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Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I

Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I

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Cyrus the Great or “Cyrus II” was King of Anshan from 559-530 BCE and known as the King of Four Corners of the world and founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus was the son of King Cambyses I of Anshan 580 to 559 BCE and his mother Mandane was the daughter of King Astyages of Media.

Illustration of relief of Cyrus the Great

In 559 BCE, Cyrus ascended the throne of Anshan. Cyrus, a vassal to King Astyages of the Umman-manda, rebelled against his grandfather Astyages in 553 BCE . With the support of several Median nobles, he marched on Ecbatana to overthrow Astyages, according to Herodotus.

Detail; Painting of king Astyages

While lines were drawn between those supporting the new power on the block, Cyrus, and those supporting the establishment, Astyages, many of the Umman-manda forces switched sides and joined Cyrus. In a seesaw war that went on for some time, Cyrus gained the upper hand and went on to defeat the Umman-manda and take Astyages prisoner. However, this was Herodotus’ view, and one must consider other sources.

Dream Visions and Conflicting Chronicles

The Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus, in his first year as ruler (around 556 or 555 BCE), states in his chronicle that he had a dream given to him by the god Marduk:

At the beginning of my lasting kingship they (the great gods) showed me a vision in a dream…. Marduk said to me, ‘The Umman-manda of whom thou speakest, he, his land, and the kings who go at his side, will not exist for much longer. At the beginning of the third year, Cyrus, king of Anshan, his youthful servant, will come forth. With his few forces he will rout the numerous forces of the Umman-manda. He will capture Astyages, the king of the Umman-manda, and will take him prisoner to his country.

Nabonidus, king of Babylonia. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Nabonidus had obviously received intelligence reports that Cyrus intended to rebel and declare independence from Astyages. Notice that in the inscription Nabonidus speaks of the Umman-manda as a burden to his own kingdom. However, on the flipside, his dreams were hope and fear of the unknown. Nabonidus was familiar with Astyages but Cyrus was still a mystery.

In Nabonidus seventh year, he had this to say about the conflict between Cyrus and Astyages:

[Astyages] mobilized [his army] and he marched against Cyrus, king of Anshan, to conquer…. the army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. They handed him over to Cyrus […]. Cyrus marched toward Ecbatana, the royal city. Silver, gold, goods, property, […] which he seized as booty [from] Ecbatana, he conveyed to Ansan. The goods [and] property of the army of […].

This inscription paints a very different story than that of Herodotus. The difference is Astyages was the one who invaded Anshan to put down the rebellion, but in turn, his army rebelled and handed him over to Cyrus. However, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong. It is just the opposite as to what happened, since Herodotus says Cyrus invaded Media which is partially right—but only after the battle and imprisonment of Astyages did Cyrus march on Media to take the Umman-manda capital, Ecbatana.

Marduk and the Dragon Marduk, chief god of Babylon, with his thunderbolts destroys Tiamat the dragon of primeval chaos. Drawing from relief

One must not forget that this was not the end of the war. Even though Astyages was now a prisoner, there were still three more years of bloodshed in store which would not end until around 550 BCE.


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  • Tomyris, The Female Warrior and Ruler Who May Have Killed Cyrus the Great
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Cyrus the Great’s Last Campaign: Who Killed Cyrus? - Part II

According to the popular Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus went on his last campaign to subdue the Massagetae, a tribe located in the southernmost portion of the steppe regions of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan around 530 BCE, where he would die in battle. But did he?

The reason to question the narrative surrounding Cyrus’ death is that there are conflicting reports. Therefore, it is crucial to examine the sources of Herodotus, Ctesias, Xenophon, and Berossus to find if Cyrus really died in battle against the Massagetae.

Life and legend

Cyrus was born between 590 and 580 bce , either in Media or, more probably, in Persis, the modern Fārs province of Iran. The meaning of his name is in dispute, for it is not known whether it was a personal name or a throne name given to him when he became a ruler. It is noteworthy that after the Achaemenian empire the name does not appear again in sources relating to Iran, which may indicate some special sense of the name.

Most scholars agree, however, that Cyrus the Great was at least the second of the name to rule in Persia. One cuneiform text in Akkadian—the language of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in the pre-Christian era—asserts he was the

son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of a family [which] always [exercised] kingship.

In any case, it is clear that Cyrus came from a long line of ruling chiefs.

The most important source for his life is the Greek historian Herodotus. The idealized biography by Xenophon is a work for the edification of the Greeks concerning the ideal ruler, rather than a historical treatise. It does, however, indicate the high esteem in which Cyrus was held, not only by his own people, the Persians, but by the Greeks and others. Herodotus says that the Persians called Cyrus their father, while later Achaemenian rulers were not so well regarded. The story of the childhood of Cyrus, as told by Herodotus with echoes in Xenophon, may be called a Cyrus legend since it obviously follows a pattern of folk beliefs about the almost superhuman qualities of the founder of a dynasty. Similar beliefs also exist about the founders of later dynasties throughout the history of Iran. According to the legend, Astyages, the king of the Medes and overlord of the Persians, gave his daughter in marriage to his vassal in Persis, a prince called Cambyses. From this marriage Cyrus was born. Astyages, having had a dream that the baby would grow up to overthrow him, ordered Cyrus slain. His chief adviser, however, instead gave the baby to a shepherd to raise. When he was 10 years old, Cyrus, because of his outstanding qualities, was discovered by Astyages, who, in spite of the dream, was persuaded to allow the boy to live. Cyrus, when he reached manhood in Persis, revolted against his maternal grandfather and overlord. Astyages marched against the rebel, but his army deserted him and surrendered to Cyrus in 550 bce .

Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I - History

Progress of Cyrus's conquests. -- The northern countries. -- The Scythians. -- Their warlike character. -- Cyrus's sons. -- His queen. -- Selfish views of Cyrus. -- Customs of the savages. -- Cyrus arrives at the Araxes. -- Difficulties of crossing the river. -- Embassage from Tomyris. -- Warning of Tomyris. -- Cyrus calls a council of war. -- Opinion of the officers. -- Dissent of Croesus. -- Speech of Croesus. -- His advice to Cyrus. -- Cyrus adopts the plan of Croesus. -- His reply to Tomyris. -- Forebodings of Cyrus. -- He appoints Cambyses regent. -- Hystaspes. -- His son Darius. -- Cyrus's dream. -- Hystaspes's commission. -- Cyrus marches into the queen's country. -- Success of the stratagem. -- Spargapizes taken prisoner. -- Tomyris's concern for her son's safety. -- Her conciliatory message. -- Mortification of Spargapizes. -- Cyrus gives him liberty within the camp. -- Death of Spargapizes. -- Grief and rage of Tomyris. -- The great battle. -- Cyrus is defeated and slain. -- Tomyris's treatment of Cyrus's body. -- Reflections. -- Hard-heartedness, selfishness, and cruelty characterize the ambitious.

After having made the conquest of the Babylonian empire, Cyrus found himself the sovereign of nearly all of Asia, so far as it was then known. Beyond his dominions there lay, on every side, according to the opinions which then prevailed, vast tracts of uninhabitable territory, desolate and impassable. These wildernesses were rendered unfit for man, sometimes by excessive heat, sometimes by excessive cold, sometimes from being parched by perpetual drought, which produced bare and desolate deserts, and sometimes by incessant rains, which drenched the country and filled it with morasses and fens. On the north was the great Caspian Sea, then almost wholly unexplored, and extending, as the ancients believed, to the Polar Ocean.

On the west side of the Caspian Sea were the Caucasian Mountains, which were supposed, in those days, to be the highest on the globe. In the neighborhood of these mountains there was a country, inhabited by a wild and half-savage people, who were called Scythians. This was, in fact, a sort of generic term, which was applied, in those days, to almost all the aboriginal tribes beyond the confines of civilization. The Scythians, however, if such they can properly be called, who lived on the borders of the Caspian Sea, were not wholly uncivilized. They possessed many of those mechanical arts which are the first to be matured among warlike nations. They had no iron or steel, but they were accustomed to work other metals, particularly gold and brass. They tipped their spears and javelins with brass, and made brazen plates for defensive armor, both for themselves and for their horses. They made, also, many ornaments and decorations of gold. These they attached to their helmets, their belts, and their banners. They were very formidable in war, being, like all other northern nations, perfectly desperate and reckless in battle. They were excellent horsemen, and had an abundance of horses with which to exercise their skill so that their armies consisted, like those of the Cossacks of modern times, of great bodies of cavalry.

The various campaigns and conquests by which Cyrus obtained possession of his extended dominions occupied an interval of about thirty years. It was near the close of this interval, when he was, in fact, advancing toward a late period of life, that he formed the plan of penetrating into these northern regions, with a view of adding them also to his domains.

He had two sons, Cambyses and Smerdis. His wife is said to have been a daughter of Astyages, and that he married her soon after his conquest of the kingdom of Media, in order to reconcile the Medians more easily to his sway, by making a Median princess their queen. Among the western nations of Europe such a marriage would be abhorred, Astyages having been Cyrus's grandfather but among the Orientals, in those days, alliances of this nature were not uncommon. It would seem that this queen was not living at the time that the events occurred which are to be related in this chapter. Her sons had grown up to maturity, and were now princes of great distinction.

One of the Scythian or northern nations to which we have referred were called the Massagetae. They formed a very extensive and powerful realm. They were governed, at this time, by a queen named Tomyris. She was a widow, past middle life. She had a son named Spargapizes, who had, like the sons of Cyrus, attained maturity, and was the heir to the throne. Spargapizes was, moreover, the commander-in-chief of the armies of the queen.

The first plan which Cyrus formed for the annexation of the realm of the Massagetae to his own dominions was by a matrimonial alliance. He accordingly raised an army and commenced a movement toward the north, sending, at the same time, embassadors before him into the country of the Massagetae, with offers of marriage to the queen. The queen knew very well that it was her dominions, and not herself, that constituted the great attraction for Cyrus, and, besides, she was of an age when ambition is a stronger passion than love. She refused the offers, and sent back word to Cyrus forbidding his approach.

Cyrus, however, continued to move on. The boundary between his dominions and those of the queen was at the River Araxes, a stream flowing from west to east, through the central parts of Asia, toward the Caspian Sea. As Cyrus advanced, he found the country growing more and more wild and desolate. It was inhabited by savage tribes, who lived on roots and herbs, and who were elevated very little, in any respect, above the wild beasts that roamed in the forests around them. They had one very singular custom, according to Herodotus. It seems that there was a plant which grew among them, that bore a fruit, whose fumes, when it was roasting on a fire, had an exhilarating effect, like that produced by wine. These savages, therefore, Herodotus says, were accustomed to assemble around a fire, in their convivial festivities, and to throw some of this fruit in the midst of it. The fumes emitted by the fruit would soon begin to intoxicate the whole circle, when they would throw on more fruit, and become more and more excited, until, at length, they would jump up, and dance about, and sing, in a state of complete inebriation.

Among such savages as these, and through the forests and wildernesses in which they lived, Cyrus advanced till he reached the Araxes. Here, after considering, for some time, by what means he could best pass the river, he determined to build a floating bridge, by means of boats and rafts obtained from the natives on the banks, or built for the purpose. It would be obviously much easier to transport the army by using these boats and rafts to float the men across, instead of constructing a bridge with them but this would not have been safe, for the transportation of the army by such a means would be gradual and slow and if the enemy were lurking in the neighborhood, and should make an attack upon them in the midst of the operation, while a part of the army were upon one bank and a part upon the other, and another portion still, perhaps, in boats upon the stream, the defeat and destruction of the whole would be almost inevitable. Cyrus planned the formation of the bridge, therefore, as a means of transporting his army in a body, and of landing them on the opposite bank in solid columns, which could be formed into order of battle without any delay.

While Cyrus was engaged in the work of constructing the bridge, embassadors appeared, who said that they had been sent from Tomyris. She had commissioned them, they said, to warn Cyrus to desist entirely from his designs upon her kingdom, and to return to his own. This would be the wisest course, too, Tomyris said, for himself, and she counseled him, for his own welfare, to follow it. He could not foresee the result, if he should invade her dominions and encounter her armies. Fortune had favored him thus far, it was true, but fortune might change, and he might find himself, before he was aware, at the end of his victories. Still, she said, she had no expectation that he would be disposed to listen to this warning and advice, and, on her part, she had no objection to his persevering in his invasion. She did not fear him. He need not put himself to the expense and trouble of building a bridge across the Araxes. She would agree to withdraw all her forces three days' march into her own country, so that he might cross the river safely and at his leisure, and she would await him at the place where she should have encamped or, if he preferred it, she would cross the river and meet him on his own side. In that case, he must retire three days' march from the river, so as to afford her the same opportunity to make the passage undisturbed which she had offered him. She would then come over and march on to attack him. She gave Cyrus his option which branch of this alternative to choose.

Cyrus called a council of war to consider the question. He laid the case before his officers and generals, and asked for their opinion. They were unanimously agreed that it would be best for him to accede to the last of the two proposals made to him, viz., to draw back three days' journey toward his own dominions, and wait for Tomyris to come and attack him there.

There was, however, one person present at this consultation, though not regularly a member of the council, who gave Cyrus different advice. This was Croesus, the fallen king of Lydia. Ever since the time of his captivity, he had been retained in the camp and in the household of Cyrus, and had often accompanied him in his expeditions and campaigns. Though a captive, he seems to have been a friend at least, the most friendly relations appeared to subsist between him and his conqueror and he often figures in history as a wise and honest counselor to Cyrus, in the various emergencies in which he was placed. He was present on this occasion, and he dissented from the opinion which was expressed by the officers of the army.

"I ought to apologize, perhaps," said he, "for presuming to offer any counsel, captive as I am but I have derived, in the school of calamity and misfortune in which I have been taught, some advantages for learning wisdom which you have never enjoyed. It seems to me that it will be much better for you not to fall back, but to advance and attack Tomyris in her own dominions for, if you retire in this manner, in the first place, the act itself is discreditable to you: it is a retreat. Then, if, in the battle that follows, Tomyris conquers you, she is already advanced three days' march into your dominions, and she may go on, and, before you can take measures for raising another army, make herself mistress of your empire. On the other hand, if, in the battle, you conquer her, you will be then six days' march back of the position which you would occupy if you were to advance now.

"I will propose," continued Croesus, "the following plan: Cross the river according to Tomyris's offer, and advance the three days' journey into her country. Leave a small part of your force there, with a great abundance of your most valuable baggage and supplies -- luxuries of all kinds, and rich wines, and such articles as the enemy will most value as plunder. Then fall back with the main body of your army toward the river again, in a secret manner, and encamp in an ambuscade. The enemy will attack your advanced detachment. They will conquer them. They will seize the stores and supplies, and will suppose that your whole army is vanquished. They will fall upon the plunder in disorder, and the discipline of their army will be overthrown. They will go to feasting upon the provisions and to drinking the wines, and then, when they are in the midst of their festivities and revelry, you can come back suddenly with the real strength of your army, and wholly overwhelm them."

Cyrus determined to adopt the plan which Croesus thus recommended. He accordingly gave answer to the embassadors of Tomyris that he would accede to the first of her proposals. If she would draw back from the river three days' march, he would cross it with his army as soon as practicable, and then come forward and attack her. The embassadors received this message, and departed to deliver it to their queen. She was faithful to her agreement, and drew her forces back to the place proposed, and left them there, encamped under the command of her son.

