Cyrus the Great

From New World Encyclopedia

Cyrus the Great allowing Hebrew pilgrims to return to and rebuild Jerusalem.

Cyrus (Old Persian Kourosh or Khorvash, modern Persian: کوروش, Kourosh) (ca. 576 – July 529 B.C.E.), also known as Cyrus the Great and Cyrus II of Persia,, was the founder of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenid dynasty. As the ruler of the Persian people in Anshan, he conquered the Medes and went on to conquer the Babylonian Empire. He wrote the Cyrus Cylinder, considered to be the first declaration of human rights.

In historical artifacts discovered in the ancient ruins of Babylon and Ur, Cyrus identifies himself as King of Iran, where he reigned from 559 B.C.E. until his death. He is the first ruler whose name was suffixed with the words the Great (Vazraka in Old Persian, Bozorg in modern Persian), a title adopted by many others after him, including the eventual Acheamenid Shah, Darius the Great, and Alexander the Great, who overthrew the Achaemenid dynasty two centuries after the death of Cyrus.

Through his Cyropaedia, Cyrus's notions of human rights influenced the U.S. ConstitutionThomas Jefferson owned two copies of this text. Eurocentricism has led many to overlook Cyrus' contribution to governance, such as administrative divisions. Representing the Persians as the enemies of the Greeks, from whom all that is classic—democracy in particular—was believed to have been derived, led to an underappreciation of this Persian king's contribution to democratic governance. Cyrus was exemplary for upholding universal religious freedom; he is perhaps most widely known for allowing the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple.


Faravahar, the symbol of Zoroastrianism, which influenced Cyrus to the extent that it became the non-imposing religion of the Persian Empire.

The name Cyrus is a Latin transliteration of the Greek language, which is a version of the Old Persian Kourosh or Khorvash. The ancient historians Ctesias and Plutarch noted that Cyrus was named from Kuros, the sun, a concept that has been interpreted as meaning "like the sun," by noting its relation to the Persian noun for sun, khorsheed, while using -vash as a suffix of likeness.[1] However, some modern historians, such as Karl Hoffmann and Rüdiger Schmitt of the Encyclopedia Iranica, have suggested the translation "humiliator of the enemy in verbal contest."[2]

In modern Persian, Cyrus is referred to as Kourosh-e Bozorg—the Persian-derived name for Cyrus the Great. In the Bible, he is known as simply Koresh.

Dynastic history

Cyrus the Great was the son of a Persian king named Cambyses I and a Mede princess from the Achaemenid dynasty, which ruled the kingdom of Anshan, in what is now southwestern Iran.

The dynasty had been founded by Achaemenes (ca. 700 B.C.E.), who was succeeded by his son Teispes of Anshan. Inscriptions indicate that when the latter died, two of his sons shared the throne as Cyrus I of Anshan and Ariaramnes of Persia. They were succeeded by their respective sons Cambyses I of Anshan and Arsames of Persia.

Cambyses is considered by Herodotus and Ctesias to be of humble origin, but they further note his marriage to Princess Mandane of Media, who was the daughter of Princess Aryenis of Lydia and Astyages, king of the Medes. From their union, Mandane bore only one son, Cyrus II, better known today as Cyrus the Great, whom Cambyses named after the child's grandfather.

According to Ctesias, Cyrus the Great married a daughter of Astyages, which seems unlikely, as his wife would also be his aunt. A possible explanation is that Astyages married again, and his second wife bore him this daughter.[3] Cyrus had two sons, Cambyses II and Smerdis, who both later separately ruled Persia for a short period of time. Cyrus also had several daughters, of whom Atossa is significant, as she later married Darius the Great and was mother of Xerxes I of Persia.

Early life

Little is known of Cyrus' early years, as the sources detailing that part of his life are few in number, and many have been damaged or lost. According to most sources, Cyrus was born in either 576 B.C.E. or 590 B.C.E.

In his Histories, Herodotus gives a detailed description of Cyrus' rise to power according to the best available sources. The story of Cyrus' early life found in the Histories belongs to a genre of legends in which abandoned children of noble birth, such as Oedipus or Romulus and Remus, return to claim their royal positions. His overlord was his own grandfather, Astyages, who had conquered all Assyrian kingdoms apart from Babylonia.

