Darius the Great - Jacob Abbott

The Reconnoitering of Greece

The great event in the history of Darius—the one, in fact, on account of which it was, mainly, that his name and his career have been so widely celebrated among mankind, was an attempt which he made, on a very magnificent scale, for the invasion and conquest of Greece. Before commencing active operations in this grand undertaking, he sent a reconnoitering party to examine and explore the ground. This reconnoitering party met with a variety of extraordinary adventures in the course of its progress, and the history of it will accordingly form the subject of this chapter.

The guide to this celebrated reconnoitering party was a certain Greek physician named Democedes. Though Democedes was called a Greek, he was, really, an Italian by birth. His native town was Crotona, which may be found exactly at the ball of the foot on the map of Italy. It was by a very singular series of adventures that he passed from this remote village in the west, over thousands of miles by land and sea, to Susa, Darius's capital. He began by running away from his father while he was still a boy. He said that he was driven to this step by the intolerable strictness and cruelty of his father's government. This, however, is always the pretext of turbulent and ungovernable young men, who abandon their parents and their homes when the favors and the protection necessary during their long and helpless infancy have been all received, and the time is beginning to arrive for making some return.

Democedes was ingenious and cunning, and fond of roving adventure. In running away from home, he embarked on board a ship, as such characters generally do at the present day, and went to sea. After meeting with various adventures, he established himself in the island of Ægina, in the Ægean sea, where he began to practice as a physician, though he had had no regular education in that art. In his practice he evinced so much medical skill, or, at least, exercised so much adroitness in leading people to believe that he possessed it, as to give him very soon a wide and exalted reputation. The people of Ægina appointed him their physician, and assigned him a large salary for his services in attending upon the sick throughout the island. This was the usual practice in those days. A town, or an island, or any circumscribed district of country, would appoint a physician as a public officer, who was to devote his attention, at a fixed annual salary, to any cases of sickness which might arise in the community, wherever his services were needed, precisely as physicians serve in hospitals and public institutions in modern times.

Democedes remained at Ægina two years, during which time his celebrity increased and extended more and more, until, at length, he received an appointment from the city of Athens, with the offer of a greatly increased salary. He accepted the appointment, and remained in Athens one year, when he received still more advantageous offers from Polycrates, the king of Samos, whose history was given so fully in the last chapter.

Democedes remained for some time in the court of Polycrates, where he was raised to the highest distinction, and loaded with many honors. He was a member of the household of the king, enjoyed his confidence in a high degree, and attended him, personally, on all his expeditions. At last, when Polycrates went to Sardis, as is related in the last chapter, to receive the treasures of Oretes, and concert with him the plans for their proposed campaigns, Democedes accompanied him as usual; and when Polycrates was slain, and his attendants and followers were made captive by Oretes, the unfortunate physician was among the number. By this reverse, he found that he had suddenly fallen from affluence, ease, and honor, to the condition of a neglected and wretched captive in the hands of a malignant and merciless tyrant.

Democedes pined in this confinement for a long time; when, at length, Oretes himself was killed by the order of Darius, it might have been expected that the hour of his deliverance had arrived. But it was not so; his condition was, in fact, made worse, and not better by it; for Bagæus, the commissioner of Darius, instead of inquiring into the circumstances relating to the various members of Oretes's family, and redressing the wrongs which any of them might be suffering, simply seized the whole company, and brought them all to Darius in Susa, as trophies of his triumph, and tokens of the faithfulness and efficiency with which he had executed the work that Darius had committed to his charge. Thus Democedes was borne away, in hopeless bondage, thousands of miles farther from his native land than before, and with very little prospect of being ever able to return. He arrived at Susa, destitute, squalid, and miserable. His language was foreign, his rank and his professional skill unknown, and all the marks which might indicate the refinement and delicacy of the modes of life to which he had been accustomed were wholly disguised by his present destitution and wretchedness. He was sent with the other captives to the prisons, where he was secured, like them, with fetters and chains, and was soon almost entirely forgotten.

He might have taken some measures for making his character, and his past celebrity and fame as a physician known; but he did not dare to do this, for fear that Darius might learn to value his medical skill, and so detain him as a slave for the sake of his services. He thought that the chance was greater that some turn of fortune, or some accidental change in the arrangements of government might take place, by which he might be set at liberty, as an insignificant and worthless captive, whom there was no particular motive for detaining, than if he were transferred to the king's household as a slave, and his value as an artisan—for medical practice was, in those days, simply an art—were once known. He made no effort, therefore, to bring his true character to light, but pined silently in his dungeon, in rags and wretchedness, and in a mental despondency which was gradually sinking into despair.

