Harpagos, the guy whom Astyages forced to eat his own son as punishment for not properly arranging for Cyrus’s death, eventually decided to make Cyrus into the instrument of his vengeance, like you do. Fortunately for Harpagos, Astyages was cruising for a bruising: despite being a Mede himself, the Medes in his empire felt downtrodden and oppressed what with all the multiculturalism and diversity. Medes were forced to de jure equality with Persians and Syrians and Palestinians of various stripes, and who wanted that? Harpagos capitalized on this reactionary fervor by convincing various Mede mavens and thought-leaders that Cyrus the Persian, despite being only half-Mede, would be a much better emperor for the Medes than his grandfather Astyages the Ethnicity Traitor.
Step two of Harpagos’s plan to put Cyrus on the throne was to inform Cyrus of his intentions. However Cyrus was way out in the Persian countryside; Harpagos couldn’t travel or risk sending a messenger to Cyrus, for fear of tipping off Astyages. Instead Harpagos killed a hare and sliced it open without otherwise cleaning it. He stuffed a message scroll into the hare’s belly, sewed it up, and wrapped it in a net.
“Take this net,” he told a servant. “Carry it to Persia, and give it to Cyrus.”
“Won’t people be suspicious, me coming from your household with a message for Cyrus?” asked the servant.
“Ah, but that’s just it! You don’t have a message! You just have a hare! Anyone stops and asks, you just say you’re carrying this rotting rabbit corpse to Cyrus’s mother Mandane. It’s a present. You have a crush on her, and you’re terrible at expressing affection.”
The messenger nodded. “Okay, okay. Sounds like a plan.”
“Be sure to tell Cyrus about the message inside the hare. I don’t want him getting confused and thinking he should just cook and eat it.”
This then was accomplished, says Herodotus, and we shouldn’t question it. Cut to Cyrus reading Harpagos’s note.
“Son of Cambyses, blah blah blah, take vengeance on Astyages, blah blah blah, all the gods are on my side, blah blah blah,” read Cyrus. “Get the Persians to revolt, march on the Medes, and my mysterious benefactor will arrange for the Medes to defect from Astyages’s rule and come under my banner, that’s the gist of the plan.” He considered this. “Sounds legit! I should do what this letter I found inside the stomach of a dead hare tells me to do, most definitely!”
Cyrus called for an assembly of all the Persians, and although he had no official standing of any kind, they flocked to his banner. Once they were all together, he unfurled a freshly-forged writ and read off of it that Astyages had appointed him Head Persian in Charge.
His father Cambyses, as King of Persia, had a few opening remarks. “I know that, technically, I’m the King, but hey, we all know that Emperor Astyages is the real power. He only let me marry his daughter and be king because he knew I was far too docile to offer up any resistance. I’m not going to deny any of that. But my son, Cyrus, he was raised by wild animals! He doesn’t know the meaning of the word docile! And he’s going to lead us all into a glorious new age!”
All the Persians applauded politely as Cyrus mounted the stage. “Thanks, Dad,” he said. “Is everybody ready to follow me?”
The Persians cheered.
“Wonderful! Now, everybody mow my lawn!”
This may seem like an odd instruction, but there was a method to Cyrus’s madness. Herodotus takes a moment here to explain that Cyrus’s lawn was overgrown with thorns, extending some eighteen or twenty furlongs in each direction. Around three thousand acres! So that’s a lot to mow.
However, the assembly of Persians mowed Cyrus’s lawn in a single day! Then the next morning everyone got together, freshly showered, and enjoyed a feast on the newly-mowed lawn, Cyrus’s treat.
“Pretty nice spread, boss,” said the Persians. “You’ve got wine and goat and mutton and beef and other provisions, all of the most agreeable kind. Really nice picnic.”
“Which did you prefer, the picnic or the day of backbreaking labor?” asked Cyrus.
“Is this a trick question?”
It was! Cyrus proceeded to lay bare his whole design. “Let’s rebel! If we rebel, then it’s picnics all day every day! And if we don’t, then you’ll have to mow so many lawns!”
