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  • James Houser

530 BC - Cyrus the Great & the Persian Empire

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

DECEMBER 4 - 530 BC. The greatest empire the world has ever seen has come together. A nomadic people known to later historians as the Persians have come to dominate the Ancient Near East from Greece in the west to India in the east under their King of Kings, Cyrus the Great. But today Cyrus the Great will die. How does the King of the World finally leave this mortal coil? Depends on who you ask. Either way, the Persian Empire is on the rise.

The Persian Empire is best known today as the nemesis of the Greek cities in the time of Leonidas, but in its heyday this giant realm dominated the known world for about two hundred years. Its accomplishments and organization were brilliant and surpassed anything that came before, and kick-started an Iranian civilization that remains vibrant and powerful to the present day. At its height, the Persian Empire reigned over 40% of the world’s population and exercised effective control over almost all the civilized areas of the Western World. There is a very strong argument that Western Civilization owes as much to the Persians as it does to the Greeks, though those influences are more subtle than the Greek traditions of philosophy, art and literature.

It’s worth pointing out just how staggeringly old human civilization was even when the Persians began their rise. The earliest “empires” that could really deserve the name, the Pharaohs’ reign in Egypt and the Sumerian super-states of modern Iraq, dated back to the 2200s BC or earlier. The Persians began their rise in the early 500s BC. This means that the empire of, say, Sargon of Akkad (around 2284 BC) was as ancient to Cyrus the Great as the Roman Empire is ancient to us. That’s the level of separation we’re dealing with here. When Cyrus and his Persians set out to unify the lands of the ancient world, they were walking well-worn paths that many had trod before them. Cyrus is ancient to us, but there were ruins on the landscape that were ancient to Cyrus.

But ancient history is a fickle beast. What we “know” from the story of Cyrus the Great is something like a game of telephone. Our accounts of his life were written long after he died, and the only really detailed one comes from the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus is one of the first true authors of history whose work has survived. Unlike the steles and inscriptions and carvings we find in Egypt or Iraq or Syria, saying things like “In this year King Evil slew ten thousand men and cast them in the fire” or some crap like that, Herodotus wasn’t working for any one ruler or dynasty and trying to make them look good. He was just going around, writing down stuff he saw and stories he heard and trying to make sense of it.

If that doesn’t sound like the best foundation for a coherent history of the world, well, it’s not. Herodotus’s “The Histories” sounds more like a gossipy neighbor than an analytical professional. A few decades later, Thucydides – author of “History of the Peloponnesian War” – would deride Herodotus, calling him a story-teller and accusing him of making stuff up. To be fair to Herodotus, he probably didn’t make up much of what he wrote down. To be honest, though, Herodotus did write down a bunch of stuff he “heard” with an uncritical eye. “The Histories” often contains multiple different versions of the same event, with Herodotus basically saying “so this is what this guy said, I don’t know, you figure it out.” It’s like someone going down the street and asking passersby about a current event, and then putting it all out in an article and saying “Yeah idk what the hell is going on, man. This is what these people said, they’re probably lying, who knows.”

Unfortunately for US, Herodotus is our main source for the life of Cyrus the Great. He travelled across the Persian Empire in his time to gather the narrative of the Persian Kings to work into his great epic, something no one else did at the time. Herodotus’s “The Histories” mainly tells the story of the rise of the Persian Empire and the great war between Greece and Persia, including the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. All the juiciest details of this great story, which I’ve been giving you chunks of all year, come straight from Herodotus.

This is one of the big problems that historians run into with ancient history. Yeah, Herodotus is kind of a kooky source. We have no idea whether his versions of any event are true or something he got from a drunk dude in the street with no factual basis, but in a lot of cases his version is the only version we have. And a lot of his information that was discounted in his lifetime, or even much later, has been confirmed by archaeology or further research. Herodotus reported that Scythian women fought alongside their men, for instance, and most people thought this was bullshit – until archaeology of Scythian burial sites revealed warrior’s tombs containing the skeletons of women. Sometimes the rumor mill DOES churn up the truth.

So when I give you the Herodotus version of Cyrus the Great, bear with me. If it sounds unbelievable, you may well be right – or not. Stranger things have happened. Plus, the Herodotus version is much more fun than me talking about different inscriptions and weird fragments of tablets found throughout the centuries. It’s got some punch to it.

