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The Xenophile Historian

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A General History of the Middle East


539 to 336 B.C.

This chapter covers the following topics:

The Return to Jerusalem
Kambujiya (Cambyses) II
Darayavahush (Darius) I
Khshayarsha (Xerxes) I
Artakhshassa (Artaxerxes) I
Darius II
Artaxerxes II
Artaxerxes III
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The Return to Jerusalem

For seventy years(1) idolatry and the other sins of life in Babylon surrounded the Jews, yet their faith not only survived but grew. In place of the Temple, which had been the center of worship previously, synagogues were set up in every Jewish community, and there once a week they gathered to study the scriptures. The emphasis on learning and the institution of the synagogue would last until our day, helping to make the Jews one of the most literate peoples anywhere. Meanwhile prophets like Ezekiel delivered a new message, replacing warnings of judgment with hope for the future. All things considered, the most important effect of the Babylonian captivity was that it burned out the Hebrew tendency toward idolatry, which had been a problem ever since the golden calf episode on Mt. Sinai. Nowadays the foremost commandment of Judaism is Deut. 6:6: "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one."

Individual Jews also prospered. Some of them, like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, rose to high positions in the government. Others went into business--the Jewish talent for handling finances first appears in this period--the most successful bankers in Babylon, the Egibi family, may have been Jewish. When the Jews finally got the opportunity to go home, most of them chose to stay in Babylon, rather than uproot their prosperous careers.(2) Still, some exiles looked to the day when they could again live in the land of their forefathers, and worship at God's Temple in Jerusalem.

When Cyrus took Babylon one of his first acts was to allow all captive peoples to return to the homelands from which they had been deported. He also restored the idols which had been taken from the temples of these peoples. There was no "idol" for the God of Israel, but Cyrus returned the golden cups and other temple furnishings that Nebuchadnezzar had confiscated. Those Jews who wanted to go to Jerusalem left with the blessing of Cyrus, and about 43,000 of them did so between 538 and 536 B.C.

They found a land full of ruins and wild beasts, gone to seed after a lifetime of neglect. The returnees immediately started working on rebuilding Jerusalem, but they weren't alone; just north of Jerusalem were the half-Israelite Samaritans, who had lived in the land while the Jews were away. The Samaritans offered to help in the construction, but the Jewish leaders refused, because the Samaritans had both a mixed ancestry and a mixed religion, which combined the worship of other gods with that of Yahweh. In retaliation the Samaritans sent to Susa letters accusing the Jews of plotting rebellion, and construction on Jerusalem was ordered stopped until an investigation could be made. Then because they could not take part in the building of the Jerusalem Temple, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. For the next four hundred years there were two temples, for two rival religions that claimed to be the creeds of God's chosen people. The Samaritan temple has not gotten much attention since the Maccabees destroyed it (see the next chapter), but recent excavations of the temple's site have revealed that back in the day, the Samaritan temple was richer and grander than the Jerusalem Temple was. By contrast, when the second Jerusalem Temple was complete, some old men who remembered the first Temple were not impressed, and whereas the Bible describes the glory of God coming down into the first Temple when Solomon dedicated it, it does not say any such thing happened with the second Temple.

In just over a decade, Cyrus had overthrown three of the four greatest nations of his day, and his policy of tolerance gained him loyal subjects in the most distant corners of his realm. He also wanted to conquer the fourth major kingdom, Egypt, but troubles on the opposite end of the empire required his attention first. A tribe of Scythians, the Massagetae, led by a queen named Tomyris, was raiding the Central Asian territories. Leaving his son Cambyses behind to get the Egyptian campaign ready, Cyrus marched into Kazakhstan in 529 B.C. to deal with Tomyris. It was the only battle he ever lost. The raiders killed him, and his body was brought back to Pasargadae and placed in a simple mausoleum. Pasargadae became a sacred town afterwards. All of the Persian kings after Cyrus were crowned there, and once a month priests sacrificed a horse at the tomb of Cyrus in his honor.

The tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae.
The tomb of Cyrus.

This strange sculpture can be seen in the Olympic Park at Sydney, Australia; it is a copy of one found at Pasargadae. Some call it the only existing sculpture of Cyrus because his name was on the original, but the combination of features suggests it was meant to be an image of a god or protective spirit. The robe is Elamite, while the wings come from Assyrian and Iranian deities, and the crown is Egyptian. The crown leads the author to believe that this work was carved after the reign of Cyrus, when Egypt was a part of the empire. From

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Kambujiya (Cambyses) II


Cyrus had two sons; he bequeathed his throne to the eldest, Cambyses II, while he appointed the younger, Bardiya (Smerdis in Greek), satrap or governor of Central Asia. Because Cyrus had failed to finish imposing Persian rule over the latter, he left both sons with large amounts of land to conquer. Nevertheless, it appears they did not get along well, for instead of marching off in opposite directions immediately, Cambyses had Smerdis secretly assassinated. Whatever else we can believe about Cambyses (and our sources on him are questionable at best), we have to admit he was a very different leader from his father.

