Cyrus the Great

gigatos | November 2, 2021


Cyrus II. (Old Persian Kūruš, New Persian کوروش بزرگ Kurosh-e bozorg, ”Kurosh the Great”, Babylonian Kuraš, Elamite Kuraš, Aramaic Kureš, Hebrew כורש Koreš, Ancient Greek Κῦρος Kŷros, Latin Cyrus; * c. 590 BC. C.E. to 580 B.C.E.; † August 530 B.C.E.), often called Cyrus the Great, son of Cambyses I, ruled Persia from about 559 bc to 530 bc as the sixth king of the Achaemenid dynasty and named his son Cambyses II as his successor.

Through his expansionist policy, Cyrus significantly extended the borders of the formerly small ancient Persian Empire, which under his successors stretched from India to Iran, Babylon, Asia Minor, and Egypt and lasted until 330 BC, before being conquered by Alexander the Great.

Archaeological campaigns and, in the meantime, improved transcriptions of a number of cuneiform texts led to new findings that refined the previous picture of the historical Cyrus. Soon after his death, the Persian king was transfigured by his people as an ideal king. The Greeks adopted this positive view. It was reinforced by his portrayal in the Bible as a religiously tolerant regent and still dominates his judgment today. His person is still regarded today as the model image of a king and ruler.

The surviving accounts of ancient historians diverge widely, especially about the origin and early years of Cyrus, because of the contradictory legends that arose very early. The highest credibility is attributed to the contemporary cuneiform texts, on the basis of which scientists can partially verify the statements of the Greek historians.

Cuneiform texts

The oldest sources about Kyros are written in cuneiform. The Kyros cylinder and a four-line brick inscription found in Ur in 1850 were written by Kyros himself.

The designation “Achaemenid” in the inscriptions from Pasargadae was made subsequently by Darius I and probably served to construct a relationship with Cyrus, since Darius I was not a direct descendant of the founder of the empire and therefore introduced a common ancestor Achaimenes. The Bisutun texts deal with the subjugated provinces. Babylonian private documents, which have been found in large numbers, serve to establish the chronology more precisely.

Also significant is the so-called Nabonid Chronicle, which in its readable part reports on the last years of independent Babylonia and its conquest by Cyrus.

Ancient historians

Of the ancient Greek authors, Herodotus, about a hundred years after Cyrus, is the historian who transmits the earliest account, which is also preserved in its entirety. Therefore, he is the main Greek source about the life of Cyrus. He already knew various legends about the Persian king, for example, both about his youthful years and the circumstances of his death. Therefore, among the versions available to him, he chose the variant that seemed to him “most probable”.

The embellishing elements already partially adopted by Herodotus developed even more pronouncedly in later historians. This is especially true of Xenophon”s politically motivated work Education of Cyrus. But also the extensive representations of the historian Ktesias of Knidos about the history of the Persians in his Persika, which reports in the volumes 7-11 about Kyros, but today only exists in fragment form in excerpts of the Byzantine patriarch Photios, are regarded by the research as doubtful and difficult to verify.

A detailed excerpt by Nicolaos of Damascus deals with the youth and early rise of the Persian king. In a text-critical analysis, the ancient historian Richard Laqueur contradicted the generally held view, represented among others by Felix Jacoby, that this account handed down by Nikolaos of Damascus is a pure excerpt from Ktesias. Rather, Laqueur assumes that Nikolaos worked two sources into each other: The main source was a Lydian author, perhaps Xanthos, who held a similarly positive view of Cyrus as Herodotus and celebrated him as a noble hero. The view of the secondary source used by Nikolaos, which Laqueur identifies with Ktesias, was completely different: The Greek historian, who had lived so long in the Persian court, had characterized the founder of the Persian empire as a person of low descent who had acted completely independently and had been guided and finally elevated to the throne only by the help of others. According to this analysis, Ctesias gave an extremely negative portrait of Cyrus and all the points of contact of Herodotus” account with Nicolaos were based on the latter”s Lydian source. It is possible that Herodotus” narrative is of Lydian origin, only he did not preserve this source as purely as Xanthos.

The Babylonian historian Berossos is to be counted among the sources that contain mostly reliable accounts, e.g. also in the short preserved excerpt that reports about the conquest of Babylon. Fragments of the Alexander historians also report about the tomb of Cyrus.

Finally, Cyrus plays a prominent role in the Bible “as the liberator” of the Jewish people from the Babylonian exile and is portrayed accordingly.

The ancient historians Ktesias of Knidos and Plutarch translated the name Kyros with “sun” (Kur-u). In addition, there was an attempt to make an extension to “like the sun”, since a reference to the Indo-European word root “khor” and the suffix “-vash” was established. However, this translation is rejected in the meantime by the modern research.

