I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters
In this post we will be discussing one of the greatest rulers to have ever lived, Cyrus the Great of Persia. King of Āryāvarta, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the World
Unique in his time, Cyrus amassed the largest empire anyone had ever seen up to that point, and was praised for his just and benevolent rule. Cyrus founded what is known as the Achaemend Empire, named for it’s progenitor, Achaemenes. A powerful culturally diverse empire that had a lasting influence on the Western as well as Eastern world. Like my previous post on Genghis Khan, I will go over his early years, go over some key battles during his rise to power, and his accomplishments as a king before ending with his passing. So, let us begin.
Myth and Fact
Apparently there isn’t a ton of information on Cyrus’ early years. The dates for his birth range between 600 and 575 B.C. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus was born a prince but was raised by sheep herders, not knowing his royal lineage. Other say eh was born a herdsmen and rose to a king. Cyrus himself is reported to have said he was descended from a line of kings. According to Herodotus, king Astyages had a dream that his daughter’s son would rise up to overthrow him and seize his empire. When his daughter finally gave birth, Astyages became troubled by more dreams and ordered his steward, Harpagus, to find the baby and kill it. Harpagus finds the baby but is unable to bring himself to spill royal blood. Instead he orders a local Mardian herdsman by the name of Atradates(Greek translation) to take the baby into the mountains and leave it to die of exposure. Atradates and his wife, Cyno, were unable to carry out this grim task and decided to adopt the child as their own.
At the age of ten people begin to question whether Cyrus is indeed the son of a herdsman. He carried a certain nobility in action and appearance that distinguished himself from his fellow herdsman. Of course we all know that pomp and circumstance isn’t hereditary but this story was meant to help distinguish Cyrus as something more than a herdsman. At some point King Astyages meets with the boy and can’t get over how similar they are in appearance. He asked Harpagus exactly what had happened to the child he had ordered him to kill not a decade earlier. Harpagus admitted to being unable to fulfill his orders. Astyages did not directly punish Harpagus. Instead eh did something far more diabolical. He abducted Harpagus’ son, broiled him alive, and served the meat to Harpagus. It was a punch in the gut just typing that. I can’ even begin to imagine Harpagus’ grief when he found out.
Astyages was apparently far more lenient with Cyrus, even allowing him to return to live with his biological parents. Of course this is mostly the stuff of legend and only intended to provide some history behind the real man Cyrus would become. He was of noble blood but knew the life of the common man. A folk hero to the people he would one day rule. It was to humanize him and add to this glory and appreciation. At around the age of 17 Cyrus married the “love of his life, Cassandane. Even though his father would live for several more years, Cyrus took the royal throne in 559 B.C. Cyrus was not yet the great king he would be though. His kingdom was still under the authority of the Median empire, whom they had submitted to some years earlier. It was actually the second time they had submitted to their rule. Along with what was left of the Assyrian Empire, they put incredible pressure on Cyrus.
The Road to Rule
Cyrus’ grandfather Astyages was the current ruler of the Median empire. It is Cyru’s displeasure with Astyages that is thought to have led to the Persian revolt that finally frees them from Median rule for good. Helping him was the man who once held his life in his hands, the old soldier Harpagus. Together they form the first official Persian army and begin direct conflict with the Median empire. There had already been an ongoing confrontation before Cyrus joined in. The Medes had been winning most of the encounters though. Most were ready to give up but Cyrus rallied them all to his banner and began a series of successful campaigns against Median forces, culminating in the fall of the king’s city, Ecbatana. Cyrus took the throne from Astyages and the first Persian Empire was born. Cyrus turned down the crown of Media and instead created the title of “King of Persia”. He proposed to centralize authority to his throne and take away the kingships of various city states like the one he had ruled briefly. Most of the rulers were family and the transfer of power seems to have went rather smoothly.
