The History of Antiquity Volume Vi Part 20

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The hereditary moderation in wine was not observed. Herodotus tells us that: "The Persians readily accept foreign customs. They wear the Median dress because they consider it more beautiful, and in war they use Egyptian coats of mail. They adopt any customs which please them, and in addition to a large number of wives, they have many concubines."[503]

About the year 500 B.C. the Persians were so accustomed to convenience in their domestic economy, that they took even into the field of battle their servants together with their cooks and maid-servants, their entire harem with costly furniture, partly in closed waggons and partly on camels; even the men of the guard were followed by their women and furniture. The nobles encamped under tents splendidly wrought with gold and silver.[504] But in spite of this luxury, self-control and military vigour were never eradicated in the Persians. They were always seen in a becoming attitude. They were never observed to eat or drink greedily; they never laughed loud, or quarrelled, or gave way to passion.[505] The education which the sons of the nobles received under the eye of the king and the satraps, and the rich rewards in store for eminent valour, kept up a manly spirit. We have more than one instance of acts of rare devotion to the king and the empire. The remembrance of the conflicts of Cyrus, of the wars which Darius carried on, the consciousness of great successes, the proud feeling that they governed the nations of Asia, formed strong counterpoises to the advance of effeminacy. Even those who lived most delicately at home eagerly joined in the chase, in the prescribed extirpation of the animals of Angromainyu, and the princes did not disdain to do garden-work with their own hands day by day. At that time, as Xenophon observes, the old Persian sobriety and force existed beside the Median dress and luxury, and Heracleides of Pontus tells us that the Persians and Medes, who loved luxury and excess above others, were also the bravest and most magnanimous of the barbarians.[506] Artaxerxes Mnemon, in spite of his golden ornaments and purple kaftan, dismounted from his horse, and marched on foot, shield on arm and quiver on shoulder, day by day at the head of his soldiers, through the roughest and steepest mountain paths, though the day's march reached 25 miles or more. In spite of armlets and purple hose the leading Persians long after the time of Darius leapt from their horses into the mud, in order to extricate a baggage-cart, which prevented the march of the army; and the common soldier, even when frozen with cold, hesitated to lay the axe to beautiful trees which would be consumed merely to warm him by his watch-fire. The prescripts of religion were not without effect. The kings kept their word when given; every Persian regarded it as shameful to break the pledge of plighted hands, to refuse reverence to his parents--his mother especially--to speak falsely, and to seek for gains by trade. Thucydides says of them that they liked better to give than to receive.[507] The pride of the Persians preferred to serve the king with arms and receive favour and presents from him, than to carry on any kind of trade. A great number of the Persians were constantly under arms in the standing army; the rest tended their flocks and cultivated their fields in the hereditary way. They kept to the old Persian dress, the close and short garment of leather; their coats reached only half way down the thigh, and instead of the tiara they wore a low band round the head. Along with their dress and mode of life, they kept true to the manners and moderation of their forefathers, and practised the old arts of riding and archery.

More serious for the future of the kingdom than any splendour or magnificence on the part of eminent Persians, was the influence, which in the composition of the court was unavoidable, of his personal servants on the king and on his resolutions--and the danger that court intrigues might override the interest of the empire; above all, the still more unavoidable influence of the harem. If the position of the queen-mother, who, in accordance with the doctrines of Zarathrustra, enjoyed a position of great respect at court, and her relations to the queen or first wife gave occasion for jealous rivalry, each secondary wife had still stronger motives to seek or maintain influence with the king, to disparage the queen and the other wives before him, and make provision for her sons if she could not aspire to gain the succession to the throne. Thus a door was opened to ambition and intrigue, and the eunuchs of the wives found in this occupation only too good an opportunity for gaining importance and weight. If such evils were a little matter under a ruler of the determination and wisdom of Darius, it was impossible to count on the fact that he would be followed by a series of kings like himself, and equally great. But if the court outgrew the state, and the fortunes of the empire were decided in the seraglio, the empire itself might be thrown into danger with a change in the succession. The education given to the princes, and especially to the heir to the throne, has been mentioned already, as well as their instruction in the wisdom of the Magi. The crown descended to the eldest son of the legitimate wife or queen. Whenever the king took the field, in order to prevent contention he nominated his successor. Even about the successor of Darius a difficulty might arise. His first wife, the daughter of Gobryas, had borne him three sons before he came to the throne; when king, he had made Atossa his queen, and had four sons by her (p. 394). Which was the legitimate heir, the eldest of the first family, or of the second?--Artabazanes or Xerxes?

