In the twinkling of an eye all this was changed. A band of hardy mountaineers rushed out of the recesses of Persia and swept like a wind across the plains. They were dressed in leather from top to toe; they had never tasted fruit or wine; they had never seen a market; they knew not how to buy or sell. They were taught only three things—to ride on horseback, to hurl the javelin, and to speak the truth.
All Asia was covered with blood and flames. The allied kingdoms fell at once. India and Egypt were soon afterwards added to this empire, the greatest that the world had ever seen. The Persians used to boast that they ruled from the land of uninhabitable heat to the land of uninhabitable cold; that their dominion began in regions where the sun frizzled the hair and blackened the faces of the natives, and ended in a land where the air was filled with snow like feathers and the earth was hard as stone. The Persian empire was in reality bounded by the deserts which divided Egypt from Ethiopia on the south and from Carthage on the west; by the desert which divided the Punjab from Bengal; by the steppes which lay on the other side of the Jaxartes; by the Mediterranean, the Caspian, and the Black Sea.
Darius, the third emperor, invented a system of provincial government which, though imperfect when viewed by the wisdom of modern times, was far superior to any that had preceded it in Asia. He appointed satraps or pashas to administer the conquered provinces. Each of these viceroys received with his commission a map of his province engraved on brass. He was at once the civil governor and commander of the troops, but his power was checked and supervised by a secretary or clerk of the accounts, and the province was visited by royal commissioners once a year. The troops in each province were of two kinds; some garrisoned the cities; others, for the most part cavalry, lived, like the Roman legions, always in a camp; it was their office to keep down brigands, and to convey the royal treasure from place to place. The troops were subsisted by the conquered people; this formed part of the tribute, and was collected at the point of the sword. There was also a fixed tax in money and in kind, which was received by the clerk of the accounts and dispatched to the capital every year.
The Great King still preserved in his habits something of the nomad chief. He wintered at Babylon, but in the summer the heat was terrible in that region; the citizens retired to their cellars, and the king went to Susa, which was situated on the hills, or to Ecbatana, the ancient capital of the Medes, or to Persepolis, the true hearth and home of the Persian race. When he approached one of these cities the magi came forth to meet him, dressed all in white and singing hymns. The road was strewn with myrtle boughs and roses, and silver altars with blazing frankincense were placed by the wayside.
His palaces were built of precious woods, but the naked wood was never permitted to be seen: the walls were covered with golden plates, the roof with silver tiles. The courts were adorned with white, green, and blue hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen to pillars of marble by silver rings. The gardens were filled with rare and exotic plants; from the cold bosom of the snow-white stone fountains sprang upwards, sparkling in the air; birds of gorgeous plumage flashed from tree to tree, resembling flowers where they perched. And as the sun sank low in the heavens and the shadows on the earth grew deep, the voice of the nightingale was heard in the thicket, and the low cooing of the dove. Sounds of laughter proceeded from the house; lattices were opened; ponderous doors swung back, and out poured a troop of houris which a Persian poet alone would venture to describe. For there might be seen the fair Circassian, with cheeks like the apple in its rosy bloom; and the Abyssinian damsel, with warm brown skin and voluptuous drowsy eyes; the Hindu girl, with lithe and undulating form and fingers which seemed created to caress; the Syrian, with aquiline and haughty look; the Greek with features brightened by intellect and vivacity; and the home-born beauty prepared expressly for the harem, with a complexion as white as the milk on which she had been fed, and a face in form and expression resembling the full moon.
All these dear charmers belonged to the king, and no doubt he often wished half of them away. For if he felt a serious passion rising in his breast, etiquette compelled him to put it down. Inconstancy was enjoined on him by law. He was subjected to a rotation of kisses by the regulated science of the harem. Ceremony interdicted affection and caprice. He suffered from unvarying variety and the monotony of eternal change. The whole empire belonged to him, and all its inhabitants were his slaves. If he happened to be struck to the heart by a look cast from under a pair of black-edged eyelids, if he became enamoured of a high bosomed virgin, with a form like the oriental willow, he had only to say the word; she was at once taken to the apartments of the women, and her parents received the congratulations of their friends. But then he was not allowed to see his beloved for a twelve-month: six months she must be prepared with the oil of myrrh, six months with the sweet odours, before she was sufficiently purified and perfumed to receive the august embraces of the king, and to soothe a passion which meanwhile had ample time to cool.
The Great King slept on a splendid couch, overspread by a vine of branching gold, with clusters of rubies representing grapes. He wore a dress of purple and white, with scarlet trousers, a girdle like that of a woman, and a high tiara encircled by a sky-blue turban. He lived in a prison of rich metal and dazzling stone. Around him stood the courtiers with their hands wrapped in their robes, and covering their mouths lest he should be polluted by their base-born breath. Those who desired to speak to his majesty prostrated themselves before him on the ground. If any one entered uncalled, a hundred sabres gleamed in the air, and unless the king stretched out his sceptre the intruder would be killed.
