Cyrus the Great

  By Darius of Parsa, 31 October 2007; Revised
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The ancient Middle East was home to one of the greatest and strongest warring factions in all of history. The sands were stained red with blood of all who have died in her deserts. The sixty years before 500 B.C experienced some of the most well known rebellions in history, where fathers fought fathers, and where brothers fought brothers. The rebellion of Persia in 550 B.C led by Cyrus II (later called Cyrus the Great) conquered much of the known world. The king created an empire that stretched from the border deserts of Egypt to the mountains of Asia Minor, all the way to the lush rainforests of India. In total, the new empire covered two million square miles and was the largest nation up to it’s time. Cyrus the Great was called a man of peace, a man of human rights, and a man that carved one of the greatest empires in history, The Achaemenid Persian Empire. Before Persia’s reign as the ultimate and supreme superpower, there were four nations which covered Asia (Middle East). These nations were Egypt, Lydia, Babylon, and Media. At this time Persia was a tributary state to the Median Empire and had an occupation. According to Herodotus there were six peoples that were the Medes. Herodotus says the tribes were the Magi, Budii, Arizanti, the Struchetes, Paretaceni, and the Busae. All of these tribes migrated from the west, when the kingdoms of Mesopotamia were in complete glory. The peoples migrated with what they could take, some men brought horses and other pack animals on their journey to lighten the load, and improve the speed of travel. This type of traveling was much alike the colonization of the western frontier of the early United States in the 1800’s A.D. The peoples, whom crossed the Zargos, neglected the use of writing, mathematics, and other skills useful for life in large towns, years earlier. The men and women, who crossed the mountains, didn’t eat or drink for days at a time, filling up their provisions whenever they came to an oasis. The tribes united due to the constant barbarian raids from the north and the threat of an Assyrian invasion from the west. These people east of the Zargos came to be known as Aryans by the neighboring empires. The Aryans soon adopted the religion taught by Zarathrustra, a prophet born between the years of 1000 to 660 B.C. He sometimes called a Mede, other times a Persian, sometimes a Bactrian, and sometimes as a divine being. Nevertheless, Zarathrustra promised that if someone was to worship Ahura Mazda (the Wise Lord), then that person was given a life of prosperity. “It is where one of the faithful makes a home with cattle, wife and children, and where the cattle thrive and the dog, the wife, the child, the fire are thriving . . . where the faithful one cultivates corn, grass, and fruit in good measure; where he irrigates dry ground and drains the ground that is too wet . . . the gift of a pair of fowls to the faithful is as a gift of a house with a hundred columns” were such promises of a devoted Zoroastrian.

During the years when Persia was under Median rule, the Persian’s task was to defend the six Median tribes from southern raids from apposing tribes and empires. If Persia was unsuccessful at defending the region, the Medes had enough time to react to the situation and send military aid. The Persians became restless and furious. Just the thought of being a supplement to the Medes made the Persians outraged and offended. For over three hundred years they executed function and now it was time to start their own kingdom and their own superpower, all done under their king, Cyrus II.

A Controversial Birth

There are a number of tales of Cyrus’ birth and his childhood. According to Herodotus’ version, Astyages, king of the Median nation, appointed his daughter and Cambyses, a royal Persian, to marry. The couple gave birth to a son by the name of Cyrus. Herodotus wrote an excerpt that states that Astyages had a dream that their son would testify against him, Astyages ordered Cyrus to be killed. Harpagus, a trusted general of Astyages was to carry out the deed. The general did not kill Cyrus, but got rid of him by giving Cyrus to a farmer’s family. Astyages discovered Harpagus’ treason doing and Astyages ordered his son to be killed. He was tricked into eating his own son’s meat that had been mixed in with his dinner. The Median lord also ordered an interpretation of his dream, which was very common during his time. Astyages’ board told him that his dream was indeed false and Cyrus did not appose any threat to himself or his empire.