At the death of the king, as Diodorus tells us, the sacred fire in the royal palace, and in all the houses of the Persians, was put out.[508]

We remember the prescript of the Avesta that the fire of the hearth must be removed from the house of the dead, together with all the sacred vessels, the pestle, the cup, the bundle of rods and the Haoma, and that the fire could not be kindled again till the ninth or thirtieth day after the death (V. 215). The heir to the throne repaired to Pasargadae, to receive consecration from the Magi there. "In that city," says Plutarch, "there is the shrine of a warlike goddess who may, perhaps, be compared with Athene; to this the prince who is to be consecrated goes, and there lays his robe aside, in order to put on the garment which Cyrus wore before he became king: then he eats a cake of dried figs, bites a terebinth, and drinks a cup of sour milk (no doubt in remembrance of the old life of the Persians). Whether he has anything to do beyond this is unknown."[509] We are told elsewhere that the new king put the royal _kidaris_ on his head; and no doubt the act would be accompanied with invocations by the Magi. The shrine of the goddess mentioned by Plutarch must have been a place of sacrifice to Anahita; the heroes and kings of the Avesta sacrifice to this goddess in order to attain the splendour of majesty, the supreme dominion.[510]

The Arian tribes of the table-land of Iran have preserved the original character of their family more truly than their kinsmen who settled on the Indus and the Ganges, and filled the Deccan with their civilization.

Placed in a less tempestuous region, in a land where there were sharp contrasts of climate, of hill and plain, of fertility and desolation, of snow and sand storms, the life of the Arians in Iran was more vigorous and manly than life in India. The tribes in the north-east attained to civic life and intellectual progress before the tribes of west Iran. The contrast in which the former stood to the hordes of the neighbouring steppes, and the repulsion of their attacks, led the Bactrians to a larger state, and the formation of a military monarchy, which arose from the midst of an armed nobility, while the weight of the ancient and powerful states of the Semites in the valley of the Euphrates and the Tigris, repressed the independent development of the tribes of western Iran. The foundations of the religious views of the Arians were the same to the east and west of the Indus. With the Arians of the Panjab, the Arians of Iran shared the belief in the power of the spirits of light which gave life and blessing, in the destructive power of the black spirits, and the struggle of the spirits of light against the spirits of darkness. The peculiar intensity of the contrasts in nature and in the conditions of life in the north-east, gave an impulse to the development of religious views there, which led to the systematic opposition of the hosts of heaven and of hell, and the union of these groups under two supreme spirits, and to deeper ideas of their nature. It was a transformation of the old conceptions which at the same time carried with it a change and increase in the ethical demands made upon men.

While the development of conceptions beyond the Indus tended to set man free from all sensuality, and sought to bring him back to his divine origin, by crushing the body and quenching the individuality, the doctrine of Zarathrustra excludes only the harmful side of nature, and demands the increase of the useful side; it pledges every man to take a part in the conflict of the good spirits against the evil, demands that by his work, his activity, and the purity of his soul, he enlarge the kingdom of the good and light spirits to the best of his ability, and thus forms sound and practical aims for the conduct of men. When this doctrine had penetrated to the nations of west Iran, and struck deep roots among them, the Medes succeeded in combining their tribes, and repelling the supremacy of the Assyrians. In no long time the borders of their dominion extended, in the west to the Halys, and in the east over the whole table-land of Iran; in union with Babylon they overthrew the remnant of Assyria, and shared with that city the empire over Hither Asia. What the Medes had begun, the Persians finished, when they had taken the place of the Medes. One after another the ancient kingdoms of Hither Asia fell before them--the Lydian empire, which had finally united under its sway the tribes and cities of the western half of Asia Minor, ancient Babylon, which had once more united the valley of the two streams, the states of Syria, and the cities of the Phenicians, and at length even primeval Egypt.