The interpretation is still controversial. Among other things, a derivation from the Vedic language using “Ku, ru-” to “young man or child” is considered. Linguists such as Karl Hoffmann and Rüdiger Schmitt, for example, translate the name as “gracious ruler over the enemiesRuler with the gracious judgment over the enemies”.

Herodotus” information about the lineage of Cyrus is confirmed by the inscription of Cyrus” father. According to this, the Persian king was a son of Cambyses I and grandson of Cyrus I. According to Herodotus, Cyrus” mother was Mandane, the daughter of Astyages, under whose suzerainty Cyrus” father Cambyses I was king of Anshan. Astyages was at this time the authoritative army commander with the Median ruler title. That Astyages was the maternal grandfather of Cyrus, however, cannot be proven by cuneiform finds. Ctesias disputed the statements of Herodotus and named another genealogy of the parents of the Persian king, who had not been a king”s son, but the son of a robber and a goat-herder. These data prove however by comparison with the inscriptions as wrong. Obviously Ktesias tried to disparage the founder of the Persian Empire with a deliberate falsification of history and therefore let him descend from lowly parents. Also his entire further report about the youth of Kyros represents this in extremely unfavorable light. On the other hand, Herodotus” report that Astyages, warned by a dream, recognized a danger in little Cyrus and therefore wanted to have him killed, but that the infant was instead raised without the ruler”s knowledge by a shepherd living in the distant mountains, whose wife gave birth to a dead child who is said to have been secretly exchanged for Cyrus, and thus saved, is also an unhistorical legend based on older Mesopotamian models. Since no further cuneiform information exists about Kyros” early years, one must state that nothing is known about it.

From the Cylinder inscription, the Nabonaid Chronicle, and another cuneiform text, it can be inferred that Cyrus succeeded his father Cambyses I as king of Anshan around 559 BCE as a regional member of the Medean Confederacy.

Cyrus saw himself as a descendant of Teispes and referred to himself accordingly as “Teispide”. The later change of the genealogy by Darius I and the assignment of Achaimenes as the founder of the dynasty served to substantiate his claims to the throne. Today, however, it is doubted by the majority that the Teispids as ancestors of Kyros were actually related to the Achaemenid ancestors of Darius I. Accordingly, Kyros was not an Achaemenid. Accordingly, Cyrus was not an Achaemenid.

The cuneiform tradition begins only with the war between the Persian king and Astyages.

The disputes between Cyrus and Astyages are described in two cuneiform texts. Babylon knew neither the designation Media nor the king”s name Astyages and used, as also e.g. in the Sippar Cylinder, the Babylonian terms “king Ištumegu from Umman-Manda” (“somewhere-there-land”). The god Marduk told Nabonid in a dream that Ištumegu was defeated by the militarily much weaker Cyrus, captured, and carried off to his kingdom of Anshan. The text about the war against Astyages in the Nabonid Chronicle is difficult to read due to damage, but the following supplementary news could be translated: The Median army rebelled against Astyages and delivered him to Cyrus, who then entered the Median capital Agamtanu (Ekbatana) and had the riches of the city taken to Anshan. This fits somewhat with Herodotus” account that a courtier named Harpagos, who is said to have once failed to carry out Astyages” order of killing little Cyrus and to have been punished for it by killing his own son, went over to Cyrus, so that the Mede king personally led his army into the next battle, but was defeated and taken prisoner. Herodotus” account should correctly confirm that Cyrus had a powerful aide in Astyages” military staff. But whether his name was Harpagos must remain open.

According to the Nabonid Chronicle, the fall of Astyages took place in 550 BC in Nabonid”s sixth year of reign. In the inscriptions of the Sippar Cylinder, Nabonid”s third year of reign is described as the “awakening of Cyrus,” who marched against Astyages with an army. The apparently temporal contradiction shows that the Mederfeldzug of Kyros was noted afterwards and was shifted into the third reign year of the Babylonian king, in order to avoid a temporal overlap with the Tayma stay, which finds no special mention in the other report of the Sippar cylinder.

The background shows the tendency writing of the Kyrosoracle, which was created later as a subsequent prophecy (vaticinium ex eventu). Nabonid expressed concern about the siege of Harran by the Medes, who thus made an immediate rebuilding of the temple of Ehulhul in 555 BC impossible. In response, the moon god Sin prophesied to the Babylonian king “that the Medes, their land and kings, and all allies will soon be destroyed at the hands of another king.” Nabonid moved the year of the promise to 553 B.C., in his third year of reign, to feign a timely start of construction. The Marduk priesthood, hostile to the Babylonian king, had cited Sin”s “wrath” as the reason in its invective, which led to the “divine expulsion of Nabonid to Tayma,” with which Sin wanted to punish the Babylonian king”s failure with regard to sacred duties.