The old “kings” were given new authority as satraps or some form of authority only answerable to Cyrus himself. An arrangement that seemed to be all cool with everyone. Cyrus unified the two pieces of the Median empire into one Persian Dynasty. But this was only the beginning of his battles. They say it is easier to grasp great power than it is to hold onto it. To ensure his dominance Cyrus knew a great string of military conquests would occupy much of his future years. More than that he believed that uniting the world under one rule would bring peace and an end to the constant conflicts. He was pretty progressive in this way. Something we’ll get into more later on.
Cyrus’ first challenge would come from the invading armies of Lydia, a Greek empire covering parts of modern day Turkey. Lydia was dwarfed in size by Cyrus’ newly christened Achaemenid Empire, so King Croesus sought an alliance with the kingdoms of Chaldea, Egypt and Sparta. Egypt was probably also eager to crush Cyrus early and Sparta was always up for a fight. Chaldea was the current ruling empire of Babylon but infighting between them and native Babylonians rendered them all but useless during the campaign. Chaldea’s current ruler was thought to be a native Babylonian and possibly rushed the empire into the alliance to secure it’s downfall. Regardless, Croesus now had an army he felt capable of invading Persia.
The Median and Lydian empires had a truce which called for a division in their empires at the Halys River in modern day Turkey. Well, once the Median empire fell, Croesus felt their contract was no longer valid as well. he immediately seized the opportunity to expand his empire east. Also likely is that he was moving to preempt an inevitable invasion by Persia. Pteria was the first city to fall to invading forces. According to the historian Herodotus, Croesus seized the territory and immediately reduced it to rubble while enslaving almost the entirety of the population. During the sacking of the city Cyrus sends a message to the city of Ionia, part of the Lydian empire, to try and persuade them to revolt. Ionia refused. But this was not the last time that the city state would play a great role in Greek/Persian relations.
With his offered refused, Cyrus gathers an army and advances toward Pteria adding more and more numbers to his army as he marched. The battle of Pteria appears to have been a stalemate. Neither army could push an advantage against the other. Eventually Croesus pulls back and returns to Sardis. It is difficult to call this a victory for Cyrus because the enemy just basically left with most of it’s strength still intact and Cyrus could do little to stop it. And you definitely can’t call it a win for Croesus since he was unable to hold the city. It was, for all intents and purposes,a draw. The Persians however, were able to fully incorporate greater Cappadocia into their empire so their strength would be greater going forward.
And forward was exactly where Cyrus went. He wasn’t an angry man. Not prone to grudge holding or acts of revenge, though he would do so to make a point. He wasn’t even a fan of armed conflict,often turning to diplomacy to get things done. He did recognize threats when he saw them, and Lydia was a threat. They had already invaded once and, if they combine with their allies in Egypt and Sparta, will most likely push even further into Persia. Cyrus decides to take the fight directly to Croesus. His plan was to move quickly and catch the king unprepared. Before the battle at Thymbra Croesus sent out messages to his allies to join him in battle. They would never appear. This too is a source of contention with scholars. Maybe they became enraged at Croesus’ bumbling invasion of Persia and lost faith in him. Maybe issue sat home prevented it. Egypt was putting down many revolts at this point in time and Sparta was constantly “disciplining” it’s slave population. Plus Sparta may have found no glory in winning land for another.
Regardless, Cyrus arrived at Thymbra in 547 B.C. with winter still lingering. Thymbra was the name of a small city and the vast field that stretched beyond it toward the capital of Sardis. The field is where the final confrontation between Lydia and Persia would take place. The battle would be the first great est of Cyrus’ command and the strength of his army. By most accounts Cyrus’ army was outnumbered at least two to one and they were still fearing support from either Egypt or Sparta. Who know show the battle would have went had they shown, but they didn’t, so here’s how things went. Cyrus spread his flanks out in small “square formations” supported by archers and cavalry. It was a somewhat unique formation and one the Greeks might not be familiar with. Here is something of a visual representation of it:
As Cyrus predicted, Croesus’ ranks spread in an attempt to envelop his formation. Croesus didn’t seem to take Cyrus’ army too seriously. He must have felt Persian archers were no threat to his infantry and his cavalry greatly outnumbered Persia’s own and his opening strategy seemed to be “Fuck It”. Time after time Lydian forces crashed in on the Persians, dealing heavy losses. But Cyrus was waiting on something. Each time the Lydians charged they opened a gap in their flanks, and it just kept getting wider. If he could separate the Lydian infantry from the main force then he could deal a costly blow to Croesus’ army. Cyrus managed to spring his attack and, though it didn’t inflict the losses he had hoped for, it caused widespread confusion in Croesus’ ranks. When Croesus’ cavalry reformed to attack the Persian flanks, Harpagus sent out his newly formed “Camel Brigade” to disrupt the Greek horses. Apparently horses don’t care for the smell of camels.
