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Cyrus or Cyrus the Elder or the Elder Cyrus

THE ELDER (Κῦρος παλαιός or πρὁτερος), the founder of the Persian empire. Κῦρος. The life of this prince is one of the most important portions of ancient history, both on account of the magnitude of the empire which he founded, and because it forms the epoch at which sacred and profane history become connected: but it is also one of the most difficult, not only from the almost total want of contemporary historians, but also from the fables and romances with which it was overlaid in ancient times, and from the perverseness of modern writers, of the stamp of Rollin and Hales, who have followed the guidance, not of the laws of historical evidence, but of their own notions of the right interpretation of Scripture. Herodotus, within a century after the time of Cyrus, found his history embellished by those of the Persians who wished to make it more imposing (οἱ Βουλόμενοι σεμνοῦν τὰ περὶ Κῦρον), and had to make his choice between four different stories, out of which he professes to have selected the account given by those who wished to tell the truth (τὸν ἐόντα λέγειν λόγον, 1.95). Nevertheless his narrative is evidently founded to some extent on fabulous tales. The authorities of Ctesias, even the royal archives, were doubtless corrupted in a similar manner, besides the accumulation of errors during another half century. Xenophon does not pretend, what some modern writers have pretended for him, that his Cyropaedeia is anything more than an historical romance. In such a work it is always impossible to separate the framework of true history from the fiction: and even if we could do this, we should have gained but little. Much reliance is placed on the sources of information which Xenophon possessed in the camp of the younger Cyrus. No idea can be more fallacious; for what sort of stories would be current there, except the fables which Herodotus censures, but which would readily and alone pass for true in the camp of a prince who doubtless delighted to hear nothing but what was good of the great ancestor whose name he bore, and whose fame he aspired to emulate ? And even if Xenophon was aware of the falsity of these tales, he was justified, as a writer of fiction, in using them for his purpose. Xenophon is set up against Herodotus. The comparative value of their authority, in point of time, character, and means of information, is a question which, by itself, could never have been decided by a sober-minded man, except in favour of Herodotus. But it is thought that the account of Xenophon is more consistent with Scripture than that of Herodotus. This is a hasty assumption, and in truth the scriptural allusions to the time of Cyrus are so brief, that they can only be interpreted by the help of other authorities. In the accounts of the modern Persian writers it is impossible to separate the truth from the falsehood.

The account of Herodotus is as follows: In the year B. C. 594, Astyages succeeded his father, Cyaxares, as king of Media. He had a daughter whom he named Mandane. In consequence of a dream, which seemed to portend that her offspring should be master of Asia, he married her to a Persian named Cambyses, of a good house, but of a quiet temper. A second dream led him to send for his daughter, when she was pregnant; and upon her giving birth to a son, Astyages committed it to Harpagus, his most confidential attendant, with orders to kill it. Harpagus, moved with pity, and fearing the revenge of Mandane, instead of killing the child himself, gave it to a herdsman of Astyages named Mitradates, who was to expose it, and to satisfy Harpagus of its death. But while the herdsman was in attendance on Astyages, his wife had brought forth a still-born child, which they substituted for the child of Mandane, who was reared as the son of the herdsman, but was not yet called Cyrus. The name he bore seems from a passage of Strabo (xv. p.729) to have been Agradates, Ἀγραδάτης. When he was ten years old, his true parentage was discovered by the following incident. In the sports of his village, the boys chose him for their king, and he ordered them all exactly as was done by the Median king. One of the boys, the son of a noble Median named Artembares, disobeyed his commands, and Cyrus caused him to be severely scourged. Artembares complained to Astyages, who sent for Cyrus, in whose person and courage he discovered his daughter's son. The herdsman and Harpagus, being summoned before the king, told him the truth. Astyages forgave the herdsman, but revenged himself on Harpagus by serving up to him at a banquet the flesh of his own son, with other circumstances of the most refined cruelty. As to his grandson, by the advice of the Magians, who assured him that his dreams were fulfilled by the boy's having been a king in sport, and that he had nothing more to fear from him, he sent him back to his parents in Persia.

