Harpagus the Mede

  By Penelope, 14 October 2007; Revised
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A bas-relief depicting two Medes
A bas-relief depicting two Medes

First, an idea of how the world was both before and during the time of Harpagus and, of course, much of this will coincide with events which led to the founding of Persia.

It is the 6th Century BC. Two super-powers, Media and Lydia, are embroiled in all out war. This war, which consisted of a series of annual campaigns, went on for 6 years, finally coming to a bloody end on the afternoon of May 28, 585 BC at the Battle of the Eclipse, in which an actual total eclipse of the sun terminated the fierce battle. The eclipse has been established by modern calculations, which place the phenomenon as having occurred late in the afternoon on that very date. King Cyaxares of Media died shortly proceeding the battle, and, as a result, his very superstitious son, Astyages, was crowned. King Astyages found himself master of a large and stable empire, in alliance with King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon and King Croesus of Lydia. This stability would endure for an unprecedented 32 years.


There is very little, if anything, recorded about Harpagus describing his early years. He was a member of the House of Astyages, being the "courtier", which is catagorised as being a very privileged position awarded by a very powerful person, usually the head of state, and, in this particular case, the head of state is King Astyages, whose reign is tentatively dated from 585 to 550 BC. The King, being very superstitious, is said to have had two dreams which foretold the overthrow of his dynasty. The second dream included his grandson, Cyrus ll, son of daughter Mandane, and Cambyses l, King of Anshan. Astyages.  Taking heed to the dream, which he perceived to be a warning and/or omen, he turned to his courtier, Harpagus, and ordered him to kill the boy, who, in his mind, would save his dynasty. Harpagus, instead of following the orders of the King, gave the boy to Mithridates, the shepherd who would raise him. It is not clear why Harpagus gave the boy to the shepherd. Was it because Harpagus was unwilling to spill his own royal blood? Or did he feel that killing a helpless child would be a dishonorable act, one which might have remained in his conscious, especially since he himself had a young son? Many even believe that Harpagus simply "wanted someone else to do it". Whatever the case may be, Astyages discovered 10 years later that the boy was still alive, and, as punishment to Harpagus, he had his son killed, chopped to pieces, marinated, cooked, and served at a banquet. All of the guests, including Harpagus himself, began to eat. Once made aware of the scandalously wretched deed, Harpagus, in silence, gathered all of the remaining pieces of his son, to make ready for burial.

Lycian Acropolis of Xanthos which shows the Palace destroyed by Harpagus
Lycian Acropolis of Xanthos which shows the Palace destroyed by Harpagus
In 559 BC, the man who would change the world and forever be remembered as Cyrus The Great, was crowned King of Anshan. At this point in time, the Median nobles had begun to turn against Astyages. It is not known for sure who or what may have caused the unrest, however, it is highly probable that Harpagus and other members of the House of Astyages fanned the flames. Harpagus remained in contact with the newly crowned Cyrus, who had just united the remaining tribes of Persia under his rule. Cyrus had long wanted to "through off the yoke" of the Median empire and free his nation from the despotic Median rulers and their policies. Harpagus, knowing this, may have finally found a way to avenge his son's death! Following the rebellion of Anshan, King Astyages exacted to gathering his army and appointed Harpagus as general. Cyrus led his armies against the Medes, and, at the Battle of Pasargadae, the Medes, under Harpagus, switched sides and merged with the Persians. This gigantic army then marched on to defeat Astyages, giving birth to the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Harpagus commanded the loyalty of the army, which was seen by Cyrus as a tool in which he could benefit from a very wise decision indeed.

Upon hearing of the fall of his ally, King Croesus of Lydia invaded the realm of the newly formed empire and sacked the city of Pteria. Cyrus marched to meet the invader and a battle ensued on the plain near Pteria, which proved to be indecisive as the Persians were unable to out-class the Lydian calvary. It was now that Harpagus would introduce the dromedaries, which were used to carry archers and transport heavy loads. The smell of the dromedaries also drove horses crazy, apparently causing them to panic, which made them impossible to control. This ingenious idea would come in handy at the Battle of Thymra in 546 BC. Marching through the winter, Cyrus and his army arrived on the plain near Thymra and were met by Croesus, who had gathered an even larger army. During the ensuing battle, the horses of the Lydian calvary began to panic at the smell of the dromedaries, which caused the horses to be of no use to the Lydians, who were utterly defeated. Shortly afterwards, the city of Sardis fell. Harpagus' dromedary innovation is considered by many to be one of the greatest tactics ever deployed in history. Had Cyrus not considered his idea, there is a good possibility that Lydia would never have been conquered.

Soon afterwards, the Lydians revolted against the Persian satrap, Tabalus. The leader of the rebellion, Pactyus, raised an army of Lydians and Ionian Greeks using stolen funds. In response to this treachery, Cyrus sent his cousin, General Mazares, to crush the rebels and capture Pactyus. After accomplishing what was set before him, Mazares began making preparations to conquer Asia Minor, but, unfortunately, he died, leaving the task to Harpagus.

After crushing a second Lydian revolt, Harpagus drove on with his dromedaries. Using never before seen siege techniques, which included the use of earthwork ramps and mounds, he was able to capture city after city. Initially, several cities fell, including Phocaea and Teos. He subjugated all of Asia Minor, conquering Ionia, Caria, and Lycia. The Lycian city of Xanthos fell after its residents decided to commit suicide rather than fall to the might that was Harpagus. He then marched his army to Phoenicia, and, upon hearing of his approach, many of them boarded ships and attempted to escape to Carthage. After its subjugation, Phoenicia was subsequently divided into four sub-kingdoms, which were to be loyal to the King of Persia: Sidon, Tyre, Lebonon, Arwad, and Byblos. In 542 BC, Harpagus came to the conclusion that "there was nothing left for him to conquer". The Great King Cyrus, having agreed, appointed him satrap of Asia Minor. Harpagus' descendants ruled in Lycia until 468 BC when Athens gained control of it. Persia then re-took Lycia in 387 BC and held it until it was conquered by Alexander The Great.


Harpagus is one of the most superb Generals of all time. His military innovations, which included the use of dromedaries and earthwork ramps and mounds, would be adopted by Cyrus The Great and his successors. Alexander The Great would later use these siege methods during the Siege of Tyre. Cyrus The Great founded the Persian Empire, but there are many questions that may forever be left unanswered. Some of which are as follows: Had Harpagus not revolted against King Astyages, would Cyrus have won? Had Harpagus not introduced new military techniques, would Cyrus have been able to continue his expansion? One thing for certain is that the role played by Harpagus in the founding of Persia should not be overlooked.

As a footnote, the Harpagus bird-of-prey, which resides in both North and South America, is named in his honor.


Stephanos of Byzantium
Strabo of Amasia
Richards, D., "
The Book Of The East"