Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


The Artaxerxes about whose life we are going to tell was the second Persian king of that name. The first one was son of Xerxes, and reigned thirty years; the second was son of Darius, and ascended the throne on the death of his father. He was surnamed the Mindful, because of his extraordinary memory.

Darius had four sons,—Artaxerxes, Cyrus, Oxtanes, and Oxathres. Cyrus was his mother's favorite, and when the king was dying she tried very hard to have him named successor. The argument she used was that Cyrus had been born after his father began to reign, whereas Artaxerxes, having been born before that period, was therefore not the son of a monarch. But the dying father insisted that his eldest child should succeed him, and he was therefore proclaimed king. Cyrus, who had always been a headstrong, ambitious boy, was very much disappointed; but his brother made him governor of Lydia, and commander-in-chief of all the cities along the coast of Asia Minor, thinking that such an important post ought to satisfy him. We shall see, however, that it did not.

Artaxerxes, according to the custom of his country, went to a place called Pasargada, to be crowned by the priests in the temple of the goddess of war. The ceremony was conducted in this way: the royal person on entering the holy place had to take off his own robe and put on the one which Cyrus I. wore before he became king; he had also to eat a cake of figs, chew some turpentine, and drink a cup of sour milk.

Artaxerxes was just on the point of going to the temple, when Tissaphernes, one of his highest officers, brought in a priest who had come to say that Cyrus was hidden in the sacred building, ready to kill his brother when he was changing his robe. Cyrus was seized and brought before the king; but Parysatis, the mother, came with him, and, throwing her arms about his neck, implored her eldest son to pardon him for her sake. He did so, and Cyrus went back to Lydia; but he was not grateful for his escape, and hated his brother because of the indignity he had suffered in being brought before him in chains.

Artaxerxes was a very mild, gentle king at first, with affable manners towards the lowly as well as the lofty in station, and always ready to reward liberally any deserving person. No matter how trifling a present offered to him might be, he received it graciously. A subject once brought him an uncommonly large pomegranate. He said, "By the light of Mithra, this man, if he were made governor of a small city, would soon make it a great one." As he passed through the country, his people would present a variety of things; a poor man, on such an occasion, having nothing to offer, ran to the river and brought some water in his hands, and the king was so pleased that he sent him a gold cup and a liberal sum of money. One day when he was hunting, a courtier pointed out a tear in his robe. "What shall I do with it?" asked the king. "Give it to me," was the reply. "It shall be so," returned Artaxerxes; "I give it thee; but I charge thee not to wear it." The courtier, being a vain, silly fellow, put on the robe, and, adding to it some costly jewels, made a display of himself thus adorned. The courtiers expressed great indignation at seeing a royal robe worn by one who had no right to it, but the king only laughed, and said, "I allow him to wear the trinkets as a woman, and the robe as a madman." So by attaching the proper weight to trifles Artaxerxes made his reign popular, and Statira, his wife, did her share towards it, for she always rode in her chariot with her curtains open, that people might see her, and she was so gracious in her manners that women were not afraid to approach and salute her. Of course, there were those who did not approve of the king, for there are always fault-finders in every age and country; they thought that Persia required a more dignified, ambitious, despotic ruler.

Knowing such to be the case, Cyrus resolved to make war upon his brother, and collected an army of more than a hundred thousand fighting-men, at whose head he began his march.

Tissaphernes was the first person to hear of the approach of Cyrus, and lost no time in communicating the dreadful intelligence at court, where it aroused the greatest consternation. Parysatis was taken to task for the danger that threatened, because it was she who had saved the life of her son Cyrus when he would otherwise have forfeited it. Statira reproached her more than any one else for bringing war and all its calamities on the country, and this made the queen-mother so angry that, later, she had the queen assassinated when Artaxerxes was at the war.

Cyrus and his army were amazed when they beheld the magnificent array the Persian king brought into the field. He had nine hundred thousand well-armed, well-disciplined men, who advanced slowly and in perfect order. The two armies met at a place called Cunaxa, about sixty miles from Babylon, and the battle fought there was so fierce and so remarkable that many ancient historians have written descriptions of it. It is therefore only necessary for us to recount the result.

Mounted on a high-spirited horse, Cyrus fought with great fury, and routed the king's guard. He then engaged with the monarch himself, pierced his cuirass with his javelin, and gave him such a terrible wound that he fell in a swoon.

