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The Zarathustrian Persian King Artaxerxes II imagined he could detect the moral turpitude of his enemies by the condition of their defecation. When it was discovered that Mithridates had killed a member of the royal family (Cyrus the Younger) in 401 BCE, Artaxerxes ordered his death by an unusually cruel means:

“Taking two troughs that were made to fit closely together, they laid Mithradates on his back inside one of them. Then they fit the other on top so that the man’s head, feet and hands stuck out while it covered the rest of his body. They gave him food, pricking his eyes to force him when he resisted. They also poured milk mixed with honey into his mouth, and they poured it over his face. Then they turned his eyes constantly toward the sun, and a multitude of flies settled down, covering his face. Meanwhile, inside, the man did what it is necessary for people to do when they have drunk and eaten. Worms and maggots boiled up from the decay and putrefaction of his excrement, and these ate away his body, boring into his interior. When he was dead and the top was removed, people saw his flesh all eaten away and swarms of such animals surrounding his vitals, eating them and leeching at them. Thus Mithridates was gradually destroyed over seventeen days, until he finally died.”

(Artaxerxes XVI.2-4)

According to Bruce Lincoln’s recent interpretation of the ordeal, for the spectators of Mithradates’ rotting and worm-infested flesh, his condition would be evidence of moral corruption. The king’s men had fed him only milk and honey, associated with goodness, light, happiness, and peace. Likewise, the land which was promised in the Bible to Israel is also described as “a land of milk and honey,” indicating its bounteous goodness and paradaisical quality. So, the troughs in which Mithridates was confined represented a reverse of the Persian conception of Paradise. Both the troughs and the walled gardens known as paradaida (Paradise) separated inner and outer spaces, erecting boundaries between corrupt and pure zones. But in the case of the troughs, the king and his men were standing guiltless outside in the light, while the accused was inside in the darkness. The trough ordeal served to prove Mithridates’ guilt, for only liars would transform pure milk and honey into impure maggots. It demonstrated that Mithridates’ body was inhabited by demons, for a pure body (as for example the king’s own body) ought not to produce such things.

Mithridates “vermin-laden excrement thus bore graphic witness to the corruption (moral and physical) of his body and the demons resident therein.”

(Bruce Lincoln, Religion, Empire & Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, with a Postscript on Abu Ghraib. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2007: 93.)

Lincoln perceives two phases in the history of the Persian Empire. First comes an initial attempt to justify an empire centred in Persia as a divinely commanded plan to rebuild Paradise. Then, comes a stage of declining credibility, in which the empire has to work harder and harder to convince its people that its repugnant actions are pure and that its enemies are on the side of deceit and immorality. As Lincoln notes, the longer there exists an empire which defends a dualistic conception of good versus evil, a theology of election or manifest destiny and a sense of soteriological mission to the great unwashed in order to justify imperial violence, the greater the conflict which is produced “between sacred discourse and bestial practice.” The discourse gets stretched to the limit, issues get blurred, appeals to divine purpose increase, scapegoats get flogged, devotion to tradition gets reasserted stronger than ever, and the slightest criticism gets slandered or eliminated – “all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.”

And one day, Lincoln concludes, it all ends up like this:

“Sooner or later, the day comes when the king is driven to brandish his critic’s shit as evidence that the man was a demon, the king himself presumably being shitless and divine.”

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