The Final Battle: The Massagetae

By Theseustoo

The crossing went ahead with no problems and the army had marched as far into the Massagetae territory as the remaining daylight allowed them before they set up camp for the night. Just before dawn Cyrus awoke with a start. Such a dream he’d had! Into the darkness he called out, “Slave! Bring me Hystaspes!” “At once majesty!” a slave’s voice answered sleepily in the darkness. It was this slave’s nightly habit to sleep across the entrance to Cyrus’ bedchamber, for the sake of his security, whether he was at home in his palace in Agbatana, or in his tent on an expedition with his army. The slave quickly rose and lit a waxed taper from a fire which it was also his duty to keep alight in a large brazier which stood in the centre of Cyrus’ tent; above which a large hole in the centre of the tent allowed smoke to escape. With the taper, the slave then lit a small oil-lamp for his master, who had roused and dressed himself, and then ran off quickly to obey him.

While Cyrus waited for his slave to bring him Hystaspes, he washed his hands and face in a bowl of water which he poured from the golden ewer he kept for the purpose on a stand beside his bed. As he dried his face and hands with a small towel from the same night-stand, the slave returned with Hystaspes. “You sent for me, Lord?“ the Prince of the Arizanti asked with a worried look upon his face. His mind was racing as he tried to think why he had been called to the king’s tent at such an hour. Surely spirits and daemons were all that moved at this hour, he thought to himself, as Cyrus turned first to the slave who had woken him from his sleep and brought him here.

“Leave us!” Cyrus ordered and waited for the slave to do so before he turned to the general and quietly said, “Hystaspes, your son is discovered to be plotting against me and my crown…” Hystaspes gasped in astonishment as his monarch swiftly continued, “I will tell you how I know it so certainly. The gods watch over my safety and warn me beforehand of every danger. Last night, as I lay in my bed, I saw in a vision the eldest of your sons with wings upon his shoulders, shadowing Asia with one wing and Europe with the other.” Again Hystaspes gasped, as Cyrus concluded, “From this it is certain, beyond all possible doubt, that he is engaged in some plot against me.”

As he spoke, Cyrus had been watching the general very closely for his reactions to see if he could discover whether or not Hystaspes was also involved in the plot, whatever it was. He decided however that Hystaspes’ astonishment at hearing Cyrus accuse his son was quite genuine and truly spontaneous as the startled general replied, “Heaven forbid, sire,” Hystaspes protested vehemently, “that there should be any Persian living who would plot against you! If such a traitor does exist, may a speedy death overtake him! You found the Persians a race of slaves and you have made them free men: you found them subject to others and you have made them lords of all. If a vision has announced that my son, Darius, is practising against you, lord, I resign him into your hands to deal with as you will.”

Such readiness to resign his own son to Cyrus’ judgement pleased the king; who had been expecting the general to beg for his son’s life whether or not he himself were implicated in the plot; it said much about Hystaspes’ loyalty to his king and emperor.

“Thank you, Hystaspes” Cyrus responded gratefully, and quickly added, “Your own loyalty to me is beyond question; which is why I’m sending you back to Persia.” Again the general raised his eyebrows in surprise, and then instantly he frowned; he was as puzzled as he was surprised at this latest turn of events; if Cyrus trusted him, why was he sending him back to the capital? Recognizing the cause of his confusion, Cyrus explained, “You are to return at once and ensure that when I return from conquering the Massagetae that you have your son ready to produce before me, so I may examine him. Now inform Pactyas to prepare the army for the day’s march…” Grateful for the chance he realized was being given to him to see for himself whether or not there was any substance to his king’s suspicions, Hystaspes bowed deferentially as he answered, “Yes Sire! At once sire!

*** ***** ***

By sunset of the first day on the enemy’s side of the river, the Massagetae had fallen back a considerable way, and they were followed at a distance of approximately half a league by the Persian army. As the sun started to sink below the horizon both armies stopped and made camp, erecting their tents and pavilions and lighting the usual sentinel and cooking fires. Just as the lower arc of the sun’s disc touched the horizon the expedition was called to a halt. With the familiar ease which comes of many years of practice the wagons were unpacked, tents erected and the cooking and sentinel fires lit; and all before the shrinking upper arc of the sun’s disc at last became a bejewelled sliver before finally disappearing below the horizon; and while they prepared their camp for the evening, the colours in the twilight sky gradually changed from blues tinged with magenta, through pinks and golds to fiery oranges, which darkened to a deep blood-red, tinged with purple; and finally to the deepest shades of indigo as the sky darkened and night began.