The Persians readily agreed to revolt, partly because of Cyrus’s picnic gambit and partly because they all hated Astyages and had been waiting for an excuse to revolt for years.
Astyages soon heard about this, and sent a messenger summoning Cyrus to court to explain himself. The messenger came back empty-handed; Cyrus had told him that he’d be right there, he just needed to finish equipping his army first. Panicked, Astyages mobilized his own army, and put his old lickspittle Harpagos in charge. This was of course just what Harpagos wanted; he’d laid all the groundwork for a general rebellion back in the first paragraph of this chapter. Harpagos collected all the Medes’ spears and armor and passed out cream pies and iPhones instead. When the Persians marched in, the Medes offered them pie and apps.
Astyages tried to draft a last-minute replacement army of youths and old men, but it didn’t work out. He also had all the Magi dream-interpreters killed, but that was too little, too late. Next thing you knew, Cyrus was in charge, Astyages was imprisoned, and Harpagos was outside Astyages’s prison cell, doing a little dance and gloating.
Okay, fine, you got me; I was making a joke about the iPhones. The general sentiment is accurate, though. Nicolaus of Damascus (close personal friend of Cleopatra, Marc Anthony, and Herod the Great) claims that Cyrus fought a protracted war against Astyages, but the archaeological record favors Herodotus over Nicolaus. Nicolaus also claims that noodley old Cambyses died in battle, so, good for him.
Cyrus embarked on a campaign of retrenchment, and next thing you knew, the Persian Empire stretched all across the Middle East and that brings us all the way back around to Croesus foolishly picking a fight. Once Cyrus conquered Sardis, some of the neighboring city-states tried to surrender. “We totes want in on the sweet sweet vassalage setup Croesus is rocking,” they said. “Still alive, acting as Cyrus’s advisor, his population treated well and not ruinously taxed! That’s the life for us!”
Cyrus’s response was to compose an elaborate fairy tale about a magic flute and fish and nets and when you played the flute the fish danced and jumped in the nets, except that the fish refused to dance until there was a bad storm and then they fish were all “ooh Cyrus let us become your vassals!” and the long and the short of it was that Cyrus didn’t like fair-weather vassalage.
Herodotus realizes you may seem confused by this anecdote. He forgot to mention it before but before Cyrus launched his counter-invasion of Lydia, he offered to accept the surrenders of these neighboring countries, and they refused, with the exception of Miletos. The Milesians made the call that a separate peace with Cyrus would probably be for the best.
Without the Milesians, the other city-states quickly assembled a diplomatic team and dispatched them to Sparta, to beg for the military aid that Sparta hadn’t gotten around to giving Croesus.
“Help us, Spartans!” cried the lead diplomat, a guy in a purple cloak named Pythermos. He had a whole song-and-dance set up; the messengers had pooled all of their resources and spent all their cash on prettying up Pythermos and hiring him a dialogue coach and running practice debates and private push-polling and all the traditional democratic methods.
But the Spartans would have none of it! “Screw you!” They didn’t consider Ionians to be worth the time of day. “Good day!”
“I said good day!” And the Spartans slammed their doors in the Pythermos’s face.
While the messengers returned home with their heads bowed and their tails between their legs and sad music playing, the Spartans reconsidered. Just because the Ionians were dips didn’t mean that this Cyrus fellow wasn’t a threat. After all, Croesus had folded like a napkin. So they sent a single boat out to Sardis, to reconnoiter and to meet with Cyrus.
The Spartan emissaries invited themselves over to Cyrus’s, strolled right into his pancake breakfast. No hesitation in getting the big man’s attention! “Yo!” Finger snaps. “So you get that you’re not allowed to invade Greece, right? Including those parts of Greece which in the future will be considered part of Turkey?”
Cyrus looked up from his pancakes, nonplussed. “I’m sorry, who are you?” Cyrus didn’t know what to make of them, until an underling whispered a quick explanation in his ear. “Sparta, you say? Just the one city-state? Really?”
The underling nodded.
