Cyrus II (Kūruš in Old Persian) founded the Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Once ruler of an insignificant city, he overthrew his Median overlords and established the greatest empire of its time. Cyrus is revered in Iran and is the Hebrew Bible’s only non-Jewish messiah. Like his admirer Alexander the Great, who would conquer his empire, Cyrus was among the greatest rulers of the ancient world. Unlike Alexander, his empire outlasted him by two hundred years.
When Cyrus was born, four powers ruled the known world:
- Median Empire (Iran)
- Babylonian Empire (Iraq and the Levant)
- Lydia (Turkey)
According to Herodotus, who wrote the oldest account on Cyrus’s life, King Astyages of Media had a daughter called Mandane who married his vassal the king of Persia. One day Astyages had a disturbing dream: Mandane urinating over the world. The court magi interpreted it as prophecy. Her child would overthrow Astyages and destroy his empire. When Mandane gave birth to a son, the king dispatched his commander Harpagus to kill him. Unwilling to murder a baby, however, Harpagus gave the infant to a shepherd couple and presented their stillborn baby to the king instead. Years later Cyrus, now king of Persia, rebelled against Astyages. Harpagus defected to him and Cyrus overthrew his grandfather and seized his empire.
Cyrus then invaded Babylon. After defeating its unpopular king, he entered the city peacefully and portrayed himself not as a conqueror but a saviour restoring legitimate rule. Cyrus allowed the captive people of Babylon to return to their respective homelands, declaring so in the famous Cyrus Cylinder (below), which Iranians claim to be the first declaration of human rights.
Hearing of this upstart king, Croesus of Lydia consulted the Oracle of Delphi, at least according to Herodotus. The oracle told him that if he goes to war with Persia, a great empire will fall. Croesus sent his armies against Cyrus, only to find the empire that fell was his own.
Cyrus ruled his empire indirectly. The Persians were far more merciful and less imposing than the Babylonians and Assyrians who went before them. Cyrus often spared his enemies; he retired Astyages to a summer house and made Croesus a leading advisor.
So revered was Cyrus, that for centuries later, Persia’s male beauty standards were based on one’s resemblance to him.
Scholars disagree on Cyrus’s fate. Herodotus claims he died fighting Tamyris of the Massagetai, a barbarian queen to the east. Other accounts claim he died peacefully in his capital. His tomb still stands in modern-day Iran. Though the inscription has faded away, Strabo recorded it saying:
Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians an empire and was king of Asia. Begrudge me not, therefore, this monument.
Since the early 2000s, thousands of Iranians gather at his tomb to celebrate ‘Cyrus the Great Day’ every October 29th, the day Cyrus entered Babylon. Iran’s government does not recognise or condone the event.
Xenophon’s ‘Cyropaedia’ depicts Cyrus as an ideal ruler all others should emulate. Its fans included Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Machiavelli, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.
Cyrus promoted religious freedom. Although likely Zoroastrian himself, he portrayed himself as chosen by the gods of all his subjects, be it Ahura Mazda, Marduk or Yahweh and patronised temples across his empire. Cyrus ended the Jews’ 70 year ‘Babylonian Exile’ and helped rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Of this ‘Second Temple,’ only the Western Wall stands today and is the religion’s holiest site. The Persian king’s decrees ensured the Jews did not assimilate into mainstream Babylonian culture. Without Cyrus’s intervention, there might be no Judaism, no Christianity or Islam today.