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More Blood Than You Can Drink: Tomyris
As it turns out, Persia wasn’t quite ready to stop churning out conquering god-kings. By 550 B.C., Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia, had expanded his empire from the Mediterranean all the way to India—but he was far from satisfied with what he had wrest away from the people he defeated. There was still one place he had his eyes set on, a section of southern Iran by the Caspian Sea that was home to a little known but warlike tribe called the Massagetae. And he was determined to get it.
Of course, there was just one little problem; Tomyris, the indomitable queen of the Massagetae, wasn’t willing to hand her territory over. Ever.
As with Artemisia I of Caria, not much is known of Tomyris’s early life. She appears to have been widowed and had only one son, Prince Spargapies, who served as her second in command. The people she ruled were skilled warriors and reportedly nomadic, and had to have appeared extremely barbaric to the imperial Persians. Tomyris, herself an accomplished warrior, was intelligent and educated—not that Cyrus cared at all.
Cyrus was going to conquer the Massagetae one way or another, but, hoping to avoid a costly battle, Cyrus initially tried to woo the widowed queen into marriage. Tomyris was unimpressed and sent a message to Cyrus, saying that he what he was really trying to do was woo was her kingdom, not her, and told him not to bother her again. To her shock, a defiant Cyrus soon began to build bridges over the rivers dividing their lands with the intent of moving soldiers and supplies. Tomyris sent the emperor a letter demanding that he desist immediately, adding, “Rule your own people, and try to bear the sight of me ruling mine!”
"The Queen Tomyris and the head of Cyrus the Great" attributed to Mattia Preti.
Cyrus was incensed at her words; she was a barbarian and a woman, she had no right to tell him, a god and a king, what to do. After several clashes with her warriors and his soldiers, Cyrus finally sent Tomyris a letter, saying that he would halt his advance, and that she should send her ambassadors to negotiate a treaty. Thinking that Cyrus had finally relented, a relieved Tomyris sent her ambassadors along with her beloved son Spargapies to act as her representative.
Upon arriving in the Persian camp, the ambassadors were quickly slain and Spargapies was overpowered and captured. Sure that he had gotten the best of the queen this time, Cyrus sent a message to Tomyris demanding that, as a ransom for her son, she relinquish her territories to the persian empire. Enraged, Tomyris wrote back, “Thirsty as you are for blood, you have no cause to be proud of this day’s work … Give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact … If you refuse, I swear by our master the Sun to give you more blood than you can drink.”
If Cyrus took her threat seriously, he never had a chance to act; while there is debate as to what exactly happened, Spargapies died while in captivity … and Tomyris unleashed hell. She led her armies against 20,000 Persians soldiers and slaughtered every last one of them. Even their messengers fell to the Massagetae’s swords, so that it was years before Persia knew what happened to their king. The Greek historian Herodotus observed the battle from afar and wrote, “It was the bloodiest battle I have ever seen.”
Cyrus fell alongside his soldiers, and Tomyris and her warriors scoured the gory battlefield until they found the dead emperor. Commanding that a vat be filled with human blood, Tomyris beheaded Cyrus and threw his head into the vat, saying, “Though I have conquered you and survived, you have destroyed me by treacherously taking my son. See now, I fulfill my threat—you have your fill of blood.”
Queen Tomyris works referenced:
Warrior Women, David E. Jones 1997
Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Vicki Leon 1995
The Warrior Queens, Antonia Fraser 1988
The Encyclopedia of Amazons, Jessica Salmonson 1991