Retreat of the Ten Thousand - F. Younghusband

The Persian Empire

Under the vigorous rule of Darius I. the empire of Persia had attained its utmost limits; at that time fifty-six subject countries offered tribute to the Great King. But from this moment it gradually declined in power and in extent. For the wisest head and the strongest arm it would have been no easy task to govern such a dominion, and the successors of Darius were neither wise nor strong.

Neither was the Persian nation what it had been in the time of the great Cyrus, when even the nobles were simple in their habits, and when every Persian made it his pride to ride well, to shoot well, and always to speak the truth. Now, nobles and people alike had become luxurious and pleasure-loving, caring for nothing but to increase their own power and wealth, no matter at what cost to the subject nations.

The empire was unwieldy in size, and moreover it lacked any real bond of union. The various nations of which it was composed differed in language, in manners, and in habits of life. Each province was interested in its own local affairs, but was profoundly indifferent to the fate of the empire at large; and in time of war the soldiers were so little inclined to risk their lives for a monarch of whom they knew nothing that they only fought under compulsion, and often had to be driven with whips to face the enemy.

In order to provide for the government of the empire, it was subdivided into provinces, and each province, or group of two or more provinces, was placed under the charge of one of the great lords. It was the duty of these governors—or Satraps, as they were called—to act as the representative of the sovereign, to maintain law and order, and to take care that the people had no opportunity of revolting from their subjection to the Great King.

The power of the satraps was practically absolute, and a thoroughly disloyal Satrap could even go so far as to seize some favourable opportunity to detach his province from the empire and make himself an independent sovereign. The King was, indeed, accustomed to make a journey of inspection every year into one or other of his provinces, but in each province such visits were of rare occurrence, and a Satrap who wished to seek his own advantage, instead of studying the interests of the King and of the empire, had every opportunity of doing so. "The empire is large," he might well say to himself, "and the King is far away."

With a view to checking such tendencies on the part of the Satraps, the Persian nobles were trained in habits of implicit obedience and subjection to the sovereign, and were kept in constant fear of being ruined by some report of treason or misgovernment on their part which should reach the ears of the King. Upon the smallest suspicion, and without any sort of trial, a man who was accused of plotting treason against the King might be removed from his post, and either openly or secretly put to death. A story is told of Darius I., who was one of the best of the Great Kings, that once, when he was about to engage in an expedition against the Scythians, a Persian noble prostrated himself before him, and craved as a boon that of his three sons he might be allowed to keep one at home with him. The King answered that he should keep them all at home, and gave command to put them to death immediately.

In a similar manner the people were crushed by severe and cruel laws, just as wild animals are cowed by ill-treatment and want of food. As conquered nations they were not expected to have any attachment to the King, or any interest in the welfare of the empire, and although now and again services rendered to the King would be rewarded by overwhelming favours, yet the means chiefly relied upon for securing good behaviour was the certainty that every offence would meet with prompt and barbarous punishment. Not only criminals, but even persons merely suspected of having committed crimes, were put to death in the most horrible manner. Some were crushed between stones, others were torn limb from limb, and others, again, suffered painful imprisonment in troughs. For merely trifling offences they were cruelly mutilated.

There is a Persian proverb that "the King has many eyes and ears." In every state the king must have means of knowing through his trusted officers, who see and hear for him, what is going on among the people. But in Persia the arrangements for obtaining information of this kind were reduced to a science. Satraps and people alike were constantly watched by a body of spies, and so secretly was this done that it was not even known who were the officers employed. A favourite device of the spies was to feign a friendship for the person whose actions they wished to report, and a man might be arrested and executed without once suspecting the false friend who had given information of his real or imaginary guilt. Sometimes the spy would denounce an innocent man for no other reason than to bring himself into notice as active in the King's service.

Another plan was to take note of every one who passed along the roads which led from the various Residences of the Great King to the other principal towns of the empire. These roads were commanded by fortresses where officers were stationed whose duty it was to enquire of every wayfarer whither he was going and on what errand, and any messenger carrying a letter was obliged to give it up for inspection. This was intended to check the free passage of suspicious persons, and to prevent the sending of letters not approved by the government; but it must often have been easy to find means of evading the King's officers.

In order that the King might be informed as quickly as possible of any risings or disturbances in the provinces, a very complete system of postal communication had been arranged. Besides the fortresses, there were stations all along the roads, at intervals of about fifteen miles apart, where the traveller could find shelter for the night. Here the swiftest horses and horsemen were always waiting in readiness to carry on the post at full gallop without a moment's delay, whether in burning sun or blinding snow: and thus there came to be a saying that "the Persian post-riders fly faster than the cranes." A messenger sent from Susa to Sardis, traveling at the ordinary speed, would take a hundred days to reach his destination; but by means of the King's posts a letter could be conveyed in six or seven days and nights. It must not be supposed, however, that ordinary letters were carried so fast. The King's posts were entirely reserved for the King's business, and by this means he had the advantage of getting news from the provinces and sending back his commands before any one else knew what was going on.

But, in spite of all these precautions, the King, like his subjects, lived in constant fear. He never showed himself to the people, except surrounded by his ten thousand guards. If he gave an audience, the person admitted to the royal presence was compelled, on pain of death, to present himself dressed in a robe with long sleeves falling over the bands, so that he should not be able to use his hands against his sovereign. If he entertained guests at his table, those among them who were considered the most faithful were placed at his right hand, and the less trusted at his left, because, in case of need, he would be better able to defend himself with the right hand than with the left. Each dish that was set before him was first tasted by an officer in the royal presence, lest there should be poison in the food, and in like manner, the cup-bearer always drank first from the cup that he handed.

Under such a system of mutual fear and distrust, the seeds of ruin and decay were sown throughout the Persian empire, and each succeeding century saw it tottering more helplessly towards its final overthrow. But from without everything appeared fair and prosperous, and up to the very last, the Great Kings were careful to maintain all the pomp and splendour of imperial power.