Even though Persia appeared to suffer the heavier losses, Cyrus managed to drive Creosus’ army back into the city of Sardis. For 2 weeks Cyrus assailed the city, finally breaking through and capturing the capital. There are contradictory reports on how Cyrus dealt with Croesus. Some say Cyrus treated him well, which is believable, and some say Cyrus had him executed. This too is believable. Scholars today seem to think he just disappeared. Possibly a self imposed exile. Herodotus gives one account of the king burning himself alive on top a great pyre. He wanted to see if he was worthy and if the gods would save him. And in other accounts he is briefly a member of Cyrus’ court. Regardless, Cyrus seized the city and left a small garrison in place to maintain order. As was usual with him he gave basic autonomy to the people he conquered.
Cyrus left command in the area to his general, Mazares and returned to Persepolis. Mazares’ first action was to put down a revolt in the newly captured Sardis. A Lydian official named Pactyas gathered some Lydian rebels and, with the help of those pesky Ionians, led a series of revolts in the city. Cyrus couldn’t believe the people were already at his throat. He was tempted to just burn the city to the ground but Croesus, now a member of his imperial court, asked that he stay his hand. Cyrus was a man who would be known for leniency and treating his subjects fairly so he heard Croesus out. He recommended that Cyrus disarm the people and quickly put in place trade laws that would bring a bit of prosperity to the region and distract the populace with comfort and luxury. Cyrus agreed and instructed Mazares to carry to the orders with the provision that Pactyas be brought back to face punishment. Pactyas, however, received news of Mazares’ intentions and fled the city before his arrival, traveling to Ionia. Mazares later invaded the area, subjugated the people, and captured Pactyas.
Maybe his punishment wouldn’t have been as severe if he had not “fled justice”. Again, Cyrus was known for uncommon leniency. Instead he was tortured to the point of death and imprisoned for life. Mazares continued his conquest of Asia Minor until his death by unknown causes. Cyrus sent Harpagus to continue his work. He picked up right where Mazares left off, conquering one territory after another. Harpagus employed earthworks in his campaigns. A technique unknown to the Greeks but later adopted by Alexander the Great. He fashioned huge ramps from the Earth and dug away support from high walls. His engineering feats made him a feared commander and assured that no city was safe, no matter how high the walls. Harpagus, like Cyrus, was known for showing mercy and some cities quickly threw themselves at his feet. But, during the campaign in Lycia, the citizens of the city of Xanthos committed suicide rather than be conquered. It would be the one of the few times that casualties among citizens would be so high. Reports say Cyrus was saddened by this turn of events and it would color his future dealings with conquered cities.
Cyrus was now setting his sights on Babylon. The region was currently held by the Chaldean people,located in, what is today, southern Iraq. It was a relatively young empire, currently led by successors of historic king Nebuchadnezzar II. Neriglissar was the current “ruler” having deposed the previous king only 2 years earlier. There were questions as to this legitimacy and whether he was an actual Chaldean. The Chaldean empire was fat and lazy. They benefited from past Babylonian conquests and sough to live in luxury off the empire’s substantial wealth, mostly gained by Nebuchadnezzar and his father before him. The conquest of Babylon was more like the cake walk of Babylon. At the beginning of October in 540 B.C., Cyrus entered Chaldean territory. By the end of the month he was standing in a captured Babylon. In one month he had completely seized control of the greatest empire in the world. In one generation it had fallen from greatness and now it belonged to Persia. Cyrus was probably the most surprised. Lydia, at a quarter of the size, had put up a thousand times fiercer resistance. babylonian armies were either routed wholly or just fled the field. The Chaldean government had ruined the once proud military and turned the empire against itself. A gang of high school cheerleaders could have taken Babylon with the right planning.
