Fierce Facts About Cyrus The Great, King Of The Persian Empire

Before Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, there was Cyrus the Great. The king of the Persian Empire inspired several leaders for centuries to come, including Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. But despite his legendary status, few people today know about Cyrus the Great’s history.

Not only did Cyrus establish the Achaemenid dynasty, but he also implemented rules and structures that guided empires centuries later. He was such a cunning leader that he defeated the Lydian Empire with camels alone. Read these incredible facts about Cyrus the Great, and you’ll pick a new favorite emperor.

The Strange Myth Of Cyrus’s Childhood

The Boy Cyrus Playing the King', portraying Cyrus II, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire.
The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images
The Print Collector/Heritage Images via Getty Images

The Greek writer Herodotus recorded a peculiar legend about Cyrus the Great’s childhood. According to the story, Cyrus’s grandfather, King Astyages of Medes, dreamed of his coming. He dreamed that Cyrus would one day overthrow him, and so ordered that he would set out to kill him.

Of course, Cyrus the Great survived. He returned to Medes and challenged Astyages to a duel, which he won. This story is only a legend and has little historical backing apart from Herodotus’s account. But it’s still a fun story and an epic beginning to Cyrus’s reign.

He Conquered Three Empires

Battle overtaking Babylon. Print by Gilbert, 1881
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images
Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

Cyrus elected four capital cities in his empire: Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, and Pasargadae. These cities coincided with the kingdoms that Cyrus overthrew. In 551 BC, he succeeded his father’s throne for the Median Empire. During the 540s, Cyrus conquered the Lydian Empire in Asia Minor (where the city of Troy was).

In 540 BC, Cyrus captured the cities of Susa and Babylon. Through these invasions, Cyrus overtook the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which had previously governed several territories. His empire was composed of three former empires. By the time of his death, Cyrus’s Achaemenid Empire stretched from the Indus River in the east to western Asia Minor.

Greek Historians Loved Him

Engraving of Cyrus the Great
Getty Images
Getty Images

During his reign, Cyrus the Great was well-loved by the Persians. After his death, the Greeks grew to adore him as well. Alexander the Great became fascinated with Cyrus after he read a biography about him, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Xenophon admired Cyrus so much that he labeled him as the ideal ruler.

Another Greek historian, Herodotus, wrong an extensive biography about the Persian king. For years, readers referenced Herodotus’ work as the primary account of Cyrus’s life, although modern-day historians take his writing with a grain of salt. His idolization among the Greeks is ironic because he spent the majority of his reign battling them.

Cyrus Inspired Western Thinkers

Sculpture of Cyrus II
Pinterest/Tiffany Stanton
Pinterest/Tiffany Stanton

Thanks to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, students throughout the world have learned about Cyrus the Great. This work remained popular through Classical Antiquity and Enlightenment, from India to Iceland. Cyrus’s mythic status carried his story all the way to the Founding Fathers in the American colonies.

For instance, Thomas Jefferson owned two copies of Cyropaedia. One copy, with parallel Greek and Latin translations, has many notes and markings that Jefferson annotated. His notes indicate that he was using the book as inspiration while drafting the Declaration of Independence.

He Once Won A Battle With Camels

Camels after a race in Kabad, 50 km southwest of Kuwait City
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Cyrus was a clever military strategist. One example of this was the Battle of Thymbra, Cyrus’s decisive battle against Croesus of the Lydian Kingdom. Initially, Cyrus had planned to surprise Croesus, but the Lydian king showed up with twice as many men as Cyrus had. So he had to think fast.

During previous battles, Cyrus noticed that the Lydians’ horses grew skittish around camels. He barricaded his archers with a line of camels, and the horses scattered, wheeling inward. Cyrus’s archers opened fire, and after a while, the Lydian forces retreated.

He Is A Messiah In The Hebrew Bible

Shontae Scott of Atlanta clutches her hands on her bible Tuesday while watching live coverage of the funeral of Coretta Scott King
Stephen Morton/Getty Images
Stephen Morton/Getty Images

Several Jewish historians wrote accounts about Cyrus the Great, and he even appears in the Bible. In the Ketuvim, Cyrus decrees that all exiles may return to the Promised Land and rebuilt their temples. Isaiah refers to Cyrus as a Messiah–literally, “His anointed one” in Isaiah 45:1. He is the only gentile to be given that honor.

In the Second Chronicles, Cyrus is quoted as to praise God (2 Chronicles 36:23). However, there is no historical evidence that Cyrus practiced any religion. Professor Lester L. Grabbe argues that Cyrus made no “decree” for the Jews, as stated in the Book of Ezra, but he did have a policy that allowed them to return and rebuild their temples.