In the Herodotus version of Cyrus’s early life, the great ruler Astyages was King of Media around 600 BC. At some point, he had a dream that his daughter Mandane – the wife of the allied King of Persia to the south - grew a bunch of vines from her nether regions that covered his entire realm. His soothsayers told him that this dream meant Mandane’s child would overthrow him and become King of Media. From his capital of Ecbatana, in modern northwest Iran, Astyages commanded that the child be killed. The Median general Harpagus was commanded to carry out this deed, but delegated the task to a farmer who concealed the baby and raised him as a son. This baby, of course, was Cyrus.

When Astyages found out that the child was still alive, Cyrus was exiled and sent to live with his mom and the King of Persia down south, but Astyages had a special punishment in mind for Harpagus. He had Harpagus’s son killed, cooked, and served to the unfortunate general at a banquet; only after Harpagus had eaten his fill did Astyages bring out the son’s head to shock Harpagus into realizing what he had done. This would become critical later, when Harpagus would switch sides from his king to Cyrus at a critical moment in their war, gaining revenge for his son and securing Cyrus’s triumph.

Does this story sound absolutely batshit to you? Yeah, it reeks of something Herodotus picked up in a bar. “Oh that sounds awesome! Let me write that down.” It also notably resembles other stories of the era where a soon-to-be-born child is predicted to kill a ruler, so the ruler orders the child to be murdered – and in the process inadvertently brings about his own demise. Think the Oedipus story, or Cronus and his children, or Moses in Egypt, or Jesus and Herod. But none of THOSE had cannibalism, although at least this story avoids incest, so that’s comforting.

The more mundane, boring version is that Cyrus was the son of Cambyses I, King of Persia, and Mandane of Media. The Persian inscriptions and records don’t mention the prophetic dream, or the nasty vagina vines, or the secret child being hidden, or the cannibalism; that stuff is unconfirmed. Cambyses was a vassal of the Median King Astyages, who ruled over most of modern Iran and much of the Caucasus. They were part of the “Achaemenian” dynasty, which alleged descent from an ancestor known as Achaemenes, a minor king from the 800s BC.

Persia at this time referred to a specific and small portion of modern Iran, in the southwest corner of the country near the Persian Gulf. In around 559 BC, Cambyses died and Cyrus became King of Persia. At some point around 550 BC, Astyages launched an attack against Cyrus, but found himself outmatched and was eventually defeated. This victory was achieved through the defection of a Median general named Harpagus. Cyrus spared Astyages’ life and married his daughter Amytis, a shrewd political move that kept several major Median vassals on board for Cyrus’s takeover. (That also means he married his aunt, so THERE’s your incest. It’s ancient history, so we knew it was in there somewhere.)

Of course, there’s a lot we have to guess at here. Herodotus provides a lot of fun details, but the only details we can really trust are the ones that are confirmed by outside sources. It’s clear that Cyrus defeated Astyages, and it’s clear that the war lasted three years. What’s hard to figure out is how, exactly, Cyrus – a vassal king serving under a major Near Eastern empire – managed to outmaneuver and defeat this larger empire, and what’s even harder is figuring out how Cyrus kept this empire together basically intact. The Medians were no slouches, but it seems like Cyrus basically just kicked Astyages off the top of the hierarchy and sat in his place and no one had much to say about it. Cyrus was, of course, Astyages’ grandson and most versions confirm this. The transition of power seems altogether smooth – way too smooth. Doubtless a lot of detail is missing here.

The details of Cyrus’s conquests from this point on are sketchy to say the least. Again, we have the problem of ancient history: we just have very, very few sources. If you made a timeline of the Persian Empire by year, at least half the years would just be big question marks. If Herodotus, the Nabonidus Chronicle (an ancient Babylonian text on clay tablets), or the great rock sculpture at Mount Behistun (in ancient Persian) don’t mention it, we just have no idea most of the time. So when I say “at some point” or “maybe”, I mean it. We think this might have happened, but who can say?

So some time around 547 BC, Cyrus and his new Persian Empire went toe-to-toe with their only real competitor in the ancient world. This was the Lydian Empire, based in modern Turkey and ruled by a king named Croesus. If Cyrus’s rise was going to be halted, this was where it was going to happen. The Lydians feared the rise of the Persians, and it’s possible that Croesus wanted to reinstall Astyages – his former ally – back on the throne. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, scarcely more credible than Herodotus, claimed that Croesus had gone to the Oracle of Delphi for advice, and the Oracle had told him “If you cross the border, a great empire will be destroyed.” Croesus, of course, assumed that she meant the Persian Empire; in the end, he destroyed his own.