When Cyrus grew up towards manhood, and shewed himself the most courageous and amiable of his fellows, Harpagus, who had concealed a truly oriental desire of revenge under the mask of most profound submission to his master's will, sent presents to Cyrus, and ingratiated himself with him. Among the Medians it was easy for Harpagus to form a party in favour of Cyrus, for the tyranny of Astyages had made him odious. Having organized his conspiracy, Harpagus sent a letter secretly to Cyrus, inciting him to take revenge upon Astyages, and promising that the Medes should desert to him. Cyrus called together the Persians, and having, by an ingenious practical lesson, excited them to revolt from the Median supremacy, he was chosen as their leader. Upon hearing of this, Astyages summoned Cyrus, who replied that he would come to him sooner than Astyages himself would wish. Astyages armed the Medes, but was so infatuated (Δευβλαβὴς ἐών) as to give the command to Harpagus, " forgetting," says Herodotus, " how he had treated him." In the battle which ensued, some of the Medes deserted to Cyrus, and the main body of the army fled of their own accord. Astyages, having impaled the Magians who had deceived him, armed the youths and old men who were left in the city, led them out to fight the Persians, and was defeated and taken prisoner, after a reign of 35 year, in B. C. 559. The Medes accepted Cyrus for their king, and thus the supremacy which they had held passed to the Persians. Cyrus treated Astyages well, and kept him with him till his death. The date of the accession of Cyrus is fixed by the unanimous consent of the ancient chronologers. (African. apud Euseb. Praep. Evan. 10.10 ; Clinton, Fast. Hell. ii. s. a. 559.) It was probably at this time that Cyrus received that name, which is a Persian word (Kohr), signifying the Sun.

In the interval during which we hear nothing certain of Cyrus, he was doubtless employed in consolidating his newly-acquired empire. Indeed there are some notices (though not in Herodotus) from which we may infer that a few of the cities of Media refused to submit to him, and that he only reduced them to obedience after a long and obstinate resistance (Xen. Anab. 3.4.7.)

The gradual consolidation and extension of the Persian empire during this period is also stated incidentally by Herodotus in introducing his account of the conquest of Lydia, which is the next event recorded in the life of Cyrus. It took place in 546 B. C. [CROESUS]

The Ionian and Aeolian colonies of Asia Minor now sent ambassadors to Cyrus, offering to submit to him on the same terms as they had obtained from Croesus. But Cyrus, who had in vain invited the Ionians to revolt from Croesus at the beginning of the war, gave them to understand, by a significant fable, that they must prepare for the worst. With the Milesians alone he made an alliance on the terms they offered. The other Ionian states fortified their cities, assembled at the Panionium, and, with the Aeolians, sent to Sparta for assistance. The Lacedaemonians refused to assist them, but sent Cyrus a message threatening him with their displeasure if he should meddle with the Greek cities. Having sent back a contemptuous answer to this message, Cyrus returned to the Median capital, Ecbatana, taking Croesus with him, and committing the government of Sardis to a Persian, named Tabalus. He himself was eager to attempt the conquest of Babylon, the Bactrian nation, the Sacae, and the Egyptians. He had no sooner left Asia Minor than a revolt of the states which had lately formed the Lydian empire was raised by Pactyes, a Persian; but, after a long and obstinate resistance, the whole of Asia Minor was reduced by Harpagus. [HARPAGUS ; PACTYAS.] In the mean time, Cyrus was engaged in subduing the nations of Upper Asia, and particularly Assyria, which since the destruction of Ninus had Babylon for its capital. Its king was Labynetus, the Belshazzar of Daniel. [LABYNETUS.] Cyrus marched against Babylon at the head of a large army, and in great state. He carried with him a most abundant supply of provisions for his table; and for his drink the water of the Choaspes, which flows by Susa, was carried in silver vessels. He passed the river Gyndes, a tributary of the Tigris, by diverting its water into a great number of rills, and arrived before Babylon in the second spring from the commencement of his expedition. Having defeated in battle the whole forces of the Babylonians, he laid siege to the city, and after a long time he took it by diverting the course of the Euphrates, which flowed through the midst of it, so that his soldiers entered Babylon by the bed of the river. So entirely unprepared were the Babylonians for this mode of attack, that they were engaged in revelry (ἐν εὐπαθείησι), and had left the gates which opened upon the river unguarded. This was in B. C. 538.