Cyrus seems to have felt some forebodings in respect to the manner in which this expedition was to end. He was advanced in life, and not now as well able as he once was to endure the privations and hardships of such campaigns. Then, the incursion which he was to make was into a remote, and wild, and dangerous country and he could not but be aware that he might never return. Perhaps he may have had some compunctions of conscience, too, at thus wantonly disturbing the peace and invading the territories of an innocent neighbor, and his mind may have been the less at ease on that account. At any rate, he resolved to settle the affairs of his government before he set out, in order to secure both the tranquillity of the country while he should be absent, and the regular transmission of his power to his descendants in case he should never return.

Accordingly, in a very formal manner, and in the presence of all his army, he delegated his power to Cambyses, his son, constituting him regent of the realm during his absence. He committed Croesus to his son's special care, charging him to pay him every attention and honor. It was arranged that these persons, as well as a considerable portion of the army, and a large number of attendants that had followed the camp thus far, were not to accompany the expedition across the river, but were to remain behind and return to the capital. These arrangements being all thus finally made, Cyrus took leave of his son and of Croesus, crossed the river with that part of the army which was to proceed, and commenced his march.

The uneasiness and anxiety which Cyrus seems to have felt in respect to his future fate on this memorable march affected even his dreams. It seems that there was among the officers of his army a certain general named Hystaspes. He had a son named Darius, then a youth of about twenty years of age, who had been left at home, in Persia, when the army marched, not being old enough to accompany them. Cyrus dreamed, one night, immediately after crossing the river, that he saw this young Darius with wings on his shoulders, that extended, the one over Asia and the other over Europe, thus overshadowing the world. When Cyrus awoke and reflected upon his dream, it seemed to him to portend that Darius might be aspiring to the government of his empire. He considered it a warning intended to put him on his guard.

When he awoke in the morning, he sent for Hystaspes, and related to him his dream. "I am satisfied," said he, "that it denotes that your son is forming ambitious and treasonable designs. Do you, therefore, return home, and arrest him in this fatal course. Secure him, and let him be ready to give me an account of his conduct when I shall return."

Hystaspes, having received this commission, left the army and returned. The name of this Hystaspes acquired a historical immortality in a very singular way, that is, by being always used as a part of the appellation by which to designate his distinguished son. In after years Darius did attain to a very extended power. He became Darius the Great. As, however, there were several other Persian monarchs called Darius, some of whom were nearly as great as this the first of the name, the usage was gradually established of calling him Darius Hystaspes and thus the name of the father has become familiar to all mankind, simply as a consequence and pendant to the celebrity of the son.

After sending off Hystaspes, Cyrus went on. He followed, in all respects, the plan of Croesus. He marched his army into the country of Tomyris, and advanced until he reached the point agreed upon. Here he stationed a feeble portion of his army, with great stores of provisions and wines, and abundance of such articles as would be prized by the barbarians as booty. He then drew back with the main body of his army toward the Araxes, and concealed his forces in a hidden encampment. The result was as Croesus had anticipated. The body which he had left was attacked by the troops of Tomyris, and effectually routed. The provisions and stores fell into the hands of the victors. They gave themselves up to the most unbounded joy, and their whole camp was soon a universal scene of rioting and excess. Even the commander, Spargapizes, Tomyris's son, became intoxicated with the wine.

While things were in this state, the main body of the army of Cyrus returned suddenly and unexpectedly, and fell upon their now helpless enemies with a force which entirely overwhelmed them. The booty was recovered, large numbers of the enemy were slain, and others were taken prisoners. Spargapizes himself was captured his hands were bound he was taken into Cyrus's camp, and closely guarded.

The result of this stratagem, triumphantly successful as it was, would have settled the contest, and made Cyrus master of the whole realm, if as he, at the time, supposed was the case, the main body of Tomyris's forces had been engaged in this battle but it seems that Tomyris had learned, by reconnoiterers and spies, how large a force there was in Cyrus's camp, and had only sent a detachment of her own troops to attack them, not judging it necessary to call out the whole. Two thirds of her army remained still uninjured. With this large force she would undoubtedly have advanced without any delay to attack Cyrus again, were it not for her maternal concern for the safety of her son. He was in Cyrus's power, a helpless captive, and she did not know to what cruelties he would be exposed if Cyrus were to be exasperated against her. While her heart, therefore, was burning with resentment and anger, and with an almost uncontrollable thirst for revenge, her hand was restrained. She kept back her army, and sent to Cyrus a conciliatory message.

She said to Cyrus that he had no cause to be specially elated at his victory that it was only one third of her forces that had been engaged, and that with the remainder she held him completely in her power. She urged him, therefore, to be satisfied with the injury which he had already inflicted upon her by destroying one third of her army, and to liberate her son, retire from her dominions, and leave her in peace. If he would do so, she would not molest him in his departure but if he would not, she swore by the sun, the great god which she and her countrymen adored, that, insatiable as he was for blood, she would give it to him till he had his fill.

Of course Cyrus was not to be frightened by such threats as these. He refused to deliver up the captive prince, or to withdraw from the country, and both parties began to prepare again for war.

Spargapizes was intoxicated when he was taken, and was unconscious of the calamity which had befallen him. When at length he awoke from his stupor, and learned the full extent of his misfortune, and of the indelible disgrace which he had incurred, he was overwhelmed with astonishment, disappointment, and shame. The more he reflected upon his condition, the more hopeless it seemed. Even if his life were to be spared, and if he were to recover his liberty, he never could recover his honor. The ignominy of such a defeat and such a captivity, he knew well, must be indelible.

He begged Cyrus to loosen his bonds and allow him personal liberty within the camp. Cyrus, pitying, perhaps, his misfortunes, and the deep dejection and distress which they occasioned, acceded to this request. Spargapizes watched an opportunity to seize a weapon when he was not observed by his guards, and killed himself.

His mother Tomyris, when she heard of his fate, was frantic with grief and rage. She considered Cyrus as the wanton destroyer of the peace of her kingdom and the murderer of her son, and she had now no longer any reason for restraining her thirst for revenge. She immediately began to concentrate her forces, and to summon all the additional troops that she could obtain from every part of her kingdom. Cyrus, too, began in earnest to strengthen his lines, and to prepare for the great final struggle.

At length the armies approached each other, and the battle began. The attack was commenced by the archers on either side, who shot showers of arrows at their opponents as they were advancing. When the arrows were spent, the men fought hand to hand, with spears, and javelins, and swords. The Persians fought desperately, for they fought for their lives. They were in the heart of an enemy's country, with a broad river behind them to cut off their retreat, and they were contending with a wild and savage foe, whose natural barbarity was rendered still more ferocious and terrible than ever by the exasperation which they felt, in sympathy with their injured queen. For a long time it was wholly uncertain which side would win the day. The advantage, here and there along the lines, was in some places on one side, and in some places on the other but, though overpowered and beaten, the several bands, whether of Persians or Scythians, would neither retreat nor surrender, but the survivors, when their comrades had fallen, continued to fight on till they were all slain. It was evident, at last, that the Scythians were gaining the day. When night came on, the Persian army was found to be almost wholly destroyed the remnant dispersed. When all was over, the Scythians, in exploring the field, found the dead body of Cyrus among the other ghastly and mutilated remains which covered the ground. They took it up with a ferocious and exulting joy, and carried it to Tomyris.

Tomyris treated it with every possible indignity. She cut and mutilated the lifeless form as if it could still feel the injuries inflicted by her insane revenge. "Miserable wretch!" said she "though I am in the end your conqueror, you have ruined my peace and happiness forever. You have murdered my son. But I promised you your fill of blood, and you shall have it." So saying, she filled a can with Persian blood, obtained, probably, by the execution of her captives, and, cutting off the head of her victim from the body, she plunged it in, exclaiming, "Drink there, insatiable monster, till your murderous thirst is satisfied."

This was the end of Cyrus. Cambyses, his son, whom he had appointed regent during his absence, succeeded quietly to the government of his vast dominions.

In reflecting on this melancholy termination of this great conqueror's history, our minds naturally revert to the scenes of his childhood, and we wonder that so amiable, and gentle, and generous a boy should become so selfish, and unfeeling, and overbearing as a man. But such are the natural and inevitable effects of ambition and an inordinate love of power. The history of a conqueror is always a tragical and melancholy tale. He begins life with an exhibition of great and noble qualities, which awaken in us, who read his history, the same admiration that was felt for him, personally, by his friends and countrymen while he lived, and on which the vast ascendency which he acquired over the minds of his fellow-men, and which led to his power and fame, was, in a great measure, founded. On the other hand, he ends life neglected, hated, and abhorred. His ambition has been gratified, but the gratification has brought with it no substantial peace or happiness on the contrary, it has filled his soul with uneasiness, discontent, suspiciousness, and misery. The histories of heroes would be far less painful in the perusal if we could reverse this moral change of character, so as to have the cruelty, the selfishness, and the oppression exhaust themselves in the comparatively unimportant transactions of early life, and the spirit of kindness, generosity, and beneficence blessing and beautifying its close. To be generous, disinterested, and noble, seems to be necessary as the precursor of great military success and to be hard-hearted, selfish, and cruel is the almost inevitable consequence of it. The exceptions to this rule, though some of them are very splendid, are yet very few.

8 Mahmud of Ghazni -- 680,000 Square Miles

Mahmud of Ghazni lived from 971-1030 A.D., was the first Sultan in history, and is credited as the founder of the Ghaznavid empire. Sultan had come to mean that he was the ruler of a great expanse of land that covered much of the middle east, in what is now Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some of India, along with a number of smaller countries. His conquests are largely attributed to the use of extremely powerful archers on horseback, using compound bows atop horses to speed across the battlefield and kill from great distance. Mahmud is possibly one of the best conquerors on this list, for despite his conquests he treasured learning, regularly bestowed honor onto wise and well read men, and created universities and mosques across the middle east and Asia. Though much of his wartime policy involved the death of infidels, or all those who did not believed the sect of Muslim that he did, he often tolerated religious groups so long as they didn't pose a military threat to him. The Mahmud of Ghanzi is undoubtedly a conqueror that fits more into the grey areas of despotism, as he in many ways showed a temperate and learned disposition while ruling his empire.

DARIUS THE GREAT, Part I - Administrating an Empire

[ABOVE: Relief stone depicting Darius the Great, the Behistun Inscription]

Born in 550 BC, Darius came to the throne following the Conspiracy of the Seven in 522 BC at the age of 28. He would rapidly go on to prove himself a more than competent military commander and a brilliant administrator of his empire. His opportunity to prove himself came very early on in his reign rebellions started through many people in the empire being in suspicion of him being a usurper, and Darius would spend three years putting them down with the aid of the royal household guard, known to the Greeks as the Immortals, so-called as their number seemed to never drop below ten-thousand. His conquests brought the empire to what would remain its territorial height, stretching from the Indus River in the east to the Bosphorus Straights - which separate mainland Europe from Asia - in the west.

With thanks to Cyrus and Cambyses, all peoples of Asia - except the allied Arabians - were now subject to the Persians. Darius's first act as king was to marry Cyrus’ two daughters: Atossa (previously married to Cambyses and then the Magi) and Artystone, as well as Parmys, the daughter of Cyrus’ son Smerdis, as well as the daughter of Otanes. He also ordered the erection of a stone statue of a man on horseback with the inscription:

“Darius the son of Hystaspes gained the Persian kingdom through the prowess of his horse.”

He added the name of the horse, as well as Oebares, the groom.



[ABOVE: The 20 Satrapies under Darius the Great]

His next act was the establishment of the empire’s 20 satrapies, each governed by their own satrap. Once this was achieved, he set about establishing the tribute required from each satrapy Satraps were the officials and satrapies were the provinces they governed, and the satraps had minimal interference from their higher-ups. Darius also set up the annual tax due from each satrapy, appointing agents, known as the “eyes of the king”, to overlook the satraps to make sure they weren’t overtaxing their citizens. Darius issued coins to facilitate trade and taxation further, a practice he took on from Croesus and the Lydian’s before, but unlike silver and gold ingots which needed to be weight to determine their worth, Darius’s coins, showing him as a warrior, had uniform values, making exchanges much easier. Those who paid in silver were to use the Babylonian Talent, while those paying up in gold were made to use the Euboïc talent.

With no system like this in place prior to his reign, Darius was often described as a retailer, while Cambyses was described as a master, having been “the cruel one”, and Cyrus was known as the father.

As per according to Herodotus in Book 3, I will now lest the 20 satrapies in order, and the amount of silver they were made to pay in tribute to the Persian king every year:

1) Ionians, Asian Magnesians, Aeolians, Carians, Lycians, Milyans and Pamphylians were made to pay 400 talents of silver.

2) Mysians, Lydians, Lasonians, Cabalians and Hytenneans contributed 500 talents.

3) Phrygians, Thracians, Paphlagonians, Mariandynians and Syrians were made to pay 360 talents.

4) Cilicians were made to pay 360 white horses a year and 500 silver talents, 140 of which went towards the cavalry’s upkeep in Cilicia. The rest went to the king himself.

5) The fifth satrapy was a region stretching from northern Syria down to the borders of Egypt, including Cyprus but excluding Arabia, and they were made to pay 350 talents.

6) Egypt, Libya and Cyrene together contributed 700 talents.

7) Sattagydae, Gandarians, Dadicae and the Aparytae tribes living to the east of Persia contributed 170 talents.

8) Susa, and the land of the Cissians, contributed 300 talents.

9) Babylon and surrounding Assyria contributed 1,000 talents, as well as 500 child eunuchs.

10) Media and the city of Ecbatana contributed 450 talents in total.

11) Various tribes around the Caspian Sea in northern Iran contributed 200 talents.

12) Bactria’s tribute totalled 360 talents.

13) The region around the Euxine Sea, including Armenia, contributed 400 talents.

14) Peoples around the Red Sea, including its many island communities, contributed 600 talents.

15) The Sacae and other east Caspian tribes handed in 250 talents of silver in tribute.

16) Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians and Arians contributed 300 talents.

17) Paricanians and Asiatic Ethiopians contributed 400 talents.

18) Matieneans, Saspeires and Alarodians contributed 200 talents.

19) Macrones, Mares, Moschians, Mossynoecians and Tibarenians together contributed 300 talents.

20) Indians, the most numerous of peoples in the known world at the time, contributed 360 talents of gold-dust.

[ABOVE: A golden daric, minted at Sardis, 6th century BC]

All of this tribute alone gave King Darius around 14,560 talents worth of silver alone. Further smaller tributes would be taken in from the Greek world - namely the Aegean Islands and Thessaly. This vast amount of wealth was melted down by the king who stored it solid in jars, slicing off as much as he needed when he needed it. The only peoples of the empire that was exempt from taxation was the Persian homeland itself, and some smaller specially selected exempt groups like the Ethiopians, Arabs and various people of the Caucasus like Colchis who each made their own voluntary donations.