The probable sequence of events that emerges from this information is that the overthrow of Astyages took place in partial steps and that Cyrus led individual campaigns against the other partners of Astyages over several years, which began in the year 553 B.C. in the region of Harran. The final takeover of the Mede confederation by the Persians is therefore mostly dated to 550 BC.

The novelistic account of Nicolaos of Damascus, relying on Ctesias, mentions the cuneiform details that Cyrus invaded the enemy capital and seized its treasures; a point omitted by Herodotus. According to another fragment of Ctesias, Cyrus installed the overcome Astyages as ruler in Hyrcania on the Caspian Sea.

Cyrus later resided in at least two capitals. Ekbatana (roughly corresponding to Hamadan today), conquered by the Medes, was used in the summer months. As a new metropolis followed the construction of Pasargadae in the Persis; allegedly on the site of his victory over Astyages. After completion he held court there in winter.

Median Principalities

After the capture of Ekbatana without a fight in 550 BC, Cyrus began subjugating the principalities and regions that had formerly belonged to the Median Confederacy, beginning in 549 BC. These probably included Parthia and areas south of Lake Urmia in the Zāgros Mountains.

Based on reports by Greek historians, researchers previously assumed that Cyrus began his military expansions as a vassal of Astyages. Archaeological excavations and new cuneiform evaluations of the neighboring countries lead to the conclusion that the Achaemenids were not subjects of the Medes: “The Achaemenids were at no time in a Median dependency relationship, but took over from the Medes a well-functioning administrative and military apparatus”.


The spreading of the year 547. B.C. for the beginning of the Lydian war took place under the assumption that the reading of Smith from the year 1924 with “Lu-u-” was correct. However, doubts arose about this translation as it progressed. The historians Grayson and Hinz did not exclude “Su” and “Zu” as the first syllables and moved the campaign to Palmyra. In 1977 Cargill came to the conclusion that a reading as “Lydia” was little probable and Kyros was busy with campaigns in the Median core area until the years 543542 B.C.; Zadok doubted in 1985 also in this connection the earlier reading of Smith, since the usual spelling of Lydia was in “Lu-u-du”.

New research in 1996-2004 resulted in the reconstruction of the damaged fragment: “Ituguana KURU-k”, where the name “Uraštu” is the cuneiform short form of Urartu.

Accurate evaluations of the campaigns additionally prove that the Euphrates route for ventures into the regions of Tabal, near Lydia, always passed through Karkemiš. However, the military campaign in 547 BC took Cyrus via the Urartu route of Arrapcha, Erbil, Nisibis, Mardin and Tur Abdin. Since Nabonaid mentioned the station of Erbil, it can be safely assumed that Cyrus took the usual route and at the same time the territory of Babylon for the passage.

An appointment of the Lydian campaign for 541 BC is supported by the Nabonaid Chronicle. Cyrus first sent messengers to the regents of the Greek cities of Asia Minor from the Lydian king Croesus, asking them to submit to his rule. For the most part, the order was not obeyed. The Lydian king, informed of the Persian king”s activities, feared, not unreasonably, an advance of Cyrus into his country and concluded an alliance with Egypt and Babylon, which, however, could not have taken place before Nabonaid”s return in 542 BC. After the subsequent questioning of the Oracle of Delphi (Which is said to have spoken, “If Croesus attacks the Persians, he will destroy a mighty empire.” respectively, “If you cross the Halys, you will destroy a great empire”), Croesus ordered the mobilization of his army.

War against Lydia

Then the king of Lydia crossed the border to Cappadocia, conquered the fortress of Pteria and awaited the Persian army east of the Halys. This soon approached under the leadership of Cyrus. After a long battle at Pteria did not bring a decision, Croesus retreated to Sardis. He dismissed his troops to winter quarters, apparently expecting no further fighting. Anticipating the continuation of military hostilities the next spring, Croesus hoped for military support from his allies Egypt and Babylon. A call for help to Sparta included the request for further troop units.

Aware of this situation, Cyrus ordered his army units to march in rapid succession to Lydia. The Persian king acted with short decision, attacked the capital Sardis and defeated the Lydian cavalry at the city gates. A two-week siege followed, which was ended by renewed attacks and the storming of the stronghold of Sardis probably in 541 BC.

In the sources there is disagreement about the further fate of Croesus. According to the Greek chronicler Eusebius of Caesarea, he was killed by Cyrus II. According to Bacchylides, Croesus wanted to be burned at the stake with his family before Cyrus” arrival, but Zeus extinguished the fire and carried them away. In contrast, according to Herodotus, Cyrus II initially wanted to have the king of Lydia burned at the stake, but then regretted it, had the flames extinguished and used him as an advisor in the future. Occasionally, the conclusion was drawn from this that Croesus had already placed himself on the pyre for self-immolation when the victors arrived, but was prevented from this act by Cyrus.