About this time, it happened that Darius was one day riding furiously in a chase, and coming upon some sudden danger, he attempted to leap from his horse. He fell and sprained his ankle. He was taken up by the attendants, and carried home. His physicians were immediately called to attend to the case. They were Egyptians. Egypt was, in fact, considered the great seat and centre of learning and of the arts in those days, and no royal household was complete without Egyptian physicians.

The learning and skill, however, of the Egyptians in Darius's court were entirely baffled by the sprain. They thought that the joint was dislocated, and they turned and twisted the foot with so much violence, in their attempts to restore the bones to their proper position, as greatly to increase the pain and the inflammation. Darius spent a week in extreme and excruciating suffering. He could not sleep day nor night, but tossed in continual restlessness and anguish on his couch, made constantly worse instead of better by every effort of his physicians to relieve him.

At length somebody informed him that there was a Greek physician among the captives that came from Sardis, and recommended that Darius should send for him. The king, in his impatience and pain, was ready for any experiment which promised the least hope of relief, and he ordered that Democedes should be immediately summoned. The officers accordingly went to the prison and brought out the astonished captive, without any notice or preparation, and conducted him, just as he was, ragged and wretched, and shackled with iron fetters upon his feet, into the presence of the king. The fetters which such captives wore were intended to allow them to walk, slowly and with difficulty, while they impeded the movements of the feet so as effectually to prevent any long or rapid flight, or any escape at all from free pursuers.

Democedes, when questioned by Darius, denied at first that he possessed any medical knowledge or skill. Darius was, however, not deceived by these protestations. It was very customary, in those days of royal tyranny, for those who possessed any thing valuable to conceal the possession of it: concealment was often their only protection. Darius, who was well aware of this tendency, did not believe the assurances of Democedes, and in the irritation and impatience caused by his pain, he ordered the captive to be taken out and put to the torture, in order to make him confess that he was really a physician.

Democedes yielded without waiting to be actually put to the test. He acknowledged at once, for fear of the torture, that he had had some experience in medical practice, and the sprained ankle was immediately committed to his charge. On examining the case, he thought that the harsh and violent operations which the Egyptian physicians had attempted were not required. He treated the inflamed and swollen joint in the gentlest manner. He made fomenting and emollient applications, which soothed the pain, subdued the inflammation, and allayed the restlessness and the fever. The royal sufferer became quiet and calm, and in a short time fell asleep.

In a word, the king rapidly recovered; and, overwhelmed with gratitude toward the benefactor whose skill had saved him from such suffering, he ordered that, in place of his single pair of iron fetters, he should have two pairs of fetters of gold!

It might at first be imagined that such a strange token of regard as this could be intended only as a jest and an insult; but there is no doubt that Darius meant it seriously as a compliment and an honor. He supposed that Democedes, of course, considered his condition of captivity as a fixed and permanent one; and that his fetters were not, in themselves, an injustice or disgrace, but the necessary and unavoidable concomitant of his lot, so that the sending of golden fetters to a slave was very naturally, in his view, like presenting a golden crutch to a cripple. Democedes received the equivocal donation with great good nature. He even ventured upon a joke on the subject to the convalescent king. "It seems, sire," said he "that in return for my saving your limb and your life, you double my servitude. You have given me two chains instead of one."

The king, who was now in a much better humor to be pleased than when, writhing in anguish, he had ordered Democedes to be put to the torture, laughed at this reply, and released the captive from the bonds entirely. He ordered him to be conducted by the attendants to the apartments of the palace, where the wives of Darius and the other ladies of the court resided, that they might see him and express their gratitude. "This is the physician," said the eunuchs, who introduced him, "that cured the king." The ladies welcomed him with the utmost cordiality, and loaded him with presents of gold and silver as he passed through their apartments. The king made arrangements, too, immediately, for providing him with a magnificent house in Susa, and established him there in great luxury and splendor, with costly furniture and many attendants, and all other marks of distinction and honor. In a word, Democedes found himself, by means of another unexpected change of fortune, suddenly elevated to a height as lofty as his misery and degradation had been low. He was, however, a captive still.

The Queen Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, who has already been mentioned as the wife of Cambyses and of Smerdis the magian, was one of the wives of Darius. Her sister Antystone was another. A third was Phædyma, the daughter of Otanes, the lady who had been so instrumental, in connection with Atossa, in the discovery of the magian imposture. It happened that, some time after the curing of Darius's sprain, Atossa herself was sick. Her malady was of such a nature, that for some time she kept it concealed, from a feeling of delicacy. At length, terrified by the danger which threatened her, she sent for Democedes, and made her case known to him. He said that he could cure her, but she must first promise to grant him, if he did so, a certain favor which he should ask. She must promise beforehand to grant it, whatever it might be. It was nothing, he said, that should in any way compromise her honor.