Immortals Guarded Him

Immortals from the movie 300 (2006)
Warner Bros. Pictures/300
Warner Bros. Pictures/300

Cyrus the Great governed an elite unit of soldiers that Herodotus called the Persian Immortals. According to the historian, the Immortals were a legion of 10,000 soldiers that acted as both an Imperial Guard and a standing army. As their name reflects, all sick, wounded or dying soldiers were immediately replaced with new ones.

Although there is historical evidence of a permanent Persian corps, they never received the name “Immortals” as Herodotus claimed. That hasn’t stopped the name from being adopted from the Sassanid Empire through the Imperial State of Iran. They also famously appeared in Zack Snyder’s film 300.

Cyrus’s Tomb Has Survived Thousands Of Years

An Iranian family poses for a picture next to the tomb of Cyrus II of Persia, known as Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire in 6th century BCE
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Cyrus was buried in his capital city, Pasargadae, in a limestone tomb, between 540 and 530 BC. Throughout many conquests with the Persian Empire, his tomb was raided several times. One of the most notable moments was after Alexander the Great defeated Darius III’s Persia. When Alexander learned of Cyrus’s tomb, he put the persecutors on trial and worked to restore its interior.

Cyrus’s tomb has survived through time, internal divisions, regime changes, and revolutions. In 2004, his gravesite and Pasargadae became one of Iran’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Part of his inscription reads, “Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire, and was king of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument.”

He Ran A Postal Service

Chapar Khaneh replica in Meybod, Iran
Twitter/@Irantraveling
Twitter/@Irantraveling

Cyrus the Great first established the ancient Persian postal service, Chapar Khaneh. The postmen (for lack of a better term) visited Chapar Khaneh stations along the Royal Road, a 2500 km highway stretching from Sardis to Susa. At every station, a Chapar would provide fresh supplies and horse care to the postmen.

Chapar Khanehs, which means “courier” in Old Persian, were mud-brick structures built to resemble a fortress. Each building had stationed guards to protect important government documents. Today, a Chapar Khaneh in Meybod is registered as one of Iran’s National Heritage Sites.

The Cyrus Calendar Isn’t A Calendar

The Cyrus Cylinder, Achaemenid, 539-538 B.C., excavated at Babylon, Iraq, 1879, on display in
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The Cyrus the Great Calendar refers to a stone tablet of Akkadian cuneiform dated 539 BC. The inscription details Cyrus’s battle of Babylon, as well as his charter of racial, linguistic, and religious equality. In it, Cyrus rules that all slaves and deported peoples were allowed to return home, and all destroyed temples would be restored.

Several historians have labeled the Cyrus Calendar as “the first human rights charter in history.” Although this claim is debated, the charter does illustrate Cyrus’s respect for humanity and support of religious tolerance. The Shah of Iran declared the Cyrus Calendar to be the symbol of Iran.

Nobody Knows Where His Name Came From

Cyrus II of Persia, also known as Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire and Achaemenid dynasty. 18th-century engraving
De Agostini via Getty Images
De Agostini via Getty Images

Cyrus is a Latinized form of the Old Persian word, Kūruš. For centuries, historians have debated over the word’s meaning. Greek historians Plutarch and Ctesias thought that his name came from Kuros, meaning “like the Sun.” Since the Persians often revered the son, this translation made sense.

However, German linguist Karl Hoffman suggested that Cyrus could stem form the Indo-European root “to humiliate.” So his name would translate to “humiliator of the enemy in verbal contest,” which fits with Cyrus the Great’s life. Other scholars believe that Cyrus has an Elamite origin that means “He who bestows care.”

He Was A Family Man, From What We Know

King Cyrus drives a chariot with his family in this Biblical engraving
SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
SeM/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Little is known about Cyrus’s personal life. Based on his autobiographical accounts–now believed to be accurate–he married Cassandane, a Persian noblewoman. They had two sons, Cambyses II and Bardiya, and three daughters, Atossa, Roxane, and Artystone.

Although nobody knows how the marriage came to be, Cyrus and Cassandane were known to love each other deeply. In her writing, Cassandane said that she would find it more bitter to leave Cyrus than to depart life. After she died, Cyrus pushed public mourning throughout his kingdom for six days.

He Invented The Satrap System

The state entry of Cyrus into Babylon, c. 540 BC
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Cyrus the Great invented the satrap system. He appointed satraps, usually members of the royal family, to govern over a province within his territory. The satrap would collect taxes, maintain security, fund the army, and rule over any court matters. When in doubt, the satraps could seek advice from a council of Persians.

After Cyrus implemented the satrap system, future rulers used it to govern their empire. Alexander the Great followed Cyrus’s method, as did the Parthian Empire. Cyrus likely got his idea from the ancient rules of modern-day India, which used a similar system called Kshatrapas.

