Darius the Great - Jacob Abbott

The Story of Histićus

The nature of the government which was exercised in ancient times by a royal despot like Darius, and the character of the measures and management to which he was accustomed to resort to gain his political ends, are, in many points, very strikingly illustrated by the story of Histićus.

Histićus was the Ionian chieftain who had been left in charge of the bridge of boats across the Danube when Darius made his incursion into Scythia. When, on the failure of the expedition, Darius returned to the river, knowing, as he did, that the two months had expired, he naturally felt a considerable degree of solicitude lest he should find the bridge broken up and the vessels gone, in which case his situation would be very desperate, hemmed in, as he would have been, between the Scythians and the river. His anxiety was changed into terror when his advanced guard arrived at the bank and found that no signs of the bridge were to be seen. It is easy to imagine what, under these circumstances, must have been the relief and joy of all the army, when they heard friendly answers to their shouts, coming, through the darkness of the night, over the waters of the river, assuring them that their faithful allies were still at their posts, and that they themselves would soon be in safety.

Darius, though he was governed by no firm and steady principles of justice, was still a man of many generous impulses. He was grateful for favors, though somewhat capricious in his modes of requiting them. He declared to Histićus that he felt under infinite obligations to him for his persevering fidelity, and that, as soon as the army should have safely arrived in Asia, he would confer upon him such rewards as would evince the reality of his gratitude.

On his return from Scythia, Darius brought back the whole of his army over the Danube, thus abandoning entirely the country of the Scythians; but he did not transport the whole body across the Bosporus. He left a considerable detachment of troops, under the command of one of his generals, named Megabyzus, in Thrace, on the European side, ordering Megabyzus to establish himself there, and to reduce all the countries in that neighborhood to his sway. Darius then proceeded to Sardis, which was the most powerful and wealthy of his capitals in that quarter of the world. At Sardis, he was, as it were, at home again, and he accordingly took an early opportunity to send for Histićus, as well as some others who had rendered him special services in his late campaign, in order that he might agree with them in respect to their reward. He asked Histićus what favor he wished to receive.

Histićus replied that he was satisfied, on the whole, with the position which he already enjoyed, which was that of king or governor of Miletus, an Ionian city, south of Sardis, and on the shores of the Ćgean Sea. He should be pleased, however, he said, if the king would assign him a certain small territory in Thrace, or, rather, on the borders between Thrace and Macedonia, near the mouth of the River Strymon. He wished to build a city there. The king immediately granted this request, which was obviously very moderate and reasonable. He did not, perhaps, consider that this territory, being in Thrace, or in its immediate vicinity, came within the jurisdiction of Megabyzus, whom he had left in command there, and that the grant might lead to some conflict between the two generals. There was special danger of jealousy and disagreement between them, for Megabyzus was a Persian, and Histićus was a Greek.

Histićus organized a colony, and, leaving a temporary and provisional government at Miletus, he proceeded along the shores of the Ćgean Sea to the spot assigned him, and began to build his city. As the locality was beyond the Thracian frontier, and at a considerable distance from the head-quarters of Megabyzus, it is very probable that the operations of Histićus would not have attracted the Persian general's attention for a considerable time, had it not been for a very extraordinary and peculiar train of circumstances, which led him to discover them. The circumstances were these:

There was a nation or tribe called the Pćonians, who inhabited the valley of the Strymon, which river came down from the interior of the country, and fell into the sea near the place where Histićus was building his city. Among the Pćonian chieftains there were two who wished to obtain the government of the country, but they were not quite strong enough to effect their object. In order to weaken the force which was opposed to them, they conceived the base design of betraying their tribe to Darius, and inducing him to make them captives. If their plan should succeed, a considerable portion of the population would be taken away, and they could easily, they supposed, obtain ascendency over the rest. In order to call the attention of Darius to the subject, and induce him to act as they desired, they resorted to the following stratagem. Their object seems to have been to lead Darius to undertake a campaign against their countrymen, by showing him what excellent and valuable slaves they would make.

