Plutarch's Artaxerxes II Mnemon

Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122): influential Greek philosopher and author, well known for his biographies and his moral treatises. His biography is here; his Life of Artaxerxes is the only biography not dedicated to a Greek or a Roman, but describes the life of the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon (r. 404-358).

Plutarch's Life of Artaxerxes is a remarkable treatise, because the author has inserted much confused and disjointed information, has included 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 author uses Xenophon and Deinon as his sources, but especially the notoriously unreliable Ctesias of Cnidus, whom he criticizes. Another authority is Heracleides of Cyme.

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.

[1] The first Artaxerxes, preeminent among the kings of Persia for gentleness and magnanimity, was surnamed Longimanus, because his right hand was longer than his left, and was the son of Xerxes; the second Artaxerxes, the subject of this Life, was surnamed Memor, or Mindful, and was the grandson of the first by his daughter Parysatis. For Dareius and Parysatis had four sons - an eldest, Artaxerxes, and next to him Cyrus, and after these Ostanes and Oxathres. Cyrus took his name from Cyrus of old, who, as they say, was named from the sun; for "Cyrus" is the Persian word for sun. Artaxerxes was at first called Arsicas; although Deinon gives the name as Oarses. But it is unlikely that Ctesias, even if he has put into his work a perfect farrago of extravagant and incredible tales, should be ignorant of the name of the king at whose court he lived as physician to the king's wife and mother and children.

[2] Now Cyrus, from his very earliest years, was high-strung and impetuous, but Artaxerxes seemed gentler in everything and naturally milder in his impulses. His wife, a beautiful and excellent woman, he married in compliance with his parents' bidding, and kept her in defiance of them; for after the kingnote had put her brother to death, he wished to kill her also. But Arsicas, throwing himself at his mother's feet and supplicating her with many tears, at last obtained her promise that his wife should neither be killed nor separated from him.

But the mother had more love for Cyrus, and wished that he should succeed to the throne.note Therefore when his father was now lying sick, Cyrus was summoned home from the sea-coast,note and went up in full hope that by his mother's efforts he had been designated as successor to the kingdom. For Parysatis had a specious argument (the same that Xerxes the Elder employed on the advice of Demaratus),note to the effect that she had borne Arsicas to Dareius when he was in private station, but Cyrus when he was a king. However, she could not prevail, but the elder son was declared king, under the new name of Artaxerxes, while Cyrus remained satrap of Lydia and commander of the forces in the maritime provinces.

[3] A little while after the death of Dareius, the new king made an expedition to Pasargadae, that he might receive the royal initiation at the hands of the Persian priests. Here there is a sanctuary of a warlike goddess whom one might conjecture to be Athena. Into this sanctuary the candidate for initiation must pass, and after laying aside his own proper robe, must put on that which Cyrus the Elder used to wear before he became king; then he must eat of a cake of figs, chew some turpentine-wood, and drink a cup of sour milk. Whatever else is done besides this is unknown to outsiders.

As Artaxerxes was about to perform these rites, Tissaphernes brought to him a certain priest who had conducted Cyrus through the customary discipline for boys, had taught him the wisdom of the Magi, and was thought to be more distressed than any one in Persia because his pupil had not been declared king. For this reason, too, his accusation against Cyrus won credence. And he accused him of planning to lie in wait for taking in the sanctuary until he should put off his garment, and then to fall upon him and kill him.

Some say that Cyrus was arrested in consequence of this false charge, others that he actually made his way into the sanctuary and hid himself there, and was delivered into custody by the priest. But now, as he was about to be put to death, his mother clasped him in her arms, twined her tresses about him, pressed his neck against her own, and by much lamentation and entreaty prevailed upon the king to spare him, and sent him back to the sea-coast. Here he was not satisfied with the office assigned to him, nor mindful of his release, but only of his arrest; and his anger made him more eager than before to secure the kingdom.

[4] Some say that he revolted from the king because his allowance did not suffice for his daily meals, which is absurd. For had no other resource been his, still, his mother was resource enough, who gave freely from her own wealth all that he wished to take and use. And that he had wealth is proved by the mercenary troops that were maintained for him in many places by his friends and connections, as Xenophon tells us. For he did not bring these together into one body, since he was still trying to conceal his preparations, but in one place and another, and on many pretexts, he kept recruiting-agents. And as for the king's suspicions, his mother, who was at court, tried to remove them, and Cyrus himself would always write in a submissive vein, sometimes asking favors from him, and sometimes making countercharges against Tissaphernes, as if his eager contention were against him. There was, too, a certain dilatoriness in the nature of the king, which most people took for clemency.

Moreover, in the beginning he appeared to be altogether emulous of the gentleness of the Artaxerxes whose name he bore, showing himself very agreeable in intercourse, and bestowing greater honors and favors than were really deserved, while from all his punishments he took away the element of insult or vindictive pleasure, and in his acceptance and bestowal of favors appeared no less gracious and kindly to the givers than to the recipients. For there was no gift so small that he did not accept it with alacrity; indeed, when a certain Omisus brought him a single pomegranate of surpassing size, he said: "By Mithra, this man would speedily make a city great instead of small were he entrusted with it."

[5] Once when he was on a journey and various people were presenting him with various things, a laboring man, who could find nothing else at the moment, ran to the river, and, taking some water in his hands, offered it to him at which Artaxerxes was so pleased that he sent him a goblet of gold and a thousand darics. To Eucleidas the Lacedaemonian, who would often say bold and impudent things to him, he sent this word by his officer of the guard: "It is in thy power to say what thou pleasest, but it is in mine both to say and to do."

Again, when he was hunting once and Teribazus pointed out that the king's coat was rent, he asked him what was to be done. And when Teribazus replied, "Put on another for thyself, but give this one to me," the king did so, saying, "I give this to thee, Teribazus, but I forbid thee to wear it." Teribazus gave no heed to this command (being not a bad man, but rather light-headed and witless), and at once put on the king's coat, and decked himself with golden necklaces and women's ornaments of royal splendor. Everybody was indignant at this (for it was a forbidden thing); but the king merely laughed, and said: "I permit thee to wear the trinkets as a woman, and the robe as a madman."

Again, no one shared the table of a Persian king except his mother or his wedded wife, the wife sitting below him, the mother above him; but Artaxerxes invited to the same table with him his brothers Ostanes and Oxathres, although they were his juniors. But what gratified the Persians most of all was the sight of his wife Stateira's carriage, which always appeared with its curtains up, and thus permitted the women of the people to approach and greet the queen. This made her beloved of the common folk.

This page was created in 2007; last modified on 16 July 2020.