Through far-reaching military conquests and benevolent government, Cyrus the Great transformed a small group of semi-nomadic tribes into the mighty Persian Empire, the ancient world’s first superpower, in less than 15 years.
The Ascension of Cyrus the Great
Born around 600 BC. BC, the founder of the first Persian Empire (also called Achaemenid Empire) belonged to the semi-nomadic Pasargadae tribe, who raised sheep, goats and cattle in present-day southwestern Iran. Little is known about the youth or lineage of Cyrus the Great (also known as Cyrus II), except that he was part of the Achaemenid royal family by birth or marriage.
Five years after ascending the throne in 558 BC as a vassal king of the Median Empire (which controlled most of present-day Iran), Cyrus united the leaders of other Persian tribes and led a rebellion against the median king Astyages. With the help of a defecting Median general, Cyrus defeated the forces of Astyages at the Battle of Pasargadae and captured the capital of Ecbatana in 550 BC.
The once subjugated Persians had become the conquerors. Rather than seeking revenge, however, the ruler Cyrus showed leniency and restraint. He granted Astyages a princely retreat, kept Ecbatana intact as his summer capital, and gave midway nobles high positions in his court and army. But his mercy had its limits: he had Astyages’ son-in-law and grandchildren killed because he saw them as threats to his power.
Cyrus conquers Lydia, expanding his empire
The ascendancy of Cyrus troubled Croesus, the king of Lydia, who occupied the western half of present-day Turkey. Considering an attack on the rising power of now neighboring Persia, Croesus sent a messenger to consult the Greek oracle at Delphi. “If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire,” reported the medium of the gods.
Armed with the divine message, Croesus led a huge army across the Halys River and attacked the Persians in 547 BC. After an indecisive battle, Cyrus surprised the retreating Lydian forces by following them through the winter cold towards the capital of Sardis.
With his Persian forces outnumbered in the decisive Battle of Thymbra, Harpagus, the defecting Median general, mounted horsemen on the army’s camels and placed them at the front of the line of battle. The stench of the camels repelled the charging Lydian horses so much that they fled from the battlefield. Retreating inside the walls of Sardis, the Lydians finally surrendered after a Persian siege.
The oracle’s words to Croesus had turned out to be true. An empire had been destroyed, but it was his.
As with the Medes, Cyrus took a conciliatory approach towards the Lydians. He guarded the treasure at Sardis and brought Croesus into his court. He allowed the maintenance of local cultures, religions and laws, which helped him retain his new subjects. “Cyrus was able to quickly assimilate or take over the existing administrative structures of places he conquered, often leaving local elites in place,” says John WI Lee, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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The clemency of the king of Persia, however, was not absolute. When the aristocrats in charge of the Lydian treasury revolted, Cyrus had the rebels executed and their followers enslaved. General Harpagus followed the conquest of Lydia by brutally besieging the Greek colonies of Ionia, forcing many to migrate to Italy and abandon entire towns.
“There are many myths, both ancient and modern, about Cyrus as a benevolent ruler,” Lee says. “While Cyrus was certainly tolerant of local customs and religions and although he worked with local elites, contemporary records such as cuneiform tablets show that the Persian Empire, like all empires, focused on the extraction of wealth and labor power – including through slavery – from the people he conquered.
Persian forces bring about the fall of Babylon
As the Persian Empire grew, its army grew stronger. Cyrus developed an elite corps of mounted warriors who were skilled in shooting arrows from horseback and deployed chariots of war with blades attached to the wheels. “His troops seem to have been highly motivated and well trained, and Cyrus himself seems to have been an inspirational leader,” says Lee. “He seems to have been able to move his armies faster than the enemies anticipated, even in winter.”
After his army conquered the territories east of Persia, Cyrus set his sights on conquering the last remaining great power west of Asia, the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
In 539 BC. AD, Persian forces invaded the rich and fertile empire and routed the Babylonian army to capture the strategic city of Opis on the Tigris. A week later, the Persian army reached the walls of Babylon, the largest city in the ancient world, and captured it without a fight.
According to the Cylinder of Cyrus, a barrel-shaped piece of clay with Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions that was unearthed by British archaeologists in 1879, the Persian king entered Babylon triumphantly “in peace, amidst joy and jubilation”.
Shortly after the fall of Babylon, Cyrus freed the Babylonian Jews who had been forced into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar II after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 50 years earlier. Freed from their Babylonian exile, many returned to their spiritual home in Jerusalem. The Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament boasts of Cyrus as being “anointed” by God to “subdue the nations before him, and to strip kings of their armour.”
With the conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire expanded from the Aegean Sea in the west to the Indus River in the east. Cyrus had created one of the greatest empires the ancient world had ever seen and could boast (according to the Cyrus cylinder): “I am Cyrus, king of the universe.”
Cyrus dies, but the Persian Empire lives on
Little is known about the death of Cyrus, which occurred around 529 BC. According to some accounts, he died of a battlefield wound during a military campaign on the eastern frontier of the empire. His body was brought back to Pasargadae, placed in a golden sarcophagus and buried in a huge stone tomb facing the rising sun.
Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who continued to expand the borders of the empire by conquering another ancient civilization in Egypt. The Persian Empire remained prosperous and stable for two centuries until it fell in 330 BC to Alexander the Great.
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