The Persian Empire under Darius reached its territorial height, becoming the largest empire the world had ever seen at the time, so much so that it even encompassed parts of western India. So far east were they that Greeks who wrote of peoples of the world at the time didn’t know of any peoples that lived further than them they were on the edge of the then-known world. India was inhabited by various tribes (some were even nomadic) who spoke several different languages. Herodotus described how some tribes lived in swampy marshes and lived off a diet of raw fish caught from boats made of a single piece of cane, which were oared by men who wore clothing made of rushes. The nomadic Padaei tribe were known to treat their ill by contacting the patient’s closest friends and having them kill him, thinking that if that person were to waste away then his flesh would be forever spoiled A feast would follow after that person’s death, with the main food involved in said-feast being the deceased’s remains. They would also eat people who died of old age, although this was allegedly uncommon since people were eaten when taken in ill. Other Indian tribes were described to have other customs like only eating vegetables, not living in houses of any form and having sex in public spaces.

India was as far east as the Greeks and Persians knew of at the time, Arabia was as far south, Ethiopia was as far South-West and Europe was as far north and west.

Creatures known to both that lived in India were described as being larger than anywhere else in the world, and gold there was plentiful. Arabia was known as the only place where cassia, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh and rock-rose resin, none of which (except myrrh) was said to be easy to obtain The trees which produced the frankincense were often guarded by snakes, cassia was found in lakes guarded by aggressive bats, cinnamon sticks, used by large birds for their nests, had to be obtained by distracting the birds with lumps of meat too heavy for the birds’ nests to support, and rock-rose resin was taken directly from the beards of male goats. Ethiopia was known for its abundance of gold, elephants, exotic trees, ebony and people who were described as the tallest and most attractive known. The western extents of the rest of the then-known Europe were a little less known about. Herodotus, for example, did not know of the seas which bordered northern Europe, however Europe was the source of the Greek’s acquisition of amber, tin and even gold.


The Greeks who lived under Persian rule were treated no differently to the Jews: they also had gods of their own to be honoured and respected as per their customs. A Greek inscription from the second century AD has preserved a letter from Darius to one of his satraps:

“The king of kings Darius son Hystaspes to Gadatas his slave speaks thus: I understand that you are not completely obedient to my commands. Because you are cultivating my land, transplanting fruits beyond Euphrates to the parts of western Asia, I commend your diligence and therefore great favour shall lie for you in the house of the king. But because you bring to nothing my work for the gods, I shall give you, if you do not change, proof of my anger when I am wronged. For you have levied tribute on the sacred gardeners of Apollo and you have ordered them to till profane land, disregarding the will of my ancestors towards the god, who has spoken all truthfulness towards the Persians…”
- Greek Historical Inscription no. 12=35F


In some ways, Persia opened new opportunities for Greece the empire’s unity of all lands from Anatolia to Persia made travel easier and allowed more trade opportunities to flood to the Greeks, and both of these aspects were aided further by the establishment of the Royal Road. However, the Ionians trade was primarily naval-focused, and the most skilled of traders made their way to Susa. Ionians also ended up in employment on the imperial buildings back in the cities of Pasargadae, Susa and Persepolis, becoming well known experts in stone working. They worked on paintings, graffiti and their masons’ markings in Greek reveal their works across the empire. A trilingual inscription in Susa of Darius shows the international characterisation of the forces at work there:

“The stone-cutters who wrought the stone, those were Ionians and Sardians. The goldsmiths who wrought the gold, those were Medes and Egyptians. The men who wrought the wood, those were Sardians and Egyptians. The men who wrought the baked brick, those were Babylonians. Those men who adorned the wall, those were Medes and Egyptians.”
- Darius Susa F. 45-55 in Kent. Old Persian, pg.144

Persepolis’s treasury tablets in the early 5th century BC record the terms of service of the workforce, with two mentioning Greeks the workmen there were in receipt of subsidy rations or silver in lieu instead of real wages. They were thus part of compulsory work there instead of voluntary labour. Opportunities offered by Persia had next to no monetary importance to the Ionians. They lost their outlet for their mercenary service it’s likely that trade was hugely disrupted mainly thanks to the conquest of Egypt, and the campaigns into Thrace and Scythia.


[ABOVE: Rough diagram of a Qanat, an irrigation tunnel]

Darius’s improved irrigation system, originally in place since the reign of Cyrus, greatly expanded agricultural works, food surpluses and settlements throughout the empire’s largely parched land. These were irrigated thanks to “qanats” (irrigation tunnels) which moved water from underground water sources, and water bridges resembling the famous Roman aqueducts of later history carried more water to distant villages.


[ABOVE: The Royal Road, built under Darius, stretching from Sardis to Susa]

The eyes of the king, alongside trade caravans and soldiers, were easily and quickly transported across the empire via Darius’s new roads. The largest road built by Darius was the Royal Road, and it stretched from Ephesus in the west to Susa in the east, a distance of over 1,500 miles. It took trade caravans of donkeys and camels roughly three months to traverse, however royal dispatches could take around a single week thanks to a network of 111 equally spaced courier stations.


Zoroastrianism became the state religion under Darius to provide the diverse citizens a sense of identity. This religion, however, was not enforced on anyone who was following another religion, and they were left to freely practice their customs and traditions as they pleased in their satrapies. This allowance of his citizens to keep their identity aided in stimulating trade and productivity. Living standards rose, Persian dominance in the region remained entrenched and Persia would go on to exist as a political entity for over a thousand years to come, up until the Muslim conquests of the seventh century AD, with several old Persian traditions still existing in use even today.


[ABOVE: The Gate of All Nations at Perseoplis]

Persepolis was a palace-complex inaugurated by Darius in 518 BC, 37 miles away from the modern-day Iranian city of Shiraz. While construction begun under Darius, construction work was completed around a century afterwards by his successors. According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great, who invaded the Persian Empire in the 4th Century AD, required 5,000 mules and up to 20,000 camels just to transport the goods and treasures he found in the city itself.

[ABOVE: Reconstruction of the Apadana reception hall, by French architect Charles Chipiez, 19th century]

Along a stairway which led to the reception hall (Apadana), engraved reliefs show envoys from all corners of the empire giving tributary gifts to the king himself. Among them can be seen Indians offering gold dust, and Bactrians from modern-day Afghanistan offering camels. Writings engraved on it showcases Darius’s great pride in his grand creation he claimed the necessity to build the grand city was given to him by the gods themselves

“And so I built it, and I built it secure and beautiful and adequate, just as I was intending to.”


[ABOVE: Darius and 5 other Conspirators, including Intaphrenes, invoke the sun to become king. Art by Jacob Abbott, 19th century]

One of the Seven Conspirators, Intaphrenes, not long after the uprising he took part in, wanted to enter the Persian royal palace to partake in business with Darius. New rules implemented by Darius stated that any member of the Conspiracy of the Seven could indeed go in to the palace to see the king whenever they wished, unless the king was currently intimate with a woman. So while Intaphrenes thought it was thus his right to enter the palace at will, the gatekeepers would’t allow him to enter, claiming that Darius was currently in bed with a woman. Intaphrenes didn’t believe them though, so drew his sword, cut off their nose and ears and sent them to Darius. When they showed themselves to the Shah, fearing that the other Six conspirators had a hand in this, Darius sent for them to be questioned to see if they approved of what had just taken place. Eventually, Intaphrenes, and all his male relatives, were arrested and sentenced to death. When Intaphrenes’ wife approached, having broke down in tears, she was eventually allowed to save just one of them. She chose her brother, and not her husband or children, stating that since her parents were dead, she could never have another brother, but she could always get another husband and more children. Taking a liking to her response, Darius allowed her brother AND oldest son to live.


Around the same time of Cambyses’ illness, Cyrus’s governor of Sardis, Oroetes, wished to, unprovoked, capture and kill Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos. One reason for the attack may have been that Oroetes got into an argument with Mitrobates, governor of Dascylium, who boasted of his own achievements compared to Oroetes’, stating that Oroetes couldn’t even successfully conquer the tiny, neighbouring island of Samos, which had previously been taken over by Polycrates with only 15 hoplites. An alternate version to how this conflict began was that after Oroetes sent a message to Samos, the messenger found Polycrates laying on his couch, and treated their meeting with contempt as he lay facing the wall during the exchange, thus provoking Oroetes. Either one of these is supposedly the reasoning for Polycrates’ death.

[ABOVE: Oroetes attending the crucifixion of Polycrates, by Salvator Rosa, 17th century]

Either way, finding out about Polycrates’ plans to dominate the seas, Oroetes sent a message to Polycrates, stating that he knew of his plans but also knew that he didn’t have the resources to pull off his goal, so asked that Polycrates rescued him from Cambyses, who wanted to kill Oroetes, promising him in return all his wealth to aid in funding his ambitions to conquer the Aegean Islands. In need of money, Polycrates was happy to get this message. Polycrates thus sent his secretary to inspect Oroetes’ wealth, and when Oroetes heard that someone was coming to make financial inspections, he had his treasuries filled near to the top with stones, covering the top layer with the few gold coins he actually had. The inspection was made, and the secretary returned to Polycrates to report his findings. Polycrates readied to visit Oroetes himself, despite warnings not to by both the Oracle and his own daughter. Upon arriving in Magnesia, Oroetes had him killed, and his body crucified. He then had all Samians in Polycrates’ company go free, but the same cannot be said for the non-Samians and slaves.


During the Magi Revolt, Oroetes remained in Sardis to not aid the Persians in reclaiming their own throne, using his spare time to murder his political opponents, including Mitrobates. As well as for other crimes Oroetes committed, Darius wanted the man executed. An open war against him in such unstable times was not the best idea, especially as Oroetes had a large bodyguard unit and governed strong provinces. So instead, he gathered the most prominent Persian figures to his palace, and in a long speech to them, he asked for a volunteer to capture Oroetes, via cunning instead of brute force, after having killed a governor and his son, and anyone Darius had sent for. Thirty men agreed to carry out the mission, and so eager were they to each carry out the king’s orders personally that Darius had to order them by lottery. Bagaeus, son of Artontes, won the lottery, and so begun writing letters on several issues, sealing them with Darius’s seal and taking these letters to Oroetes in Sardis. Arriving in Oroetes’ presence, he opened the letters in front of him one at a time and handed them to Oroetes’ secretary as such. Bagaeus handed these letters to see if any members of Oroetes’ personal guard would join him in taking him down. The guards respected the letters and their message, so Bagaeus gave another letter to the secretary, which stated that Darius forbade the guard from being the personal guard for Oroetes anymore. Hearing this, the guards dropped their spears, and Bagaeus, confident he had won the guards over, handed one last letter to Oroetes, which stated that Darius wanted the soldiers of Sardis to have Oroetes killed, to which they complied.


[ABOVE: The Greek colony of Croton (Kroton), southern Italy]

Returning to Susa, Darius sprained and dislocated his ankle while dismounting his horse while out hunting. Usually, Darius always had an Egyptian doctor at hand in case of such an emergency, and the ones he did have at hand only made his ankle worse. Seven sleepless days passed, and on the eighth, Darius was made aware of a man named Democedes of Croton. At the time, he was in a group sent to death among Oroetes’ slaves, and while still in chains and dressed in rags, Democedes was taken to see Darius, who asked him if he was indeed a professional doctor and asked the men who brought him to his presence to collect spikes and whips. To this, Democedes confessed his medical knowledge wasn’t as precise as hoped, yet he’d spent enough time with competent doctors to know what he was doing. Democedes’ gentle Greek techniques allowed Darius to catch up on sleep, and he was soon able to get back on his feet. The doctor was rewarded with golden shackles and a visit to Darius’s wives.

Democedes would eventually go on to live in Polycrates’ court he was originally from Croton in southern Italy, but did not get along with his father, so left hastily for Aegina. Despite leaving with little professional medical equipment or knowledge, he quickly proved himself naturally medically inclined, quickly becoming an official physician on a salary, eventually being hired by Polycrates himself. After healing Darius, Democedes was granted a house, and became close to the king, eventually convincing him not to have Darius’s former Egyptian doctors be executed for failing to save him in the first place.

Eventually however, Atossa, Cyrus’s daughter and Darius’s wife, developed a growth on her breast. Democedes promised to take care of it, on the condition that she did whatever he asked of her, but nothing that would cause her great shame. Once she was made better, she did as Democedes asked later, while in bed with Darius, she carried out Democedes’ wishes, and asked Darius why, with so much power, he had not expanded the empire’s borders. She argued that the people of the empire would feel more confident being under the rule of a strong king, and would be too preoccupied with expanding the borders to wish to conspire against him. He replied that he was already making plans to bridge Asia to Europe, and invade Scythia, but Atossa voiced her referral to first invade Greece, saying that their women make good servants in reward and that Democedes, being a Greek, would make a good guide. Darius agreed, and thus sent some men to Greece, along with Democedes, to bring back to their king a detailed report on everything they see there. Setting sail from Phoenicia, the other Persian met sailed across the Greek coast and noted and mapped everything they could see, until they eventually reached Tarentum in southern Italy. However, thinking they could be spies, the city’s king, Aristophilides, removed their ships rudders and imprisoned the Persians. Meanwhile, Democedes visited the Italian city of Croton, and once in his native homeland, Aristophilides returned his new prisoners and all their ships equipment.

Following Democedes to Croton, the now-free Persians attempted to seize him. The people of Croton were left split between letting the Persians take him, with some fearing the power of the Persian empire. Eventually though, the Crotonians got their way, and Democedes was abandoned by the Persians in Italy, and thus also gave up trying to learn anything else about the Greek world, which is what they had set out to do in the first place. Before leaving though, Democedes asked the Persians to tell King Darius that he had been arranged to marry the daughter of Milo, a famous wrestler, who’s name meant a lot in the Persian court. It’s likely that Democedes had the marriage arranged to show Darius that he meant a lot in his own country too.

On their way from Croton back to Persia, the Persian men were shipwrecked on Iapygia. They were eventually taken into slavery, but a Tarentine exile called Gillus had them freed and brought back to Darius, who asked him what he wanted as a reward. After explaining his exile to the king, Gillus said he wished to return to Tarentum, but this was unsuccessful as the people would not take him back. So much for these events: these Persian men were the first Persians to come to the Greek world, and they had come ultimately as spies.

Top 10 Facts about Cyrus the Great

Cyrus II of Persia, commonly known as Cyrus the Great, and as Cyrus the Elder to the Greeks, was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great ruled in at a time before there was Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. The king of the Persian Empire inspired several leaders for centuries to come, including Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. But despite his legendary status, few people today know about Cyrus the Great’s history. Not only did Cyrus establish the Achaemenid dynasty, but he also implemented rules and structures that guided empires centuries later. He was such a cunning leader that he defeated the Lydian Empire with camels alone. Read these incredible facts about Cyrus the Great and you’ll pick a new favourite emperor. Let’s take a look at the top 10 facts about Cyrus the Great.

1. The debate about the meaning of his name

People have debated the meaning of Cyrus’s original name for centuries. Various languages ascribe different meanings to the name. According to Plutarch, Cyrus was named after the Sun, or “Kuros.” This was acknowledging the Persians’ culture as it had longstanding worship of the sun, making it seem plausible. However, another theory put forward claims that Cyrus’s name derived from an ancient Indo-European word which means “to humiliate.”

2. The story of his birth

It is not stated the exact year Cyrus was born, but historians have determined that he came into the world at some point between 598 and 600 BC. We also do not know exactly where Cyrus was born, but it is thought to be either the city of Media or Persis.