After the birth of Cyrus, Astyages had a dream that his Magi (seers} interpreted as a sign that his grandson would eventually overthrow him. He then ordered his steward Harpagus to kill the infant. Harpagus, morally unable to kill a newborn, summoned a herdsman of the king named Mithridates and ordered him to dispose of the child. Luckily for the young boy, the herdsman took him in and raised him as his own.[4]

When Cyrus was ten years old, Herodotus claims that it was obvious that Cyrus was not a herdsman's son, stating that his behavior was too noble. Astyages interviewed the boy and noticed that they resembled each other. Astyages ordered Harpagus to explain what he had done with the baby, and after confessing that he had not killed the boy, the king forced him to eat his own son. Astyages was more lenient with Cyrus, and allowed him to return to his biological parents, Cambyses and Mandane.

While Herodotus' description may be a legend, it does give insight into the figures surrounding Cyrus the Great's early life.

Rise and rule

Subsequent to his father's death in 559 B.C.E., Cyrus became king of Anshan. However, Cyrus was not yet an independent ruler. Like his predecessors before him, Cyrus had to recognize Median overlordship. Harpagus, seeking vengeance, convinced Cyrus to rally the Persian people, who were then in a state of vassalage to the Medes, to revolt, which occurred between 554 B.C.E. and 553 B.C.E. However, it is very likely that both Harpagus and Cyrus rebelled due to their dissatisfaction with Astyages' policies, rather than the story introduced by Herodotus.[5]

From 550 B.C.E. to 549 B.C.E., with the help of Harpagus, Cyrus led his armies to capture Ecbatana, and effectively conquered the Median Empire. During Astyages' rule, the Medes conquered all Assyrian kingdoms apart from Babylonia, including Anshan and Persia.

While Cyrus seems to have accepted the crown of Media, by 546 B.C.E., he had officially assumed the title of King of Persia instead. Arsames, who had been the ruler of Persia under the Medes, therefore had to give up his throne. His son, Hystaspes, who was also Cyrus' second cousin, was then made satrap of Parthia and Phrygia. Arsames would live to see his grandson become Darius the Great, Shahanshah of Persia, after the deaths of both of Cyrus' sons.

Military campaigns

Cyrus' conquest of Media was merely the start of his wars. Astyages had been allied with his brother-in-law Croesus of Lydia (son of Alyattes II), Nabonidus of Babylon, and Amasis II of Egypt, who reportedly intended to join forces against Cyrus and Empire.

Lydia and Asia Minor

Croesus was the first ally of Astyages to attack Persia, but was ultimately defeated by Cyrus.

In 547 B.C.E., the Lydians attacked the Achaemenid Empire. During the winter, before the allies could unite, Cyrus besieged Croesus in his capital, Sardes. Shortly before the final battle between the two rulers was to begin, Harpagus advised Cyrus to place his dromedaries in front of his warriors; the Lydian horses, not used to the dromedaries' smell, would be very afraid. And indeed, the Lydian cavalry became useless and Cyrus defeated Croesus at Pterium, captured him, and occupied his capital at Sardis, conquering the Lydian kingdom in 546 B.C.E. According to Herodotus, Cyrus spared Croesus' life and kept him as an advisor, but this account conflicts with the contemporary Nabonidus Chronicle, which records that the king of Lydia was slain.[6]

Before returning to the capital, a Lydian named Pactyes was entrusted by Cyrus to send Croesus' treasury to Persia. However, soon after Cyrus' departure, Pactyes hired mercenaries and caused an uprising in Sardes, revolting against the Persian satrap of Lydia, Tabalus. With recommendations from Croesus that he should turn the minds of the Lydian people to luxury, Cyrus sent Mazares, one of his commanders, to subdue the insurrection, but demanded that Pactyas be returned alive. Upon Mazares' arrival, Pactyas fled to Ionia, where he had hired mercenaries. Mazares marched his troops into the Greek country and captured the cities of Magnesia and Priene, where Pactyas was captured and sent back to Persia for punishment.

Mazares continued the conquest of Asia Minor, but died of unknown causes during his campaign in Ionia. Cyrus sent Harpagus to complete Mazares' conquest of Asia Minor. Harpagus captured Lycia, Cilicia, and Phoenicia, using the technique of building earthworks to breach the walls of besieged cities, a method unknown to the Greeks. He ended his conquest of the area in 542 B.C.E., and returned to Persia.[7]


Towards the end of September of 539 B.C.E., Cyrus' armies, under the command of Gubaru, the governor of Gutium, attacked Opis on the Tigris river and defeated the Babylonians after a minor uprising by the citizens. With Opis under their power, the Persians took control of the vast canal system of Babylonia.

