There are a great number of stories throughout history that exemplify the iniquity often associated with Totalitarianism. To be sure, the twentieth century was abundantly active in this arena, but certain stories from Herodotus’ Histories reverberate in my mind as if I were present to see them unfold. Herodotus was exceptional at depicting acts of honor, sacrifice, glory and servitude. Though some of his stories have lost favor with posterity, many remain as models of virtue. Indeed, the more I cogitate on one in particular, the more I become incensed with his era’s concept of virtuous behavior. To serve our “superiors” is described as the ultimate reward. It is a notion so overtly antithetical with one’s dignity, it’s difficult to conceptualize its success. Yet, it’s not entirely absent from societal expectations today.
To appreciate this story in its entirety, I’ll have to begin with Cyrus the Great.
Cyrus was a man of ingenuity and relative tolerance. At the time of his birth, Persians fell under the dominion of Media. As with any idealized hero, Cyrus’ ascension to power was nothing short of miraculous. He was noble by birth but nurtured by commoners. His maternal Grandfather – the Median king, Astyages – had a dream that his thrown would one day be usurped by Cyrus, so he ordered him executed at birth. But instead of executing the child, the nobleman assigned to this task gave Cyrus to a shepherd. Despite being brought up in obscurity, he distinguished himself from the lowly working class. This was to be expected as it was thought that nobility was a hereditary characteristic.
Against all odds, Cyrus would one day fulfill Astyages’ dream by defeating his grandfather; and since Cyrus was Persian on his father’s side, the Medes lost control of Western Asia. As a result, the Achaemenid dynasty was born, which would subsequently control most of the known world until the conquests of Alexander the Great.
One of the central expansions during Cyrus’ reign was his annexation of the Babylonian Empire. Babylon was an important epicenter of Western Asia, and upon its fall, Cyrus repatriated most of the captive people found within its walls. This act was also coupled with numerous humanitarian deeds and is historically supported by artifacts such as the Cyrus Cylinder. Biblically speaking, this is one event that has some semblance of historical abutment; although, the Cyrus Cylinder doesn’t actually mention the Jews as being one of the repatriated peoples. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Cyrus was one of the few men from history that had total authority over a vast empire, and refrained from abusing his power – that is, if we can forgive him for murdering his Grandfather.
Of course, the same cannot be said for his successor. Perhaps Marcus Aurelius and Commodus were the reincarnated emperors of Cyrus and Cambyses II; for like Cambyses, Commodus was nothing like his father. Cambyses was to Cyrus what religion is to progress: incongruous and diametric. He was an altogether different sort of man; a tyrant by any standard of the imagination. He had everything provided for him from birth, but his insatiable appetite for women, and the pressure to attain fame equal to his father, proved fatal. Throughout his rule, Cambyses would perform detestable acts on the level of some of history’s most notorious psychopaths; such as Caracalla, Hitler or Stalin.
From what we are told, Cambyses’ path of destruction began with the failure of a request. He asked Amasis – the king of Egypt – for one of his daughters. Amasis, knowing that his daughter would not become a queen, but rather, would become one of Cambyses’ many concubines, decided to send a substitute. Amasis was apparently not very bright, however. In his daughter’s stead, Amasis sent the daughter of his predecessor – the daughter of the king that he deposed by leading the Egyptian people to rebel. This woman didn’t take long before informing Cambyses of the trick, and so, Cambyses went to war with Egypt.
The Egyptian expedition ended in Cambyses’ favor, but I will spare you most of the details. It is enough to understand that Cambyses made some key decisions that would irreversibly alter the royal landscape. First, he ordered the assassination of his brother Smerdis due to a nightmare involving what he presumed to be the foreshadowing of Smerdis’ ascension to power. Moreover, he ordered this assassination to be conducted in secret, so very few were privy to the information. Next, he murdered his pregnant wife by kicking her in the stomach – she was also his younger sister – over a comment on the fate of Smerdis. Finally, in an act of kindness to the rest of humanity, he mounted a horse and stabbed himself in the thigh; eventually dying from the wound.
Because very few were aware that Cambyses’ brother was murdered, two Magi who were left in charge of the royal palace took advantage of the vacated thrown. One of the Magi – conveniently named Smerdis – resembled the royal brother, so he assumed control of the empire. To be sure, certain nobles were suspect to Smerdis’ claims; and after confirming their suspicions through the use of a royal concubine, seven conspirators devised a plan to overtake the Persian crown – again, I’ll refrain from expanding on this. With their usurpation successfully executed, the next step was to decide upon a successor. Unable to reach an agreement, however, they settled to leave the decision to the whim of a horse. Yes, that’s right; a horse was left to decide the future of a kingdom.
