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