THE MEDO-PERSIAN EMPIRE
529-334 BC


  

Cyrus II, byname CYRUS THE GREAT (b. 590-580 BC, Media, or Persis--d. c. 529, Asia), conqueror who founded the Achaemenid empire, centered on Persia and comprising the Near East from the Aegean Sea to the Indus River. He is also remembered in the Cyrus legend--first recorded by Xenophon, Greek soldier and author, in his Cyropaedia--as a tolerant and ideal monarch who was called father of his people by the ancient Persians and in the Bible as the liberator of the Jews captive in Babylonia.

 

Life And Legend

Cyrus was born between 590 and 580 BC, either in Media or, more probably, in Persis, the modern Fars province of Iran. The meaning of his name is in dispute, for it is not known whether it was a personal name or a throne name given to him when he became a ruler.

It is noteworthy that after the Achaemenid empire the name does not appear again in sources relating to Iran, which may indicate some special sense of the name. Most scholars agree, however, that Cyrus the Great was at least the second of the name to rule in Persia.

One cuneiform text in Akkadian--the language of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in the pre-Christian era--asserts he was the son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan, of a family [which] always [exercised] kingship. In any case, it is clear that Cyrus came from a long line of ruling chiefs.

The most important source for his life is the Greek historian Herodotus. The idealized biography by Xenophon is a work for the edification of the Greeks concerning the ideal ruler, rather than a historical treatise. It does, however, indicate the high esteem in which Cyrus was held, not only by his own people, the Persians, but by the Greeks and others. Herodotus says that the Persians called Cyrus their father, while later Achaemenid rulers were not so well regarded.

The story of the childhood of Cyrus, as told by Herodotus with echoes in Xenophon and the Greek historian Ctesias, may be called a Cyrus legend since it obviously follows a pattern of folk beliefs about the almost superhuman qualities of the founder of a dynasty. Similar beliefs also exist about the founders of later dynasties throughout the history of Iran.

According to the legend, Astyages, the king of the Medes and overlord of the Persians, gave his daughter in marriage to his vassal in Persis, a prince called Cambyses. From this marriage Cyrus was born. Astyages, having had a dream that the baby would grow up to overthrow him, ordered Cyrus slain. His chief adviser, however, instead gave the baby to a shepherd to raise. When he was 10 years old, Cyrus, because of his outstanding qualities, was discovered by Astyages, who, in spite of the dream, was persuaded to allow the boy to live.

Cyrus, when he reached manhood in Persis, revolted against his maternal grandfather and overlord. Astyages marched against the rebel, but his army deserted him and surrendered to Cyrus in 550 BC.

Cyrus' Conquests

After inheriting the empire of the Medes, Cyrus first had to consolidate his power over Iranian tribes on the Iranian plateau before expanding to the west. Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor, had enlarged his domains at the expense of the Medes when he heard of the fall of Astyages, and Cyrus, as successor of the Median king, marched against Lydia. Sardis, the Lydian capital, was captured in 547 or 546, and Croesus was either killed or burned himself to death, though according to other sources he was taken prisoner by Cyrus and well treated.

The Ionian Greek cities on the Aegean Sea coast, as vassals of the Lydian king, now became subject to Cyrus, and most of them submitted peacefully. Several revolts of the Greek cities were later suppressed with severity.

Next Cyrus turned to Babylonia, where dissatisfaction of the people with the ruler Nabonidus gave him a pretext for invading the lowlands. The conquest was quick, for even the priests of Marduk, the national deity of the great metropolis of Babylon, had become estranged from Nabonidus.

In October 539 BC, the greatest city of the ancient world fell to the Persians. In the Bible (e.g., Ezra 1:1-4), Cyrus is famous for freeing the Jewish captives in Babylonia and allowing them to return to their homeland. Cyrus was also tolerant toward the Babylonians and others. He honored Marduk and conciliated the local population by supporting local customs and even sacrificing to local deities.

The capture of Babylon delivered not only Mesopotamia into the hands of Cyrus but also Syria and Palestine, which had been conquered previously by the Babylonians. The ruler of Cilicia in Asia Minor had become an ally of Cyrus when the latter marched against Croesus, and Cilicia retained a special status in Cyrus' empire.

Thus it was by diplomacy as well as force of arms that he established the largest empire known until his time. Cyrus seems to have had several capitals. One was the city of Ecbatana, modern Hamadan, former capital of the Medes, and another was a new capital of the empire, Pasargadae, in Persis, said to be on the site where Cyrus had won the battle against Astyages. The ruins today, though few, arouse admiration in the visitor. Cyrus also kept Babylon as a winter capital.

No Persian chauvinist, Cyrus was quick to learn from the conquered peoples. He not only conciliated the Medes but joined them with the Persians in a kind of dual monarchy of the Medes and Persians. Cyrus had to borrow the traditions of kingship from the Medes, who had ruled an empire when the Persians were merely their vassals. It is probable that a Mede was traditionally made an adviser to the Achaemenid king, as a sort of chief minister; on later reliefs at Persepolis, a capital of the Achaemenid kings from the time of Darius, a Mede is frequently depicted together with the great king.

The Elamites, indigenous inhabitants of Persis, were also the teachers of the Persians in many ways, as can be seen, for example, in the Elamite dress worn by Persians and by Elamite objects carried by them on the stone reliefs at Persepolis. There also seems to have been little innovation in government and rule, but rather a willingness to borrow, combined with an ability to adapt what was borrowed to the new empire. Cyrus was undoubtedly the guiding genius in the creation not only of a great empire but in the formation of Achaemenid culture and civilization.