These two chieftains were brothers, and they had a very beautiful sister; her form was graceful and elegant, and her countenance lovely. They brought this sister with them to Sardis when Darius was there. They dressed and decorated her in a very careful manner, but yet in a style appropriate to the condition of a servant; and then, one day, when the king was sitting in some public place in the city, as was customary with Oriental sovereigns, they sent her to pass along the street before him, equipped in such a manner as to show that she was engaged in servile occupations. She had a jar, such as was then used for carrying water, poised upon her head, and she was leading a horse by means of a bridle hung over her arm. Her hands, being thus not required either for the horse or for the vessel, were employed in spinning, as she walked along, by means of a distaff and spindle.

The attention of Darius was strongly attracted to the spectacle. The beauty of the maiden, the novelty and strangeness of her costume, the multiplicity of her avocations, and the ease and grace with which she performed them, all conspired to awaken the monarch's curiosity. He directed one of his attendants to follow her and see where she should go. The attendant did so. The girl went to the river. She watered her horse, filled her jar and placed it on her head, and then, hanging the bridle on her arm again, she returned through the same streets, and passed the king's palace as before, spinning as she walked along.

The interest and curiosity of the king was excited more than ever by the reappearance of the girl and by the report of his messenger. He directed that she should be stopped and brought into his presence. She came; and her brothers, who had been watching the whole scene from a convenient spot near at hand, joined her and came too. The king asked them who they were. They replied that they were Pćonians. He wished to know where they lived. "On the banks of the River Strymon," they replied, "near the confines of Thrace." He next asked whether all the women of their country were accustomed to labor, and were as ingenious, and dexterous, and beautiful as their sister. The brothers replied that they were.

Darius immediately determined to make the whole people slaves. He accordingly dispatched a courier with the orders. The courier crossed the Hellespont, and proceeded to the encampment of Megabyzus in Thrace. He delivered his dispatches to the Persian general, commanding him to proceed immediately to Pćonia, and there to take the whole community prisoners, and bring them to Darius in Sardis. Megabyzus, until this time, had known nothing of the people whom he was thus commanded to seize. He, however, found some Thracian guides who undertook to conduct him to their territory; and then, taking with him a sufficient force, he set out on the expedition. The Pćonians heard of his approach. Some prepared to defend themselves; others fled to the mountains. The fugitives escaped, but those who attempted to resist were taken. Megabyzus collected the unfortunate captives, together with their wives and children, and brought them down to the coast to embark them for Sardis. In doing this, he had occasion to pass by the spot where Histićus was building his city, and it was then, for the first time, that Megabyzus became acquainted with the plan. Histićus was building a wall to defend his little territory on the side of the land. Ships and galleys were going and coming on the side of the sea. Every thing indicated that the work was rapidly and prosperously advancing.

Megabyzus did not interfere with the work; but, as soon as he arrived at Sardis with his captives, and had delivered them to the king, he introduced the subject of Histićus's city, and represented to Darius that it would be dangerous to the Persian interests to allow such an enterprise to go on. "He will establish a strong post there," said Megabyzus, "by means of which he will exercise a great ascendency over all the neighboring seas. The place is admirably situated for a naval station, as the country in the vicinity abounds with all the materials for building and equipping ships. There are also mines of silver in the mountains near, from which he will obtain a great supply of treasure. By these means he will become so strong in a short period of time, that, after you have returned to Asia, he will revolt from your authority, carrying with him, perhaps, in his rebellion, all the Greeks of Asia Minor."

The king said that he was sorry that he had made the grant, and that he would revoke it without delay.

Megabyzus recommended that the king should not do this in an open or violent manner, but that he should contrive some way to arrest the progress of the undertaking without any appearance of suspicion or displeasure.

