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Access over 100,000+ Sermons from Ancient to Modern : Christian Books : CHAPTER III. SMERDIS THE MAGIAN.

Darius The Great by Jacob Abbott



Usurpation of the magians. -- Circumstances favoring it. -- Murder of Smerdis not known. -- He is supposed to be alive. -- Precautions taken by Smerdis. -- Effect of Cambyses's measures. -- Opinion in regard to Smerdis. -- Acquiescence of the people. -- Dangerous situation of Smerdis. -- Arrangement with Patizithes. -- Smerdis lives in retirement. -- Special grounds of apprehension. -- Cambyses's wives. -- Smerdis appropriates them. -- Phaedyma. -- Measures of Otanes. -- Otanes's communications with his daughter. -- Her replies. -- Phaedyma discovers the deception. -- Otanes and the six nobles. -- Arrival of Darius. -- Secret consultations. -- Various opinions. -- Views of Darius. -- Apology for a falsehood. -- Opinion of Gobryas. -- Uneasiness of the magi. -- Situation of Prexaspes. -- Measures of the magi. -- An assembly of the people. -- Decision of Prexaspes. -- His speech from the tower. -- Death of Prexaspes. -- The conspirators. -- The omen. -- The conspirators enter the palace. -- Combat with the magi. -- Flight of Smerdis. -- Smerdis is killed. -- Exultation of the conspirators. -- General massacre of the magians.

Cambyses and his friends had been right in their conjectures that it was Smerdis the magian who had usurped the Persian throne. This Smerdis resembled, it was said, the son of Cyrus in his personal appearance as well as in name. The other magian who had been associated with him in the regency when Cambyses set out from Persia on his Egyptian campaign was his brother. His name was Patizithes. When Cyrus had been some time absent, these magians, having in the mean time, perhaps, heard unfavorable accounts of his conduct and character, and knowing the effect which such wanton tyranny must have in alienating from him the allegiance of his subjects, conceived the design of taking possession of the empire in their own name. The great distance of Cambyses and his army from home, and his long-continued absence, favored this plan. Their own position, too, as they were already in possession of the capitals and the fortresses of the country, aided them; and then the name of Smerdis, being the same with that of the brother of Cambyses, was a circumstance that greatly promoted the success of the undertaking. In addition to all these general advantages, the cruelty of Cambyses was the means of furnishing them with a most opportune occasion for putting their plans into execution.

The reader will recollect that, as was related in the last chapter, Cambyses first sent his brother Smerdis home, and afterward, when alarmed by his dream, he sent Prexaspes to murder him. Now the return of Smerdis was publicly and generally known, while his assassination by Prexaspes was kept a profound secret. Even the Persians connected with Cambyses's court in Egypt had not heard of the perpetration of this crime, until Cambyses confessed it on his dying bed, and even then, as was stated in the last chapter, they did not believe it. It is not probable that it was known in Media and Persia; so that, after Prexaspes accomplished his work, and returned to Cambyses with the report of it, it was probably generally supposed that his brother was still alive, and was residing somewhere in one or another of the royal palaces.

Such royal personages were often accustomed to live thus, in a state of great seclusion, spending their time in effeminate pleasures within the walls of their palaces, parks, and gardens. When the royal Smerdis, therefore, secretly and suddenly disappeared, it would be very easy for the magian Smerdis, with the collusion of a moderate number of courtiers and attendants, to take his place, especially if he continued to live in retirement, and exhibited himself as little as possible to public view. Thus it was that Cambyses himself, by the very crimes which he committed to shield himself from all danger of a revolt, opened the way which specially invited it, and almost insured its success. Every particular step that he took, too, helped to promote the end. His sending Smerdis home; his waiting an interval, and then sending Prexaspes to destroy him; his ordering his assassination to be secret -- these, and all the other attendant circumstances, were only so many preliminary steps, preparing the way for the success of the revolution which was to accomplish his ruin. He was, in a word, his own destroyer. Like other wicked men, he found, in the end, that the schemes of wickedness which he had malignantly aimed at the destruction of others, had been all the time slowly and surely working out his own.

