During his twenty nine to thirty year reign, Cyrus fought and conquered some of the greatest states of his time, including the Median Empire, the Lydian Empire, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Cyrus did not venture into Egypt, as he himself died in battle, fighting the Scythians along the Syr Darya in August 530 BC or 529BC. He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who managed to conquer Egypt during his short rule.
Beyond his nation, Cyrus left a lasting legacy on Jewish religion (through his Edict of Restoration), human rights, politics, and military strategy, as well as on both Eastern and Western civilizations.
In modern Persia, Cyrus is referred to as Kourosh-e Kabir, and, more recently, as Kourosh-e Bozorg — the Persian-derived name for Cyrus the Great. In the Bible, he is known as simply Koresh (כורש). He is also possibly mentioned in the Qur'an under the title "Dhul-Qarnayn" ذو القرنين, who conquered lands east and west.
Out of the ten to fifteen Persian tribes, he was from the Pasargadae and was descended from one of its clans, the Achaemenidae. Before he united the Persians and Medes under a single empire, he was the ruler of Anshān, then a vassal kingdom of the Median Empire, in what is now part of Fars Province in southern Iran. In this area Cyrus would build Pasargadae, his future capital city.
The dynasty was supposedly founded by Achaemenes (c. 700 BC?), who was succeeded by his son Teispes of Anshan. Inscriptions indicate that when the latter died, two of his sons shared the throne as Cyrus I of Anshan and Ariaramnes of Persia. They were succeeded by their respective sons, Cambyses I of Anshan and Arsames of Persia. However, the authenticity of these inscriptions has been called into question, thus blurring the history of Cyrus' predecessors.
Cambyses is considered by Herodotus to be of nobility but not a king, and further notes his marriage to Princess Māndānā, who was the daughter of Princess Aryenis of Lydia (or of another wife according to Christian Settipani) and Astyages, king of the Medes. From their union, Māndānā bore only one son, Cyrus II, better known today as Cyrus the Great, whom Cambyses named after the child's grandfather.
According to Ctesias, Cyrus the Great married a daughter of Astyages named Amytis, which seems unlikely, as his wife would also be his aunt. A possible explanation is that Astyages married again, and his second wife bore him this daughter. Cyrus' first wife, Cassandane, is equally obscure. According to Herodotus and the Behistun Inscription, she bore Cyrus at least two sons, Cambyses II and Smerdis. Both sons later separately ruled Persia for a short period of time. Cyrus also had several daughters, of which two, Artystone and Atossa, would marry Darius the Great. The latter is significant, as she gave birth to Xerxes I, Darius' successor.
Herodotus's story of Cyrus' early life belongs to a genre of legends in which abandoned children of noble birth, such as Oedipus and Romulus and Remus, return to claim their royal positions. His overlord was his own grandfather, Astyages, ruler of the powerful Median kingdom.
After the birth of Cyrus, Astyages had a dream that his Magi interpreted as a sign that his grandson would eventually overthrow him. He then ordered his steward Harpagus to kill the infant. Harpagus, morally unable to kill a newborn, summoned a herdsman of the king named Mitridates and ordered him to dispose of the child. Luckily for the young boy, the herdsman took him in and raised him as his own.
When Cyrus was ten years old, Herodotus claims that it was obvious that Cyrus was not a herdsman's son, stating that his behavior was too noble. Astyages interviewed the boy and noticed that they resembled each other. Astyages ordered Harpagus to explain what he had done with the baby, and after confessing that he had not killed the boy, the king tricked him into eating his own broiled and chopped son. Astyages was more lenient with Cyrus, and allowed him to return to his biological parents, Cambyses and Mandane. While Herodotus' description may be a legend, it does give insight into the figures surrounding Cyrus the Great's early life.
After his father's death in 559 BC, Cyrus became king of Anshan. However, Cyrus was not yet an independent ruler. Like his predecessors, Cyrus had to recognize Mede overlordship. During Astyages' reign, the Median Empire may have ruled over the majority of the Ancient Near East, from the Lydian frontier in the west to the Parthians and Persians in the east.
