“…you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” (Herodotus, VII.135)
The Tribute of Earth & Water
Having subdued the Ionian Greeks who had rebelled against his rule, Darius I, king of Persia had decided it was time to extend his empire into the Greek mainland. In order to test whether the Greeks were likely to offer resistance or would submit easily, he sent his envoys out to demand a tribute of earth and water – a mark of submission to his rule – from the city-states. (VI.48) Some gave and some did not; but two went so far in their defiance as to throw the Persian envoys into a pit (Athens) and into a well (Sparta) and bid them to take their earth and water from there. (VII.133)
A Trial of Freedom
Herodotus tells how some years later – by this time Xerxes, the son of Darius ruled Persia – the Spartans, troubled by the wrong they had done to the envoys, asked for volunteers to offer their lives in exchange to the Persian king.
“…so they [the Spartans] held frequent assemblies and made a proclamation asking whether any Lacedaemonian was willing to die on behalf of Sparta. The men who volunteered to undertake the punishment imposed by Xerxes for the loss of Darius’ heralds were Sperthias son of Aneristos and Boulis son of Nikolaos, Spartans of noble birth who had also attained the first rank in wealth. And so the Spartans sent them off to the Medes to die.” (VII. 134)
On the way to Xerxes in Susa, Sperthias and Boulis met Hydarnes, commander of the Asian coast. This Hydarnes was the son of Hydarnes the Elder (who had helped Darius to become king) and later became the commander of the Ten Thousand Immortals, the elite Persian troops, and led their attack at the Battle of Thermopylae. (VII. 211) Now Hydarnes tried to convince the Spartans to submit themselves to Xerxes, offering them rewards should they do so:
“Lacedaemonians, why are you trying to avoid becoming the King’s friends? You can see that the King knows how to honour good men when you look at me and the state of my affairs. This could be the same for you if only you would surrender yourselves to the King, since he would surely think you to be good men and allow each of you Greek territory to rule over.”
To this they they replied:
“Hydarnes, you offer us this advice only because you do no have a fair and proper perspective. For you counsel us based on your experience of only one way of life, but you have had no experience of the other: you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” (VII. 135)
I don’t know what evidence, if any, Herodotus in fact unearthed to show that this conversation had ever taken place, but there are times when it’s just easier to suspend disbelief. Whether Sperthias and Boulis really said something like this or whether it was merely Herodotus’ invention to embellish the tale is almost irrelevant. The story is good and the Spartans’ answer is perfect and irrefutable in its simplicity. If you only knew what freedom was, they say to this rich and powerful man, a favourite of his master, you would never counsel us to give it up. These words, especially coming as they do from the mouth of men going to their death, really pack a punch. This is the stuff of legends, and legends like these inspire men in later ages. The Spartans (unlike the Athenians) might have not left much to posterity by way of art or philosophical thought but they certainly left some shining examples of heroism and pithy sayings.
After giving that answer to Hydarnes, they travelled inland to Susa and gained an audience with the King. At first the King’s bodyguards ordered them and actually tried to force them to prostrate themselves before the King; but they refused to do so, saying that they would never do that, even if the bodyguards should try to push them on the ground headfirst, since it was not their custom to prostrate themselves before any human being, and besides, that was not the reason for which they had come. So they succeeded in fighting off this command, and next made a speech with words to this effect:
“King of the Medes, the Lacedaemonians have sent us here to make up for the heralds you lost in Sparta, so that we may bear the punishment for what happened to them.”
Xerxes responded to their speech with proud magnanimity. He said he would not act like the Lacedaemonians, who had violated laws observed by all humanity when they killed the heralds; no, he himself would not do the kind of thing for which he was reproaching them: he would not kill these two men to release the Lacedaemonians from their guilt. (VII. 136)
In an unexpected twist at the end of the tale that seemed all set to end in the horrible death of Sperthias and Boulis, Xerxes suddenly proved himself gracious: he let the two Spartans go. Yet this was the same Xerxes who later lashed the sea in a fit of rage and had his own engineers beheaded when a storm had destroyed the bridge they had built at the Hellespont. The same Xerxes who had the head of Leonidas cut off and impaled on a stake after the battle of Thermopylae. Just a caprice of the “King of Kings”: magnanimous when entertained and cruel when thwarted.