According to Herodotus, the famous Greek historian, he next he sent a letter to the Egyptian pharaoh, Amasis (also called Ahmose II), asking for his daughter's hand in marriage. Amasis didn't want to send his daughter to a foreign land because he knew that to the Persians, she would just be one of the king's concubines, not the queen, but refusing to send her would offend the Persians. However, Nitetis, the daughter of the previous pharaoh, Apries, was still beautiful, so Amasis solved his dilemma by dressing up this princess as if she was his own daughter, and sending her to Cambyses instead. But Nitetis did not want to go to Persia either, so when she appeared in front of Cambyses, she told the king that he had been had--she wasn't the princess he had asked for. We saw above that Persia started making plans to invade Egypt before Cambyses became king; now he had an excuse to begin the invasion.

A treaty with the Arabs provided water for the huge Persian army as it marched across the Sinai desert. Egypt's best general, a Greek mercenary, defected to the Persians and gave them the secrets of the Egyptian defense system. Amasis was an able military leader, but he was already middle-aged when he got the crown, and had worn it for forty-three years (568-525), so when the Persians approached the Nile valley, he breathed his last. His successor, Psammetich III, ruled for six months in 525 B.C., until the Persians arrived at Pelusium. Because previous invasions of Egypt from the east had entered the country at Pelusium, that city had been well fortified by Amasis. Another Greek historian, Polyaenus, tells us that Cambyses overcame Egyptian defenses the same way Cyrus would have done it--he resorted to a trick. In this case, he used cats as a secret weapon, but our sources disagree on how he did it; one translation says he had pictures of cats painted on Persian shields, another says the Persian soldiers drove live cats in front of them or even threw them at the Egyptians (see the picture below). Because cats were sacred animals to the Egyptians, the Egyptian soldiers were too demoralized to fight back, fearing that if they did so, they would strike an image or a living servant of the goddess Bastet. Even so, the battle of Pelusium must have been bloody, for Herodotus could still see the bones of the fallen on the battlefield, fifty or sixty years later.

Cambyses throws cats at Pelusium.

Psammetich escaped to Memphis, and hoped to continue the war from there. Cambyses followed, and Memphis was no harder for him to take than it had been for Esarhaddon, nearly a century and a half earlier (see Chapter 3). After that, Psammetich realized that further resistance was futile, and Cambyses was inclined to spare him, the way his father had spared Croesus, the former king of Lydia. But a year later Psammetich began to plot rebellion, and when Cambyses heard about it, he imposed an unusual death sentence on the ex-pharaoh; he was ordered to drink bull's blood until he poisoned himself. All of Egypt was now securely under Persian rule, and Cambyses stayed in the Nile valley for a total of three years.

At first the Persian king tolerated native customs; he did not put on his Egyptian inscriptions the usual opening line used by Persian kings everywhere else: "The great god, Ahura Mazda, chose me." Instead he legitimized himself in Egyptian eyes by calling himself pharaoh and by adopting one of the pharaohs' time-honored titles: "Offspring of Ra." In addition, he paid homage to the Egyptian gods, and recruited Egyptians into the new administration. And we have reports that the Jewish community at Elephantine was allowed to practice Judaism freely; in fact, they did well enough on Egypt's southern border that they were not inclined to return to Jerusalem, the way some of the Jews in Babylon did. The conquest of Egypt also brought Egypt's tributary states, Libya and Cyprus, into the Persian orbit. Cambyses planned three campaigns to conquer the rest of Africa, but they were all failures.

After that, according to Herodotus, Cambyses went insane and started persecuting the Egyptian religion. He killed Apis, the sacred bull of Egypt, dug up and burned the mummy of Amasis (an act that offended both Persians and Egyptians), and engaged in the old practice of grave robbing, "opening ancient tombs and examining the dead bodies." To us this seems like the height of foolishness, considering the importance Cyrus placed on tolerance, unless the king was really crazy.(3)

Other Persians were not safe from the king's mood-swings. He kicked his pregnant sister to death, and ordered twelve Persian nobles buried alive head-down for a minor offense. When Croesus advised him not to act too rashly, Cambyses ordered him put to death, too. His servants, knowing their master's mercurial temper, hid Croesus instead, hoping to be rewarded if they brought Croesus back to him alive. Sure enough, Cambyses changed his mind a little while later, rejoiced at the news that the execution had not taken place--and ordered the deaths of the servants for taking too long to carry out the original sentence! When news arrived from Persia that his brother Smerdis was alive and had usurped the throne, Cambyses rushed home to deal with the crisis. To travel as fast as possible, he rode a horse. Near the Syrian city of Hama, though, the end of the scabbard sheathing his sword came off, allowing the sword to wound him in the thigh. From this accidental wound gangrene set in, and he died.

