Saturday, October 9, 2010

At Babylon

THE victory of Arbela was decisive. Alexander of Macedon was now, beyond all question, the Great King. All of the hundred and twenty-seven provinces out of which Cyrus and his successors had built up the huge structure of the Persian Empire were not indeed yet subdued, and the person of Darius had still to be captured; but the title was practically undisputed. The first consequence of the victory was that Babylon and Susa, the two capitals, as they may be called, were at once surrendered by the satraps that governed them. Mazæus was in command at Babylon. He had done his best on the fatal day of Arbela; but he had seen that all was lost, and that nothing remained but to make such terms as was possible with the conqueror. He met the Macedonian king as he approached the city, and offered him the keys; and Susa, at the same time, was surrendered to the lieutenant who was sent to take possession of it and its treasures.

It was indeed rather as a Deliverer than as a Conqueror that Alexander was received by the inhabitants of Babylon. The Persians had never been more than a garrison, and had made themselves as hated there as they had elsewhere. Hence it was with genuine delight that the population flocked out to meet their new master. Sacrifices over which the priests prayed for his welfare were offered on altars built by the wayside, and enthusiastic crowds spread flowers under his feet.

Among those who came out to pay their respects to the king was a deputation from the great Jewish colony which had long existed in the city, and which, indeed, continued to inhabit it, till almost the day of its final abandonment. Alexander greeted them with especial kindness, and promised that they should have his favour and protection. Charidemus had been furnished by Manasseh of Damascus with a general letter of introduction to the heads of the dispersed Hebrew communities. This he lost no time in presenting, and he found that he had made a most interesting acquaintance.

Eleazar of Babylon was indeed a remarkable personage, His family, which was distantly con-nected with the royal house of David, had been settled in the city for more than two centuries, tracing itself back to a certain Gemariah who had been one of the notables removed from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the first Captivity. He was now in extreme old age, having completed his ninety-second year, and he had for some time ceased to leave his apartments. But his intellectual faculties retained their full vigour. He still held the chief control of a vast business which had grown up under his care. The Jews had already begun to show their genius for finance, and Eleazar surpassed predecessors and contemporaries in the boldness and skill of his combinations.

The Persian kings were far too wealthy to need the help which modern rulers are often glad to get from bankers and capitalists; but their subjects of every rank often stood in want of it. A satrap, about to start for his province, would require a loan for his outfit, and would be able to repay it, with liberal interest, if he could hold power for a year. A courtier, anxious to make a present to some queen of the harem, a merchant buying goods which he would sell at more than cent. per cent. profit to the tribes of the remote east; in fact, every one who wanted money either for business or for pleasure was sure to find it, if only he had security to offer, with Eleazar of Babylon, or with one of his corres-pondents. The old man had able agents and lieutenants, but no single transaction was completed without his final approval. Even the little that Charidemus and his friend could see, as outsiders, of the magnitude of his affairs, struck them with wonder. Greek commerce was but a petty affair compared to a system which seemed to take in the whole world. But there was something in Eleazar far more interesting than any distinction which he might have as the head of a great mercantile house. He was, so to speak, a mine of notable memories, both national and personal.

Among the worthies with whom his family claimed relationship was the remarkable man who had held high office under three successive dynasties of Babylonian rulers—Nebuchadnezzar, the conqueror of Jerusalem; Astyages the Mede; and Cyrus the Persian. One of Eleazar's most precious possessions was a book of manuscript, written, it was believed, by the great statesman's own hand, which recorded the story of himself and his companions. Eleazar, when he found that his young guests were something better than mere soldiers of fortune, thinking of nothing but fighting and prize money, and had a sympathetic interest in great deeds and great men, would read from this precious volume its stirring stories of heroism, translating them as he went on from the original Hebrew or Aramaic into Greek, a language which he spoke with ease and correctness. The narrative stirred the two friends to an extraordinary degree, and indeed may be said to have influenced their whole lives. They admired the temperate self-restraint of the young captives who preferred their pulse and water to the dainties from the royal tables, sumptuous but unclean, which their keepers would have forced upon them.

"Why," cried Charondas, when the story was finished, "the young fellows might have won a prize at Olympia. 'Tis in the training, I believe, that more than half of the men break down."

The young man blushed hot as soon as the words had escaped him. It was, he remembered, a painful subject, and he could have bitten his tongue out in his self-reproach for mentioning it. The smile on Charidemus's face soon reassured him. Larger interests and hopes had made the young Macedonian entirely forget what he had once considered to be an unpardonable and irremediable wrong.

With still more profound interest did the friends listen to the tale of how the dauntless three chose rather to be thrust into the burning fiery furnace than to bow down to the golden image which the king had set up.