Subjugation of Asia Minor

After the defeat of Croesus, the Greek cities of Asia Minor were ready to submit to the Persians on condition that Cyrus would confirm the privileges they had enjoyed under the rule of the king of Lydia. However, Cyrus had not forgotten the princes” refusal at the beginning of the confrontation with Croesus to support his campaign militarily and now dismissed their messengers with contempt. Probably for this reason, during the following rebellion in 540 B.C., the cities of Asia Minor behaved loyally toward Paktyes, the Lydean appointed by Cyrus as treasurer. Paktyes had previously been ordered by the Persian king to collect and deliver the Lydian gold, but instead forwarded the gold to the Greek coastal cities to finance the rebellions.

Harpagos had been promoted to commander of Cyrus for his services. Now, together with Mazares, he was able to quickly suppress the rebellion and punish Paktyes. Revenge campaigns against the Greek allies of the rebel ensued. Mazares sacked Priene and enslaved its most distinguished citizens. He then proceeded similarly with Magnesia on the Meander. Soon after, Mazares died. He was succeeded by Harpagos, who subjugated Smyrna, Phocaea and subsequently all the mainland Ionians, who from then on had to support him in his further campaigns.

The Carians surrendered almost without a fight, with the exception of Pedasa. The inhabitants of the Lycian city of Xanthos are said to have fallen to the last man in the battle against Harpagos” troops, having previously burned their families and treasures.

Only Miletus was spared and allowed to retain some independence because it had helped Cyrus against Croesus and had not supported the rebellion against the Persians.

War against Babylon

A precise reconstruction of Nabonaid”s return in 542 B.C. in the 14th year of his reign from his exile in Tayma cannot be made for lack of cuneiform evidence. More certain knowledge exists about the activities in the run-up to Kyros, who fueled the tensions between Nabonaid and the Marduk priesthood by making promises of help to Nabonaid”s opponents and offering himself as an alternative government. In the meantime, Nabonaid initiated defensive measures for Babylon, which were intensified in March 539 B.C. by bringing home the statue of Ishtar from Uruk. Initial incursions by Cyrus into areas of Babylon in the spring of 539 B.C., carried out by the Persian king in the Gutium region, prompted Nabonaid to transfer additional statues of the gods to Babylon as reinforcements. In doing so, the Babylonian king acted according to ancient Mesopotamian beliefs, as the gods bestow their blessings on whoever is in possession of their images. Later, Cyrus reversed this action of Nabonaid by claiming that the Babylonian king had had the images brought to Babylon against the will of the gods and had thus incurred their wrath.

For his part, Cyrus, with an alliance of Persians, Medes and other tribes, passed through the province of Sagartia on his way back over the Rewanduz Pass, about 66 kilometers northeast of Erbil, which he occupied without a fight after the Persian king had concluded a military alliance with the Sagartian prince Ugbaru and assured him of the satrap position in Babylon. The attack campaign on Babylon was launched from there in September across the Diyala River to Opis on the Tigris, some 400 kilometers away. At this fortress, located at the eastern end of the so-called “Median Wall”, the battle was decided very quickly, and the Babylonian Empire was defeated by the Persian-Median alliance. After the following massacre of the Babylonian prisoners, the last strategic fortress of Sippar was taken without opposition. Cyrus now attempted to place Nabonaid, who had fled in the meantime. The Nabonaid Chronicle gives a detailed account of what happened:

After Ugbaru”s entry into the city without a fight on October 6, 539 BC, Nabonaid was captured in Babylon, according to the Nabonaid Chronicle. Cyrus, who had sent Ugbaru ahead to Babylon, did not enter Babylon himself until 17 days later on October 23. According to the account of the Nabonaid Chronicle, reed branches were spread for the Persian king when he announced peace for the whole country upon his arrival.

Even before the Babylonian New Year, which was to be celebrated in the month of Nisanu in 538 B.C., Cyrus, with a view to the short period of time remaining, left Babylon and had his decree proclaimed at Ekbatana.

Ugbaru was appointed satrap of the land of Babylon as agreed, appointed provincial governors now subject to him, and confirmed Nabû-ahhe-bullit in his former office as commander of Babylon City. In accordance with the proclamation in Cyrus” decree, the homecoming of the “gods of Akkad” brought to Babylon by Nabonaid took place during the months of Kislimu to Adaru.