On October 10, the city of Sippar was seized without a battle, with little to no resistance from the populace. Nabonidus was staying in the city at the time, and soon fled to Babylon, which he had not paid a visit to for several years.

Two days later, on October 12, Gubaru's troops entered the capital, Babylon, again without any resistance from the Babylonian armies. Herodotus explains that to accomplish this feat, the Persians diverted the Euphrates river into a canal so that the water level dropped "to the height of the middle of a man's thigh," which allowed the invading forces to march directly through the river bed to enter at night.[8] On October 29, Cyrus himself entered the city of Babylon and arrested Nabonidus. He then assumed the titles of "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four sides of the world." [9]

Prior to Cyrus' invasion of Babylon, the Babylonian Empire had conquered many kingdoms. In addition to Babylonia itself, Cyrus incorporated its sub-national entities into his empire, including Syria and Palestine.

Before leaving Babylon, Cyrus also freed the Israelites by allowing them to return to their native land, effectively ending the Babylonian captivity. The return of the exiles reinforced the Jewish population in their homeland, which had been waning since the start of the Babylonian rule.[10]

According to the Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great, Cyrus' dominions must have comprised the largest empire the world had seen yet. At the end of Cyrus' rule, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Asia Minor and Judah in the west, as far as the Indus River in the east.

Cyrus Cylinder

Upon taking Babylon, Cyrus issued a declaration inscribed on a clay barrel, known today as the Cyrus Cylinder. It recounts his victories and merciful acts, and documents his royal lineage. It was discovered in 1879 in Babylon, and today is kept in the British Museum.

Although the cylinder reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, as early as the third millennium B.C.E., kings such as Urukagina began their reigns with declarations of reforms, the cylinder of Cyrus is widely referred to in modern times as the "first charter of human rights."[11] In 1971, the United Nations translated and published it into all of its official languages.[12] The cylinder decrees the normal themes of Persian rule: religious tolerance, abolishment of slavery, freedom of choice of profession, and expansion of the empire.


Cyrus' tomb lies in the ruins of Pasargadae, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ctesias reports only that Cyrus met his death in the year 529 B.C.E., while warring against tribes northeast of the headwaters of the Tigris. In Herodotus' account, Cyrus met his fate in a fierce battle with the Massagetae, a tribe from the southern deserts of Kharesm and Kizilhoum in the southernmost portion of the steppe region, after ignoring advice from his advisor, Croesus, to not continue forward.[13] The Massagetae were related to the Scythians in their dress and mode of living; they fought on horseback and on foot.

The queen of the Massagetae, Tomyris, who had assumed control after Cyrus had defeated Tomyris' son Spargapises, led the attack. The Persian forces suffered heavy casualties, including Cyrus himself. After the battle, Tomyris ordered the body of Cyrus to be found, and then dipped his head in blood to avenge the death of her son at his hands.[14]

He was buried in the city of Pasargadae, where his tomb remains today. Both Strabo and Arrian give descriptions of his tomb, based on eyewitness reports from the time of Alexander the Great's invasion. Though the city itself is now in ruins, the burial place of Cyrus the Great has remained largely intact, as the tomb has been partially restored to counter its natural deterioration over the years.

After Cyrus' death, his son eldest son, Cambyses II, succeeded him as king of Persia. His younger son, Smerdis, died before Cambyses left to invade the eastern front. From Herodotus' account, Cambyses killed his brother to avoid a rebellion in his absence. Cambyses continued his father's policy of expansion, and managed to capture Egypt for the empire, but soon died, after only seven years of rule. An imposter named Gaumata, claiming to be Smerdis, became the sole ruler of Persia for seven months, until he was killed by Darius the Great, the grandson of Arsames, who ruled Persia before Cyrus' rise.


Cyrus was distinguished equally as a statesman and as a soldier. By pursuing a policy of generosity instead of repression, and by favoring local religions, he was able to make his newly conquered subjects into enthusiastic supporters. Due to the strong political infrastructure he created, the Achaemenid Empire endured and prospered long after his demise.


A good example of his religious policy is his treatment of the Jews in Babylon. The Bible records that a remnant of the Jewish population returned to the Promised Land from Babylon, following an edict from Cyrus to rebuild the Temple. This edict is fully reproduced in the Book of Ezra. As a result of Cyrus' policies, the Jews honored him as a dignified and righteous king. He is the only gentile to be designated as a messiah, a divinely-appointed king, in the Tanakh. Koresh (Hebrew for Cyrus) is a common name for streets in Israel and is a relatively common Israeli family name.


