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Xenophon (c.428-c.354 BCE):

When Cyrus the Great was a Boy

AT that time Astyages sent for his daughter and her son; for he was desirous to see him, having heard that he was a handsome and excellent child. Accordingly Mandane went to her father, and took her son Cyrus with her. As soon as she arrived, and Cyrus knew Astyages to be his mother's father, he instantly, as being a boy naturally affectionate, embraced him, just as if he had been previously brought up with him, and had long loved him; and, observing him adorned with paint about his eyes and color applied to his face, and with artificial hair, things that are customary amongst the Medes (for purple coats, cloaks, collars about the neck, and bracelets on the wrists are all Median decorations; but amongst the Persians at home, even at this day, their habits are much coarser, and their diet more simple), observing the dress of his grandfather, and fixing his eyes on him, he said, "O mother, how handsome my grandfather is!" His mother then asking him which he thought the more handsome, his father or his grandfather, Cyrus answered, "Of the Persians, mother, my father is much the most handsome; but of all the Medes that I have seen, either upon the road or at the gates of the palace, my grandfather is far the most handsome."

Astyages, then, embracing Cyrus in return, put on him a fine robe, did him honor, and decorated him with collars and bracelets; and, whenever he went abroad, took him with him on a horse with a bridle of gold, just as he himself used to go about. Cyrus, being a boy fond of what was fine and honorable, was pleased with the robe, and extremely delighted at learning to ride; for, amongst the Persians, from its being difficult to breed horses,and difficult even to ride in a country so mountainous, it is a rare thing to see a horse.

Astyages, when he was supping with his daughter and Cyrus, wishing the boy to sup as agreeably as possible, that he might the less regret what he had left at home, had several dishes set before him, with sauces and meats of all kinds; when, as they relate, Cyrus said: "How much trouble, grandfather, you have at your meals, if you must stretch out your hands to all these dishes, and taste of all these kinds of meat!"

"What, then," said Astyages, "do you not think this entertainment much finer than what you have in Persia?" To this question Cyrus is said to have replied: "No, grandfather; for with us the way to be satisfied is much plainer and straighter than with you; since among us plain bread and meat conduct us to that object; you indeed pursue the same object with us, but, after rambling in many windings up and down, you at last scarcely reach the point at which we have arrived long before you."

"But, child," said Astyages, "it is not with pain that we ramble through these windings; if you taste," said he, "you will find that these things arc pleasant." "But, grandfather," said Cyrus, "I observe you yourself show an aversion to these dishes."

"From what do you guess," inquired Astyages, "that you express such an opinion?" "Because I remark," said he, "that when you touch your bread, you do not wipe your hand upon anything, but when you touch any one of these dishes, you immediately wipe your hand upon your napkin, as if you were quite uneasy that it had touched them." On receiving this answer Astyages said: "If you think so, then, at least eat heartily of plain meat, that you may return home a stout youth;" and as he said this, he directed various kinds of flesh, both of tame and wild animals, to be presented to him.

Cyrus, when he saw this variety of meats, is reported to have said: "And do you give me all these meats, grandfather, to do with them what I please?" "Yes, indeed," said Astyages; "I make you a present of them."

Then Cyrus, taking of the several meats, is said to have distributed them to the servants about his grandfather, saying to each, "I give this to you, because you take pleasure in teaching me to ride; this to you, because you gave me a javelin, for I have it still; this to you, because you serve my grandfather well; this to you, because you honor my mother;" and to have proceeded thus, >till he had distributed all the meat that he had received.

Astyages then said, "And do you give nothing to this Sakan, my cup-bearer, whom I value above all?" This Sakan was a handsome person, and had the honor to introduce to Astyages any that wanted to see him, and to exclude such as he did not think it seasonable to admit. Cyrus on this is said to have answered rather flippantly, as a boy not yet grown bashful: "For what reason is it, grandfather, that you value this Sakan so much?"

Astyages replied jestingly. "Do you not see," said he, "how properly and gracefully he pours out my wine?" For these cup-bearers to kings perform their business very cleverly; they pour in the wine without spilling, and give the cup, holding it on three fingers, and presenting it in such a manner as to put it most conveniently into the hand of the person who is to drink. "Bid the Sakan give me the cup, grandfather," said Cyrus, "that I also, by gracefully pouring in wine for you to drink, may gain your favor if I can."

Astyages bade the Sakan give him the cup; and Cyrus, taking it, rinsed the cup so well, as he had observed the Sakan to do, settled his countenance so gravely, and brought and presented the cup to his grandfather so prettily as to afford much laughter to his mother and Astyages. Cyrus then, laughing out, leaped up to his grandfather, and, kissing him, cried out, "O Sakan, you are undone; I will turn you out of your office; for I will pour out wine better than you in other respects, and I will not drink the wine myself." For these cup-bearers to kings, when they give the cup, dip a little out with a smaller cup, which they pour into their left hand and swallow; so that, in case they mix poison in the cup, it may be of no profit to them.