The people of Persia, therefore, were prepared by Cambyses's own acts to believe that the usurper Smerdis was really Cyrus's son, and, next to Cambyses, the heir to the throne. The army of Cambyses, too, in Egypt, believed the same. It was natural that they should do so for they placed no confidence whatever in Cambyses's dying declarations; and since intelligence, which seemed to be official, came from Susa declaring that Smerdis was still alive, and that he had actually taken possession of the throne, there was no apparent reason for doubting the fact. Besides, Prexaspes, as soon as Cambyses was dead, considered it safer for him to deny than to confess having murdered the prince. He therefore declared that Cambyses's story was false, and that he had no doubt that Smerdis, the monarch in whose name the government was administered at Susa, was the son of Cyrus, the true and rightful heir to the throne. Thus all parties throughout the empire acquiesced peaceably in what they supposed to be the legitimate succession.

In the mean time, the usurper had placed himself in an exceedingly dizzy and precarious situation, and one which it would require a great deal of address and skillful management to sustain. The plan arranged between himself and his brother for a division of the advantages which they had secured by their joint and common cunning was, that Smerdis was to enjoy the ease and pleasure, and Patizithes the substantial power of the royalty which they had so stealthily seized. This was the safest plan. Smerdis, by living secluded, and devoting himself to retired and private pleasures, was the more likely to escape public observation; while Patizithes, acting as his prime minister of state, could attend councils, issue orders, review troops, dispatch embassies, and perform all the other outward functions of supreme command, with safety as well as pleasure. Patizithes seems to have been, in fact, the soul of the whole plan. He was ambitious and aspiring in character, and if he could only himself enjoy the actual exercise of royal power, he was willing that his brother should enjoy the honor of possessing it. Patizithes, therefore, governed the realm, acting, however, in all that he did, in Smerdis's name.

Smerdis, on his part, was content to take possession of the palaces, the parks, and the gardens of Media and Persia, and to live in them in retired and quiet luxury and splendor. He appeared seldom in public, and then only under such circumstances as should not expose him to any close observation on the part of the spectators. His figure, air, and manner, and the general cast of his countenance, were very much like those of the prince whom he was attempting to personate. There was one mark, however, by which he thought that there was danger that he might be betrayed, and that was, his ears had been cut off. This had been done many years before, by command of Cyrus, on account of some offense of which he had been guilty. The marks of the mutilation could, indeed, on public occasions, be concealed by the turban, or helmet, or other head-dress which he wore; but in private there was great danger either that the loss of the ears, or the studied effort to conceal it, should be observed. Smerdis was, therefore, very careful to avoid being seen in private, by keeping himself closely secluded. He shut himself up in the apartments of his palace at Susa, within the citadel, and never invited the Persian nobles to visit him there.

Among the other means of luxury and pleasure which Smerdis found in the royal palaces, and which he appropriated to his own enjoyment, were Cambyses's wives. In those times, Oriental princes and potentates -- as is, in fact, the case at the present day, in many Oriental countries -- possessed a great number of wives, who were bound to them by different sorts of matrimonial ties, more or less permanent, and bringing them into relations more or less intimate with their husband and sovereign. These wives were in many respects in the condition of slaves: in one particular they were especially so, namely, that on the death of a sovereign they descended, like any other property, to the heir, who added as many of them as he pleased to his own seraglio. Until this was done, the unfortunate women were shut up in close seclusion on the death of their lord, like mourners who retire from the world when suffering any great and severe bereavement.

The wives of Cambyses were appropriated by Smerdis to himself on his taking possession of the throne and hearing of Cambyses's death. Among them was Atossa, who has already been mentioned as the daughter of Cyrus, and, of course, the sister of Cambyses as well as his wife. In order to prevent these court ladies from being the means, in any way, of discovering the imposture which he was practicing, the magian continued to keep them all closely shut up in their several separate apartments, only allowing a favored few to visit him, one by one, in turn, while he prevented their having any communication with one another.

