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Cyrus the Great

Updated on December 21, 2011

600-530 B.C.

Cyrus the Great was king of Persia and founder of the Achaemenid empire. He was born about 600 B.C. According to Herodotus he was the third of his line to hold the name; hence he should be designated Cyrus III. Cyrus was the son of Cambyses II and the grandson of Cyrus II. His great grandfather was Teispes II, who was preceded by Cyrus I, Cambyses I, Teispes I, and Achaemenes. Cyrus' name in Old Persian was Kurush, which may perhaps mean "young dog."

Conquests

Cyrus inherited the throne of Anshan. He then gathered under his banner other tribes of Persis (modern Pars province, Iran) and revolted against his Median overlord, Astyages. Allied with Nabonidus of Babylon, Cyrus defeated Astyages about 549 B.C. and occupied the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan).

About 547 B.C., Cyrus marched against Croesus, whose rich kingdom of Lydia included or controlled most of western Anatolia. Cyrus besieged the capital, Sardis (near modern Izmir), and captured Croesus. The Ionian cities along the Aegean revolted a year later, and Cyrus conquered them.

Cyrus led campaigns eastward against many tribes, extending his rule to the Indus River and the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains. Returning westward, he conquered, apparently without a fight, his old ally Babylonia in 539 B.C., thereby obtaining Syria and Palestine as well. Cyrus honored Babylonia's god, Marduk, and the gods of several captured peoples. He permitted these populations, including the Jews, to return to their homelands.

Reign of Cyrus

Ecbatana was the first Achaemenid capital, although the ruins of the site of Pasargadae in Pars suggest that Cyrus built palaces and a town there. Cyrus borrowed many of the institutions of government from the preceding Median state. The Medes in a sense were partners of the Persians. The latter nonetheless held a privileged position in the empire; for example, they did not pay taxes. The Achaemenid empire was known to outsiders as the empire of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus' tolerance of the religions and the customs of all his subject peoples brought him their support.

Herodotus tells how Cyrus met his death, about 530 B.C., fighting in central Asia against the nomadic Massagetai. Herodotus says the Persians remembered his mildness and called him father. He was succeeded by his son Cambyses.

The Cyrus Saga

Cyrus is perhaps best remembered for the stories told about him, which may be called the "Cyrus saga." Xenophon wrote an idealized, didactic book about Cyrus called the Cyropaedia, which depicts Cyrus as the model sovereign, although the purpose of the book was to educate the author's fellow Greeks.

The story of Cyrus' birth and youth is told by Xenophon, Ctesias, and Herodotus. The general outlines follow. His father, Cambyses, was married to Mandane, daughter of the Median ruler Astyages. The latter had a dream that Cyrus would one day replace him, so he ordered the child put to death. His minister Harpagos, however, either left the child in the wilderness, where it was suckled by a wolf until found by a shepherd, or, in another version, gave the child to a shepherd whose wife was called Spako, the Median word for "dog." This is an ancient Indo-European myth of the origin of a people or a dynasty (Romulus-Remus in Rome, and elsewhere). The same myth is found in the Persian national epic, the Shah Nameh, or Book of Kings, put into Persian verses by the poet Firdausi, and it is applied to legendary figures such as Fredun and Zal, as well as to Ardashir, founder of the Sassanid dynasty. After Cyrus had been raised by the shepherd and was a youth, his true origin was revealed, and he was reconciled to his grandfather. Later he revolted and secured the throne to found a new dynasty.

Ctesias tells a story with some different details, perhaps because of the political circumstances in which he lived at the court of Artaxerxes II, who was opposed by Cyrus the Younger. The motifs in the Cyrus legend became part of the legacy of the Persians regarding their rulers, and especially the founder of a new dynasty. Later Achaemenid kings at their coronation (according to Plutarch's life of Artaxerxes) had to don the simple garments of a shepherd and eat common food, not only in memory of Cyrus but also to show their capacity to endure hardship and contact with the common folk.

Cyrus thus not only founded the multinational Achaemenid empire and laid the basis for the first "world state," from the Indus River to the Aegean Sea, but he also became the hero of a saga that still survives in the Persian national epic. Cyrus also left his name, in a city in central Asia called Kureskhata, later Kurkath.

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