Formation of an Empire

The months before 550 B.C, were months of propaganda for Persia. People across the Persian state spread the word of a new age, a new life, and a new empire. Cyrus’ asked for people to congregate at one location, most likely by a hill, or a high promontory. Hundreds of ready Persians stood before him and listened. Cyrus spoke loud and clear above all else about freedom, liberty, and justice. He boosted the Persians moral, they needed it, they were about to march north to Media, one of the most powerful empires in the history of the world. After the speech, there was total silence, they knew what they had to do, and it was time for the Persians to go to war. In the morning, the Persian forces grabbed their spears, checked their bowstrings, and readied their horses. The Mada were doing the same. The Persians walked for miles to the north. The Mada went south. The Persians confronted the Medians. The Medians confronted the Persians. To a Persian solider the sight must have been heart-stirring. In front of the Persian stood the Median army, their weapons glistening in the mid-day sun, and they were numerous across the scrub landscape. The Medians were better trained than the Persians, they had to be to protect their empire, the Persians on the other hand were weaker compared to the Medians in ways of training and weaponry.

The forces engaged, one side fighting for a new empire, and another fighting to save an old one. The clanging of the blades, the yelling of the combatants and the shouts of their commanders must have been deafening. Hours into the battle the victor was clear, and out of the dust came a new empire, the Achaemenid Persian Empire. According to Greek accounts, the famous city of Pasargadae was built at the same location were the battle had been fought. Persia was in complete control of Media by 549 B.C, after the capture of Ecbatana, the capital of the Median nation. There were no battles after that between the Persians and Medians, besides small skirmishes around lightly controlled areas of the Persian occupied Media.

Cyrus claimed total control over Media in 546 B.C and accepted his crown and title of King of Persia. Croesus of Lydia, Nobonidus of Babylon and Amasis II of Egypt couldn’t believe what they have witnessed, a total collapse of the Median empire. Xenophon, a Greek historian, wrote about Cyrus, “He was able to extend the fear of himself over so great a part of the world that he astonished all.” The leaders became furious with Cyrus of Persia and created treaties with themselves to unite against Cyrus and his new empire. Alliances against empires have been a solid part in ancient history. About one hundred years before Cyrus’ campaign, the Assyrian Empire ravaged the surrounding empires with their professional and well trained armies. The Assyrian army was made up of outstanding spear infantry, the new edition of cavalry, and devastating chariots. The Assyrians were also some of the first peoples to employ siege equipment. The Assyrian engineers were capable of building siege shelters, battering rams, large ladders for scaling walls, and sophisticated ramps. They also hired miners to dig under the enemy’s walls, uttering them obsolete. The armies of Assur crushed any peoples that resisted their rule, but before the Assyrians declared war they often tried to scare their opponents into surrendering. The reputation of an Assyrian soldier was alarming; they were very well trained, brutal, and ruthless. This was a combination every empire feared, no matter how large or powerful. After conquering a town, the Assyrians gathered countless numbers of commoners and preformed acts of torture. The Babylonians and Medians allied to destroy the Assyrian Empire. By 626 B.C, Assyria was crippled after loosing a battle against Babylon about three hundred kilometers away from the city of Babylon in Mesopotamia. In the year of 612 B.C, the Median King Cyaxares crushed Nineveh, and the Assyrian Empire was defaced from the world. Lydia, Babylon, and Egypt all thought that if the alliance against the Assyrians worked, then the Persians should be no problem at all.

Cyrus and his fellow Persians soaked in the advantages Media had to offer. Media had better horse pastures, a way to attack Babylon and Lydia, and men ripe for military involvement. One of these men that were ripe for military action was a Median general Harpagus became one of Cyrus’ subjects. Texts say that Harpagus was in charge of the Median army against Cyrus, but quickly changed sides. Regardless, Harpagus helped Cyrus in many battles as either a trusted general or an advisor.