Cyrus’s Myth Mirrors Other Well-Known Stories

The Remains of the Sehdar Palace. Persepolis, the former capitol of Persia, got destroyed by Alexander the Great 330 BC
Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images
Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images

Herodotus wrote a mythical account of Cyrus’s life. According to his work, King Astyages condemned Cyrus to die after dreaming that his grandson would overthrow him. But Cyrus survived thanks to the mercy of Harpagus, one of Astyages’s servants. Harpagus either sent him to live with an impoverished family in Astyages’s court or a shepherd family.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it follows the format of many ancient myths. Cyrus’s story is very similar to those of Moses, Atalanta, Paris of Troy, and Zeus. All figures were sentenced to death after their parents received a prophecy but survived due to different circumstances.

He Descended From Two Royal Lines

Bas-relief depicting Cyrus the Great, from Pasargadae, Iran, illustration from Histoire des grecs
Victor Duruy/Getty Images
Victor Duruy/Getty Images

Unlike most other rulers, Cyrus was born of two royal lineages. His father was Cambyses I, King of Anshan, whom he succeeded. His mother was Mandane, daughter to Astyages, King of Medea. Although some myths say that Astyages dueled Cyrus, historically, he launched a war against Cyrus once he became king.

According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Cyrus refused to recognize or follow Astyages’s rule. Astyages placed Harpagus in command of his army; however, Harpagus secretly planned a mutiny with Cyrus. The war lasted three years until Cyrus finally overthrew his grandfather in Ecbatana.

Thank Cyrus For The Persian Gardens

Eram Garden (Garden of Paradise) in Shiraz, Iran, is a typical Persian garden.
Getty Images
Getty Images

The design of Persian gardens has influenced the garden through India, Spain, and beyond. This traditional style originated in Cyrus’s empire in the sixth century BC. Having a green thumb himself, Cyrus the Great established elaborate garden systems throughout his capital of Pasargadae. The outline of this city can still be seen today.

The Greeks viewed ancient Iranians as the “great gardeners” of antiquity, and several generals vacationed at these gardens while not campaigning. After the era of Cyrus the Great, Cyrus II (also called Cyrus the Younger) continued this gardening tradition and cemented it in history.

The Famous Prophecy Of Lydia’s Downfall

Croesus, last king of Lydia from 560 BC.  Lithograph after an image on a Greek vase.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Before Cyrus conquered the Lydian Empire, his battle with Croesus was foretold by one of the most famous prophecies in ancient history. According to the story, Croesus consulted the Oracle of Delphi before he declared war against the Persian king. The Oracle stated that if Croesus went to war, he would destroy a mighty empire.

Relieved, Croesus decided to battle Cyrus. Against Croesus’s hopes, the “mighty empire” that ended up devastated was his own. Cyrus the Great overtook Lydia and the empire’s vast wealth, just as the Oracle foretold.

We Don’t Know How Cyrus Died

Cuneiform inscription, royal palace of Cyrus the Great, Pasargad
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Historians aren’t certain how Cyrus died, as accounts of his death vary greatly. We know that he died sometime around 530 BC and that he was buried in his capital, Pasargadae. Xenophon listed the only account of Cyrus’s death being peaceful, stating that he died in his capital in Cyropaedia.

According to Ctesias’s work Persica, Cyrus died while battling the Derbices infantry, who teamed up with Indians to use their war-elephants.The Chronicle of Michael the Syrian claims that Cyrus was killed by Tomyris, after the 60th year of Jewish captivity. But the most entertaining death story was written by Herodotus.

Cyrus’s Death Was Revenge, According To Herodotus

Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetean, watches the head of Cyrus the Great after his beheading, illustration from a painting by Peter Paul Rubens
L’Illustration/Getty Images
L’Illustration/Getty Images

In Herodotus’s account Histories, Cyrus attempted to capture the Massagetae territory ruled by the empress Tomyris. He first sent her a marriage proposal, which she rejected. Afterward, Cyrus sent his forces against Massagetae, and Tomyris sent an army lead by her son, Spargapises. The general was eventually captured and took his own life.

Upon hearing this, Tomyris swore revenge against Cyrus. She led a second wave of troops against him, and Cyrus was ultimately killed. Reportedly, Tomyris decapitated Cyrus’s corpse as a symbol of avenging her son. Some scholars question Herodotus’s tale, as the author mentions there being multiple stories of Cyrus’s death.

What Happened To Lydia’s Wealth?

546 BC, Croesus, last king of Lydia, faces Cyrus the Great, emperor Cyrus II of Persia, after defeat and capture at his hands.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Lydian emperor, Croesus, was rumored to own an impressive treasury. After Cyrus conquered Lydia, he instructed Pactyas to retrieve Croesus’s treasure and bring it to him. However, Pactyas spent part of the treasury on mercenaries whom he hired to start a revolt.

Outraged, Cyrus ordered one of his commanders to bring Pactyas to him alive. The general subdued the uprising and brought Pactyas to Cyrus. No one knows what happened to Pactyas or the treasury after that. Most assume that Pactyas was either put to death or tortured, and that Cyrus received the rest of his well-earned sums.