1902 Encyclopedia > Cyrus the Elder (Cyrus the Great)

Cyrus the Elder
(also known as: Cyrus II of Persia; Cyrus the Great)
Founder of the Persian Empire
(559–529 BC)




CYRUS THE ELDER [CYRUS THE GREAT]. Like other national heroes, Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, has been surrounded with an atmosphere of myth. Already in the time of Herodotus (i. 95) four different stories were current among the Persians concerning his origin and his relation to the last king of Media. The one preferred by Herodotus is probably the most legendary of all four; at any rate it has the same source as the tales told of Perseus or Romulus, or other popular heroes who survived exposure and obscurity to revenge themselves upon the tyrant, and be restored to the royal dignity. Cyrus, Herodotus states, was the son of Cambyses, a Persian prince, and Mandane, a daughter of the Median king Astyages, in whose name we may see the Azhidahaka ("the biting snake,") of Zend mythology, the Ahi or " serpent" of darkness of the Veda, the Zohak of Pirdusi's epic; and of whom Moses of Chorene declared in the 4th century of our era that popular songs still spoke as Ajdahak, the wicked serpent In consequence of a dream Astyages delivered Cyrus to Harpagus to be put to death. Harpagus transferred the order to the king's herdsman Mitradates, whose wife Cyno, " the bitch," persuaded him to bring up the child as his own instead of exposing it, and a still-born infant was sent to Harpagus in its place. At the age of ten Cyrus was discovered and recognized by Astyages, who punished Harpagus by making him eat the flesh of his own son. Cyrus returned to Persia; and some years afterwards Harpagus, who had never forgotten the injury he had suffered, induced him to raise the standard of revolt. Harpagus, appointed commander of the Median forces, went over to the enemy, the Medes were defeated, and Astyages taken prisoner. He was kept in prison till his death, while Cyrus made the Medes subservient to the Persians.

Xenophon in the Cyropwdia, where the life of a model prince rather than of the historical Cyrus is depicted, agrees with Herodotus in making Cyrus the grandson of Astyages, though he calls his father Cambyses an independent king. Cyrus received, we are told, the simple and hardy education of a Persian up to the age of twelve, when he visited the luxurious and effeminate court of Media, and while there gained the admiration of his grandfather by repelling an unprovoked attack of Evil-Merodach, the son of Nebuchadnezzar. Astyages was succeeded by his son Cyaxares II., on whose death the Median empire passed peaceably into the hands of Cyrus, now forty years old.

A third account is given by Nicolas of Damascus. According to this Cyrus was the son of the Persian satrap Atradates, and spent the greater part of his youth in the court of Astyages at Ecbatana. Having escaped by a stratagem and evaded the pursuit of the Medes, he led the Persians into revolt, and attempted to stem the attack of the Median monarch. The Persians, however, were defeated in four great battles, in one of which Atradates was slain, and Pasargadae, the Persian capital, was besieged. Here the tide of fortune turned, the insignia of royalty fell into the hands of Cyrus, and Astyages was overtaken and captured during his flight. The whole of Media at once submitted to the conqueror.

The version of Ctesias is totally unlike either of the preceding three. Like Nicolas of Damascus he denies that Cyrus was in any way related to Astyages, whose daughter Amytis was the wife of Spitaces, or Spitamas, a Mede. Cyrus, after his escape from Media, invaded the country and defeated Astyages, who fled to Ecbatana and was there concealed by Amytis. The Persian GSbaras, however, discovered his hiding-place; but Astyages was well treated by Cyrus, and died a natural death. Cyrus put Spitaces to death and married Amytis.





None of these versions can be regarded as satisfactory. The cuneiform inscriptions have proved that Persia could not have been a mere dependency of Media, as Darius declares that his eight ancestors had been kings like himself, while Cyrus calls himself, on a brick from Senkereh, " the son of Cambyses, the powerful king." The Persian conquest of Media, moreover, must have been a slow process. Xenophon (Anab., iii. 4) describes Lari&sa and Mespila on the Tigris as stronglyfortified cities which had been built by the Medes after the overthrow of Nineveh, but ruined by the Persians during the Median war. Mespila had afforded refuge to a wife of the Median monarch.

