The Blood of Belshazzar — Archetypal Cursed Gem, Part Two: Persepolis to Lydia

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.

It worked. Artaxerxes had Darius executed. That left him the heir to the throne. Artaban posed as true-blue loyal for the time being, backing young Artaxerxes for new king and taking the position of regent and power behind the throne. He probably meant to kill Artaxerxes next, when he judged the time ripe, but his luck had run out; Megabyzus switched sides and told Artaxerxes it had all been a scheme of Artaban’s. Artaxerxes, who had been a mere few months on the throne, took Artaban by surprise in their next private conference and killed him with his own sword, taking the opportunity to regain the ruby. Perhaps he dipped it in the traitor’s blood.

(Caveat: there are different versions of these complicated events, too.)

Megabyzus was made satrap of Syria and reconciled, sort of, with his wife Amytis. Then, in 445 BCE, he carried out a successful revolt. Amytis sided with her brother, King Artaxerxes, but she also asked mercy for her husband, and led the negotiations that ended in Megabyzus’ swearing loyalty as Artaxerxes’ vassal again. He was pardoned. Then he was disgraced anew and exiled. After five years, again due to the intercession of his wife, he was allowed to come back from the Persian Gulf. Maybe Amytis did it more for the sake of the two sons she had borne Megabyzus than for him.

Artaxerxes I reigned for forty years (465-425). Skol Abdhur doesn’t speak of him in his ravings to Cormac, or any events involving the ruby between the battle of Salamis and Darius III’s defeat by Alexander. Artaxerxes’ reign was marked by one uprising after another. He’d already killed one of his brothers, in the mistaken belief that he was a parricide, and he’d hardly assumed the throne when another brother, the satrap of Bactria, rebelled against him.

Egypt was next. A local princeling named Ienheru (Inaros in Greek), the son of a Libyan prince called Psamtik, rebelled against his Persian overlords, exemplified by the bloody and detested satrap Achaemenes. King Artaxerxes, who was the satrap’s nephew, swore to crush Egypt’s impudence for all time, and sent orders to Achaemenes to make everything he’d done up until then look like a baby daughter’s kisses. He sent him the Blood of Belshazzar as well, ostensibly as a sign of his special favor, knowing the kind of evil and sanguinary influence the jewel carried with it. It worked. Achaemenes carried out his measures against Ienheru, and Egypt in general, with a savagery the country hadn’t seen before even from its Persian masters.

That terrible bloodbath was brief, though. In 460, Ienheru met Achaemenes in battle. The Persian would probably have slaughtered Ienheru’s forces if the Libyan hadn’t had help. However, he got it just in time – from the fleet of Athens, which didn’t love Persia a bit, and sent two hundred warships up the Nile as far as Memphis, then mainly occupied by the rebels. Ienheru, a strong warrior, met Achaemenes hand to hand in the subsequent fighting, and killed him with a spear, taking the Blood of Belshazzar from his body. His intention was to leave not a Persian alive in Egypt, but that was beyond his powers, even with Athenian allies. There followed yet another fresh imposition of Persian rule, with gory reprisals. Ienheru died at Persian hands. The Blood of Belshazzar was taken back to Persia and King Artaxerxes.

Ienheru’s resistance and death weren’t recorded in any document or book that became famous. Otherwise, he might be remembered now as Crazy Horse and Vercingetorix are remembered. As for the Persian satrap Achaemenes – there’s a good ready-made villain that REH or Talbot Mundy could have used. In fact REH might have made a story out of Ienheru’s rebellion as good as “Sowers of the Thunder” or “Shadow of the Vulture,” for Oriental Stories or Magic Carpet Magazine.

Rebels weren’t treated according to Queensberry Rules – or Geneva Conventions – by the Persians. Execution by torture was a common punishment even for ordinary criminals. Impaling and/or flaying was standard practice. As for the harsher methods – you’d better not hear about them at dinnertime. REH’s Turanians of the Hyborian Age were a pulp fiction combination of ancient Persians and Ottoman Turks, and Conan’s furious address to Shah Amurath in “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” just before he chops him up, was fair enough: “You who tore my comrades apart between wild horses, maimed and blinded and mutilated them … you filthy dog!”   The fictional Amurath was probably not a whit worse than the very real Achaemenes.

What about the Persians being “reasonable in their treatment of the people they conquered,” then?  It’s a good question, but hey, I said they were that compared with the Spartans. By our standards they were still effing brutal. That whole era was, the other Greeks, the Egyptians, the Italians, the Carthaginians and the barbarian Celts included. Reasonable treatment was kept for subjects and satraps who didn’t rebel.

Artaxerxes gets a good press in the Old Testament. He features in the Book of Ezra – which is probably referring to Artaxerxes I — as the ruler who authorizes the prophet to appoint judges and magistrates over his Jewish subjects in Judah, according to the sacred law of Israel. He also allows Ezra to collect gold and silver and precious vessels for the rebuilt Temple, after which Ezra gathers a large number of Jews from the Persian Empire and leads them back to Judah. He’s more closely associated still with another prophet, Nehemiah, who was once his cupbearer. Nehemiah, hearing that the walls of Jerusalem have fallen into disrepair, asks the king for permission to go there and rebuild them. Artaxerxes not only grants the request but makes Nehemiah his governor in Judah, a function he carries out for twelve years before returning to the king at his winter capital in Susa.