In Herodotus' version, Harpagus, seeking vengeance, convinced Cyrus to rally the Persian people to revolt against their feudal lords, the Medes. However, it is likely that both Harpagus and Cyrus rebelled due to their dissatisfaction with Astyages' policies. From the start of the revolt in summer 553 BC or early 552 BC, then his first battles taking place in 552 BC, and with the help of Harpagus, Cyrus led his armies against the Medes until the capture of Ecbatana in 549 BC, effectively conquering the Median Empire.
While Cyrus seems to have accepted the crown of Media, by 546 BC, he officially assumed the title King of Persia instead. Arsames, who had been the ruler of Persia under the Medes, therefore had to give up his throne. His son, Hystaspes, who was also Cyrus' second cousin, was then made satrap of Parthia and Phrygia. Arsames would live to see his grandson become Darius the Great, Shahanshah of Persia, after the deaths of both of Cyrus' sons.
Cyrus' conquest of Media was merely the start of his wars. Astyages had been allied with his brother-in-law Croesus of Lydia, (son of Alyattes II), Nabonidus of Babylon, and Amasis II of Egypt, who reportedly intended to join forces against Cyrus.
The exact dates of the Lydian conquest are unknown, but it must have taken place between Cyrus' overthrow of the Mede kingdom (550 BC) and his conquest of Babylon (539 BC). It was common in the past to give 547 BC as the year of the conquest due to some interpretations of the Nabonidus Chronicle, but this position is currently not much held. The Lydians first attacked the Achaemenid Empire's city of Pteria in Cappadocia. Croesus laid siege to the city, and captured its inhabitants as slaves. Meanwhile, The Persians invited the citizens of Ionia who were part of the Lydian kingdom, to revolt against their ruler. The offer was rebuffed, and thus Cyrus levied an army and marched against the Lydians, increasing his numbers while passing through nations in his way. The Battle of Pteria was effectively a stalemate, with both sides suffering heavy casualties by nightfall. Croesus retreated to Sardis the following morning.
While in Sardis, Croesus sent out requests for his allies to send aid to Lydia. However, near the end of winter, before the allies could unite, Cyrus pushed the war into Lydian territory and besieged Croesus in his capital, Sardis. Shortly before the final Battle of Thymbra between the two rulers, Harpagus advised Cyrus to place his dromedaries in front of his warriors; the Lydian horses, not used to the dromedaries' smell, would be very afraid. The strategy worked; the Lydian cavalry was routed. Cyrus defeated and captured Croesus. Cyrus occupied the capital at Sardis, conquering the Lydian kingdom in 546 BC. According to Herodotus, Cyrus spared Croesus' life and kept him as an advisor, but this account conflicts with some translations of the contemporary Nabonidus Chronicle, which interpret that the king of Lydia was slain.
Before returning to the capital, a Lydian named Pactyes was entrusted by Cyrus to send Croesus' treasury to Persia. However, soon after Cyrus' departure, Pactyes hired mercenaries and caused an uprising in Sardis, revolting against the Persian satrap of Lydia, Tabalus. With recommendations from Croesus that he should turn the minds of the Lydian people to luxury, Cyrus sent Mazares, one of his commanders, to subdue the insurrection, but demanded that Pactyas be returned alive. Upon Mazares' arrival, Pactyas fled to Ionia, where he had hired mercenaries. Mazares marched his troops into the Greek country and captured the cities of Magnesia and Priene, where Pactyas was captured and sent back to Persia for punishment.
Mazares continued the conquest of Asia Minor, but died of unknown causes during his campaign in Ionia. Cyrus sent Harpagus to complete Mazares' conquest of Asia Minor. Harpagus captured Lycia, Cilicia and Phoenicia, using the technique of building earthworks to breach the walls of besieged cities, a method unknown to the Greeks. He ended his conquest of the area in 542 BC, and returned to Persia.
In 539 BC, Cyrus captured Elam (Susiana) and its capital, Susa. Towards the end of September, Cyrus' armies, under the command of Gubaru, the governor of Gutium, attacked Opis on the river Tigris and defeated the Babylonian army.