3. Cyrus was ‘great’

Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenian Empire. His empire, stretching from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River, was the largest that had ever existed at the time of his rule. Cyrus pieced his kingdom together using a mixture of conquest and diplomacy, attesting to his skills as a warrior and a statesman. His reputation as “great” was probably enhanced by the extent to which his figure was mythologized. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded one of the most well-known legends about the ruler in his History.

4. He was destined to become King

Cyrus the Great is said to have overthrown his grandfather Astyages. He then went on to unite the latter’s Median kingdom with the Persian one he inherited. Herodotus wrote in a recognizably mythic approach: King Astyages has a dream that his grandson Cyrus would usurp him. Astyages tries to forestall the events of the dream but instead brings them to fruition. Alternate versions of Cyrus’s life can be found in other Classical texts, such as works by the Greek historians Xenophon and Ctesias, both of whom lived not long after Herodotus.

5. Cyrus was a military leader

Cyrus’s career as a military leader began in earnest in 550 BCE, when he rose up against his Median overlord (and by some accounts, his grandfather), King Astyages. Cyrus led other much-mythologized campaigns during his reign, such as his conquests of Lydia and Babylonia. An account of the latter appears in the Bible: Cyrus is the ruler that liberated the Jewish people from their Babylonian captors. Our knowledge of his reign after this point is vague, although it’s likely that he died while undertaking campaigns on his eastern frontier.

6. Cyrus is quite documented in history

The Greek historian Herodotus provides the most famous account of Cyrus’s life in his History, a work that was probably as much fiction as it was fact. Later writers in antiquity also took part in lionizing Cyrus, sacrificing historical accuracy in the process. In the 4th century BCE, Xenophon wrote a biography that framed Cyrus as the ideal ruler Ctesias also wrote about Cyrus’s life in the 4th century, offering an account that diverges notably from Herodotus’s. Cyrus also appears briefly in the Bible as the ruler who freed the Jewish people from captivity in Babylonia.

7. He is a figure in the Hebrew Bible and other documentaries

Several Jewish historians wrote accounts about Cyrus the Great, the Bible is one account of his rule. In the Ketuvim, Cyrus decrees that all exiles may return to the Promised Land and rebuilt their temples. Isaiah refers to Cyrus as a Messiah–literally, “His anointed one” in Isaiah 45:1. He is the only gentile to be given that honour. In the Second Chronicles, Cyrus is quoted as to praise God (2 Chronicles 36:23). However, there is no historical evidence that Cyrus practised any religion. Professor Lester L. Grabbe argues that Cyrus made no “decree” for the Jews, as stated in the Book of Ezra, but he did have a policy that allowed them to return and rebuild their temples.

8. He was a loved leader

Cyrus the Great was loved by the Persians. After his death, the Greeks grew to adore him as well. Alexander the Great became fascinated with Cyrus after he read a biography about him, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Xenophon admired Cyrus so much that he labelled him as the ideal ruler. Another Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote an extensive biography about the Persian king. For years, readers referenced Herodotus’ work as the primary account of Cyrus’s life. Cyrus’ admiration among the Greeks is ironic because he spent the majority of his reign battling them.

9. Cyrus’ death

Little is known about the last years of Cyrus’s life, and various contradicting stories of his death exist. It’s clear that he died while campaigning on his empire’s eastern frontier, somewhere near the Oxus (Amu Darya) and Jaxartes (Syr Darya) rivers. Herodotus offers an account of Cyrus’s downfall wherein the queen of a nomadic group that Cyrus is trying to conquer, and whose son Cyrus has killed, placed Cyrus’s disembodied head in a bag of human blood to “give [him his] fill”. By Herodotus’s own admission, however, this is only one of several versions of the events that he had come across.

10. Cyrus Tomb has survived the years

Cyrus was buried in his capital city, Pasargadae, in a limestone tomb, between 540 and 530 BC. His tomb was raided several times one of the most notable moments was after Alexander the Great defeated Darius III’s Persia. Alexander also put in work to restore the tomb’s interior. Cyrus’s tomb has survived through time, internal divisions, regime changes, and revolutions. In 2004, his gravesite and Pasargadae became one of Iran’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Part of his inscription reads, “Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire and was king of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument.”

Now you know the top ten facts about Cyrus the Great. I hope you enjoyed reading this article.


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A Journey's End: the Death of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus II (576 - 530 BCE -- r.559 - 530 BCE), founder of the Persian Achaemenian dynasty and the world's first intercontinental empire, is arguably the most important figure in Iranian history. Kurosh, as Persian-speakers would call him, has throughout the centuries been regarded by many as the ideal ruler. This universally favourable reputation is a result of Cyrus the Great's remarkable achievements.

Through political astuteness as well as strategic and tactical military skills, Cyrus the Great created a vast empire that stretched from Central Asia to the shores of Asia Minor, unifying most of the Iranian world and putting an end to three of the most powerful empires at that time. The Persian conqueror followed a policy of cultural and religious tolerance, guaranteeing his subjects' rights in the Cyrus Cylinder, which was unprecedented in the ancient world. In addition to establishing a tolerant regime, Cyrus also liberated slaves from captivity and allowed them to return to their homelands, the most notable of whom were the Jews of Babylon in whose hearts Cyrus earned a place as a result of his magnanimity. Aside from his military exploits and administrative achievements, the "humanitarian" measures taken by Cyrus make him stand head and shoulders above other conquerors throughout history.

But in spite of that, the death of such an important historical figure is unfortunately shrouded in myth. The classical sources offer conflicting accounts on the final days of Cyrus the Great. The most robust of these are presented to us by three classical Greek authours: Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon. In this article I will present the aforementioned classical accounts on the death of Cyrus, examine them, and then will try to arrive at a reasonable conclusion regarding the question of the emperor's mysterious death.

Herodotus, Histories

According to Herodotus' account, Tomyris, queen of the Central Asian Saka tribe called the Massagetae, received a messenger from Cyrus the Great asking for her hand in marriage, but she refused, thinking that Cyrus was trying to bring her domains under his control. Her refusal prompted the Persian emperor to launch a military expedition into Saka territory. [1]

As the Persians were building a bridge over the Araxes river that separated them from Saka territory, Queen Tomyris sent a letter to Cyrus:

King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetae in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making let us retire three days' march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance. [2]

Soon afterwards, a meeting of Persian commanders and counsellors was held, in which most Persians favoured meeting the Sakas within Persian borders. [3] But Croesus, the former Lydian king, proposed fighting the Sakas on their own side of the river, fearing that if the Persians lost the battle on Persian territory the Sakas would then thrust into the heart of the Empire. [4] Cyrus heeded the Lydian's advice, and he accordingly sent a letter to Tomyris. [5] Croesus further suggested setting up a Persian camp on the other side of the river with a lavish banquet and guarded only by a handful of expendable troops, and according to that plan the Persians would then quickly withdraw, leaving the rich camp as a bait for the Sakas who would then gorge themselves on all kinds of Persian delicacy and let their guard down, much to the advantage of the Persian troops. [6]

The plan worked brilliantly. [7] As expected, the Sakas swallowed the bait, attacking the Persian camp and slaughtering its unfortunate guards, after which they sat down and began their five-star Persian feast. Then they fell asleep, giving the Persians the signal to launch their planned attack. They massacred the Sakas and captured some of them. Amongst the prisoners of war was Spargapises, commander of the Saka detachment and son of none other than Tomyris. He shortly committed suicide whilst in captivity, using a weapon he quickly seized from one of his Persian captors after asking for his fetters to be removed. [8]

Tomyris swore vengeance and thus sent the following letter to the Persian emperor:

You bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not yourself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice which, when you drink it, makes you so mad, and as you swallow it down brings up to your lips such bold and wicked words - it was this poison by which you ensnared my child, and so overcame him, not in fair open fight. I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetae, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood. [9]

The queen gathered her remaining troops and faced Cyrus on the battlefield. In the ensuing fierce battle the Persians lost the upper hand and many of them were killed. Cyrus was also amongst those who fell in that battle. It was a decisive Saka victory. Tomyris found the emperor's body, and had it decapitated before putting the head in a sack filled with the blood of Persian troops, loudly uttering these words:

I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood. [10]

Herodotus' account is very problematic.

Firstly, we should cast doubt on the figure of Tomyris. She appears as "Thamyris" in another classical source, that is Stratagems in War of the 2nd-century Macedonian authour Polyaenus. He claims that "Thamyris" was one of the three Saka chieftains who rose against Darius the Great. [11] But this claim should be rejected, since the Bisotun Inscriptions do not mention "Thamyris" or any other Saka queen, but instead a certain Skunkha is named as the leader of the Saka rebels. The appearance of Tomyris in two separate classical sources that portray her in different circumstances suggests that she was a quasi-legendary figure, a product of Iranian oral literary traditions that have female-warriors and warrior-queens as recurring motifs. Herodotus certainly relied on such traditions. The queen might be a historical figure, albeit one who certainly did not play the "Amazonian" role ascribed to her by Herodotus and the Iranian minstrels at that time.

Secondly, the manner in which the Persians ambushed the Saka detachment under Spargapises smacks of myth. The tactic of baiting a Saka army with a lavish banquet and then massacring it was allegedly used by Cyrus during a previous war with the Saka, and even earlier, by the Median king Cyaxares. [12][13] This appears to be another product of Iranian folk legends which paint the nomadic Saka as greedy drunkards. It is very unlikely that two Iranian kings used the same tactic thrice against the same enemy that didn't seem to learn from its previous fatal mistakes. Herodotus' reliance on Iranian legends is clearly evident here.

Thirdly, Herodotus' claim that Queen Tomyris had found Cyrus' body and had mutilated it runs contrary to the recorded fact that the Macedonian conquerors found the emperor's body inside his tomb, intact and embalmed. [14][15] Had the Massagetae/Saka captured Cyrus' body, it would not have been possible for the Persians to bury him in Pasargadae. Herodotus points out that the Persians might have recovered the emperor's body, but he doesn't explain how, and it would have been highly unlikely. His claim that Cyrus' body fell into the hands of his enemies should therefore be rejected.

Fourthly, the Massagetae inflicted a crushing defeat on the Persian army and killed the Great King in the process. One would think that they would capitalise on their decisive victory and thrust into the heart of the Persian Empire that was weak, shocked, extremely vulnerable, and kingless. But they inexplicably didn't. As a matter of fact, the Saka would not threaten the Persian Empire for more than a decade after Cyrus' death in spite of their crushing victory. This is a huge hole in Herodotus' account.

Lastly, it appears that Herodotus conveniently chose the best version of the event that suited his narrative, or worse, that he fabricated the whole story. His belief in Greek Tragedy required that Cyrus fall from grace due to his own greed and arrogance. These negative attributes run contrary to the personality of Cyrus the Great known and praised by all, including the Greek historian himself.

Ctesias, Persika

Ctesias recounts a different version of the events that led to Cyrus' death during his final campaign in Central Asia:

Cyrus campaigned against the Derbikes during the reign of Amoraios [king of the Derbikes, a Central Asian Iranic tribe]. By placing their elephants in an ambush, the Derbikes repelled the Persian cavalry causing Cyrus himself to fall off his horse at which point an Indian – for the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes and supplied their elephants – hit Cyrus after he fell with a javelin below the hip to the bone inflicting a fatal wound however, Cyrus was taken up before dying and brought back to camp by his servants. Each side lost 10,000 men in the battle. After hearing about Cyrus, Amorges [leader of the Saka Haumavarga who had submitted to Persian rule during an earlier campaign] came with all speed at the head of 20,000 cavalry from the Saka however, after hostilities resumed, Amoraios was killed along with his two children in a major victory for the Persian and Sakidian contingent in which 30,000 Derbikes and 9,000 Persians perished. In this way the land came under the dominion of Cyrus, who, on his deathbed, appointed his eldest son, Cambyses, as king. . He made Amorges their friend ratified with a handshake and pledges of good faith and wished all things good to those who maintained goodwill towards one another while he put a curse on anyone who would take unjust action. After making these declarations, he passed away three days after the day he was injured, having ruled for thirty years. [16]

Ctesias' story of Cyrus' final campaign, although solid, is not without problems.

The casualty figures appear to be made up 20,000 perishing in a single indecisive engagement, and the Persians slaughtering 30,000 Derbikes whilst losing only 9,000 of their own are all hyperbolic.

The submission of the Derbikes, who were part of the Saka Tigrakhauda confederation of Central Asian Iranic tribes, is groundless. The Bisotun Inscriptions claim that the Saka Tigrakhauda actually accepted Persian rule only after the campaign of Darius the Great in 519 BCE. Had the Derbikes/Saka recognised Persian rule after their defeat in 530 BCE, Darius would not have had any reason to campaign against them.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia

Xenophon reports a peaceful death. According to the Cyropaedia, in his palace in Persia Cyrus dreamed that a divine figure declared to him: "Make ready, Cyrus for thou shalt soon depart to the Gods." [17] The Persian emperor awoke and knew that his death was at hand, given the recent vision in addition to his old age. He immediately went to a mountaintop and presented sacrifices to Ahura Mazda, Mithra, and other Iranic Gods, he then prayed, saying:

O ancestral . Gods, accept these offerings as tokens of gratitude for help in achieving many glorious enterprises for in omens in the sacrifice, in signs from heaven, in the flight of birds, and in ominous words, ye ever showed me what I ought to do and what I ought not to do. And I render heartfelt thanks to you that I have never failed to recognize your fostering care and never in my successes entertained proud thoughts transcending human bounds. And I beseech of you that ye will now also grant prosperity and happiness to my children, my wife, my friends, and my country, and to me myself an end befitting the life that ye have given me. [18]

Cyrus returned to his palace and waited three days before summoning his loved ones. When they had all gathered, the emperor announced:

My sons, and all you my friends about me, the end of my life is now at hand I am quite sure of this for many reasons and when I am dead, you must always speak and act in regard to me as of one blessed of fortune. For when I was a boy, I think I plucked all the fruits that among boys count for the best when I became a youth, I enjoyed what is accounted best among young men and when I became a mature man, I had the best that men can have. And as time went on, it seemed to me that I recognized that my own strength was always increasing with my years, so that I never found my old age growing any more feeble than my youth had been and, so far as I know, there is nothing that I ever attempted or desired and yet failed to secure. Moreover, I have lived to see my friends made prosperous and happy through my efforts and my enemies reduced by me to subjection and my country, which once played no great part in Asia, I now leave honoured above all. Of all my conquests, there is not once that I have not maintained. Throughout the past I have fared even as I have wished but a fear that was ever at my side, lest in the time to come I might see or hear or experience something unpleasant, would not let me become overwhelmingly proud or extravagantly happy. But now, if I die, I leave you, my sons, whom the gods have given me, to survive me, and I leave my friends and country happy and so why should I not be justly accounted blessed and enjoy an immortality of fame? [19]

Cyrus also declared his will during that speech, bequeathing the throne to his elder son Cambyses and naming his younger son, Bardiya, the viceroy of Media, Armenia, Kadusia. He urged the brothers to honour each other and to be pious, after which he made known his instructions for the disposition of his body.