Cyrus maintained control over a vast region of kingdoms by organizing the empire into provinces called satrapies. The provincial administrators, vassal kings called satraps, enjoyed considerable autonomy. Cyrus demanded only tribute and conscripts from many parts of the realm.

Cyrus' conquests began a new era in the age of empire building where a large superstate, comprising many dozens of countries, races, and languages, were ruled under a single administration headed by a central government.[15] Centuries later, the administrative techniques created by Cyrus and his successors Darius I and Xerxes I, including the satrapy system of local governorship were adopted by the Greeks and Romans. Today, a modernized version of the system is still in use, better known as administrative divisions.

His exploits, both real and legendary, have been used as material for students undertaking courses in political science. The Cyropaedia of Xenophon, based on the latter's knowledge of the great king's upbringing, was an influential political treatise in ancient times, and again during the Renaissance. Through Thomas Jefferson, who possessed two editions of Cyrus's Cyropaedia, Cyrus influenced the U.S. Constitution. These Greek and Hebrew versions were donated to the Library of Congress, where three other editions from the same period are available. One of these copies belonged to George Washington.


The English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne named his 1658 discourse after the benevolent ruler. Entitled The Garden of Cyrus, it may well be a Royalist criticism upon the autocratic rule of Oliver Cromwell.

Cyrus is still cited today as a significant leader. In 1992, he was ranked 87 on Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history. On December 10, 2003, in her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi evoked Cyrus, saying:

I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. This emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he “would not reign over the people if they did not wish it.” He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should be studied in the history of human rights.[16]


  1. Shapour Suren-Pahlav, Cyrus the Great: The Father and Liberator, The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies. Retrieved June 20, 2007; Plutarch, Artaxerxes 1.3, trans. John Dryden. Retrieved June 20, 2007; Photius, Epitome of Ctesias' Persica 52. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  2. Rüdiger Schmitt, Cyrus, I. The Name, Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  3. "It seems inevitable to assume that Astyages had another wife.… According to Ctesias of Cnidus, their son Cyrus married to a daughter of Astyages. That would be his aunt, which is most unusual." Quoted in Jona Lendering, Astyages, Livius. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  4. Jona Lendering, Harpagus, Livius. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  5. Jona Lendering, Harpagus, Livius. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  6. Jona Lendering, Croesus, Livius. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  7. Jona Lendering, Harpagus, Livius. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  8. Chuck Missler, The Fall of Babylon Versus The Destruction of Babylon. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  9. Shapour Suren-Pahlav, ed., Cyrus Charter of Human Rights, Iran Chamber Society. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  10. Ancient History Sourcebook, Kurash (Cyrus) the Great: The Decree of Return for the Jews, 539 B.C.E. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  11. The British Museum, Cyrus Cylinder. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  12. Shapour Suren-Pahlav, ed., Cyrus Charter of Human Rights, Iran Chamber Society. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  13. Jona Lendering, Herodotus’ Third Logos: Babylonian and Persian Affairs, Livius. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  14. Herodotus, The Histories, quoted in Michael L. Sitko, Great Women Warriors in History, Myth, Legend, and Pop Fiction. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  15. Richard Hooker, Mesopotamia: The Persians. Retrieved June 20, 2007.
  16. Shirin Erbadi, All Human Beings Are To Uphold Justice, Executive Intelligence Review 30, no 50 (December 26, 2003).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Ancient sources

  • The biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
  • Ctesias, Persica.
  • The Cyrus Cylinder.
  • Herodotus. The Histories, trans. Aubery de Selincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. ISBN 0140449086
  • Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1980. ISBN 0913573868
  • The Nabonidus Chronicle of the Babylonian Chronicles.
  • The Prayer of Nabonidus (one of the Dead Sea scrolls)

Modern sources

  • Frye, Richard Nelson. The Heritage of Persia. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 1993. ISBN 1568590083
  • Moorey, Peter Roger Stuart. The Biblical Lands. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1991. ISBN 0872262472
  • Olmstead, A. T. History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959. ISBN 0226627772
  • Palou, Christine, and Jean Palou. La Perse Antique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967.

External links

All links retrieved January 12, 2024.


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