By the time darkness was complete the army’s priests had performed the evening sacrifice; and the entire carcasses of the victims were slowly roasting on spits which were turned by slaves over the cooking fires. Wine had been mixed in huge bowls and then placed on the tables which surrounded the cooking fires, while wineskins full of the finest of Persia’s wines were laid out ready nearby to refill them; large golden and silver goblets were already filled and placed on trestle-tables, waiting to be drunk. Soon the evening meal would be ready.

Everything proceeded as normal; all those who were privy to Cyrus’ plans were extremely careful to behave as if this were just an ordinary evening’s camp just like any other. Cyrus had previously instructed Pactyas to oversee the selection of those who were doomed to remain in camp to guard the feast himself. These now waited patiently in their ignorance, while the majority of the army fell back towards the river after Cyrus had suddenly emerged from his tent and loudly proclaimed that his scouts had discovered an attempt by the treacherous Scythians to circle around behind them and strike at their rear.

After a short while, one of these guards grew impatient for the army’s return so they could begin to eat the feast which was spread so deliciously and so invitingly before them. But it was not only his appetite which prompted his impatience; looking around him, he could not help but feel somewhat exposed. They had camped so close to the enemy camp that he realized quickly that their delicious and oh-so-tempting evening meal could not only be seen, but also smelled very easily, by the enemy. Whatever the size of the force the enemy might have sent to outflank them, he realized that the main body of their host were most certainly still in their camp, which was down-wind of the Persian camp; and only a few hundred paces away. As time wore on and the cooking progressed, the tempting aromas gradually became almost irresistible; the proximity of the enemy made him increasingly nervous.

Turning to one of his fellow guards he said, “I know Cyrus is a great general, and if he says he has discovered an enemy plan to attack our rear, then of course he must pull back toward the river to protect us, yet I can’t help feeling just a little bit exposed with so few of us here to guard the army’s meal for their return.” “I know what you mean.” his comrade responded with a brief laugh, “But I don’t think there’s much to fear; Cyrus has never been wrong yet!” The first guard just looked at him, and said cynically, “It’s truly touching how much faith you have in your king!”

*** ***** ***

Less than fifty paces away, hidden behind a large bush, was a Massagetae spy, who, as soon as he witnessed the Persian army’s withdrawal, ran back to his own camp to inform his queen of the Persian army’s curious behaviour. He found Queen Tomyris in counsel with her officers. “It makes no sense, Mother!” Spargapises, Tomyris’ only son, was quite perplexed by his spy’s curious reports, “This man says that Cyrus’ army spent the whole day marching forward, following us as we agreed. Then they prepared a feast… Yet instead of sitting down to eat it, most of the army appears to have withdrawn again towards the river, leaving only a small section to guard their food and supplies; they must surely be planning to return for their meal…”

Tomyris thought for a moment then said, “Perhaps they fear an attack from their rear! They must think we’ve sent a detachment to encircle them and surprise them while they were eating! Hah! These Medes trust no-one! They think everyone else is as devious as they are!”

“Hmmm…” Spargapises said, thoughtfully, “Perhaps we should not disappoint them… If we attack their camp now we can deprive them of their supplies and their meal; by the day after tomorrow, when we have agreed to do battle, they will all be so weak from hunger they will be easy to defeat!”

Tomyris could not help laughing aloud at the thought of thus turning the tables on an enemy who was famous for winning his battles as much through his cunning as through his courage. “An excellent idea, Spargapises…” Tomyris said, “But take no chances, my son; make sure you take a large enough detachment with you to raid the Medes’ camp…”

*** ***** ***

Time passed and the darkness soon deepened to the inky blackness of a moonless night; an effect not alleviated, but if anything, rather heightened by the flickering light given off by innumerable campfires. Paradoxically, while this made the camp itself almost as bright as day, beyond a very limited range outside their glow they only seemed to deepen the inky darkness into which the Persian guards now peered. As the guards continued to peer blindly into this Stygian gloom they began to wonder what was keeping the rest of their army.

Before a full double-hour had passed, however, they heard the sounds they had been waiting for: straining their ears into the darkness they heard the unmistakeable sounds of a large army of booted, marching feet, advancing towards them at the double from the direction of the river. This squadron however had been especially chosen by Pactyas himself; its individual members were recommended to him by their own company’s commanders, who knew the whole of Croesus’ plan. These commanders also knew very well just exactly who the weakest links in their own chains of command were. Thus chosen for it, they were an extremely ill-disciplined lot. As time passed they had very soon broken discipline by sampling the food and wine; so not only were they soon distracted from their duties, but their wits, such as they ever were in the first place, were not presently at their sharpest anyway.