Darius accordingly sent for Histićus to come to him at Sardis, saying that there was a service of great importance on which he wished to employ him. Histićus, of course, obeyed such a summons with eager alacrity. When he arrived, Darius expressed great pleasure at seeing him once more, and said that he had constant need of his presence and his counsels. He valued, above all price, the services of so faithful a friend, and so sagacious and trusty an adviser. He was now, he said, going to Susa, and he wished Histićus to accompany him as his privy counselor and confidential friend. It would be necessary, Darius added, that he should give up his government of Miletus, and also the city in Thrace which he had begun to build; but he should be exalted to higher honors and dignities at Susa in their stead. He should have apartments in the king's palace, and live in great luxury and splendor.

Histićus was extremely disappointed and chagrined at this announcement. He was obliged, however, to conceal his vexation and submit to his fate. In a few days after this, he set out, with the rest of Darius's court, for the Persian capital, leaving a nephew, whose name was Aristagoras, as governor of Miletus in his stead. Darius, on the other hand, committed the general charge of the whole coast of Asia Minor to Artaphernes, one of his generals. Artaphernes was to make Sardis his capital. He had not only the general command of all the provinces extending along the shore, but also of all the ships, and galleys, and other naval armaments which belonged to Darius on the neighboring seas. Aristagoras, as governor of Miletus, was under his general jurisdiction. The two officers were, moreover, excellent friends. Aristagoras was, of course, a Greek, and Artaphernes a Persian.

Among the Greek islands situated in the Ćgean Sea, one of the most wealthy, important, and powerful at that time, was Naxos. It was situated in the southern part of the sea, and about midway between the shores of Asia Minor and Greece. It happened that, soon after Darius had returned from Asia Minor to Persia, a civil war broke out in that island, in which the common people were on one side and the nobles on the other. The nobles were overcome in the contest, and fled from the island. A party of them landed at Miletus, and called upon Aristagoras to aid them in regaining possession of the island.

Aristagoras replied that he would very gladly do it if he had the power, but that the Persian forces on the whole coast, both naval and military, were under the command of Artaphernes at Sardis. He said, however, that he was on very friendly terms with Artaphernes, and that he would, if the Naxians desired it, apply to him for his aid. The Naxians seemed very grateful for the interest which Aristagoras took in their cause, and said that they would commit the whole affair to his charge.

There was, however, much less occasion for gratitude than there seemed, for Aristagoras was very far from being honest and sincere in his offers of aid. He perceived, immediately on hearing the fugitives' story, that a very favorable opportunity was opening for him to add Naxos, and perhaps even the neighboring islands, to his own government. It is always a favorable opportunity to subjugate a people when their power of defense and of resistance is neutralized by dissensions with one another. It is a device as old as the history of mankind, and one resorted to now as often as ever, for ambitious neighbors to interpose in behalf of the weaker party in a civil war waged in a country which they wish to make their own, and, beginning with a war against a part, to end by subjugating the whole. This was Aristagora's plan. He proposed it to Artaphernes, representing to him that a very favorable occasion had occurred for bringing the Greek islands of the Ćgean Sea under the Persian dominion. Naxos once possessed, all the other islands around it would follow, he said, and a hundred ships would make the conquests sure.

Artaphernes entered very readily and very warmly into the plan. He said that he would furnish two hundred instead of one hundred galleys. He thought it was necessary, however, first to consult Darius, since the affair was one of such importance; and besides, it was not best to commence the undertaking until the spring. He would immediately send a messenger to Darius to ascertain his pleasure, and, in the mean time, as he did not doubt that Darius would fully approve of the plan, he would have all necessary preparations made, so that every thing should be in readiness as soon as the proper season for active operations should arrive.