Arian life and Arian culture were now dominant through the whole breadth of Asia, from the pearl-banks and coral-reefs of the Indian Ocean to the Hellespont. At the time when the first Arian settlers were landing far in the east on Tamraparni (Ceylon) the cities of the Hellenes on the western coast of Anatolia and the strand of the Aegean were compelled to bow before the arms of Cyrus. The world had never seen before such an empire as that of Darius, the borders of which reached from the Libyans, the plateau of Barca, the Nubians and negroes beyond Egypt, the tribes of the Arabian desert to the summits of the Caucasus, the remote city of Cyrus on the Jaxartes, and the gold-land of the Daradas in the lofty Himalayas. And not contented with this range Darius aspired to extend yet further the limits of his empire.

Beyond the Aegean Sea a branch of the Arian stock had developed an independent civilization and civic life in small mountain cantons surrounded by the sea. The eye of the potentate of Asia looked no doubt with contempt on these unimportant communities, whose colonies in Asia and Africa had long been subject to him; on states of which each could put in the field no more than a few thousand warriors. The sea, which separated the Persian kingdom from the cantons of the Greeks, had already been crossed; the Persians had seen the mouths of the Danube; the straits of the Bosphorus and the Hellespont were in the power of Darius, the coasts of Thrace and the Greek states were subject to him; he had already planted a firm foot at the mouths of the Hebrus and the Strymon, and the prince of Macedonia paid him tribute. At his command Phenicians and Persians had investigated the coasts of the Aegean Sea, and of Hellas.

Was it possible that these small cantons, without political union or common interests, living in perpetual strife and feud, excited and torn by internal party contests in which there were almost as many views as men, whose exiles made their way to the lofty gates of the Persian monarch, whose princes were at pains to secure their dominions by vassalage to the great king, and join in leagues with him against their countrymen--was it possible that these cantons, in this position, would maintain their independence against Persia, and resist the attack of this universal empire,--the onset of Asia? Would the Greeks be bold enough to venture on such a hopeless struggle, to oppose the Persians, whose name was a terror to all their neighbours, and even to the Hellenes? Few, Herodotus tells us, could even bear the sight of the Persian cavalry, and Plato remarks that the minds of the Greeks were already enslaved to the Persians.

It was a question of decisive importance for the civilization and development of humanity; whether the new principle of communal government, which had been carried out in the Hellenic cantons, should be maintained, or pass into the vast limits of the Persian empire, and succumb to the authority of the king: state power and civic life, absolute authority and the will of the majority, abject obedience and conscious self-control, the masses and the individual--these were ranged opposite each other, and the balance was already turning in favour of overwhelming material force.


[499] Plut. "Artax." c. 13; Xenoph. "Cyri Inst." 8, 1, 40; "Anab." 1, 5, 8; Strabo, p. 734.

[500] Xenoph. "Cyri Inst." 8, 8, 17.

[501] Aeschyl. "Pers." 543; Xenophon, "Cyri Inst." 8, 8, 16.

[502] Herod. 1, 133; Heracleides of Cyme (Fragm. 2, ed. Muller) contests the excess of the king at table as well as of the officers and generals.

Cf. Xenoph. "Cyri Inst." 5, 2, 17; 8, 8, 10; Strabo, p. 733, 734.

[503] Herod. 1, 135.

[504] Herod. 7, 83, 187; 9, 76, 80, 81, 82; Xenoph. "Anab." 4, 4.

[505] Xenoph. "Cyri Inst." 8, 8, 8 ff.

[506] Xenoph. "Cyri Inst." 8, 8, 15; Heracl. Pont. ap. Athenaeum, p.


[507] Plut. "Artax." 24, 25; Xenoph. "Anab." 1, 5; "Cyri Inst." 8, 8, 2; Thuc. 2, 17.

[508] Diod. 17, 114. Cf. Curtius, 3, 3, 9.

[509] Plut. "Artax." 3.

[510] Vol. V. 32, 37. "Aban Yasht," 22, 25, 46, 50.


The History of Antiquity Volume Vi Part 20

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