Two days after the interview with the magician the army marched out of Babylon. Its destination was, in the first place, Susa, where a large reinforcement was awaiting it. There had been some losses in battle, and many times more from sickness. The month spent amongst the luxuries of Babylon had been at least as fatal as three months of campaigning. But all vacancies were more than made up by the fifteen thousand men from Macedonia, Thrace, and Greece, who now joined the standards. As for money, it was in such abundance as never had been witnessed before, or has been witnessed since. The treasure found at Babylon had sufficed, as we have seen, to furnish a liberal present to the troops; but the treasures of Susa were far greater. Fifty thousand talents is said to have been the total, and there remained more than double the sum yet to be acquired at Persepolis. This was the next point to be reached. It lay in the rugged mountain region from which the conquering Persian race had emerged some two centuries before, to found an empire which has scarcely a parallel in history for the rapidity of its growth and its decay.
The army had halted for the night at the end of the fifth day's march, when a company of rudely clad strangers presented themselves at one of the gates of the camp, and demanded an audience of the king. They were admitted to his presence, and proceeded by their interpreter to make their demands. These were couched in language, which, softened though it was by the tact of the interpreter, still had a very peremptory sound.
"Powerful Stranger," they began (the "powerful" was interpolated in the process of translation) "we are come to demand the tribute customarily paid by all who would traverse the country of the Uxii. The Great King, from the days of Cyrus himself, has always paid it, as will you also, we doubt not, who claim to be his successor. If you refuse, we shut our pass against you, as we would have shut it against him."
A flush of rage at this unceremonious address rose to the face of the king, but he mastered himself. "It is strange," said he, after a moment, "to be thus addressed. There is no one, from the Western Sea to this spot, who has been able to stay my advance. On what strength of your arms, or on what favour of the gods do you depend, that you talk so boldly? Yet I would not refuse aught that you have a right to ask. On the third day, as I calculate, I shall reach that pass of which you speak. Be there, and you shall receive that which is your due."
Thoroughly mystified by this answer, the Uxians returned to their native hills, and having collected a force which was held sufficient to garrison the pass against any assailant, they awaited the arrival of their new tributary. But to their astonishment he approached them from behind. His eagle eye had discovered a track, known, of course, to the mountaineers, but certainly unknown to his guide. A few wreaths of smoke rising into the clear air, far up the heights of the hills, caught his eye as early one morning he surveyed the mountain range over which he had to make his way. At the same time he traced the line of a slight depression in the hills. "Where there is a dwelling there is probably a path," said the king to Parmenio, who accompanied him in his reconnoitring expedition, "and we shall doubtless find it near a watercourse."
The watercourse was discovered, and with it the path. Greedy as ever of personal adventure, Alexander himself led the light troops whom he selected as the most suitable force for this service. Starting at midnight he came just before dawn on one of the Uxian villages. The surprise was complete. Not a man escaped. By the time the next village was reached some of the inhabitants had gone about their work in the fields and contrived to get away. But they only spread the alarm among their tribesmen. As there was not a fortress in the whole country, there was nothing left for the humbled mountaineers but absolute submission. Even this would not have saved the tribe from extermination, the penalty which the enraged Alexander had decreed against them, but for the intercession of the mother of Darius.
"My son," she said, "be merciful. My own race came two generations back from these same mountaineers. I ask their lives as a favour to myself. If they are haughty, it is the Persian kings in the past who by their weakness have taught them to be so. Now that they have learnt your strength, you will find them subjects worth ruling."
"Mother," said Alexander, "whatever you are pleased to ask, I am more than pleased to give."
And the shepherds were saved.
Another pass yet remained to be won, the famous Susian gates, and then Persepolis was his. But it was not won without an effort. One of the sturdiest of the Persian nobles held it with a body of picked troops, and the first assault, delivered the very morning after his arrival, was repulsed with loss. The next, directed both against the front and against the flank, always a weak point with Asiatic troops, was successful, and the way to Persepolis was open.
The king had invited Charidemus to ride with him as the army made its last day's march to Persepolis, and the young Macedonian had related to him the adventure which he and his friend had encountered on their way from the fords of Euphrates to join the army, and had dwelt with some emotion on the story of the unhappy man who had been the means of their escape. A turn of the road brought them face to face with a pitiable spectacle for which his tale had been an appropriate preparation. This was a company of unhappy creatures—it was afterwards ascertained that there were as many as eight hundred of them—who had suffered mutilation at the hands of their brutal Persian masters. Some had lost hands, some feet; several of the poor creatures had been deprived of both, and were wheeled along in little cars by some comrades who had been less cruelly treated. On the faces of many of them had been branded insulting words, sometimes in Persian and sometimes—a yet more intolerable grievance—in Greek characters. "Not men but strange spectres of men"; they greeted the king with a Greek cry of welcome. Their voices seemed the only human thing about them.
