Slaying the Beast
By Dr Pepper
The speaker was in top form, his words a torrent of praise for the man seated in the big curtained alcove. The subject of that praise stayed outwardly impassive, the picture of confident power. Inwardly, he was marveling, yet again, that there could be so many people who made their living merely by addressing crowds. At least the praises were more creative than the fawning utterances of sycophants back home.
He looked out at the rest of the room. This was a rather strange delegation for an official audience. In addition to the usual ministers and major nobles, he could also see some ordinary townsfolk and even a couple of peasants. He had been given to understand that they had been chosen by lot to attend as representatives of their own classes, according to local custom.
With one last rhetorical flourish, the orator finished his speech. He bowed and backed away as the crowd cheered. All eyes now focused on the man they had come to see, King Darius of Persia.
Darius nodded, allowing his face to show a mixture of graciousness and sternness as polished as the orator's stock of similes and allusions. It was his turn now to answer the speech. He only knew a smattering of the language, but that was no problem. He had hired an orator of his own. Behind him to one side, his bodyguard parted to let the man through. The man bowed, then turned to face the delegation and began. "Citizens of Athens, we thank you for your heartfelt welcome…"
Darius III had come to the throne late in life. He had outlasted other claimants and survived a few conspiracies. After that it seemed that he would be a complacent monarch, content to enjoy the trappings of royalty and let the imperial machinery run itself.
That's not what happened.
Rumor had it that Darius had had a visitation one night. It was his predecessor, Darius the Great, come to rebuke him. "What have you done with my legacy, Great King?" the specter had demanded. Another rumor said that he had consulted a soothsayer and had come away badly shaken.
Whatever had happened, the result was a startling change in the king. He became obsessed with the state of the empire, especially the army. "There is a strange and terrible beast coming", he told his advisors. "I must be strong enough to slay it!"
He ordered comprehensive reviews of the entire empire. He studied the reviews carefully, familiarizing himself with every detail. When he was not satisfied, someone would get a summons. Or a visit. Sometimes these ended badly for those deemed to have failed in their responsibilities. When he was satisfied, there were promotions.
There were investigations and reorganizations. And meetings with advisors. There was also opposition, mostly from officials who said he was merely meddling with a system that, whatever its faults, was working. Darius insisted that he was making badly needed reforms but those who wished to discuss their objections would be allowed to do so-- if they would join him at his daily fitness regimen. The sight of the king forcing his middle-aged body through the same grueling exercises required of a 16 year old army recruit was a powerful demonstration of his commitment. Those who weren't immediately disarmed soon ran out of breath to argue.
In the end, the opposition was silenced by the success of the king's project. The empire was unified as never before, free of division and revolts. Its subjects were imbued with a new sense of confidence and loyalty.
When reports came of invasion from the west, Darius told his generals, "the beast has come!".
He moved with both decisiveness and caution. He did not react hastily to the enemy's early victories. Instead he carefully assembled his army, kept abreast of scouting reports, and when the time and the place were right, he struck.
The commanders sent to engage the invader's auxiliary forces were told to just hold them. Darius intended to concentrate his strength on the main army, the hard core. This was the strange and terrible beast he must slay, a gigantic hedgehog made of men. But he had chosen his battlefield well. It was a place of rocky, uneven ground, where it was difficult to line up the oversized spears that were the spines of the hedgehog. And wherever they did get lined up, he had a column ready to attack from a different direction.
The hedgehog was tough. But Darius's attack was unrelenting. He hammered at the invader from all sides, using many different types of troops and combat styles. He kept his formations coordinated, keeping gaps from opening, but also keeping them from crowding each other. He rotated units to keep them fresh, all the while preventing the enemy forces from getting any relief.
It had been said that the enemy leader was a tactical genius. Maybe so, but the power of Darius's will and the smothering pressure of his attack left no room for genius to act.
When the enemy army broke, the auxiliaries dissolved in panic. Darius ordered a mere harassing pursuit, they could be dealt with more thoroughly later. The hedgehog was down, it was time for the slaughter. It was time to bring in the Achaemenid household troops, sometimes referred to as "The Immortals". These were fiercest fighters in the whole empire. They had to be, the king himself was leading them.
The next day dawned on a landscape newly endowed with a lake and a forest. The lake was the pooled blood from tens of thousands of bodies. The forest was composed of long spears driven into the ground. They bore grisly fruit: the impaled bodies of some of their former wielders. Some of them were still alive.
As for the leader of the invasion, the bandit prince whose name no one seemed to be able to remember, he was found in a state of total shock hiding under a bush. When dragged before the king, he just kept whimpering like a child. "You can't do this to me, don't you know i'm a god?" Disgusted, Darius ordered the soldiers to run him through right there, then throw him into a common grave.
And this was the aftermath, his triumphant procession through the pretentious and quarrelsome cities of Hellas. There he was received, not as a conqueror, but as a liberator. Everywhere it seemed he was hearing the same story. "It wasn't us, Great King. It was those uncivilized northerners who dragged us into the invasion. Really, we were just the first victims. Surely you, an enlightened ruler, the true Philosopher-King, can see how unjust it would be to punish us for the acts of our oppressors!"
To the disappointment of many of his generals, Darius allowed himself to be persuaded. These cities would be incorporated into the empire without being subjected to pillage and massacre. Or even ruinous tribute. Semi ruinous would be quite enough. Oh and certain monuments to certain past events would be discreetly destroyed.
There was no need to create new satrapies. He would simply appoint governors who would work through the existing governmental structures. As for the possibility of future rebellion, Darius knew he could rely on the cities to betray each other before it could become widespread. Rebellion seemed unlikely, however. The cities had already gotten used to being part of a larger entity. And many of their citizens had learned to appreciate the value of peace and put it ahead of local issues, including independence.
Already there had been an upsurge in trade across what was no longer a hostile border. And something more. Artisans and scholars from the empire were traveling west and bringing the benefits of the world's most advanced civilization to this benighted country. The local public places were buzzing with newly arrived ideas from every corner of the empire and those that had come through from places as far removed as Scythia or India.
Darius was pleased to hear this. But then he had a sobering thought. What if the invasion had been successful? What if the beast had devoured his empire? Why then, instead of bringing enlightenment to the world, his people would have had a half baked, barbarian culture dumped on them. He shuddered at the idea. This was what he born for, he realized: to slay the beast and make possible a new age of intellectual progress.
The Persianistic Age.