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Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes

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Artaxerxes II on the Mausoleum of Pericles of Limyra. Archaeological Museum of Antalya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Artaxerxes II on the Mausoleum of Pericles of Limyra (Archaeological Museum of Antalya)
The Achaemenid king Artaxerxes II Mnemon (ruled 404-358) is the subject of one of the biographies written by the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122). It is a remarkable treatise, because its author has inserted much confused and disjointed information, includes unusually lengthy quotations (from Ctesias), and is -Plutarch always being a Greek in the first place- uncharacteristically kind towards "the barbarian". In other words, it is possibly not written by Plutarch.

The translation offered here was made by Bernadotte Perrin; it was originally put online (with all original notes from the Loeb edition) by Bill Thayer on LacusCurtius. This hyperlinked version was prepared by Jona Lendering.

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Afterwards the eunuch told the matter to Parysatis, and she to the king; and the king was incensed, as being openly convicted of falsehood, and likely to forfeit the fairest and most pleasing feature of his victory. For he wished that all Barbarians and all Greeks should be fully persuaded that when he and his brother had charged and grappled with each other, he had given and received a blow, being only wounded himself, but killing his brother. He therefore gave orders that Mithridates should be put to death by the torture of the boats.

Now, this torture of the boats is as follows. Two boats are taken, which are so made as to fit over one another closely; in one of these the victim is laid, flat upon his back; then the other is laid over the first and carefully adjusted, so that the victim's head, hands, and feet are left projecting, while the rest of his body is completely covered up. Then they give him food to eat, and if he refuse it, they force him to take it by pricking his eyes. After he has eaten, they give him a mixture of milk and honey to drink, pouring it into his mouth, and also deluge his face with it. Then they keep his eyes always turned towards the sun, and a swarm of flies settles down upon his face and hides it completely. And since inside the boats he does what must needs be done when men eat and drink, worms and maggots seethe up from the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, devouring his body, and eating their way into his vitals. For when at last the man is clearly dead and the upper boat has been removed, his flesh is seen to have been consumed away, while about his entrails swarms of such animals as I have mentioned are clinging fast and eating. In this way Mithridates was slowly consumed for seventeen days, and at last died.

And now there was one mark left for the vengeance of Parysatis - the man who had cut off the head and right hand of Cyrus, Masabates, an eunuch of the king. Against this man, then, since he himself gave her no chance to get at him, Parysatis concocted a plot of the following sort. She was in general an ingenious woman, and greatly addicted to playing at dice. For this reason she frequently played at dice with the king before the war, and after the war was over and she had been reconciled with him, she did not try to avoid his friendly overtures, but actually joined in his diversions, and took part in his amours by her cooperation and presence, and, in a word, left very little of the king for Stateira's use and society. For she hated Stateira above all others, and wished to have the chief influence herself.

So, one day, finding Artaxerxes trying to amuse himself in a vacant hour, she challenged him to play at dice for a thousand darics, allowed him to win the game, and paid the money down. Then, pretending to be chagrined at her loss and to seek revenge, she challenged the king to play a second game, with an eunuch for the stake, and the king consented. They agreed that both might reserve five of their most trusty eunuchs, but that from the rest the loser must give whichever one the winner might select, and on these conditions played their game. Parysatis took the matter much to heart and was in great earnest with her playing, and since the dice also fell in her favor, she won the game, and selected Masabates; for he was not among those who had been excepted.

And before the king suspected her design, she put the eunuch in the hands of the executioners, who were ordered to flay him alive, to set up his body slantwise on three stakes, and to nail up his skin to a fourth. This was done, and when the king was bitterly incensed at her, she said to him, with a mocking laugh: "What a blessed simpleton thou art, to be incensed on account of a wretched old eunuch, when I, who have diced away a thousand darics, accept my loss without a word."

So the king, although sorry that he had been deceived, kept quiet in the matter, but Stateira openly opposed Parysatis in other things, and above all was angry with her because, for the sake of Cyrus, she was cruelly and lawlessly putting to death eunuchs and others who were faithful to the king.

Now, when Clearchus and his fellow-generals had been completely deceived by Tissaphernes, and, contrary to solemn oaths, had been seized and sent up to the king in chains, Ctesias tells us that he was asked by Clearchus to provide him with a comb. Clearchus got the comb and dressed his hair, and being pleased at the service rendered, gave Ctesias his ring as a token of friendship which he might show to his kindred and friends in Sparta; and the device in the seal was a group of dancing Caryatides. Moreover, as Ctesias says, the provisions sent to Clearchus were seized by the soldiers in captivity with him, who consumed them freely and gave only a small part of them to Clearchus. This hardship also Ctesias says he remedied, by getting more provisions sent to Clearchus, and a separate supply given to the soldiers; and these services he says he rendered and performed to please Parysatis, and at her suggestion. He says further that a flitch of bacon was sent to Clearchus every day to supplement his rations, and that Clearchus earnestly advised him that he ought to bury a small knife in the meat and send it to him thus hidden away, and not allow his fate to be determined by the cruelty of the king; but he was afraid, and would not consent to do this.

