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Jacob Abbott

The Accession of Darius

For several days after the assassination of the magi the city was filled with excitement, tumults, and confusion. There was no heir, of the family of Cyrus, entitled to succeed to the vacant throne, for neither Cambyses, nor Smerdis his brother, had left any sons. There was, indeed, a daughter of Smerdis, named Parmys, and there were also still living two daughters of Cyrus. One was Atossa, whom we have already mentioned as having been married to Cambyses, her brother, and as having been afterward taken by Smerdis the magian as one of his wives. These princesses, though of royal lineage, seem neither of them to have been disposed to assert any claims to the throne at such a crisis. The mass of the community were stupefied with astonishment at the sudden revolution which had occurred. No movement was made toward determining the succession. For five days nothing was done.

During this period, all the subordinate functions of government in the provinces, cities, and towns, and among the various garrisons and encampments of the army, went on, of course, as usual, but the general administration of the government had no head. The seven confederates had been regarded, for the time being, as a sort of provisional government, the army and the country in general, so far as appears, looking to them for the means of extrication from the political difficulties in which this sudden revolution had involved them, and submitting, in the mean time, to their direction and control. Such a state of things, it was obvious, could not long last; and after five days, when the commotion had somewhat subsided, they began to consider it necessary to make some arrangements of a more permanent character, the power to make such arrangements as they thought best resting with them alone. They accordingly met for consultation.

Herodotus the historian, on whose narrative of these events we have mainly to rely for all the information respecting them which is now to be attained, gives a very minute and dramatic account of the deliberations of the conspirators on this occasion. The account is, in fact, too dramatic to be probably true.

Otanes, in this discussion, was in favor of establishing a republic. He did not think it safe or wise to intrust the supreme power again to any single individual. It was proved, he said, by universal experience, that when any one person was raised to such an elevation above his fellow-men, he became suspicious, jealous, insolent, and cruel. He lost all regard for the welfare and happiness of others, and became supremely devoted to the preservation of his own greatness and power by any means, however tyrannical, and to the accomplishment of the purposes of his own despotic will. The best and most valuable citizens were as likely to become the victims of his oppression as the worst. In fact, tyrants generally chose their favorites, he said, from among the most abandoned men and women in their realms, such characters being the readiest instruments of their guilty pleasures and their crimes. Otanes referred very particularly to the case of Cambyses as an example of the extreme lengths to which the despotic insolence and cruelty of a tyrant could go. He reminded his colleagues of the sufferings and terrors which they had endured while under his sway, and urged them very strongly not to expose themselves to such terrible evils and dangers again. He proposed, therefore, that they should establish a republic, under which the officers of government should be elected, and questions of public policy be determined, in assemblies of the people.

It must be understood, however, by the reader, that a republic, as contemplated and intended by Otanes in this speech, was entirely different from the mode of government which that word denotes at the present day. They had little idea, in those times, of the principle of representation, by which the thousand separate and detached communities of a great empire can choose delegates, who are to deliberate, speak, and act for them in the assemblies where the great governmental decisions are ultimately made. By this principle of representation, the people can really all share in the exercise of power. Without it they can not, for it is impossible that the people of a great state can ever be brought together in one assembly; nor, even if it were practicable to bring them thus together, would it be possible for such a concourse to deliberate or act. The action of any assembly which goes beyond a very few hundred in numbers, is always, in fact, the action exclusively of the small knot of leaders who call and manage it. Otanes, therefore, as well as all other advocates of republican government in ancient times, meant that the supreme power should be exercised, not by the great mass of the people included within the jurisdiction in question, but by such a portion of certain privileged classes as could be brought together in the capital. It was such a sort of republic as would be formed in this country if the affairs of the country at large, and the municipal and domestic institutions of all the states, were regulated and controlled by laws enacted, and by governors appointed, at great municipal meetings held in the city of New York.

This was, in fact, the nature of all the republics of ancient times. They were generally small, and the city in whose free citizens the supreme power resided, constituted by far the most important portion of the body politic. The Roman republic, however, became at one period very large. It overspread almost the whole of Europe; but, widely extended as it was in territory, and comprising innumerable states and kingdoms within its jurisdiction, the vast concentration of power by which the whole was governed, vested entirely and exclusively in noisy and tumultuous assemblies convened in the Roman forum.

Even if the idea of a representative system of government, such as is adopted in modern times, and by means of which the people of a great and extended empire can exercise, conveniently and efficiently, a general sovereignty held in common by them all, had been understood in ancient times, it is very doubtful whether it could, in those times, have been carried into effect, for want of certain facilities which are enjoyed in the present age, and which seen essential for the safe and easy action of so vast and complicated a system as a great representative government must necessarily be. The regular transaction of business at public meetings, and the orderly and successful management of any extended system of elections, requires a great deal of writing; and the general circulation of newspapers, or something exercising the great function which it is the object of newspapers to fulfill, that of keeping the people at large in some, degree informed in respect to the progress of public affairs, seems essential to the successful working of a system of representative government comprising any considerable extent of territory.