After Cyrus had subdued the Assyrians, he undertook the subjugation of the Massagetae, a people dwelling beyond the Araxes. Cyrus offered to marry Tomyris, the widowed queen of this people; but she refused the offer, saying that he wooed not her, but the kingdom of the Massagetae. The details of the war which followed may be read in Herodotus. It ended in the death of Cyrus in battle. Tomyris caused his corpse to be found among the slain, and having cut off the head, threw it into a bag filled with human blood, that he might satiate himself (she said) with blood. According to Herodotus, Cyrus had reigned 29 years. Other writers say 30. He was killed in B. C. 529. (Clinton, F. H. vol. ii. sub anno.)

The account of Ctesias differs considerably in some points from that of Herodotus. According to him, there was no relationship between Cyrus and Astyages. At the conquest of Media by Cyrus, Astyages fled to Ecbatana, and was there concealed by his daughter Amytis, and her husband, Spitamas, whom, with their children, Cyrus would have put to the torture, had not Astyages discovered himself. When he did so, he was put in fetters by Oebaras, but soon afterwards Cyrus himself set him free, honoured him as a father, and married his daughter Amytis, having put her husband to death for telling a falsehood. [ASTYAGES.] Ctesias also says, that Cyrus made war apon the Bactrians, who voluntarily submitted to him, when they heard of his reconciliation with Astyages and Amytis. He mentions a war with the Sacae, in which Cyrus was taken prisoner and ransomed. He gives a somewhat different account of the Lydian war. (Ctesias, Pers. 100.5; CROESUS.) Cyrus met with his death, according to Ctesias, by a wound received in battle with a nation called the Derbices, who were assisted by the Indians. Strabo also mentions the expedition against the Sacae, and says, that Cyrus was at first defeated but afterwards victorious. He also says, that Cyrus made an expedition into India, from which country he escaped with difficulty.

The chief points of difference between Xenophon and Herodotus are the following : Xenophon represents Cyrus as brought up at his grandfather's court, as serving in the Median army under his uncle Cyaxares, the son and successor of Astyages, of whom Herodotus and Ctesias know nothing ; as making war upon Babylon simply as the general of Cyaxares, who remained at home during the latter part of the Assyrian war, and permitted Cyrus to assume without opposition the power and state of an independent sovereign at Babylon; as marrying the daughter of Cyaxares; and at length dying quietly in his bed, after a sage and Socratic discourse to his children and friends. The Lydian war of Cyrus is represented by Xenophon as a sort of episode in the Assyrian war, occasioned by the help which Croesus had given to the Assyrians in the first campaign of Cyrus against them.

Diodorus agrees for the most part with Herodotus ; but he says, that Cyrus was taken prisoner by the Scythian queen (evidently meaning Tomyris), and that she crucified or impaled him.

Other variations, not worth specifying, are given by the chronographers and compilers.

To form a complete and consistent life of Cyrus out of these statements is obviously impossible ; but the leading events of his public life are made out with tolerable certainty, namely, the dethronement of Astyages, the conquest of the Lydian and Assyrian empires, his schemes to become master of all Asia and of Egypt, and his death in a battle with one of the Asiatic tribes which he wished to subdue. His acquisition of the Median empire was rather a revolution than a conquest. Herodotus expressly states, that Cyrus had a large party among the Medes before his rebellion, and that, after the defeat of Astyages, the nation voluntarily received him as their king. This was very natural, for besides the harshness of the government of Astyages, Cyrus was the next heir to the throne, the Medes were effeminate, and the Persians were hardy. The kingdom remained, as before, the united kingdom of "the Medes and Persians," with the difference, that the supremacy was transferred from the former to the latter; and then in process of time it came to be generally called the Persian empire, though the kings and their people were still, even down to the time of Alexander, often spoken of as Medes. If Cyrus had quietly succeeded to the throne, in virtue of his being the grandson of the Median king Astyages, it seems difficult to account for this change. The mere fact of Cyrus's father being a Persian is hardly enough to explain it.

