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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
Cyrus Took Over His Mother’s Empire
When Cyrus ascended to the throne, he ruled the Achaemenid Empire. He achieved the kingdom through his father, Cambyses I. His mother, Mandane, was the princess of the Median Empire. Cyrus fought with his grandfather for years over this empire, which likely led to the myth of Cyrus’s childhood.
After three years of hostilities, Cyrus captured the city of Ecbatana in 559 BC. The Median Empire was the first area that Cyrus achieved as a king, most likely because he was an heir to the throne. After the battle, Cyrus spared his grandfather’s life.
Cyrus’s Grandfather May Not Have Been Related To Him
According to most stories, Cyrus’s grandfather, the king of Media Astyages, fought with him over the territory. But there isn’t much concrete evidence that Cyrus and Astyages were related. At least, Achaemenid inscriptions from Cyrus’s era never mentioned a blood relation between the two.
We know that Cyrus II married Astyages’ granddaughter, Amytis, after conquering the Median Empire. According to Greek writers like Xenophon and Herodotus, Cyrus spent much of his childhood in Astyages’ court. But there aren’t enough historical accounts to verify this.
His Empire Was The Largest At The Time
At the time, Cyrus’s Persian Empire was the largest in the world. His territory stretched through most of Southwest and Central Asia, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. At its peak, the Persian Empire spanned 3.4 million square miles (5.5 million square km), about two times the size of Argentina.
The empire’s large size led to the construction of road systems and post offices, which had never happened on that grand of a scale. Cyrus the Great established an official language, Fārsī, which helped people from different territories communicate.
Cyrus May Have Supported A Rebellion
While Cyrus the Great raided the Median Empire, discord brewed inside the Median halls. Harpagus, a nobleman, sought support to overthrow King Astyages. According to both Herodotus’ writings and the Nabonidus Chronicle, Harpagus also commanded the armies that fought with Cyrus II.
Historical accounts say that the two sides met, and Harpagus crossed over to Cyrus’s side. The combined armies flooded the Median capital of Ecbatana, and Astyages didn’t stand a chance. There are some discrepancies in the timing of this, but the rebellion likely occurred between 553 BC and 550 BC.
His Government Is A World Heritage Site
After defeating Astyages, Cyrus established his main governmental city, Pasargadae, on the battle site. Pasargadae was both a ceremonial site and the home of the Persian government. When Cyrus first erected the city, he didn’t design it to hold as many citizens as it eventually did.
Pasargadae flourished only for a short time; it was soon taken over by Persepolis in 515 BC. But the city left behind remnants of Cyrus’s grand palace. Today, the archaeological remains a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There, you can see some remains of Cyrus’s residential building, audience hall, and tomb.
Cyrus Was Related To The King Of Lydia
One of Cyrus’s most famous battles was against Croesus, the King of Lydia. Croesus was a brother-in-law to Astyages, and Cyrus had recently married Astyages’ granddaughter. That made Croesus Cyrus’s great-uncle. However, Croesus swore to avenge Astyages after the fall of Media. Not the best start to their relationship.
Although Cyrus sent his armies toward Croesus, some historians argue that he wasn’t aiming to conquer Lydia. Croesus instigated the battle, and Cyrus quickly responded after Croesus recalled his armies in the winter. At some point, Cyrus took over his second relative’s empire.
Cyrus Appealed To Babylonian Ideas Of Kingship
After Cyrus II conquered the Babylonian Empire, he commissioned the Cyrus Cylinder. In this inscription, Cyrus appeals heavily to the ideals of Babylonian kings. Although Nabonidus describes Babylonian kings as “incompetent,” Cyrus portrayed them as divinely appointed saviors.
Cyrus also appeals to Babylonian deities, such as Marduk, in the Cyrus Cylinder. He called himself the first king of Babylon, a king of Anshan, and an heir of Teispes–all favored communities of Marduk. Many historians believe that Cyrus took this religious stance to unite the Babylonian citizens.
He Was “Too Noble” To Be An Average Citizen
According to Herodotus, Cyrus acted too nobly to be mistaken for an average man. The myth states that Cyrus grew up with the herdsman, Harpagus, during his childhood. Herodotus states that it was obvious Cyrus wasn’t a herdsman’s son, based on how he acted.
When Astyages spoke to Cyrus, he (according to the story) noticed how similar they were. While Herodotus’s account is a legend, it gives insight into how people perceived Cyrus the Great. In later generations, people pictured Cyrus as “destined to rule” the Persian Empire.
He Directed A River To Win A Battle
As Cyrus worked to claim new territories, he sent his commander, Gubaru, to conquer the conquer Babylon. Gubaru managed to take Babylon without any resistance from the opposing armies. How? When Cyrus recommended moving the river.
According to Herodotus, Cyrus’s armies diverted the Euphrates river into a canal. The water level dropped enough so that the Persian warriors could march directly through the riverbed at night. The Babylonian forces surrendered. A couple of weeks later, Cyrus entered Babylon and arrested King Nabonidus himself.
Did Cyrus Conquer India?
Although historians agree that the Persian Empire touched the Indus Valley, there is still debate over whether he invaded India. In the Behistun inscription, later inherited by Cyrus’s descendant Darius the Great, mentioned that Cyrus entered the Indus Valley. But it’s unclear whether he conquered any area in that region.
If Cyrus did invade India, he would have likely taken over Gandara. However, there are no historical records that indicate a battle in this area. Another possibility is that Cyrus’s navy may have conquered Maka. But again, these are all up to speculation.
