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Ancient Near East - Cyrus the Great

Updated: Sep 8, 2021


Cyrus the Great, succeeded to the Persian throne, specifically the Anshan Kingdom of the Achamenid Dynasty in 559 B.C., while his father, Cambyses I was still alive. His aging father would pass away 8 years later. Like his predecessors, Cyrus had to recognize Median overlordship. Astyages, the final king of the Median Empire, and possibly Cyrus' grandfather, most likely ruled over the majority of the Near East, from the Lydian frontier in the west to the Parthians and Persians in the east.

Cyrus' first great achievement was his conquest of Ecbatana, the Median capital, which he began in 553 B.C, when he rebelled against Astyages. In 550 B.C., Astyages marched against him with General Harpagus in charge of the forces. According to the Greek Historian Herodotus, Harpagus was a Median Nobleman, who secretly gained support from other Median rulers who were unhappy with Astyages' rule. When the Median and Persian armies met, Harpagus and other noblemen crossed over to Cyrus as planned. All historical sources agree that Cyrus spared Astyages' life.

According to the the Greek Historian Ctesias, Cyrus even adopted Astyages as his father in law and married his daughter, Amytis, presenting himself as rightful successor of Astyages as king of the Medes. This marriage pacified several vassals, including the Bactrians, Parthians, and Saka. Herodotus notes that Cyrus also subdued and incorporated Sogdia into the empire during his military campaigns of 546-539 B.C.

With Astyages out of power, all of his vassals (including many of Cyrus' relatives) were now under his command. His uncle Arsames, who had been king of the city-state Parsa under the Medes, retained his power as the governor of Parsa under Cyrus' authority, thus uniting the twin Archamenid Kingdoms of Parsa and Anshan into Persia proper.

After his victory over Astyages, Cyrus founded the city of Pasargadae on the site of the battle. Pasargadae would serve as the ceremonial capital until his son Cambyses II moved it to Susa. Later, Darius would found another at Persepolis. Pasargadae was never meant to house a large population. The city consisted of several monumental buildings spread out across the plain. Importantly, this site would later be the location for the tombs of Cyrus and his son Cambyses II.

Cyrus' tomb has six broad steps leading to the chamber which measures roughly 3x2x2 meters and has a low and narrow entrance. Though there is no firm evidence identifying the tomb as that of Cyrus, Greek historians say that Alexander believed it was. When Alexander looted and destroyed Persepolis, he paid a visit to the tomb of Cyrus. Arrian, writing in the 2nd century A.D., recorded that Alexander commanded Aristobulus, one of his close friends, to enter the monument. Inside, he found a golden bed, a table set with drinking vessels, an old coffin, some ornaments studded with precious stones, and an inscription on the tomb. No trace of any such inscription survives, although the historian Strabo reports that it read:

“Passer-by, I am Cyrus, who gave the Persians an empire, and was king

of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument.”

Today the tomb is empty with nothing inside. Pasargadae flourished only for a short time, with Persepolis replacing its grandeur in 515 B.C.

Cyrus conquered Lydia sometime between the fall of Ecbatana and the fall of Babylon. Herodotus claims Croesus, the famous king of Lydia, started the war by crossing the Halys River and sacking Pteria. Croesus was an ally and brother-in-law to Astyages, so upon hearing that Cyrus had deposed Astyages, he swore to avenge him. The two armies met near Pteria, but the battle ended in a stalemate. When Croesus decided to march his army home for the winter season, Cyrus pursued him into Lydia and confronted him a second time near Thymbra, close to the capital Sardis. Shortly before the battle, Harpagus advised Cyrus to place the camels in front of the army in order to scare the Lydian horses, who were not use to the camel's smell. The strategy worked and the Lydian cavalry was routed. The Persians won the battle and forced Croesus to retreat into the capital, which was taken only 14-days later. According to Herodotus, Cyrus spared Croesus' life and kept him as an advisor, however, this account is highly debated.

Before returning to Pasargadae, Cyrus put a Lydian named Pactyes in charge of Croesus' treasury. Pactyes' job was to send these treasures to Persia, but instead, he organized a revolt, hiring mercenaries. Cyrus sent his general Mazares to quell the rebellion and to conquer Asia Minor, but he died of unknown causes during his campaign in Ionia. Cyrus replaced him with harpagus who completed the conquest in 542 B.C., using the technique of building earthworks to breach the walls of besieged cities, a