The Lydians attacked the major city of Pteria to begin the war. When Cyrus took a large army to recapture the city, the two sides fought a great battle in view of the walls. Both sides used great masses of infantry and at least some cavalry, though this was still very primitive equipment. The stirrup had not been invented and wouldn’t be until 500 AD, which kept shock cavalry from being a truly decisive force. It is likely that the armies of both sides were lightly armored, mostly consisting of mass levies with missile weapons rather than tightly packed units of shock infantry like the Greeks would use. Sadly, we have very little idea of the Battle of Pteria; Herodotus only depicts the battle as sharp and fierce but indecisive. At the end of the day, Croesus retreated, believing he had inflicted great losses on Cyrus and accomplished his goal of crippling the Persian Empire.

Believing his foe exhausted for the time being, Croesus sent his army home to their fields, but Cyrus had secretly kept his army in readiness. After Croesus had dispersed his forces, Cyrus and the Persians attacked deep into Lydian territory. Croesus hastily called his troops together and met Cyrus in a decisive battle near the town of Thymbra. Greek historians record that Cyrus had a large number of archers, slingers, and spear-throwers, along with his famous Immortal infantry and a fair horde of light cavalry. Unusually, Cyrus had recruited a few camel units from the steppes of Central Asia, and these would decide the battle. Even though Croesus had to gather his forces together quickly, it is said that he significantly outnumbered Cyrus, and even had 300 heavy chariots to spearhead his advance.

The Battle of Thymbra, in 546 BC maybe, confirmed the rise of the Persian Empire to overwhelming supremacy in the Near East. Cyrus concentrated most of his forces in a large square formation, with units of cavalry stationed behind the square. The Lydian cavalry charged the square from all three sides, but ran into constant fire from the Persian archers. Harpagus, the general who may or may not have eaten his own son by accident and who certainly switched over to Cyrus during his rise to power, advised the King to position his camels near the flanks. The Lydian horses were unfamiliar with the smell of camels, and when Cyrus’s camel riders approached the attacking units, the enemy horses panicked and fled in all directions. This opened up a gap for the Persian cavalry to ride through, and soon the Lydian army crumbled. Within days, Croesus was in Persian hands, and the Lydian Empire was merged into the Persian realm.

Croesus’s fate is one of those stories with different endings. Herodotus claims that Cyrus treated Croesus well and made him an honored guest, and that Croesus stayed at the Persian court ever after; the Nabonidus Chronicle, on the other hand, claims that the defeated Lydian King was executed. Again, we have no way of telling one way or another. Some things are just beyond our knowledge without a time machine.

Sometime around 537 BC, Cyrus conquered the Babylonian Empire, which ruled most of Syria, Palestine and Iraq. When he entered Babylon, probably the greatest city in the world at the time, Cyrus is said to have found a foreign people in captivity there. These were the Hebrews, and it is at this point that the Bible presents yet another historical voice in the life of Cyrus. The Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II had destroyed the final remnant of the Davidian Kingdom of Israel and sent the surviving Jews into slavery and captivity in Babylon. Without asking anything in return, Cyrus is supposed to have freed the Hebrews from their decades-long captivity and allowed them to return to the old lands of Israel and rebuild their temple to Yahweh. For this, the Israelites praised Cyrus as one of the greatest rulers of all time and a savior; he is the only figure explicitly referred to as “Messiah” in the Old Testament. Isaiah 45:1 describes Cyrus as being anointed and blessed by God for the task of restoring the Jews to their homeland.

Cyrus’s Persian Empire, in fact, was a remarkable construction: the first true world empire in history. He exercised remarkable religious toleration and multi-ethnic cooperation for his time, treating the great realm less as a rule by the Persians and more as a cooperative project. The Cyrus Cylinder, an artifact in Mesopotamian cuneiform, was found in a dig in 1879 and sits in the British Museum; it is one of our only surviving sources of information that dates to Cyrus’s life. In it, Cyrus announces his conquest of Babylon and describes the reforms he undertakes as their new ruler. It is the first statement of religious toleration in human history. Local rulers and power structures were kept in place by their Persian conquerors, so long as they paid their taxes and contributed troops to the army. Local kings or officials were turned into satraps, or vassal rulers responsible for administering the Great King’s doctrines. Local religions were not only tolerated, but promoted, so long as the Great King was respected.

Cyrus’s empire worked not in spite of its light touch, but BECAUSE of its light touch; by allowing for great regional autonomy, the Persians gave far fewer reasons to rebel than the Akkadians, or Assyrians, or Babylonians before them. Whereas almost all other conquerors had ruled through brutality and terror, the Persians ruled with a holistic, lenient mentality.

But once you submitted, if you rebelled again…well. You got what was coming to you.

For all his magnificent accomplishments, including possibly the world’s first postal system, Cyrus seems fated to have died a violent death. Live by the sword and all that. I’ll give you Herodotus’s version.