Coupled with this was the cunning of the enemy. In order to minimize his own losses by maximizing the element of surprise as much as he could in his own favour Spargapises’ had his army silently circle round behind the Persian camp just beyond the horizon, so as to approach from the direction of the river. As they finally turned again towards the Persian camp, they made no further attempt to muffle their steps, for they knew they would most probably be mistaken for the Persian army returning to camp; and indeed this is exactly how things turned out. Thinking these footsteps must belong to Cyrus’ army the Persian guards were thus completely taken by surprise. Ill-disciplined and befuddled by wine as they were, they had not even challenged the owners of these rapidly-approaching footsteps; and the darkness hid their identity until the very last moment.

Spargapises’ attack was so swift, so sudden, so unexpected and so ferocious, that it was all over in a few minutes; the guards were slaughtered to a man before they even knew what hit them and Spargapises now had control of the Persian camp. Even the slaves who had been turning the roasting carcases on spits over the fires were butchered.

As he surveyed his handiwork, a Massagetae soldier walked up to Spargapises carrying a platter of food and a large goblet of wine, which he offered to his Prince. “It seems a shame to waste all this food and drink Lord.” the soldier said, “If Cyrus is looking for us to his rear, he will probably go all the way back to the river before he realises there is nothing to fear from that direction…”

Spargapises stared at the young spearman with a puzzled expression on his face, silently demanding further elucidation, “he is not likely to get back until late tomorrow morning at the earliest!” the soldier finished, once again offering the plate and goblet to the prince. “You are right!” Spargapises said, accepting the soldier’s thoughtful offerings, “This little battle has given me quite an appetite… and a thirst! And this Persian food smells so wonderful!”

He tasted a tempting morsel from the plate, and then continued, almost gleefully, “Very well then, we may as well enjoy the feast that our enemies have so generously provided for us!“ In a louder voice he addressed the rest of his army, “Help yourselves to food and drink men; the enemy will not return before morning and we’ll be gone long before then.” His men did not need a second invitation but fell to with a will. The delicious aromas of so much roasting meat, which until the Massagetae invasion had been slowly turned on spits by slaves, were now very nicely cooked; and these tantalizing aromas, delicately flavoured with fragrant and exotic herbs and spices had been tormenting them the whole evening; whetting their appetites ever since sunset; and as it had with their prince, the battle too, had given them all an appetite.

But, just as Croesus had told Cyrus, the Massagetae were completely unfamiliar with wine and its effects, and because after a battle they customarily ate and drank in quantities they felt were appropriately proportional to the victory they had just won, they soon became drunk; and then, deciding they enjoyed the sensation, they became even drunker. Eventually, one by one, they all started to nod off, or, more accurately, to pass out. Even Spargapises was so severely affected by this unusual alcoholic beverage of his enemies, that when the Persian army returned as planned, neither he nor his men were in any position to put up any effective resistance to the near-silent Persian marauders.

Cyrus’ spies had closely watched the movements of the Massagetae from the moment this plan had been decided upon. They had seen the Massagetae spy watching their camp and from their own hidden positions they had observed him run to Tomyris when the Persians retreated. Then they had kept Cyrus informed about Spargapises’ movements and the progress of his attack on Cyrus’ camp as they waited for the right moment. Cyrus had ensured that his men marched back with their footwear muffled with rags for the last few furlongs; and, when the moment was ripe and the Massagetae were all either asleep, passed out, or else too drunk to fight, they silently attacked from out of the shadows. So completely unexpected was their attack that, although a great many of the Scythians were slaughtered, a great many more were taken prisoner as they slept.

*** ***** ***

As Cyrus expected, before noon the following day a herald arrived from Queen Tomyris, the colours of her own royal standard now supplemented by a white flag of truce. “Great lord,” the herald began, “my queen, Tomyris, has sent me to you with these words: ‘Bloodthirsty Cyrus, do not pride yourself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice – which, when you drink it, makes you so mad, and as you swallow it down brings up to your lips such bold and wicked words – it was this poison with which you ensnared my child, and so overcame him, not in fair and open fight. Now listen to what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your own good. Restore my son to me now and leave this land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetae. Refuse and I swear by the Sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetae, that bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.’”

Cyrus ignored the queen’s threats; they were only to be expected; but he was a bit surprised at this demand for the queen’s son, “So!” Cyrus chuckled with delight, “We have captured the son of Tomyris!” Turning immediately to his general, Pactyas, Cyrus said, “Pactyas, have Spargapises found and brought here to me… “ Then, as Pactyas strode off to obey him he turned back to Tomyris’ herald and said, “Herald, you may inform Tomyris that we have no intention of leaving this country until we have defeated all of the Massagetae! As for her son, I will decide what to do with him after I have spoken with him.”

