Alexander the Great - Jacob Abbott

The Death of Darius

Alexander’s march from Susa to Persepolis was less a march than a triumphal progress. He felt the pride and elation so naturally resulting from success very strongly. The moderation and forbearance which had characterized him in his earlier years, gradually disappeared as he became great and powerful. He was intoxicated with his success. He became haughty, vain, capricious, and cruel. As he approached Persepolis, he conceived the idea that, as this city was the capital and center of the Persian monarchy, and, as such, the point from which had emanated all the Persian hostility to Greece, he owed it some signal retribution. Accordingly, although the inhabitants made no opposition to his entrance, he marched in with the phalanx formed, and gave the soldiers liberty to kill and plunder as they pleased.

There was another very striking instance of the capricious recklessness now beginning to appear in Alexander's character, which occurred soon after he had taken possession of Persepolis. He was giving a great banquet to his friends, the officers of the army, and to Persians of distinction among those who had submitted to him. There was, among other women at this banquet, a very beautiful and accomplished female named Thais. Alexander made her his favorite and companion, though she was not his wife. Thais did all in her power to captivate and please Alexander during the feast by her vivacity, her wit, her adroit attentions to him, and the display of her charms, and at length, when he himself, as well as the other guests, were excited with wine, she asked him to allow her to have the pleasure of going herself and setting fire, with her own hands, to the great palace of the Persian kings in the city. Thais was a native of Attica in Greece, a kingdom of which Athens was the capital. Xerxes, who had built the great palace of Persepolis, had formerly invaded Greece and had burned Athens, and now Thais desired to burn his palace in Persepolis, to gratify her revenge, by making, of its conflagration an evening spectacle to entertain the Macedonian party after their supper. Alexander agreed to the proposal, and the whole company moved forward. Taking the torches from the banqueting halls, they sallied forth, alarming the city with their shouts, and with the flashing of the lights they bore. The plan of Thais was carried fully into effect, every half-intoxicated guest assisting, by putting fire to the immense pile wherever they could get access to it. They performed the barbarous deed with shouts of vengeance and exultation.

There is, however, something very solemn and awful in a great conflagration at night, and very few incendiaries can gaze upon the fury of the lurid and frightful flames which they have caused to ascend without some misgivings and some remorse. Alexander was sobered by the grand and sublime, but terrible spectacle. He was awed by it. He repented. He ordered the fire to be extinguished; but it was too late. The palace was destroyed, and one new blot, which has never since been effaced, was cast upon Alexander's character and fame.

And yet, notwithstanding these increasing proofs of pride and cruelty, which were beginning to be developed, Alexander still preserved some of the early traits of character which had made him so great a favorite in the commencement of his career. He loved his mother, and lent her presents continually from the treasures which were falling all the time into his possession. She was a woman of a proud, imperious, and ungovernable character, and she made Antipater, whom Alexander had left in command in Macedon, infinite trouble. She wanted to exercise the powers of government herself, and was continually urging this. Alexander would not comply with these wishes, but he paid her personally every attention in his power, and bore all her invectives and reproaches with great patience and good humor. At one time he received a long letter from Antipater, full of complaints against her; but Alexander, after reading it, said that they were heavy charges it was true, but that a single one of his mother's tears would outweigh ten thousand such accusations.

Olympias used to write very frequently to Alexander, and in these letters she would criticise and discuss his proceedings, and make comments upon the characters and actions of his generals. Alexander kept these letters very secret, never showing them to any one. One day, however, when he was reading one of these letters, Hephæstion, the personal friend and companion who has been already several times mentioned, came up, half playfully, and began to took over his shoulder. Alexander went on, allowing him to read, and then, when the letter was finished he took the signet ring from his finger and pressed it upon Hephæstion's lips, a signal for silence and secrecy.

Alexander was very kind to Sysigambis, the mother of Darius, and also to Darius's children. He would not give these unhappy captives their liberty, but in every other respect he treated them with the greatest possible kindness and consideration. He called Sysigambis mother, loaded her with presents—presents, it is true, which he had plundered from her son, but to which it was considered, in those days, that he had acquired a just and perfect title. When he reached Susa, he established Sysigambis and the children there in great state. This had been their usual residence in most seasons of the year, when not at Persepolis, so that here they were, as it were, at home. Ecbatana was, as has been already mentioned, further north, among the mountains. After the battle of Arbela, while Alexander marched to Babylon and to Susa, Darius had fled to Ecbatana, and was now there, his family being thus at one of the royal palaces under the command of the conqueror, and he himself independent, but insecure, in the other. He had with him about forty thousand men, who still remained faithful to his fallen fortunes. Among these were several thousand Greeks, whom he had collected in Asia Minor and other Grecian countries, and whom he had attached to his service by means of pay.

