Cyrus (Kourosh in Persian; Kouros in Greek) is regarded as one of the most outstanding figures in history. His success in creating and maintaining the Achaemenian Empire was the result of an intelligent blending of diplomatic and military skills and his rule was tempered with wisdom and tact. The Persians called him 'father'; the Greeks, whom he conquered, saw him as 'a worthy ruler and lawgiver' and the Jews regarded him as 'the Lord's anointed'.
His ideals were high, as he laid down that no man was fit to rule unless, he was more capable than all of his subjects. As an administrator Cyrus' insight was great, and he showed himself both intelligent and reasonable, and thereby made his rule easier than that of his previous conquerors.
His humanity was equaled by his freedom from pride, which induced him to meet people on the same level, instead of affecting the remoteness and aloofness, which characterized the great monarchs who preceded and followed him.
History has further labeled him as a genius, diplomat, manager, and leader of men, the first great propagandist and able strategist. Cyrus was indeed worthy of the title "Great".
Cyrus the Great, came to power after deposing the Median king Astyages in 550 BC. After a series of victories over the Lydian king, Croesus, in 546 BC, and after his successful campaign against the Babylonians in 539 BC, Cyrus established a large empire stretching from the Mediterranean in the west to eastern Iran, and from the Black Sea in the north to Arabia.
Whereas security was his main concern in the east, the immense wealth of the Greek maritime cities of the Ionian coast complemented their value as strategic bases in the west.
He was killed in 530 BC during a campaign in the north-eastern part of his empire.
Xenophon in the Cyropaedia wrote:
"He is able to extend the fear of himself over so great a part of the world that he astonished all, and no one attempted anything against him. He was able to inspire all with so great a desire of pleasing him that they wished to be governed by his opinions".
Legend of the birth and rise of Cyrus the great
Herodotus, the Greek historian of the mid-fourth century BC, best describes the legend of Cyrus and the myths surrounding his birth. According to him, Astyages was Cyrus' maternal grandfather, who dreamt that his daughter Mandane produced so much water that it overran his city and the whole of Asia. When the holy men (magi) heard of the king's dream, they warned him of its consequences.
As a result, her father gave Mandane in marriage to a Persian called Cambyses who, although of noble descent, was considered by Astyages to be "much lower than a Mede of middle estate". Mandane and Cambyses were not married more than a year when Astyages once again had a dream; this time he saw a vine growing from inside Mandane's womb, which overshadowed the whole of Asia. The magi immediately saw a bad omen and told the king that Mandane's son would usurp his throne. The king sent for his pregnant daughter and kept her under tight guard until the child was born. Royal instructions were given to Harpagus, a Median nobleman and confidant of the king, that he should kill and dispose of the newly born child. But Harpagus decided not to kill the baby himself.
Instead, he called for a royal herdsman and ordered him to carry out the king's command, adding that he would be severely punished if the child was allowed to live. However, the herdsman's own wife had given birth to a still-born child during her husband's absence, and she convinced him to keep the royal baby and bring it up as their own. They then presented Harpagus with the corpse of their still-born child, claiming that it was the prince.
Cyrus soon developed into an outstanding young boy, overshadowing his friends and showing royal qualities of leadership. One day, during a game with other children, Cyrus was chosen to play king. Promptly assuming this role, he punished the son of a distinguished Mede who refused to take orders from him. The father of the badly beaten boy complained to King Astyages, who in turn called for Cyrus in order to punish him. When asked why he behaved in such a savage manner, Cyrus defended his action by explaining that, because he was playing the role of king, he had every reason to punish someone who did not obey his command. Astyages knew immediately that these were not the words of a herdsman's son and realized that the boy was his own grandson, the son of Mandane. Later the story was confirmed by the herdsman, albeit with great reluctance. Astyages then punished Harpagus for his disobedience by serving him the cooked remains of his own son's body at a royal dinner. On the advice of the magi, the king allowed Cyrus to return to Persia to his real parents.
Harpagus vowed to avenge his son's death and encouraged Cyrus to seize his grandfather's throne. Herodotus described how Harpagus wrote his plan on a piece of paper and inserted it into the belly of a slain hare, which had not yet been skinned. The skin was sewn up and the hare given to a trusted servant who, acting as a hunter, traveled to Persia and presented it to Cyrus, telling him to cut it open. After reading Harpagus' letter, Cyrus began to play with the idea of seizing power from Astyages. As part of a careful plan, he persuaded a number of the Persian tribes to side with him to throw off the yoke of Astyages and the Medes. Cyrus succeeded in overthrowing his grandfather and became the ruler of the united Medes and Persians....