Artaphernes was right in anticipating his brother's approval of the design. The messenger returned from Susa with full authority from the king for the execution of the project. The ships were built and equipped, and every thing was made ready for the expedition. The intended destination of the armament was, however, kept a profound secret, as the invaders wished to surprise the people of Naxos when off their guard. Aristagoras was to accompany the expedition as its general leader, while an officer named Megabates, appointed by Artaphernes for this purpose, was to take command of the fleet as a sort of admiral. Thus there were two commanders—an arrangement which almost always, in such cases, leads to a quarrel. It is a maxim in war that one  bad general is better than two good ones.

The expedition sailed from Miletus; and, in order to prevent the people of Naxos from being apprised of their danger, the report had been circulated that its destination was to be the Hellespont. Accordingly, when the fleet sailed, it turned its course to the northward, as if it were really going to the Hellespont. The plan of the commander was to stop after proceeding a short distance, and then to seize the first opportunity afforded by a wind from the north to come down suddenly upon Naxos, before the population should have time to prepare for defense. Accordingly, when they arrived opposite the island of Chios, the whole fleet came to anchor near the land. The ships were all ordered to be ready, at a moment's warning, for setting sail; and, thus situated, the commanders were waiting for the wind to change.

Megabates, in going his rounds among the fleet while things were in this condition, found one vessel entirely abandoned. The captain and crew had all left it, and had gone ashore. They were not aware, probably, how urgent was the necessity that they should be every moment at their posts. The captain of this galley was a native of a small town called Cnydus, and, as it happened, was a particular friend of Aristagoras. His name was Syclax. Megabates, as the commander of the fleet, was very much incensed at finding one of his subordinate officers so derelict in duty. He sent his guard in pursuit of him; and when Syclax was brought to his ship, Megabates ordered his head to be thrust out through one of the small port-holes intended for the oars, in the side of the ship, and then bound him in that position—his head appearing thus to view, in the sight of all the fleet, while his body remained within the vessel. "I am going to keep him at his post," said Megabates, "and in such a way that every one can see  that he is there."

Aristagoras was much distressed at seeing his friend suffering so severe and disgraceful a punishment. He went to Megabates and requested the release of the prisoner, giving, at the same time, what he considered satisfactory reasons for his having been absent from his vessel. Megabates, however, was not satisfied, and refused to set Syclax at liberty. Aristagoras then told Megabates that he mistook his position in supposing that he was master of the expedition, and could tyrannize over the men in that manner, as he pleased. "I will have you understand," said he, "that I am the commander in this campaign, and that Artaphernes, in making you the sailing-master of the fleet, had no intention that you should set up your authority over mine." So saying, he went away in a rage, and released Syclax from his durance with his own hands.

It was now the turn of Megabates to be enraged. He determined to defeat the expedition. He sent immediately a secret messenger to warn the Naxians of their enemies' approach. The Naxians immediately made effectual preparations to defend themselves. The end of it was, that when the fleet arrived, the island was prepared to receive it, and nothing could be done. Aristagoras continued the siege four months; but inasmuch as, during all this time, Megabates did every thing in his power to circumvent and thwart every plan that Aristagoras formed, nothing was accomplished. Finally, the expedition was broken up, and Aristagoras returned home, disappointed and chagrined, all his hopes blasted, and his own private finances thrown into confusion by the great pecuniary losses which he himself had sustained. He had contributed very largely, from his own private funds, in fitting out the expedition, fully confident of success, and of ample reimbursement for his expenses as the consequence of it.

He was angry with himself, and angry with Megabates, and angry with Artaphernes. He presumed, too, that Megabates would denounce him to Artaphernes, and, through him, to Darius, as the cause of the failure of the expedition. A sudden order might come at any moment, directing that he should be beheaded. He began to consider the expediency of revolting from the Persian power, and making common cause with the Greeks against Darius. The danger of such a step was scarcely less than that of remaining as he was. While he was pondering these momentous questions in his mind, he was led suddenly to a decision by a very singular circumstance, the proper explaining of which requires the story to return, for a time, to Histićus at Susa.