The Persian king, unlike his predecessor Nabonaid, respected Marduk as the supreme god of Babylon, whose cultic worship he had to renew and confirm. Without divine legitimation by Marduk, an appointment as Babylonian king would have been unthinkable, which took place on March 21, 538 B.C. by the Babylonian prescribed protocol of “seizing the hands of Marduk.” For closer ties to the newly emerged Persian Empire, the Persian king not only promoted the Marduk priests, but also left other important officials of Nabonaid in their positions. This strategically clever behavior and the non-existent Babylonian army meant that there were initially no uprisings in Babylon, so that the entire territories of the conquered empire, e.g. Palestine, now fell to the Persian king after he received the royal insignia.

The chronicle gives no information about the whereabouts of Nabonaid, but his execution is to be regarded as probable, since the reports about the following actions of Kyros hardly allow another interpretation. After the coronation, the Persian king ordered the demolition, or rather the burning, of all Nabonaid”s buildings. Writings, which had Nabonaid to the contents, met the same determination like also statues and pictures of him. The last statements about Nabonaid end in the “strophic poem” with the words: “Everything that Nabonaid had created in his life was scattered as ashes by the wind in all directions.”

According to Xenophon, Ugbaru (Gobryas) and another defector, both of whom had been mistreated by the Babylonian king, entered the palace the very night after the Persians entered Babylon and killed the king they hated. According to Berossos, however, Nabonaid surrendered in Borsippa, was pardoned by Cyrus and was allowed to spend his old age in Carmania. Abydenos reported that Nabonaid also became regent of Carmania.

Ugbaru died on October 18, 538 B.C. about a year after Cyrus entered Babylon, who subsequently appointed his son Cambyses II as his successor and gave him the title “King of Babylon. The Persian king, after giving the title to his son, himself retained the superior rank of “King of the Lands.” suffered the same fate as Ugbaru a few months later and died on March 28, 537 B.C., immediately before the Babylonian New Year, the main official celebrations of which began on April 5, after the ordered seven-day state mourning, with the Babylonian king required to be present. Cambyses II, apparently unfamiliar with Babylonian protocol, appeared in army dress to greet the Babylonian deities, causing an éclat that snubbed and offended the priesthood. Probably because of this, Cambyses II had to hand over his office soon after to his successor Gobryas, who was officially listed in the Babylonian chronicle as satrap of “Babylon and the Trans-Euphrates” from 536 BC.

Only a few cuneiform sources exist on the economic and administrative policies pursued by Cyrus. Nabonid had already begun to change the infrastructure and to distribute it among several pillars. The Babylonian king used his stay in Tayma to build up a widely ramified trade network, which Cyrus took over and further intensified after the conquest of Babylonia. However, the Persian king avoided bringing about fundamental theological changes.

Administratively, the Persian king appointed “commissioners” to take care of domestic affairs in the newly established administrative districts. Phoenicia was cooperative with Cyrus, but remained independent. Through the Phoenician fleet, Persia now also advanced to become a major naval power. Under Darius I, a fundamental division of the regions into provinces followed only later, since Cyrus was mainly occupied with the campaigns in the eastern provinces.

Eastern Persian Provinces

Since Babylon initially kept quiet in the next few years and the Asia Minor countries were militarily dominated by Cyrus, he now turned his attention to the provinces east of Elam and, after 539 BC, undertook several campaigns in the following years. He first subdued Bactria in 538 B.C.; then Gandhara, Sogdia and Khorezmia. Over the Chaiber pass Kyros reached further and further east, so also up to Sattagydien and the Indus. Finally he reached the area at the Yachša-Arta (Jaxartes), which lay far in the northeast of the old-Iranian language area.

The Persian king could not completely subjugate the nomadic Saks and Massagets living there and had several fortresses, such as Kurushata, built for protection. The construction of these fortresses apparently did not bring about lasting pacification, as minor uprisings by the local tribes were reported time and again.

Cyrus in the Bible

Little is known about Cyrus” personal religious beliefs. From the Bible”s explanations, the impression is gained that the Persian king imposed no restrictions on other faiths, such as Judaism.

Thus Cyrus is mentioned positively in 2 Chr 36,22 EU, Ezra 1,1 ff. EU as well as Isaiah (44,28 EU and 45 EU) positively mentioned and compared with a “Messiah” who “by the revival of his spirit” enabled the return of Jewish parts of the population from the Babylonian exile. In addition, the Persian king is said to have received the order to “build YHWH a house in Jerusalem”.

The historical evidence suggests that Cyrus probably continued the religious practices of the Assyrians and Babylonians, if Nabonaid”s short-term switch to monolatry is disregarded. There is no evidence for restrictions on traditional and individual religious practice in the private sphere. The order to build the temple in Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Edict of Cyrus and first appears in Xenophon”s novel The Education of Cyrus, written about 160-180 years after the edict.

