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Photius' excerpt of Ctesias' Persica (1)


Darius the Great on a relief from Persepolis, now at the National archaeological museum of Tehran (Iran). Photo Marco Prins..
Darius, relief from the northern stairs of the Apadana of Persepolis (Archaeological museum, Tehran)
Ctesias was a Greek physician who stayed at the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon from 404 to 398/397. He wrote several books about Persia and India. They are now lost but were quoted by ancient authors; consequently, we are able to judge their value as history (low) and as works of art (entertaining).

The following text is the first part of an excerpt from the Persica by the Byzantine scholar Photius (c.815-897). The translation was made by J.H. Freese and was found at Tertullian.Org.



Read the Persica of Ctesias of Cnidus in twenty-three books.

In the first six he treats of Assyrian affairs and of events before the foundation of the Persian empire, and only begins to treat of Persian affairs in the seventh book.

In books 7-13 he gives an account of Cyrus, Cambyses, [Tanyoxarces/Smerdis] the Magian, Darius, and Xerxes, in which he differs almost entirely from Herodotus, whom he accuses of falsehood in many passages and calls an inventor of fables. Ctesias is later than Herodotus, and says that he was an eyewitness of most of what he describes, and that, where this was not the case, he obtained his information directly from Persians, and in this manner he composed his history. He not only disagrees with Herodotus, but also in some respects with Xenophon the son of Gryllus. Ctesias flourished in the time of Cyrus, son of Darius[II Nothus] and Parysatis, brother of Artaxerxes[II Mnemon] who succeeded to the throne.

[1] He begins by stating that Astyages (whom he also calls Astyigas) was not related to Cyrus; that he fled from him to Ecbatana and hid himself in the vaults of the royal palace with the aid of his daughter Amytis and her husband Spitamas; that Cyrus, when he came to the throne, gave orders that not only Spitamas and Amytis, but also their sons Spitaces and Megabernes should be put to the torture for assisting Astyigas; that the latter, to save his grandchildren from being tortured on his account, gave himself up and was taken and loaded with chains by Oebares; that shortly afterwards he was set free by Cyrus and honored as his father; that his daughter Amytis was treated by him as a mother and afterwards became his wife. Her husband Spitamas, however, was put to death, because, when asked, he had falsely declared that he did not know where Astyigas was. In his account of these events Ctesias differs from Herodotus.

[2] He adds that Cyrus made war upon the Bactrians, without obtaining a decisive victory; but that when they learnt that Astyigas had been adopted by Cyrus as his father, and Amytis as his mother and wife, they voluntarily submitted to Amytis and Cyrus.

[3] He also relates how Cyrus made war on the Sacae, and took prisoner their king Amorges, the husband of Sparethra, who after her husband was captured collected an army of 300,000 men and 200,000 women, made war upon Cyrus and defeated him. Amongst the large number of prisoners taken by the Sacae were Parmises, the brother of Amytis, and his three sons, who were subsequently released in exchange for Amorges.

[4] Cyrus, assisted by Amorges, marched against Croesus and the city of Sardes. By the advice of Oebaras he set up wooden figures representing Persians round the walls, the sight of which so terrified the inhabitants that the city was easily taken.

Before this, the son of Croesus was handed over as a hostage, the king himself having been deceived by a divine vision. Since Croesus was evidently meditating treachery, his son was put to death before his eyes; his mother, who was a witness of his execution, committed suicide by throwing herself from the walls.

[5] After the city was taken Croesus fled for refuge to the temple of Apollo; he was three times put in chains, and three times loosed invisibly from his bonds, although the temple was shut and sealed, and Oebaras was on guard. Those who had been prisoners with Croesus had their heads cut off, on suspicion of having conspired to release him. He was subsequently taken to the palace and bound more securely, but was again loosed by thunder and lightning sent from heaven. Finally Cyrus, against his will, set him free, treated him kindly from that time, and bestowed upon him a large city near Ecbatana, named Barene, in which there were 5000 horsemen and 10,000 peltasts, javelin-throwers, and archers.