Upon this, Astyages said, joking: "And why, Cyrus, when you imitated the Sakan in I everything else, did not you swallow some of the wine?" "Because, to say the truth," said he, "I was afraid there might have been poison mixed in the cup; for, when you entertained your friends upon your birthday, I plainly perceived that he had poured in poison for you all." "And how, child," said he, "did you know this?" "Because," said he, "I saw you all disordered both in mind and body; for, in the first place, what you do not allow us boys to do, that you did yourselves; for you all cried out together, and yet could not understand each other; next you fell to singing very ridiculously; and, without attending to the singer, you swore that he sang admirably; then, though each told stories of his own strength, when you rose up and fell to dancing, you were not only unable to dance properly, but were unable even to stand upright; at length, you all entirely forgot yourselves, you, that you were the king, and they, that you were their ruler; and then, for the first time, I discovered that it was equal liberty of speech that you were practicing; for you never ceased to speak."

Astyages then said, "Is your father, child, never intoxicated when he drinks?" "No, indeed," said he.

"What does he, then?" "Why, he quenches his thirst, and suffers no further harm; for I believe, grandfather," says he, "it is not a Sakan that pours out wine for him." His mother then said: "But why, child, do you thus make war upon the Sakan?" Cyrus is said to have replied: "Why, indeed, because I hate him; for, very often, when I am desirous to run to my grandfather, this disagreeable fellow hinders me. But pray, grandfather," said he, "allow me to have the government of him for three days." "How would you govern him?" said Astyages. Cyrus replied: "Why, standing as he does, just at the entrance, when he had a mind to go in to dinner, I would tell him that it is not yet possible for him to get his dinner, because "he was busy with certain people;' then, when he came to supper, I would tell him that "he was bathing;" and, if he was very eager to eat, I would tell him that "he was with the women;" and so on, >till I had tormented him as he torments me when he keeps me from you."

Such amusement did he afford them at meals; at other times of the day, if he perceived his grandfather or his mother's brother in want of anything, it was difficult for any one to be beforehand with him in doing it; for Cyrus was extremely delighted to gratify them in anything that lay in his power. But when Mandane was preparing to return home to her husband, Astyages requested her to leave Cyrus with him. She made answer, that she was willing to gratify her father in everything; but that she should think it unkind to leave the child against his will.

Upon this, Astyages said to Cyrus: "Child, if you will stay with me, in the first place, the Sakan shall not have the command of your access to me; but, whenever you wish to come in, it shall be in your own power to do so; and the oftener you come," said he, "the more I shall think myself obliged to you. You shall also have the use of all my horses, and of as many more as you please; and, when you go away, you shall take as many of them as you please with you. At meals, too, you shall take whatever way you please to what appears to you to be sufficient. As for the animals that are now in the park, I give them to you; and will collect others of all kinds, which you shall hunt when you have learned to ride, and shall strike them down with your bow and javelin, as grown men do. Boys I will find you for playfellows; and whatever else you may desire, if you tell me of it, you shall not fail to have it."

When Astyages had said this, Cyrus' mother asked him whether he would stay or go. He did not at all hesitate, but at once said that he would stay. And being asked by his mother for what reason, it is said that he answered: "Because, mother, at home I am, and am accounted, superior to my equals in age both in throwing the javelin and in shooting with the bow; but here, I well know that, in horsemanship, I am inferior to the boys of my age; and be assured, mother, this grieves me very much. But if you leave me here, and I learn to be a horseman, I conceive that when I am in Persia, I shall easily master them there, who are so good at all exercises on foot; and when I come amongst the Medes, I shall endeavor by becoming the best of good horsemen for my grandfather's sake, to be a support to him."

His mother is reported to have said, "But how, child, will you be instructed here in the knowledge of justice, when your masters are there?" "Oh, mother," said Cyrus, "I understand that accurately already." "How do you know that?" said Mandane. "Because my teacher," said he, "appointed me to give judgment to others, as being very exact in the knowledge of justice myself. But yet," added he, "for not having decided rightly, in one case, I received some stripes. The case was this: A bigger boy, who had a little coat, taking the coat off a little boy, that had a larger one, put on him his own coat, and put on himself the little boy's coat. I, therefore, giving judgment between them, decided that it was best that each should keep the coat that best fitted him. Upon this, the master beat me, telling me that, when I should be constituted judge of what fitted best, I might determine in this manner; but that when I was to judge whose the coat was, I must consider what just possession is; whether he that took a thing from another by force should have it, or he who made it or purchased it should possess it; and then he told me that what was according to law was just, and that what was contrary to law was an act of violence; and impressed upon me accordingly, that a judge ought to give his opinion in conformity with the law. So, mother," said he, "I understand what is just in all cases very exactly; or, if I am at all deficient, my grandfather here will teach it me."

"But, child," said she, "the same things are not accounted just with your grandfather here, and yonder in Persia; for among the Medes, your grandfather has made himself master of all; but amongst the Persians, it is accounted just that each should have equal rights with his neighbors. Your father is the first to execute what is appointed by the whole state, and submits to what is appointed; his own inclination is not his standard of action, but,the law. Take care then, that you are not beaten to death at home, if you come thither having learned from your grandfather not what belongs to a king, but what belongs to a tyrant; an ingredient in which is, to think that you yourself ought to have more than others."

"Oh, mother," said Cyrus, "your father is much better able to teach one to have less than to have more. Do you not see," said he, "that he has taught all the Medes to have less than himself? Be well assured, therefore, that your father will not dismiss me, nor any one, from about him, instructed to encroach upon others."


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 294-302

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton.

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