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Darayavahush (Darius) I


The usurper was not Smerdis, of course, but a Magian (Median priest) named Gaumata. Because of his background, he may have seized power to stop the growing influence of Zoroastrianism, before it put other religions and their clergy out of business. Whatever his motives, the imposter made himself enormously popular by ordering a three-year suspension of taxes. However, seven young Persian nobles remained loyal to the Achaemenid cause. Wasting no time, they strode into Gaumata's camp and killed the attending guards and eunuchs. The leader of the conspirators, Darayavahush (known to us as Darius), killed the would-be emperor with a spear and carried his head outside to show the crowd. Darius then claimed the throne as his own, because he was distantly related to Cyrus (His father Vishtaspa was governor of Parthia under Cyrus, and his grandfather was the last king of Parsumash, the second Achaemenid-ruled state of the Median era.). To further increase his legitimacy, he married Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus. However, his troubles did not end there, for rebellions flared up all over the empire. In two years of campaigning (522-521), he defeated a total of nine opponents in nineteen separate battles. When it was all over he inscribed the details of his rise to power in a huge relief sculpture on a cliff at Behistun. Written in three languages (Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian), all in cuneiform script, that inscription later provided the key for the translation of cuneiform in the early 19th century A.D.(4)

The Behistun inscription today.

At this point Darius decided that the "people's king" attitude taken by Cyrus was no longer practical for the mightiest ruler in the world. He surrounded himself with a great deal of ceremony, calling himself the Great King, the King of Kings, who strongly supported the rule of law "so that the stronger does not smite nor destroy the weak." Every year at the beginning of spring, processions came from every corner of the empire to present to the king New Year's "gifts"; actually the government had specified the nature and amount of the tribute. The gifts brought included grain, precious metals, ebony, ivory, rare furs and textiles. Arabia sent frankincense, Libya sent antelopes, and Armenia sent prize stallions. Babylon brought enough silver to pay the army's upkeep for four months, and an exotic item: 500 young eunuchs.(5) Nearly a century later, Herodotus calculated the Persian government's total annual income at 14,560 talents, or roughly $247 million in 2010 dollars.

Though civilized by this time, the Persians were still fairly footloose. Most of the time Darius used Susa as his capital, because the western half of the empire was more important than the eastern half, and Susa was more accessible from the western provinces than either Pasargadae or Ecbatana. However, the temperature in the neighborhood of Susa can exceed 130o F. in the summer, so the whole government moved north to Ecbatana for the hottest months of the year. As one might expect of a great king, Darius did a great amount of building at Susa, but he wanted a permanent capital that was even more impressive; in his spare time he worked on a new city in Anshan named Persepolis. It was from there that Xerxes and all of his successors ruled.

The main accomplishment of Darius was that he made the empire rich, to the point that later Persians remembered their early kings with this proverb: "Cyrus was a father, Cambyses was a master, and Darius was a shopkeeper." They introduced the Lydian invention of money to the rest of the empire, as gold coins called "Darics." Roads were built; the most important was the "Royal Road," which ran 1,700 miles from Sardis to Susa. On the roads at intervals of about fifteen miles (an average day's journey on foot), inns were set up to provide lodging for wayfarers. A pony express-style system left horses in each inn to keep royal messengers on the move. Darius also encouraged the introduction of useful crops into areas where they did not grow already; he brought rice from India to Iraq, sesame from Iraq to Egypt, and pistachios from Persia to Syria.(6) Finally, he allowed the Jews to finish rebuilding their Temple in Jerusalem, sent ships out of the Persian Gulf to explore the Arabian and Red Seas, and completed the Nile-to-Red Sea canal that the Egyptians had started sixty years earlier.

Darius divided the empire into twenty provinces called "satrapies," and taxed them according to their population and ability to pay. Each satrap lived like a little king in a palace, supported by vast agricultural estates. Periodically the king sent his personal agents, called the "King's Eyes," to report on the actions of each satrap.

Should a satrap overstep his authority, the king could act very efficiently. Early in the reign of Darius, reports came back that the satrap of Sardis, a Persian named Oroetes, acted like an independent ruler and was likely to revolt at the first opportunity. Instead of sending an army to get rid of him, Darius dispatched an envoy to Sardis with several messages. Most of them were routine business, but when they were read aloud in the court at Sardis, the satrap's bodyguards listened with respect, since their loyalty was to Darius first and Oroetes second. The last two letters were directed right at the soldiers. The first told them to quit serving Oroetes. They promptly laid down their spears. The second called for the execution of Oroetes. The soldiers drew their swords and killed the satrap on the spot.