"Marked you that?" cried Charidemus to his friend, when the reader, to whom they had listened with breathless eagerness, brought the narrative to an end; "Marked you that? If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us out from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods. How splendid! If not—I can understand a man walking up to what looks like certain death, if he feels quite sure that Apollo, or Poseidon, or AphroditĂ©, is going to carry him off in a cloud; and I can understand—for of course we see it every day—a man taking his life in his hand, from duty, or for a prize, or, it may be, from sheer liking for danger; but this passes my comprehension. Just to bow down to an image, which every one else is doing, and they won't do it. Their God, they feel sure, will save them; but in any case they will stand firm. Yes, that if not is one of the grandest things I ever heard."

Old Eleazar heard with delight the young man's enthusiastic words. He had no passion for making proselytes, and, indeed, believed that they were best made without direct effort; but he could not help saying, "Ah! My young friends, is not that a God worth serving? It is something to be sure as these Three were sure, that He will save you; but it is still more to feel, that whether He save you or no, anything is better than to do Him any wrong."

Eleazar had also recollections of his own which keenly interested the young men.

"Your king's success," he said one day, "has not surprised me. In fact, I have been expecting it for these last sixty years and more. When I was a young man I saw something of events of which, of course, you have heard, when the younger Cyrus brought up some ten thousand of your soldiers to help him in pulling down his brother from the Persian throne, and setting himself upon it. Mind you, I never loved the young prince; if he had got his way, no one but himself and his soldiers would have been a whit better for it. Indeed, I did all that I could to help the king against him. We Jews have a good deal to say to the making of war, even when we don't carry swords ourselves; gold and silver, you may easily understand, are often far more powerful than steel. Well; I was present at the battle, and though I did not wish well to your countrymen's purpose, I could not help seeing how very near they came to accomplishing it. I saw the pick of the Persian army fly absolutely without striking a blow when the Greek phalanx charged it. Nor could there have been a shadow of doubt that what the Greeks did with the left of the king's army they would have done with his centre and his right, if they only had had the chance. It was only the foolish fury of the young prince that saved the king. If Cyrus had only kept his head, the day was his. Well, what I saw then, and what I heard afterwards of the marvellous way in which these men, without a general, and almost without stores, made their way home, convinced me that what has happened now was only a matter of time. For sixty years or more, I say, I have been waiting for it to come to pass. Time after time it seemed likely; but something always hindered it. The right man never came, or if he came, some accident cut him off just as he was setting to work. But now he has come, and the work is done."

The friends spent with their venerable host all the time that was not required for their military duties; and these, indeed, were of the very slightest kind. The fact was that his society was very much more to their taste than that of their comrades. Alexander's army had been campaigning for more than three years with very little change or relaxation. If they were not actually engaged in some laborious service, they had some such services in near prospect; and what time was given them for rest had to be strictly spent in preparation. Never, indeed, before, had the whole force been quartered in a city; and a month in Babylon, one of the most luxurious places in the world—not to use any worse epithet—was a curious change from the hardships of the bivouac and the battle-field. And then the soldiers found themselves in possession of an unusual sum of money. An enormous treasure had fallen into Alexander's hand, and he had dispensed it with characteristic liberality, giving to each private soldier sums varying from thirty to ten pounds, according to the corps in which he served, and to the officers in proportion. Such opportunities for revelry were not neglected, and the city presented a scene of license and uproar from which Charidemus and his friend were very glad to escape.

For Charondas the household of Eleazar possessed a particular attraction in the person of his great-grand-daughter Miriam. He had chanced, before his introduction to the family, to do the girl and her attendant the service of checking the unwelcome attentions of some half-tipsy soldiers. The young Miriam began by being grateful, and ended by feeling a warmer interest in her gallant and handsome protector. So the time passed only too quickly by.

There was no need to go for exercise or recreation beyond the spacious pleasure grounds which were attached to Eleazar's dwelling. They included, indeed, part of the famous "hanging-garden" which the greatest of the Babylonian kings had constructed for his queen, to reproduce for her among the level plains of the Euphrates the wooded hills, her native Median uplands, over which she had once delighted to wander. The elaborate structure—terrace rising above terrace till they overtopped the city walls—had been permitted to fall into decay; but the wildness of the spot, left as it had been to nature, more than compensated, to some tastes at least, the absence of more regular beauty.

In another part of the garden was a small lake, supplied by a canal which was connected with the Euphrates. This was a specially favoured resort of the young people. Water-lilies, white, yellow, and olive, half covered its surface with their gorgeous flowers; and its depths were tenanted by swarms of gold fish. A light shallop floated on its waters, and Miriam often watched with delight the speed with which the friends could propel it through the water, though she could never be induced to trust herself to it. Days so spent and evenings employed in the readings described above, and the talk which grew out of them, made a delightful change from the realities of campaigning, realities which, for all the excitements of danger and glory, were often prosaic and revolting.

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