The conquest of Media and the consequent establishment of the Persian empire is fixed somewhat doubtfully at 559 B.C. According to Strabo (xv. p. 729) the earlier name of Cyrus was Agradates; if so, he must have changed it about this period, borrowing his new title perhaps from the River Cyrus, near Pasargadaa. In any case the name Cyrus (Old Persian, Kurus) cannot be connected with the later Persian Khor or Khorshed, " the sun," which would be uwara in the Persian of the Achaemenian epoch (Zend, hware). The reduction of Media must have occupied a considerable time, as it was not until 546 B.C. that Cyrus found himself strong enough to face Croesus of Lydia, who had entered into alliance with Egypt and Babylonia. "Without waiting for his allies, however, Croesus crossed the Halys, and a drawn battle was fought in Pteria. The Lydian king returned to Sardis and disbanded his forces, believing that Cyrus would not undertake a winter campaign. This belief proved illusive ; Cyrus followed the enemy, defeated the Lydian army in spite of its bravery, besieged Sardis, and took it within fourteen days. A Greek legend accounted for the preservation of Croesus and his future position as confidential counsellor in the Persian court.

The conquest of the Greek cities of Ionia followed, and a revolt that broke out in Sardis under Pactyes during the absence of Cyrus caused the general disarmament of the Lydians and the reduction of Lycia and Caria.

Cyrus now turned his attention to the East—Parthia, Sogdiana, Arachosia, and the neighbouring countries being added to the empire. According to Ctesias, Bactria had submitted on the marriage of Cyrus with Amytis ; and the most formidable campaign Cyrus had to undertake in the East was against the Sacse. According to one story, Cyrus was taken prisoner in this campaign ; according to another, Sparetha, the queen of the Sacse, gained important advantages over the Persians. Pliny states that Kapisa (perhaps the modern Kafshan), near the Upper Indus, was destroyed by Cyrus; and Arrian's assertion that a Persian army was lost in the desert of Gedrosia is confirmed by the fact that this country formed part of the Persian empire in the reign of Darius.

In 539 B.C. Babylonia was attacked. Nabonidus, the Babylonian king, called Labynetus by Herodotus, had been preparing for the invasion for years. Cyrus carried with him the water of the Choaspes for drinking, and delayed a whole summer and autumn on his march in order to dissipate the River Gyncles, in which one of the sacred white horses had been drowned. The Jews settled in Babylonia hailed the Persians as deliverers and monotheists, and it was doubtless in return for the assistance they had afforded that Cyrus permitted them to return to their country and restore Jerusalem and the temple. Nabonidus, defeated in the field, took refuge in Borsippa, while the Persians laid siege to Babylon, where Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus, was in command. Babylon was taken during a feast; Nabonidus surrendered and was sent to Carmania, and the sceptre of Nebuchadnezzar passed to Persia.

Instead of reducing Phoenicia, which had resumed its freedom, Cyrus led his troops across the Araxes against the Massagetae. At first victorious, he was afterwards defeated and slain (538 B.C.) by the Massagetic queen Tomyris, the double of Sparetha, after a reign of twenty-nine years (Herod, i. 208-214). According to Ctesias, however, this campaign was against the Derbices and their Indian allies, and Cyrus died of a wound received in battle three days after gaining a complete victory over them. The conquest of Egypt was left to a successor, Cyrus having made this side of his empire secure by restoring the Jews to Palestine.

The tomb at Murghab cannot be that of Cyrus, as is often supposed. Murghab, like Persepolis, is on the Araxes, while Pasargadae (Persian, Paisiyduvddd, "valley of springs"), where Cyrus was buried, was on the Cyrus (Kur). The cuneiform inscription at Murghab points to a period subsequent to the accession of Darius, as does also the Egyptian head-dress of the figure below it. Andrsas suggests that the Cyrus Achsemenides mentioned in the inscription is the viceroy of Egypt, brother of Xerxes, called Achsemenides by Ctesias, whose corpse was brought to Persia to be buried there. Pasargadas, and the real tomb of Cyrus, must be looked for near Darabjerd, in south-eastern Farsistan. (A. H. S.)







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