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Cyrus the Great. Source: armin dara / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Cyrus the Great – Conqueror or Uber Human Rights Activist?

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Cyrus II of Persia (more commonly known as Cyrus the Great and called Cyrus the Elder by the ancient Greeks) was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Although there are various ancient sources for Cyrus’ life, one of the most important of these is Herodotus’ The Histories.

Initially, the Persians were vassals of the Median Empire. When Cyrus came to power, however, he successfully rebelled against the Medes and became the ruler of a new empire. Subsequently, Cyrus expanded the Achaemenid Empire through conquest.

Cyrus subjugated both the Lydian and Neo-Babylonian Empires, thereby forming the largest empire the world had seen up to that time. Cyrus died during a military campaign in the east and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II.

Cyrus’ Early Life

Cyrus is believed to have been born between 590 and 580 BC. The king’s paternal lineage can be found not only in the historical sources, but also on his own inscriptions. On the famous Cyrus Cylinder, for example, Cyrus refers to himself as the “son of Cambyses, the great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, king of Anshan”.

Front of the Cyrus Cylinder. (Prioryman / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Front of the Cyrus Cylinder. (Prioryman / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although such inscriptions are silent about Cyrus’ maternal lineage, this information may be found in historical sources. Herodotus, for instance, informs his readers that Cyrus’ mother was Mandane, the daughter of the last Median king, Astyages.

Herodotus also relates a legend surrounding Cyrus’ birth. According to the Greek historian, Astyages had two dreams before the birth of Cyrus. In the first, he dreamt that Mandane had “urinated so much that she not only filled his city, but even flooded the whole of Asia”. In the second, the king dreamt that “a vine grew from Mandane’s genitals and overshadowed the whole of Asia”.

The king described his dreams to some magi, who interpreted them to mean that “his daughter’s offspring would rule in his place”. Astyages, who was terrified of losing his throne to his grandson, decided to kill the child as soon as he was born, and the task was given to a relative of his called Harpagus. Instead of killing the baby himself, however, Harpagus gave the baby to a herdsman, who was supposed to expose the baby in the most remote part of the mountains.

King Astyages orders Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. (JarektUploadBot / Public Domain)

King Astyages orders Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. (JarektUploadBot / Public Domain)

The herdsman, convinced by his wife (who had just given birth to a stillborn child), chose not to do so. Instead, he ended up raising the child, with his wife, and brought the body of his stillborn baby to Harpagus as evidence that he had done the deed.

When Cyrus was 10 years old, his true identity was revealed. Although the king was still afraid that Cyrus would seize his throne, he believed, after consulting with his magi, that the prophecy had come to pass. Cyrus was chosen as ‘king’ during a game with the boys of his village and this was taken to be the fulfilment of the prophecy. Therefore, Astyages acknowledged Cyrus as his grandson and sent him back to his real parents.

Cyrus’ Rebellion Against Astyages

Astyages, however, was mistaken in his belief that the prophecy had been fulfilled. After the death of Cambyses in 559 BC, Cyrus became the new king of Anshan and the leader of the Persians. Some years later, between 554 and 553 BC, Cyrus instigated the Persians to rebel against the Medes. The rebellion was a success, thanks chiefly to the fact that Astyages had appointed Harpagus as the commander of the army sent to crush the rebellion.

Cyrus commands the rebellion. (Hohum / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cyrus commands the rebellion. (Hohum / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Harpagus, however, hated Astyages and bore a personal grudge against the king (according to Herodotus, he had been tricked into eating his own son as punishment for failing to kill the infant Cyrus). Therefore, when the Medes met the Persians in battle, “only some of them – those who were not privy to the conspiracy – began to fight, while others deserted to the Persians, and the majority deliberately fought below their best and fled”.

Astyages personally led another army against Cyrus but was defeated and captured. He was kept by Cyrus at his court for the rest of his life.

King Astyages in chains submitting to Cyrus the Great. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

King Astyages in chains submitting to Cyrus the Great. (पाटलिपुत्र / Public Domain)

Cyrus’ First Task as Ruler

Cyrus’ first task as ruler of an empire was to consolidate his position. As Cyrus had overthrown the Median Empire, all the areas that were once under the Medes were now under his control. These included Parthia and Hyrcania (both in modern day Iran) as well as the former Assyrian kingdoms that were conquered by the Medes.

