Cyrus II of Persia

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Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae
Tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae

Cyrus II the Great (circa 576 - July, 529 BC) was a king of Persia, famous for both his military prowess and his mercy. The first king to be referred to as "The Great", he is considered to be the first significant king of Persia and the founder of the vast Persian Empire. He was, however, not the first king of Persia, nor the first king of the Achaemenid Dynasty.



The name "Cyrus" (a Latin transliteration of the Greek Κύρος) is the Greek version of the Old Persian Koroush or Khorvash, meaning "like the sun"—in Persian khour means "sun" and vash is a suffix of similarity. In modern Persian, Cyrus is referred to as کوروش کبیر (Kouroush Kabeer—his native Persian name with the Arabic-derived word for "Great").

Cyrus's ancestors of the Achaemenid Dynasty had for several generations ruled the kingdom of Anshan, in what is now southwestern Iran. Cyrus had two sons: Cambyses and Smerdis, as well as several daughters, of whom Atossa is significant in the eyes of posterity, since she married Darius I of Persia and was mother of Xerxes I of Persia.

Missing image
Reconstruction of the Tomb of Cyrus the Great

The king of Persia

In 559 BC, Cyrus succeeded his father Cambyses the Elder as King of Anshan. He apparently also soon managed to succeed Arsames in the throne of Persia though the latter was still living. Arsames was father to Hystaspes and would live to see his grandson become King Darius I of Persia. But by this point Cyrus II was not yet an independent ruler. Like his predecessors before him, Cyrus had to recognize Median overlordship.

Herodotus, in his Histories gives a detailed description of the rise to power of Cyrus, according to the best sources available to him. According to him, Cyrus was part-Persian (Parsua) and part Mede, and his overlord was his own grandfather Astyages, who had conquered all Assyrian kingdoms apart from Babylonia. After the birth of Cyrus, Astyages, having had a dream that his Magi interpreted as a sign of an eventual overthrow by his grandson, ordered his steward, Harpagus to kill the infant Cyrus. Harpagus, morally unable to kill a newborn, switched the baby with a stillborn child and reported Cyrus dead. Many years later, when Astyages discovered that his grandson to still alive, he ordered that the son of Harpagus to be beheaded, and then served to his father on a dinner platter. Harpagus, seeking vengeance, convinced Cyrus to rally the Persian people, who were then in a state of near-slavery beneath the Medes, to revolt c. 554 BC/ 553 BC and by 550 BC/ 549 BC. With the help of Harpagus, Cyrus led the Persians, as well as his armies, to the capture of Ecbatana, and effectively conquered Media. He at first seems to have accepted the crown of Media but by 546 BC had officially assumed the title of 'king of Persia'. Thus the Persians gained dominion over the Iranian plateau.

Cyrus's wars

Cyrus's wars had just begun. Astyages had been in alliance with his brother-in-law Croesus of Lydia, Nabonidus of Babylon and Amasis II of Egypt. They reportedly intended to unite their armies against Cyrus and his Persians. But before the allies could unite Cyrus had defeated Croesus at Pterium, occupied Sardis, overthrown the Lydian kingdom, and taken Croesus prisoner (546 BC). According to Herodotus, Cyrus spared the life of King Croesus and kept him as an advisor throughout his life. In 538 Cyrus defeated Nabonidus at Opis and occupied Babylon. According to the Babylonian inscription this was in all probability a bloodless victory. Cyrus assumed the title of 'king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akad, king of the four sides of the world'. From the list of countries subject to Persian rule given on the first tablet of the great Behistun Inscription of Darius, written before any new conquests could have been made except that of Egypt, the dominion of Cyrus must have comprised the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from Asia Minor and Palestine in the west to the Indus valley in the east.

Administration of the Empire

Cyrus organized the empire into provincial administrations called satrapies. The administrators of these provinces, called satraps, had considerable independence from the emperor, and from many parts of the realm Cyrus demanded no more than tribute and conscripts.

Cyrus issued a declaration, inscribed on a clay barrel known as Cyrus Charter of Human Rights. It was discovered in 1879 in Babylon and today is kept in the British Museum. Many historians have reviewed it as the first declaration of human rights.

Cyrus's Legacy

The Cyrus Cylinder: World's first charter of human rights

In the famous Cyrus Cylinder inscription, Cyrus the Great establishes the first charter of human rights, and designates his predecessors in the throne of this small kingdom. The founder of this dynasty was King Achaemenes (c. 700 BC) who was succeeded by his son Teispes of Anshan. Inscriptions indicate that when the latter died, two of his sons shared the throne as Cyrus I of Anshan and Ariaramnes of Persia. They were succeeded by their respective sons Cambyses I of Anshan and Arsames of Persia. Cambyses is considered by Herodotus and Ctesias to be of humble origin. But they also consider him as being married to Princess Mandane of Media (ماد), a daughter of Astyages, King of Media and Princess Aryenis of Lydia. Cyrus is the result of this union.

Dawn of empire-building

Cyrus died in battle, but his empire was to reach its zenith long after his death. According to Herodotus, Cyrus met his death in a battle with the Massagetae, a tribe from the southern deserts of Kharesm, Kizilhoum in the southern most portion of the steppe region. The queen of the Massagetae, Tomyris, prevailed after Cyrus previously defeated Tomyris's son Spargapises. The Massagetae were similar to the Scythians in their dress and mode of living; they fought on horseback and on foot. Ctesias reports that Cyrus met his death in the year 529, while warring against tribes northeast of the headwaters of the Tigris. He was buried in the town of Pasargadae. Both Strabo and Arrian give descriptions of his tomb, based upon reports of men who saw it at the time of Alexander's invasion. The tomb northeast of Persepolis (پرسپولیس), which has been claimed as that of Cyrus, is evidently not his, as its location does not fit the reports.

Cyrus was distinguished no less as statesman than as a soldier. His statesmanship came out particularly in his treatments of newly conquered peoples. By pursuing a policy of generosity, instead of repression, and by favoring the local religion, he was able to make his new subjects his enthusiastic supporters. A good example of this policy is found in his treatment of the Jews in Babylon.

Cyrus's spectacular conquests triggered the age of Empire Building, as carried out by his successors as well as the Greeks and Romans in the following centuries. His exploits, real and legendary, were used as moral instruction or a source of inspiration for political philosophies.

Cyrus's historical importance

The Cyropaedia of Xenophon, based on the latter's knowledge of the great king's upbringing, was an influential political treatise in ancient times, and again during the Renaissance.

The English philosopher Sir Thomas Browne named his 1658 discourse after the benevolent ruler. Entitled The Garden of Cyrus, it may well be a Royalist criticism upon the autocratic rule of Cromwell.

Cyrus was still being cited in the twenty-first century. In her accepting her 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, Shirin Ebadi said:

I am an Iranian. A descendant of Cyrus The Great. The very emperor who proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2500 years ago that "... he would not reign over the people if they did not wish it." And [he] promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus The Great is one of the most important documents that should be studied in the history of human rights.

See also

External links

da:Kyros 2. de:Kyros II. es:Ciro II el Grande fa:کوروش دوم fr:Cyrus II he:כורש nl:Cyrus II no:Kyros den store pl:Cyrus II Wielki pt:Ciro II da Prsia sl:Kir II. zh:居鲁士二世


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