The name of one of these ladies was Phaedyma. She was the daughter of a Persian noble of the highest rank and influence, named Otanes. Otanes, as well as some other nobles of the court, had observed and reflected upon the extraordinary circumstances connected with the accession of Smerdis to the throne, and the singular mode of life that he led in secluding himself, in a manner so extraordinary for a Persian monarch, from all intercourse with his nobles and his people. The suspicions of Otanes and his associates were excited, but no one dared to communicate his thoughts to the others. At length, however, Otanes, who was a man of great energy as well as sagacity and discretion, resolved that he would take some measures to ascertain the truth.

He first sent a messenger to Phaedyma, his daughter, asking of her whether it was really Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, who received her when she went to visit the king. Phaedyma, in return, sent her father word that she did not know, for she had never seen Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, before the death of Cambyses. She therefore could not say, of her own personal knowledge, whether the king was the genuine Smerdis or not. Otanes then sent to Phaedyma a second time, requesting her to ask the queen Atossa. Atossa was the sister of Smerdis the prince, and had known him from his childhood. Phaedyma sent back word to her father that she could not speak to Atossa, for she was kept closely shut up in her own apartments, without the opportunity to communicate with any one. Otanes then sent a third time to his daughter, telling her that there was one remaining mode by which she might ascertain the truth, and that was, the next time that she visited the king, to feel for his ears when he was asleep. If it was Smerdis the magian, she would find that he had none. He urged his daughter to do this by saying that, if the pretended king was really an impostor, the imposture ought to be made known, and that she, being of noble birth, ought to have the courage and energy to assist in discovering it. To this Phaedyma replied that she would do as her father desired, though she knew that she hazarded her life in the attempt. |If he has no ears,| said she, |and if I awaken him in attempting to feel for them, he will kill me; I am sure that he will kill me on the spot.|

The next time that it came to Phaedyma's turn to visit the king, she did as her father had requested. She passed her hand very cautiously beneath the king's turban, and found that his ears had been cut off close to his head. Early in the morning she communicated the knowledge of the fact to her father.


Otanes immediately made the case known to two of his friends, Persian nobles, who had, with him, suspected the imposture, and had consulted together before in respect to the means of detecting it. The question was, what was now to be done. After some deliberation, it was agreed that each of them should communicate the discovery which they had made to one other person, such as each should select from among the circle of his friends as the one on whose resolution, prudence, and fidelity he could most implicitly rely. This was done, and the number admitted to the secret was thus increased to six. At this juncture it happened that Darius, the son of Hystaspes, the young man who has already been mentioned as the subject of Cyrus's dream, came to Susa. Darius was a man of great prominence and popularity. His father, Hystaspes, was at that time the governor of the province of Persia, and Darius had been residing with him in that country. As soon as the six conspirators heard of his arrival, they admitted him to their councils, and thus their number was increased to seven.

They immediately began to hold secret consultations for the purpose of determining how it was best to proceed, first binding themselves by the most solemn oaths never to betray one another, however their undertaking might end. Darius told them that he had himself discovered the imposture and usurpation of Smerdis, and that he had come from Persia for the purpose of slaying him; and that now, since it appeared that the secret was known to so many, he was of opinion that they ought to act at once with the utmost decision. He thought there would be great danger in delay.

Otanes, on the other hand, thought that they were not yet ready for action. They must first increase their numbers. Seven persons were too few to attempt to revolutionize an empire. He commended the courage and resolution which Darius displayed, but he thought that a more cautious and deliberate policy would be far more likely to conduct them to a safe result.