However this may be, whether a great representative system would or would not have been practicable in ancient times if it had been tried, it is certain that it was never tried. In all ancient republics, the sovereignty resided, essentially, in a privileged class of the people of the capital. The territories governed were provinces, held in subjection as dependencies, and compelled to pay tribute; and this was the plan which Otanes meant to advocate when recommending a republic, in the Persian council.

The name of the second speaker in this celebrated consultation was Megabyzus. He opposed the plan of Otanes. He concurred fully, he said, in all that Otanes had advanced in respect to the evils of a monarchy, and to the oppression and tyranny to which a people were exposed whose liberties and lives were subject to the despotic control of a single human will. But in order to avoid one extreme, it was not necessary to run into the evils of the other. The disadvantages and dangers of popular control in the management of the affairs of state were scarcely less than those of a despotism. Popular assemblies were always, he said, turbulent, passionate, capricious. Their decisions were controlled by artful and designing demagogues. It was not possible that masses of the common people could have either the sagacity to form wise counsels, or the energy and steadiness to execute them. There could be no deliberation, no calmness, no secrecy in their consultations. A populace was always governed by excitements, which spread among them by a common sympathy; and they would give way impetuously to the most senseless impulses, as they were urged by their fear, their resentment, their exultation, their hate, or by any other passing emotion of the hour.

Megabyzus therefore disapproved of both a monarchy and a republic. He recommended an oligarchy. "We are now," said he, "already seven. Let us select from the leading nobles in the court and officers of the army a small number of men, eminent for talents and virtue, and thus form a select and competent body of men, which shall be the depository of the supreme power. Such a plan avoids the evils and inconveniences of both the other systems. There can be no tyranny or oppression under such a system; for, if any one of so large a number should be inclined to abuse his power, he will be restrained by the rest. On the other hand, the number will not be so large as to preclude prudence and deliberation in counsel, and the highest efficiency and energy in carrying counsels into effect."

When Megabyzus had completed his speech, Darius expressed his opinion. He said that the arguments of those who had already spoken appeared plausible, but that the speakers had not dealt quite fairly by the different systems whose merits they had discussed, since they had compared a good administration of one form of government with a bad administration of another. Every thing human was, he admitted, subject to imperfection and liable to abuse; but on the supposition that each of the three forms which had been proposed were equally well administered, the advantage, he thought, would be strongly on the side of monarchy. Control exercised by a single mind and will was far more concentrated and efficient than that proceeding from any conceivable combination. The forming of plans could be, in that case, more secret and wary, and the execution of them more immediate and prompt. Where power was lodged in many hands, all energetic exercise of it was paralyzed by the dissensions, the animosities and the contending struggles of envious and jealous rivals. These struggles, in fact, usually resulted in the predominance of some one, more energetic or more successful than the rest, the aristocracy or the democracy running thus, of its own accord, to a despotism in the end, showing that there were natural causes always tending to the subjection of nations of men to the control of one single will.

Besides all this, Darius added, in conclusion, that the Persians had always been accustomed to a monarchy, and it would be a very dangerous experiment to attempt to introduce a new system, which would require so great a change in all the habits and usages of the people.

Thus the consultation went on. At the end of it, it appeared that four out of the seven agreed with Darius in preferring a monarchy. This was a majority, and thus the question seemed to be settled. Otanes said that he would make no opposition to any measures which they might adopt to carry their decision into effect, but that he would not himself be subject to the monarchy which they might establish. "I do not wish," he added, "either to govern others or to have others govern me. You may establish a kingdom, therefore, if you choose, and designate the monarch in any mode that you see fit to adopt, but he must not consider me as one of his subjects. I myself, and all my family and dependents, must be wholly free from his control."

This was a very unreasonable proposition, unless, indeed, Otanes was willing to withdraw altogether from the community to which he thus refused to be subject; for, by residing within it, he necessarily enjoyed its protection, and ought, therefore, to bear his portion of its burdens, and to be amenable to its laws. Notwithstanding this, however, the conspirators acceded to the proposal, and Otanes withdrew.

The remaining six of the confederates then proceeded with their arrangements for the establishment of a monarchy. They first agreed that one of their own number should be the king, and that on whomsoever the choice should fall, the other five, while they submitted to his dominion, should always enjoy peculiar privileges and honors at his court. They were at all times to have free access to the palaces and to the presence of the king, and it was from among their daughters alone that the king was to choose his wives. These and some other similar points having been arranged, the manner of deciding which of the six should be the king remained to be determined. The plan which they adopted, and the circumstances connected with the execution of it, constitute, certainly, one of the most extraordinary of all the strange transactions recorded in ancient times. It is gravely related by Herodotus as sober truth. How far it is to be considered as by any possibility credible, the reader must judge, after knowing what the story is.