He called the officers of his army together, and explained to them the determination that he had come to in respect to his future movements. "A large part of those," said he, "who formerly served as officers of my government have abandoned me in my adversity, and gone over to Alexander's side. They have surrendered to him the towns, and citadels, and provinces which I intrusted to their fidelity. You alone remain faithful and true. As for myself, I might yield to the conqueror, and have him assign to me some province or kingdom to govern as his subordinate; but I will never submit to such a degradation. I can die in the struggle, but never will yield. I will wear no crown which another puts upon my brow, nor give up my right to reign over the empire of my ancestors till I give up my life. If you agree with me in this determination, let us act energetically upon it. We have it in our power to terminate the injuries we are suffering, or else to avenge them."

The army responded most cordially to this appeal. They were ready, they said, to follow him wherever he should lead. All this apparent enthusiasm, however, was very delusive and unsubstantial. A general named Bessus, combining with some other officers in the army, conceived the plan of seizing Darius and making him a prisoner, and then taking command of the army himself. If Alexander should pursue him, and be likely to overtake and conquer him, he then thought that, by giving up Darius as a prisoner, he could stipulate for liberty and safety, and perhaps great rewards, both for himself and for those who acted with him. If, on the other hand, they should succeed in increasing their own forces so as to make head against Alexander, and finally to drive him away, then Bessus was to usurp the throne, and dispose of Darius by assassinating him, or imprisoning him for life in some remote and solitary castle.

Bessus communicated his plans, very cautiously at first, to the leading officers of the army. The Greek soldiers were not included in the plot. They, however, heard and saw enough to lead them to suspect what was in preparation. They warned Darius, and urged him to rely upon them more than he had done; to make them his body-guard; and to pitch his tent in their part of the encampment. But Darius declined these proposals. He would not, he said, distrust and abandon his countrymen, who were his natural protectors, and put himself in the hands of strangers. He would not betray and desert his friends in anticipation of their deserting and betraying him.

In the mean time, as Alexander advanced toward Ecbatana, Darius and his forces retreated from it toward the eastward, through the great tract of country lying south of the Caspian Sea. There is a mountainous region here, with a defile traversing it, through which it would be necessary for Darius to pass. This defile was called the Caspian Gates, the name referring to rocks on each side. The marching of an army through a narrow and dangerous defile like this always causes detention and delay, and Alexander hastened forward in hopes to overtake Darius before he should reach it. He advanced with such speed that only the strongest and most robust of his army could keep up. Thousands, worn out with exertion and toil, were left behind, and many of the horses sank down by the road side, exhausted with heat and fatigue, to die. Alexander pressed desperately on with all who were able to follow.

It was all in vain, however; it was too late when he arrived at the pass. Darius had gone through with all his army. Alexander stopped to rest his men, and to allow time for those behind to come up. He then went on for a couple of days, when he encamped, in order to send out foraging parties—that is to say, small detachments, dispatched to explore the surrounding country in search of grain and other food for the horses. Food for the horses of an army being too bulky to be transported far, has to be collected day by day from the neighborhood of the line of march.

While halting for these foraging parties to return, a Persian nobleman came into the camp, and informed Alexander that Darius and the forces accompanying him were encamped about two days' march in advance, but that Bessus was in command—the conspiracy having been successful, and Darius having been deposed and made a prisoner. The Greeks, who had adhered to their fidelity, finding that all the army were combined against them, and that they were not strong enough to resist, had abandoned the Persian camp, and had retired to the mountains, where they were awaiting the result.

Alexander determined to set forward immediately in pursuit of Bessus and his prisoner. He did not wait for the return of the foraging parties. He selected the ablest and most active, both of foot soldiers and horsemen, ordered them to take two days' provisions, and then set forth with them that very evening. The party pressed on all that night, and the next day till noon. They halted till evening, and then set forth again. Very early the next morning they arrived at the encampment which the Persian nobleman had described. They found the remains of the camp-fires, and all the marks usually left upon a spot which has been used as the bivouac of an army. The army itself, however, was gone.

The pursuers were now too much fatigued to go any further without rest. Alexander remained here, accordingly, through the day, to give his men and his horses refreshment and repose. That night they set forward again, and the next day at noon they arrived at another encampment of the Persians, which they had left scarcely twenty-four hours before. The officers of Alexander's army were excited and animated in the highest degree, as they found themselves thus drawing so near to the great object of their pursuit. They were ready for any exertions, any privation and fatigue, any measures, however extraordinary, to accomplish their end.