He Was The First Ruler To Achieve The Title “The Great”
Cyrus II was the first ruler to have the title “the Great.” This title is a colloquial version of the Old Persian title, “Great King.” Since then, many monarchs have adopted the title, including Cyrus’s most famous admirer, Alexander the Great.
Although “the Great” doesn’t mean anything specifically, it usually describes a ruler who has made many achievements. Less than thirty rulers have assumed that title throughout history. Based on the length of this list, it’s pretty clear why Cyrus II received an honorary mention.
Cyrus Ended Slavery In Persia
In the Cyrus Cylinder, the king acknowledged the independent rights of all of his citizens. On October 29, outlawed slavery in the Persian Empires. He is one of the earliest monarchs to do so. Today, that holiday is celebrated worldwide as The Cyrus Human Rights Day.
During this ruling, Cyrus also freed over 50,000 Jewish people and allowed them to migrate to their homeland. These rulings occurred on the same day as Cyrus’s coronation at the Marduk Temple. It’s no wonder that historians consider Cyrus the Great to be one of the earliest pioneers of human rights.
He Ruled Almost Half Of The World’s Population
At the height of Cyrus’s Persian Empire, he ruled over about 44% of the world’s population. Historians estimate that around 112 million people lived in the world at the time, and Cyrus governed over 59 million of these people.
Cyrus’s influence over the world came mainly from conquering Babylon. Not only did Cyrus govern the Babylonian Empire, but he also controlled trade routes that lead to other regions. Due to the wide diversity of citizens, Cyrus had to allow enough autonomy (through the satrap system) to prevent rebellion.
He Promoted Religious Tolerance
Unlike other monarchs at the time, Cyrus the Great allowed his citizens to change their beliefs. After Cyrus conquered Babylon, he introduced himself as a liberator instead of a conqueror. He did not enact an “official religion” or religious-based laws. It was an early example of the separation of church and state.
Many scholars believe that Cyrus adopted his policies from Zoroastrian teachings. But despite his religious influence and tendency to appeal to Akkadian deities, Cyrus never claimed any particular religion. We still don’t know how Cyrus identified religiously.
Cyrus Recruited Religious Leaders
As a part of Cyrus’s religious tolerance policy, he repeatedly co-opted priests and other clergy members to his government. He would grant these clergymen autonomous benefits to rule their territories. That way, his territories could maintain religious freedom and keep their beloved leaders under the new regime.
Some historians believe that Cyrus implemented this rule as a tactical strategy more than a moral ruling. For instance, some assert that Cyrus released the Jews to use them as a barrier between his territory and the Egyptians. Whatever his intentions, Cyrus enacted a notable method for religious tolerance.
Is Cyrus In The Qur’an?
Several Islamic scholars have asserted that Dhul-Qarnayn, a divinely-chosen ruler in the Qur’an, could be a representation of Cyrus the Great. Dhul-Qarnayn was written as a great ruler whose armies spread east, west, and north. Some scholars believe that Dhul-Qarnayn’s vision of a ram with two horns represents the Median and Lydian Empires.
While there are parallels between Cyrus and Dhul-Qarnayn, many scholars argue that this character was not meant to represent Cyrus. Others argue that the king could have depicted Alexander the Great instead.
The Achaemenians Weren’t Very Loyal
Darius the Great, the fourth king of the Persian Empire, distorted or entirely made up a lot of Cyrus’s history. In his writings, he described the Achaemenians, Cyrus’s original dynasty, as a powerful and unwavering dynasty. But this was far from the truth.
The Achaemenid was a small dynasty that stemmed from a small highland tribe. Cyrus’s father, Cambyses I, was beloved by his people but rarely bothered other nations and tribes. Through Cyrus’s military intelligence, he expanded the Achaemenid Empire from a small dynasty to an enormous empire.
Cyrus’s “Divine” Status Was Probably Propaganda
If you’re wondering why Cyrus often aligned himself with Babylonian deities, historians believe that it could have been propaganda. Nabonidus, the former king of Babylon, was disliked because he wasn’t a native Babylonian. On top of that, he failed to perform religious rituals. Cyrus gained the citizens’ respect by leading the rituals that Nabonidus wouldn’t.
According to some historians, Cyrus’s status as a “divine king” may have stemmed from this strategy. The rest came from his descendant, Darius the Great. It’s suspected that Darius carved the inscription on Cyrus’s tomb.
He Didn’t Begin With An Official Army
Although Cyrus II eventually recruited his Immortal legion, he didn’t begin his wars with a standing army. Initially, he recruited warriors and kinsmen from local tribes. After the fighting ended, the surviving warriors would return home, leaving Cyrus with almost nothing.
Even as a king, Cyrus didn’t acquire an army until he defeated the Lydian Empire. Once he established a permanent army, he created a ratio of about 10% Immortals and 90% cavalry foot soldiers. In time, Cyrus realized the efficiency of the Immortals and increased the ratio to 20%.
Cyrus’s Armies Used Advanced Chariots
While charioteers existed during Cyrus’s reign, his army enhanced the chariots to become a deadly weapon. They made their chariots higher and heavier than most others. Instead of two horses pulling the vehicle, four horses drove it, and the chariot fit an additional writer.
To make the chariots more vicious, Cyrus added scythes to the wheel. These blades would stick two yards out from the axles. Any soldier or horse who grazed the chariot would end up fatally wounded. It was a terrifying and advanced war technology for the time.