Cyrus the Great - Persian Achaemenid Dynasty Founder

The Life, Family, and Accomplishments of Cyrus the Great

Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae (Unesco World Heritage List, 2004), Iran, Achaemenid civilization, 6th century BC
Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae (Unesco World Heritage List, 2004), Iran, Achaemenid civilization, 6th century BC. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

Name: Cyrus (Old Persian: Kuruš; Hebrew: Kores)

Dates: c. 600 - c. 530 B.C.

Parents: Cambyses I and Mandane

Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty (c. 550-330 BC), the first imperial dynasty of the Persian Empire and the world's largest empire before that of Alexander the Great. Was the Achaemenid truly a family dynasty? It is possible that the third main Achaemenid ruler Darius invented his relationship to Cyrus, in order to give legitimacy to his rule.

But that doesn't diminish the significance of two centuries' worth of empire--rulers centered in southwestern Persia and Mesopotamia, whose territory spanned the known world from Greece to the Indus Valley, extending south to Lower Egypt.

Cyrus started it all.

Cyrus II King of Anshan (Maybe)

The Greek "father of history" Herodotus never says Cyrus II the Great came from a royal Persian family, but rather that he acquired his power through the Medes, to whom he was related by marriage. Although scholars wave caution flags when Herodotus discusses the Persians, and even Herodotus mentions conflicting Cyrus stories, he may be right that Cyrus was of the aristocracy, but not a royal. On the other hand, Cyrus may have been the fourth king of Anshan (modern Malyan), and the second king Cyrus there. His status clarified when he became the ruler of Persia in 559 B.C.

Anshan, possibly a Mesopotamian name, was a Persian kingdom in Parsa (modern Fars, in southwestern Iran) in the Marv Dasht plain, between Persepolis and Pasargadae.

It had been under the rule of the Assyrians and then may have been under the control of Media*. Young suggests that this kingdom wasn't known as Persia until the start of the empire.

Cyrus II King of the Persians Defeats the Medes

In about 550, Cyrus defeated the Median king Astyages (or Ishtumegu), took him prisoner, looted his capital at Ecbatana, and then became king of Media.

At the same time, Cyrus acquired power over both the Iranian-related tribes of the Persians and Medes and the countries over which the Medes had held power. The extent of the Median lands went as far east as modern Tehran and westward to the Halys River at the border of Lydia; Cappadocia was now Cyrus's.

This event is the first firm, documented event in Achaemenid history, but the three main accounts of it are different.

  1. In the dream of the Babylonian king, the god Marduk leads Cyrus, king of Anshan, to march successfully against Astyages.
  2. The most laconic version is the Babylonian chronicle 7.11.3-4, which states "[Astyages] mustered [his army] and marched against Cyrus [II], king of Anshan, for conquest... The army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner." 
  3. Herodotus' version differs, but Astyages is still betrayed -- this time, by a man to whom Astyages had served his son in a stew.

Astyages may or may not have marched against Anshan and lost because he was betrayed by his own men who were sympathetic with the Persians. 

Cyrus Acquires Lydia and Croesus' Wealth

Famous for his own wealth as well as these other famous names: Midas, Solon, Aesop, and Thales, Croesus (595 BC - c.

546 BC) ruled Lydia, which covered Asia Minor west of the Halys River, with its capital at Sardis. He controlled and received tribute from the Greek cities in Ionia. When, in 547, Croesus crossed the Halys and entered Cappadocia, he had encroached on Cyrus' territory and war was about to begin.

After months spent marching and getting into position, the two kings fought an initial, inconclusive battle, perhaps in November. Then Croesus, assuming the battle season was over, sent his troops into winter quarters. Cyrus didn't. Instead, he advanced to Sardis. Between Croesus' depleted numbers and the tricks Cyrus used, the Lydians were to lose the fight. The Lydians retreated to the citadel where Croesus intended to wait out a siege until his allies could come to his assistance. Cyrus was resourceful and so he found an opportunity to breach the citadel.

Cyrus then seized the Lydian king and his treasure.

This also put Cyrus in power over the Lydian Greek vassal cities. Relations between the Persian king and the Ionian Greeks were strained.

Other Conquests

In the same year (547) Cyrus conquered Urartu. He also conquered Bactria, according to Herodotus. At some point, he conquered Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia and Maka.

The next important known year is ​539, when Cyrus conquered Babylon. He credited Marduk (to the Babylonians) and Yahweh (to the Jews whom he would free from exile), depending on the audience, for choosing him as the right leader.

Propaganda Campaign and a Battle

The claim of divine selection was part of Cyrus' propaganda campaign to turn the Babylonians against their aristocracy and king, accused of using the people as corvee labor, and more. King Nabonidus had not been a native Babylonian, but a Chaldean, and worse than that, had failed to perform the religious rituals. He had slighted Babylon, by putting it under the control of the crown prince while he resided at Teima in north Arabia. The confrontation between the forces of Nabonidus and Cyrus took place in one battle, at Opis, in October. By the middle of October, Babylon and its king had been taken.

Cyrus' empire now included Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. To make sure the rites were performed correctly, Cyrus installed his son Cambyses as king of Babylon. Probably it was Cyrus who divided the empire into 23 divisions to be known as satrapies.

He may have accomplished further organization before he died in 530. 

Cyrus died during a conflict with the nomadic Massegatae (in modern Kazakhstan), famous for their warrior queen Tomyris.

Records of Cyrus II and the Propaganda of Darius

Important records of Cyrus the Great appear in the Babylonian (Nabonidus) Chronicle (useful for dating), the Cyrus Cylinder, and the Histories of Herodotus. Some scholars believe Darius the Great is responsible for the inscription on Cyrus' tomb at Pasargadae. This inscription calls him an Achaemenid.

Darius the Great was the second most important ruler of the Achmaenids, and it is his propaganda concerning Cyrus that we know of Cyrus at all. Darius the Great ousted a certain King Gautama/Smerdis who may have been an impostor or the brother of the late king Cambyses II. It suited Darius' purposes not only to state that Gautama was an impostor (because Cambyses had killed his brother, Smerdis, before setting out to Egypt) but also to claim a royal lineage to back up his bid for the throne. While the people had admired Cyrus the great as a fine king and felt put upon by the tyrannical Cambyses, Darius never overcame the question of his lineage and was called "the shopkeeper." 

See Darius's Behistun Inscription in which he claimed his noble parentage. 

Updated by K. Kris Hirst and N.S. Gill

Sources