Supreme sacrifices have always been made in times of war, though few quite as drastic as the one a Persian named Zopyrus reportedly made of himself, and seven thousand others, in the sixth century BC. It was part of his devious plan to conquer Babylon, one of the most stubborn of Persia’s rebellious provinces, when Darius the Great came to the throne in 521. The Babylonians mocked the new monarch with the boast that he would rule over them when mules, which are sterile, bore foals. According to the Greek historian Herodotus – the source for this story – one of Zopyrus’s mules actually did reproduce, which he took as a sign that it was time to crush Babylon. His plan to defeat the enemy was to become one of them.

The method Zopyrus chose to infiltrate their ranks was inventive, if somewhat deranged. He sliced off his own nose and ears, shaved himself bald, and had himself whipped. He then went to Darius and requested that seven thousand soldiers, marked for death, be put at his disposal. The king, stunned by his subject’s extreme loyalty, could hardly refuse. Zopyrus next allowed himself to be captured by the Babylonians. He told them he had been mutilated by his capricious king and wanted to avenge himself by fighting for them. “And now,” he declared, “here I am, men of Babylon; and my coming will be gain to you, but loss – and that the severest – to Darius and his army. He little knows me if he thinks he can get away with the foul things he has done me – moreover, I know all the ins and outs of his plans.” The Babylonians had only to look at their hideously maimed guest to believe he was telling the truth. Zopyrus was given a military command.

As prearranged with Darius, one thousand of the sacrificial Persian soldiers were placed outside Babylon armed only with daggers. They were, quickly slaughtered by the Babylonian forces led by Zopyrus. A week later, two thousand more solders were similarly killed. Zopyrus was becoming a valuable warrior. His position was clinched three weeks after that when the last four thousand Persian soldiers were massacred. Now trust in Zopyrus was complete. He was given the ultimate reward for his services, which was complete control over Babylon’s defenses. This was what he had planned for all along. And though, now noseless, he could not actually smell victory, it was within his grasp at last. Zopyrus threw open the gates of Babylon and in rushed a Persian horde. A grateful king Darius gave his loyal subject the kingdom he had conquered to rule – tax free – for the rest of his life.


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