I was at the busy port of Halicarnassus one day, when I stopped at the city square to listen to a storyteller. He told grand tales of the magnificent kings of Persia who dwelt in gleaming palaces, who demanded tribute from thousands of kinds of people: gold from the Indians, warhorses from the Medes, jewels from the Aghans, silver from the Egyptians, soldiers from the wildmen of the north. These great kings never showed their faces to the common people, and even the princes and nobles at his court could not laugh or spit in his presence. They had to cover their mouths when they were around him, in order not to pollute the air that the Great King breathed. Now I myself take these fairytales lightly. If no one has ever seen the king, where do these stories come from? But one particular story struck my fancy.
When Darius, son of Hystaspes became king of the Persians, he decided to see what traditions his subjects held. The king who had come before him, the storyteller said, had not respected his subjects’ traditions, and they hated him for that. Now King Darius summoned into his presence a group of Greeks, and then some men of the Callatiae, a tribe from India. First Darius asked the Greeks, “How much money would you accept in order to eat the dead bodies of your fathers?” You see, the Greeks traditionally bury their dead and perform funeral rites for them. For great men, they give speeches and hold funeral games. So of course the Greeks were disgusted, and said they would not do this for all the money in the world.
Next Darius turned to the Callatiae, and asked them, “How much money would you accept in order to burn the dead bodies of your fathers?” Now the Callatiae do in fact eat the bodies of their parents, and were disgusted, like the Greeks, at what Darius had asked them. “Not for all the money in the world!” they cried.
And what is so special about this story? I for my part doubt that it ever took place. But what I do know now is that tradition is powerful, perhaps even more powerful than the Great King of Persia. A great king who rules the entire world may ask a man to do something, even force him to do it. But even then he can dare to refuse. Tradition, though it is different from people to people, tells men what to do and what not to do. It seems that all men are ruled by something greater than fear of the king. And that’s no small encouragement for little men like you and me, eh?