Cyrus appointed satraps (governors) to rule these territories on his behalf, and he made use of both Median and Persian nobles in his administration. Once Cyrus had achieved internal stability within the empire, he was ready to turn his attention to extending its borders.

During the conflict between Cyrus and Astyages, one of the latter’s allies was Croesus, the ruler of Lydia, and his brother-in-law. Lydia was located in western Asia Minor (the western part of present-day Turkey), on the eastern borders of Cyrus’ empire. In 547 BC, the Lydians launched an attack on the Achaemenid Empire.

Herodotus reports that prior to his campaign against Cyrus, Croesus had sent emissaries to various oracles to test their wisdom. The king had prepared a question for the oracle and found that only the Pythia (known also as the Oracle of Delphi) and the Oracle of Amphiaraus, had answered it satisfactorily. Therefore, he sent a second embassy to both oracles to ask if he should invade Persia.

Both replied that “if he made war on the Persians, he would destroy a great empire, and they advised him to find out which was the most powerful Greek state and ally himself with it”. Croesus was pleased with this response, convinced that the ‘great empire’ referred to that of the Persians.

Croesus sent presents to the Delphians and consulted the oracle a third time. He asked whether his rule will last for a long time and the Pythia’s reply was as follows, “When a mule becomes Persian king, it is time, / Tender-footed Lydian, for you to flee beside the pebbly Hermus / Without delay, and without worrying about cowardice”. Believing that it would be impossible for a mule to ever sit on the Persian throne, Croesus was confident that he and his descendants would rule forever.

The Lydians and Persians set up their camps at Pteria, in Cappadocia, and a trial of strength between the two armies followed. Although both sides lost many men during the ensuing battle, neither side had won when the armies separated at nightfall. Croesus believed that he was not able to win due to the size of his army, which was smaller than that of Cyrus’.

Therefore, he decided to lead his men back to Sardis, the Lydian capital, when the Persians did not come out to engage his army the next day. Croesus’ plan was to attack the Persians again during the spring.

Therefore, he sent heralds to his allies, i.e. the Egyptians, Babylonian, and Lacedaemonians, informing them to assemble in Sardis in four months’ time. At the same time, he disbanded his army, and sent them home for the winter.

When Cyrus heard that Croesus had disbanded his army, he “realized that he had better march as quickly as possible on Sardis, before the Lydian forces could gather for the second time”. The Lydians and Persians fought on the plain in front of Sardis.

Herodotus notes that Cyrus was aware that the Lydian cavalry would be a great threat to his army during the battle, and adopted a tactic suggested to him by Harpagus. This involved turning the transport camels he had with him into fighting units and placed them at the head of his army to confront the Lydian cavalry, because “horses are afraid of camels and cannot stand either their sight or their smell”.

The Lydians lost the battle and Sardis was laid under siege. Fourteen days later, Cyrus captured Sardis and the city was sacked. In Herodotus’ account, Croesus was captured and brought before Cyrus, who built a huge funeral pyre for him.

Croesus (along with 14 Lydian boys) were forced to climb to the top of the pyre and Herodotus speculated that: “Perhaps he intended them to be a victory-offering for some god or other, or perhaps he wanted to fulfil a vow he made, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was a god-fearing man and he made him get up on the pyre because he wanted to see if any immortal being would rescue him from being burnt alive”.

Cyrus puts Croesus on the pyre. (Bibi Saint-Pol / Public Domain)

Cyrus puts Croesus on the pyre. (Bibi Saint-Pol / Public Domain)

Although the pyre was lit, Cyrus soon had a change of heart and wanted to save Croesus from the flames. By that time, however, the fire had burnt out of control and it was impossible to put it out.

Herodotus states that according to the Lydian account, Croesus prayed to Apollo, and “suddenly the clear, calm weather was replaced by gathering clouds; a storm broke, rain lashed down, and the pyre was extinguished”. Subsequently, Croesus became one of Cyrus’ advisors.

Cyrus’ Next Military Campaign

Cyrus’ next military campaign was launched against the Neo-Babylonian Empire. At that time, the Babylonian king was Nabonidus, known as Labynetus to the Greeks. In Herodotus’ account, the Babylonians fought a battle against the Persians, but were defeated, and retreated back to their city.

