Cyrus II

Definition

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published on 28 April 2011
Tomb of Cyrus the Great (Behrad18n)

Cyrus II (reign: 559-530 BCE), also known as Cyrus the Great, was the founder of the Persian empire. When he became king, Persia was a client state of the empire of the Medes. Cyrus revolted, conquered the Median capital Ecbatana and deposed the king of the Medes, Astyages. Throughout his reign he conquered Babylon, Lydia, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. The expansion of Persia brought wealth, which Cyrus used to construct the royal city of Pasargadae. Cyrus had a wife named Cassandane. She was an Achaemenian and daughter of Pharnaspes. From this marriage, Cyrus had four children: Cambyses II, Bardiya, Atossa, and another daughter whose name is not attested in ancient sources.

The best-known date for the birth of Cyrus is either 600-599 BCE or 576-575 BCE. Similar to other culture heroes and founders of great empires, folk traditions abound regarding his family background. According to Herodotus, he was the grandson of the Median king Astyages and was brought up by humble herding folk. Herodotus claims that when Cyrus was ten years old, it was obvious that Cyrus was not a herdsman's son, stating that his behavior was too noble. Astyages interviewed the boy and noticed that they resembled each other.

Though his father died in 551 BC, Cyrus had already succeeded to the throne in 559 BCE. However, Cyrus was not yet an independent ruler. Like his predecessors, Cyrus had to recognize Median overlordship. In 553 BC Cyrus rebelled against Astyages: He rallied the Persian people to revolt against their Median overlords. After severals battles he conquered the Median capital of Ecbatana in 549 BCE, effectively controlling the Median Empire. While Cyrus seems to have accepted the crown of Media, by 546 BCE, he officially assumed the title "King of Persia" instead.

Cyrus's conquest of Media was merely the start of his wars. Astyages had been allied with his brother-in-law Croesus of Lydia (son of Alyattes II), Nabonidus of Babylon, and Amasis II of Egypt. Around 547 BCE the Lydians first attacked the Achaemenid Empire's city of Pteria in Cappadocia. Cyrus levied an army and marched against the Lydians, increasing his numbers while passing through nations in his way. After the stalemate battle of Pteira, Cyrus moved on to the Lydian capital Sardis, where he routed the Lydian cavalry by placing dromedaries at the front of his battle lines. Cyrus occupied Sardis and had conquered the Lydian kingdom in 546 BCE. According to Herodotus, Cyrus spared Croesus' life and kept him as an advisor, but this account conflicts with some translations of the contemporary Nabonidus Chronicle, which interpret that the king of Lydia was slain.

Cyrus Cylinder
By the year 540 BCE, Cyrus captured Elam and its capital, Susa. Cyrus moved into Babylonia and fought the Battle of Opis in or near the strategic riverside city of Opis on the Tigris, north of Babylon. The Babylonian army was routed, and Cyrus conquered Babylon without any significant resistance. Herodotus explains that to accomplish this feat, the Persians diverted the Euphrates river into a canal so that the water level dropped "to the height of the middle of a man's thigh", which allowed the invading forces to march directly through the river bed to enter at night.

After taking Babylon, Cyrus proclaimed himself "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the world" in the famous Cyrus cylinder, an inscription deposited in the foundations of the Esagila temple dedicated to the chief Babylonian god, Marduk. The text of the cylinder denounces Nabonidus as impious and portrays the victorious Cyrus as pleasing to Marduk. It goes on to describe how Cyrus had improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples and restored temples and cult sanctuaries. Although some have asserted that the cylinder represents a form of human rights charter, historians generally portray it in the context of a long-standing Mesopotamian tradition of new rulers beginning their reigns with declarations of reforms.

The details of Cyrus's death can vary by account. The account of Herodotus from his Histories states that Cyrus met his fate in a fierce battle with Tomyris the queen of the Massagetae. An alternative account from Xenophon's Cyropaedia contradicts the others, claiming that Cyrus died peaceably at his capital. Cyrus' remains were interred in his capital city of Pasargadae, where today a tomb still exists which many believe to be his.



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