Cyrus was now the unquestioned ruler of the largest empire in history. Babylon had conquered many territories of their own and Cyrus added them to his vast empire.
Cyrus declared himself: ملك بابل، ملك سومر وأكاد، ملك من زوايا العالم الأربع (“king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the world”). He was the king of kings. Many had been overthrown or now served him solely. The Persian Empire was now the dominant force in the known world.
The Legacy of a King
Now let’s talk about what kind of ruler Cyrus was and how he chose to run his empire. First let’s look at how he was viewed by those he conquered.
In his “home country” of Iran and the surrounding territories he conquered, he was known as “The Father”. Still holding that title in Iran today. The Babylonians regarded him as “The Liberator” and were ardent supporters from day one. The Greeks declared him the “Law Giver” and the Jewish communities celebrated him as “The Anointed of The Lord”. Much of this is credited to his style of rule. He kept military presence in cities to a minimum, allowed free trade thoughout his entire empire, free religious practice, and could have been considered quite liberal monetarily. “Transferring wealth” from the richest areas of his kingdom to his poorest was a common practice. Cyrus’ Persia was the first true “multistate” empire. An empire of different peoples, customs, and concerns all under one supreme authority. Cyrus divided his kingdom into four distinct “capital states; Pasargadae, Babylon, Susa and Ekbatana. He assigned satraps(governors) to each region with state authority but under orders to interfere as little as possible in local affairs.
Even though some Greek cities still held personal grudges, the majority was pleased that Cyrus allowed them to maintain their cultural identity after being absorbed into the empire. The Jewish community was overjoyed that their religion found safe harbor in Cyrus’ borders. He even returned their “homeland” to them and asked nothign in return. Cyrus began a series of infrastructure projects to bring economic and personal security to his subjects. He designated areas around lush palaces as a sort of “state park”, full of fountains and lush vegetation. Cyrus reportedly loved gardens and gardening and he shared this love with his people. By all accounts Cyrus was looked at by the majority as the greatest thing that had ever happened to them.
By the time of his death Cyrus was possibly the most beloved man in the known world. A just and righteous king, he had turned a patchwork assemblage of nati0ns into the greatest empire ever seen and did it with minimal bloodshed. Instead of destroying most resistance, he negotiated. Kept diplomats in trouble areas around the clock to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts. He kept strict control of his satraps and replaced any he felt were adding to the unrest and greatly rewarded those performing admirably. The only people who really faced torture or threats where those who openly challenged his rule or sought to fracture his empire. Many were exiled but many more were killed, lest they gain power in exile.
Reports of how Cyrus died vary greatly. His body was buried in Pasargaede amidst much fanfare. Cyrus is rightfully considered one of the greatest leaders in history. His kingdom blended aspects of monarchy, socialism, democracy, and autocracy. His legacy affected many who followed him including Alexander the Great who felt he was taking Persia back to the days of Cyrus. Really he just demolished everything Cyrus had worked so hard to build and put nothing of consequence in it’s place. Some blame must also go to Cyrus’ grandson Xerxes who had Cyrus’ ambition but none of his skill. I rank Cyrus second on my list of greatest rulers of all time, right behind Genghis Khan and just ahead of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a man far ahead of his time with views that could definitely be considered progressive in his era.
Hope you enjoyed this brief biography of the Great King Cyrus. An epic historical figure who changed the world he was in for the better. I recommend picking up a book on the man and learn more about this transcendent figure who still influences leaders today.