The Rise of Cyrus the Great

Matt Waters

The Achaemenid Empire was the greatest the world had ever seen, spanning from the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor to the mountains of Afghanistan. Its founder was Cyrus, a ruler whose achievements made him truly ‘Great’.
Cyrus, Ruler of Persia
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Shortly after Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, he dedicated inscriptions commemorating his achievements, to wit: “The great gods have delivered into my hands all the lands, and I caused the land to live in peace.” With much of the known world under his rule, it was not far from a literal truth. The question remains how Cyrus accomplished this so effectively, and so quickly. Among his other attributes, speed and decisiveness are often noted: in several instances Cyrus seized the initiative against his enemies so rapidly that he often arrived, ready for battle, as his own messenger. The empire that Cyrus founded in just over a decade reached from Central Asia to the Aegean Sea. Within the next generation Cyrus’ successors added Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan; the Indus Valley; as well as parts of the Balkans and south-eastern Europe. It was far and away the largest empire to date and persisted in its essentials for two hundred years, only superseded, and then for less than a decade, by Alexander of Macedon’s conquest of it. Cyrus has not received the attention that one might expect for a ruler of such import and such lasting impact.

The most important royal inscription extant from Cyrus himself is the famous Cyrus Cylinder from Babylon. Therein, Cyrus’ traced his royal lineage through three generations to his great-grandfather Teispes as kings of Anshan. Anshan was the age-old name given by the Elamites, the Persians’ predecessors in Iran, to the region called subsequently Parsa (modern Fars), the core of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. About Teispes we know little beyond the name, though there are glimpses in mid-seventh century Assyrian sources of a Persian kingdom on the rise, probably under his rulership or that of his son, the first Cyrus. (Cyrus the Great was Cyrus II.) Cyrus the Great’s father, Cambyses I is also a bit of a cipher. He is attested as Cyrus’ father in royal inscriptions from Babylonia, but even in Greek narrative sources he is not much more than a genealogical reference point. Detailed information about Cyrus’ life and other aspects of his career survives primarily from a mixed bag of Greek and Roman accounts that date a century or more after Cyrus’ death. These later accounts contain a rich trove of embellished material: historical narrative; didactic literature; and the authors’ plays on, often subversions of, Persian royal ideology as received in the provinces.

The three main Greek sources give fundamentally different accounts about Cyrus. These writers, in chronological order from the later fifth into the mid-fourth centuries BC, were Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon. Herodotus explicitly noted that he knew of four different accounts about Cyrus; if Herodotus’ given version is the least exaggerated among the four that he knew, one wonders what the others contained. The version about Cyrus’ youth that Herodotus chose to relay stems from a tradition of which the main purpose was to legitimize Cyrus in the Median dynastic line. In this version Cyrus was grandson of the last Median king Astyages. Ctesias of Cnidus, writing c. 400 BC, also linked Cyrus to the Median dynastic line, but by way of marriage to Astyages’ daughter, named Amytis in that tradition, after Cyrus’ victory over her father. Despite the divergence in details in Herodotus’ and Ctesias’ accounts, the versions therein are both renderings of the so-called Sargon Legend, named after Sargon of Akkad of the twenty-third century – the tale of the hero exposed at birth, or alternatively of humble upbringing, beloved and chosen by the gods, who achieved his destiny of kingship – the theme also famously applied to Moses, Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, among others.

Cyrus was driven, relentless, and a perceptive commander. He campaigned across the ancient Middle East, parts of Central Asia, and through most of Anatolia, and seemingly none could withstand him. His military career was remarkable in its own right, and particularly so when juxtaposed with the scope and scale of territories that now came under one rule, unprecedented to that point in history. The three most celebrated conquests were over the premier powers of the day and dated from the late 550s through 539: the Medes in northern Iran, the wealthy Lydian kingdom in Anatolia, and the Babylonian Empire. The Medes were a key factor in the overthrow of the Assyrian Empire in the 610s, working in conjunction with the Babylonians to bring down the foremost power of that era. It is not clear how long this teamwork continued. The last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (reigned 556-539), himself ultimately a target of Cyrus, made no hesitation to throw the Medes under the chariot as somehow responsible – the “somehow” is never precisely delineated – for the shabby state of several temples in northern Mesopotamia. The Medes were thus blocking Nabonidus’ big reconstruction plans. The chief Babylonian god, Marduk, assured Nabonidus in a dream not to worry. The Medes then became the villain, colourfully labelled as the umman-manda, an age-old Babylonian-language pejorative for barbarians, as relayed in one of Nabonidus’ inscriptions from the late 550s.

“The umman-manda of whom you speak, he, his land, and the kings
who go at his side, are no longer a threat.” In the third year, the gods
caused to rise Cyrus, the king of Anshan…

This inscription contains the first attested reference to Cyrus the Great, introduced as the divine agent who overthrew the Babylonians’ main rivals, those enemies of the gods. the Medes.