Atossa agreed to these conditions, and Democedes undertook her case. Her malady was soon cured; and when she asked him what was the favor which he wished to demand, he replied,

"Persuade Darius to form a plan for the invasion of Greece, and to send me, with a small company of attendants, to explore the country, and obtain for him all the necessary preliminary information. In this way I shall see my native land once more."

Atossa was faithful in her promise. She availed herself of the first favorable opportunity, when it became her turn to visit the king, to direct his mind, by a dexterous conversation, toward the subject of the enlargement of his empire. He had vast forces and resources, she said, at his command, and might easily enter upon a career of conquest which would attract the admiration of the world. Darius replied that he had been entertaining some views of that nature. He had thought, he said, of attacking the Scythians: these Scythians were a group of semi-savage nations on the north of his dominions. Atossa represented to him that subduing the Scythians would be too easy a conquest, and that it would be a far nobler enterprise, and more worthy of his talents and his vast resources, to undertake an expedition into Europe, and attempt the conquest of Greece. You have all the means at your command essential for the success of such an undertaking, and you have in your court a man who can give you, or can obtain for you, all the necessary information in respect to the country, to enable you to form the plan of your campaigns.

The ambition of Darius was fired by these suggestions. He began immediately to form projects and schemes. In a day or two he organized a small party of Persian officers of distinction, in whom he had great confidence, to go on an exploring tour into Greece. They were provided with a suitable company of attendants, and with every thing necessary for their journey, and Democedes was directed to prepare to go with them as their guide. They were to travel simply as a party of Persian noblemen, on an excursion of curiosity and pleasure, concealing their true design; and as Democedes their guide, though born in Italy, was in all important points a Greek, and was well acquainted with the countries through which they were to pass, they supposed that they could travel every where without suspicion. Darius charged the Persians to keep a diligent watch over Democedes, and not to allow him, on any account to leave them, but to bring him back to Susa safely with them on their return.

As for Democedes, he had no intention whatever of returning to Persia, though he kept his designs of making his escape entirely concealed. Darius, with seeming generosity, said to him, while he was making his preparations, "I recommend to you to take with you all your private wealth and treasures, to distribute, for presents, among your friends in Greece and Italy. I will bestow more upon you here on your return." Democedes regarded this counsel with great suspicion. He imagined that the king, in giving him this permission, wished to ascertain, by observing whether he would really take with him all his possessions, the existence of any secret determination in his mind not to come back to Susa. If this were Darius's plan, it was defeated by the sagacious vigilance and cunning of the physician. He told the king, in reply, that he preferred to leave his effects in Persia, that they might be ready for his use on his return. The king then ordered a variety of costly articles to be provided and given to Democedes, to be taken with him and presented to his friends in Greece and Italy. They consisted of vessels of gold and silver, pieces of Persian armor of beautiful workmanship, and articles of dress, expensive and splendid. These were all carefully packed, and the various other necessary preparations were made for the long journey.

At length the expedition set out. They traveled by land westward, across the continent, till they reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The port at which they arrived was Sidon, the city so often mentioned in the Scriptures as a great pagan emporium of commerce. The city of Sidon was in the height of its glory at this time, being one of the most important ports of the Mediterranean for all the western part of Asia. Caravans of travelers came to it by land, bringing on the backs of camels the productions of Arabia, Persia, and all the East; and fleets of ships by sea, loaded with the corn, and wine, and oil of the Western nations.

At Sidon the land journey of the expedition was ended. Here they bought two large and splendid ships, galleys of three banks of oars, to convey them to Greece. These galleys were for their own personal accommodation. There was a third vessel, called a transport, for the conveyance of their baggage, which consisted mainly of the packages of rich and costly presents which Darius had prepared. Some of these presents were for the friends of Democedes, as has been already explained, and others had been provided as gifts and offerings from the king himself to such distinguished personages as the travelers might visit on their route. When the vessels were ready, and the costly cargo was on board, the company of travelers embarked, and the little fleet put to sea.