In his military campaigns, Darius was only moderately successful. His most successful conquest was his first, the Indus River valley (around 518 B.C.). Two years later he invaded Europe, annexing Thrace and Macedonia. From there he turned northward against the Scythians, but the Scythians ran away, refusing to stay in one place and fight the Persians. Darius came home from the Ukraine empty-handed, and that shook the Persian reputation so much that the Ionian Greeks considered revolting. They did so in 499 B.C., marching inland and burning Sardis. The Greek city-state of Athens supported the Ionians, but by 494 Darius put them down. At this point Darius asked who the Athenians were (the Persians never considered central Greece important until now), and after his aides gave him an answer, he decided that he had gone after the wrong people when he invaded Europe. Now he was so mad at Athens that he shot an arrow straight up into the air, that carried a prayer to Ahura Mazda for victory against that city. Then he had one of his servants remind him of Athens three times every evening: "Sire, remember the Athenians."

In 490 B.C., he dispatched a small seaborne expedition to punish Athens. The victory of Athens over this force at Marathon was so unexpected that it amazed the Athenians themselves. Marathon looms large as one of the most important moments in the rise of Western civilization, but Darius saw it as no more than a blow to his pride--a freak mishap that would not happen a second time. After all, much of the Greek-speaking world was already under Persian domination, so how long could the rest of the Greeks hold out against his overwhelming numbers? He made preparations for a larger invasion of Greece, but Egypt and Babylon revolted first. Before Darius could march against either Greece or the rebels, he felt ill and died.

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Khshayarsha (Xerxes) I


Xerxes began his reign by putting down the Egyptian revolt severely. Two years later, he gave Babylon the same treatment; there he tore down the walls of the city, inflicted heavy damage on the Esagila (see Chapter 4), and melted down Nebuchadnezzar's golden statue of Marduk. In Babylon's glory days the king of that city showed he was the rightful ruler by "taking the hand of Marduk" every year, during the New Year festival. Now that this ritual could no longer be performed, Xerxes made sure that Babylon would have no more kings.

A few years after restoring peace in the empire, the army was ready for the second campaign against Greece, and the honor-conscious Xerxes felt committed to accomplish what Darius could not do. The invasion got underway in 480 B.C. Thessaly fell without a struggle but the main Greek army made a last stand in the narrow pass of Thermopylae that delayed the Persians considerably. After that nothing could save Attica; the Persians occupied and burned Athens.

Now there was just the Athenian fleet and the Spartan army left to deal with before the job could be considered finished. The fleet had escaped to the nearby island of Salamis, and when the attempt by Xerxes to destroy it resulted in the destruction of his own fleet, he felt he had to abandon the offensive. He returned home, leaving a garrison of 80,000 men in Attica, but in the following year the Spartan hoplites came out and smashed it (the battle of Plataea, 479).

After these disasters, the Greeks went on the offensive against Persia. The Athenian fleet seized the Hellespont, cutting off the Persians that were still in Macedonia and Thrace and reopening the Black Sea to Greek shipping. By 466 B.C. the Greeks had retaken all Persian territory in Europe. Europe had thrown Asia back beyond the straits.

Xerxes gave up all thought of revenge, and never again left his three capitals. At Persepolis and Susa he completed the work left unfinished by his father, and spent his last years building some colossal new structures. Hemmed in and oppressed by his eunuchs, he was finally assassinated in his magnificent palace.(7)

Both the Bible and Herodotus describe Xerxes as a mercurial character, whose mood could swing dangerously and without warning. According to Herodotus, when he marched against Greece, he met a Lydian noble named Pythius who offered his personal fortune of 3,993,000 Darics to finance the war effort. This show of support so moved Xerxes that he told him to keep the money and gave him a gift of 7,000 Darics as well, increasing his wealth to an even four million. A little later Pythius sought the king and made a personal request; he wanted the eldest of his five sons excused from the upcoming conflict so that somebody could take care of the family estates. Xerxes found the son in question, ordered him cut in two, and marched the army between the halves!

At the Hellespont a bridge was made by tying boats together. When a storm broke up the boat-bridge, Xerxes had the engineers beheaded, ordered the water of the Hellespont beaten with three hundred lashes of the whip, and cast a pair of fetters into the water as a symbol of its submission. Then a second boat-bridge was built, with warnings to do it right this time.

Xerxes appears to have been the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther. When his virtuous wife, Vashti, refused to be displayed at a drunken party, he divorced her and held a beauty contest to pick a new queen. A Jewish woman named Esther won, and she saved her people from extermination at the hands of an early anti-Semite, a courtier named Haman. Today the Jewish holiday of Purim commemorates her and this victory of the Jews over their enemies.

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Artakhshassa (Artaxerxes) I


Artaxerxes I came to the throne facing a rebellion from his brother Darius, the satrap of Bactria. This was suppressed, and followed by the assassination of all the royal brothers, including Darius, whom they falsely accused of murdering Xerxes. Then came a major revolt in Egypt, led by one Inaros and supported by Athens; that took several years and two campaigns to put down (460-454). Since Athens was still the cause of many of Persia's problems, Artaxerxes retaliated by bribing Sparta to start a war with the Athenians. This lasted six years (457-451), ending when Sparta and Athens reached an agreement and teamed up against the Persians again. Together they invaded Ionia and defeated a Persian fleet near Salamis on Cyprus. At the peace of Callias (449 B.C.) Artaxerxes granted independence to the Ionian Greeks. Persian troops were not permitted west of the Halys River, and the Persian fleet agreed to stay out of the Aegean. Later the satrap of Syria revolted; the Great King captured him, but with misguided leniency, pardoned him again. The Persian Empire was still formidable, but enough signs of decadence were visible to warn observers. In Greece the playwright Euripides mirrored the new opinion of his age when he declared that "Asia serves as the slave of Europe."