Presently, Pactyas returned, followed by two large soldiers dragging between them a handsome, well-muscled and long-haired young man in his early twenties. The now-congealed blood on the Massagetae prince’s dark-skinned head and the goose-egg sized yellowish purple lump it failed to hide were his only visible wounds; like many others who had been too drunk to fight, he had simply been clubbed unconscious and then enchained. The hangdog manner in which Spargapises hung his head informed Cyrus of the terrible shame the prince now felt at having been so easily tricked and captured. Such men as this do not make good hostages, Cyrus thought to himself, all too often they either escape or suicide. Either way he realized he was unlikely to be able claim a ransom for this prince, no matter how aristocratic he was, nor how much his mother desired his return.

Instantly Cyrus decided that the best thing to do would be to send him back to Tomyris as a gesture of goodwill and respect for his enemy. “Well then Spargapises,” he said to his captive, “what have you to say for yourself?” Spargapises looked up briefly, but would not meet Cyrus’ gaze, as he shamefacedly admitted, “Great King, you have captured me and made me your slave; but I cannot bear the shame of wearing these fetters! I beg you to have them struck off me and in return I give you my word of honour that I will make no attempt to flee…”

Cyrus was moved with pity for the man’s shame. In any case, he reminded himself, he had already decided to send him home to his mother… “Very well then,” he said, “I shall grant your request… guards, remove his chains.”

The guards obeyed their king immediately, removing the heavy iron fetters from their captive’s hands and feet. But Spargapises had a surprise in store for his captors; as soon as his hands and feet were freed, he snatched a sword from one of the guards and without hesitation stabbed himself with it through the heart. All who were present were stunned by the swiftness and the total unexpectedness of this self-slaughter; but of course, they all now realized that Spargapises had only given his word not to escape; he had said nothing about not harming himself; so he had not lied, but had indeed kept his word. This desperate act, though noble, was not only brutal and futile but also extremely unfortunate; as it took from Cyrus any possibility he may have had of accepting the peaceful retreat which Tomyris had just offered. Whether Spargapises had intended to do so Cyrus could not say; yet his suicide had effectively locked the Persians and the Massagetae on a collision course.

It had nevertheless been an honourable act, Cyrus felt, as he turned once again to the Massagetae herald; and with genuine sadness in his voice, he now said, “Herald, you may inform Tomyris that although I was considering returning her son safely to her, I was prevented from doing so because as soon as I released him from his fetters he destroyed himself. This was not my intention, but regretfully, what is done cannot be changed.” The herald, seeing that there was nothing further to be gained here, bowed respectfully to Cyrus from the saddle and allowed himself to be escorted once more out of the Persian camp.

*** ***** ***

The following morning Tomyris gathered together all of her forces. This time she would show the Persian invaders that they had made a mistake in ever turning their greedy eyes towards the land of the Massagetae. This, of course, was exactly what Cyrus had been expecting; yet although the Massagetae even now outnumbered the Persians by at least two-to-one, he had refrained from harassing the enemy before their battle-lines were ready. It would never do, thought Cyrus, to have it said that the Son of Heaven had won his title with a cowardly or ignoble act; Tomyris’ insult had stung him. But now, he thought to himself, the enemy will learn the meaning of courage! For the Massagetae even now outnumbered him by almost two to one. But by taking on and defeating a much larger and stronger foe, he would thus demonstrate to the whole world not only that he was indeed the Son of Heaven, but also that the Son of Heaven was lacking neither in martial skills nor in courage.

Bronze-tipped arrows fell like rain upon both sides as the two armies approached each other, the missiles gradually thinning out the ranks of both sides until the quivers of the archers were empty and the two hosts closed to fight hand-to-hand with spears and daggers. Of all the battles he had taken part in during his long and exceedingly eventful life, Cyrus had never yet seen one quite as bloody as this. For several hours the fighting continued, with neither side willing to give even an inch of ground; but eventually the superior numbers of the Scythians began to tell as the tide of battle swung slowly in their favour. All too late the Persians realized their predicament as the tide of battle turned against them; it was too late now to do anything but try to withdraw with whatever men could escape, as the Massagetae now attempted to encircle the rapidly-dwindling remnant of the Persian host, which suddenly broke and ran. Massagetae cavalry, armed with brass-tipped lances, now chased down their fleeing foes as they took their revenge for their fallen prince and his comrades; almost all of Cyrus’ remaining troops were slaughtered as they ran; although the Great King himself refused to run and died nobly, facing the enemy bravely and fighting to the last.

When the battle was finished, Tomyris had some of her men search the battlefield for the body of Cyrus. While she was waiting for their return, she constructed a wooden frame from which she suspended skins, which she then greased to make them waterproof; thus forming a sort of leather basin. This she then filled with human blood taken from the corpses of her dead enemies; and when the body of Cyrus was finally discovered she had it beheaded, and, holding the head of her enemy by its long dark hair in her right hand, she dipped it in the blood-filled leather basin, saying as she did so, “Well then Cyrus! I live and have conquered you in battle, and yet by you I am ruined, for you took my son by guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.”