Peroz I (or Pirouz) was a Persian king who wore the royal diadem from about A.D. 459 to 484. The Greek historian Procopius (I.4.18) relates a great fable about him and his pearl, which we will reproduce here. As is often the case with these enchanting old tales, the reader will be asked to suspend his credulity as to the fable’s literal truth, while being mindful of its deeper purpose as a moral exemplar.
On the coast of the Persian Gulf–noted as a source in antiquity for fine pearls–there was an oyster bed which held a pearl of rare size and beauty. As the oyster often opened its shell to display its precious content to the undersea creatures, a shark soon caught sight of it. The ferocious man-eater was captivated by the pearl, and would go out of its way to lay eyes on it.
A fisherman soon began to notice what was happening and went to investigate the sea floor himself. He eventually reported the existence of the pearl to the king’s officials in the area, and word of the great find made its way back to the imperial household. Peroz asked the fisherman to acquire the pearl and bring it to him. But the danger posed by the shark loomed large. He eventually agreed, writing this note to the king. The exquisite and polite language is typical of old Persia:
My master, precious to a man is money, more precious still is his life, but most prized of all are his children. Because of his love for them a man is compelled by nature and might perhaps dare anything. Now I intend to make trial of the monster and hope to make you the master of the pearl. If I succeed in this struggle, it is plain that I will be ranked among the blessed…
But if it turns out that I am devoured by this monster, it will be your responsibility, O king, to compensate my children for their father’s death…Thus even after my death I will still be a wage-earner for those closest to me, and you will win greater fame for your goodness. In helping my children you will do well by me, who will have no power to thank you for the benefit. For generosity is purest when it is displayed toward the dead.
The fisherman then turned to his dangerous task. He would try to snatch the gem from under the watchful eyes of the shark before the beast could sink its teeth in him. He watched the shark carefully, hoping to seize an opportunity to move against the pearl while the shark was distracted. This he did; he plunged into the water and got hold of the oyster, and made his way furiously back to shore.
But the shark saw him, and pursued him with a fury. Seeing that he was about to be overtaken, the fisherman tossed the pearl-laden oyster to his helpers on shore before the shark caught up with him and killed him. He had accomplished his mission, but at the cost of his life. The pearl was brought to king Peroz, and he was told all the details on its bloody acquisition. He was so moved by the story that he made the pearl a prized possession of his, and fashioned it into a prominent ear-ornament.
Some years later, Peroz decided to go to war against a Hunnic people called the Ephthalitai, or the “White Huns.” According to Procopius,
Their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia and their city, called Gorgo, is located near the Persian frontier, and at that point there are frequent contests concerning boundaries between them. They are not nomads like the other Hunnic peoples, but since ancient times have established fertile lands.
Peroz had been insulted by the Ephthalitai and decided to teach them a lesson. But the Huns were clever and somehow discovered his plans and line of march; to thwart him, they dug a series of deadfall pits along roads he was certain to travel. The Huns set their stratagem, then waited. By using a decoy, the Huns were able to bait Peroz and his war-party into following them on horses at full gallop. The king and his men were led right into the Huns’ terrible trap; they and their horses plunged headlong into the pits, creating a terrible spectacle.
And it is said that, right before Peroz was about to fall to his death, he snatched off the wondrous pearl that hung from his ear–the very same pearl the poor fisherman had given him years before–so that no king after him could wear it. And after his death, it was apparently never found, despite attempts by the Ephthalitai to locate it. Death had brought it to the attention of man; and with death it departed those same attentions.
So it is that precious objects inspire men to foolish feats of daring, and, at the same time, confuse their judgments until their last mortal moments. The nature of worldly riches remains, in the end, transitory.
This is the story of Peroz’s pearl, as it is told by Procopius.
Find out more about the importance of myths in my Thirty-Seven.