The biblical tradition therefore interprets the statements of the generally granted possibility of returning to the homelands and the tolerance of private faith theologically from a retrospective point of view at a time when the temple building and other measures had long since been completed.

Religious Policy

However, Cyrus, while apparently respecting individual faiths in other countries, consistently curtailed the powers of larger temples in the conquered states in order to weaken their sphere of power and influence. First, state subsidies for temple maintenance were eliminated and a tax payment was imposed. In addition, services had to be rendered to the Achaemenids.

The office of the royal commissioner was created for the control and administration of the temples. New constructions and extensions of the temples had to be financed from the royal reserves. The financial contributions that had previously been made by the respective states and provinces were abolished without replacement.

The financial aid granted by Cyrus for the construction of the Jerusalem temple and the tax exemption of the priests, according to the biblical account (cf. Book of Ezra chapters 6:9 ff. and 7:20 ff.), contradict these decrees.

Cyrus and Zoroastrianism

Attempts to connect Cyrus with Zoroastrianism are mostly based on the reports of ancient historians regarding the Cyrus tomb equipment and on conclusions from the present state of the last resting place of the Persian king. The main reason against the statement that already Cyrus adopted the religion of Ahuramazda is the missing name of the Persian king in documents of the Zoroastrians.

It was not until the reign of Darius I, beginning in 521 B.C., that the Behistun inscription attests to the Zoroastrian faith. The depiction in Naqsh-e Rostam shows him with a golden crown around which a cloth diadem is wrapped. Opposite, Ahuramazda is seen in the winged sun disk as the manifestation of the mitre.

The only completely proven connection of Kyros to the Avestan faith is the name of his daughter Atossa. However, this circumstance raises the question whether the Persian king or his wife Cassandane were responsible for the name assignment. Evidence of Cyrus himself as a sympathizer of Zoroastrianism is completely missing. At least at the present time there is no evidence for an active role of Kyros to Ahuramazda, so that the answer to these questions must remain open.

In August 530 B.C. Cyrus died during another campaign against a nomadic tribe on the eastern border of his empire. Herodotus, Ctesias of Knidos and Berossos give different accounts of the exact circumstances of his death, while Xenophon differs completely. According to Herodotus, the Persian king probably died during a campaign against the Massagets, although he initially won by trickery against the king”s son Spargapises, who therefore took his own life. In the decisive battle, however, Kyros was defeated by Queen Tomyris and was mortally wounded. The victress had the fallen Kyros” head cut off in revenge and had him put into a blood-filled tube.

According to Ctesias of Knidos, the Persian king last waged war against the Derbians, who were reinforced by Indian contingents with elephants. During the battle, Cyrus was thrown from his horse and suffered a spear thrust in his thigh. Although neither side could decide the bloody battle, the Persians received reinforcements from additional contingents and won the next battle with a loss of 11,000 men, while the Derbics suffered 30,000 casualties, including their king Amoraios. Three days after his injury, however, Cyrus also died of his wounds. Only Ctesias mentions the transfer of his body to Persia for burial. Alexander the Great was shown the alleged tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadai in 330 BC. A small building located near it, called the “Tomb of Solomon”s Mother,” is often identified with the tomb of Cyrus described below.

The Babylonian historian Berossos says that Cyrus died in a battle in the plain of Daas. Historically refuted is the statement of Xenophon in his Kyros novel Education of Kyros that the Persian king died peacefully like a Greek philosopher.

At the request of Alexander the Great, who admired Cyrus, Aristobulus of Cassandreia twice visited the last resting place of the great Persian king at Pasargadai. Both Arrian and Strabon included his description in their works; both authors differ from each other only minimally.

After that, the rectangular tomb was located in a large garden, was built at the base of solid stone ashlars and had a burial chamber above with a narrow entrance. In it were a table with jars, a gold sarcophagus in which the body of Cyrus had once been buried, a bier, and magnificent clothes and jewelry. Nearby on the ascent to the tomb stood a hut for its guardians, the magers. A Persian inscription adorned the tomb: “O man, I am Cyrus, who established the rule of the Persians, Asia”s king! Do not envy me this monument!” After the first visit of Aristobulus, the tomb was robbed. Now he had it restored and walled up.

A similar text of the inscription is also given by the biographer Plutarch, who incidentally only briefly reports on the tomb and only generally states Persia as its location.

The so-called “Tomb of Mother Solomon” (Mašhad-e Madar-e Solayman), a small stone monument known to Europeans since the 16th century about 1 km southwest of Pasargadai, was first identified with the Kyros Tomb by Morier in 1809 because of its similarity to Aristobulus” description. This view remains largely undisputed today. In the early 13th century, the building was converted into a mosque.