With regard to the order of Cyrus's conquests in Asia, there seems much confusion. It is clear that there was a struggle for supremacy between Cyrus and the king of Babylon, the latter having become master of Mesopotamia and Syria by the conquests of Nebuchadnezzar. It was in fact a struggle between the Zend tribes, which formed the Medo-Persian empire, and the Semitic tribes under the king of Babylon, for the supremacy of Asia. We can scarcely determine whether Cyrus conquered Lydia before making any attack on Babylon, and perhaps in this matter Xenophon may have preserved something like the true succession of events. That Croesus was in alliance with Babylon is stated also by Herodotus, who however, makes Croesus entirely the aggressor in the Lydian war. No clear account can be given of his campaigns in Central Asia, but the object of them was evidently to subdue the whole of Asia as far as the Indus.

With respect to the main points of difference between Herodotus and the Cyropaedeia, besides what has been said above of the historical value of Xenophon's book, if it could be viewed as a history at all, its real design is the great thing to be kept in view; and that design is stated by Xenophon himself with sufficient clearness. He wished to shew that the government of men is not so difficult as is commonly supposed, provided that the ruler be wise; and to illustrate this he holds forth the example of Cyrus, whom he endows with all virtue, courage, and wisdom, and whose conduct is meant for a practical illustration and his discourses for an exposition of the maxims of the Socratic philosophy, so far as Xenophon was capable of understanding it. Of course it would not have done to have represented this beau ideal of a philosophic king as the dethroner of his own grandfather, as the true Asiatic despot and conqueror, and as the victim of his own ambitious schemes. It seems incredible that any one should rise from the perusal of the Cyropaedeia without the firm conviction that it is a romance, and, moreover, that its author never meant it to be taken for anything else; and still more incredible is it that any one should have recognized in the picture of Xenophon the verisimilitude of an Asiatic conqueror in the sixth century before Christ. That Cyrus was a great man, is proved by the empire he established; that he was a good man, according to the virtues of his age and country, we need not doubt; but if we would seek further for his likeness, we must assuredly look rather at Genghis Khan or Timour than at the Cyrus of Xenophon.

It has, however, been supposed, that the statement of Xenophon about Cyaxares II. is confirmed by Scripture; for that Dareius the Mede, who, according to Daniel, reigns after the taking of Babylon (for two years, according to the chronologers) and before the first year of Cyrus, can be no other (this is the utmost that can be asserted) than Cyaxares II. This matter seems susceptible of a better explanation than it has yet received.

1. Xenophon's Cyaxares is the son of Astyages; Dareius the Mede is the son of Ahasuerus. Now, it is almost beyond a doubt that Ahasuerus is the Hebrew form of the Persian name or title which the Greeks called Xerxes, and Cyaxares seems to be simply the form of the same word used in the Median dialect. Cyaxares, the son of Phraortes, is called Ahasuerus in Tobit 14.15. It is granted that this argument is not decisive, but, so far as it goes, it is against the identification.

2. After the taking of Babylon, Dareius the Mede receives the kingdom, and exercises all the functions of royalty, with great power and splendour, evidently at Babylon. But in Xenophon it is Cyrus who does this, and Cyaxares never comes near Babylon at all after its capture, but remains in Media, totally eclipsed and almost superseded by Cyrus. There are other arguments which seem to shew clearly that, whoever Dareius the Mede may have been (a point difficult enough to decide), he was not the Cyaxares of Xenophon. The matter cannot be further discussed here; but the result of a most careful examination of it is, that in some important points the statements of Xenophon cannot be reconciled with those of Daniel; and that a much more probable explanation is, that Dareius was a noble Median, who held the sovereignty as the viceroy of Cyrus, until the latter found it convenient to fix his court at Babylon; and there are some indications on which a conjecture might be founded that this viceroy was Astyages. It is quite natural that the year in which Cyrus began to reign in person at Babylon should be reckoned (as it is by the Hebrew writers) the first year of his reign over the whole empire. This view is confirmed by the fact, that in the prophecies of the destruction of Babylon it is Cyrus, and not any Median king, that is spoken of. Regarding this difficulty, then, as capable of being explained, it remains that Xenophon's statement about Cyaxares II. is entirely unsupported. Xenophon seems to have introduced Cyaxares simply as a foil to set off the virtues of Cyrus. In the passage of Aeschylus, which is sometimes quoted as confirming Xenophon [ASTYAGES], the two kings before Cyrus are clearly Phraortes and Cyaxares, or Cyaxares and Astyages. At all events, no room is left for Cyaxares II. The most natural explanation seems to be, that Phraortes, in whose reign the Persians were subjected to the Medes, and who was therefore the first king of the united Medes and Persians, is meant in the line

