Find Out More

Find out more about Helena P. Schrader's Sparta novels at:

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Spartan Ambassadors in Persia

As described in my last post, Sparta sent two men to Persia to atone for the Persian ambassadors murdered by the Spartans. Here's an excerpt from A Heroic King describing the encounter between Xerxes and the Spartiates Sperchias and Bulis -- with a short introduction describing Xerxes initial reaction.

“What did you say?!” Xerxes sprang up from his throne in anger and stared at his uncle Artaphernes. Then, not giving the older man a chance to answer, he demanded in a tone of outrage. “Spartans? Is that what you said? Spartan Ambassadors dare to come here, all the way to Persepolis, to crave audience with me!”

“Yes.” Artaphernes was not in the least intimidated by his nephew. He did not think he was particularly gifted, brilliant or competent ― but he had no interest in civil war either and was content to let him be the “Great King.”

“How dare they!” Xerxes demanded.

“Oh, they are nothing if not impudent,” Artaphernes observed. “Have you forgotten that they ‘warned’ Cyrus to keep out of Greece? No one here had even heard of them at the time. An insignificant city, but a singularly self-important one.”

“Self-important? You call a people that could murder two ambassadors carrying an offer of peace and friendship ‘self-important’? A strange choice of words, uncle! I call such men barbarians. Did you not hear the account Zopyrus made of their brutality?”

“Zopyrus was badly shaken.”

“As I think we all would have been, uncle, under the circumstances” Xerxes told him primly.

Artephernes raised his shoulders and conceded. “No doubt you are right, but I would advise you to hear these men out nevertheless.”

“Why?” Xerxes asked sharply. “I have half a mind to ―”

“I know what you have a mind to do, and understandable as it is, I still advise you to hear them out.”

“Give me one reason why I should?”

“Curiosity, your magnificence, curiosity.”


“What is your name and your station?” The young man asked Sperchias in a haughty voice.
Sperchias bowed his head respectfully and announced. “I am Sperchias son of Aneristus and my colleague is Bulis son of Nicoles. We are full Spartan citizens, as our former king Demaratus can verify.”
“Are you noblemen? Men of property?” Xerxes wanted to know.
“We are both,” Sperchias assured him.
“Why did your king pick you to be slaughtered? Why you and not someone else?”
“Our king did not send us here,” Sperchias answered.
“And could not have made us come, if he had wanted to,” Bulis added gruffly. “We are here of our free will.”
Xerxes’ eyes shifted briefly to Bulis and then settled again on Sperchias. “So, if your king did not send you, why are you here?”
“As I said before: we are here to make reparation for the murder of your emissaries. To offer up our lives in payment.”
“We do not understand. Who sent you, if not your king?”
“Sparta has two kings, but the kings do not make policy. Sparta’s citizens in Assembly make policy. It was the Spartans that killed your ambassadors, and the Spartans who make reparations, not our kings.”
“The Spartans ― collectively,” Xerxes sound skeptical, or was it contemptuous?
“And why did they collectively choose you?”
“They did not; we chose ourselves,” Sperchias answered, but because Xerxes looked as if he did not understand, Bulis added, “Have you never heard of volunteers? Does no one in your whole Empire ever do anything of his free will?”
Xerxes raised his eyebrows and his expression lifted somewhat as if he were intrigued, even pleased. “You volunteered to come here and offer yourself as sacrifices?”
“Yes,” Sperchias and Bulis said in unison.
“Ah.” Xerxes leaned back in his throne and his eyes shifted from one to the other. Then he looked up at the older man to the right and behind his throne and smiled slightly. “Very interesting. So you will accept any sentence the Great King makes?”
“Our lives are yours to do with as you please.”
“You are either very brave men or very stupid. Do you not know the punishment for crimes against the Great King?”
“King of the Medes,” Sperchias began, “we have heard that your father instituted many very wise laws, one of which is that no man should be put to death for only one crime, but always given a second chance ― “ Xerxes drew a breath to answer, but Sperchias kept talking, “but we know this does not apply to us because what the Spartans did was not a crime but an offense against the gods. Also, we have heard that men who speak against you have their tongues twisted out of their mouths, and men who give false witness have their eyes burned out with hot pokers. We know that men caught spying have their ears cut off and then spikes are pushed into their ears until their eardrums bleed out of their heads, while those who rise up in rebellion against you have their skin cut off from their living bodies and are then hung up to feed the flies. We have not heard the specific punishment for men who kill the personal representatives of the Great King, but we presume,” Sperchias glanced once at Bulis and he nodded almost imperceptibly, “we presume that it is terrible.”
Xerxes considered the men before him, his eyes again shifting from one to the other. Then he nodded once and spoke in a loud voice pitched at the chronicle of history more than the men in the room. “Then hear the sentence of the Great King. The King of the Persians and the Medes, of the Parthians, Babylonians, Elamites, Scythians, Indians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Armenians, Arabians, Nubians, Ionians, Kretans and many other peoples, Xerxes son of Darius will not sink to the level of beasts who murder ambassadors in violation of the laws of civilized men. The Great King will not do that very thing for which he holds your countrymen in the most abject contempt. Nor will he,” Xerxes was raising his voice, whether for greater effect or because he was genuinely agitated, “nor will he, by taking reprisals on two brave yet insignificant sacrificial lambs, absolve the Spartans of the burden of guilt for their crime. You cannot make reparation ― brave and noble as your gesture may be ― you cannot save your fellow citizens from the punishment they deserve ― and will reap!
“So, remain as long as you wish in my capital. My servants and treasury are at your disposal. You will want for nothing as long as you wish to remain my guests, and when you wish to return, you will be escorted by a company of cavalry, who will see to your safety and comfort.
“But take this message back to Sparta ― her kings and her citizens alike: Sparta is not yet absolved of its barbarous crime and has yet to pay the price of offending the law of civilized nations.”