The Kyros tomb is a rectangular, small building with a sloping roof and a very small door (139 cm high and 78 cm wide), to which a staircase used to lead. It stands on six almost square stone slabs tapering upwards, the lowest of which is about 13 m long and 12 m wide. The building itself measures approximately 6 m in length and 5 m in width, and houses an empty room about 3 × 2 m in size. The total height of the tomb is estimated at 11 m. The inscription mentioned by Aristobulus is missing. A 50 m long and 40 m wide rectangular wall used to enclose the tomb. Artistic traditions of the peoples subjugated by the Persians were incorporated in this construction. The stepped base resembles a Babylonian ziggurat, while the structure of the cella has Greek Ionic stylistic elements.

Legends about Cyrus” youth

Very early on, a predominantly positive image of the Persian empire”s founder was drawn and his life was transfigured by numerous legends. Especially about the early years of Kyros there were various imaginative versions:

According to Herodotus, the king of the Medes Astyages had two dreams that pointed to his downfall at the hands of his daughter Mandane”s son. He therefore ordered his confidant Harpagos to kill the newborn Kyros. However, Harpagos did not carry out the order, but instructed the shepherd Mithradates to abandon the infant in the mountains. Mithradates, however, did not obey Harpagos” order and raised the infant Kyros with his wife.

When Kyros was ten years old, he was playfully appointed king by the village children and had one of the boys flogged for being insubordinate. His father, a distinguished Mede, complained to Astyages, who therefore summoned those concerned and learned at the following meeting that his grandson was still alive. Reassured by his soothsayers, he did nothing against young Kyros, but had the son of Harpagos killed. Later, the grieving father incited the adolescent Kyros against Astyages, which was to lead to his overthrow.

The detailed report of Nicolaos of Damascus, which probably goes back essentially to Ctesias, reads completely differently and should discredit the Persian king completely. According to this report, Cyrus was the son of the poor robber Atradates from the tribe of the Martens and the goat-herder Argoste. After arrival at the court of Astyages in young years he had to perform first as a palace sweeper lowest work. He is even said to have been whipped and only slowly rose higher in the hierarchy through his services. Finally, he inherited the great fortune of a chief cupbearer, who also recommended him to the king. Thus he gained the favor of Astyages and significant influence.

His mother, whom he sent for, told him about a dream she had had when she was pregnant. This dream is unmistakably similar to the first one of Astyages in Herodotus. A Babylonian interpreted it as a sign that Cyrus would become king. The Cadusians were then planning a revolt against the Medes without the consent of their king Onaphernes. Astyages sent Kyros as an envoy to Onaphernes, who on the way met a man named Hoibares, whom he made his companion on the advice of the Babylonian. The three men returned to the Median royal court after completing the legation and plotted to overthrow it. Hoibares, however, eliminated the Babylonian dream interpreter to have one less confidant.

Meanwhile, at his son”s beckoning, Atradates prepared to fight Astyages. Soon after, Cyrus left the court of the Medes to visit his father. The song of one of his singers alerted Astyages to the plans for overthrow, as it told of a mighty lion releasing a boar to freedom. The boar”s powers grew until he was finally able to defeat the stronger lion. Astyages immediately related this fable to his relationship with Cyrus and now tried to have him brought back to his court alive or dead. Since this plan failed, it came between Astyages and Kyros to the military confrontation for the throne of the Mederreich. From here on, however, the fragment of Nikolaos breaks off and we learn only brief details from the end of the war through Photios” excerpt from Ktesias.

The documentation of the Greek historians also includes the traditional ideological claims of the Persians to Media and also Lydia. The legends surrounding Mandane were modeled on Mesopotamian originals, e.g. Sargon of Akkad, and, with Iranian imprinting, attest to the later esteem in which Cyrus was held as the charismatic founder of the ancient Persian world empire.

The image of Kyros from antiquity to the Middle Ages

Aeschylus called Cyrus a peace-loving king who acted very prudently. Xenophon wrote about the Persian king around 360 BC the eight-volume monograph Education of Cyrus, but after modern examination it became clear that this work wanted to portray an ideal king in novel form and the historical facts were imaginatively interpreted and adapted. The philosopher Aristotle characterized Cyrus as a benefactor who brought freedom to the peoples.

Negative aspects of Cyrus” person and politics were pushed into the background. According to Herodotus, the ancient Persians called him their “father” and apparently revered him greatly. It was probably not by chance that Xenophon chose him in his novel as a model for an ideal king. Accordingly, the Greek historian reports that even in his time, songs and legends about Cyrus were still circulating among the Persians.

The positive portrayal in the vast majority of ancient literature continued to have an effect into the Middle Ages. The Judeo-Christian tradition interpreted the Median king”s dream of the vine as foreshadowing the birth of a king destined to be the liberator of the Jewish people from Babylonian exile. According to the 14th century Speculum humanae salvationis, Cyrus” birth was prefiguring that of Mary, who would give birth to the “Messiah of mankind.”