Μῆδος γὰρ ἦν πρῶτος ἡγεμὼν στρατοῦ

The next line admirably describes Cyaxares, who took Ninus, and consolidated the empire.

Ἄλλος δ᾽ εκείνου παῖς τόδ᾽ ἔργον ἤνυσε

If so, Astyages is omitted, probably because he did not complete his reign, but was dethroned by Cyrus, who is thus reckoned the third Medo-Persian king, Τρίτος δ᾽ ἀπ̓ αὐτοῦ Κῦρος. For the ἀπ̓ αὐτοῦ surely refers to the person who is called πρῶτος. On the other hand, the account which Herodotus gives of the transference of the Median empire to the Persians is in substance confirmed by Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, Anaximenes, Dinon, Ctesias, Amyntas, Strabo, Cephalion, Justin, Plutarch, Polyaenus, and even by Xenophon himself in the Anabasis, as above quoted. (See Clinton, i. pp. 262, 263.) Much light would be thrown on the subject if the date of Cyrus's birth could be fixt; but this is impossible. Dinon says, that he was seventy at his death; but this is improbable for various reasons, and Herodotus evidently considered him much younger.

None but the sacred writers mention the edict of Cyrus for the return of the Jews. A motive for that step may be perhaps found in what Herodotus says about his designs on Egypt. The very remarkable prophecy relating to the destruction of Babylon and the restoration of the Jews by Cyrus is in Isaiah xliv. xlv., besides other important passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah, which predict the fall of Babylon without mentioning the name of Cyrus, and the corresponding history is in the books of Daniel, Ezra, and 2 Chron. 36.22, 23. The language of the proclamation of Cyrus, as recorded both in Ezra 1.2 and Chron. 36.22, seems to countenance the idea that he was acquainted, as he might easily be through Daniel, with the prophecy of Isaiah. "The Lord God of heaven... hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah" (compare Isaiah 44.28, 45.13); but beyond this one point there is nothing to sustain the notion of Hales and others, that Cyrus was more than an unconscious instrument in accomplishing the designs of Providence. The contrary is intimated in Isaiah 45.5.

In the East Cyrus was long regarded as the greatest hero of antiquity, and hence the fables by which his history is obscured. The Persians remembered him as a father (Hdt. 3.89, 160), and his fame passed, through the Greeks, to the Europeans, and the classical writers abound with allusions to him. His sepulchre at Pasargadae was visited by Alexander the Great. (Arrian, 6.29; Plut. Alex. 69.) Pasargadae is said to have been built on the spot where Cyrus placed his camp when he defeated Astyages, and in its immediate neighbourhood the city of Persepolis grew up. The tomb of Cyrus has perished, but his name is found on monuments at Murghab, north of Persepolis, which place, indeed, some antiquarians take for Pasargadae. (Herodotus, lib. i.; Ctesias, ed. Lion; Xenophon, Cyropaedeia; Diodorus; Justin; Strabo; and other ancient authors; Clinton, Fast. Hell. i. ii. supplements; Heeren, Ideen (Asiatic Researches) ; Schlosser, Univ. Geschich. d. alt. Welt; Höckh, Vet. Med. et Pers. Monum.)


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  • Cross-references from this page (4):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.160
    • Herodotus, Histories, 3.89
    • Xenophon, Anabasis, 3.4.7
    • Plutarch, Alexander, 69
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