The terrible ruby known as “The Blood of Belshazzar,” which is featured in the REH story of the same name, was cut by prehuman hands long ages before it came to the attention of the fierce Norman-Irish warrior Cormac Fitzgeoffrey. In the first article about its dubious and evil history, its (likely) course was traced from Belshazzar through Cyrus the Great to Darius I, who was also called “the Great.” None of them got much joy from it.
The next king of Persia was Xerxes I, the son of Darius. Of the Blood of Belshazzar, Skol Abdhur in REH’s story says that “It gleamed on Xerxes’ crown.” It had gleamed on his father’s too. Xerxes I was the son of Darius the Great, of course and his mother was Atossa, a daughter of Cyrus. He was about thirty-six when he became king. He inherited the task of punishing the Athenians for backing the Hellenic states of Asia Minor when they rebelled, and he wanted to make it his first order of business. But he was compelled to put down an insurrection in Egypt which had broken out as soon as he ascended the Persian throne, and according to Herodotus he “reduced the country to a condition of worse servitude than it had ever known in the previous reign.”
He appointed Achaemenes, his full brother and apparently a hard character even by the standards of the age, as satrap of Egypt for the job of wholly subjugating the country.
The king described in the Old Testament Book of Esther as “Ahasuerus” is very likely intended to be Xerxes I. “Xerxes” is the Greek form of the Persian Khashayarsha, and from that it’s a short step to the Latinized “Ahasuerus.” The trouble is that Xerxes had no queen named Vashti who was dismissed in disgrace, as the Book of Esther says he did, and he never took a woman named Esther (or Hadassah) from the Jewish community in Persia to be his queen later. Xerxes I’s queen was Amestris the daughter of Otanes. Now Amestris is Greek, and maybe her Persian name was Vashti, but she didn’t suffer dismissal.
As for Esther, she might never have been Xerxes’ queen, but she could well have been his concubine or mistress, and there may have been a plot against Xerxes’ life that her kinsman Mordecai exposed. It’s plausible that his reward would be a high place at Xerxes’ court. After all, Xerxes was assassinated in the end. Other such schemes must have been hatched, though unsuccessfully, while he was ruling. There could easily have been a prince or minister named Haman who grew obsessively jealous of Mordecai and tried to bring him down, too – and plotted a massacre of other Jews in Persia.
For that matter, Haman and Mordecai’s opposition might have been caused by their both wanting power – and the Blood of Belshazzar. Esther/Hadassah could have been one of the many women who surrendered her honor for the jewel, and a rival of Amestris/Vashti for Xerxes’ favor. Amestris is said – mainly by Greek sources, again – to have been a cruel hellcat. Herodotus recounts a story (Histories, 7.114) that when growing old, she gained renewed youth and life by sacrificing fourteen children of renowned Persian men. Presumably she would have made that sacrifice to Ahriman, the principle of darkness and evil, eternal enemy of Ormazd, god of light. Women in those days, even queens, faded quickly – unless they made a deal with the devil. And human sacrifice wasn’t a normal Persian custom. The national religion, Zoroastrianism, held it in horror as an abomination.
The entire Esther/Mordecai/Haman business would have taken place after Xerxes’ Greek campaign. He began it by bridging the strait of the Hellespont, between Asia Minor and Thrace. (His second try at building that bridge succeeded.) He also made a treaty with Carthage to stay out of the coming war. Some Greek states like Argos and Thebes even sided with him. In 480 B.C. he set out with a fleet and army Herodotus says was two million strong – which is certainly untrue – bull, to put it more crudely. Two hundred thousand fighters plus non-combatants and camp followers from many nations is more likely. The numbers of all ancient armies and nations were hugely inflated as a rule – especially by the opponents who battled them.
I’m not blaming the Athenians, mind. The full population of Athens at the time was about 140,000, only 40,000 of those being full citizens and male. If I’d been there and seen the Persians coming, I’d have been the first to gasp, “Great ever-living Zeus, there’s millions of them!”
That was the campaign in which a small band of Spartans held off the Persian army at Thermopylae — and died almost to the last man. “The 300 Spartans” is a byword, lately commemorated in the graphic novel and movie, 300. Well, there were three hundred Spartans in the rearguard that held the pass, under their king, Leonidas, but there were also about 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans, and a few hundred others, for a total of nearly 2000, all but the Spartans themselves usually getting forgotten. Three hundred against two million sounds better.