Greek authors had a lot to say about Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia, ruled by the proverbial, “rich as” Croesus. Greek interest in Lydia was not surprising; western Anatolia was closer to home and for many Greeks it was home, an area that was subject to Lydia before the Persian conquest. Herodotus, in typical Greek literary form, cast Croesus’ gambit against Cyrus as the epitome of hubris: the misinterpretation of an omen and the desire to augment his own territory. When Croesus asked the oracle at Delphi whether he should attack Cyrus, the response came that if he did so he would destroy a mighty empire. But it was Cyrus who defeated him, and the mighty empire Croesus thus destroyed was his own. Croesus departed to engage Cyrus and, after an inconclusive battle, withdrew to his capital, Sardis, to await the Spring and reinforcements. Cyrus, however, unexpectedly stole a march and “came as his own messenger to Croesus” before any reinforcements could arrive. Cyrus nullified Croesus’ cavalry through a ploy that involved positioning at the front of his forces pack-camels, from which the Lydian horses fled. Overcome, the Lydians were besieged until a Persian force climbed a supposedly-unassailable cliff to access the city. Already victor over the mighty Medes, once Cyrus vanquished the Lydian resistance, he became certainly much “richer than Croesus.”

Greek authors did not provide much detail on the conquest of Babylon, probably because they knew little about it. In Herodotus’ account, the great city was taken after a short siege of a supposedly impenetrable wall, an echo of the taking of Sardis. Herodotus made a point, however, to devote some time to Cyrus’ diverting two rivers during the Babylonian campaign, as this allowed Herodotus to dwell on one of his favourite themes: the Persian kings’ hubris manifest by their transgressions of rivers and other natural boundaries. This sets the stage for Cyrus’ later crossing of the Araxes, for Darius I’s crossing of the Bosporus, and Xerxes’ even more infamous crossing of the Hellespont en route to punish Athens and conquer Greece.

On the other hand, ancient Near Eastern sources supply a mine of information for the conquest of Babylonia and the Levant and its aftermath. Thousands of surviving archival texts attest to the administrative organization of the Persian imperial apparatus there, which, at least for the first few decades of Persian rule, understandably adopted the Babylonian system that it inherited, in turn based on the Assyrian model. The Babylonians had presumably watched with unease as Cyrus conquered vast swaths of territory to his east, north, and northwest. Nabonidus attempted to forestall Cyrus’ advance, but his preparations came to naught. A major battle was fought at the city of Opis, near modern Baghdad, in early October of 539 BC, which paved the way for Nabonidus’ capture, an orderly transition, and Cyrus’ ceremonial entry into Babylon later that month. The Cyrus Cylinder, alluded to earlier, is a paean to Cyrus and a testament to his observance of proper rites and norms. While it contains many innovations in its composition and style, it also is a traditional Mesopotamian royal inscription. In lyrical terms it vilifies Nabonidus and trumpets Cyrus’ own legitimacy. And the emphasis turns on a key point: Cyrus was chosen by Marduk to put a stop to the outrages: the divinely-selected king who will correct previous wrongs and reinstitute proper forms was an age-old theme in Mesopotamia. “Marduk surveyed and considered all the lands, he searched thoroughly for a just ruler, one favored in his heart. Marduk took him by the hand, Cyrus, the King of Anshan, he summoned his chosen one, he named his name to rule over all.”

The text also refers to the return of gods to their sanctuaries and of peoples to their settlements. The specific places mentioned were located along a (if not “the”) most important route from Susa through the Elamite-Babylonian borderlands, a contested area among regional powers for centuries previous and, for that matter, through the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s in the modern period. While not specifically mentioned in the Cylinder’s list, the same magnanimity was accorded to the Judeans. This resulted in the most well-known consequence of Cyrus’ act, the end of the so-called Babylonian Diaspora: the deportation of Jewish population to Babylonia after Nebuchadnezzar II’s sack of Jerusalem in 587/86. It is thus no surprise that Cyrus is lionized in the Hebrew Bible – positive press follows him in almost every tradition – the Book of Ezra credits Cyrus for the restoration of the temple of Jerusalem. Cyrus was literally termed a messiah, “the anointed” in the book of Isaiah, “…(The Lord) who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfil all my purpose’” and “… Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him…” Cyrus’ magnanimity in releasing subject peoples and their gods served as the pivot point for a renewal of local traditions in Judah and elsewhere. It was also a shrewd strategic move that afforded Cyrus the opportunity of loyal subjects throughout Greater Mesopotamia and the Levant. We must allow for the likelihood that Cyrus had his sights upon Egypt as well, but the conquest of much of north-eastern Africa fell to his son and successor, Cambyses II. Cyrus died in August of 530 BC, on campaign somewhere east of the Aral Sea. He left an indelible legacy, and his successors continued his work, which included his new capital, Pasargadae, a foundational tribute to the Persians’ renowned love of gardens as well as a physical manifestation of the first universal empire.

Matthew Waters is Professor of Classics and Ancient History, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the author of King of the World: The Life of Cyrus the Great.

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