Alexander inquired of the inhabitants of the place whether there were not some shorter road than the one along which the enemy were moving. There was one cross-road, but it led through a desolate and desert tract of land, destitute of water. In the march of an army, as the men are always heavily loaded with arms and provisions, and water can not be carried, it is always considered essential to choose routes which will furnish supplies of water by the way. Alexander, however, disregarded this consideration here, and prepared at once to push into the cross-road with a small detachment. He had been now two years advancing from Macedon into the heart of Asia, always in quest of Darius as his great opponent and enemy. He had conquered his armies, taken his cities, plundered his palaces, and made himself master of his whole realm. Still, so long as Darius himself remained at liberty and in the field, no victories could be considered as complete. To capture Darius himself would be the last and crowning act of his conquest. He had now been pursuing him for eighteen hundred miles, advancing slowly from province to province, and from kingdom to kingdom. During all this time the strength of his flying foe had been wasting away. His armies had been broken up, his courage and hope had gradually failed, while the animation and hope of the pursuer had been gathering fresh and increasing strength from his successes, and were excited to wild enthusiasm now, as the hour for the final consummation of all his desires seemed to be drawing nigh.

Guides were ordered to be furnished by the inhabitants, to show the detachment the way across the solitary and desert country. The detachment was to consist of horsemen entirely that they might advance with the utmost celerity. To get as efficient a corps as possible, Alexander dismounted five hundred of the cavalry, and gave their horses to five hundred men—officers and others—selected for their strength and courage from among the foot soldiers. All were ambitious of being designated for this service. Besides the honor of being so selected, there was an intense excitement, as usual toward the close of a chase, to arrive at the end.

This body of horsemen were ready to set out in the evening. Alexander took the command, and, following the guides, they trotted off in the direction which the guides indicated. They traveled all night. When the day dawned, they saw, from an elevation to which they had attained, the body of the Persian troops moving at a short distance before them, foot soldiers, chariots, and horsemen pressing on together in great confusion and disorder.

As soon as Bessus and his company found that their pursuers were close upon them, they attempted at first to hurry forward, in the vain hope of still effecting their escape. Darius was in a chariot. They urged this chariot on, but it moved heavily. Then they concluded to abandon it, and they called upon Darius to mount a horse and ride off with them, leaving the rest of the army and the baggage to its fate. But Darius refused. He said he would rather trust himself in the hands of Alexander than in those of such traitors as they. Rendered desperate by their situation, and exasperated by this reply, Bessus and his confederates thrust their spears into Darius's body, as he sat in his chariot, and then galloped away. They divided into different parties, each taking a different road. Their object in doing this was to increase their chances of escape by confusing Alexander in his plans for pursuing them. Alexander pressed on toward the ground which the enemy were abandoning, and sent off separate detachments after the various divisions of the flying army.

In the mean time Darius remained in his chariot wounded and bleeding. He was worn out and exhausted, both in body and mind, by his complicated sufferings and sorrows. His kingdom lost; his family in captivity; his beloved wife in the grave, where the sorrows and sufferings of separation from her husband had borne her; his cities sacked; his palaces and treasures plundered; and now he himself, in the last hour of his extremity, abandoned and betrayed by all in whom he had placed his confidence and trust, his heart sunk within him in despair. At such a time the soul turns from traitorous friends to an open foe with something like a feeling of confidence and attachment. Darius's exasperation against Bessus was so intense, that his hostility to Alexander became a species of friendship in comparison. He felt that Alexander was a sovereign like himself, and would have some sympathy and fellow-feeling for a sovereign's misfortunes. He thought, too, of his mother, his wife, and his children, and the kindness with which Alexander had treated them went to his heart. He lay there, accordingly, faint and bleeding in his chariot, and looking for the coming of Alexander as for that of a protector and friend, the only one to whom he could now look for any relief in the extremity of his distress.

The Macedonians searched about in various places, thinking it possible that in the sudden dispersion of the enemy Darius might have been left behind. At last the chariot in which he was lying was found. Darius was in it, pierced with spears. The floor of the chariot was covered with blood. They raised him a little, and he spoke. He called for water.

Men wounded and dying on the field of battle are tormented always with an insatiable and intolerable thirst, the manifestations of which constitute one of the greatest horrors of the scene. They cry piteously to all who pass to bring them water, or else to kill them. They crawl along the ground to get at the canteens of their dead companions, in hopes to find, remaining in them, some drops to drink; and if there is a little brook meandering through the battle-field, its bed gets filled and choked up with the bodies of those who crawled there, in their agony, to quench their horrible thirst, and die. Darius was suffering this thirst. It bore down and silenced, for the time, every other suffering, so that his first cry, when his enemies came around him with shouts of exultation, was not for his life, not for mercy, not for relief from the pain and anguish of his wounds—he begged them to give him some water.

