Sunday, September 30, 2018

Founders: Who was Cyrus the Great?

"Of all the powers in Asia, the kingdom of Cyrus showed itself to be the greatest and most glorious.."
- Xenophon in Cyropaedia

He founded the largest empire in the ancient world covering Mesopotamia, the Iranian Plateau, and Anatolia. From a tributary, Cyrus the Great (r. 559 – 530 BCE) elevated Persia into a superpower that dominated the region for more than a century.

Early Life

Kurush or Cyrus in Persian was the son of King Cambyses I and the daughter of the Median King Astyages named Mandane. During his childhood, his father ruled over the Persians and their kingdom Anshan. The Persians bowed towards the Medes, the kingdom that destroyed the powerful Neo-Assyrian Empire, and its ruler and Cyrus’ grandfather King Astyages.

Cyrus’ early had been plagued by scanty information. Much of the information regarding Cyrus came from Greek sources, such as Herodotus and Xenophon. His lineage, however, had been given by Cyrus’ own cylinder made after his reign.
Cyrus Hunting Wild Boar by Claude Audran the Younger
Rise of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire

Not much had been known regarding Cyrus’s true intention in rising up against the Medes. Much of it has been stories laid out by the Greek historian Herodotus who made actions caused occasionally by prophecies and dreams. And according to his work Histories, King Astygages had a dream that showed Cyrus killing him and ordered his death. Cyrus escaped and headed a rebellion.

As the facts of the time had been marred by mythmaking and storytelling, the fact remained that Cyrus rebelled against King Astygages in 550 BCE. His attempt to grab power, however, seemed to be in danger of failing. Persians had been beaten by Medes in many encounters. In the battle against the Medians in Pasargadae, the Persian started to ran away from the battle, but something urged them to stand and fight as Polyaenus wrote:
 “He was defeated again, but when the Persians fled to the city, and saw their wives and children there, they were struck by the thought of what would happen to them if they fell into the hands of the victorious enemy. Upon this, they rallied and attacked the Medes, who had lost all order in their eager pursuit.”

After the battle of Pasargadae, Cyrus marched towards the Median capital of Ectabana. His army captured King Astygages whom he kept as a prisoner and the Medes submitted to the Persians. It effectively established the Persian Empire.

War with the Kingdom of Lydia

With Cyrus consolidating his new Empire, war once again came in 546 BCE. The Kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia and its famously wealthy and powerful King Croesus declared war against the Persians and attacked.

King Croesus watched as the Persians grew in power and became a concern for the Lydians. Croesus, according to Herodetus, went to the Oracle of Delphi for advice and the counsel startled him. According to the Oracle, his attack would lead to the destruction of an Empire. Spirited and encouraged, the King of Lydia stroke at Cyrus the Great. Cyrus fought against Croesus believing that victory would give him the wealth and riches of the Anatolian plateau.

Cyrus began to destroy Croesus confidence with his victory in Pteria in Cappadocia. This victory forced Croesus to retreat to his capital Sardis. Cyrus pursued and reached the outskirts of Sardis. His forces then came against the Lydian cavalry sent to crush them. However, according to stories, through cunning and keen observation of animal psychology, Cyrus ordered his men to board camels they brought for supplies and meet the Lydian cavalry in battle. This he did knowing horse feared camels. His decision brought him victory and the Persians besieged Sardis. Eventually, Sardis surrendered and Cyrus had Croesus as his prisoner. He almost executed the Lydian king by burning him, but when the Croesus uttered Solon, it got Cyrus’ attention. Cyrus showed his respect for Croesus afterwards and the former Lydian king became his adviser and for his successor Cambyses as well.

After Lydia fell, other Greek city states in Anatolia bowed to Cyrus. Such as the case for Ionia. Cyrus then moved to place under his fold the Levant capturing the Phoenician cities like Tyre and Jerusalem. Cyrus then turned his attention east. From 545 BCE until 539 BCE, he campaigned to take the lands of Aria and Bactria. He successfully incorporated lands up to the river of Jaxartes or Syr Darya.