During the reign of Artaxerxes a Jewish scribe named Ezra led 1,500 exiles back to Jerusalem. There he persuaded the Jews to follow the law of Moses more carefully, and thus became the man who established Judaism in its present-day form. About the same time, Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer, secured a leave of absence so he could rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Around 400 B.C. the prophet Malachi gave some final words about sacrifices, and on that note the Old Testament finishes.

Artaxerxes never led his troops in person, and toward the end of his life he lost interest in Greek affairs. Most of his successors, being equally content, did the same. None of the later Achaemenids showed much initiative or intelligence. Since the empire died slowly, rather than collapsing suddenly, we must give credit for Persia's success to Cyrus, Cambyses and Darius I for the system they established, and to the many bureaucrats who kept it running smoothly afterwards.

An example of such a bureaucrat was Arsames, the satrap of Babylon between 460 and 405 B.C. After the rebellion of Inaros was crushed, the Persians put him in charge of Syria, Israel and Egypt along with Iraq. This gave him a realm roughly equivalent to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires of the past, making him a very powerful governor indeed. Arsames hired and fired subordinate governors according to their ability to collect taxes, and ruthlessly confiscated the estates of those who did not pay what they owed, adding them to his own already sizeable real estate holdings. Naturally his greedy behavior made him unpopular among his subjects, but there was no trouble in his satrapies until his long-lasting administration ended.

In the century and a half between Xerxes I and Alexander the Great, trade and cultural contacts with the Greeks increased. Greek scholars visited Egypt, Iraq, and Iran to learn the history and wisdom of the East. It was in the time of Artaxerxes I that Herodotus wrote his Histories, and contact with Babylonian scholars probably helped Democritus invent his atomic theory. Since the only reliable soldiers in the Persian army were the king's bodyguards(8), Greek mercenaries served the empire with increasing frequency. The Greeks gained control of the Persian trade network, as evidenced by the growth of the nearest cities to them; at this point commerce replaces politics as the main reason for a city's success. The Persians, still shepherds at heart, did not promote urban growth in the eastern half of their empire or even sustain it at the Assyrian level. As a result, after 400 B.C. Babylon was the only city with a population above 30,000 that was not near the Mediterranean basin.

Persian archers
Persian archers, from a bas-relief at Susa.

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Darius II


Xerxes II (424-423) ruled for about 45 days and was killed while drunk by the son of one of his father's concubines. The assassin was in turn killed by Darius II, who then made his claim to the throne stick.

The reign of Darius II was marred by intrigue, corruption, and revolts, including one in Media, which was dangerously close to home. Again Persian gold was used against Greece, this time to prolong the Peloponnesian War. When the satrap of Sardis revolted, with the support of Athens, Sparta came to the support of the Great King, lending mercenaries to crush the rebellion. After that Persia paid for the construction of a Spartan fleet to challenge the Athenians at sea, and together they attacked the allies of Athens in Ionia. Finally, when they blockaded the Hellespont and cut off Athens from her source of grain, the Athenians sued for peace. Gold had won another victory.

At home Darius picked his eldest son Artaxerxes to be the next king. Queen Parysatis, however, favored her own son Cyrus, and obtained for him the satrapies of Lydia, Phrygia and Cappadocia, and command of all the troops in those areas. That prince, known as Cyrus the Younger after this, was thus powerful enough to claim the throne for himself.

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Artaxerxes II


Artaxerxes II got off to a bad start as king; he narrowly escaped a dagger-thrust from his brother Cyrus during the coronation ceremony in Pasargadae. Because of the pleadings of the queen mother, Cyrus was forgiven, and even allowed to keep his satrapies and troops. However, Cyrus had more tricks up his sleeve.

Three years later (401 B.C.) came one of the most remarkable stories in military history, one we will tell in some detail. Cyrus raised a huge army, which included thirteen thousand Greek mercenaries (eleven thousand hoplites, or heavy infantrymen, and two thousand of the lighter infantry called peltasts). Of those thirteen thousand, eighty-six hundred came back to Greece later, but for simplicity's sake, everyone refers to this expedition as the "March of the Ten Thousand." Cyrus was also dishonest about the army's purpose. To the Greeks, he said he had hired them to defend the eastern part of his satrapies against barbarian raiders; to Artaxerxes, he wrote that he raised the army to teach a lesson to his rival Tissaphernes, the satrap of Caria (in southwestern Asia Minor). Then after they started marching, the Greeks realized they were being taken out of Asia Minor, and demanded to know what Cyrus was up to; he managed to keep them loyal with his charismatic personality, and by giving them favors and gifts(9). Finally in Syria, after they had crossed the Euphrates, Cyrus told them he was going to claim the Persian throne. He promised the Greeks an extra three months' pay should the expedition succeed, but at this point, they were so far into Persian territory that they had no choice but to keep going with him, if they wanted to survive.