An army sat down to dinner in the palace every day, and every day a herd of oxen was killed for them to eat. These were only the household troops. But when the Great King went to war, the provinces sent in their contingents, and then might be seen, as in some great exhibition, a collection of warriors from the four quarters of the earth. Then might be seen the Immortals, or Persian life-guards; their arms were of gold and silver, their standards were of silk. Then might be seen the heavy-armed Egyptian troops, with long wooden shields reaching to the ground; the Greeks from Ionia, with crested helmets and breastplates of bronze; the fur-clad Tartars of the steppes, who "raised hair" like the Red Indians, a people probably belonging to the same race; the Ethiopians of Africa, with fleecy locks, clad in the skins of lions and armed with throw-sticks and with stakes, the points of which had been hardened in the fire, or tipped with horn or stone; the Berbers in their four-horse chariots; the camel cavalry of Arabia, each camel being mounted by two archers sitting back to back, and thus prepared for the enemy on either side; the wild horsemen of the Persian hills who caught the enemy with their lassos; the black-skinned but straight-haired aborigines of India, with their bows of the bamboo and their shields made of the skins of cranes; and above all the Hindus, dressed in white muslin and seated on the necks of elephants, which were clothed in Indian steel and which looked like moving mountains with snakes for hands. Towers were erected on their backs, in which sat bow-men, who shot down the foe with unerring aim, while the elephants were taught to charge, to trample down the opposing ranks in heaps, and to take up armed men in their trunks and hand them to their riders. Sometimes huge scythes were fastened to their trunks, and they mowed down regiments as they marched along. The army was also attended by packs of enormous blood-hounds to hunt the fugitives when a victory had been gained, and by falcons which were trained to fly at the eyes of the enemy to baffle them, or even blind them as they were fighting.
When this enormous army began to march it devoured the whole land over which it passed. At night the camp-fires reddened the sky as if a great city was in flames. In the morning, a little after daybreak, a trumpet sounded, and the image of the sun, cased in crystal and made of burnished gold, was raised on the top of the king’s pavilion, which was built of wood, covered with cashmere shawls, and supported on silver poles. As soon as the ball caught the first rays of the rising sun the march began. First went the chariot with the altar and the sacred fire, drawn by eight milk-white horses driven by charioteers, who walked by the side with golden wands. The chariot was followed by a horse of extraordinary magnitude, which was called the "Charger of the Sun." The king followed with the ten thousand Immortals, and with his wives in covered carriages drawn by mules, or in cages upon camels. Then came the army without order or precision, and there rose a dust which resembled a white cloud, and which could be seen across the plain for miles. The enemy, when this cloud drew near, could distinguish within it the gleaming of brazen armour, and they could hear the sound of the lash, which was always part of the military music of the Persians. When a battle was fought the king took his seat on a golden throne, surrounded by his secretaries, who took notes during the engagement and recorded every word which fell from the royal lips.
This army was frequently required by the Persians. They were a restless people, always lusting after war. Vast as their empire was, it was not large enough for them. The courtiers used to assure an enterprising monarch that he was greater than all the kings that were dead, and greater than those that were yet unborn; that it was his mission to extend the Persian territory as far as God’s heaven reached, in order that the sun might shine on no land beyond their borders. Hyperbole apart, it was the aim and desire of the kings to annex the plains of Southern Russia, and so to make the Black Sea a lake in the interior of Persia; and to conquer Greece, the only land in Europe which really merited their arms. In both these attempts they completely failed. The Russian Tartars, who had no fixed abode and whose houses were on wheels, decoyed the Persian army far into the interior, eluded it in pursuit, harassed and almost destroyed it in retreat. The Greeks defeated them in pitched battles on Greek soil, and defeated their fleets in Greek waters.
This contest, which lasted many years, to the Greeks was a matter of life and death, but it was merely an episode in Persian history. The defeats of Plataea and Salamis caused the Great King much annoyance, and cost him a shred of land and sea. But they did not directly affect the prosperity of his empire. What was the loss of a few thousand slaves, and of a few hundred Phoenician and Egyptian and Ionian ships, to him? Indirectly, indeed, it decided the fate of Persia by developing the power of the Greeks, but ruined in any case that empire must have been, like all others of its kind. The causes of its fall must be sought for within and not without. In the natural course of events it would have become the prey of some people like the Parthian highlanders or the wandering Turks. The Greek wars had this result; the empire was conquered at an earlier period than would otherwise have been the case, and it was conquered by a European instead of an Asiatic power.