The Babylonians were confident that they could withstand the siege, since the city was protected by the Euphrates River. In addition, as the Babylonians were aware of Cyrus’ ambitions, “they had for many years been stockpiling food in the city”. In the end Cyrus decided to divert the river into a canal.

When the water level dropped to “more or less the middle of a man’s thigh”, the Persians were able to march through the riverbed at night, enter the city, and catch the defenders by surprise. Herodotus claims that according to local sources, “the city is so huge that the Babylonians living in the center were unaware of the capture of their compatriots from the edges of the city, and in fact, at the time of the city’s fall, were dancing and enjoying themselves, since it happened to be a holiday”.

A different version of the story, however, is found in the writings on the Cyrus Cylinder. On this famous artifact, Nabonidus is portrayed as a tyrant who had lost the favor of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon. Therefore, the god chose Cyrus to become the new king of Babylon.

Unlike Herodotus’ account, the Cyrus Cylinder claims that Babylon fell without a fight and that its people rejoiced at Cyrus’ arrival, “He made him enter his city Babylon without fighting or battle; he saved Babylon from hardship. He delivered Nabonidus, the king who did not revere him, into his hands. / All the people of Babylon, all the land of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors, bowed to him and kissed his feet. They rejoiced at his kingship and their faces shone. / Lord by whose aid the dead were revived and who had all been redeemed from hardship and difficulty, they greeted him with gladness and praised his name”.

Cyrus’ War Against the Massagetae

After the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus turned his attention to the east, desiring to conquer the Massagetae. This was a large tribe said to live beyond the Araxes River and were reputed for their prowess in battle. Cyrus first tried to conquer the Massagetae through trickery.

The tribe was ruled by a woman called Tomyris, since their leader, who was her husband, had died. Therefore, Cyrus sent a message to the queen expressing his desire to marry her. The queen, however, was aware of Cyrus’ intentions and rejected his marriage proposal.

As a result, Cyrus sought to subjugate the Massagetae through force of arms. Thanks to Croesus’ advice, Cyrus defeated a third of the Massagetae forces through deceit. Among the prisoners of war was Spargapises, Tomyris’ son.

When the queen heard of the news, she was furious and demanded that Cyrus return her son. In return, she would allow the Persians to leave her lands safely. On the other hand, if Cyrus refused to do so, she would take vengeance on him.

Cyrus ignored Tomyris’ message. Nevertheless, when Spargapises begged the king to release him from his chains, Cyrus granted his request. Once freed, however, Spargapises committed suicide. As a result, a battle was fought between the Persians and Massagetae, which Herodotus considers to be “the fiercest battle between non-Greeks there has ever been”.

The Persians lost the battle and Cyrus himself lost his life. According to Herodotus, “Tomyris filled a wineskin with human blood and searched among the Persian corpses for Cyrus’ body. When she found it, she shoved his head into the wineskin, and in her rage addressed his body as follows: “Although I have come through the battle alive and victorious, you have destroyed me by capturing my son with a trick. But I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall”. Herodotus admits that there are many stories told about Cyrus’ death, but he believes this to be the most trustworthy one.

Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae receiving the head of Cyrus the Great. (Mattes / Public Domain)

Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae receiving the head of Cyrus the Great. (Mattes / Public Domain)

Cyrus is remembered by many as a benevolent ruler. This positive view of the Achaemenid Empire’s founder was held not only in ancient times, but also in more recent times. It was thanks to the firm foundation laid by Cyrus that the Achaemenid Empire was able to last for more than 200 years.

Needless to say, Cyrus is considered to be a national hero by the Persians. In 1971, for instance, the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the monarchy by Cyrus was celebrated by Iran. In addition, Cyrus was also held in high esteem by the ancient Greeks, whom the Persians later came into conflict with.

This is most evident in Xenophon’s Cyropedia. In this work, which is a partially fictional biography of Cyrus, Xenophon presents Cyrus as a benevolent, righteous, and tolerant monarch. This work was widely read, and it has been claimed that the Constitution of the United States was influenced by Cyrus’ notions of human rights (as presented by Xenophon), as Thomas Jefferson owned two copies of this ancient text. Thus, Cyrus remains a relevant figure, even in the present day.

The tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire. (Túrelio / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire. (Túrelio / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top image: Cyrus the Great. Source: armin dara / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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