Darius replied that the course which Otanes recommended would certainly ruin them. |If we make many other persons acquainted with our plans,| said he, |there will be some, notwithstanding all our precautions, who will betray us, for the sake of the immense rewards which they well know they would receive in that case from the king. No,| he added, |we must act ourselves, and alone. We must do nothing to excite suspicion, but must go at once into the palace, penetrate boldly into Smerdis's presence, and slay him before he has time to suspect our designs.|

|But we can not get into his presence,| replied Otanes. |There are guards stationed at every gate and door, who will not allow us to pass. If we attempt to kill them, a tumult will be immediately raised, and the alarm given, and all our designs will thus be baffled.|

|There will be little difficulty about the guards,| said Darius. |They know us all, and, from deference to our rank and station, they will let us pass without suspicion, especially if we act boldly and promptly, and do not give them time to stop and consider what to do. Besides, I can say that I have just arrived from Persia with important dispatches for the king, and that I must be admitted immediately into his presence. If a falsehood must be told, so let it be. The urgency of the crisis demands and sanctions it.|

It may seem strange to the reader, considering the ideas and habits of the times, that Darius should have even thought it necessary to apologize to his confederates for his proposal of employing falsehood in the accomplishment of their plans; and it is, in fact, altogether probable that the apology which he is made to utter is his historian's, and not his own.

The other conspirators had remained silent during this discussion between Darius and Otanes; but now a third, whose name was Gobryas, expressed his opinion in favor of the course which Darius recommended. He was aware, he said, that, in attempting to force their way into the king's presence and kill him by a sudden assault, they exposed themselves to the most imminent danger; but it was better for them to die in the manly attempt to bring back the imperial power again into Persian hands, where it properly belonged, than to acquiesce any further in its continuance in the possession of the ignoble Median priests who had so treacherously usurped it.

To this counsel they all finally agreed, and began to make arrangements for carrying their desperate enterprise into execution.

In the mean time, very extraordinary events were transpiring in another part of the city. The two magi, Smerdis the king and Patizithes his brother, had some cause, it seems, to fear that the nobles about the court, and the officers of the Persian army, were not without suspicions that the reigning monarch was not the real son of Cyrus. Rumors that Smerdis had been killed by Prexaspes, at the command of Cambyses, were in circulation. These rumors were contradicted, it is true, in private, by Prexaspes, whenever he was forced to speak of the subject; but he generally avoided it; and he spoke, when he spoke at all, in that timid and undecided tone which men usually assume when they are persisting in a lie. In the mean time, the gloomy recollections of his past life, the memory of his murdered son, remorse for his own crime in the assassination of Smerdis, and anxiety on account of the extremely dangerous position in which he had placed himself by his false denial of it, all conspired to harass his mind with perpetual restlessness and misery, and to make life a burden.

In order to do something to quiet the suspicions which the magi feared were prevailing, they did not know how extensively, they conceived the plan of inducing Prexaspes to declare in a more public and formal manner what he had been asserting timidly in private, namely, that Smerdis had not been killed. They accordingly convened an assembly of the people in a court-yard of the palace, or perhaps took advantage of some gathering casually convened, and proposed that Prexaspes should address them from a neighboring tower. Prexaspes was a man of high rank and of great influence, and the magi thought that his public espousal of their cause, and his open and decided contradiction of the rumor that he had killed Cambyses's brother, would fully convince the Persians that it was really the rightful monarch that had taken possession of the throne.

But the strength even of a strong man, when he has a lie to carry, soon becomes very small. That of Prexaspes was already almost exhausted and gone. He had been wavering and hesitating before, and this proposal, that he should commit himself so formally and solemnly, and in so public a manner, to statements wholly and absolutely untrue, brought him to a stand. He decided, desperately, in his own mind, that he would go on in his course of falsehood, remorse, and wretchedness no longer. He, however, pretended to accede to the propositions of the magi. He ascended the tower, and began to address the people. Instead, however, of denying that he had murdered Smerdis, he fully confessed to the astonished audience that he had really committed that crime; he openly denounced the reigning Smerdis as an impostor, and called upon all who heard him to rise at once, destroy the treacherous usurper, and vindicate the rights of the true Persian line. As he went on, with vehement voice and gestures, in this speech, the utterance of which he knew sealed his own destruction, he became more and more excited and reckless. He denounced his hearers in the severest language if they failed to obey his injunctions, and imprecated upon them, in that event, all the curses of Heaven. The people listened to this strange and sudden phrensy of eloquence in utter amazement, motionless and silent; and before they or the officers of the king's household who were present had time even to consider what to do, Prexaspes, coming abruptly to the conclusion of his harangue, threw himself headlong from the parapet of the tower, and came down among them, lifeless and mangled, on the pavement below.