When the king saw this deplorable array, and understood who and what they were, he leapt from his horse, and went among the ranks of the sufferers. So manifest was his sympathy that they could not but welcome him, and yet they could not help shrinking with a keen sense of humiliation from the gaze of a countryman. Bodily deformity was such a calamity to the Greek with his keen love for physical beauty, that such an affliction as that from which they were suffering seemed the very heaviest burden that could be laid upon humanity. Yet there were none who were not touched by the king's gracious kindness. He went from one to another with words of sympathy and consolation, inquired into their stories, and promised them such help as they might require. A strange collection of stories they were that the king heard. Some doubtless were exaggerated; in others there was some suppression of truth; but the whole formed a record of pitiless and often unprovoked cruelty. Many of the unhappy men were persons of education: tutors who had been induced to take charge of young Persian nobles and had chanced to offend either employer or pupil; unlucky or unskilful physicians, such as he whom Charidemus had encountered; architects where buildings had proved unsightly or unstable. Mercenary soldiers who had been convicted or suspected of unfaithfulness were a numerous class. A few, it could hardly be doubted, had been really guilty of criminal acts.
So moved was Alexander by the horror of what he saw and heard that he burst into tears. "And after all," Charidemus heard him murmur to himself, "I cannot heal the sorrows of one of these poor creatures. O gods, how helpless have ye made the race of mortal men!"
Still, if he could not heal their sorrows, he could alleviate them. The sufferers were given to understand that they should have their choice of returning to their homes in Greece, or of remaining where they were. In either case, their means of livelihood in the future would be assured. They were to deliberate among themselves, and let him know their decision in the morning.
The question was debated, we are told, with some heat.
"Such sorrows as ours," said the spokesman of one party, "are best borne where they are borne unseen. Shall we exhibit them as a nine-days' wonder to Greece? True it is our country; but wretches such as we are have no country, and no hope but in being forgotten. Our friends will pity us, I doubt not; but nothing dries sooner than a tear. Our wives—will they welcome in these mangled carcasses the bridegrooms of their youth; our children—will they reverence such parents? We have wives and children here, who have been the sole solace of our unhappy lot. Shall we leave them for the uncertain affection of those who may well wish, when the first emotion of pity is spent, that we had never returned?"
It was an Athenian who represented the opposite views. "Such thoughts as you have heard," he said, are an insult to humanity. Only a hard-hearted man can believe that other men's hearts are so hard. The gods are offering us to-day what we never could have ventured to ask—our country, our wives, our children, all that is worth living or dying for. To refuse it were baseness indeed; only the slaves who have learnt to hug their chains can do it."
The counsels of the first speaker prevailed; and indeed many of the exiles were old and feeble and could hardly hope to survive the fatigues of the homeward journey. A deputation waited on Alexander to announce their decision. He seems to have expected another result, promising all that they wanted for their journey and a comfortable subsistence at home. The offer was heard in silence, and then the king learnt the truth. It touched him inexpressibly that men could be so wretched that they were unwilling to return to their country. His first thought was to secure the exiles a liberal provision in the place where they had elected to stay. Each man had a handsome present in money, and suitable clothing, besides a well-stocked farm, the rent of which he would receive from some native cultivator. The second thought was to carry into execution a resolve which the sight of these victims of Persian cruelty had suggested. He would visit these brutal barbarians with a vengeance that should make the world ring again.
A council of generals was hastily called, and Alexander announced his intentions.
"We have come," he said, "to the mother-city of the Persian race. It is from this that these barbarians, the most pitiless and savage that the world has ever seen, came forth to ravage the lands of the Greek. Up till to-day we have abstained from vengeance; and indeed it would have been unjust to punish the subjects for the wickedness of their masters. But now we have the home of these masters in our power, and the day of our revenge is come. When the royal treasure has been removed I shall give over Persepolis to fire and sword."
Only one of the assembly ventured to oppose this decision, though there were many, doubtless, who questioned its wisdom.
"You will do ill, sire, in my opinion," said Parmenio, the oldest of his generals, "to carry out this resolve. It is not the wealth of the enemy, it is your own wealth that you are giving up to plunder; it is your own subjects—for enemies who have submitted themselves to the conquerors are subjects—whom you are about to slaughter."
"Your advice, Parmenio," retorted the king, "becomes you, but it does not become me. I do not make war as a huckster, to make profit of my victories, nor even as King of Macedon, but as the avenger of Greece. Two hundred years of wrong from the day when the Persians enslaved our brethren in Asia cry for vengeance. The gods have called me to the task, and this, I feel, is the hour."
After this nothing more was said. The royal treasure was removed, loading, it is said, ten thousand carts each drawn by a pair of mules, and five thousand camels. Then the city was given up to plunder and massacre, and, when it had been stripped of everything valuable, burnt to the ground, the king himself leading the way torch in hand. In a few hours a few smoking ruins were all that remained of the ancient capital of the Persian race. We may wish that Alexander had shown himself more magnanimous; but it must be remembered that this savage act only expressed the common sentiment of his age. For the most part he was a clement and generous conqueror; but "vengeance on Persia" he could not entirely forget.