War against Lydia

Croesus of Lydia became impatient, and he found Cyrus’ conquests insulting and undeserved. Croesus ordered his Lydian army to attack the Persians at the town of Pteria in the Cappadocia mountains. Cyrus expected this, an attack by the enraged superpowers of the ancient world. The Achaemenid king was not just a man of war, tactics, and empire; he was also a man of diplomacy. Cyrus asked the Greek Ionian city states to send military assistance. Ionia did not think the idea was intelligent to attack their overlord. If the Persian-Ionian army were to witness defeat, the Lydia would of surly punished Ionia for treason and revolting against Croesus. The Ionians kept their infantry-based army within their walls and kept their clean record. Cyrus called on his Persian and Median warriors to rescue the citizens of Pteria. The Persian lord collected his forces of horsemen, bowmen, and infantry units and sent them to Pteria, and the outer edges of his empire. The battle of Pteria was a harsh and cruel one. The amounts of casualties on both sides were heavy, and the injuries were numerous. There was no victor from the fields beyond Pteria, in the end Croesus, still undefeated, retreated back to his capital of Sardes. The Persians recaptured the fort by dawn. No doubt Croesus took slaves along with him back to Anatolia, and used them to complete difficult tasks throughout the empire. Slavery was very common throughout the ancient world. When an empire took over another, slaves were often transported back to the subjugator’s homeland, often the capital. One example is the completion of the pyramids, completed by the work of thousands of slaves, the Athenian architecture, and the enslaved Jews sent to Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. After the battle Cyrus sent diplomats to Croesus, asking him to give up his title as king of Lydia, and recognize the Persian lord as the supreme leader. Cyrus also promised that Croesus would still be given the right to lead his own people of Lydia, under Persian supervision. Persia always tried to talk to her enemies before engaging in battle, there would be no reason to waste men and resources to fight a neighbor, if they could rather entice the enemy to surrender. The Lydian king did not accept the proposal, and that left one alternative, total war.

After the Battle of Pteria, the Lydians returned home to fight another day. Crosesus could not comprehend what just happened; he always achieved victory, in every battle he had fought. The previous battle was different; Cyrus, a leader who years before had little experience dealing with military matters, had almost achieved victory against the battle ridden leader of Lydia. Croesus sent ambassadors to his allies, asking for their armies to help reinforce his, and fight Cyrus before another battle arose. Persian spies overheard what Croesus was planning, and before the allied force was united, Cyrus ordered the invasion of Lydia, at her capital Sardis. The Persians had two choices, to travel the snow ridden mountains of Cappadocia, or march across the plains of Northern Babylonia, to arrive at their destination, Sardis. Cyrus decided that taking the mountain route was too dangerous, considering that it was the winter season. The leader chose to travel over the plains instead, the chance of a Babylonian flanking maneuver was relatively low, as the Babylonians did not have enough time to muster her forces and lead an attack. The battle came to be known as the Battle of Thymbra, one of the most decisive battles in all of history. Harpagus, Cyrus’ trusted general suggested using dromedaries before the battle, instead of using horses. Cyrus accepted the idea, and ordered his men to dismount, and use the pack animals as animals of war. The tactic worked, the Lydian cavalry was frightened by the smell of the camels, and disengaged from the battle field. The Lydian army of 100,000 was defeated by an army of only 30,000, less than one-third its size. The Persians annexed another empire, Lydia in 546 B.C. Along with Lydia; the Greek colonies of Ionia were also under Persian occupation. The conquered Ionians referred to Cyrus as a strong and righteous ruler, which was very uncommon in the ancient world for a conquered nation to say good about their new overlord. Croesus was exiled to Media that same year.

In the battles against Lydia, Cyrus observed Lydian tactics and incorporated them in his own army, willing Lydian men into his military and Lydian customs into his empire. Cyrus let the leaders of defeated empires to remain leaders, and govern their own portions in the Persian Empire, much like Alexander the Great of Macedonia centuries later. This fact holds true with Achaemenid history from its rise in 559 B.C to its fall in 323 B.C. The Persian Empire existed on the countries it conquered, the ideas of many, and the peoples of numerous nations. Cyrus even familiarized himself with Assyrian strategies and used them in his battles against the nations that testified against him.

