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Cyrus the Great

founder of the Achaeminid Empire


Very little is known about Cyrus's early life, as the few sources that exist are based on legends, and even those often disagree. The best -known date for his birth is either 600-599 B.C. or 576-575 B.C. His father was Cambyses, an Anshan (Persian) king who was descended from Achaemenes; his mother, Mandane, was the daughter of Astyages, King of Media. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Astyages dreamt that his new grandson would eventually overthrow him so he gave the infant to a loyal follower named Harpagus to be killed. Harpagus refused to kill the child, however, and gave him to a shepherd whose wife's newborn son had just died. Although he was subsequently raised as a shepherd's son, the truth of Cyrus's birth was revealed when he was 10 years old, when his behavior was deemed to be "noble." Once Harpagus's deception was uncovered, Astyages agreed to let Cyrus return to his true birth parents.

At some point Cyrus married Cassandane, an Achaemenian and daughter of Pharnaspes who bore him four children -- Cambyses II, Bardiya, Atossa, and a daughter of unknown name. According to contemporary accounts, Cassandane died in 538 B.C. and is buried in Pasargade, the capital of Cyrus's empire.

His Reign

Although his father did not die until 551 B.C., Cyrus succeeded to the throne in 559 B.C. He served as just one of several kings who pledged loyalty to Astyages until 551, when he led a revolt against the Medians. He then set out to conquer the Median capital of Ecbatana, which he accomplished in 549. By 546 B.C. he had accepted the crown of Media, but ruled under the title "King of Persia" throughout his reign.

Astyages had been allied with his brother-in-law Croesus of Lydia, Nabonidus of Babylon, and Amasis II of Egypt. Around 547 B.C., the Lydians captured the Achaemenid city of Pteria in Cappadocia. Cyrus levied an army and marched against the Lydians, increasing his numbers while passing through nations on his way. After the stalemate Battle of Pteira, Cyrus moved on to the Lydian capital of Sardis, which he captured in 546.

Having added Lydia to his new empire, Cyrus consolidated his control over the former Median kingdoms of Hyrcania, Parthia, and Armenia before moving east and adding Drangiana, Arachosia, Margiana, and Bactria to his sphere of influence. The exact limits of his eastern conquests are unknown, but may have extended as far as the Peshawar region in modern Pakistan. By 540 B.C. he had added the Elamite capital of Susa to his realm, and Babylon was conquered soon after. He then proclaimed himself "King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the world" on a cylinder deposited in the foundations of the Esaglia temple dedicated to Marduk, the chief Babylonian god. The text of the cylinder goes on to denounce Nabonidus, the defeated Babylonian king, as impious and portray Cyrus as pleasing to Marduk. It also describes how Cyrus improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries.

the cylinder on which Cyrus proclaimed himself King of Babylon...
the cylinder on which Cyrus proclaimed himself King of Babylon...

After Babylon, Cyrus extended his empire to the northern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, after which the kingdoms of the Levant submitted to his rule. By 535 B.C. his realm stretched to the borders of Egypt, which remained outside his grasp.

map of Cyrus'empire at its greatest extent
map of Cyrus' empire

Cyrus ruled his empire through local governors (known as Satraps), each of whom was responsible for the administration, legislation, and cultural activities of his province. According to Xenophon, he also created the first postal system in the world, as a way of insuring communication between the various provinces and himself. Babylon, Ecbatana, and Susa were used as command centers, and a capital city was established at Pasargade in Fars.

Although it is known that Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses in 530, details surrounding his death vary depending on which account is read. The account of Herodotus states that Cyrus met his fate in a fierce battle with Tomyris, the queen of the Massagetae, but an alternative account from Xenophon claims that he died peaceably at his capital. Whichever account is true, Cyrus' remains were interred in Pasargadae, where a tomb still exists which many believe to be his.

the tomb of Cyrus the Great
the tomb of Cyrus

See Also

Arabian Peninsula

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The Robinson Library >> Iran (Persia)

This page was last updated on September 03, 2018.