By 530 BC, the aging Cyrus ruled an empire that stretched from Greece to India, from the borders of Russia to Arabia. But there were still peoples who resisted his rule. The largest and most difficult of these were the nomadic people of Central Asia, based in what is modern Kazakhstan. Known to the Greeks as the “Scythians,” the actual tribe was likely the Massagetae; they were a wild, terrifying people who fought as nomadic horse archers. In or around 530 BC, Cyrus led an expedition deep into the wide plains of Central Asia, desperate to bring the constantly raiding Scythians to heel.

The Massagetae ruler was, unusually, the Empress Tomyris. Cyrus at first tried to buy her peace and cooperation by proposing marriage, which she rejected. Cyrus then moved his armies north into Scythian territory in the face of Tomyris’s taunts, including an open challenge to battle. Cyrus tired of chasing after the elusive nomads, and used a clever ploy to catch a great portion of their forces in a trap. He pretended to retreat, leaving an empty and “abandoned” camp stocked with large amounts of wine and leaving a small force of expendable troops to hold the camp. When Tomyris’s general Spargapises attacked the camp, he and his troops found the wine; as Cyrus had guessed, the Scythians did not know the effects of wine, and drank until they were falling over intoxicated, as one does in the ancient world. Cyrus promptly launched a surprise attack, destroying the larger part of the Scythian force in a fight that resulted in Spargapises’ death.

The trouble, of course, was that Spargapises was Tomyris’s son. Filled with fury at Cyrus’s dirty trick and eager for vengeance for her son, Tomyris personally led a great ambush of her own on Cyrus’s advancing Persians. She sent a note to Cyrus, vowing that “Bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.” Herodotus described the conflict as the most terrible battle of the ancient world – one that ended in Cyrus’s death on the field. When the battle was finished and the Persians had scattered upon the death of their king, Tomyris found Cyrus’s body. She had his head cut off, an urn filled with the blood of the Persian dead, and tossed the King’s severed head into the urn, finally giving him all the blood he could handle.

Again, lurid as hell. You feel like Herodotus is giving you the overstated version of some sort of real events. Herodotus himself admits that this is one of many different versions of Cyrus’s death that he heard, and readily offers the fact that no one was around to see the aftermath and his source was reliable on many other matters.

Other historians disagree. It is clear, one way or another, that the Persians did come back from the frontier with Cyrus’s body. Several other Greek historians confirm that Cyrus died fighting on the Central Asian frontier, though they disagree about who and where he was fighting. One version has it that Tomyris was actually Cyrus’s wife by this point and killed him out of jealousy. The Greek historian Xenophon even claimed that Cyrus died of old age in his capital of Pasargadae, though he’s the only one to claim Cyrus died a peaceful death. As entertaining as the Herodotus story is, then…we just don’t know. We know Cyrus kicked it in 530 BC. We know it was PROBABLY on the northeastern border, and a Scythian Queen named Tomyris may or may not have been involved. But that’s all we can be sure of.

Still, Herodotus’ version is certainly the more entertaining of these events.

The uncertainty of Cyrus’s life is a stark reminder of how patchy history can be. What we don’t know vastly outweighs what we do when it comes to ancient, medieval, or even a lot of modern history. It’s ultimately a work in progress, the life’s work of many experts who try their best to patch together the missing pieces of the puzzle. As much as we would love to know everything, our knowledge of the past is imperfect, and often changes quickly; we are only human, studying people who were only human, reading dubious records written by smart men who were only human. We cannot perfectly assemble the past, but we can certainly make a go of it.

Cyrus the Great’s legacy is enormous and far-reaching. His imperial model would be mimicked by one of his greatest admirers, Alexander the Great; when Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, he basically just kept everything in place. It was Cyrus’s house, he had just moved in. Cyrus’s establishment of the Persian culture and language ultimately assumed a central role in Islamic identity and culture. He is also regarded by Iranians as the founder of the Iranian nation, similar to Moses for the Hebrews, Romulus for the Romans, or Arthur for the Britons. His legend and achievements were greatly admired throughout history, and show up in unexpected places; he is mentioned as a semi-mythical figure even in Viking sagas, and Thomas Jefferson considered Cyrus the model of a great leader. The tomb of Cyrus still stands today near Pasargadae (like I said, his body DID make it back from the frontier somehow), and is a UN World Heritage site.

The founder of the world’s first great empire, the father of Iran, the great conqueror and the liberator of the Hebrews, of legendary stature to the Greeks, Romans, Muslims, and everyone that followed him: is it any wonder that Cyrus earned the right to call himself King of Kings?

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