Cyrus the Great: History, Facts, & Major Achievements

A son of Cambyses I, Cyrus the Great is most known for founding the Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire. During his almost three-decade rule, he successfully made the Persian Empire the greatest empire in the world up until that time.

In addition to being a great military general, Cyrus was said to be one of the first ancient rulers to protect the basic human rights and religious freedoms of his subjects. For example, following his conquest of the Babylonians, he is said to have come to the aid of the Jews living in Babylon, allowing them to return to Jerusalem.

What else was this Persian monarch most known for? Below, we explore the life, family tree, military campaigns, and major achievements of Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus the Great: Fast Facts

Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire

Cyrus the Great with a Hemhem crown, or four-winged Cherub tutelary divinity, from a relief in the residence of Cyrus in Pasagardae

Born: c. 590 BC or 580 BC

Place of birth: Media (in today’s Iran)

Died:  c. 529 BC

Place of death: Syr Darya, Central Asia

Burial: Pasargadae

Father: Cambyses I

Mother: Mandane of Media

Children: Cambyses II, Bardiya

Most known for: Founding the Achaemenian Empire

House: Achaemenian dynasty

Reign: 559-530 BC

Battles: Persian Revolt, Battle of Hyrba (552), Battle of Persian Border, Siege of Sardis, Battle of Opis (539), Battle of Thymbra, Battle of Pteria (547),

Successor: Cambyses II

Other names: Cyrus II, Cyrus II of Persia, Cyrus the Elder

Epithets and famous titles: King of Anshan, King of Persia, King of Media, King of the World, Great King, Mighty King, King of Babylon, King of the Four Corners of the World

Media or Persis

Just as Cyrus the Great’s year of birth has been up for debate, with the commonly held view that he was born between 590 BC and 580 BC, his place of birth is not conclusively known. Some authors claim that he was born in Persis (a place in modern day Fars Proncince, Iran), while others state that he was born in Media, a place that was under the rule of his grandfather, King Astyages.

Meaning of his name

The name “Cyrus” is generally regarded to be the Latinized form of the Greek name Kỹros, which in turn was derived from the Old Persian name Kūruš. According to ancient Greek historians Plutarch and Ctesias, Cyrus was named after the Sun (Kuros); that word in turn translates to “like the Sun” (Khurvash) in ancient Persian.

In some cases, his name has been interpreted to mean “humilator of the enemy in verbal contest”. In the Hebrew Bible, Cyrus the Great is called Koresh. Some historians have stated that his name was in fact an Elamite name, which means “he who bestows care” in the Elamite language.

To this day, historians have not been able to determine whether Cyrus’s name was his own personal name or the name that came with throne that he occupied. Those in favor of the latter argument state that his name was probably associated with the throne since the name does not show up in any literature following the demise of the Persian Empire in the 4th century BC. What is undoubtedly true is that Cyrus the Great was the second Persian ruler to have the name Cyrus. The first person to use the name Cyrus was his grandfather, Cyrus, king of Anshan.

Cyrus the Great’s Anshan family roots

According to an ancient Akkadian cuneiform text, Cyrus the Great was the son of an Anshan ruler by name of Cambyses, who in turn was the son of Cyrus, King of Anshan. All those three kings were believed to be the descendants of Teispes, an early Achaemenid Persian king and the son of Achaemenes (7th century BC), the ruler whose name was used for the dynasty and later the empire.

Located in the ancient territory of Elam (present day southwestern Iran), Anshan was a relatively prosperous and powerful state, even though it was a vassal state to the Median Empire. For many decades, the Median Empire held a reasonable amount of influence over Cyrus the Great’s ancestors, often times, securing this control through intermarriages.

Cyrus’s early life, according to ancient Greek historian Herodotus

In the mythical account, Astyages is said to have had dreams about his grandson removing him from power. To forestall those events, he took a series of decisions, including ordering the death of the baby Cyrus. | Image: -Median King Astyages’s dream (France, 15th century)

Although garnished with a bit of fiction, Greek historian Herodotus’ account of Cyrus the Great constitutes an important source into the early life of the Persian ruler. A quick look at Herodotus’ account of the early childhood of Cyrus, and one immediately realizes a theme that was used in stories of many founders of ancient dynasties in the Mesopotamian region.

According to Herodotus, King Astyages of Media married his daughter out to Cambyses of Anshan, a vassal state of Media. From the union between Cambyses and the daughter of Astyages came forth Cyrus. After a dream-like premonition, King Astyages began having palpable fear that his grandson Cyrus would one day march into his kingdom and overthrow him. Astyges ordered his closest advisor, General Harpagus, to kill the baby Cyrus; however, the king’s man simply could not carry out the order; instead he placed the baby Cyrus in the care of a village shepherd called Mithradates.