Having delivered his final speech, Cyrus shook hands with all those present, covered his face, and died. [20]

Now, Xenophon's version seems very much poetic and embellished. There are some unrealistic elements in the account, such as Cyrus' dream, his extremely long speech (I did not quote the whole thing), and the very convenient timing of his death. The story is very good, don't get me wrong, but we should dismiss it as completely ahistorical, especially when considering that the end of Cyrus in the Cyropaedia is strikingly similar to that of the famous Iranian mythological saint-king, Kai Khosrow. It appears that the Greek historian relied on Iranian folk traditions in recounting the story of Cyrus' death.

Xenophon was a huge admirer of Cyrus the Great, so it is understandable that he wished to write an end befitting his Persian hero.

For some reasons, Herodotus' account of the final days of Cyrus is the most popular amongst Historians and amateurs in spite of its flaws, it appears to be the most well known and is accepted without question more often than not. For previously mentioned reasons, I think the story of Cyrus' death written in the Histories should be completely rejected.

Also, Xonophon's version of the story belongs to the realm of legend. It overlooks certain historical events and figures, and is incompatible with some of the more reliable historical records, such as the imperial Persian inscriptions commissioned by Darius the Great.

So we are obviously left with the Persika, the authour of which was a physician of the Achaemenian emperor Artaxerxes II. Unlike Herodotus and Xenophon, Ctesias' position in the Persian court must have granted him access to official Persian sources, and as such his account on Cyrus the Great's final expedition in Central Asia is arguably more reliable than the others. His claim that Cyrus was wounded in battle and died three days later, and that Cambyses II arranged for his father's burial in Persia, is corroborated by other classical sources. The defeat of the Saka/Derbikes is also supported by the fact that they did not pose a threat to the Persian Empire for more than a decade after the event. Moreover, his emphasis on the friendship between Persians, Medes, and their Saka Haumavarga allies is also compatible with the fact that this tripartite was what actually held the Empire together.

In my opinion, Persika offers the most reliable account on the final days of an emperor whose reign heralded the beginning of a new world order.

[1] Herodotus, Histories, 1.205
[2] Ibid, 1.206
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid, 1.207
[5] Ibid, 1.208
[6] Ibid, 1.207
[7] Ibid, 1.211
[8] Ibid, 1.213
[9] Ibid, 1.212
[10] Ibid, 1.214
[11] Polyaenus, Strategems in War, 7.12
[12] Strabo, Geography, 11.8.5
[13] Herodotus, Histories, 1.106
[14] Arrian, Anabasis, 6.29
[15] Strabo, Geography, 15.3.7
[16] Ctesias, Persika, 11.7-8
[17] Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.7.2
[18] Ibid, 8.7.3
[19] Ibid, 8.7.6-8.7.9
[20] Ibid, 8.7.28

BIBLE HISTORY: Cyrus the Great, the Founder of the Persian Empire and the Conqueror of Babylon

The son of the earlier Cambyses, of the royal race of the Achemenians. His genealogy, as given by himself, is as follows: “I am Cyrus, king of the host, the great king, the mighty king, king of Tindir (Babylon), king of the land of Sumeru and Akkadu, king of the four regions, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city Ansan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, king of the city Ansan, great-grandson of Sispis (Teispes), the great king, king of the city Ansan, the all-enduring royal seed whose sovereignty Bel and Nebo love,” etc. (WAI, V, plural 35, 20-22).

As, in the Babylonian inscriptions, Assan (Ansan, Anzan) is explained as Elam–the city was, in fact, the capital of that country–it is probable that Cyrus’ name was Elamite but the meaning is doubtful. The Greek etymology connecting it with khor, “the sun” in Persian, may therefore be rejected. According to Strabo, he was at first called Agradates, the name by which he was universally known being taken from that of the river Cyrus. This, however, is more likely to have been the reason why his grandfather (after whom he was probably named) was called Cyrus.

Several versions of his birth and rise to power are recorded. Herodotus (i.95) mentions three. In that which he quotes (i.107 ff), it is said that Mandane was the daughter of the Median king Astyages, who, in consequence of a dream which he had had, foretelling the ultimate triumph of her son over his dynasty, gave her in marriage to a Persian named Cambyses, who was not one of his peers. A second dream caused him to watch for her expected offspring, and when Cyrus came into the world Astyages delivered the child to his relative, Harpagus, with orders to destroy it. Being Unwilling to do this, he handed the infant to a Shepherd named Mitradates, who, his wife having brought forth a still-born child, consented to spare the life of the infant Cyrus. Later on, in consequence of his imperious acts, Cyrus was recognized by Astyages, who came to learn the whole story, and spared him because, having once been made king by his companions in play, the Magians held the predictions concerning his ultimate royal state to have been fulfilled. The vengeance taken by Astyages upon Harpagus for his apparent disobedience to orders is well known: his son was slain, and a portion, disguised, given him to eat. Though filled with grief, Harpagus concealed his feelings, and departed with the remains of his son’s body and Cyrus, in due course, was sent to stay with his parents, Cambyses and Mandane. Later on, Harpagus persuaded Cyrus to induce the Persians to revolt, and Astyages having blindly appointed Harpagus commander-in-chief of the Median army, the last-named went over to the side of Cyrus. The result was an easy victory for the latter, but Astyages took care to impale the Magians who had advised him to spare his grandson. Having gathered another, but smaller, army, he took the field in person but was defeated and captured. Cyrus, however, who became king of Media as well as of Persia, treated him honorably and well.

According to Xenophon, Cyropedia i. section 2, Cambyses, the father of Cyrus, was king of Persia. (NOTE: He may have added Persia to his dominion, but according to Cyrus himself, he was king of Ansan or Elam.) Until his 12th year, Cyrus was educated in Persia, when he was sent for, with his mother, by Astyages, to whom he at once manifested much affection. Astyages is said to have been succeeded by his son Cyaxares, and Cyrus then became his commander-in-chief, subduing, among others, the Lydians. He twice defeated the Assyrians (= Babylonians), his final conquest of the country being while the Median king was still alive. As, however, the Cyropedia is a romance, the historical details are not of any great value.

Nicolaus of Damascus describes Cyrus as the son of a Mardian bandit named Atradates, his mother’s name being Argoste. While in service in the palace of Astyages, he was adopted by Artembarks, cupbearer, and thus obtained prominence. Cyrus now made his bandit-father satrap of Persia, and, with base ingratitude, plotted against his king and benefactor. The preparations for a revolt having been made, he and his general Oibaras were victorious at Hyrba, but were defeated at Parsagadae, where his father Atradates was captured and later on died. Cyrus now took refuge in his mountain home, but the taunts of the women sent him and his helpers forth again, this time to victory and dominion.

Ctesias also states that there was no relationship between Cyrus and Astyages (Astyigas), who, when Cyrus conquered Media, fled to Ecbatana, and was there hidden by his daughter Amytis, and Spitamas her husband. Had not Astyages yielded, Cyrus, it is said, would have tortured them, with their children. Cyrus afterward liberated Astyages, and married his daughter Amytis, whose husband he had put to death for telling a falsehood. The Bactrians are said to have been so satisfied at the reconciliation of Cyrus with Astyages and his daughter, that they voluntarily submitted. Cyrus is said by Ctesias to have been taken prisoner by the Sacae, but he was ransomed. He died from a wound received in battle with the Derbices, assisted by the Indians.

In the midst of so much uncertainty, it is a relief to turn to the contemporary documents of the Babylonians, which, though they do not speak of Cyrus’ youth in detail and refer only to other periods of his career in which they were more immediately interested, may nevertheless, being contemporary, be held to have an altogether special authority. According to the inscriptions, the conflict with Astyages took place in 549 BC. From the cylinder of Nabonidus we learn that the Medes had been very successful in their warlike operations, and had gone even as far afield as Haran, which they had besieged. The Babylonian King Nabonidus desired to carry out the instructions of Merodach, revealed in a dream, to restore the temple of Sin, the Moon-god, in that city. This, however, in consequence of the siege, he could not do, and it was revealed to him in a dream that the power of Astyages would be overthrown at the end of three years, which happened as predicted. “They (the gods Sin and Merodach) then caused Cyrus, king of Anzan, his (Merodach’s) young servant, with his little army, to rise up against him (the Median) he destroyed the extensive Umman-manda (Medes), Istuwegu (Astyages), king of the Medes, he captured, and took (him) prisoner to his (own) land.” The account of this engagement in the Babylonian Chronicle (which is, perhaps, Cyrus’ own), is as follows: “(Astyages) gathered his army, and went against Cyrus, king of Ansan, to capture him, and (as for) Astyages, his army revolted against him and took him, and gave him to Cyrus.

Cyrus went to the land of Ecbatana, his royal city. He carried off from Ecbatana silver, gold, furniture, merchandise, and took to the land of Ansan the furniture and merchandise which he had captured.”

The above is the entry for the 6th year of Nabonidus, which corresponds with 549 BC and it will be noticed that he is here called “king of Ansan.” The next reference to Cyrus in the Babylonian Chronicle is the entry for Nabonidus’ 9th year (546 BC), where it is stated that “Cyrus, king of the land of Parsu (Persia) gathered his army, and crossed the Tigris below Arbela,” and in the following month (Iyyar) entered the land of Is- …., where someone seems to have taken a bribe, garrisoned the place, and afterward a king ruled there. The passage, however, is imperfect, and therefore obscure, but we may, perhaps, see therein some preparatory move on the part of Cyrus to obtain possession of the tract over which Nabonidus claimed dominion. The next year (545 BC) there seems to have been another move on the part of the Persians, for the Elamite governor (?) is referred to, and had apparently some dealings with the governor of Erech. All this time things seem to have been the same in Babylonia, the king’s son (he is not named, but apparently Belshazzar is meant) and the soldiers remaining in Akkad (possibly used in the old sense of the word, to indicate the district around Sippar), where it was seemingly expected that the main attack would be delivered. The reference to the governor of Erech might imply that some conspiracy was on foot more to the south–a movement of which the native authorities possibly remained in ignorance.

After a gap which leaves four years unaccounted for, we have traces of four lines which mention the goddess Ishtar of Erech, and the gods of the land of Par …. (?Persia) are referred to. After this comes the long entry, which, though the date is broken away, must refer to the 17th year of Nabonidus. A royal visit to a temple is referred to, and there is mention of a revolt. Certain religious ceremonies were then performed, and others omitted. In the month Tammuz, Cyrus seems to have fought a battle in Opis, and succeeded in attacking the army of Akkad situated on the Tigris. On the 14th of the month, Sippar was taken without fighting, and Nabonidus fled. On the 16th Ugbaru (Gobryas) governor of Media, entered Babylon, with the army of Cyrus, without fighting, and there Nabonidus was captured with his followers. At this time E-saggil and the temples of the land seem to have been closed, possibly to prevent the followers of Nabonidus from taking sanctuary there, or else to prevent plotters from coming forth and on the 3rd of Marcheswan (October), Cyrus entered Babylon. “Crowds collected before him, proposing peace for the city Cyrus, command the peace of Babylon, all of it.” Gobryas, his vice-regent, then appointed governors in Babylon, and the gods whom Nabonidus had taken down to Babylon, were returned to their shrines. On the night of the 11th of Marcheswan, Ugbaru went against (some part of Babylon), and the son of the king died and there was mourning for him from the 27th of Adar to the 3rd of Nisan (six days). There is some doubt as to whether the text speaks of the king or the son of the king, but as there is a record that Nabonidus was exiled to Carmania, it would seem most likely that the death of Belshazzar “in the night” is here referred to. The day after the completion of the mourning (the 4th of Nisan), Cambyses, son of Cyrus, performed ceremonies in the temple E-nig-had-kalamma, probably in connection with the new year’s festival, for which Cyrus had probably timed his arrival at Babylon. According to Herodotus (i.191), Babylon’ was taken during a festival, agreeing with Dan. 5:1 ff.

The other inscription of Cyrus, discovered by Mr. H. Rassam at Babylon, is a kind of proclamation justifying his seizure of the crown. He states that the gods (of the various cities of Babylonia) forsook their dwellings in anger that he (Nabonidus) had made them enter within Su-anna (Babylon). Merodach, the chief divinity of Babylon, sought also a just king, the desire of his heart, whose hand he might hold–Cyrus, king of Ansan, he called his title–to all the kingdoms together (his) name was proclaimed.

The glory of Cyrus’ conquests probably appealed to the Babylonians, for Cyrus next states that Merodach placed the whole of the troops of Qutu (Media) under his feet, and the whole of the troops of the Manda (barbarians and mercenaries). He also caused his hands to hold the people of the dark head (Asiatics, including the Babylonians)–in righteousness and justice he cared for them. He commanded that he should go to his city Babylon and walked by his side like a friend and a companion–without fighting and battle Merodach caused him to enter Su-anna. By his high command, the kings of every region from the upper sea to the lower sea (the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf), the kings of the Amorites, and the dwellers in tents, brought their valuable tribute and kissed his feet within Su-anna (Babylon). From Nineveh(?), the city Assur, Susa, Agade, the land of Esnunnak, Zamban, Me-Turnu, and Deru, to the borders of Media, the gods inhabiting them were returned to their shrines, and all the people were collected and sent back to their dwellings. He finishes by soliciting the prayers of the gods to Bel and Nebo for length of days and happiness, asking them also to appeal to Merodach on behalf of Cyrus “his worshipper,” and his son Cambyses.

Merrill F. Unger and Howard F. Vos,

Inscriptions. The famous cylinder of Cyrus found by Hormuzd Rassam in the nineteenth century is in remarkable agreement with the royal edict as set forth in the Bible. “From … Ashur and Susa, Agade, Ashnunnak, Zamban, Meturnu, Deri, with the territory of the land of Gutium, the cities on the other side of the Tigris, whose sites were of ancient found—the gods, who dwell in them, I brought back to their places and caused them to dwell in a habitation for all time. All their inhabitants I collected and restored them to their dwelling places … may all the gods whom I brought into their cities pray daily before Bel and Nabu for long life for me” (R. W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament [1912], p. 383). This royal edict shows that Cyrus reversed the inhumane policy of displacing whole populations, as practiced by Assyrian and Babylonian conquerors. Thus his clemency and religious toleration with regard to the Jewish captives are readily understood. Further, it is clear how the Hebrew prophet sang of Cyrus as the deliverer whom Jehovah would raise up (Isa. 45:1–4). Although the Hebrew prophet spoke of the great conqueror as anointed by the Lord for the particular task of restoring the Jewish captives, Cyrus claimed to be commissioned by the god Marduk. The famous inscription of the victor, preserved on a clay cylinder, contains the amazing story of triumphs of one who plainly saw himself as a man of destiny and gives background to the prophetic message of the Hebrew seer. “Marduk … sought a righteous prince, after his own heart, whom he took by the hand, Cyrus, king of Anshan, he called by name, to lordship over the whole world he appointed him … to his city Babylon he caused him to go … his numerous troops in number unknown, like the water of a river, marched armed at his side. Without battle and conflict he permitted him to enter Babylon. He spared his city Babylon a calamity. Nabunaid, the king, who did not fear him, he delivered into his hand” (Rogers, op. cit., p. 381). [1]

It was probably between the defeat of Astyages and the capture of Babylon that Cyrus defeated Croesus and conquered Lydia. After preparing to attack the Greek cities of Asia Minor, he returned to Ecbatana, taking Croesus with him. The states which had formed the Lydian empire, however, at once revolted, and had again to be reduced to submission, this time by Harpagus, his faithful general, after a determined resistance. It was at this period that Cyrus subdued the nations of Upper Asia, his next objective being Babylonia (section 9 and the two preceding paragraphs). In this connection it is noteworthy that, in the Babylonian official account, there is no mention of his engineering works preparatory to the taking of Babylon–the turning of the waters of the Gyndes into a number of channels in order to cross (Herod. i.189) the siege of Babylon, long and difficult, and the final capture of the city by changing the course of the Euphrates, enabling his army to enter by the bed of the river’ (Herodotus i.190-91). There may be some foundation for this statement, but if so, the king did not boast of it–perhaps because it did not entail any real labor, for the irrigation works already in existence may have been nearly sufficient for the purpose. It seems likely that the conquest of Babylon opened the way for other military exploits. Herodotus states that he next attacked the Massagetae, who were located beyond the Araxes.

