The King's Messengers

Here's an excerpt from Herodotus, Book 8, section 98. Xerxes, the Great King of Persia has just been beaten at the Battle of Salamis and wants to call home...

"...Xerxes dispatched a courier to Persia with the news of his defeat. No mortal thing travels faster than these Persian couriers. The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes - a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness. The first, at the end of his stage, passes his dispatch to the second, the second to the third, and so on down the line, as in the Greek torch race which is held in honour of Hephaestus. The Persian word for this form of post is aggareion."

Which today we would translate as the King's Messengers. The Great Kings used this system to manage their empire, the largest the world had yet seen. A road system maintained at state expense ensured the couriers could get from one end of the empire to the other very quickly, the most famous route being the Royal Road, which stretched from the capital Susa, in what is now Iran, to Ephesus on the west coast of what is now Turkey. (Actually the Royal Road stopped at Sardis, but Ephesus was only a short extra hop).

If you think of the road system as the backbone, the King's Messengers as the network transport layer, the dispatches as data packets, and the staging posts as routers, then the Persian system is like a very early, very manual version of the internet.

US readers might have noticed something familiar in the quote from Herodotus. The unofficial motto of the US Postal Service is Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Compare it to: Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.

That's right. The US postal creed comes direct from this verse of Herodotus.

How to win friends and influence people

The time is the Persian Wars, about 20 years before the date of my first book. Xerxes, the Great King of Persia, has decided to subjugate Greece, and to do so he's assembled the largest land army the world has yet seen. A very hungry army which is eating everything in its path.

The massive force arrives at a city in Asia Minor called Celaenae, in what is now modern Turkey. They are still inside the Persian Empire, but the locals are not exactly thrilled to have their King pop in with an army that they have to feed.

I'm going to let Herodotus take over, courtesy of Penguin Classics:

Here at Celaenae a Lydian named Pythius, the son of Atys, was awaiting Xerxes, and on his arrival entertained him and the whole army with most lavish hospitality, and promised besides to furnish money for the expenses of the war. The mention of money caused Xerxes to ask the Persians present who Pythius was, and if he was really rich enough to make such an offer. "My Lord," was the answer, "it was the man who gave your father Darius the golden plane-tree and the golden vine; and still, so far as we know, he is the wealthiest man in the world, after yourself."

Pythius, son of Atys, was probably a grandson of Croesus. Yes, that's Croesus of "rich as Croesus" fame. Croesus is known to have had a son called Atys - the same name as Pythius' father - and the dates check out. No wonder Pythius is fabulously wealthy.

Xerxes, overjoyed to find one of his subjects who is not only pleased to see him, but wants to help, asks how much money Pythius has. Pythius replies:

I possess 2,000 talents of silver, and 3,993,000 gold Darics. This it is my intention to give to you; I can live quite comfortably myself on my slaves and the produce of my estates.

This is a vast amount of precious metal. Even by modern standards, Pythius would be a billionaire. Xerxes, to put it mildly, is pleased:

My Lydian a reward for your generosity, I make you my guest-friend and, in addition, I will give you from my own coffers the 7,000 gold Darics which are needed to make your fortune up to the round sum of 4,000,000. Continue, then, to possess what you have acquired; and have the wisdom to remain always the man you have proved yourself today. You will never regret it, now or hereafter.

How to win friends and influence people indeed! Pythius could have been almost bankrupted, but instead finds himself guest-friend of the Great King, which means he has the ear and good will of his absolute monarch.

So far so good. The only bad news for Pythius is he has 5 sons, and Xerxes takes all 5 of them into the army, as he has every able-bodied man in sight. Pythius is worried. He goes to Xerxes and says:

My Lord, I have 5 sons, and it happens that every one of them is serving in your army in your campaign against Greece. I am an old man, Sire, and I beg you in pity to release from service one of my sons - the eldest - to take care of me and my property. Take the other 4, and may you return with your purpose accomplished.

Sounds reasonable enough for a guest-friend to ask, a man who's offered to fund the entire war. Right?

Xerxes says:

You miserable fellow! Have you the face to mention your son, when I, in person, am marching to the war against Greece with my sons and brothers and kinsmen and friend - you, my slave, whose duty it was to come with me, with every member of your house?

Uh oh. Things are not looking good for poor Pythius. Xerxes refers to Pythius as a slave because, under the Persian system, every man was considered a slave of the Great King. Xerxes goes on in this unpleasant vein for some time. Pythius must have thought he was about to be executed by his angry king before Xerxes says:

Yourself and 4 of your sons are saved by the entertainment you gave me...

Saved! Pythius' habit of sucking up to absolute monarchs pays off.

But wait! Xerxes said 4 sons were saved, not 5...

...but you shall pay with the life of the 5th, whom you cling to most.

Xerxes at once gave orders that the men to whom such duties fell should find Pythius' eldest son and cut him in half, and put the two halves one on each side of the road, for the army to march out between them.

The order was performed, and now between the halves of the young man's body the advance of the army began.

This sort of casual brutality might not have happened every day, but it was normal and acceptable in the Persian social order, the same society which used a rather painful execution method.

Note a clear implication of this tale is that among Xerxes' staff were men whose job description included, "cutting people in half."

Xerxes does not get good press from the Greeks, for obvious reasons. He fares just as badly in modern hands. Think of the movie 300. The evil bad guy commander in that is the same Xerxes who just offed a guy in this little story because his father asked a favor.