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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Persian Ambassadors in Sparta

Darius of Persia did not savagely attack the Greek city-states without warning. Being intelligent, he sought to obtain submission first by peaceful means; being a highly civilized man he employed diplomats to convey his message to the Greeks, including Sparta. In this scene from A Heroic King, Darius' ambassadors present their credentials to Sparta's ephors and the two kings. 


The Persian ambassadors bowed more deeply and at last pulled their credentials from their long, flowing sleeves for Zopyrus to hand to the Spartan kings. For a moment, Zopyrus was disconcerted because, with two kings, he did not know which took precedence. He decided to give the credentials to the man who looked older, but the man frowned and waved toward the other man. The fairer man unrolled the scrolls and his eyes scanned the contents that were in both Persian and Greek. Then he handed the scrolls back to Zopyrus and with a nod, remarked, “Deliver your message to the ephors. We are here at your request only as witnesses.”

The Persians consulted but agreed that they should proceed. They carefully positioned themselves between the ephors and the kings so they could deliver their message without having their backs to either.

Tisibazus was an eloquent man, and Zopyrus felt his Greek was not always up to the requisite level. He found himself using some words over and over again, and he was frustrated that he could not seem to convey the message adequately, because the Spartans listened utterly expressionless.

Tisibazus reminded the Spartans of the Great King’s many conquests, stressing both his great generosity to those who submitted to his justice and his great wrath with those who defied him. He spoke of the utter obliteration of the defiant Samians, and described vividly the crushing of the Ionian revolt. By this time, three of the ephors appeared to have fallen asleep with their eyes open.

Tisibazus realized he might have talked too long. He shortened his prepared speech slightly, coming to the point. “Athens and Eretrea ― without cause or provocation ― chose to attack the Great King. They burned and sacked his city of Sardis. They killed his soldiers and captured his ships. Yet the Great King has not punished them. He has ― with infinite and truly sovereign restraint ― sent ambassadors to these cities just as he has sent us to you.  All with just one purpose, to secure peace and end this senseless bloodshed unworthy of two civilized peoples. He begs you come to your senses, to use reason rather than passion, as civilized peoples do. He begs you to accept his offer of peace, to bask in the sun of mutual prosperity ― rather than call down the horrors of war upon your innocent wives and children.”

Tisibazus paused. Their audience sat blinking at them blankly like a flock of sheep or sun-bathing lizards. Tisibazus looked to Zopyrus in exasperation.

Finally, one of the Spartans officials, apparently more quick-witted than the rest, seemed to sense that the Persians were finished with their appeal, and asked. “The Great King is offering peace?”

“Yes, exactly,” Tisibazus responded, as soon as Zopyrus had translated. He was relieved that at least one of these apparent idiots had grasped what he was saying.

“But that’s what we already have,” the shorter, darker king burst out, scowling. “We are not at war with Persia.”

“Not yet, perhaps,” Tizibazus responded as soon as Zopyrus had translated, “and war is what the Great King in his divinely inspired mercy is anxious to avoid. He wishes nothing more earnestly than peace for both our peoples.”

“Well, he can have it. We aren’t going to attack him.” The short, dark king declared decisively, glaring at his fellows as if daring them to contradict him. Zopyrus was relieved that at least one of the kings had the backbone to act like a king, while his co-regent raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“That is wonderful news!” Tisibazus declared when he heard Zopyrus’ translation. He laid a closed fist on his chest and bowed first to the king who had spoken, then to the other king and finally to the ephors, while Zopyrus translated, ending with, “Then you will send the tokens of submission back with us?”

“What tokens of submission?” The dark king demanded.

“Earth and water ― a jar of each ― mere symbols,” Zopyrus explained without waiting for Tisibazus’ answer.

“Symbols of submission, did you say?” the taller king asked.

Zopyrus repeated the word confident he had made no error of translation here, embellishing on his own, “Yes, yes, a mere gesture to show that you wish the Great King no harm and accept him as your overlord.”

What happened next was confusing. As if the five ephors had indeed fallen asleep during the bulk of the speech, they now all started looking at one another and repeating the word, “overlord?”