The true figures don’t change the raw truth that they were colossally outnumbered, by a hundred to one at least, and it was an incredible stand that deserved to be remembered down the ages. And it appears to be true that when a Persian messenger boasted, “Our arrows will darken the sun!” Leonidas answered, “Then we’ll fight in the shade.”
I haven’t seen 300. Just excerpts and still shots. I’d probably love the action. I’m also a history buff of sorts, and I couldn’t avoid a derisive laugh at the movie’s portrayal of the Persians, and particularly Xerxes. The Persian host as shown owes a lot more to Sauron’s horde in “Lord of the Rings” than to history. The Persians were as militarily brave as the Spartans, and a lot more reasonable in their treatment of peoples they conquered.
But. A side excursion into the actual nature of the Spartan state would be just that, a side excursion. On with the history of the ruby.
The stand at Thermopylae has become legend. Still, the men of Athens, denigrated and despised by the Spartans in 300, were leaders of the alliance that met the immense Persian fleet at Salamis in the same war. Themistocles, the Athenian general, used his wits and lured the vastly greater Persian fleet into the Straits of Salamis, where it couldn’t manoeuvre to advantage, and the Greek fleet, staying in tight line, sank or captured hundreds of enemy ships. The accursed ruby, in Skol Abdhur’s words, “gleamed on Xerxes’ crown when he watched his army destroyed at Salamis.” Achaemenes, the satrap of Egypt, Xerxes’ brother, had been summoned from the Nile and put in charge of the Persian fleet, so it was hardly his most glorious moment. Afterwards he was sent back to Egypt, more than ready to take out his frustrations on the Egyptians who’d proved so unappreciative of Persian rule. If he hadn’t been the king’s brother his head might have been removed for his failure.
Salamis broke the back of the Persian invasion of Greece. Xerxes departed. His remaining forces were defeated and forced to retreat the following year. Xerxes had yet another revolt in Babylon to occupy him at the time, anyhow. These revolts were as often as not the doing of the satraps he put in charge of conquered territories, aiming at the throne, not of the native peoples.
Xerxes I was murdered by one of these ambitious lads, the chief of his bodyguard, in fact, one Artaban. It’s possible that in the years since Salamis and the Babylonian revolt he hadn’t gratified the ruby’s thirst for blood sufficiently. As Skol Abdhur tells Cormac Fitzgeoffrey, “He who wears it must quench its thirst or it will drink his own blood!”
Artaban, commander of the king’s bodyguard, had the same name as Xerxes’ uncle, but they shouldn’t be confused; this Artaban was a younger man who’d gained great distinction in handling the withdrawal of the Persian army from Greece. He was ambitious, though, and it made him treacherous. He had influence with the priesthood, and one by one placed his sons in important positions as he prepared to strike. He corrupted a eunuch official, Aspamitres, to take part in his conspiracy, and also recruited General Megabyzus, the son of poor old Zopyrus, the mutilated spy Darius I had sent to Babylon as his agent. Megabyzus hadn’t forgotten how Xerxes’ dad had treated his dad. He didn’t like that family, and it had originally come to power by a bloody coup and assassination anyhow. There’d be a certain rough justice if it was dethroned the same way.
Megabyzus was Xerxes’ son-in-law by now, married to the king-of-kings’ daughter Amytis (which is probably a Greek form of the Persian name Umati.) It didn’t deter him. He’d accused her of adultery in any case, a risky thing to do when you’re married to a king’s daughter, and they were presumably not getting along like a pair of loving turtle-doves. Amytis/Umati is depicted in Greek sources as a beautiful bitch, faithless, licentious, etcetera, but let’s not forget, these are the Greek sources, and she was Persian, the daughter of a man who’d invaded Greece with the biggest army ever.
Still, it does say something that her husband felt bound to accuse her publicly of adultery for the sake of his pride, even though she was Xerxes’ daughter and he was part of a conspiracy against him, making it highly desirable for Megabyzus to draw no inimical attention. Skol Abdhur says that for the Blood of Belshazzar, “women gave up their virtue, men their lives and kings their crowns.” Perhaps Amytis was one of those who gave up their virtue for the gem … if she had any to surrender. I’m guessing she was part of the conspiracy, if not a major player, and Artaban’s mistress as well as Megabyzus’s wife.
Artaban’s conspiracy succeeded. With his fellow plotters Aspamitres the eunuch and General Megabyzus, he murdered Xerxes. Probably he seized the accursed ruby too. Then he accused the crown prince, Darius, of killing his father to gain the throne. He convinced another of Xerxes’ sons, Artaxerxes, that it was true, and tricked him into “avenging” the murder by killing his brother.
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