It’s possible that Artaxerxes I is the Persian king called Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther. The Septuagint version of Esther translates Ahasuerus as Artaxerxes, but it may be Artaxerxes II who is meant. It’s more likely still that Ahasuerus is Xerxes I. Artaxerxes I’s queen was Damaspia, probably a Babylonian woman, not Vashti or Esther.

With the Blood of Belshazzar in his vicinity, Artaxerxes was lucky to reign for forty years as he did. Some of his courtiers and soldiers wouldn’t have been as fortunate. Once he died, though, the malign influence of the gem manifested itself at once. His legitimate heir came to the throne as Xerxes II, sat on it just forty-five days, and was murdered by his half-brother Sogdianus, whose mother was a Babylonian concubine. The revenge of Babylon continued reaching out for the Persian kings, all right. Sogdianus reigned longer – all of six and a half months – before being killed by the commander of the cavalry. Then Ochus, another concubine’s son, grabbed the throne, killing his full brother and rival Arsites by treachery to secure it. Ochus came to the throne as Darius II. Three kings or potential kings slain in one year.

The ruby glowed brightly again.

Darius II married his half-sister Parysatis, and they had a dozen or more children. The important ones  were Prince Mnemon, later Artaxerxes II, Prince Ostanes, Princess Amestris, and Prince Cyrus, known logically enough as Cyrus the Younger, to distinguish him from Cyrus the Great. Darius reigned eighteen years, from 423 to 405. Whether, in his reign, the Persian court became openly or clandestinely the kind of hell-hole the castle of Bab-el-Shaitan was with Skol Abhdur for its master is an open question. Still, Darius was an oriental king with few restrictions on his power, and he possessed the Blood of Belshazzar — or vice versa.

Aside from a revolt by the Medes and some fairly typical harem intrigues, not much is known about his reign until the year 413 BCE. Although, as a Persian king, he would certainly have felt there was a debt owing Athens, he did nothing in that direction while Athenian power was unimpaired and undivided. Caria in Asia Minor rebelled under its lord Amorges, but even then Darius held back his hand – until the Athenians received a great setback at Syracuse in Sicily. Then he judged the time right to move.

Over in Athens, this was the time of Socrates and Alcibiades. The latter was handsome, and colossally talented, but without principle. Socrates had been his teacher and comrade-in-arms, but eventually was disappointed in him. It was the time of the Pelopponnesian Wars – the Pelopponnesian League, led by Sparta, against the Delphic League, led by Athens. During the second stage of those ferocious events, Alcibiades stirred up too much trouble to be tolerated any longer, even though he was the Brad Pitt of his day, and Athens exiled him. He promptly went off to Sparta and betrayed Athens. The Athenians shot themselves in the foot, as well, by continuing to send ships to Syracuse in Sicily — wasting their naval strength when they needed it closer to home. They thereby lost the great naval advantage that had once smashed an immense Persian fleet at Salamis.

Darius II commanded his satraps in Asia Minor to collect the overdue tribute from the Greek towns, and to prepare for war with Athens. They obeyed, and made an alliance with Sparta to ensure their victory. (The days when Sparta had fought against the invading Persians at Thermopylae were gone. Athens was the enemy now, Lysander was running things in Sparta, and if the Persians were willing to supply him with gold to back him against Athens, he was ready to accept it.)

Getting back to Cyrus the Younger (Kurush in Persian), he was the most promising of Darius’s sons, even though the youngest, and it would appear, a bit like his Greek counterpart Alcibiades, brilliant, handsome and able, but ambitious without scruple. Alcibiades, by the way, last heard of in Sparta, had made powerful enemies there, and to save his own skin had defected again – this time to Persia. He became an adviser to the Persian satrap of Lydia and Caria, Tissaphernes. His advice, essentially, was that a balance of power should be kept between Athens and Sparta, and Tissaphernes bought the idea. This didn’t suit King Darius II, who was all for an alliance with Sparta and the decisive subjugation of Athens. His satrap Tissaphernes’ rivalry with another of the Persian generals, Pharnabazus, didn’t please him either. Tissaphernes was demoted in favor of that hotshot kid, Cyrus the Younger, in 408 BCE. Only seventeen, Cyrus was sent across to the west as satrap of Lydia, Phrygia and Cappadocia, while Tissaphernes lost command of the army and was reduced to satrap of Caria alone. He resented it. Tissaphernes and that other hotshot kid, the brilliant Greek renegade Alcibiades, were now Cyrus the Younger’s ill-wishers and rivals.

Cyrus, it’s a fair inference, had been given the Blood of Belshazzar by his father when he was posted to this new position of command and authority.

Cyrus was also the adored favorite of his mother, the queen, Parysatis. Since she’d married her half-brother, and acted with fiendish cruelty on occasion, we can suppose she was another of the many women who “gave up their virtue” for the Blood of Belshazzar, and came under its influence. She would certainly have been eager for Cyrus to triumph as army commander and satrap. She wasn’t about to have mercy on anybody who tried to hinder, much less harm, her darling.

Darius died in 405 BCE. He summoned his son to his deathbed, and Cyrus obediently went, but before leaving he entrusted his treasures to his ally, Lysander, king of Sparta. He was planning already to seize the throne that was supposed to go to his older brother, Mnemon, helped by the Spartans and his mother, Parysatis.

What happened as a result of that will have to wait for a further post.

Read: Part One; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five; Part Six; Part Seven