Histićus was very ill at ease in the possession of his forced elevation and grandeur at Susa. He enjoyed great distinction there, it is true, and a life of ease and luxury, but he wished for independence and authority. He was, accordingly, very desirous to get back to his former sphere of activity and power in Asia Minor. After revolving in his mind the various plans which occurred to him for accomplishing this purpose, he at last decided on inducing Aristagoras to revolt in Ionia, and then attempting to persuade Darius to send him on to quell the revolt. When once in Asia Minor, he would join the rebellion, and bid Darius defiance.

The first thing to be done was to contrive some safe and secret way to communicate with Aristagoras. This he effected in the following manner: There was a man in his court who was afflicted with some malady of the eyes. Histićus told him that if he would put himself under his  charge he could effect a cure. It would be necessary, he said, that the man should have his head shaved and scarified; that is, punctured with a sharp instrument, previously dipped in some medicinal compound. Then, after some further applications should have been made, it would be necessary for the patient to go to Ionia, in Asia Minor, where there was a physician who would complete the cure.

The patient consented to this proposal. The head was shaved, and Histićus, while pretending to scarify it, pricked into the skin—as sailors tattoo anchors on their arms—by means of a needle and a species of ink which had probably no great medicinal virtue, the words of a letter to Aristagoras, in which he communicated to him fully, though very concisely, the particulars of his plan. He urged Aristagoras to revolt, and promised that, if he would do so, he would come on, himself, as soon as possible, and, under pretense of marching to suppress the rebellion, he would really join and aid it.

As soon as he had finished pricking this treasonable communication into the patient's skin, he carefully enveloped the head in bandages, which, he said, must on no account be disturbed. He kept the man shut up, besides, in the palace, until the hair had grown, so as effectually to conceal the writing, and then sent him to Ionia to have the cure perfected. On his arrival at Ionia he was to find Aristagoras, who would do what further was necessary. Histićus contrived, in the mean time, to send word to Aristagoras by another messenger, that, as soon as such a patient should present himself, Aristagoras was to shave his head. He did so, and the communication appeared. We must suppose that the operations on the part of Aristagoras for the purpose of completing the cure consisted, probably, in pricking in more ink, so as to confuse and obliterate the writing.

Aristagoras was on the eve of throwing off the Persian authority when he received this communication. It at once decided him to proceed. He organized his forces and commenced his revolt. As soon as the news of this rebellion reached Susa, Histićus feigned great indignation, and earnestly entreated Darius to commission him to go and suppress it. He was confident, he said, that he could do it in a very prompt and effectual manner. Darius was at first inclined to suspect that Histićus was in some way or other implicated in the movement; but these suspicions were removed by the protestations which Histićus made, and at length he gave him leave to proceed to Miletus, commanding him, however, to return to Susa again as soon as he should have suppressed the revolt.

When Histićus arrived in Ionia he joined Aristagoras, and the two generals, leaguing with them various princes and states of Greece, organized a very extended and dangerous rebellion, which it gave the troops of Darius infinite trouble to subdue. We can not here give an account of the incidents and particulars of this war. For a time the rebels prospered, and their cause seemed likely to succeed; but at length the tide turned against them. Their towns were captured, their ships were taken and destroyed, their armies cut to pieces. Histićus retreated from place to place, a wretched fugitive, growing more and more distressed and destitute every day. At length, as he was flying from a battle field, he arrested the arm of a Persian, who was pursuing him with his weapon upraised, by crying out that he was Histićus the Milesian. The Persian, hearing this, spared his life, but took him prisoner, and delivered him to Artaphernes. Histićus begged very earnestly that Artaphernes would send him to Darius alive, in hopes that Darius would pardon him in consideration of his former services at the bridge of the Danube. This was, however, exactly what Artaphernes wished to prevent; so he crucified the wretched Histićus at Sardis, and then packed his head in salt and sent it to Darius.