CYRUS THE GREAT

Babylon and after

Sardis, and the empire of Croesus, fell to Cyrus in 547 BC. The Greek cities along the coast and on the islands (Ionians) which had paid homage to Croesus were now part of Cyrus' domains. For the moment, they seemed happy that the arrangements should continue much as before. No doubt Cyrus had much consolidation of his empire (Asia Minor and Mesopotamia) to see to next, and further extension: none of our sources tell us anything about his activities. We do know from Persian inscriptions that he became ruler of Hyrcania, Parthia, Carmania, Drangiana, Aria, Sattygydia, Gandhara (both Pakistan), Bactria (Afghanistan), Chorasmia, Sogdia and possibly parts of Scythia: but no details of how he did this. These territories became "satrapies" - to identify them see the map here. We do have plentiful information, though, on his capture of Babylon:

Babylon

For the events of 539 BC we can return to Cyrus himself. These are extracts from the “Cyrus Cylinder”:

“Marduk, king of the gods [of Babylon] took pity on all the settlements whose temples were in ruins, and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses. Looking for a just king, he took the hand of Cyrus, king of Anshan, and proclaimed him king over everything. Marduk, the great lord was pleased with his fine deeds and great heart and ordered that he should go to Babylon. He had him take the road to Babylon, and walked beside him, like a friend. His vast army whose number could not be counted, flowed like water in a river, marching fully-armed beside him.

He had him enter without fighting or battle; he saved his city Babylon from hardship. He handed over to him Nabonidus, the king [of Babylon] who did not fear him. All the people [of Babylon], all the nobles and governors bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship, and their faces shone. They blessed and praised the name of the lord through whose help all were rescued from death and saved from distress and hardship.”

Ishtar Gate, Babylon

The Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon

So Cyrus entered Babylon, without fighting, and supplanted the unpopular king Nabonidus all at the invitation, apparently, of the Babylonian chief god, Marduk, whose worship had been neglected by Nabonidus.

The rest of the cylinder has Cyrus talking in the first person, beginning with the extract quoted earlier:

I, Cyrus, king of the universe, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters, son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan …

He goes on to list his achievements after taking the city:

When I entered Babylon, as bringer of peace, I took up residence in the palace amid celebration and rejoicing. Marduk gave me as my destiny the generosity of heart of one who loves Babylon. I worshipped him every day. My huge forces patrolled Babylon peacefully and the whole of Sumer and Akkad had nothing to fear. I made the city safe and all its temples. I soothed the weariness of the population, who had suffered a fate they had not deserved. I freed them from their bonds (?). Marduk was pleased with what I had done, and he blessed me, Cyrus, the king who fears him, and my son Cambyses, and all my troops. All kings [from long list of places] brought valuable tribute and kissed my feet. I sent back [to a long list of places] the gods whose temples had become dilapidated, and rebuilt their shrines. I collected together all their people, and returned them to their settlements.

May all the gods I returned to their temples ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds and say to Marduk, my lord: “May Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son [hole in cylinder here.]

Every day I increased by ... geese, two ducks, and ten pigeons the former offerings of geese, ducks and pigeons. I strengthened the great wall of Babylon. I completed the quay which an earlier king had started [after this it gets more difficult to understand].

The Babylonian chronicles seem to confirm Cyrus’ account:

In the month of Arahsamna, the third day [October 29th], Cyrus entered Babylon. Green twigs were spread in front of his chariot. The state of peace was imposed on all the city. Cyrus sent greetings to all Babylon.

Herodotus, as usual, has some more interesting details: there was a great river (a tributary of the Euphrates) blocking Cyrus’ approach. He had no boats, and when one of his favourite horses was swept away by the current, he decided to punish the river “so that in the future women could wade across without getting their knees wet”. He had his army dig channels to drain the water out, using shovels - and they all just walked across.

Cyrus and the Jews

The Jewish Bible has some important extra details about Cyrus’ generosity. From Isaiah:

I [ie Yahweh, chief god of the Jews] say to Cyrus, “You shall be my shepherd
To carry out all my purpose,
So that Jerusalem may be rebuilt
And the foundations of the temple may be laid.”
Thus saith the Lord to Cyrus his anointed,
Cyrus, whom he has taken by the hand
To subdue nations before him …

From Ezra:

In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: “Concerning the house of god in Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, let the cost be paid from the house of the king. And also let the gold and silver vessels of the house of the god, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple which is in Jerusalem be restored and brought back to the temple which is in Jerusalem.”

People of Judaea had been deported to Babylon by king Nebuchadnezzar II in 597 and again in 586 BC. According to Jewish accounts, Cyrus helped them return to Palestine and gave money to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem which the Babylonians had destroyed. Many thousands of Judaeans returned home, but not all. A substantial number chose to stay, founding Jewish communities which still existed in Iraq until very recently.

More: from the British Museum and a TED talk by Neil McGregor, former director

Further campaigns; Cyrus' death

With the conquest of Babylon, the Persians had control of Mesopotamia - the key to the Middle East, and from now on the most vital of all the provinces in the empire. Babylon soon became the Persians' most important city.

