scythians having missed them and failed to check their march. To the horror of Darius and his starving and terror-stricken men, the bridge, in the darkness, appeared to be gone. An Egyptian herald, with a voice like a trumpet, was ordered to call for HistiŠus, the Milesian. He did so, an answer came through the darkness, and the hopes of the fleeing king were restored. The bridge was speedily made complete again, and the Persian army hastily crossed, reaching the opposite bank before the Scythians, who had lost their track, reappeared in pursuit.

Thus ended in disaster the first Persian invasion of Europe. It was to be followed by others in later years, equally disastrous to the invaders. As for the despots of Ionia, who had through selfishness lost the chance of freeing their native land, they were to live to see, before many years, Ionia desolated by the Persian tyrant whom they had saved from irretrievable ruin. We shall tell how this came about, as a sequel to the story of the invasion of Scythia.

HistiŠus, despot of Miletus, whose advice had saved the bridge for Darius, was richly rewarded for his service, and attended Darius on his return to Susa, the Persian capital, leaving his son-in-law Aristagoras in command at Miletus. Some ten years afterwards this regent of Miletus made an attempt, with Persian aid, to capture the island of Naxos. The effort failed, and Aristagoras, against whom the Persians were incensed by their defeat and their losses, was threatened with ruin. He began to think of a revolt from Persian rule.

While thus mentally engaged, he received a strangely-sent message from HistiŠus, who was still detained at Susa, and who eagerly desired to get away from dancing attendance at court and return to his kingdom. HistiŠus advised his regent to revolt. But as this message was far too dangerous to be sent by any ordinary channels, he adopted an extraordinary method to insure its secrecy. Selecting one of his most trusty slaves, HistiŠus had his head shaved, and then pricked or tattooed upon the bare scalp the message he wished to send. Keeping the slave in seclusion until his hair had grown again, he sent him to Miletus, where he was instructed simply to tell Aristagoras to shave and examine his head. Aristagoras did so, read the tattooed message, and immediately took steps to obey.

Word of the proposed revolt was sent by him to the other cities along the coast, and all were found ready to join in the attempt to secure freedom. Not only the coast settlements, but the island of Cyprus, joined in the revolt. At the appointed time all the coast region of Asia Minor suddenly burst into a flame of war.

Aristagoras hurried to Greece for aid, seeking it first at Sparta. Finding no help there, he went to Athens, which city lent him twenty ships,—a gift for which it was to pay dearly in later years. Hurrying back with this small reinforcement, he quickly organized an expedition to assail the Persians at the centre of their power.

Marching hastily to Sardis, the capital of Asia Minor, the revolted Ionians took and burned that city. But the Persians, gathering in numbers, defeated and drove them back to the coast, where the Athenians, weary of the enterprise, took to their ships and hastened home.

When word of this raid, and the burning of Sardis by the Athenians and Ionians, came to the ears of Darius at his far-off capital city, he asked in wonder, "The Athenians!—who are they?" The name of this distant and insignificant Greek city had not yet reached his kingly ears.

He was told who the Athenians were, and, calling for his bow, he shot an arrow high into the air, at the same time calling to the Greek deity, "Grant me, Zeus, to revenge myself on those Athenians."

And he bade one of his servants to repeat to him three times daily, when he sat down to his mid-day meal, "Master, remember the Athenians!"

The invaders had been easily repulsed from Sardis, but the revolt continued, and proved a serious and stubborn one, which it took the Persians years to overcome. The smaller cities were conquered one by one, but the Persians were four years in preparing for the siege of Miletus. Resistance here was fierce and bitter, but in the end the city fell. The Persians now took a savage revenge for the burning of Sardis, killing most of the men of this important city, dragging into captivity the women and children, and burning the temples to the ground. The other cities which still held out were quickly taken, and visited like Miletus, with the same fate of fire and bloodshed. It was now 495 b.c. , more than twenty years after the invasion of Scythia.

As for HistiŠus, he was at first blamed by Darius for the revolt. But as he earnestly declared his innocence, and asserted that he could soon bring it to an end, Darius permitted him to depart. Reaching Miletus, he applied at the gates for admission, saying that he had come to the city's aid. But Aristagoras was no longer there, and the Milesians had no use for their former tyrant. They refused him admission, and even wounded him when he tried to force his way in at night. He then went to Lesbos, obtained there some ships, occupied the city of Byzantium, and began a life of piracy, which he kept up till his death, pillaging the Ionian merchant ships as they passed into and out of the Euxine Sea. Thus ended the career of this treacherous and worthless despot, to whom Darius owed his escape from Scythia.

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