Cyrus the Great

Architect of the Persian Empire

Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Achaemenid Empire (First Persian Empire), transformed a small group of semi-nomadic tribes into the ancient world’s first superpower. His remarkable success came not only from military conquest but also from his exceptional tolerance and mercy towards the defeated.

​​Born around 590 BCE, Cyrus the Great came from the semi-nomadic Pasargadae tribe. This tribe raised sheep, goats, and cattle in what is now the southwest of present-day Iran. Although details about his early life and lineage are sparse, it is known that he was a member of the Achaemenid royal family, either through birth or marriage.

“Winged Genius” relief in Pasargadae, Iran, traditionally identified as Cyrus the Great

“Winged Genius” relief in Pasargadae, Iran, traditionally identified as Cyrus the Great

Five years after he ascended the throne as a vassal king under the Median Empire, Cyrus united the chiefs of other Persian tribes and spearheaded a rebellion against King Astyages of the Medes. As a brilliant military strategist, he defeated the Median king and integrated all Iranian tribes on the Iranian plateau, enhancing his army’s mobility with their expert horseback fighting skills.

The once-subjugated Persians had now become the conquerors. As their ruler, Cyrus chose the path of compassion and moderation instead of vengeance. He granted Astyages a generous retirement, preserved the Median capital Ecbatana as his summer capital, and appointed Median nobles to high positions in his court and army. However, Cyrus’s mercy had boundaries; he eliminated Astyages’ son-in-law and grandchildren, viewing them as threats to his power.

The Defeat of Astyages, a tapestry designed by Maximilien de Haese, woven by Jac. van der Borght, 1775

The Defeat of Astyages, a tapestry designed by Maximilien de Haese, woven by Jac. van der Borght, 1775

Meanwhile, Cyrus’s rise disturbed Croesus, the king of Lydia, located in the western half of present-day Turkey. Worried about the growing power of neighboring Persia, Croesus sent a messenger to seek advice from the Greek Oracle at Delphi. The oracle reportedly said, “If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire.” Indeed, an empire fell, but it was his own.

Cyrus captured Sardis, the Lydian capital, around 547 BCE. Sources differ on Croesus’s fate: some say he died or committed suicide by fire, while others claim Cyrus took him prisoner and treated him well. This victory brought Cyrus immense wealth from Lydia’s treasury.

The victory of Cyrus over Lydia’s Croesus by Walter Hutchinson, 1877

The victory of Cyrus over Lydia’s Croesus by Walter Hutchinson, 1877

Cyrus treated the Lydians similarly to how he had dealt with the Medes, adopting a conciliatory policy. He maintained the Sardis treasury and allowed local customs, religions, and laws to continue, earning the loyalty of his new subjects. Yet, his tolerance, as always, had limits. When Lydian aristocrats in charge of the treasury rebelled, he ordered the execution of the rebels and enslaved their followers. Also, following the conquest of Lydia, Cyrus’s general Harpagus brutally subdued Greek settlements in Ionia, prompting many to flee to Italy and abandon their cities.

After conquering lands surrounding Mesopotamia, Cyrus targeted Babylon. The Babylonians, dissatisfied with forced labor and the demotion of their patron deity, Marduk, turned against their ruler. Recognizing Cyrus’s reputation for mercy towards those who surrendered, they welcomed him without resistance. In 539 BCE, they opened their gates without a fight. The Cyrus Cylinder, a cuneiform-inscribed artifact discovered in 1879, records his peaceful entry into Babylon, marked by “joy and jubilation.”

The Cyrus Cylinder, British Museum, London

The Cyrus Cylinder, British Museum, London

Cyrus’s capture of Babylon not only secured Mesopotamia for his empire but also brought Syria and Palestine, territories previously under Babylonian control, into his fold. Through both diplomacy and military prowess, Cyrus established the largest empire known to his era.

Far from being a Persian chauvinist, Cyrus eagerly absorbed lessons from the people he conquered. His government showed few original innovations; instead, he excelled in adopting and adapting the administrative practices of those he defeated, enriching the Achaemenian culture and civilization.

First Persian Empire during the reign of Cyrus the Great

First Persian Empire during the reign of Cyrus the Great

A standout example of Cyrus’s benevolent rule was his decree to free the Jewish captives in Babylon, whom Nebuchadnezzar II had exiled. He permitted them to return to Jerusalem, fulfilling their long-held aspirations to reclaim their homeland. This act earned him a revered mention in the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah, where he is described as “anointed” by God to “subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor.” 

Cyrus died around 529 BCE, and details about it are sparse. Some accounts suggest he died from a wound received during a military campaign on the empire’s eastern frontier. His remains were transported back to Pasargadae, where they were placed in a gold sarcophagus within a massive stone tomb facing the rising sun.

Tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, Iran

Tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, Iran

Following Cyrus’s death, his son Cambyses II ascended the throne and expanded the empire further by conquering Egypt. The Persian Empire thrived for another two centuries until it fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.

Cyrus’s legacy was revered even by the Greeks, who later fought bitter wars against his successors. Over 150 years after his death, the Greek author Xenophon praised him in his work, Cyropaedia, saying:

He honored his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children, and they, on their part, revered Cyrus as a father.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia

This depiction resonated deeply, even inspiring one of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who owned not one but two copies of the Cyropaedia.

Words of wisdom

“Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too.” ―Voltaire

“We are our choices.” ―Jean-Paul Sartre

“The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you are special too.” ―Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” ―Robert F. Kennedy

Bibliography

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