The Grecian territories are endlessly divided and indented by the seas, whose irregular and winding shores form promontories, peninsulas, and islands without number, which are accessible in every part by water. The Persian explorers cruised about among these coasts under Democedes's guidance, examining every thing, and noting carefully all the information which they could obtain, either by personal observation or by inquiring of others, which might be of service to Darius in his intended invasion. Democedes allowed them to take their own time, directing their course, however, steadily, though slowly, toward his own native town of Crotona. The expedition landed in various places, and were every where well received. It was not for the interest of Democedes that they should yet be intercepted. In fact, the name and power of Darius were very much feared, or, at least, very highly respected in all the Grecian territory, and the people were little inclined to molest a peaceful party of Persians traveling like ordinary tourists, and under the guidance, too, of a distinguished countryman of their own, whose name was, in some degree, a guarantee for the honesty and innocence of their intentions. At length, however, after spending some time in the Grecian seas, the little squadron moved still farther west, toward the coast of Italy, and arrived finally at Tarentum. Tarentum was the great port on the Grecian side of Italy. It was at the head of the spacious bay which sets up between the heel and the ball of the foot of the boot-shaped peninsula. Crotona, Democedes's native town, to which he was now desirous to return, was southwest of Tarentum, about two hundred miles along the shore.

It was a very curious and extraordinary circumstance that, though the expedition had been thus far allowed to go and come as its leaders pleased, without any hindrance or suspicion, yet now, the moment that they touched a point from which Democedes could easily reach his home, the authorities on shore, in some way or other, obtained some intimation of the true character of their enterprise. The Prince of Tarentum seized the ships. He made the Persians themselves prisoners also, and shut them up; and, in order effectually to confine the ships, he took away the helms from them, so that they could not be steered, and were thus entirely disabled. The expedition being thus, for the time at least, broken up, Democedes said, coolly, that he would take the opportunity to make a little excursion along the coast, and visit his friends at Crotona!

It was another equally suspicious circumstance in respect to the probability that this seizure was the result of Democedes's management, that, as soon as he was safely away, the Prince of Tarentum set his prisoners at liberty, releasing, at the same time, the ships from the seizure, and sending the helms on board. The Persians were indignant at the treatment which they had received, and set sail immediately along the coast toward Crotona in pursuit of Democedes. They found him in the market-place in Crotona, haranguing the people, and exciting, by his appearance and his discourse, a great and general curiosity. They attempted to seize him as a fugitive, and called upon the people of Crotona to aid them, threatening them with the vengeance of Darius if they refused. A part of the people were disposed to comply with this demand, while others rallied to defend their townsman. A great tumult ensued; but, in the end, the party of Democedes was victorious. He was not only thus personally rescued, but, as he informed the people that the transport vessel which accompanied the expedition contained property that belonged to him, they seized that too, and gave it up to Democedes, saying to the Persians that, though they must give up the transport, the galleys remained at their service to convey them back to their own country whenever they wished to go.

The Persians had now no other alternative but to return home. They had, it is true, pretty nearly accomplished the object of their undertaking; but, if any thing remained to be done, they could not now attempt it with any advantage, as they had lost their guide, and a great portion of the effects which had been provided by Darius to enable them to propitiate the favor of the princes and potentates into whose power they might fall. They accordingly began to make preparations for sailing back again to Sidon, while Democedes established himself in great magnificence and splendor in Crotona. When, at length, the Persians were ready to sail, Democedes wished them a very pleasant voyage, and desired them to give his best respects to Darius, and inform him that he could not return at present to Persia, as he was making arrangements to be married!

The disasters which had befallen these Persian reconnoiterers thus far were only the beginning of their troubles. Their ships were driven by contrary winds out of their course, and they were thrown at last upon the coast of Iapygia, a country occupying the heel of Italy. Here they were seized by the inhabitants and made slaves. It happened that there was living in this wild country at that time a man of wealth and of cultivation, who had been exiled from Tarentum on account of some political offenses. His name was Cillus. He heard the story of these unhappy foreigners, and interested himself in their fate. He thought that, by rescuing them from their captivity and sending them home, he should make Darius his friend, and secure, perhaps, his aid in effecting his own restoration to his native land. He accordingly paid the ransom which was demanded for the captives, and set them free. He then aided them in making arrangements for their return to Persia, and the unfortunate messengers found their way back at last to the court of Darius, without their guide, without any of the splendid appointments with which they had gone forth, but stripped of every thing, and glad to escape with their lives.

They had some cause to fear, too, the anger of Darius, for the insensate wrath of a tyrant is awakened as often by calamity as by crime. Darius, however, was in this instance graciously disposed. He received the unfortunate commissioners in a favorable manner. He took immediate measures for rewarding Cillus for having ransomed them. He treasured up, too, the information which they had obtained respecting Greece, though he was prevented by circumstances, which we will proceed to describe, from immediately putting into execution his plans of invasion and conquest there.