The king, Ctesias says, at the solicitation of his mother, agreed and swore not to kill Clearchus; but he was won back again by Stateira, and put all the generals to death except Menon. It was because of this, Ctesias says, that Parysatis plotted against the life of Stateira and prepared the poison for her.

But it is an unlikely story, and one that gives an absurd motive for her course, to say that Parysatis thus risked and wrought a dreadful deed because of Clearchus, and dared to kill the king's lawful wife, who was the mother by him of children reared for the throne. Nay, it is quite evident that he adds this sensational detail out of regard for the memory of Clearchus. For he says that after the generals had been put to death, the rest of them were torn by dogs and birds, but that in the case of Clearchus, a blast of wind carried a great mass of earth and heaped it in a mound which covered his body;[1] upon this some dates fell here and there, and in a short time a wonderful grove of trees sprang up and overshadowed the place, so that even the king was sorely repentant, believing that in Clearchus he had killed a man whom the gods loved.

Parysatis, accordingly, who from the outset had a lurking hatred and jealousy of Stateira, saw that her own influence with the king was based on feelings of respect and honor, while that of Stateira was grounded fast and strong in love and confidence; she therefore plotted against her life and played for what she thought the highest stake. She had a trusted maidservant named Gigis, who had most influence with her and assisted her in preparing the poison, according to Deinon, although Ctesias says she was merely privy to the deed, and that against her will. The poison was actually given by a man named Belitaras, according to Ctesias; Deinon gives his name as Melantas.

After a period of dissension and suspicion, the two women had begun again to meet and eat with one another, although their mutual fear and caution led them to partake of the same dishes served by the same hands. Now, there is a little Persian bird which has no excrement, but is all full of fat inside; and the creature is thought to live upon air and dew; the name of it is rhyntaces. It was a bird of this species, according to Ctesias, that Parysatis cut in two with a little knife smeared with poison on one side, thus wiping the poison off upon one part only of the bird; the undefiled and wholesome part she then put into her own mouth and ate, but gave to Stateira the poisoned part. Deinon, however, says it was not Parysatis, but Melantas who cut the bird with the knife and placed the flesh that was poisoned before Stateira.

Be that as it may, the woman died, in convulsions and great suffering, and she comprehended the evil that had befallen her, and brought the king to suspect his mother, whose fierce and implacable nature he knew. The king, therefore, at once set out upon the inquest, arrested the servants and table-attendants of his mother, and put them on the rack. Gigis, however, Parysatis kept for a long time at home with her, and would not give her up at the king's command. But after a while Gigis herself begged to be dismissed to her own home by night. The king learned of this, set an ambush for her, seized her, and condemned her to death.

Now, the legal mode of death for poisoners in Persia is as follows. There is a broad stone, and on this the head of the culprit is placed; and then with another stone they smite and pound until they crush the face and head to pulp. It was in this manner, then, that Gigis died; but Parysatis was not further rebuked or harmed by Artaxerxes, except that he sent her off to Babylon, in accordance with her wish, saying that as long as she lived he himself would not see Babylon. Such was the state of the king's domestic affairs.

Now, the king was no less eager to capture the Greeks who had come up with Cyrus than he had been to conquer Cyrus and preserve his throne. Nevertheless, he could not capture them, but though they had lost Cyrus their leader and their own commanders, they rescued themselves from his very palace, as one might say, thus proving clearly to the world that the empire of the Persians and their king abounded in gold and luxury and women, but in all essential was an empty vaunt.

Therefore all Greece took heart and despised the Barbarians, and the Lacedaemonians in particular thought it strange if now at least they could not rescue the Greeks that dwelt in Asia from servitude, and put a stop to their outrageous treatment at the hands of the Persians. [400] The war they waged was at first conducted by Thimbron, [399] and then by Dercyllidas, but since they accomplished nothing worthy of note, they at last put the conduct of the war in the hands of their king, Agesilaus. [396] He crossed over to Asia with a fleet, went to work at once, won great fame, defeated Tissaphernes in a pitched battle, and set the Greek cities in revolt.

This being the case, Artaxerxes considered how he must carry on the war with Agesilaus, and sent Timocrates the Rhodian into Greece with a great sum of money, bidding him use it for the corruption of the most influential men in the cities there, and for stirring up the Greeks to make war upon Sparta. Timocrates did as he was bidden, the most important cities conspired together against Sparta, Peloponnese was in a turmoil, and the Spartan magistrates summoned Agesilaus home from Asia. It was at this time, as we are told, and as he was going home, that Agesilaus said to his friends: "The king has driven me out of Asia with thirty thousand archers"; for the Persian coin has the figure of an archer stamped upon it.

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Note 1:
In other words, Clearchus was buried like a Homeric hero (cf. the tomb of Achilles near Troy).
Online 2007
Revision: 26 April 2007
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