Darius’ horse was the first to neigh at the sight of the rising sun; thus he was selected as the successor to Cambyses’ empire. Elsewhere, in an attempt to take advantage of this tumultuous time, various subject cities began rebelling; many of which were at one time impressive in their own right. Such was the case for Babylon. As previously indicated, Cyrus had just recently subjugated the mighty Babylonian Empire – historically speaking. Hence Babylon’s secession at the first sight of Persia’s vulnerability. To avoid the total collapse of the Persian Empire, Darius immediately set himself upon recapturing Babylon.
However, this particular undertaking proved to be more difficult than he anticipated. The Babylonians, in preparation for a siege, strangled every woman in the city save each man’s mother, and one woman to cook him bread throughout the length of the siege. Albeit immoral, this act was militarily brilliant. For even Cyrus was unable to overtake Babylon by force; he diverted the Euphrates and snuck men into the city while the Babylonians celebrated a festival. Cognizant of this, the Babylonians were confident that if they could avoid trickery, they could comfortably wait for Darius to give up; which he nearly did.
Eighteen months into the siege, Darius grew increasingly impatient. But in an attempt to end the war and gain Darius’ favor, one nobleman put into action a plan that epitomized servitude. By his own hand, Zopyrus viciously mutilated his face and body to give the appearance that he lost favor with Darius. He cut off his ears and nose, and whipped his body into a swollen, lacerated mess of flesh. After this, Zopyrus presented himself before Darius. Bewildered at the sight of Zopyrus, Darius proclaimed that those responsible would pay dearly. But Zopyrus explained that his wounds were self-induced and necessary to end the siege. Then, Zopyrus explained his plan to all those present and gained unanimous approval.
Accordingly, Zopyrus made his way to the gates of Babylon. Upon his arrival, the Babylonians granted him entrance and rushed him to the city magistrates. Zopyrus explained that Darius was responsible for his wounds because he had urged him to abandon the siege. He then offered his assistance in destroying Darius’ army. The Babylonians, unsuspectingly, agreed to grant Zopyrus command of a portion of their army.
Next, as agreed upon, Darius stationed one thousand poorly armed men outside the Semiramis gates. Zopyrus made his first move and quickly slaughtered his own country men, as they were armed with only daggers. This helped establish further confidence in Zopyrus’ story amongst the Babylonians. Seven days later, Darius placed two thousand men outside the Nineveh gates; again, armed only with daggers. Just as before, Zopyrus marched out and annihilated his brethren. Now Zopyrus was gaining rapid popularity within the whole of Babylon. The third assault came twenty days after the Nineveh massacre. Darius positioned four thousand men outside the Chaldaean gates and watched as Zopyrus methodically killed every one of them. This was enough for the Babylonians to promote Zopyrus to General in Chief.
Just as Cyrus had done two generations before, Darius was about to conquer Babylon by chicanery. Darius ordered a total assault on the city and while the defenders were concentrated on the walls, Zopyrus opened the Cissian and Belian gates. A flood of Persian infantrymen entered Babylon and chased the defenders to the temple of Bel. Unlike Cyrus, however, Darius destroyed Babylon’s defenses and impaled thousands of leading citizens. This time, Babylon was completely reduced to servitude. Zopyrus, for his efforts, was rewarded with the governorship of Babylon – so the story goes.
Herodotus illustrates most of the acts described above as justified, honorable and virtuous. I cannot help but to put myself in the shoes of those that were relegated to be the means to an end. In their last breath, did they feel their death was justified? Is the abstract concept of honor more valuable than life itself? One could probably make a utilitarian argument for Zopyrus’ plan; after all, it successfully ended the siege. However, that would lead to an endless regress of questioning – was the siege necessary, etc. But these questions are inconsequential; instead of deliberating on the nature, our focus should be on the commonality between such acts.
Accordingly, one will discover that the ambition to attain power and influence is at the heart of each. Moreover, we tolerate meaningless notions such as honor and glory that cloud reality. As a result, we become easily manipulated whereby we unknowingly permit social injustices. The events above happened twenty-five hundred years ago; yet, anyone can describe similar wrongdoings from every succeeding century. Perhaps these incidents are inevitably recursive; perhaps the disposition to establish order is coupled with inequality. Whatever the case, simply being aware of history hasn’t abated our mistakes. Or, most of us are unaware of how often they are repeated.