Cyrus, the king of Persia and the founder of its great empire, owned a beautiful white horse which he always rode into battle. In the spring of 539 BC King Cyrus declared war on the Assyrians in hope of expanding his territory, and set off with a large army for their capital, Babylon, on the banks of the Euphrates river. The march went well, until the army reached the river Gyndes, which flowed down from the Matienian mountains into the Tigris. The Gyndes was known to be perilous even in the summer, and at this time of year was brown and foaming, swollen with the winter rains. The king’s generals counselled delay, but Cyrus was not daunted and gave order for an immediate crossing. Yet as the boats were being readied, Cyrus’s horse slipped away unnoticed and attempted to swim across the river. The current seized the beast, toppled it and swept it downstream to its death.
Cyrus was livid. The river had dared to make away with his sacred white horse, the horse of the warrior who had ground Croesus into the dust and terrified the Greeks. He screamed and cursed, and at the height of his fury decided to pay back the Gyndes for its insolence. He vowed to punish the river by making it so weak that a woman would in future be able to cross it without so much as wetting her knees.
Setting aside plans for the expansion of his empire, Cyrus divided his army into two parts, marked out 180 small canals running off from each bank of the river in various directions and ordered his men to start digging, which they did for an entire summer, their morale broken, all hope of a quick defeat of the Assyrians gone. And when they were finished, the once-rapid Gyndes was split into 360 separate channels through which water flowed so languidly that astonished local women could indeed wander across the trickling stream without hoisting their skirts. His anger assuaged, the King of Persia instructed his exhausted army to resume the march to Babylon.
Alain de Botton relating a tale from Herodotus’s Histories, in The Consolations of Philosophy.
Serves that river right!
This was one of the examples, collected by the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca, of the feeling of being persecuted by inanimate objects.
If you’ve ever bashed an over-designed flashlight to bits for sullenly denying you access to its battery compartment, or lost the use of a thermal jacket after ripping away its jammed zip, then you know what was going on in Cyrus’s head that summer.