This fascinating account by Herodotus is still regarded by some as a reliable source on Cyrus' birth and coming to power, although it has a strong mythological flavour.
Among later sources, one story is of particular interest. It describes how the baby Cyrus, abandoned in the woods by a shepherd, is fed by a dog until the shepherd returns with his wife and takes the infant into their care. This tale is similar to mythological stories surrounding the infancy of other heroes and rulers (for example, Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome, were saved and raised by a wolf).
The founder of the Persian monarchy was Hakhamanish or Achaemenes, Prince of the tribe of Pasargadae; his capital was the city bearing the same name, ruins of which still exist, dating from the era of Cyrus the Great. No definite acts can be traced to Achaemenes, after whom the dynasty was named; but the fact that his memory was highly revered tends to prove that he did in truth mold the Persian tribes into a nation before they stepped onto the stage of history. His son Chishpish or Teispes took advantage of the defenseless condition of Elam, after its overthrow by Assurbanipal, and occupied the district of Anshan, assuming the title of "Great King, King of Anshan.". Upon his death one of his sons succeeded to Anshan and the other to Fars.
As shown in the above table, this division started the double line, a reference made by Darius in the Behistun inscription:
"There are eight of my race who have been kings before me; I am the ninth. In a double line we have been kings".
Cyrus the descendant of a long line of kings should actually be called Cyrus II, because he was named after his grandfather. He looked upon himself as the 'king of Anshan' and belonged to the ruling house of Persia, but Cyrus also had Median connections through his mother, whose father was supposedly Astyages, king of the Medes.
According to Herodotus, the last ruler of Media, Astyages (reigned 585-550 B.C), was defeated by Cyrus in 549 BC. Ecbatana, the royal city, was captured in 550 BC.
The famous tablet of the Annals of Nabonidus tells the story:
"[His troops] he collected, and against Cyrus, king of Anshan,... he marched. As for Astyages, his troops revolted against him and he was seized (and) delivered to Cyrus. Cyrus (marched) to Ecbatana, the royal city. The silver, gold, goods and substance of Ecbatana he took to the land of Anshan..."
Cyrus thus established himself king of the Medes and the Persians.
We are still not sure when Cyrus succeeded to the Persian throne. He may have been asked to accept the throne upon his capture of Ecbatana, which after all was in his family. In any case we know that Hystaspes, father of Darius, never reigned; though he was the son of Arsames.
A few years later Croesus, the king of Lydia (notorious for his vast wealth), saw an opportunity with the change of regime in Iran to expand his kingdom. He crossed the river Halys, previously regarded as the boundary between the Lydians to the west and the Medes and Persians to the east. Cyrus hastened westwards, and after an encounter at Pteria forced Croesus to retire to his capital city of Sardis. In his retreat, Croesus lay waste the countryside to impede the march of the Persian army. He foolishly assumed that Cyrus would not follow as winter was nearing and he was already far from home. But Cyrus followed him, and in an historic battle in 546 BC on the open plains of Hermus defeated the Lydians using the now famous ruse of covering the front of his army with camels, the smell of which terrified Crosus' cavalry and made them unusable.
Croesus then retreated to his 'impregnable' capital Sardis, to wait it out until his allies assembled. Herodotus tells the story of its capture.
"When the city was blockaded for fourteen days, Cyrus offered a rich reward to the first man who entered it. A Mardian soldier saw a member of the garrison descend what looked like from a distance an inaccessible cliff, pick up his lost helmet and return. He noted the track and with a few comrades surprised the careless garrison, and opened the gates to the Persian army..."
Croesus was first taken to Persia as a prisoner but subsequently lived as a great noble at the royal court. That he was not put to death seems probable, for Cyrus also spared the life of Astyages. Croesus and other Ionians were the first of many foreigners, particularly Greeks, to enter the service of the royal household; for the Persians this was of immense practical and cultural benefit. The conquest of Asia Minor had brought them into contact with a civilization totally different from their own, in government, religion and concepts of life.