On October 10, the city of Sippar was seized without a battle, with little to no resistance from the populace. It is probable that Cyrus engaged in negotiations with the Babylonian generals to obtain a compromise on their part and therefore avoid an armed confrontation. Nabonidus was staying in the city at the time, and soon fled to the capital, Babylon, which he had not visited in years.
Two days later, on October 12 (Julian calendar; October 7 by the Gregorian calendar), Gubaru's troops entered Babylon, again without any resistance from the Babylonian armies. Herodotus explains that to accomplish this feat, the Persians diverted the Euphrates river into a canal so that the water level dropped "to the height of the middle of a man's thigh," which allowed the invading forces to march directly through the river bed to enter at night. On October 29, Cyrus himself entered the city of Babylon and detained Nabonidus.
Prior to Cyrus' invasion of Babylon, the Neo-Babylonian Empire had conquered many kingdoms. In addition to Babylonia itself, Cyrus incorporated its subnational entities into his Empire, including Syria and Judea.
After taking Babylon, Cyrus proclaimed himself "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world" in the famous Cyrus cylinder, an inscription deposited in the foundations of the Esagila temple dedicated to the chief Babylonian god Marduk. The text of the cylinder denounces Nabonidus as impious and portrays the victorious Cyrus as pleasing to Marduk. It goes on to describe how Cyrus had improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples and restored temples and cult sanctuaries. Although some have asserted that the cylinder represents a form of "human rights charter", historians generally portray it in the context of a long-standing Mesopotamian tradition of new rulers beginning their reigns with declarations of reforms.
According to the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great, Cyrus' dominions must have comprised the largest empire the world had ever seen. At the end of Cyrus' rule, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Asia Minor and Judah in the west to the Indus River in the east.
Ctesias, in his Persica, has the longest account which says Cyrus met his death while putting down resistance from the Derbices infantry, aided by other Scythian archers and cavalry, plus Indians and their elephants. According to him, this event took place north-east of the headwaters of the Syr Darya.
An alternative account from Xenophon's Cyropaedia contradicts the others, claiming that Cyrus died peaceably at his capital..
Cyrus' remains were supposedly interred in the city of Pasargadae, where today a tomb still exists which many believe to be his. Both Strabo and Arrian give nearly equal descriptions of the tomb, based on the eyewitness report of Aristobulus of Cassandreia, who at the instigation of Alexander the Great visited the tomb two times. Though the city itself is now in ruins, the burial place of Cyrus the Great has remained largely intact; and the tomb has been partially restored to counter its natural deterioration over the years. According to Plutarch, his epitaph said,
O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore grudge me this little earth that covers my body.
Cuneiform evidence from Babylon proves that Cyrus died in August 530 BC, and that his son Cambyses II had become king. His younger son, Smerdis, died before Cambyses left to invade the eastern front. From Herodotus' account, Cambyses killed his brother to avoid a rebellion in his absence. Cambyses continued his father's policy of expansion, and managed to capture Egypt for the Empire, but soon died after only seven years of rule. An imposter named Gaumata, claiming to be Smerdis, became the sole ruler of Persia for seven months, until he was killed by Darius the Great.
Cyrus was praised in the Tanach though he was also criticized for believing the false report of the Cuthites, who wanted to halt the building of the Second Temple. They accused the Jews of conspiring to rebel, so Cyrus in turn stopped the construction of the temple, which would not be completed until 516 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great, the grandson of Queen Esther.
Cyrus was distinguished equally as a statesman and as a soldier. By pursuing a policy of generosity instead of repression, and by favoring local religions, he was able to make his newly conquered subjects into enthusiastic supporters. Due in part to the political infrastructure he created, the Achaemenid empire endured long after his demise.
The rise of Persia under Cyrus's rule had a profound impact on the course of world history. Persian philosophy, literature and religion all played dominant roles in world events for the next millennia. Despite the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century CE by the Islamic Caliphate (Arab Empire), Persia continued to exercise enormous influence in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age, and was particularly instrumental in the growth and expansion of Islam.
Many of the dynasties that followed the Achaemenids (Seleucid, Sassanid, Pahlavi) have claimed to continue the line begun by Cyrus. Mohammad Reza Shah celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy in 1971, though it would be toppled a mere eight years later. Even today many consider him the equal if not the greater than Alexander the Great in his accomplishment.