The historians of the day estimated that the total size of Cyrus' army was a hundred thousand, and that Artaxerxes met this challenge by raising an army of a million men from the rest of the empire. While these figures are too large to be trusted, we can be sure that of the two brothers, Artaxerxes had the larger force, because he was the Great King, and the Greeks made up less than half of the army Cyrus brought. Anyway, Cyrus continued down the Euphrates until he met the army of Artaxerxes at Cunaxa, forty-five miles north of Babylon. When the two forces clashed, the Greeks were stationed on the right wing of the army of Cyrus, and they swept Artaxerxes' left wing off the battlefield, but it was the events in the center that decided the battle. Carried away by the rashness of youth, Cyrus went into battle without putting on his helmet, and though he wounded Artaxerxes with a thrown javelin, he was killed seconds later when another javelin struck him in the face(10). Then Artaxerxes ordered the mutilation of his brother's body and treacherously killed the leaders of the Greeks, at the peace conference set up to decide the fate of the mercenaries.

The Ten Thousand were now unemployed, leaderless, and in the middle of a hostile empire, but their morale was still high. Whereas the typical Asiatic army would have dissolved or surrendered after suddenly losing its leadership, the Greeks elected new commanders, one of which was an Athenian named Xenophon. Next they retreated in good order, following the course of the Tigris upstream. The story of their retreat reads like the Long March of the Chinese Communists in the 1930s; they faced bad weather, 1,300 miles of unfamiliar terrain, and unfriendly natives. The Persians did not pursue them too closely because Artaxerxes knew they were mainly interested in getting home, and were no longer a serious threat to his rule. In fact, the Persians called off the chase when the Greeks entered the mountains of northern Iraq, so in the end the Kurds and Armenians gave them more trouble than the Persians did. The Greeks also proved themselves more resourceful, and more flexible, than their opponents. To give two examples, they protected women, children and other noncombatants by putting them in the center of their formation, and when skirmishers with missile weapons threatened to wear them down, they made bows and slings, and gave them to the Cretans and Rhodians in their ranks (Crete had a reputation for producing good archers, and Rhodes was known for its slingers). Finally they reached the Black Sea; from there they followed the coast west until some ships picked them up, to take them back to Greece. Xenophon wrote about the expedition in his famous book, the Anabasis ("going up"). All of Greece was electrified to hear how the Persians could not keep a Greek army from escaping the very heart of their empire, and it showed the world how weak Persia had become.

Map of the Anabasis.
A map of Xenophon's Persian expedition. Source:

The battle of Cunaxa.

arrival at the Black Sea
"The sea, the sea!" Because the Greeks are good sailors, Xenophon's Ten Thousand rejoiced when they saw the Black Sea, knowing that the worst part of their ordeal was over.

Indeed, the reputation of the Ten Thousand encouraged some of them to get involved in the next Greek adventure. A few years later, Agesilaus, the Spartan king, invaded Ionia, and the nearest satraps spent too much time quarreling among themselves to stop the Spartans. The Persians ended up forming a new alliance with Athens, and Persian gold was spent on another Greek fleet, this time commanded by an Athenian admiral named Conon; gold was also used to start a rebellion on Sparta's home ground. The diplomacy worked, and Sparta recalled Agesilaus at the height of his success. He remarked that he had retreated before 10,000 archers who were not real soldiers but images stamped on Persian coins.

By 387 B.C., both Athens and Sparta were exhausted, and Artaxerxes stepped in to proclaim the "Peace of the Great King." The Greeks were forced to give all of Ionia back to the Persians and they promised to keep the balance of power in Greece itself. Later Thebes rose to become the dominant city-state in Greece, and Artaxerxes helped them smash both Athens and Sparta. What Darius I and Xerxes had failed to do with the Persian army, Artaxerxes II now did with the unscrupulous use of gold.

The Persians had resolved the Greek situation to their satisfaction, but elsewhere the empire lost ground. When Artaxerxes became king, Egypt's governor declared independence. Persia engineered at least two coups to put a pro-Persian native on the Egyptian throne, but after a while each ruler fell under the influence of nationalism and declared himself pharaoh of an independent Egypt. Finally two outright invasions were attempted, but both failed miserably. As a result, Egypt was independent from 404 to 342 B.C., and Egyptians remember this period as their last years of native rule for twenty-three centuries.

At some point during the reign of Artaxerxes II or III, India also drifted into independence. We don't know exactly when that happened, but all traces of the Persian administration were gone by the time Alexander the Great entered that region.