Cyrus left his general Harpagus behind to consolidate the Persian position, and shortly afterwards Lycia, Caria and even the Greek cities of Asia Minor were added to his newly founded Persian empire. The fact that the Persians encountered little initial resistance was partly due to the Greek merchants wishing to expand their commerce as part of a large empire. Already, much of the trade lay within the empire or in areas about to be conquered.
About this time Cyrus built himself a capital in keeping with a king of his status, at Pasargadae (the name may mean - the Persian settlement) in Farsi.
In 540 BC Cyrus turned his attention to Babylon. Nabonidus, who through conspiracy had taken the Babylonian throne, failed to maintain internal union and national security and military affairs had been handed to his son, Belshazzar. Further discontent in Babylonia was provoked by Nabonidus's religious policies, and Cyrus was able to take advantage of this internal division. The fact that Prince Belshazzar was more interested in amusement than in safeguarding his people aided Cryus' entry, which according to Herodotus and Xenophon, was effected by a daring piece of strategy.
"...While Belshazzar had a great feast, the Euphrates, which flowed through Babylon, was diverted by the Persians into a great trench constructed outside the walls. Thus the Persian army, on a night when the Babylonians were engaged in a religious festival, were able to advance along the dry, or at least passable, riverbed..." Owing to the size of the place, states Xenophon, "...the inhabitants of the central parts, long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had changed, but... continued dancing and reveling until they learnt of the capture."
Though there is no justification for rejecting this story the real reason for the weakness in Babylon's defense was probably due to the revolt of Urbaru.
Babylon reportedly surrendered to Cyrus with scarcely a struggle, and if there was no resistance it was because the city was taken completely by surprise. Cyrus, however, legitimized his succession as king by 'taking the hand of the god Bel' and his persuasive propaganda convinced the Babylonians that Marmuk, their supreme deity, had directed his steps towards the city.
Cyrus was now master of an area stretching from the Mediterranean to eastern Iran and from the black sea to the borders of Arabia. It was with some justification, then, that in the so-called 'Cyrus Cylinder' (housed at the British Museum) - a barrel shaped clay cylinder inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform recording the capture of Babylon - Cyrus describes himself as the 'ruler of the world.' Cyrus also relates how he repatriated various peoples and restored the 'images' (of the gods) to their shrines. The Jews are not mentioned by name, but it is clear from the Book of Ezra (I, I-3) that the captives deported by Nebuchadnezzar were at this time allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. This document was part of the doctrine which Cyrus sought to put into practice with a view to bringing peace to mankind, and later it was hailed as the first Charter of Human Rights. Although sections of the cylinder have been destroyed through time, the principal message of Cyrus' Declaration is readily apparent:
The famous clay cylinder of Cyrus the Great,
written in Babylonian cuneiform, recording his capture of Babylon in 539 BC.
|"I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of the land of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, son of Cambyses, ...king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, ...descendant of Teispes, ...progeny of an unending royal line, whose rule Bel and Nabu cherish, whose kingship they desire for their hearts' pleasures.|
When I, well-disposed, entered Babylon, I established the seat of government in the royal palace amidst jubilation and rejoicing. Marduk, the great God, caused the big-hearted inhabitants of Babylon to come to me. I sought daily to worship him. My numerous troops moved about undisturbed in the midst of Babylon. I did not allow any to terrorize the land of Sumer and Akkad. I kept in view the needs of Babylon and all its sanctuaries to promote their well being. The citizens of Babylon ...their dilapidated dwellings I restored. I put an end to their misfortunes...
...the cities of Ashur and Susa, Agade, Eshnuna, the cities of Zamban, Meurnu, Der, as far as the region of the land of Gutium, the holy cities beyond the Tigris whose sanctuaries had been in ruins over a long period, the gods whose abode is in the midst of them, I returned to the places and housed them in lasting abodes. I gathered together all their inhabitants and restored to them their dwellings..."
Throughout his reign, Cyrus was continually preoccupied with his eastern frontiers. Nine years after the conquest of Babylon he was killed in battle, though the circumstances of his death are not clear. Cyrus' body was brought back to Pasargade; his tomb, which still exists, consists of a single chamber built on a foundation course of six steps. According to Arrian (AD c. 96-180), the body was placed in a golden sarcophagus, and the tomb, as Plutarch (AD 46-120) reports bore the inscription.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae.
Photo by Henri Stierlin
"O, man, whoever thou art and whenever thou comes, for I know that thou wilt come, I am Cryus, and I won for the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this little earth which covers my body