About a decade or so would pass, and Cyrus would begin to grow into his full potential. Although Astyages later discovered that Cyrus was still alive, he chose to do nothing. As fate would have it, Cyrus, upon inheriting his father’s Anshan throne, turned his army to Persis, capital city of Media, and overthrew his maternal grandfather King Astyages around 550 BC. The Persian king then incorporated the Median Empire into his Persian Kingdom.

How did Cyrus the Great die?

Tomb of Cyrus the Great located in Pasargadae, an archaeological site in the Fars Province of Iran. The tomb of Cyrus II of Persia was designed with an arched roof composed of a pyramidal shaped stone, and a small opening or window on the side.

The death of Cyrus the Great has been a subject for debate for many centuries due to the different accounts in the historical annals.

In Herodotus’s Histories, the Greek historian states that Cyrus the Great died during a military campaign on the eastern frontier while fighting the Massagetae along the Syr Darya in 530 BC. The Massagetae were a group of ancient Eastern Iranian nomadic tribes that formed a confederation in the steppes of Central Asia (modern day Turkmenistan, western Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan). Leading the Massagetae was Queen Tomyris.

According to Herodotus, Cyrus was drawn into an open confrontation with the Massagatae because he wanted to restore peace and order in his northern territories. Cyrus tried to sue for peace by proposing a marriage to Queen Tomyris, who blatantly rejected Cyrus’ offer. Tomyris then went ahead to warn the Persians against any invasion, stating that she would quench Cyrus’s thirst for war with his own blood.

Cyrus advanced regardless, first securing victory over an army of Massagatae that were led by Tomyris’ son and general, Spargapises. By drinking themselves into inebriation on the drink purposely left behind by Cyrus, General Spargapises and his Massagatae army stood no chance against Cyrus’ army. Spargapises was captured and later set free by Cyrus. However, the nature of his humiliating defeat at the hands of the Persians caused Spargapises to take his life.

Cyrus the Great’s death. Image: Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae receiving the head of Cyrus the Great. 1670–1672 painting.

Distraught by the death of her son, Queen Tamyris challenged Cyrus to a second battle. That time around, the Persians were completely defeated by Tamyris, who had Cyrus’ body badly mutilated. The Persian king was decapitated and then crucified. His head was then placed into a wineskin filled with human blood.

According to an account by Greek historian and physician Ctesias the Cnidian, Cyrus met his end while he tried to crush a resistance from a tribal group of people (the Derbices) around Hyrcania (modern-day Iran and Turkmenistan). Similarly, Hellenistic-era Babylonian writer and priest Berossus states that the Persian king died on the battlefield while fighting against the Dahaens in Syr Darya.

In Xenophon’s account (in Cyropaedia), Cyrus the Great died of natural causes in his palace in the ceremonial capital Persepolis.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great’s epitaph, according to Plutarch

Successors

Upon the death of Cyrus around 529/530 BC, his son and heir Cambyses II ascended to the Persian throne. Although Cambyses II, had a relatively shorter reign, compared to his father, he was still able to extend the territorial gains made by his father. For example, Cambyses II conquered Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Nubia. After ruling for about seven years, Cambyses II was succeeded by his brother Bardiya, who many regarded as an imposter pretending to be the real Bardiya. Imposter or not, Bardiya ruled for less than a year before he was overthrown by Darius the Great. To consolidate his position, Darius married the widow/sister of Cambyses II, Atossa.

Achaemenid Empire

The relief stone of Darius the Great in the Behistun Inscription

Legacy

To the ancient Persians, Cyrus the Great was an extremely important ruler, almost comparable to the same reverence Romans gave to the likes of Aeneas or Romulus and Remus, or Fatih Sultan Mehmed for the Ottomans.

In spite of being sworn enemies for many, many centuries, the Greeks held a strong liking to Cyrus the Great’s leadership style. This explains why Greek historians like Herodotus and Xenophon heaped high praises on Cyrus. As a matter of fact, the latter historian famously described Cyrus as the ideal ruler, and he entreated Greek leaders to take a page from Cyrus life and reign. His leadership style and military conquest undoubtedly had a huge influence on the Greeks and by extension the Romans.

After conquering the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great visited the tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae. A big admirer of the Persian ruler, Alexander the Great is said to have executed the soldiers that desecrated the tomb of Cyrus. The mighty Macedonian conqueror had taken a strong liking to the works of Cyrus the Great explained in Xenophon’s partly fictional book Cyropaedia (c. 370 BC). According to the Greek historian and military commander Arrian of Nicomedia, Alexander ordered his architect Aristobulus to renovate the interior of Cyrus’s tomb.