Of course, all was now tumult and commotion in the court-yard, and it happened to be just at this juncture that the seven conspirators came from the place of their consultation to the palace, with a view of executing their plans. They were soon informed of what had taken place. Otanes was now again disposed to postpone their attempt upon the life of the king. The event which had occurred changed, he said, the aspect of the subject, and they must wait until the tumult and excitement should have somewhat subsided. But Darius was more eager than ever in favor of instantaneous action. He said that there was not a moment to be lost; for the magi, so soon as they should be informed of the declarations and of the death of Prexaspes, would be alarmed, and would take at once the most effectual precautions to guard against any sudden assault or surprise.

These arguments, at the very time in which Darius was offering them with so much vehemence and earnestness, were strengthened by a very singular sort of confirmation; for while the conspirators stood undetermined, they saw a flock of birds moving across the sky, which, on their more attentively regarding them, proved to be seven hawks pursuing two vultures. This they regarded an omen, intended to signify to them, by a divine intimation, that they ought to proceed. They hesitated, therefore, no longer.

They went together to the outer gates of the palace. The action of the guards who were stationed there was just what Darius had predicted that it would be. Awed by the imposing spectacle of the approach of seven nobles of the highest distinction, who were advancing, too, with an earnest and confident air, as if expecting no obstacle to their admission, they gave way at once, and allowed them to enter. The conspirators went on until they came to the inner apartments, where they found eunuchs in attendance at the doors. The eunuchs resisted, and demanded angrily why the guards had let the strangers in. |Kill them,| said the conspirators, and immediately began to cut them down. The magi were within, already in consternation at the disclosures of Prexaspes, of which they had just been informed. They heard the tumult and the outcries of the eunuchs at the doors, and seized their arms, the one a bow and the other a spear. The conspirators rushed in. The bow was useless in the close combat which ensued, and the magian who had taken it turned and fled. The other defended himself with his spear for a moment, and wounded severely two of his assailants. The wounded conspirators fell. Three others of the number continued the unequal combat with the armed magian, while Darius and Gobryas rushed in pursuit of the other.

The flying magian ran from one apartment to another until he reached a dark room, into which the blind instinct of fear prompted him to rush, in the vain hope of concealment. Gobryas was foremost; he seized the wretched fugitive by the waist, and struggled to hold him, while the magian struggled to get free. Gobryas called upon Darius, who was close behind him, to strike. Darius, brandishing his sword, looked earnestly into the obscure retreat, that he might see where to strike.

|Strike!| exclaimed Gobryas. |Why do you not strike?|

|I can not see,| said Darius, |and I am afraid of wounding you.|

|No matter,| said Gobryas, struggling desperately all the time with his frantic victim. |Strike quick, if you kill us both.|

Darius struck. Gobryas loosened his hold, and the magian fell upon the floor, and there, stabbed again through the heart by Darius's sword, almost immediately ceased to breathe.

They dragged the body to the light, and cut off the head. They did the same with the other magian, whom they found that their confederates had killed when they returned to the apartments where they had left them contending. The whole body of the conspirators then, except the two who were wounded, exulting in their success, and wild with the excitement which such deeds always awaken, went forth into the streets of the city, bearing the heads upon pikes as the trophies of their victory. They summoned the Persian soldiers to arms, and announced every where that they had ascertained that the king was a priest and an impostor, and not their legitimate sovereign, and that they had consequently killed him. They called upon the people to kill the magians wherever they could find them, as if the whole class were implicated in the guilt of the usurping brothers.

The populace in all countries are easily excited by such denunciations and appeals as these. The Persians armed themselves, and ran to and fro every where in pursuit of the unhappy magians, and before night vast numbers of them were slain.

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