Modern scientific assessment

The United Nations published the inscription of the Edict of Cyrus in all official UN languages in 1971, calling it the “first charter of human rights” at the initiative of the Iranian government. This was done without neutral examination of the historical background. To date, the UN has not commented on critical questions related to the propagandistic purpose of the text. The construction of a connection with the modern concept of human rights, which did not exist at the time of Cyrus, is not accepted by historians, because such an approach is unhistorical and does not do justice to the reality of that time. For example, the ancient historian Josef Wiesehöfer disagrees with unscientific accounts that describe Cyrus as a king “who brought human rights ideas into circulation.” As a self-representation of the ruler, the inscription is one-sided. Propagandistic purposes are also served by fake translations circulating on the Internet, in which Kyros even advocates minimum wage and asylum rights.

The publication of the inscription by the UN in 1971 was connected with the jubilee celebrations “for the 2500th anniversary of the Empire of Iran”, which were celebrated in Iran with great effort by the government of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi at that time. The Shah attached great importance to continuing the ancient Persian tradition. German Iranian studies dedicated a commemorative publication to the occasion, with words of introduction by the German president and chancellor, among others. In fact, however, the figure of 2500 years did not refer to a (fictitious) year of the founding of the empire, as was claimed by the Iranian side and also by German well-wishers, but to the fact that Cyrus had died two and a half millennia ago. In accordance with the occasion, the appreciation of Kyros in the Festschrift by the Göttingen Iranian scholar Prof. Walther Hinz was extremely positive. The printing of the Festschrift was financed by funds from German industry, the German Foreign Office and the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations.

From the perspective of modern research, Cyrus appears to be an exceptionally capable ruler who achieved his foreign policy goals through skillful use of leverage and enticement. His successful strategy enabled him to create the first great Persian empire from a modest inherited territory in just three decades. It is therefore not surprising that numerous legends and glorifications of Cyrus soon began to circulate, both in his empire and elsewhere. In the process, materials from Mesopotamian myths were merged with mythical material of Persian origin.


The tale of Pantheia – who, according to Xenophon, was the wife of an enemy of Cyrus, fell into the hands of the Persian king and, despite her beauty, was not touched by him – found its way into works by the Italian poet Matteo Bandello and the English author William Painter in the 16th century; the German playwright Hans Sachs also created some poems based on this motif. The Frenchmen Pierre Mainfray (Cyrus triomphant, 1628) and Antoine Danchet (Cyrus, 1706) treated the youth of Cyrus dramatically. The most extensive novel (13,000 pages) about the Persian king was written by the French writer Madeleine de Scudéry (Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, 1649-1653). In order to obtain a post with the Prussian ruler Frederick the Great, the German poet Christoph Martin Wieland called the monarch a New Cyrus in his Golden Mirror (1772).

Performing arts

Since the Speculum humanae salvationis, which emphasized the king”s religious significance, was widely disseminated in ecclesiastical circles, many pictorial representations of the Kyros theme were inspired in churches and monasteries, such as stained-glass windows at the Ebsdorf monastery near Uelzen. The work of the Count of Lucena (1470), written for the Burgundian Duke Charles the Bold and based on Xenophon”s Education of Cyrus, is the source of four tapestries found in Notre-Dame in Beaune. The American painter Benjamin West also draws on Xenophon for a painting (1773, London) for the British King George III, in which Cyrus generously forgives an Armenian king he had beaten. The Persian king appears before the throne of Astyages in the painting by J. Victor (1640, Oldenburg). The motif of little Kyros suckled by a bitch is brought by a portrait by Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (c. 1655, Dublin). How noble Kyros behaved towards the beautiful Pantheia is depicted in a fresco by the Italian painter Pietro da Cortona (164142, Florence, Palazzo Pitti).


Since the 17th century, musical works, mainly operas, also dealt with the Cyrus theme. Antonio Bertali, for example, wrote the divertimento Il Ciro crescente (1661). To the libretto by G. C. Sorentino, Francesco Cavalli, among others, wrote the opera Il Ciro (1654). Operas by Tomaso Albinoni (Ciro, 1709) and Antonio Lotti (Ciro in Babilonia, 1716), for example, were based on the text by Pietro Pariati. Settings of the libretto Ciro riconosciuto by Pietro Metastasio were created by Baldassare Galuppi (1737), Niccolò Jommelli (1744) and Johann Adolph Hasse (1751). Gioachino Rossini composed the opera Ciro in Babilonia (1812) to the text by Francesco Aventi.

Individual examinations


  1. Kyros II.
  2. Cyrus the Great
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