Persian Short Stories
Creative Writing in the style of Ctesias
The following is a piece of creative writing done in the style that the ancient Greek author (in my opinion) may have written. It is an expanded piece on a couple of lines saved from Ctesias writing on Persia.
Artaxerxes, taking all the members of his court and calling upon the goddess Artemis1 to guide them, set out upon a hunt to relieve himself from the frivolities of the court. Megabyzus had recently been reconciled with the King for leading an army against him in revolt, but having been successful in battle the King had thought it wise to make peace. Megabyzus, reluctant to go back to the King’s court, was finally persuaded by his wife, Amytis, who was full of the King’s promises.2 So it was, because of Love and his hold over a man’s heart and mind,3 that Amytis was successful in returning Megabyzus to the King. The King was riding at the head of the hunt. His horse was black in colour, its hair finely platted with golden thread and it walked with a regal grace so that everyone who looked upon it would comment on its magnificence. The saddle was high and emblazoned with the King’s colours; it had a layer beneath made of the finest silk which had been dyed purple. It was rumoured that from a young age the horse had been considered lame but due to the prowess of a Greek doctor named Amphiatus, it now stood stronger and taller than the very best of Persian horses. The hunt itself was composed of the King, who went at the front, followed by his personal guards, some of whom were on foot and some on horseback. Behind these came the King’s guests at court. They were men of power who owed their wealth and lands to the King’s good nature. With these men travelled the King’s favoured eunuchs and behind them there were slaves and cooks who would prepare anything that might successfully be hunted. This was the set up of the hunt and the number of men reached two hundred all together, including slaves and cooks. As a physician, it was also my duty to accompany the king in case of illness or injury4.
Artaxerxes, growing impatient with the lack of beasts to hunt, called for Megabyzus and said this to him, ‘Why was it, when I have always been kind to you, that you revolted against me?5 Did I not always treat you as you would treat a guest to your house? Did I not make you welcome at my table and gift you with armies and titles so that you could have glory at the forefront of Persian men?’ And Megabyzus, dismayed at being confronted by the King in such a manner and careful in his choice of words, replied as such; ‘Great King, if it truly is your will that we speak of such things then let it be so. I had made a promise to Inarus and to the Greeks6 that they would receive no harm from you or from me but in allowing Amestris to take her revenge for Achaemenides, you shamed me and I was shamed by you7 and as for my honour, my word was broken and I was branded a liar. This I could not bear, as what is a Persian who suffers shame and whose honour is compared to the likes of the Magus, Sphendadates?8 Will I too be given a day for which people remember how I betrayed the Greeks?’9 The King was silent for some time because he had not expected a reply such as this. Finally, failing to control his anger, he replied, ‘the well-being of the Empire does not depend on the promises of a man such as you Megabyzus; your honour should have been satisfied by the great deeds I allowed you to perform. It is not I who have destroyed your reputation but Pride10. Pride comes to all men; to some it is a blessing, to some a curse. To the man who accepts Pride into his heart and feels its warmth at doing his master’s bidding, Pride is rewarding. That man holds his head high and is counted amongst the blessed. To the man who takes Pride and uses it to excess, elevating either his own status or letting it come between himself and his master, that man is doomed to live without honour.’ At this, Megabyzus, knowing that he had aroused the King’s anger and seeing the usual signs of danger (for Artaxerxes could have a cruel temper), stayed silent. However, he longed for his native soil all the more and secretly wished that he could leave with his family and go home.11
At this point, whilst the King was simmering with anger and Megabyzus was close behind him, a lion, startled by the onslaught of people and horses and wishing to make known its territory, took the King by surprise. Unprepared for such an assault, the King was slow to reach for his javelin and the lion, its jaw wide open, showing a perfect array of sharpened teeth, clung to the flank of the King’s horse. The horse bucked, throwing the King from his throne of purple dye and golden thread and in doing so kicked the lion to the ground. The party stood paralysed as the lion proceeded to advance upon the King and his wounded horse but Megabyzus, a soldier first and foremost, aimed his javelin and pierced the lion through the neck. He then drew his sword and thrust it into the heart of the lion. Eunuchs and guards rushed to help the King to his feet but his horse, having sustained serious injury, could not be saved and the once neatly platted main and shiny dark hair were now filled with dust. The purple cloth turned black as it was slowly soaked and saturated with the blood pouring from the animal’s