One-third of their army was defeated, and the son of Tomyris, the queen, captured by a stratagem but on being freed from his bonds, he committed suicide. In another exceedingly fierce battle which followed, the Persian army was destroyed, and Cyrus himself brought his life to an end there, after a reign of 29 years. (He had ruled over Media for 11, and over Babylonia (and Assyria) for 9 years.) According to the Babylonian contract-tablets, Cambyses, his son, was associated with him on the throne during the first portion of his 1st year of rule in Babylon.

According to Ctesias, Cyrus made war with the Bactrians and the Sacae, but was taken prisoner by the latter, and was afterward ransomed. He died from a wound received in battle with the Berbices. Diodorus agrees, in the main, with Herodotus, but relates that Cyrus was captured by the Scythian queen (apparently Tomyris), who crucified or impaled him.

It is strange that, in the case of such a celebrated ruler as Cyrus, nothing certain is known as to the manner of his death. The accounts which have come down to us seem to make it certain that he was killed in battle with some enemy, but the statements concerning his end are conflicting. This absence of any account of his death from a trustworthy source implies that Herodotus is right in indicating a terrible disaster to the Persian arms, and it is therefore probable that he fell on the field of battle–perhaps in conflict with the Massagetae, as Herodotus states. Supposing that only a few of the Persian army escaped, it may be that not one of those who saw him fall lived to tell the tale, and the world was dependent on the more or less trustworthy statements which the Massagetae made.

That he was considered to be a personage of noble character is clear from all that has come down to us concerning him, the most noteworthy being Xenophon’s Cyropedia and Institution of Cyrus. The Babylonian inscriptions do not reproduce Babylonian opinion, but the fact that on the occasion of the siege of Babylon the people trusted to his honor and came forth asking peace for the city (apparently with every confidence that their request would be granted) and that the Babylonians, as a whole, were contented under his rule, may be regarded as tacit confirmation. Nabonidus, before the invasion of his territory by the Persian forces, was evidently well disposed toward him, and looked upon him, as we have seen, as “the young servant of Merodach,” the patron deity of Babylon.

It is not altogether clear, however, why the Babylonians submitted to him with so little resistance–their inscriptions contain no indication that they had a real reason to be dissatisfied with the rule of Nabonidus–he seems to have been simply regarded as somewhat unorthodox in his worship of the gods but could they expect an alien, of a different religion, to be better in that respect? Dissatisfaction on the part of the Babylonian priesthood was undoubtedly at the bottom of their discontent, however, and may be held to supply a sufficient reason, though it does not redound to the credit of Babylonian patriotism. It has been said that the success of Cyrus was in part due to the aid given him by the Jews, who, recognizing him as a monotheist like themselves, gave him more than mere sympathy but it is probable that he could never have conquered Babylonia had not the priests, as indicated by their own records, spread discontent among the people. It is doubtful whether we may attribute a higher motive to the priesthood, though that is not altogether impossible. The inner teaching of the Babylonian polytheistic faith was, as is now well known, monotheistic, and there may have been, among the priests, a desire to have a ruler holding that to be the true faith, and also not so inclined as Nabonidus to run counter to the people’s (and the priests’) prejudices. Jewish influence would, in some measure, account for this.

If the Jews thought that they would be more sympathetically treated under Cyrus’ rule, they were not disappointed. It was he who gave orders for the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (2Ch 36:23 Ezra 1:2 5:13 6:3), restored the vessels of the House of Jehovah which Nebuchadnezzar had taken away (Ezra 1:7), and provided funds to bring cedar trees from Lebanon (Ezra 3:7). But he also restored the temples of the Babylonians and brought back the images of the gods to their shrines. Nevertheless, the Jews evidently felt that the favors he granted them showed sympathy for them, and this it probably was which caused Isaiah (Isa. 44:28 compare Rom. 4:17) to see in him a “shepherd” of Jehovah, and an anointed king (Messiah, to Christo mou, Isa. 45:1, 2, 5)–a title suggesting to later writers that he was a type of Christ.

God Initiates His Redemptive Program through Cyrus (44:24–45:25). Identifying Himself as the sovereign Creator, who alone controls the events of history, the Lord announced that He would use Cyrus the Persian to restore His people to the land and rebuild the ruined cities. A commissioning account follows, in which the Lord promised Cyrus military success in order that he, and eventually the whole world, might recognize the incomparability of Israel’s God. The mention of Cyrus by name is startling since this ruler did not come on the scene until the sixth century b.c., over a hundred years after Isaiah died. However, such a precise prediction is certainly consistent with the theme of God’s ability to predict and fulfill (see 44:26).

Though God had great plans for His exiled people, some grumbled about their condition and questioned God’s ways. The Lord reminded such individuals that they had no right to question their Creator’s sovereign decisions. To do so would be as absurd as a piece of pottery criticizing the potter who forms it.

The Lord reiterated His plan to use Cyrus as His instrument of redemption. Israel would return from Babylon and rebuild Jerusalem. Foreigners would recognize Israel’s privileged position and the incomparability of Israel’s God.

Once more declaring His sovereignty and superiority to the pagan gods, the Lord exhorted all nations to turn to Him for salvation. It is wise to submit to God now, for He has issued an unchangeable decree that all will someday bow before Him and acknowledge His sovereignty.

Exhorting Israel in Light of Babylon’s Fall (46:1–48:22). Here announcements of Babylon’s fall are coupled with exhortations to the exiles.

Babylon’s idols would be carried away into captivity, unable to rescue themselves, let alone their worshipers. These useless idols were stationary and a burden to the animals that carried them. In contrast, God had always been active in Israel’s history and had, as it were, carried His people. He urged those exiles who remained rebellious in spirit to recall His past deeds and to recognize His sovereign hand at work in the career of Cyrus. For those who were willing to trust His promises, a new era was approaching. [2]

From Persia we do not get any help as to his character, nor as to the estimation in which he was held. His only inscription extant is above his idealized bas-relief at Murghab, where he simply writes: “I am Cyrus, the Achaemenian.” The stone shows Cyrus standing, looking to the right, draped in a fringed garment resembling those worn by the ancient Babylonians, reaching to the feet. His hair is combed back in the Persian style, and upon his head is an elaborate Egyptian crown, two horns extending to front and back, with a uraeus serpent rising from each end, and between the serpents three vase-like objects, with discs at their bases and summits, and serrated leaves between. There is no doubt that this crown is symbolical of his dominion over Egypt, the three vase-like objects being modifications of the triple helmet-crown of the Egyptian deities. The king is represented as four-winged in the Assyro-Babylonian style, probably as a claim to divinity in their hierarchy as well as to dominion in the lands of Merodach and Assur. In his right hand, which is raised to the level of his shoulder, he holds a kind of scepter seemingly terminating in a bird’s head–in all probability also a symbol of Babylonian dominion, though the emblem of the Babylonian cities of the South was most commonly a bird with wings displayed.

Merrill F. Unger and Howard F. Vos,

Conquests. Cyrus II extended his conquests with lightninglike rapidity, defeating Croesus, king of Lydia c. 546 B.C. Babylon fell to him in 539 B.C. Thus he laid the foundations for the vast Persian Empire under whose dominion Judea was to remain a province for the next two centuries. Cyrus established his capital at Pasargadae in the land of Parsa. On a ruined palace there the repeated inscription can still be read, “I, Cyrus, the king, the Achaemenid.” From this palace comes the earliest extant Persian relief, a four-winged genius, perhaps representing the deified Cyrus.

Decree. This edict recorded in 2 Chron. 36:22–23 and Ezra 1:2–3 gave permission to the Hebrew captives to go back to Palestine to rebuild their Temple. “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all His people, may his God be with him! Let him go up to Jerusalem … and rebuild the house of the Lord.’”

End. Cyrus was slain in battle 530 b.c. and buried in a still extant tomb at Pasargadae. In the small burial chamber a golden sarcophagus received Cyrus’s body. Plutarch (a.d. 90) says the tomb bore this inscription: “O man, whosoever thou art and whencesoever thou comest, for I know that thou wilt come, I am Cyrus and I won for the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this little earth which covers my body.” [3]

[1] Merrill F. Unger and Howard F. Vos, “Cyrus,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[2] Robert B. Chisholm, “The Major Prophets,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 284–285.

Conquests of Cyrus The Great

On the destruction of Nineveh three great Powers still stood on the stage of history, being bound together by the strong ties of a mutually supporting alliance. These were Media, Lydia, and Babylon. The capital of Lydia was Sardis. According to Herodotus, the first king of Lydia was Manes. In the semi-mythic period of Lydian history rose the great dynasty of the [Greek: Heraclidæ], which reigned for 505 years, numbering twenty-two kings—B.C. 1229 to B.C. 745. The Lydians are said by Herodotus to have colonized Tyrrhenia, in the Italic peninsula, and to have extended their conquests into Syria, where they founded Ascalon in the territory later known as Palestine.

In the reign of Gyges, B.C. 724, they began to attack the Greek cities of Asia Minor: Miletus, Smyrna, and Priene. The glory of the Lydian Empire culminated in the reign of [Greek: Croesus], the fifth and last historic king, B.C. 568. The well-known story of Solon’s warning to [Greek: Croesus] was full of ominous import with regard to the ultimate downfall of the Lydian Empire: “For thyself, O Croesus,” said the Greek sage in answer to the question, “Who is the happiest man?” I see that thou art wonderfully rich, and art the lord of many nations but in respect to that whereon thou questionest me, I have no answer to give until I hear that thou hast closed thy life happily.”

The Median Empire occupied a territory indefinitely extending over a region south of the Caspian, between the Kurdish Mountains and the modern Khorassan. The Median monarchy, according to Herodotus, commenced B.C. 708. The Medes, which were racially akin to the Persians, had been for fifty years subject to the Assyrian monarchy when they revolted, setting up an independent empire. Putting aside the dates given by the Greek historians, we shall perhaps be correct in considering that the great Median kingdom was established by Cyaxares, B.C. 633 and that in B.C. 610 a great struggle of six years between Media and Lydia was amicably ended, under the terror occasioned by an eclipse, by the establishment of a treaty and alliance between the contending powers. With the death of Cyaxares, B.C. 597, the glory of the great Median Empire passed away, for under his son, Astyages, the country was conquered by Cyrus.

The rise of the Babylonian Empire seems to have originated B.C. 2234, when the Cushite inhabitants of southern Babylonia raised a native dynasty to the throne, liberated themselves from the yoke of the Zoroastrian Medes, and instituted an empire with several large capitals, where they built mighty temples and introduced the worship of the heavenly bodies in contradistinction to the elemental worship of the Magian Medes. The record of Babylonian kings is full of obscurity, even in the light of recent archæological discoveries. We can trace, however, a gradual expansion of Babylonian dominion, even to the borders of Egypt. Nabo Polassar, B.C. 625 to B.C. 604, was a great warrior, and at Carchemish defeated even the almost invincible Egyptians, B.C. 604.

His successor, Nebuchadnezzar, B.C. 604, immediately set about the fortification of his capital. A space of more than 130 square miles was enclosed within walls 80 feet in breadth and 300 or 400 in height, if we may believe the record. Meanwhile, with the assistance of Cyaxares, King of Media, he captured Tyre, in Phoenicia, and Jerusalem, in Syria but fifteen years after Croesus had been taken prisoner and the Persian Empire extended to the shores of the Ægean, the Empire of Babylon fell before the conquering armies of Cyrus, the Persian.

George Grote

The Ionic and Æolic Greeks on the Asiatic coast had been conquered and made tributary by the Lydian king Croesus: “Down to that time (says Herodotus) all Greeks had been free.” Their conqueror, Croesus, who ascended the throne in 560 B.C., appeared to be at the summit of human prosperity and power in his unassailable capital, and with his countless treasures at Sardis. His dominions comprised nearly the whole of Asia Minor, as far as the river Halys to the east on the other side of that river began the Median monarchy under his brother-in-law Astyages, extending eastward to some boundary which we cannot define, but comprising, in a south-eastern direction, Persis proper or Farsistan, and separated from the Kissians and Assyrians on the east by the line of Mount Zagros (the present boundary-line between Persia and Turkey). Babylonia, with its wondrous city, between the Uphrates and the Tigris, was occupied by the Assyrians or Chaldæans, under their king Labynetus: a territory populous and fertile, partly by nature, partly by prodigies of labor, to a degree which makes us mistrust even an honest eye-witness who describes it afterward in its decline—but which was then in its most flourishing condition. The Chaldean dominion under Labynetus reached to the borders of Egypt, including as dependent territories both Judæa and Phenicia. In Egypt reigned the native king Amasis, powerful and affluent, sustained in his throne by a large body of Grecian mercenaries and himself favorably disposed to Grecian commerce and settlement. Both with Labynetus and with Amasis, Croesus was on terms of alliance and as Astyages was his brother-in-law, the four kings might well be deemed out of the reach of calamity. Yet within the space of thirty years, or a little more, the whole of their territories had become embodied in one vast empire, under the son of an adventurer as yet not known even by name.