Little is known of the family life of Cyrus. He had two sons, one of whom, Cambyses, succeeded him; the other, Bardiya ( Smerdis of the Greeks), was probably secretly put to death by Cambyses after he became ruler. Cyrus had at least one daughter, Atossa (who married her brother Cambyses), and possibly two others, but they played no role in history.

When Cyrus defeated Astyages he also inherited Median possessions in eastern Iran, but he had to engage in much warfare to consolidate his rule in this region. After his conquest of Babylonia, he again turned to the east, and Herodotus tells of his campaign against nomads living east of the Caspian Sea.

According to the Greek historian, Cyrus was at first successful in defeating the ruler of the nomads--called the Massagetai--who was a woman, and captured her son. On the son's committing suicide in captivity, his mother swore revenge and defeated and killed Cyrus.

Herodotus' story may be apocryphal, but Cyrus' conquests in Central Asia were probably genuine, since a city in farthest Sogdiana was called Cyreschata, or Cyropolis, by the Greeks, which seems to prove the extent of his Eastern conquests. The legacy of Cyrus It is a testimony to the capability of the founder of the Achaemenid empire that it continued to expand after his death and lasted for more than two centuries.

But Cyrus was not only a great conqueror and administrator; he held a place in the minds of the Persian people similar to that of Romulus and Remus in Rome or Moses for the Israelites.

His saga follows in many details the stories of hero and conquerors from elsewhere in the ancient world. The manner in which the baby Cyrus was given to a shepherd to raise is reminiscent of Moses in the bulrushes in Egypt, and the overthrow of his tyrannical grandfather has echoes in other myths and legends. There is no doubt that the Cyrus saga arose early among the Persians and was known to the Greeks. The sentiments of esteem or even awe in which Persians held him were transmitted to the Greeks, and it was no accident that Xenophon chose Cyrus to be the model of a ruler for the lessons he wished to impart to his fellow Greeks.

In short, the figure of Cyrus has survived throughout history as more than a great man who founded an empire. He became the epitome of the great qualities expected of a ruler in antiquity, and he assumed heroic features as a conqueror who was tolerant and magnanimous as well as brave and daring.

His personality as seen by the Greeks influenced them and Alexander the Great, and, as the tradition was transmitted by the Romans, may be considered to influence our thinking even now. In the year 1971, Iran celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the monarchy by Cyrus.

 

The Kingdom of the Medes in Iran (c. 700-550 BC)
and the establishment of the Achaemenid Persian Empire

Achaemenian DYNASTY, also called ACHAEMENID, Persian HAKHAMANISHIYA (559-330 BC), ancient Iranian dynasty whose kings founded and ruled the Achaemenian Empire. Achaemenes (Persian Hakhamanish), the Achaemenians' eponymous ancestor, is presumed to have lived early in the 7th century BC, but little is known of his life.

From his son Teispes two lines of kings descended. The kings of the older line were Cyrus I, Cambyses I, Cyrus II the Great, and Cambyses II. After the death of Cambyses II (522 BC) the junior line came to the throne with Darius I. The dynasty became extinct with the death of Darius III, following his defeat (330 BC) by Alexander the Great. Probably the greatest of the Achaemenian rulers were Cyrus II (reigned 559-c. 529 BC), who actually established the empire and from whose reign it is dated; Darius I (522-486), who excelled as an administrator and secured the borders from external threats; and Xerxes I (486-465), who completed many of the buildings begun by Darius.

During the time of Darius I and Xerxes I, the empire extended as far west as Macedonia and Libya and as far east as the Hyphasis (Beas) River; it stretched to the Caucasus Mountains and the Aral Sea in the north and to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert in the south.

The Achaemenian rule of conquered peoples was generally liberal; the empire itself was divided into provinces (satrapies), each administered by a satrap who underwent frequent inspections by officials reporting directly to the king. Royal inscriptions were usually trilingual, in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian; Aramaic, however, was employed for imperial administration and diplomatic correspondence.

Building activity was extensive during the height of the empire, and of the several Achaemenian capitals, the ruins at Pasargadae and at Persepolis (qq.v.) are probably the most outstanding. Achaemenian sculptured reliefs and a great number of smaller art objects present a remarkably unified style for the period. Metalwork, especially in gold, was highly developed, and a variety of carefully executed examples survive.

 

The Achaemenid Persian Empire (529-330 BC) under the successors of Cyrus II the Great, Greek rule to c. 250 BC

The empire under Cambyses II, Darius I, and Xerxes I (529-465 BC): the subjugation of Egypt, establishment of peace in the empire, penetration of the Balkan Peninsula and the unsuccessful attempts to conquer mainland Greece

Bosporus, Kingdom of the, also called CIMMERIAN BOSPORUS, ancient Greek state situated on Kerchensky Proliv (Straits of Kerch) in present-day southern Ukraine, which reached its peak of power in the 4th century BC.

The kingdom's major city, Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), was ruled by the Archaeanactid dynasty (480-438 BC), then by the Spartocid dynasty (438-110 BC), which annexed to Panticapaeum other Greek colonies--e.g., Nymphaeum, which had been founded in the region in the 7th and 6th centuries. After the second half of the 5th century, Athenian influence was strong among the Bosporus cities; Athens controlled local trade until 404 BC and remained the chief customer of the Bosporus throughout the 4th century.

The Spartocids suppressed piracy in the Black Sea, and through their management of trade in grain, fish, and slaves, trade on the Bosporus prospered. Dynastic and financial decline began in the middle of the 3rd century, and after 110 BC the kings of Pontus controlled the region. A new dynasty, established in the 1st century AD, ruled for 300 years under the protection of the Roman Empire. After AD 342 the country was alternately under barbarian and Byzantine control.