On the heels of the defeat in Egypt came an enormous problem: the revolt of the satraps. Under the later Achaemenids many satrapies became hereditary offices, powerful enough that the king could not control or even supervise them (the "Eyes and Ears of the King" were only a memory by this time). One by one every satrap west of the Euphrates revolted; Aroandas of Armenia went so far as to stamp his own coins as a direct challenge to the Great King. The general plan of the rebels was to launch a combined attack. They invited the Egyptian pharaoh Tachos to participate, and Tachos hired Agesilaus and some Spartan mercenaries. Another satrap, Datames of Syria, went ahead of the others and crossed the Euphrates. At this point, the whole empire west of the Euphrates was in revolt. Tachos and Agesilaus advanced as far as Sidon before a coup in Egypt forced both Egyptians and Greeks to drop out of the war. That allowed Artaxerxes to divide and defeat his remaining enemies, and put the pieces of the empire together again. Several satraps, including Aroandas, were actually forgiven and allowed to remain in their jobs. How different would have been the wrath of Darius! Probably it was because lawlessness and unrest continued in many areas after the rebellion ended; the satraps certainly had more control over local events than Artaxerxes had in his empire.

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Artaxerxes III


At forty-five years, Artaxerxes II enjoyed the longest reign of any Achaemenid king; he reportedly had 115 sons and 350 wives. Consequently his last years were a time of plots, counterplots, harem intrigue and murder. At first the heir of Artaxerxes was his eldest son, Darius, but Darius grew tired of waiting for his turn on the throne, and got involved in a conspiracy to assassinate his father. The plan was leaked to the king and Darius was sentenced to death. The second son, Ariaspes, was less hot-headed and more popular, and when he became heir, the third son, Artaxerxes, told Ariaspes that the king was suspicious of him, too. Similar testimony from Tiribazus, a commander of the royal guard, persuaded Ariaspes to commit suicide. Next, the king tried to pass over the younger Artaxerxes in favor of the fourth son, Arsames, but Arsames was soon murdered. Then the old king died, and the younger Artaxerxes assumed the throne, as Artaxerxes III.

Artaxerxes III may have been cruel and brutal, but he had the willpower to restore order. His first act as king was to exterminate the rest of his brothers and sisters, thereby eliminating further threats to his authority. Then he went against Egypt (351 B.C.), but his first attempt to regain control over the Nile valley failed. That setback encouraged a new round of revolts in Sidon, which spread to Israel, Lebanon and Cilicia, but Artaxerxes crushed them in the same year that they started (345 B.C.). Then he gathered Greek mercenaries for a new attempt on Egypt, and this time he succeeded, driving the last pharaoh up the Nile into Nubia. Persia was now stronger than it had been for over a century, but it misplayed its diplomatic hand when it refused to give Athens aid against the rising power of Philip of Macedon. By the end of the reign of Artaxerxes, Philip had united all of Greece under his rule. Now Persian gold could no longer influence Greece.

Artaxerxes was poisoned by his physician, at the order of a eunuch named Bagoas. Bagoas made Arses (338-336) the next king, in hopes of being the power behind the throne. When Arses did not bend to his will Bagoas poisoned him also. So many members of the royal family had been killed off by this time that the closest relative to the late king was Darius III, a 45-year-old satrap from Armenia and grandnephew to Artaxerxes II. The first thing Darius did was to secure his position by poisoning the kingmaker. Yet his coronation also marked the beginning of the end of the empire, for in the same year that Darius III became king of Persia, Alexander the Great became king of Macedonia and Greece.

This is the End of Chapter 5.


1. We traditionally say that the Babylonian captivity lasted for seventy years, and there are two ways to count them. One counts the physical captivity, from Nebuchadnezzar's occupation of Jerusalem to when the Chosen People returned: 605-536 B.C. The other looks at this time as a spiritual captivity and counts from the destruction of the first Temple (587 or 586 B.C.) to the building of the second Temple (516 B.C.).

2. Those who stayed behind became a sizeable community of Iraqi Jews, who later wrote the Babylonian Talmud. They did not go to Israel until they were forced out of Iraq in 1948 A.D.

3. Scholars now suggest that Egyptian priests exaggerated what happened, and that Cambyses merely cut back on the lavish contributions the pharaohs had always given to the temples. However, we know for a fact that he increased the appropriation for the main temple in Sais, Egypt's most recent capital. We have a statue of Udjahorresne, the high priest of that temple, covered with hieroglyphics expressing his support for Cambyses. Nor was he alone; after Udjahorresne's death, a cult sprang up around him.

4. The Persians had learned the use of cuneiform from the Assyrians a century earlier, and were still barely literate by the time of Darius. Before long the Persians would discard cuneiform for the more versatile Aramaic alphabet, which later evolved to become the modern Farsi (Persian) script. Because it was understood over a wider area than any other language, including Persian, Darius made Aramaic the official language of the empire.