Attention turns to Babylon

Cyrus turned his sword to the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which held the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and many surrounding lands. Early peoples of the ancient world called the area between the Tigris and Euphrates “The Land.” The dwellers often created tales and stories about this area of the world. The Land was well known to the dwellers as a land of mystery, where creatures arose from the water and spoke with men. One of these creatures was Oannes, who seems to be part-man, part-fish, who rose up from the water and taught the river peoples how to farm, write, create laws, sculpt, and how to bring about scientific achievements. The tribes, over time, created nations, borders, and sets of governments. The Ur dynasty was feasibly the most powerful of them all. The clans were united and therefore could take up arms against intruders, instead of attacking each other. These wars are much alike the battles between Greek city states, where different ideas about how the world should be run, and who should rule over the common territories clashed. The differences often lead to war. In the kingdom of Ur, this type of bloodshed was not present, making the empire capable of other military interests. With such long periods of relative peace, the empire could also focus on the arts and city management. Unlike the earlier Ur dynasty, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was under a weak and feeble ruler, named Nabonidus. Cyrus took advantage of his enemy’s burden, much like he did when he attacked Croesus, years before. The Persian King’s intent was to march into southern Babylonia and take the capital of Babylon itself without much dispute, but his army was confronted by a Babylonian army near the town of Opis. Although Cyrus was victorious, the battle was a close one, neither side inflicting significant damage on the other. The Persians took over the city, and in turn caused a nearby city, Sippar to fly the white flag. Nabonidus ordered a large division of troops to patrol the Euphrates River in order to control law and order in his slowly dieing empire, and to protect the empire from an anticipated Persian attack. Nabonidus hoped that the natural defense would give his army the upper edge when another wave of troops descended on them. This tactic had been used by innumerable Babylonian kings before him, with great success, but in the year of 539 B.C, the strategy rendered fruitless. The Persians did not confront the Babylonians on there terms, and marched down the Tigris instead. The Achaemenid army reached the walls of Babylon shortly after giving the destination. According to Herodotus, the Persians won a battle not far away from Babylon itself, and that the remaining Babylonian army retreated to the walls of their city. Herodotus also writes that Cyrus did not attack Babylon directly, but derived canals on the Euphrates. The river then was drained to a height “to the height of the middle of a man’s thigh”. The Persian army then walked under the walls of Babylon itself.

When the Babylonians woke from they’re slumber, they found themselves under Persian rule. Cyrus freed all the Israelite slaves, and let them return to Israel if they wished. The Achaemenid King did not punish the Babylonians, but confronted a temple prayed to the god of Marduk. Cyrus confined Nabonidus and announced himself as “king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad”. In the years between 549 B.C until his death, Cyrus the Great was constantly subjugating and conquering tribes and nations on the fringes of his empire onward. The Persian king conquered Bactria, modern day Afghanistan, all the way to the Jaxartes river. Cyrus carved his name into stone in the city of Cyropolis, marking one of his longest journeys in his military career. From one end of his empire to the other, was over three thousand miles, every nation conquered in less than twenty years. Even the Assyrian Empire, hadn’t of come close of achieving such miraculous feats.

Death and Legacy

Cyrus himself died in battle in the August of 529 B.C against the Massagetae, a tribe on the northeast fringes of the empire. Croesus of Lydia himself warned Cyrus not to attack the Massagetae, but Cyrus ignored him and pressed his attack anyways. Before his death, Cyrus ordered that his army abandon their camp, making a fake retreat. Queen Tomyris, the leader of the Massagetae, found the facilities completely empty. Her army rejoiced at their victory, and drank the alcoholic wine within the tents. The Persians attacked the Massagatae during their celebration. The Massagatae, having dropped some of their equipment panicked and rushed to draw their weapons. The Persians won a great and cunning victory, but the Queen was still alive and still capable of commanding the remainder of her army. Another set of Massagatae warriors met up with the Persians and slaughtered them. The Persians not only suffered heavy losses, but a capable leader, Cyrus the Great. Sometime in the battle Cyrus was struck with an enemy arrow, Cyrus fought on thereafter, but the pain got to him, and died on the battlefield. Queen Tomyris requested the body of Cyrus, when it was brought to her; she chopped the head off the torso, and dipped the head in blood. This was to show her power as the supreme leader of the ancient world. Cyrus the Great’s memorial told on what he had done during his lifetime. The beginning line wrote “I am Cyrus, King of Kings.” Most citizens of the Achaemenid Empire agreed, Cyrus the Great was indeed one of the greatest kings ever to walk on Earth.