About the year 423 before Christ, the throne of Persia was occupied by a King, named Darius II. His Queen, the beautiful Parysatis, had borne him thirteen children, but most of them had died young, and only two sons were now alive, between whose ages there was a difference of no less than thirty years. The elder was called Artaxerxes; the younger, Cyrus. Parysatis was not an impartial mother. She loved Cyrus far better than Artaxerxes, and desired nothing more ardently than that he should succeed to the throne after the death of Darius, rather than his elder brother.
The Queen was beautiful, and wise and clever, and she had great influence over her husband, and seldom failed in persuading him to do as she wished. She hoped therefore to induce the King to name Cyrus as his successor, especially as there was much that could be urged in favour of her plan.
It was certainly true that the throne of Persia descended, as a rule, from the father to his first-born son, but there was nothing to prevent an elder son being passed over in favour of a younger, and such a course was not without precedent. In the present case, an excuse might be found in the fact that the birth of Artaxerxes had taken place before his father came to the throne, whereas Cyrus had been "born in the purple," and moreover bore the honoured name of the greatest of Persian sovereigns.
But a much stronger argument was the difference in character between the two men. Artaxerxes was weak and indolent, and lived constantly at the King's court, hating exertion of any kind. Cyrus, on the contrary, was active and energetic, and had already given striking proofs of ability, both as a soldier and ruler of men, for at the age of eighteen, he had been appointed satrap of the provinces of Lydia, Greater Phrygia and Cappadocia.
Cyrus had many friends. He was a man just after the Persian heart,—a bold rider, an unrivalled archer and spear-thrower, and a passionate lover of the chase, especially when it was dangerous. He also excited the admiration of the Persians by his power of drinking an enormous quantity of wine without becoming intoxicated. This was looked upon as a sign of manliness, and a great distinction.
In the pleasant and peaceful occupation of gardening, Cyrus also took great delight. This charming pursuit had been raised almost to the rank of a religious duty by Zoroaster, the founder of the Persian religion, who had taught his disciples that when occupied in the planting and tending of trees useful to man, they were engaged in a good action, well-pleasing to God; and in consequence of this precept, almost every palace stood in the centre of a large park or tract of enclosed land, covered with beautiful old trees.
The palace of Cyrus stood in such a park, called by the Persians a "paradise." Here he might often be seen, attending to the trees with the utmost diligence. Here too was a convenient bunting-ground, ready to his hand, for the forest was full of wild animals who found abundant pasture in its pleasant glades. One day when Cyrus was out hunting he was attacked by a she-bear, who dragged him from his horse, and gave him several wounds before he could kill her. One of his companions came to his help, and for this service Cyrus rewarded him in so princely a manner as to make him an envied man.
As a friend, Cyrus was always generous and openhanded, and he delighted in making small presents as well as great. According to an old custom, every subject who came to his court brought with him gifts, and these Cyrus always accepted, but not for himself; he took them in order that he might divide them among his friends. Sometimes, at a banquet, if he observed that the wine set before him was better than usual, he would send away part of it to one of his friends with some such message as this: "Drink this good wine to-day with your dearest friend." Or perhaps the gift would consist of half a goose or part of a loaf of bread, which would be taken to the friend with the message, "Cyrus has enjoyed this, and desires that you should taste it also."
If he gave a promise, or entered into an agreement, it was certain that he would keep his word. A friendship once formed he ever afterwards regarded as sacred. Any one who did him a service, whether in war or in peace, was rewarded tenfold. At the same time, any one who offended or injured him might expect the most savage retaliation. He is said to have once prayed to the gods to grant that he might live until he had repaid all his friends and all his enemies.
As a governor, Cyrus was strictly and sternly just. Well-doers were encouraged and rewarded, but evildoers met with immediate punishment; and as a warning to others, criminals who had been deprived of hands, legs or eyes, were exposed to view in the most frequented streets. In the whole empire there were no provinces in which natives and strangers alike were so secure from robbery and murder as in those governed by Cyrus.
Meanwhile the Great King Darius II. felt his end approaching, and as he wished to have both his sons beside his death-bed, he sent for Cyrus to come to Susa. On receiving the message, the young prince set out at once for the King's court, accompanied by Tissaphernes, the satrap of a neighbouring province, whom he looked upon as one of his friends. He took with him also a body-guard of three hundred Hellenes, who had entered his service.
Cyrus was full of hope that the influence of his mother, and the favour with which he was regarded by the Persians generally, would cause his father to bequeath the throne to him, and not to Artaxerxes. If the choice of their future sovereign had been left to the people, they would probably have chosen Cyrus. But in Persia, the naming of the successor was the right of the reigning king, and the hopes of Cyrus were doomed to disappointment. On his death-bed, Darius named, not his younger, but his elder son; and the upright tiara, encircled with the golden crown, passed to Artaxerxes.
Cyrus was vexed and angry at the failure of his hopes, and probably took little pains to conceal his feelings, for he was of a very passionate nature. However this may have been, Tissaphernes, whose friendship for him had been merely feigned, went to the new King and told him that his brother had made up his mind to have him murdered.
The beginning of a new reign had often in Persia been signalled by bloody deeds, and the murder of a brother was by no means an unheard-of crime. Artaxerxes was therefore ready enough to believe the accusation, and immediately gave orders for his brother's arrest, for he was resolved to defeat his ambitious schemes by the most effectual of all methods, namely by putting him to death.
Cyrus had many friends at the court, but there was not one who dared to come forward in his behalf, except his mother, Queen Parysatis. She indeed was ready to risk everything in order to save her favourite son, and being also the mother of the Great King, with a sacred claim upon his love and respect, she succeeded at last, after endless entreaties, in shaking his resolution and inducing him to pardon Cyrus.
Artaxerxes was far from being a great man, but he was at least easy-going and good-natured, and now his mother so far prevailed upon him, that he not only set Cyrus at liberty, but also reinstated him in his former dignities, and allowed him to depart to his own province.
Cyrus returned therefore to his Residence at Sardis, full of bitterness and disappointment. It is not known whether or not he had really plotted the murder of his brother. The story may very possibly have been invented by Tissaphernes through envy of Cyrus, and in the hope of succeeding to the government of his provinces.
This much however is at least certain, that after having been treated as guilty of high treason, and condemned to death in consequence, Cyrus had but one object in life, and that to further this object, he did not hesitate to employ the power entrusted to him for a very different purpose. From this time forward his whole mind was set upon obtaining by conquest the throne of Persia.