He spoke through an interpreter. The interpreter was a Persian prisoner whom the Macedonian army had taken some time before, and who had learned the Greek language in the Macedonian camp. Anticipating some occasion for his services, they had brought him with them now, and it was through him that Darius called for water. A Macedonian soldier went immediately to get some. Others hurried away in search of Alexander, to bring him to the spot where the great object of his hostility, and of his long and protracted pursuit, was dying.

Darius received the drink. He then said that he was extremely glad that they had an interpreter with them, who could understand him, and bear his message to Alexander. He had been afraid that he should have had to die without being able to communicate what he had to say. "Tell Alexander," said he, then, "that I feel under the strongest obligations to him, which I can now never repay, for his kindness to my wife, my mother, and my children. He not only spared their lives, but treated them with the greatest consideration and care, and did all in his power to make them happy. The last feeling in my heart is gratitude to him for these favors. I hope now that he will go on prosperously, and finish his conquests as triumphantly as he has begun them." He would have made one last request, he added, if he had thought it necessary, and that was, that Alexander would pursue the traitor Bessus, and avenge the murder he had committed; but he was sure that Alexander would do this of his own accord, as the punishment of such treachery was an object of common interest for every king.

Darius then took Polystratus, the Macedonian who had brought him the water, by the hand, saying, "Give Alexander thy hand as I now give thee mine; it is the pledge of my gratitude and affection."

Darius was too weak to say much more. They gathered around him, endeavoring to sustain his strength until Alexander should arrive; but it was all in vain. He sank gradually, and soon ceased to breathe. Alexander came up a few minutes after all was over. He was at first shocked at the spectacle before him, and then overwhelmed with grief. He wept bitterly. Some compunctions of conscience may have visited his heart at seeing thus before him the ruin he had made. Darius had never injured him or done him any wrong, and yet here he lay, hunted to death by a persevering and relentless hostility, for which his conqueror had no excuse but his innate love of dominion over his fellow-men. Alexander spread his own military cloak over the dead body. He immediately made arrangements for having the body embalmed, and then sent it to Susa, for Sysigambis, in a very costly coffin, and with a procession of royal magnificence. He sent it to her that she might have the satisfaction of seeing it deposited in the tombs of the Persian kings. What a present! The killer of a son sending the dead body, in a splendid coffin, to the mother, as a token of respectful regard!

Alexander pressed on to the northward and eastward in pursuit of Bessus, who had soon collected the scattered remains of his army, and was doing his utmost to get into a posture of defense. He did not, however, overtake him till he had crossed the Oxus, a large river which will be found upon the map, flowing to the northward and westward into the Caspian Sea. He had great difficulty in crossing this river, as it was too deep to be forded, and the banks and bottom were so sandy and yielding that he could not make the foundations of bridges stand. He accordingly made floats and rafts, which were supported by skins made buoyant by inflation, or by being stuffed with straw and hay. After getting his army, which had been in the mean time greatly re-enforced and strengthened, across this river, he moved on. The generals under Bessus, finding all hope of escape failing them, resolved on betraying him as he had betrayed his commander. They sent word to Alexander that if he would send forward a small force where they should indicate, they would give up Bessus to his hands. Alexander did so, intrusting the command to an officer named Ptolemy. Ptolemy found Bessus in a small walled town whither he had fled for refuge, and easily took him prisoner. He sent back word to Alexander that Bessus was at his disposal, and asked for orders. The answer was, "Put a rope around his neck and send him to me."

When the wretched prisoner was brought into Alexander's presence, Alexander demanded of him how he could have been so base as to have seized, bound, and at last murdered his kinsman and benefactor. It is a curious instance in proof of the permanence and stability of the great characteristics of human nature, through all the changes of civilization and lapses of time, that Bessus gave the same answer that wrong-doers almost always give when brought to account for their wrongs. He laid the fault upon his accomplices and friends. It was not his act, it was theirs.

Alexander ordered him to be publicly scourged; then he caused his face to be mutilated in a manner customary in those days, when a tyrant wished to stamp upon his victim a perpetual mark of infamy. In this condition, and with a mind in an agony of suspense and fear at the thought of worse tortures which he knew were to come, Alexander sent him as a second present to Sysigambis, to be dealt with, at Susa, as her revenge might direct. She inflicted upon him the most extreme tortures, and finally, when satiated with the pleasure of seeing him suffer, the story is that they chose four very elastic trees, growing at a little distance from each other, and bent down the tops of them toward the central point between them. They fastened the exhausted and dying Bessus to these trees, one limb of his body to each, and then releasing the stems from their confinement, they flew upward, tearing the body asunder, each holding its own dissevered portion, as if in triumph, far over the heads of the multitude assembled to witness the spectacle.