According to Professor Richard Frye:
It is a testimony to the capability of the founder of the Achaemenian empire that it continued to expand after his death and lasted for more than two centuries. But Cyrus was not only a great conqueror and administrator; he held a place in the minds of the Persian people similar to that of Romulus and Remus in Rome or Moses for the Israelites. His saga follows in many details the stories of hero and conquerors from elsewhere in the ancient world. The manner in which the baby Cyrus was given to a shepherd to raise is reminiscent of Moses in the bulrushes in Egypt, and the overthrow of his tyrannical grandfather has echoes in other myths and legends. There is no doubt that the Cyrus saga arose early among the Persians and was known to the Greeks. The sentiments of esteem or even awe in which Persians held him were transmitted to the Greeks, and it was no accident that Xenophon chose Cyrus to be the model of a ruler for the lessons he wished to impart to his fellow Greeks.
In short, the figure of Cyrus has survived throughout history as more than a great man who founded an empire. He became the epitome of the great qualities expected of a ruler in antiquity, and he assumed heroic features as a conqueror who was tolerant and magnanimous as well as brave and daring. His personality as seen by the Greeks influenced them and Alexander the Great, and, as the tradition was transmitted by the Romans, may be considered to influence our thinking even now. In the year 1971, Iran celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the monarchy by Cyrus.
Some contemporary Muslim scholars have suggested that the Qur'anic figure of Dhul-Qarnayn is Cyrus the Great. This theory was proposed by Sunni scholar Abul Kalam Azad and endorsed by Shi'a scholars Allameh Tabatabaei, in his Tafsir al-Mizan and Makarem Shirazi and Sunni scholar Abul Ala Maududi.
Cyrus' conquests began a new era in the age of empire building, where a vast superstate, comprising many dozens of countries, races, religions, and languages, were ruled under a single administration headed by a central government. This system lasted for centuries, and was retained both by the invading Seleucid dynasty during their control of Persia, and later Iranian dynasties including the Persian Parthians and Sassanids.
I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. This emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he 'would not reign over the people if they did not wish it.' He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should be studied in the history of human rights.
Cyrus' legacy has been felt even as far away as Iceland and colonial America. Many of the forefathers of the United States of America sought inspiration from Cyrus the Great through works such as Cyropaedia. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had two personal copies of the book, "which was a mandatory read for statesmen alongside Machiavelli's The Prince.
One of the few surviving sources of information that can be dated directly to Cyrus's time is the Cyrus cylinder, a document issued by Cyrus the Great in the form of a clay cylinder inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform. The cylinder was created following the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The text of the cylinder denounces Nabonidus as impious and portrays the victorious Cyrus as pleasing to the chief god Marduk. It goes on to describe how Cyrus had improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples and restored temples and cult sanctuaries.
The cylinder had been placed under the walls of Babylon as a foundation deposit. It was discovered in 1879 by the Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam in the foundations of the Esagila (i.e., the Marduk temple of Babylon) and is kept today in the British Museum in London. There have been reports of attempts by the directors of the British Museum and the National Museum of Iran in Tehran to arrange a loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to be temporarily displayed in the National Museum of Iran for a special exhibition.
According to the British Museum, the cylinder "reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms." It is composed in a form that matched long-standing Babylonian styles and themes. The cylinder is seen as an example of Cyrus seeking the loyalty of his new Babylonian subjects by stressing his legitimacy as king, and showing his respect for the religious and political traditions of Babylonia. It has been regarded for over a century as an instrument of ancient Mesopotamian propaganda. In the early 1970s, the Shah of Iran adopted it as a symbol of his reign and celebrating 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy, asserting that it was "the first human rights charter in history", an interpretation which is also advocated by some, although criticized by others as "anachronistic and erroneous". The cylinder has also attracted attention in the context of the repatriation of the Jews to Jerusalem following their Babylonian captivity; it has generally been viewed as corroboration of the Biblical account in the Book of Ezra (see: Ezra 1.1-6, 6.1-5; Isaiah 44.23-45.8; 2 Chronicles 36.22-23), though the extent to which this is the case remains unclear.
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