wounds and the golden thread was lost as dust and blood mixed to form an inky mess. The King, taking stock of the situation, was furious and when he saw men congratulate Megabyzus for his bravery, his rage only heightened. Turning to Megabyzus he said, ‘Why did you strike this beast before I could fell it with my own javelin? Did you not know that the King is capable of killing an animal without the help of his servants or does Pride once again determine that you must take the glory of the hunt as well?’12 Knowing better than to question the King in his anger, Megabyzus lowered his eyes and spoke words of apology but the King, incensed with rage, berated him further: ‘Was it not enough that you should raise armies against me? That you should revolt against and kill Persian men? Now you must wound me also with your insolence and your pride. I have shown to you forgiveness but in return you have not shown to me worthiness or the honour which you seek so blindly13.’ Megabyzus, no longer able to contain his outrage at the accusations thrust upon him, replied, ‘I have shown you everything that a loyal subject should a King, and in return you berate me and accuse me of being over proud. You, whom Pride also affects. You, who do not recognise the actions of a friend when he sees it, well let all present bear witness: I pray that you shall see reason, for if you do not, all Persia shall suffer and so shall you.’14 In the silence that followed, only the whistling of the wind and the sound of an Imperial eagle15 screeching as it floated on the waves of the air could be heard. The tension amongst the King’s followers was unbearable as they waited for the King’s reaction. Megabyzus, a tall, strong looking man who bore the resemblance of a warrior, suddenly, as if he had just realised what he had done, looked sheepish and afraid. Artaxerxes summoned his personal guard and with a gesture of his hand signalled that they should arrest Megabyzus. The King then announced, ‘those who call down suffering upon the Persians and their King shall be deemed as traitors. This man, whom I can no longer look at, is a traitor and I condemn him to be executed as is customary for traitors. He shall be beheaded tomorrow.’
At this the hunt ended and the King’s horse, once so regal and splendid, having been put out of its misery, was left to rot alongside the carcass of the dead lion. Nobody dared to ask what the King wanted done with either of them, and so rather than risk his anger, they were left in the place they were slain. Artaxerxes took Megabyzus’ horse, which was also very fine, whilst Megabyzus was escorted by guards on foot. The march home was silent and the setting sun made the dust, which spiralled into the air in the wake of the party, glint with an array of different colours. The King called the eunuch Artoxares to him and, his anger beginning to lessen, consulted with him about the happenings of that day. Artoxares, was only in his twenties and did his best to interpret whatever he thought the King would like to hear so as to not further his anger or indeed, have it directed upon him. Megabyzus, on the other hand, walked with his head held high, like a man who was not afraid of death or his impending doom. A young guard, by the name Abda, who was one of those chosen to escort Megabyzus, whispered to him, ‘Do not worry, he will change his mind once his anger has passed. You were courageous and skilled to kill that lion, but perhaps you should not have done so!’ Megabyzus looked at him and replied, ‘Do not speak of the King in that way, lesser deeds have got men killed before. I would trade my life for the King one hundred times, and stand facing one hundred lions before I allowed him to come to harm.’16 The guard, looking ashamed at his own stupidity, said no more. They returned to the city shortly afterwards.
1 Ctesias seems to have often entered the Greek gods into his work. Zeus is often mentioned, Eros is referred to in Papyrus Oxyrhnchus 2330.
2 Taken from Photius’ account of Megabyzus.
3 Love referring to the God Eros, mirroring Ctesias’ mention of him in Papyrus Oxyrhnchus 2330
4 It is likely Ctesias would have been present as he was the ‘court doctor to the Great King’
5 Photius’ account describes the revolt of Megabyzus.
7 Written in the style of Ctesias found in Papyrus Oxyrhnchus 2330. Ctesias repeats himself constantly.
8 The story of the Magus impersonating Tanyoxarces
9 A festival , the Magophonia, was celebrated on the day the Magus was killed
10 I am using Pride here in the same way as Ctesias uses Love.
11 In Photius’ account it is made clear that Megabyzus wishes to go home to Syria.
12 Mirroring Ctesias’ account of when Artaxerxes claimed that it was him who had killed Cyrus the Younger – he does not want to look weak and helpless against an animal in the same way he did not want the glory of killing Cyrus to go to another man.
13 Repetition of words in the style Ctesias writes in the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2330.
14 Repetition of words in the style Ctesias writes in the Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2330.
16 Megabyzus, in Photius’ account of the battle of the Egyptians, comes across as very honourable and even saves his enemy, Inarus, from death in the midst of battle.
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