“What is the matter?” Tisibazus asked Zopyrus irritably.

“They seem unhappy with the word ‘overlord’ ― or indeed the idea of submitting earth and water.”

“Nonsense!” Tisibazus exclaimed. “Tell them it is a small price to pay for peace.” Zopyrus passed the message.

“Small?” The taller king asked in a voice that silenced the room. “You call it small?”

“Yes, of course,” Zopyrus answered even before translating.

Tisibazus elaborated on the answer. “Most subjects of the Great King are compelled to send tribute of all kinds and worth thousands of gold pieces to the Great King. Yet in his infinite mercy and generosity, he has chosen to ask of you only tokens. All we are talking about is a jar of earth, a jar of water, mere acknowledgment of the objective facts.”

“What facts?” the stocky king demanded frowning as if he wasn’t following the speech, despite it being delivered in Greek. Zopyrus began to suspect that the man was thick in the head.

“Why, the plain fact that you are weak and cannot hope to defend yourselves against the might of the Great King.” Came the expected answer from Tisibazus, which Zopyrus translated simultaneously. “By submitting freely to Darius the Allmighty, accepting his sovereignty over you, you do no more than bow to the inevitable, to what is reasonable, and what is right.”

“How dare you tell us what is right!” The stocky king growled belligerently.

Zopyrus translated with some trepidation, but Tisibazus was an experienced diplomat and took the insult in his stride. He bowed with mock respect to the petty king with a smile on his lips that betrayed his contempt, “Forgive me. Perhaps it is presumptuous for us to tell you what is right, but you will also have to acknowledge that whether it is right or not, the Great King commands armies of millions and fleets of thousands and your pitiable army will be crushed like ants beneath the heel of a giant, if it dares to defy us ― just as your brothers in Ionia learned.”

Everyone in the room seemed to hold their breath while Zopyrus translated this reply. When he finished it was the taller, fairer king who answered: “That, sir, is tantamount to saying that the prospect of defeat is grounds for surrender.”

“Isn’t it?” Tisibazus asked opening his arms in a gesture of absolute innocence and his answer seemed to need no translation. He continued, “Is it not the duty of reasonable men to bow to the inevitable? Is it not the privilege of intelligent men to avoid foreseeable disaster? You look like an intelligent man to me,” Tisibazus admitted generously, gesturing for Zopyrus to do his part, and then, this message delivered, he added, “Surely you can see that it is sometimes wiser to bend with the wind than to fight a storm you cannot beat?”

“You have misjudged me,” the tall man snapped, rudely (or so it seemed to Zopyrus) rejecting the compliment the Persian had paid him.

Baffled, Tisibazus cast his colleague a look of incomprehension. They had expected the Athenians to be emotional and foolish, but the picture they had been given of Sparta was of a single-minded, disciplined people, well suited to life inside the Persian Empire. Why these men were so docile and obedient, they had been told, the sons of even their noblemen allowed themselves to be publicly flogged!

Tisibazus’ companion took over, speaking in shorter sentences to ensure the translation went faster. “My colleague has been too oblique perhaps,” the second ambassador said. “The Great King is making you an offer. It is a simple and fair offer. Surrender your sovereignty to him and enjoy his benign reign, or face his wrath.”

“Surrender? Without a fight? To some stranger on the other end of the earth?” The stocky king demanded in a loud voice, his face turning red. “You’re out of your minds!”

Zopyrus did not dare translate that verbatim, but he didn’t need to. Tisibazus, who understood some Greek, had understood the gist of it without translation and answered immediately. “No. Rather you are mad not to accept this generous offer. The Great King could simply have come with his armies and wiped you out. He could have obliterated your entire insignificant city without so much as a siege!” He gestured with his hand as if he were shooing away a fly. “Instead, His Magnificence has shown the kindness of a father toward a wayward son. He has given you the chance to be taken under his care. He has given you an opportunity to become part of his great empire. You should be grateful.”

The two kings looked at one another, and then both stood and walked out of the chamber together without another word. One of the five officials hastily announced. “We will have to take this to the Assembly. We will put it to the Assembly. You will have your answer in three days.”


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