This event caused disorder among the king's troops, and before they recovered their presence of mind the animal which bore Cyrus became excited and dashed in among the ranks of the enemy. It was growing dark at that time, and the prince was not at once recognized; but he was so elated with victory that he spurred on his horse, shouting, "Make way, ye slaves, make way!" The ranks opened at his command, but his helmet happened to become loose and fall from his head, whereupon a young Persian named Mithridates, who chanced to be riding by, struck a dart deep into one of his temples. The blood gushed forth, and Cyrus fell senseless to the ground. When he recovered consciousness a couple of slaves tried to lead him away, but he was so dizzy that he could with difficulty reel along supported on both sides. As one by one whom he met began to recognize and salute him as king, begging at the same time for grace and mercy, Cyrus knew that victory was his. But he was not long to enjoy his triumph, for a party of men employed to do camp-work for the royal army fell into his train, under the impression that he was not an enemy. However, they soon discovered their mistake when they observed that the coats over the breastplates of Cyrus and his attendants were red, while those of the king's men were white. One of them, without recognizing Cyrus, struck him in the leg with a dart. He fell, and, dashing his wounded temple against a stone, died on the spot.

Presently an officer of the king came along and asked the slaves over whom they were weeping. "Do not you see, O Artasyras," asked one of them, "that it is my master, Cyrus?" "Be of good cheer, and keep the body safe," said Artasyras, as he rode off in all haste to carry the news to the king.

Artaxerxes, who had given up his cause for lost, and was suffering from his wound, could scarcely believe the good news. He started up, and ordered Artasyras to lead him to the spot where his dead brother lay. Thirty messengers were sent forward to make sure that Cyrus was really dead, and when the king came into the plain they met him with torches, and held up the head and right hand of Cyrus, which, according to the Persian custom, had been cut off.

Taking the head in his hand and holding it up by the long, thick hair, Artaxerxes showed it to the soldiers, all of whom flocked to him as soon as they heard of his good fortune. He returned to the camp followed by seventy thousand men, who only a short hour before had been prepared to desert to the victorious Cyrus.

The king then rewarded every man who had been in any way instrumental in causing the death of the prince, as well as the messenger who brought him the good news and those who confirmed it. But the two who had struck the fatal blows, the one in the temple and the other on the leg, went about boasting of their exploits, which made the king so angry that he ordered both to be executed. This was not because he felt any sorrow on account of his brother's death, but because he wanted all the credit among the enemy of having caused it himself.

Parysatis, as we know, had always loved Cyrus more than her other sons. She was a cruel, vindictive woman, who would stop at nothing in order to satisfy her revenge. So she begged that the condemned men, as well as the slave that had cut off the head and hands of her son, might be left to her for punishment. Artaxerxes gratified her, and the barbarous torture to which she subjected them before death came to their relief is too horrible for description.

Now, a large number of Greeks had followed Cyrus into Asia, and Artaxerxes had been most anxious to conquer them, because such a feat would add greatly to his reputation. But he failed in this, and they made a remarkable retreat through more than two thousand miles of the enemy's country, followed and harassed all the way by a victorious army. They reached their cities on the Euxine Sea, feeling contempt for the barbarous Persian king, with all his wealth, luxury, and display, and great eagerness for new conflicts with him.

Artaxerxes was now the peaceable possessor of the throne, and immediately set about preparations for another war. The Lacedæmonians had offended him by giving aid to Cyrus, and he resolved to punish them. For that purpose he joined Conon, the Athenian general, and made him, with Pharnabazus, admirals over his fleet. The Lacedæmonians were so badly defeated that they lost their control of the seas, and Artaxerxes gained so much power over Greece as to be permitted to dictate his own terms of peace.

It was called the peace of Antalcidas, being named after the Spartan who, acting in the interest of the Persian king, induced the Lacedæmonians to let him govern all the Greek cities in Asia. The terms of this well-known treaty were so humiliating that they cast more disgrace on the Greeks than any defeat had ever done. Artaxerxes showed Antalcidas special favors when he went to Persia, and continued to do so until the battle of Leuctra was fought; then the Spartans were again defeated, and lost their lofty position among the Greek nations. They were in such distress after this battle that they were obliged to send Agesilaus, their commander, to Egypt to borrow money.

Antalcidas then entreated the Persian king to assist his wretched country, but he met with nothing but insults and a harsh refusal. Fearing to return to Sparta after being so treated by a monarch whose cause he had favored, he starved himself to death in despair. Then all the Greek cities of Asia fell under the sway of Artaxerxes.

A revolt in Egypt next attracted the attention of the Persians, and was followed by one in Upper Asia. The king attended his army in person, and showed that he could endure danger and fatigue in spite of the splendor and luxury by which he was always surrounded when at home.

He was now growing old, and his sons began to dispute among themselves as to which should succeed him. The eldest one, who was named Darius, would probably have been appointed; but he was so impatient for the exalted station that he formed a plot against his father's life. It was discovered, and the king had barely time to escape through a door concealed behind a piece of tapestry when the would-be assassins entered his bedchamber. He gave the alarm, and they were captured. The proof that Darius was at the head of the plot was too strong to be questioned, and he was put to death.

Artaxerxes died at the age of ninety-four, and his son Ochus, a cruel, blood-thirsty prince, succeeded him.