They agreed, then, that on the following morning they would all meet on horseback at a place agreed upon beyond the walls of the city, and that the one whose horse should neigh first should be the king! The time when this ridiculous ceremony was to be performed was sunrise.

As soon as this arrangement was made the parties separated, and each went to his own home. Darius called his groom, whose name was Œbases, and ordered him to have his horse ready at sunrise on the next morning, explaining to him, at the same time, the plan which had been formed for electing the king. "If that is the mode which is to be adopted," said Œbases, "you need have no concern, for I can arrange it very easily so as to have the lot fall upon you." Darius expressed a strong desire to have this accomplished, if it were possible, and Œbases went away.

The method which Œbases adopted was to lead Darius's horse out to the ground that evening, in company with another, the favorite companion, it seems, of the animal. Now the attachment of the horse to his companion is very strong, and his recollection of localities very vivid, and Œbases expected that when the horse should approach the ground on the following morning, he would be reminded of the company which he enjoyed there the night before, and neigh. The result was as he anticipated. As the horsemen rode up to the appointed place, the horse of Darius neighed the first, and Darius was unanimously acknowledged king.

In respect to the credibility of this famous story, the first thought which arises in the mind is, that it is utterly impossible that sane men, acting in so momentous a crisis, and where interests so vast and extended were at stake, could have resorted to a plan so childish and ridiculous as this. Such a mode of designating a leader, seriously adopted, would have done discredit to a troop of boys making arrangements for a holiday; and yet here was an empire extending for thousands of miles through the heart of a vast continent, comprising, probably, fifty nations and many millions of people, with capitals, palaces, armies, fleets, and all the other appointments and machinery of an immense dominion, to be appropriated and disposed of absolutely, and, so far as they could see, forever. It seems incredible that men possessing such intelligence, and information, and extent of view as we should suppose that officers of their rank and station would necessarily acquire, could have attempted to decide such a momentous question in so ridiculous and trivial a manner. And yet the account is seriously recorded by Herodotus as sober history, and the story has been related again and again, from that day to this, by every successive generation of historians, without any particular question of its truth.

And it may possibly be that it is true. It is a case in which the apparent improbability is far greater than the real. In the first place, it would seem that, in all ages of the world, the acts and decisions of men occupying positions of the most absolute and exalted power have been controlled, to a much greater degree, by caprice and by momentary impulse, than mankind have generally supposed. Looking up as we do to these vast elevations from below, they seem invested with a certain sublimity and grandeur which we imagine must continually impress the minds of those who occupy them, and expand and strengthen their powers, and lead them to act, in all respects, with the circumspection, the deliberation, and the far-reaching sagacity which the emergencies continually arising seem to require. And this is, in fact, in some degree the case with the statesmen and political leaders raised to power under the constitutional governments of modem times. Such statesmen are clothed with their high authority, in one way or another, by the combined and deliberate action of vast masses of men, and every step which they take is watched, in reference to its influence on the condition and welfare of these masses, by many millions; so that such men live and act under a continual sense of responsibility, and they appreciate, in some degree, the momentous importance of their doings. But the absolute and independent sovereigns of the Old World, who held their power by conquest or by inheritance, though raised sometimes to very vast and giddy elevations, seem to have been unconscious, in many instances, of the dignity and grandeur of their standing, and to have considered their acts only as they affected their own personal and temporary interests. Thus, though placed on a great elevation, they took only very narrow and circumscribed views; they saw nothing but the objects immediately around them; and they often acted, accordingly, in the most frivolous and capricious manner.

It was so, undoubtedly, with these six conspirators. In deciding which of their number should be king, they thought nothing of the interests of the vast realms, and of the countless millions of people whose government was to be provided for. The question, as they considered it, was doubtless merely which of them should have possession of the royal palaces, and be the center and the object of royal pomp and parade in the festivities and celebrations of the capital.

And in the mode of decision which they adopted, it may be that some degree of superstitious feeling mingled. The action and the voices of animals were considered, in those days, as supernatural omens, indicating the will of heaven. These conspirators may have expected, accordingly, in the neighing of the horse, a sort of divine intimation in respect to the disposition of the crown. This idea is confirmed by the statement which the account of this transaction contains, that immediately after the neighing of Darius's horse, it thundered, although there were no clouds in the sky from which the thunder could be supposed naturally to come. The conspirators, at all events, considered it solemnly decided that Darius was to be king. They all dismounted from their horses and knelt around him, in acknowledgment of their allegiance and subjection.

It seems that Darius, after he became established on his throne, considered the contrivance by which, through the assistance of his groom, he had obtained the prize, not as an act of fraud which it was incumbent on him to conceal, but as one of brilliant sagacity which he was to avow and glory in. He caused a magnificent equestrian statue to be sculptured, representing himself mounted on his neighing horse. This statue he set up in a public place with this inscription:

Darius, son of Hystaspes, obtained the sovereignty of Persia by the sagacity of his horse and the ingenious contrivance of OEbases his groom.