Cyrus scoffed as he turned back to the Spartan emissaries. “What are you and your one city-state going to do to stop me? What makes you think you can talk like that without having any military might to back it up? You people are idiots! You have — I’ve seen this.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “You people have these places, ‘markets’ you call them…”
“Special lying-zones, right there, in your cities, for lying to one another at! ‘Hello fellow Greek,’ he said in a mocking tone, “‘is this item you are selling fairly priced?’ ‘Yes it is, fellow Greek!’ ‘Ha ha, actually it is not! I am cheating you!’ That’s you.” He made some nasty hand gestures. “I mean, come on! I’m supposed to respect that?” Cyrus had a good long laugh about that, and kicked the Spartan emissaries out of Sardis. “C’mon,” he told his army afterwards. “We’re going to go invade real countries, like Egypt and Babylon and Scythia. Then, I don’t know, maybe I’ll hold a raffle and the winner gets to conquer Greece. I don’t need to do it myself, place practically conquers itself. Markets.” He snorted derisively.
So Cyrus declared his man Tabalus, a Persian like himself, the viceroy of Sardis and left. Unfortunately for Cyrus, as soon as he departed, the Lydians revolted, led by Pactyes, whom Cyrus had left in charge of Croesus’s treasury. Pactyes took all the gold reserves in Sardis out of the city, and used them to hire mercenaries. With the mercenaries, and with support from nearby Ionian states, he attacked Tabalus’s government.
“Eugh, this is such bull hockey,” grumbled Cyrus when he found out about it. “I’d turn around myself and deal with it but we’re already halfway to Babylon.” He summoned forth from somewhere in the back of his army Croesus. “Yo, prisoner,” he said. “You used to be in charge of Sardis. Advise me. Should I just save time and murder every single Lydian, or are they eventually going to stop revolting? I’ve got you, their king, as my prisoner, yet they continue to make trouble! Have I inadvertently made a martyr of you, such that ‘for Croesus!’ is the war cry on every Lydian’s lips?”
“Okay, yeah, I can see how you’d consider slaughtering the entire population of Lydia,” admitted Croesus. “But really it’s the fault of your viceroy, right? The guy who couldn’t stop them from revolting? Put someone else in charge. The Lydians, you don’t want to execute them. You want to take away their weapons and give them musical instruments and the whole country will become peace loving and docile. They’ll quit their violence-gangs and start musical bands. Lydian boys will grow up to be shopkeepers instead of soldiers. That sounds plausible, right? Yes. It all hangs together.”
“Not a bad idea,” mused Cyrus. He summoned one of his generals, Mazares. “Mazares, you’re a Mede but you’ve proven yourself loyal and effective. Take some troops, go back to Sardis, and from there rip apart these chintzy little city-states that have been supporting Pactyes’s rebellion. Also pass flutes out to all the Lydians.”
“You got it, boss!” cried Mazares, and waved goodbye to Cyrus and Croesus and the bulk of the Persian army, as they continued on to Babylon. He started on the campaign of flute-disbursement, but his capture of Pactyes was stymied when the rebel leader fled to the neighboring state of Cyme.
“I’ll get you, Pactyes!” Mazares shook his fist in irate fashion. “But first, more flutes for everyone!”
Once the flutes were all passed out and the rebellion quelled, Mazares turned his attention to Cyme, where Pactyes was living in exile on the largesse of the city as a refugee.
“Dear Citizens of Cyme,” he wrote in a telegram, “Bring me the head of Pactyes, or face ruination. Love, Cyrus the Persian (signed by Mazares the Mede on behalf of Cyrus).”
The citizens of Cyme were pretty nonplussed. On the one hand, they didn’t really know Pactyes from Adam, and Mazares made some good points in his threatening telegram. Ruination sounded bad.
“On the other hand, it feels like kind of a dick move to just kick out this guy pleading for asylum,” said Aristodicos (the most charismatic of Pactyes’s friends in Cyme). “C’mon, guys. Let’s let him stay here. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“The worst that could happen is that the army of Cyrus could raze our city.”
“Okay, I admit that’s bad. But it’s the worst-case scenario! Maybe Cyrus would be impressed by our pluck, and then, perhaps gifts!”