[6] Cyrus then sent Petisacas the eunuch, who had great influence with him, to Persia to fetch Astyigas from the Barcanians, he and his daughter Amytis being anxious to see him. Oebaras then advised Petisacas to leave Astyigas in some lonely spot, to perish of hunger and thirst; which he did. But the crime was revealed in a dream, and Petisacas, at the urgent request of Amytis, was handed over to her by Cyrus for punishment. She ordered his eyes to be dug out, had him flayed alive, and then crucified. Oebaras, afraid of suffering the same punishment, although Cyrus assured him that he would not allow it, starved himself to death by fasting for ten days. Astyigas was accorded a splendid funeral; his body had remained untouched by wild beasts in the wilder-ness, some lions having guarded it until it was removed by Petisacas.

[7] Cyrus marched against the Derbices, whose king was Amoraeus. The Derbices suddenly brought up some elephants which had been kept in ambush, and put Cyrus' cavalry to flight. Cyrus himself fell from his horse, and an Indian wounded him mortally with a javelin under the thigh. The Indians fought on the side of the Derbices and supplied them with elephants. Cyrus' friends took him up while he was still alive and returned to camp. Many Persians and Derbices were slain, to the number of 10,000 on each side.

Amorges, when he heard of what had happened to Cyrus, in great haste went to the assistance of the Persians with 20,000 Sacan cavalry. In a subsequent engagement, the Persians and Sacae gained a brilliant victory, Amoraeus, the king of the Derbices, and his two sons being slain. Thirty thousand Derbicans and 9,000 Persians fell in the battle. The country then submitted to Cyrus.

[8] Cyrus, when near his death, declared his elder son Cambyses king, his younger son Tanyoxarces governor of Bactria, Chorasmia, Parthia, and Carmania, free from tribute. Of the children of Spitamas, he appointed Spitaces satrap of the Derbices, Megabernes of the Barcanians, bidding them obey their mother in everything. He also endeavored to make them friends with Amorges, bestowing his blessing on those who should remain on friendly terms with one another, and a curse upon those who first did wrong. With these words he died, three days after he had been wounded, after a reign of thirty years. This is the end of the eleventh book.

[9] The twelfth book begins with the reign of Cambyses. Immediately after his accession he sent his father's body by the eunuch Bagapates to Persia for burial, and in all other respects carried out his father's wishes. The men who had the greatest influence with him were Artasyras the Hyrcanian, and the eunuchs Izabates, Aspadates, and Bagapates, who had been his father's favorite after the death of Petisacas.

[10] Bagapates was in command of the expedition against Egypt and its king Amyrtaeus, whom he defeated, through the treachery of his chief counselor Combaphis the eunuch, who betrayed the bridges and other important secrets, on condition that Cambyses made him governor of Egypt. Cambyses first made this arrangement with him through Izabates, the cousin of Combaphis, and afterwards confirmed it by his personal promise. Having taken Amyrtaeus alive he did him no harm, but merely removed him to Susa with 6000 Egyptians chosen by himself. The whole of Egypt then became subject to Cambyses. The Egyptians lost 50,000 men in the battle, the Persians 7000.

[11] In the meantime a certain Magian called Sphendadates, who had been flogged by Tanyoxarces for some offense, went to Cambyses and informed him that his brother was plotting against him. In proof of this he declared that Tanyoxarces would refuse to come if summoned. Cambyses thereupon summoned his brother, who, being engaged on another matter, put off coming. The Magian thereupon accused him more freely. His mother Amytis, who suspected the Magian, advised Cambyses not to listen to him. Cambyses pretended not to believe him, while in reality he did. Being summoned by Cambyses a third time, Tanyoxarces obeyed the summons. His brother embraced him, but nevertheless determined to put him to death, and, unknown to his mother Amytis, took measures to carry out his plan.

[12] The Magian made the following suggestion. Being himself very like Tanyoxarces, he advised the king publicly to order that his head should be cut off as having falsely accused the king's brother; that in the meantime Tanyoxarces should secretly be put to death, and he [the Magian] should be dressed in his clothes, so that Tanyoxarces should be thought alive. Cambyses agreed to this. Tanyoxarces was put to death by being forced to drink bull's blood; the Magian put on his clothes and was mistaken for him by the people. The fraud was not known for a long time except to Artasyras, Bagapates, and Izabates, to whom alone Cambyses had entrusted the secret.