Fall of Babylon

The next conquest for Cyrus came in Mesopotamia. It appeared that the Babylonians had grown disillusioned with the rule of King Nabonidus’ regent Belshazzar. Belshazzar ruled the city while the King always in leave. Sensing being welcomed once he successfully defeated Belshazzar, Cyrus mobilized his army and met the Babylonians in the Tigris River. However, Cyrus’ analysis of dissatisfaction as a key to his victory proved to be correct as a Babylonian governor named Gubaru defected. Eventually, many followed until the ancient city of Babylon itself surrendered to Cyrus without bloodshed. According to Poyaenus, Cyrus marched into a stunned city after he had ordered the construction of a channel that diverted the water of the Euphrates him a route to the city through the old river stream. Whether true or not, Cyrus captured Babylon.

To celebrate his victory, Cyrus had a cylinder carved with his edict of tolerance in cuneiform. His tolerance towards the fallen became a cornerstone of Persian imperial policy. It became a means for the Persians to get the confidence, trust, and loyalty of their vastly diverse population.

Cyrus’ capture of Babylon had also been a cause for celebration for the Jewish captives of Babylon. Jews lived in Babylon as part of their punishment in defying against the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar. For decades they lived as captives in the city until Cyrus decided to liberate them and allowed to return to Jerusalem. In addition, he gave them treasures that had been taken from Jerusalem and kept in Babylonian treasury to finance the rebuilding of the Great Temple.
Cyrus the Great Liberating the Jews
Fall and Death of Cyrus the Great

In 530 BCE, Cyrus began to pick a fight against a Scythian tribe called Massageta. Herodetus described them as “to be both great and warlike.” Led by Queen Tomyris, they settled in a land called Tibe located across the Syr Darya River. According to Herodetus, Cyrus marched his forces to the Syr Darya River and build a pontoon bridge for his forces to cross.

However, the campaigned turned sour. The Persians suffered from the Scythians. Cyrus himself fell wounded from the fight as Herodotus wrote:
“first, it is said, they stood apart and shot at one another, and afterwards when their arrows were all shot away, they fell upon one another and engaged in close combat with their spears and daggers; and so they continued to be in conflict with one another for a long time, and neither side would flee; but at last the Massagetai got the better in the fight: and the greater part of the Persian army was destroyed there on the spot, and Cyrus himself brought his life to an end there, after he had reigned in all thirty years wanting one.”

The Persian army retreated and brought back Cyrus’ body to Pasagradae where they laid him in a simple tomb surrounded by gardens. Arrian quoted Aristobulus in the work Anabasis of Alexander describing what Alexander’s soldiers saw Cyrus the Great’s tomb:
“The tomb of the famous Cyrus was in the royal park at Pasargadae, and around it a grove of all kinds of trees had been planted. It was also watered by a stream, and high grass grew in the meadow. The base of the tomb itself had been made of squared stone in the form of a rectangle. Above there was a stone building surmounted by a roof, with a door leading within, so narrow that even a small man could with difficulty enter… In the building, lay a golden coffin, in which the body of Cyrus had been buried, and by the side of the coffin was a couch, the feet of which were of gold wrought with the hammer.”

Summing Up

Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire that dominated the ancient world for centuries. Though the Greeks despised the Persians due to the Greco-Persian War, they respected Cyrus. Although much of his reign had been shrouded with legends, stories, and myths, the fact that the Greeks showed reverence to him in their works meant Cyrus did well as a leader. Xenophon painted Cyrus as a great and efficient leader in his work Cyropaedia. Alexander the Great order the repair of Cyrus’ tomb.

The founder of the Persian Empire rose from a tributary kingdom into the leader of a vast territory. He showed brilliance in battle that set the tone for the expansion of Persia. His tolerance towards newly conquered people deviated from the usual practice of repression and exile that led to the rapid consolidation of Persian rule. In the end, Cyrus the Great fell in battle leaving a Persia poised to dominate the ancient world and to influence history and culture beyond its existence.

See also:
Cambyses II
Rise and Fall of the Persian Empire

“Introduction.” In The Persian Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Mehrdad Kia. Santa Barbara, Californi: ABC-CLIO, 2016.

Pettman, Andrew. “Cyrus II.” In Encyclopedia of World History. Edited by Marsha Ackermann. New York, New York: Facts on File, 2009.

No comments:

Post a Comment