The rise and fall of oriental dynasties have been in all times distinguished by the same general features. A brave and adventurous prince, at the head of a population at once poor, warlike, and greedy, acquires dominion while his successors, abandoning themselves to sensuality and sloth, probably also to oppressive and irascible dispositions, become in process of time victims to those same qualities in a stranger which had enabled their own father to seize the throne. Cyrus, the great founder of the Persian empire, first the subject and afterward the dethroner of the Median Astyages, corresponds to their general description, as far, at least, as we can pretend to know his history. For in truth even the conquests of Cyrus, after he became ruler of Media, are very imperfectly known, while the facts which preceded his rise up to that sovereignty cannot be said to be known at all: we have to choose between different accounts at variance with each other, and of which the most complete and detailed is stamped with all the character of romance. The Cyropædia of Xenophon is memorable and interesting, considered with reference to the Greek mind, and as a philosophical novel. That it should have been quoted so largely as authority on matters of history, is only one proof among many how easily authors have been satisfied as to the essentials of historical evidence. The narrative given by Herodotus of the relations between Cyrus and Astyages, agreeing with Xenophon in little more than the fact that it makes Cyrus son of Cambyses and Mandane and grandson of Astyages, goes even beyond the story of Romulus and Remus in respect to tragical incident and contrast. Astyages, alarmed by a dream, condemns the newborn infant of his daughter Mandane to be exposed: Harpagus, to whom the order is given, delivers the child to one of the royal herdsmen, who exposes it in the mountains, where it is miraculously suckled by a bitch. Thus preserved, and afterward brought up as the herdsman’s child, Cyrus manifests great superiority, both physical and mental is chosen king in play by the boys of the village, and in this capacity severely chastises the son of one of the courtiers for which offense he is carried before Astyages, who recognizes him for his grandson, but is assured by the Magi that the dream is out and that he has no further danger to apprehend from the boy—and therefore permits him to live. With Harpagus, however, Astyages is extremely incensed, for not having executed his orders: he causes the son of Harpagus to be slain, and served up to be eaten by his unconscious father at a regal banquet. The father, apprised afterward of the fact, dissembles his feelings, but meditates a deadly vengeance against Astyages for this Thyestean meal. He persuades Cyrus, who has been sent back to his father and mother in Persia, to head a revolt of the Persians against the Medes whilst Astyages—to fill up the Grecian conception of madness as a precursor to ruin—sends an army against the revolters, commanded by Harpagus himself. Of course the army is defeated—Astyages, after a vain resistance, is dethroned—Cyrus becomes king in his place—and Harpagus repays the outrage which he has undergone by the bitterest insults.

Such are the heads of a beautiful narrative which is given at some length in Herodotus. It will probably appear to the reader sufficiently romantic though the historian intimates that he had heard three other narratives different from it, and that all were more full of marvels, as well as in wider circulation, than his own, which he had borrowed from some unusually sober-minded Persian informants. In what points the other three stories departed from it we do not hear.

To the historian of Halicarnassus we have to oppose Ctesias—the physician of the neighboring town of Cnidus—who contradicted Herodotus, not without strong terms of censure, on many points, and especially upon that which is the very foundation of the early narrative respecting Cyrus for he affirmed that Cyrus was no way related to Astyages. However indignant we may be with Ctesias for the disparaging epithets which he presumed to apply to an historian whose work is to us inestimable—we must nevertheless admit that, as surgeon in actual attendance on king Artaxerxes Mnemon, and healer of the wound inflicted on that prince at Cunaxa by his brother Cyrus the younger, he had better opportunities even than Herodotus of conversing with sober-minded Persians, and that the discrepancies between the two statements are to be taken as a proof of the prevalence of discordant, yet equally accredited, stories. Herodotus himself was in fact compelled to choose one out of four. So rare and late a plant is historical authenticity.

That Cyrus was the first Persian conqueror, and that the space which he overran covered no less than fifty degrees of longitude, from the coast of Asia Minor to the Oxus and the Indus, are facts quite indisputable but of the steps by which this was achieved, we know very little. The native Persians, whom he conducted to an empire so immense, were an aggregate of seven agricultural, and four nomadic tribes—all of them rude, hardy, and brave—dwelling in a mountainous region, clothed in skins, ignorant of wine, or fruit, or any of the commonest luxuries of life, and despising the very idea of purchase or sale. Their tribes were very unequal in point of dignity, probably also in respect to numbers and powers, among one another. First in estimation among them stood the Pasargadæ and the first phratry or clan among the Pasargadæ were the Achæmenidæ, to whom Cyrus himself belonged. Whether his relationship to the Median king whom he dethroned was a matter of fact, or a politic fiction, we cannot well determine. But Xenophon, in noticing the spacious deserted cities, Larissa and Mespila, which he saw in his march with the ten thousand Greeks on the eastern side of the Tigris, gives us to understand that the conquest of Media by the Persians was reported to him as having been an obstinate and protracted struggle. However this may be, the preponderance of the Persians was at last complete: though the Medes always continued to be the second nation in the empire, after the Persians, properly so called and by early Greek writers the great enemy in the East is often called “the Mede” as well as “the Persian.” The Median Ekbatana too remained as one of the capital cities, and the usual summer residence, of the kings of Persia Susa on the Choaspes, on the Kissian plain farther southward, and east of the Tigris, being their winter abode.

The vast space of country comprised between the Indus on the east, the Oxus and Caspian Sea to the north, the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the south, and the line of Mount Zagros to the west, appears to have been occupied in these times by a great variety of different tribes and people, yet all or most of them belonging to the religion of Zoroaster, and speaking dialects of the Zend language. It was known amongst its inhabitants by the common name of Iran or Aria: it is, in its central parts at least, a high, cold plateau, totally destitute of wood, and scantily supplied with water much of it indeed is a salt and sandy desert, unsusceptible of culture. Parts of it are eminently fertile, where water can be procured and irrigation applied. Scattered masses of tolerably dense population thus grew up but continuity of cultivation is not practicable, and in ancient times, as at present, a large proportion of the population of Iran seems to have consisted of wandering or nomadic tribes with their tents and cattle. The rich pastures, and the freshness of the summer climate, in the region of mountain and valley near Ekbatana, are extolled by modern travellers, just as they attracted the Great King in ancient times during the hot months. The more southerly province called Persis proper (Faristan) consists also in part of mountain land interspersed with valley and plain, abundantly watered, and ample in pasture, sloping gradually down to low grounds on the sea-coast which are hot and dry: the care bestowed both by Medes and Persians on the breeding of their horses was remarkable. There were doubtless material differences between different parts of the population of this vast plateau of Iran. Yet it seems that, along with their common language and religion, they had also something of a common character, which contrasted with the Indian population east of the Indus, the Assyrians west of Mount Zagros, and the Massagetæ and other Nomads of the Caspian and the Sea of Aral—less brutish, restless and blood-thirsty than the latter—more fierce, contemptuous and extortionate, and less capable of sustained industry, than the two former. There can be little doubt, at the time of which we are now speaking, when the wealth and cultivation of Assyria were at their maximum, that Iran also was far better peopled than ever it has been since European observers have been able to survey it—especially the north-eastern portion, Bactria and Sogdiana—so that the invasions of the Nomads from Turkestan and Tartary, which have been so destructive at various intervals since the Mohammedan conquest, were before that period successfully kept back.

The general analogy among the population of Iran probably enabled the Persian conqueror with comparative ease to extend his empire to the east, after the conquest of Ekbatana, and to become the full heir of the Median kings. If we may believe Ctesias, even the distant province of Bactria had been before subject to those kings. At first it resisted Cyrus, but finding that he had become son-in-law of Astyages, as well as master of his person, it speedily acknowledged his authority.

According to the representation of Herodotus, the war between Cyrus and Croesus of Lydia began shortly after the capture of Astyages, and before the conquest of Bactria. Croesus was the assailant, wishing to avenge his brother-in-law, to arrest the growth of the Persian conqueror, and to increase his own dominions. His more prudent counsellors in vain represented to him that he had little to gain, and much to lose, by war with a nation alike hardy and poor. He is represented as just at that time recovering from the affliction arising out of the death of his son.

To ask advice of the oracle, before he took any final decision, was a step which no pious king would omit. But in the present perilous question, Croesus did more—he took a precaution so extreme, that if his piety had not been placed beyond all doubt by his extraordinary munificence to the temples, he might have drawn upon himself the suspicion of a guilty scepticism. Before he would send to ask advice respecting the project itself, he resolved to test the credit of some of the chief surrounding oracles—Delphi, Dodona, Branchidæ near Miletus, Amphiaraus at Thebes, Trophonius at Labadeia, and Ammon in Libya. His envoys started from Sardis on the same day, and were all directed on the hundredth day afterward to ask at the respective oracles how Croesus was at that precise moment employed. This was a severe trial: of the manner in which it was met by four out of the six oracles consulted we have no information, and it rather appears that their answers were unsatisfactory. But Amphiaraus maintained his credit undiminished, while Apollo at Delphi, more omniscient than Apollo at Branchidæ, solved the question with such unerring precision, as to afford a strong additional argument against persons who might be disposed to scoff at divination. No sooner had the envoys put the question to the Delphian priestess, on the day named, “What is Croesus now doing?” than she exclaimed in the accustomed hexameter verse, “I know the number of grains of sand, and the measures of the sea: I understand the dumb, and I hear the man who speaks not. The smell reaches me of a hard-skinned tortoise boiled in a copper with lamb’s flesh—copper above and copper below.” Croesus was awe-struck on receiving this reply. It described with the utmost detail that which he had been really doing, so that he accounted the Delphian oracle and that of Amphiaraus the only trustworthy oracles on earth—following up these feelings with a holocaust of the most munificent character, in order to win the favor of the Delphian god. Three thousand cattle were offered up, and upon a vast sacrificial pile were placed the most splendid purple robes and tunics, together with couches and censers of gold and silver besides which he sent to Delphi itself the richest presents in gold and silver—statues, bowls, jugs, etc., the size and weight of which we read with astonishment the more so as Herodotus himself saw them a century afterwards at Delphi. Nor was Croesus altogether unmindful of Amphiaraus, whose answer had been creditable, though less triumphant than that of the Pythian priestess. He sent to Amphiaraus a spear and shield of pure gold, which were afterward seen at Thebes by Herodotus: this large donative may help the reader to conceive the immensity of those which he sent to Delphi.

The envoys who conveyed these gifts were instructed to ask at the same time, whether Croesus should undertake an expedition against the Persians—and if so, whether he should solicit any allies to assist him. In regard to the second question, the answer both of Apollo and of Amphiaraus was deci sive, recommending him to invite the alliance of the most powerful Greeks. In regard to the first and most momentous question, their answer was as remarkable for circumspection as it had been before for detective sagacity: they told Croesus that if he invaded the Persians, he would subvert a mighty monarchy. The blindness of Croesus interpreted this declaration into an unqualified promise of success: he sent further presents to the oracle, and again inquired whether his kingdom would be durable. “When a mule shall become king of the Medes (replied the priestess) then must thou run away—be not ashamed.”

More assured than ever by such an answer, Croesus sent to Sparta, under the kings Anaxandrides and Aristo, to tender presents and solicit their alliance. His propositions were favorably entertained—the more so, as he had before gratuitously furnished some gold to the Lacedæmonians for a statue to Apollo. The alliance now formed was altogether general—no express effort being as yet demanded from them, though it soon came to be. But the incident is to be noted, as marking the first plunge of the leading Grecian state into Asiatic politics and that too without any of the generous Hellenic sympathy which afterward induced Athens to send her citizens across the Ægean. At this time Croesus was the master and tribute-exactor of the Asiatic Greeks, whose contingents seem to have formed part of his army for the expedition now contemplated an army consisting principally, not of native Lydians, but of foreigners.

The river Halys formed the boundary at this time between the Median and Lydian empires: and Croesus, marching across that river into the territory of the Syrians or Assyrians of Cappadocia, took the city of Pteria, with many of its surrounding dependencies, inflicting damage and destruction upon these distant subjects of Ekbatana. Cyrus lost no time in bringing an army to their defence considerably larger than that of Croesus trying at the same time, though unsuccessfully, to prevail on the Ionians to revolt from him. A bloody battle took place between the two armies, but with indecisive result: after which Croesus, seeing that he could not hope to accomplish more with his forces as they stood, thought it wise to return to his capital, and collect a larger army for the next campaign. Immediately on reaching Sardis he despatched envoys to Labynetus king of Babylon to Amasis, king of Egypt to the Lacedæmonians, and to other allies calling upon all of them to send auxiliaries to Sardis during the course of the fifth month. In the mean time he dismissed all the foreign troops who had followed him into Cappadocia.

Had these allies appeared, the war might perhaps have been prosecuted with success. And on the part of the Lacedæmonians, at least, there was no tardiness for their ships were ready and their troops almost on board, when the unexpected news reached them that Croesus was already ruined. Cyrus had forseen and forestalled the defensive plan of his enemy. Pushing on with his army to Sardis without delay, he obliged the Lydian prince to give battle with his own unassisted subjects. The open and spacious plain before that town was highly favorable to Lydian cavalry, which at that time (Herodotus tells us) was superior to the Persian. But Cyrus, employing a strategem whereby this cavalry was rendered unavailable, placed in front of his line the baggage camels, which the Lydian horses could not endure either to smell or to behold. The horsemen of Croesus were thus obliged to dismount nevertheless they fought bravely on foot, and were not driven into the town till after a sanguinary combat.

Though confined within the walls of his capital, Croesus had still good reason for hoping to hold out until the arrival of his allies, to whom he sent pressing envoys of acceleration. For Sardis was considered impregnable—and one assault had already been repulsed, and the Persians would have been reduced to the slow process of blockade. But on the fourteenth day of the siege, accident did for the besiegers that which they could not have accomplished either by skill or force. Sardis was situated on an outlying peak of the northern side of Tmolus it was well fortified everywhere except toward the mountain and on that side the rock was so precipitous and inaccessible, that fortifications were thought unnecessary, nor did the inhabitants believe assault to be possible in that quarter. But Hyroeades, a Persian soldier, having accidentally seen one of the garrison descending this precipi tous rock to pick up his helmet which had rolled down, watched his opportunity, tried to climb up, and found it not impracticable others followed his example, the stronghold was thus seized first, and the whole city speedily taken by storm.

Cyrus had given especial orders to spare the life of Croesus, who was accordingly made prisoner. But preparations were made for a solemn and terrible spectacle the captive king was destined to be burned in chains, together with fourteen Lydian youths, on a vast pile of wood. We are even told that the pile was already kindled and the victim beyond the reach of human aid, when Apollo sent a miraculous rain to preserve him. As to the general fact of supernatural interposition, in one way or another, Herodotus and Ctesias both agree, though they described differently the particular miracles wrought. It is certain that Croesus, after some time, was released and well treated by his conqueror, and lived to become the confidential adviser of the latter as well as of his son Cambyses: Ctesias also acquaints us that a considerable town and territory near Ekbatana, called Barene, was assigned to him, according to a practice which we shall find not infrequent with the Persian kings.

The prudent counsel and remarks as to the relations between Persians and Lydians, whereby Croesus is said by Herodotus to have first earned this favorable treatment, are hardly worth repeating but the indignant remonstrance sent by Croesus to the Delphian god is too characteristic to be passed over. He obtained permission from Cyrus to lay upon the holy pavement of the Delphian temple the chains with which he had at first been bound. The Lydian envoys were instructed, after exhibiting to the god these humiliating memorials, to ask whether it was his custom to deceive his benefactors, and whether he was not ashamed to have encouraged the king of Lydia in an enterprise so disastrous? The god, condescending to justify himself by the lips of the priestess, replied: “Not even a god can escape his destiny. Croesus has suffered for the sin of his fifth ancestor (Gyges), who, conspiring with a woman, slew his master and wrongfully seized the sceptre. Apollo employed all his influence with the Moeræ (Fates) to obtain that this sin might be expiated by the children of Croesus, and not by Croesus himself but the Moeræ would grant nothing more than a postponement of the judgment for three years. Let Croesus know that Apollo has thus procured for him a reign three years longer than his original destiny, after having tried in vain to rescue him altogether. Moreover he sent that rain which at the critical moment extinguished the burning pile. Nor has Croesus any right to complain of the prophecy by which he was encouraged to enter on the war for when the god told him that he would subvert a great empire, it was his duty to have again inquired which empire the god meant and if he neither understood the meaning, nor chose to ask for information, he has himself to blame for the result. Besides, Croesus neglected the warning given to him about the acquisition of the Median kingdom by a mule: Cyrus was that mule—son of a Median mother of royal breed, by a Persian father at once of different race and of lower position.”