[13] Then Cambyses, having summoned Labyzus, the chief of Tanyoxarces' eunuchs, and the other eunuchs, showed them the Magian seated and dressed in the guise of his brother, and asked them whether they thought he was Tanyoxarces. Labyzus, in astonishment, replied, "Whom else should we think him to be?" the likeness being so great that he was deceived. The Magian was accordingly sent to Bactria, where he played the part of Tanyoxarces. Five years later Amytis, having learnt the truth from the eunuch Tibethis, whom the Magian had flogged, demanded that Cambyses should hand over Sphendadates to her, but he refused. Whereupon Amytis, after heaping curses upon him, drank poison and died.

[14] On a certain occasion, while Cambyses was offering sacrifice, no blood flowed from the slaughtered victims. This greatly alarmed him, and the birth of a son without a head by Roxana increased this alarm. This portent was interpreted by the wise men to mean that he would leave no successor. His mother also appeared to him in a dream, threatening retribution for the murder he had committed, which alarmed him still more. At Babylon, while carving a piece of wood with a knife for his amusement, he accidentally wounded himself in the thigh, and died eleven days afterwards, in the eighteenth year of his reign.

[15] Bagapates and Artasyras, before the death of Cambyses, conspired to raise the Magian to the throne, as they afterwards did. Izabates, who had gone to convey the body of Cambyses to Persia, finding on his return that the Magian was reigning under the name of Tanyoxarces, disclosed the truth to the army and exposed the Magian. After this he took refuge in a temple, where he was seized and put to death.

[16] Then seven distinguished Persians conspired against the Magian. Their names were Onophas, Idernes, Norondabates, Mardonius, Barisses, Ataphernes, and Darius [son of] Hystaspes. After they had given and taken the most solemn pledges, they admitted to their counsels Artasyras and Bagapates, who kept all the keys of the palace. The seven, having been admitted into the palace by Bagapates, found the Magian asleep. At the sight of them he jumped up, but finding no weapon ready to hand (for Bagapates had secretly removed them all) he smashed a chair made of gold and defended himself with one of the legs, but was finally stabbed to death by the seven. He had reigned seven months.

[17] Darius was chosen king from the seven conspirators in accordance with a test agreed upon, his horse being the first to neigh after the sun had risen, the result of a cunning stratagem.

[18] The Persians celebrate the day on which the Magian was put to death by a festival called Magophonia.

[19] Darius ordered a tomb to be built for himself in a two-peaked mountain, but when he desired to go and see it he was dissuaded by the soothsayers and his parents. The latter, however, were anxious to make the ascent to it, but the priests who were dragging them up, being frightened at the sight of some snakes, let go the ropes and they fell and were dashed to pieces. Darius was greatly grieved and ordered the heads of the forty men who were responsible to be cut off.

[20] Darius ordered Ariaramnes, satrap of Cappadocia, to cross over into Scythia, and carry off a number of prisoners, male and female. He went over in thirty penteconters, and among others took captive Marsagetes, the Scythian king's brother, who had been imprisoned by his own brother for certain offenses. The ruler of the Scythians, being enraged, wrote an abusive letter to Darius, who replied in the same tone.

[21] Darius then collected an army of 800,000 men and crossed the Bosphorus and the Ister [Danube] by a bridge of boats into Scythian territory in fifteen days. The two kings sent each other a bow in turn. Darius, seeing that the bow of the Scythians was stronger, turned back and fled across the bridges, destroying some of them in his haste before the entire army had crossed. Eighty thousand of his men, who had been left behind in Europe, were put to death by the ruler of the Scythians. Darius, after he had crossed the bridge, set fire to the houses and temples of the Chalcedonians, because they had attempted to break down the bridges which he had made near their city and had also destroyed the altar erected by him, when crossing, in honor of Zeus Diabaterios.

[22] Datis, the commander of the Persian fleet, on his return from Pontus, ravaged Greece and the islands. At Marathon he was met by Miltiades; the barbarians were defeated and Datis himself slain, the Athenians afterwards refusing to give up his body at the request of the Persians.

[23] Darius then returned to Persia, where, after having offered sacrifice, he died after an illness of thirty days, in the seventy-second year of his age and the thirty-first of his reign. Artasyras and Bagapates also died, the latter having been for seven years the keeper of the tomb of Darius.

[24] Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes, over whom. Artapanus the son of Artasyras had as great influence as his father had had over Darius. His other confidential advisers were the aged Mardonius and Matacas the eunuch. Xerxes married Amestris, the daughter of Onophas, who bore him a son, Dariaeus, two years afterwards Hystaspes and Artaxerxes, and two daughters, one named Rhodogyne and another called Amytis after her grandmother.

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