Other notable achievements of Cyrus the Great

In addition to founding the Achaemenian Empire, Cyrus accomplished a number of lofty things, including:

In administering his large empire, Cyrus used royal appointees called satraps (i.e. governors or viceroys). It’s been said that he had about 26 satraps. And unlike the Median Empire, the satraps were never kings, instead they were viceroys that ruled on behalf of Cyrus.

Cyrus the Great was one of the earliest rulers in ancient times to advocate human rights and religious freedoms. He was also known for his remarkable political skills and and military intelligence. It’s been widely stated that his rule and leadership style had tremendous influence on not just Eastern civilizations, but also Western civilizations.

In addition to coming out with one of the first human rights declaration, Cyrus made some form of attempts at outlawing slavery in his empire. During his rule, property and land laws were put in place to prevent unlawful seizure of property.

It is generally believed that cities like Pasagardae and Persepolis were built by Cyrus the Great of Persia. Cyrus went ahead and made the city of Pasagardae the political hub of the Persian Empire. His descendants, such as Darius I and Xerxes I, followed in his footsteps and took not just Pasagardae to new heights, but also the city of Persepolis. The later became the capital city of the empire during the reign of Darius the Great. It was one of the greatest cities in the world at the time.

The cultural, military and economic pillars that he erected allowed for his successors to expand the Persian Empire even further, to a point where the empire could boast of up to 30 million inhabitants living in a territory of more than 2.1 million square miles (5.5 million square kilometers). The empire would see more than a dozen rulers, and would last until the late 4th century BC, when it was overran by Alexander the Great of Macedon.

The Edict of Cyrus

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus Cylinder

Found on the cylinder seal, i.e. the Cyrus Cylinder, the Edict of Cyrus refers to a proclamation made by Cyrus the Great that granted permission and monetary incentives to Jewish communities that were for decades held bondage in Babylon to return to the Land of Israel (i.e. the Holy Land). Cyrus also gave them permission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.

Epithets and titles

Cyrus the Great has gone by many names over the centuries. He is sometimes called Cyrus II of Persia or simply Cyrus II. To the Greeks, he was known as Cyrus the Elder.

Due to the vast areas that he conquered, Cyrus the Great went by a number of epithets and titles, including King of Persia, King of Media, King of Kings, Great King, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World.

More Cyrus the Great facts

Cyrus the Great was praised by many ancient historians as one who respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. He did not deny the local customs after conquering the Neo-Babylonian Empire; rather he adhered to them.

  • Much of what we know about the life and major accomplishments of Cyrus the Great comes from the ancient Greek historians, most notably Xenophon, Ctesias, and  Herodotus. The latter’s account, which was written in the book titled History, has been said to contain a bit of fiction and mythical element to it.
  • According to Herodotus, Cyrus overthrew his grandfather King Astyages of the Median Empire before going ahead to incorporate the Median territories into his Persian lands.
  • Xenophon, a 4th-century BC Athenian-born soldier, historian and student of Socrates, described Cyrus as the ideal ruler. Many of the historian’s contemporaries gave a similar verdict of the Persian ruler. It  shows how much the Greeks respected the ancient Persian rulers like Cyrus the Great.
  • Parallels could be drawn between the Biblical story of Moses’ birth and early life and the mythical account of how the baby Cyrus was left in the custody of a shepherd.
  • Not much is known about the family life, i.e. wives and children, other than the fact that he had two sons, who went on to have distinguished roles in the empire after his death. The two sons were Cambyses and Bardiya. According to the historical accounts, Cambyses allegedly had Bardiya murdered after succeeding to the throne. It is also likely that Cambyses’ wife, Atossa, was in fact the daughter of Cyrus of the Great.
  • For reasons unknown to this day, Cyrus the Great never took his conquest to Egypt in Africa. His successors did however have a field day in the land of Egypt, so to speak. For example, Cambyses I, Cyrus’ son, conquered the Egyptians, becoming pharaoh of Egypt around 526 BC.
  • Cyrus’s presence in Central Asia is given a bit of credence due to the Greek names of cities such as Cyropolis.
  • In 1971, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Persia, celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Cyrus’ dynasty. Many have described the celebration as the shah’s attempt to legitimize his own rule. It was probably similar to what Alexander the Great did when he honored the legacy of Cyrus the Great following the conquest of Persia in the 4th century BC.
  • Cyrus the Great’s legacy remains hugely influential in modern day Iran. His tomb for example receives millions of visits every year.
  • Cyrus’s proclamation found on the Cyrus Cylinder is widely held as the oldest-known declaration of human rights. That assertion was shared by last Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

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