5. We do not know the origin of eunuchs. One theory suggests that some frenzied devotees of Ishtar got carried away in worship services and castrated themselves, giving their sex organs to the sex goddess. Another theory is that some king with absolute power, thinking of men as his oxen, would geld them as needed. Whatever the case, kings noticed that men "fixed" in such a manner grew plump and passionless, and someone who was 100% aggression-free could be useful at court, especially as a harem guard. The Assyrians were the first nation we know of that employed them on a large scale, and the Old Testament mentions that institution existing in Israel and Babylon as well (e.g., see 2 Kings 9:32, 20:18, and Daniel 1). Later Roman and Chinese emperors hired them, and used so many that they corrupted the court.

6. During his war with the Greeks, Darius introduced Median alfalfa to Europe. So much did the Persians value gardening, in fact, that our word paradise comes from the Farsi pairidaeza, meaning "walled garden."

7. At its peak, in 480 B.C., the Persian Empire ruled over three of the Old World's four "cradles of civilization": Iraq, Egypt and India (the one they did not rule was China). We believe 49.4 million people lived within the empire at that time, out of an estimated world population of 112.4 million. This works out to 44 percent; no previous empire (except maybe Babel), and no empire since then, has ruled such a large share of the world's population.

8. The king's elite guard were a corps of spearmen called the Anusiya, meaning companions or attendants. You can also call them "apple bearers" because the butts of their spears were decorated with golden apples. Whenever one of them was killed, somebody else would be promoted on the spot to take his place. Because of this custom, and because Herodotus misunderstood the name of the unit (he thought he heard Anausa, meaning immortals, and translated it as Athanatoi, which is Greek for immortals), everyone has called them Immortals since then. Originally numbering 1,000, the number of Immortals was later increased by the Achaemenids, who thought if they had enough of these soldiers the army would be unbeatable. It didn't work, but later emperors thought the idea of of calling their bodyguards "Immortals" was cool; the Sassanian Persians (see Chapter 8), a few Byzantine emperors, and Napoleon Bonaparte all had units with that name. Most recently, the last Shah of Iran called one of his brigades, the Javidan Guard, the "Immortals"; they were disbanded after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (see Chapter 17).

9. Before he left his satrapies, Cyrus ran out of money. Since money is what motivates mercenaries, this probably would have ended the expedition right there, but then the king and queen of Cilicia, Syennesis and Epyaxa, paid Cyrus a visit in Phrygia. Queen Epyaxa gave Cyrus so much money that he was able to take care of the three months' back pay he owed the troops, and he paid them for the next month in advance. This caused the Greeks to spread rumors about an affair between Cyrus and Epyaxa. The king, however, was not so generous. Syennesis made his own contribution, but because he wasn't optimistic about the expedition's prospects, he secretly sent a cash donation to Artaxerxes as well. He also played it safe by having one of his two sons join the army of Cyrus, and the other join the army of Artaxerxes.
A few days later, there was a funny episode where Epyaxa asked to see a parade of the troops, and Cyrus granted her request. When it came time for the Greeks to pass in review, they assembled in a phalanx formation and charged. The sight of the advancing, heavily armed men, and the sound of their shouting, was so terrifying that the nearest Asians ran away, including the queen. Cyrus took that as a good omen, but as we saw with Croesus in Chapter 4, omens don't always mean what somebody thinks!

10. The blow that killed Cyrus the Younger did not come from Artaxerxes, but from a Persian soldier named Mithridates. An unnamed soldier from Caria also claimed he had struck the blow that stopped Cyrus and saved Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes was in a good mood at first, because he had won a battle he expected to lose, but he would not share the credit for his victory with anyone else. To silence his rivals, he had them subjected to what may be the cruelest punishments ever inflicted. The Greek author Plutarch wrote that he got rid of the Carian by having him put on a torture rack for ten days, where his eyes were gouged out and molten brass was poured into his ears until he died. The fate of Mithridates, called the "punishment of the boats," was even worse, and I will let Plutarch describe it in his own words:
"Now, this torture of the boats is as follows. Two boats are taken, which are so made as to fit over one another closely; in one of these the victim is laid, flat upon his back; then the other is laid over the first and carefully adjusted, so that the victim's head, hands, and feet are left projecting, while the rest of his body is completely covered up. Then they give him food to eat, and if he refuse it, they force him to take it by pricking his eyes. After he has eaten, they give him a mixture of milk and honey to drink, pouring it into his mouth, and also deluge his face with it. Then they keep his eyes always turned towards the sun, and a swarm of flies settles down upon his face and hides it completely. And since inside the boats he does what must needs be done when men eat and drink, worms and maggots seethe up from the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, devouring his body, and eating their way into his vitals. For when at last the man is clearly dead and the upper boat has been removed, his flesh is seen to have been consumed away, while about his entrails swarms of such animals as I have mentioned are clinging fast and eating. In this way Mithridates was slowly consumed for seventeen days, and at last died."
From Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes, 14 & 16.

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