This triumphant justification extorted even from Croesus himself a full confession that the sin lay with him, and not with the god. It certainly illustrates in a remarkable manner the theological ideas of the time. It shows us how much, in the mind of Herodotus, the facts of the centuries preceding his own, unrecorded as they were by any contemporary authority, tended to cast themselves into a sort of religious drama the threads of the historical web being in part put together, in part originally spun, for the purpose of setting forth the religious sentiment and doctrine woven in as a pattern. The Pythian priestess predicts to Gyges that the crime which he had committed in assassinating his master would be expiated by his fifth descendant, though, as Herodotus tells us, no one took any notice of this prophecy until it was at last fulfilled: we see thus the history of the first Mermnad king is made up after the catastrophe of the last. There was something in the main facts of the history of Croesus profoundly striking to the Greek mind, a king at the summit of wealth and power—pious in the extreme and munificent toward the gods—the first destroyer of Hellenic liberty in Asia—then precipitated, at once and on a sudden, into the abyss of ruin. The sin of the first parent helped much toward the solution of this perplexing problem, as well as to exalt the credit of the oracle, when made to assume the shape of an unnoticed prophecy. In the affecting story of Solon and Croesus, the Lydian king is punished with an acute domestic affliction because he thought himself the happiest of mankind—the gods not suffering any one to be arrogant except themselves and the warning of Solon is made to recur to Croesus after he has become the prisoner of Cyrus, in the narrative of Herodotus. To the same vein of thought belongs the story, just recounted, of the relations of Croesus with the Delphian oracle. An account is provided, satisfactory to the religious feelings of the Greeks, how and why he was ruined—but nothing less than the overruling and omnipotent Moeræ could be invoked to explain so stupendous a result. It is rarely that these supreme goddesses—or hyper-goddesses, since the gods themselves must submit to them—are brought into such distinct light and action. Usually they are kept in the dark, or are left to be understood as the unseen stumbling block in cases of extreme incomprehensibility and it is difficult clearly to determine (as in the case of some complicated political constitutions) where the Greeks conceived sovereign power to reside, in respect to the government of the world. But here the sovereignity of the Moeræ, and the subordinate agency of the gods, are unequivocally set forth. The gods are still extremely powerful, because the Moeræ comply with their requests up to a certain point, not thinking it proper to be wholly inexorable but their compliance is carried no farther than they themselves choose nor would they, even in deference to Apollo, alter the original sentence of punishment for the sin of Gyges in the person of his fifth descendant—sentence, moreover, which Apollo himself had formerly prophesied shortly after the sin was committed, so that, if the Moeræ had listened to his intercession on behalf of Croesus, his own prophetic credit would have been endangered. Their unalterable resolution has predetermined the ruin of Croesus, and the grandeur of the event is manifested by the circumstance that even Apollo himself cannot prevail upon them to alter it, or to grant more than a three years’ respite. The religious element must here be viewed as giving the form, the historical element as giving the matter only, and not the whole matter, of the story. These two elements will be found conjoined more or less throughout most of the history of Herodotus, though as we descend to later times, we shall find the latter element in constantly increasing proportion. His conception of history is extremely different from that of Thucydides, who lays down to himself the true scheme and purpose of the historian, common to him with the philosopher—to recount and interpret the past, as a rational aid toward pre-vision of the future.

In the short abstract which we now possess of the lost work of Ctesias, no mention appears of the important conquest of Babylon. His narrative, indeed, as far as the abstract enables us to follow it, diverges materially from that of Herodotus, and must have been founded on data altogether different.

“I shall mention (says Herodotus) these conquests which gave Cyrus most trouble, and are most memorable: after he had subdued all the rest of the continent, he attacked the Assyrians.” Those who recollect the description of Babylon and its surrounding territory, will not be surprised to learn that the capture of it gave the Persian aggressor much trouble. Their only surprise will be, how it could ever have been taken at all—or indeed how a hostile army could have even reached it. Herodotus informs us that the Babylonian queen Nitocris (mother of that very Labynetus who was king when Cyrus attacked the place) apprehensive of invasion from the Medes after their capture of Nineveh, had executed many laborious works near the Euphrates for the purpose of obstructing their approach. Moreover there existed what was called the wall of Media (probably built by her, but certainly built prior to the Persian conquest), one hundred feet high and twenty feet thick, across the entire space of seventy-five miles which joined the Tigris with one of the canals of the Euphrates: while the canals themselves, as we may see by the march of the ten thousand Greeks after the battle of Cunaxa, presented means of defence altogether insuperable by a rude army such as that of the Persians. On the east, the territory of Babylonia was defended by the Tigris, which cannot be forded lower than the ancient Nineveh or the modern Mosul. In addition to these ramparts, natural as well as artificial, to protect the territory—populous, cultivated, productive, and offering every motive to its inhabitants to resist even the entrance of an enemy—we are told that the Babylonians were so thoroughly prepared for the inroad of Cyrus that they had accumulated within their walls a store of provisions for many years. Strange as it may seem, we must suppose that the king of Babylon, after all the cost and labor spent in providing defences for the territory, voluntarily neglected to avail himself of them, suffered the invader to tread down the fertile Babylonia without resistance, and merely drew out the citizens to oppose him when he arrived under the walls of the city—if the statement of Herodotus is correct. And we may illustrate this unaccountable omission by that which we know to have happened in the march of the younger Cyrus to Cunuxa against his brother Artaxerxes Mnemon. The latter had caused to be dug, expressly in preparation for this invasion, a broad and deep ditch (thirty feet wide and eight feet deep) from the wall of Media to the river Euphrates, a distance of twelve parasangs or forty-five English miles, leaving only a passage of twenty feet broad close alongside of the river. Yet when the invading army arrived at this important pass, they found not a man there to defend it, and all of them marched without resistance through the narrow inlet. Cyrus the younger, who had up to that moment felt assured that his brother would fight, now supposed that he had given up the idea of defending Babylon: instead of which, two days afterward, Artaxerxes attacked him on an open plain of ground where there was no advantage of position on either side though the invaders were taken rather unawares in consequence of their extreme confidence arising from recent unopposed entrance within the artificial ditch. This anecdote is the more valuable as an illustration, because all its circumstances are transmitted to us by a discerning eye-witness. And both the two incidents here brought into comparison demonstrate the recklessness, changefulness, and incapacity of calculation belonging to the Asiatic mind of that day—as well as the great command of hands possessed by these kings, and their prodigal waste of human labor. Vast walls and deep ditches are an inestimable aid to a brave and well-commanded garrison but they cannot be made entirely to supply the want of bravery and intelligence.

In whatever manner the difficulties of approaching Babylon may have been overcome, the fact that they were overcome by Cyrus is certain. On first setting out for this conquest, he was about to cross the river Gyndes (one of the affluents from the east which joins the Tigris near the modern Bagdad, and along which lay the high road crossing the pass of Mount Zagros from Babylon to Ekbatana) when one of the sacred white horses, which accompanied him, entered the river in pure wantonness and tried to cross it by himself. The Gyndes resented this insult and the horse was drowned: upon which Cyrus swore in his wrath that he would so break the strength of the river as that women in future should pass it without wetting their knees. Accordingly he employed his entire army, during the whole summer season, in digging three hundred and sixty artificial channels to disseminate the unit of the stream. Such, according to Herodotus, was the incident which postponed for one year the fall of the great Babylon. But in the next spring Cyrus and his army were before the walls, after having defeated and driven in the population who came out to fight. These walls were artificial mountains (three hundred feet high, seventy-five feet thick, and forming a square of fifteen miles to each side), within which the besieged defied attack, and even blockade, having previously stored up several years’ provision. Through the midst of the town, however, flowed the Euphrates. That river which had been so laboriously trained to serve for protection, trade and sustenance to the Babylonians, was now made the avenue of their ruin. Having left a detachment of his army at the two points where the Euphrates enters and quits the city, Cyrus retired with the remainder to the higher part of its course, where an ancient Babylonian queen had prepared one of the great lateral reservoirs for carrying off in case of need the superfluity of its water. Near this point Cyrus caused another reservoir and another canal of communication to be dug, by means of which he drew off the water of the Euphrates to such a degree it became not above the height of a man’s thigh. The period chosen was that of a great Babylonian festival, when the whole population were engaged in amusement and revelry. The Persian troops left near the town, watching their opportunity, entered from both sides along the bed of the river, and took it by surprise with scarcely any resistance. At no other time, except during a festival, could they have done this (says Herodotus) had the river been ever so low, for both banks throughout the whole length of the town were provided with quays, with continuous walls, and with gates at the end of every street which led down to the river at right angles so that if the population had not been disqualified by the influences of the moment, they would have caught the assailants in the bed of the river “as in a trap,” and overwhelmed them from the walls alongside. Within a square of fifteen miles to each side, we are not surprised to hear that both the extremities were already in the power of the besiegers before the central population heard of it, and while they were yet absorbed in unconscious festivity.

Such is the account given by Herodotus of the circumstances which placed Babylon—the greatest city of Western Asia—in the power of the Persians. To what extent the information communicated to him was incorrect or exaggerated, we cannot now decide. The way in which the city was treated would lead us to suppose that its acquisition cannot have cost the conqueror either much time or much loss. Cyrus comes into the list as king of Babylon, and the inhabitants with their whole territory become tributary to the Persians, forming the richest satrapy in the empire but we do not hear that the people were otherwise ill-used, and it is certain that the vast walls and gates were left untouched. This was very different from the way in which the Medes had treated Nineveh, which seems to have been ruined and for a long time absolutely uninhabited, though reoccupied on a reduced scale under the Parthian empire and very different also from the way in which Babylon itself was treated twenty years afterward by Darius, when reconquered after a revolt.

The importance of Babylon, marking as it does one of the peculiar forms of civilization belonging to the ancient world in a state of full development, gives an interest even to the half-authenticated stories respecting its capture. The other exploits ascribed to Cyrus—his invasion of India, across the desert of Arachosia—and his attack upon the Massagetæ, Nomads ruled by Queen Tomyris and greatly resembling the Scythians, across the mysterious river which Herodotus calls Araxes—are too little known to be at all dwelt upon. In the latter he is said to have perished, his army being defeated in a bloody battle. He was buried at Pasargadæ, in his native province of Persis proper, where his tomb was honored and watched until the breaking up of the empire, while his memory was held in profound veneration among the Persians. Of his real exploits we know little or nothing, but in what we read respecting him there seems, though amid constant fighting, very little cruelty. Xenophon has selected his life as the subject of a moral romance which for a long time was cited as authentic history, and which even now serves as an authority, express or implied, for disputable and even incorrect conclusions. His extraordinary activity and conquests admit of no doubt. He left the Persian empire extending from Sogdiana and the rivers Jaxartes and Indus eastward, to the Hellespont and the Syrian coast westward, and his successors made no permanent addition to it except that of Egypt. Phenicia and Judæa were dependencies of Babylon, at the time when he conquered it, with their princes and grandees in Babylonian captivity. As they seem to have yielded to him, and became his tributaries without difficulty so the restoration of their captives was conceded to them. It was from Cyrus that the habits of the Persian kings took commencement, to dwell at Susa in the winter, and Ekbatana during the summer the primitive territory of Persis, with its two towns of Persepolis and Pasargadæ, being reserved for the burial-place of the kings and the religious sanctuary of the empire. How or when the conquest of Susiana was made, we are not informed. It lay eastward of the Tigris, between Babylonia and Persis proper, and its people, the Kissians, as far as we can discern, were of Assyrian and not of Aryan race. The river Choaspes near Susa was supposed to furnish the only water fit for the palate of the great king, and it is said to have been carried about with him wherever he went.

While the conquests of Cyrus contributed to assimilate the distinct types of civilization in Western Asia—not by elevating the worse, but by degrading the better—upon the native Persians themselves they operated as an extraordinary stimulus, provoking alike their pride, ambition, cupidity, and warlike propensities. Not only did the territory of Persis proper pay no tribute to Susa or Ekbatana—being the only district so exempted between the Jaxartes and the Mediterranean—but the vast tributes received from the remaining empire were distributed to a great degree among its inhabitants. Empire to them meant—for the great men, lucrative satrapies or pachalics, with powers altogether unlimited, pomp inferior only to that of the great king, and standing armies which they employed at their own discretion sometimes against each other—for the common soldiers, drawn from their fields or flocks, constant plunder, abundant maintenance, and an unrestrained license, either in the suite of one of the satraps, or in the large permanent troops which moved from Susa to Ekbatana with the Great King. And if the entire population of Persis proper did not migrate from their abodes to occupy some of those more inviting spots which the immensity of the imperial dominion furnished—a dominion extending (to use the language of Cyrus the younger before the battle of Cunaxa) from the region of insupportable heat to that of insupportable cold—this was only because the early kings discouraged such a movement, in order that the nation might maintain its military hardihood and be in a situation to furnish undiminished supplies of soldiers. The self-esteem and arrogance of the Persians were no less remarkable than their avidity for sensual enjoyment. They were fond of wine to excess their wives and their concubines were both numerous and they adopted eagerly from foreign nations new fashions of luxury as well as of ornament. Even to novelties in religion, they were not strongly averse. For though disciples of Zoroaster, with Magi as their priests and as indispensable companions of their sacrifices, worshipping sun, moon, earth, fire, etc., and recognizing neither image, temple, nor altar—yet they had adopted the voluptuous worship of the goddess Mylitta from the Assyrians and Arabians. A numerous male offspring was the Persian’s boast. His warlike character and consciousness of force were displayed in the education of these youths, who were taught, from five years old to twenty, only three things—to ride, to shoot with the bow, and to speak the truth. To owe money, or even to buy and sell, was accounted among the Persians disgraceful—a sentiment which they defended by saying that both the one and the other imposed the necessity of telling falsehood. To exact tribute from subjects, to receive pay or presents from the king, and to give away without forethought whatever was not immediately wanted, was their mode of dealing with money. Industrial pursuits were left to the conquered, who were fortunate if by paying a fixed contribution and sending a military contingent when required, they could purchase undisturbed immunity for their remaining concerns. They could not thus purchase safety for the family hearth, since we find instances of noble Grecian maidens torn from their parents for the harem of the satrap.

To a people of this character, whose conceptions of political society went no farther than personal obedience to a chief, a conqueror like Cyrus would communicate the strongest excitement and enthusiasm of which they were capable. He had found them slaves, and made them masters: he was the first and greatest of national benefactors, as well as the most forward of leaders in the field: they followed him from one conquest to another, during the thirty years of his reign, their love of empire growing with the empire itself. And this impulse of aggrandizement continued unabated during the reigns of his three next successors—Cambyses, Darius, and Xerxes—until it was at length violently stifled by the humiliating defeats of Platæa and Salamis after which the Persians became content with defending themselves at home and playing a secondary game.

Watch the video: Ιστορία Δ Δημοτικού Κεφ. 33 Ο θάνατος του Μ Αλεξάνδρου (July 2022).


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