Aristodicos talked the citizens of Cyme into punting the issue to a local oracle, the Oracle at Branchidai. You probably haven’t heard of this oracle; Branchidai was basically just an off-brand Delphi.
After a quick consult the Oracle declared that Pactyes was a jerk and that Cyme would be better off without him. “Just turn him over to Mazares already,” was the official pronouncement.
Aristodicos tried to intercept the message from the Oracle before it spread, but the word got out. All Cyme debated the meaning of the oracle’s gnomic utterings! Aristodicos, angry, stomped off to Branchidai and started murdering birds and smashing their nests.
“Dude!” cried the oracle’s priests. “Those are our birds! They’re sacred! What the hell?”
“Apparently we’re just killing helpless innocent birds and political refugees now!” Aristodicos shouted. “Turns out that’s what we do!”
“Dick!” The oracle then banned Aristodicos in particular and Cyme in general from receiving further oracular wisdom.
Herodotus doesn’t explain exactly why, but Aristodicos was desperate to keep Pactyes out of Mazares’s hands. He arranged in secret for Pactyes to relocate from Cyme to another nearby city, Mytilene. Everyone in Cyme breathed a sigh of relief.
But then the Mytilenes got some threatening letters from Mazares, and immediately they caved and announced that they didn’t want any trouble and that Pactyes would be turned over to the Persians post-haste. Aristodicos and his friends then led a daring commando raid on Mytilene, in which they rescued Pactyes back from the people they’d given him to!
Aristodicos sent Pactyes to the island of Chios, which he hoped would be safe because the Persians had essentially no naval technology. But then the Chians decided that they had a chance to win brownie points with the up-and-coming Persian empire. They sent word to Mazares that they had captured Pactyes. Mazares sent a delegation to collect the prisoner, and that was that.
All of Cyme, Mytilene, and Chios held their collective breaths waiting for Mazares’s response! Would he reward those who had turned Pactyes over to him? Would the Persian army fall upon those who had tried to shelter Pactyes?
Answer: neither, because Mazares abruptly died of an unspecified disease. Pactyes ended up languishing in a Persian prison, never facing trial.
Mazares’s death left a power vacuum in Lydia, one immediately filled by none other than Harpagos, the guy who masterminded Cyrus’s rise to power and the rebellion against Cyrus’s father Astyages. Did Harpagos murder Mazares via knife in the gut or thallium in the drinking water? Herodotus doesn’t speculate. But one way or another, Mazares was out and Harpagos was sitting on the still-warm viceroyal throne. He sent a quick note to Cyrus, politely informing his protege/liege that he was going to go ahead and attack all of Sardis’s Greek neighbors. He waited for Cyrus’s go-ahead before going ahead.
First stop, the city of Phocaia. Harpagos marched a chunk of the Persian army to just outside the city, and lay siege. However he didn’t besiege the back of the city, where the harbor was. The Phocaeans pretty quickly up and departed in boats, swearing oaths to never return. What happened to them is kind of an interesting story but it’s a digression from the main narrative.
Harpagos rolled down the coast, sacking Ionian city-states as he went. Because the cities of the Panionium didn’t try to cooperate militarily and field a united army, Harpagos’s Persians were easily able to pick of each city one at a time. One by one the Ionians fell or surrendered, until no later than 545 BC, Harpagos was collecting tribute from the whole of the Ionian mainland.
As he turned his eyes to the islands (packed with refugees from his conquests) representatives from all the oppressed city-states came together at Mycale. There, Bias of Priene (the same sage who had advised Croesus against invading the islands) proposed that the Ionians quit Ionia and relocate to the island of Sardinia, far enough away from the Persian Empire that they would be safe. Thales of Miletos, the sorcerer, offered a counter-proposal: that the city-states start working together militarily and adopt a stronger federal government within the framework of their existing trade leagues.
Herodotus kind of loses interest in this particular narrative thread, the one about Harpagos rampaging across Anatolia and Ionia and the various refugees escaping his wrath. He spends a little time talking about some of the other peoples Harpagos conquered, but then shifts gears and never really gets back to it.
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