Cyrus’ territory [see map] now stretched from the Aegean Sea (Phoenicia and Palestine) in the west, the edge of the Arabian desert in the south, the Caucasus mountains in the north, and as far as Afghanistan (then known as Bactria) and Pakistan (Gandhara and Sattygydia) in the east, although we know next to nothing about his military operations to the north and east of his Persian heartland. Nor do we know much about how he managed to organise and control so vast an area - 10 million people spread over 2 million square miles.

But we do know his frontier was vulnerable in two areas: the north-east, where various powerful nations objected to Cyrus’ ambitions, and the far west, where two nervous nations were getting worried by his success: the Egyptians and the Greeks. Maybe he was planning to add Egypt to his territory, but events in the east forced his hand. A very important consequence of his conquest of Babylonia was that Phoenicia was now part of the Persian empire. The Phoenician fleet, combined with the Ionian Greek ships that had become theirs after the fall of Croesus, was to become a vital weapon as the Persians looked to the west, especially as the Phoenicians were in the process of developing the trireme.

We have to rely on the Greeks for the story of Cyrus’ last campaign - it’s not mentioned in any other sources. The Massagetae, a nomadic Iranian people, presumably a branch of the Scythians, lived between the Aral Sea and Afghanistan. When their queen, who Herodotus calls Tomyris, started threatening his territory, Cyrus insisted on leading the army against her himself. It ended badly. After losing a battle against her, Cyrus, advised by old Croesus, laid a trap. He left his camp empty, baited with quantities of wine. The Massagetae, used to fermented mare's milk and hashish, but unfamiliar with wine, soon got very drunk. It was then that Cyrus attacked, routing them and capturing the queen's son. Herodotus takes up the story:

When Tomyris found out what had happened to her army and her son, she sent a messenger to Cyrus: “Bloodthirsty Cyrus, do not feel proud of what you have done. You Persians, filled with the fruit of the vine, go crazy - as the wine goes down, evil words come up. Such is the trick you caught my son with: you did not beat him in a fair fight. If you give him back to me, you may leave my land, unharmed. Or else I swear by the sun I shall satisfy your thirst for blood.”

Cyrus ignored this. When the queen's son sobered up, he begged to be untied. As soon as he had his hands free he killed himself. Tomyris now attacked in full force. This battle, in my opinion, was the most brutal ever fought by barbarians ... at last the Massagetae won. Most of the Persian army perished, and Cyrus was dead.

Tomyris then filled a wine-skin with human blood, and went looking for Cyrus's corpse. When she found it, she shoved his head into the wine-skin. “You tricked my son and killed him”, she said. “Now, just as I promised, I shall satisfy your thirst for blood.”

Tomyris

Tomyris dunking Cyrus' head in wine. She was a popular subject for artists.

The defeated Persian army took Cyrus's body back to Pasargadae, in his home territory of Persis. Here his rather modest tomb can still be seen. The date was 530 BC, and Cyrus had ruled for 30 years. Whether he intended Pasargadae to be his capital, and the centre of his administration is uncertain; in any event, it would have been a magnificently landscaped royal park covering 6 square miles (“paradise” from the Persian word for garden: but think Woburn rather than Sissinghurst). The architecture and imagery was borrowed from the lands he'd conquered - Ionia (the tomb), Lydia (Columned halls), Assyria (artistic motifs - like the "fish man".

Fish Man

A description of the tomb, based on an account by one of the Greeks who took part in the invasion in 331 BC seems quite accurate:

The tomb of the famous Cyrus was in the royal park at Pasargadae; a grove had been planted round it with all sorts of trees, and irrigated, and thick grass was grown in the meadow; the lower part of the tomb was built of stones cut square and was rectangular in shape. Above, there was a stone chamber with a stone roof and a door leading into it so narrow that it was difficult and painful for even a short man to get through. Inside lay a golden coffin, in which Cyrus’ body had been buried.

Cyrus Tomb Pasargadae

Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae

Click here for more pictures of Pasargadae

One Greek, the Athenian Xenophon (whose exploits in Persian territory we’ll come to later) was so impressed by the life of Cyrus, that he made him the central figure in a sort of historical novel, in which Xenophon was trying to sketch the qualities needed by an ideal ruler it’s called Cyropaedia (The education of Cyrus). Its value as history is small, but it gives us a delightful portrait of a man called to greatness. Apparently he was charming, humane, brave, approachable and tolerant, but firm. He was a master of strategy and tactics. He made his men love him and respect him, as well as fear him. Xenophon says he got them used to the hardships they'd find in the army by taking them on lion hunts.

Assyrian dead lion

One of Cyrus' victims (From an Assyrian series on lion hunts in the British Museum)

Cyrus was revered by later generations as the founder of their greatness - and is treated with respect in Greek, Jewish and Babylonian writings.

NEXT: CYRUS' SON CAMBYSES