Who was Cyrus?
1. Genealogy of Cyrus
The son of the earlier Cambyses, of the royal race of the Achemenians. His genealogy, as given by himself, is as follows: "I am Cyrus, king of the host, the great king, the mighty king, king of Tindir (Babylon), king of the land of Sumeru and Akkadu, king of the four regions, son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city Ansan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, king of the city Ansan, great-grandson of Šišpis ( Teispes ), the great king, king of the city Ansan, the all-enduring royal seed whose sovereignty Bel and Nebo love," etc. (WAI , V, plural 35, 20-22).
2. His Country, Ansan or Anzan
As, in the Babylonian inscriptions, Aššan ( Anšan , Anzan) is explained as Elam - the city was, in fact, the capital of that country - it is probable that Cyrus' name was Elamite; but the meaning is doubtful. The Greek etymology connecting it with khōr , "the sun" in Persian, may therefore be rejected. According to Strabo, he was at first called Agradatēs , the name by which he was universally known being taken from that of the river Cyrus. This, however, is more likely to have been the reason why his grandfather (after whom he was probably named) was called Cyrus.
3. His Origin (Herodotus)
Several versions of his birth and rise to power are recorded. Herodotus (i.95) mentions three. In that which he quotes (i.107ff), it is said that Mandane was the daughter of the Median king Astyages, who, in consequence of a dream which he had had, foretelling the ultimate triumph of her son over his dynasty, gave her in marriage to a Persian named Cambyses, who was not one of his peers. A second dream caused him to watch for her expected offspring, and when Cyrus came into the world Astyages delivered the child to his relative, Harpagus, with orders to destroy it.
Being Unwilling to do this, he handed the infant to a Shepherd named Mitradates, who, his wife having brought forth a still-born child, consented to spare the life of the infant Cyrus. Later on, in consequence of his imperious acts, Cyrus was recognized by Astyages, who came to learn the whole story, and spared him because, having once been made king by his companions in play, the Magians held the predictions concerning his ultimate royal state to have been fulfilled. The vengeance taken by Astyages upon Harpagus for his apparent disobedience to orders is well known: his son was slain, and a portion, disguised, given him to eat.
Though filled with grief, Harpagus concealed his feelings, and departed with the remains of his son's body; and Cyrus, in due course, was sent to stay with his parents, Cambyses and Mandane. Later on, Harpagus persuaded Cyrus to induce the Persians to revolt, and Astyages having blindly appointed Harpagus commander-in-chief of the Median army, the last-named went over to the side of Cyrus. The result was an easy victory for the latter, but Astyages took care to impale the Magians who had advised him to spare his grandson. Having gathered another, but smaller, army, he took the field in person, but was defeated and captured. Cyrus, however, who became king of Media as well as of Persia, treated him honorably and well.
4. His Origin (Xenophon)
According to Xenophon, Cyropedia i. section 2, Cambyses, the father of Cyrus, was king of Persia. (NOTE: He may have added Persia to his dominion, but according to Cyrus himself, he was king of Ansan or Elam.) Until his 12th year, Cyrus was educated in Persia, when he was sent for, with his mother, by Astyages, to whom he at once manifested much affection. Astyages is said to have been succeeded by his son Cyaxares, and Cyrus then became his commander-in-chief, subduing, among others, the Lydians. He twice defeated the Assyrians (= Babylonians), his final conquest of the country being while the Median king was still alive. As, however, the Cyropedia is a romance, the historical details are not of any great value.
5. His Origin (Nicolaus of Damascus)
Nicolaus of Damascus describes Cyrus as the son of a Mardian bandit named Atradates, his mother's name being Argoste. While in service in the palace of Astyages, he was adopted by Artembarks, cupbearer, and Thus obtained prominence. Cyrus now made his bandit-father satrap of Persia, and, with base ingratitude, plotted against his king and benefactor. The preparations for a revolt having been made, he and his general Oibaras were victorious at Hyrba, but were defeated at Parsagadae, where his father Atradates was captured and later on died. Cyrus now took refuge in his mountain home, but the taunts of the women sent him and his helpers forth again, this time to victory and dominion.
6. His Origin (Ctesias)
Ctesias also states that there was no relationship between Cyrus and Astyages (Astyigas), who, when Cyrus conquered Media, fled to Ecbatana, and was there hidden by his daughter Amytis, and Spitamas her husband. Had not Astyages yielded, Cyrus, it is said, would have tortured them, with their children. Cyrus afterward liberated Astyages, and married his daughter Amytis, whose husband he had put to death for telling a falsehood. The Bactrians are said to have been so satisfied at the reconciliation of Cyrus with Astyages and his daughter, that they voluntarily submitted. Cyrus is said by Ctesias to have been taken prisoner by the Sacae, but he was ransomed. He died from a wound received in battle with the Derbices, assisted by the Indians.
7. Babylonian Records of His Reign - The Cylinder of Nabonidus
In the midst of so much uncertainty, it is a relief to turn to the contemporary documents of the Babylonians, which, though they do not speak of Cyrus' youth in detail, and refer only to other periods of his career in which they were more immediately interested, may nevertheless, being contemporary, be held to have an altogether special authority. According to the inscriptions, the conflict with Astyages took place in 549 bc. From the cylinder of Nabonidus we learn that the Medes had been very successful in their warlike operations, and had gone even as far afield as Haran, which they had besieged.
The Babylonjan King Nabonidus desired to carry out the instructions of Merodach, revealed in a dream, to restore the temple of Sin, the Moon-god, in that city. This, however, in consequence of the siege, he could not do, and it was revealed to him in a dream that the power of Astyages would be overthrown at the end of three years, which happened as predicted. "They (the gods Sin and Merodach) then caused Cyrus, king of Anzan, his (Merodach's) young servant, with his little army, to rise up against him (the Median); he destroyed the extensive Umman-manda (Medes), Ištuwegu (Astyages), king of the Medes, he captured, and took (him) prisoner to his (own) land." The account of this engagement in the Babylonian Chronicle (which is, perhaps, Cyrus' own), is as follows: "(Astyages) gathered his army, and went against Cyrus, king of Ansan, to capture him, and (as for) Astyages, his army revolted against him and took him, and gave him to Cyrus.
8. The Babylonian Chronicle
Cyrus went to the land of Ecbatana, his royal city. He carried off from Ecbatana silver, gold, furniture, merchandise, and took to the land of Anšan the furniture and merchandise which he had captured."
The above is the entry for the 6th year of Nabonidus, which corresponds with 549 bc; and it will be noticed that he is here called "king of Anšan ." The next reference to Cyrus in the Babylonian Chronicle is the entry for Nabonidus' 9th year (546 bc), where it is stated that "Cyrus, king of the land of Parsu (Persia) gathered his army, and crossed the Tigris below Arbela," and in the following month (Iyyar) entered the land of Is- ...., where someone seems to have taken a bribe, garrisoned the place, and afterward a king ruled there. The passage, however, is imperfect, and therefore obscure, but we may, perhaps, see therein some preparatory move on the part of Cyrus to obtain possession of the tract over which Nabonidus claimed dominion.
The next year (545 bc) there seems to have been another move on the part of the Persians, for the Elamite governor (?) is referred to, and had apparently some dealings with the governor of Erech. All this time things seem to have been the same in Babylonia, the king's son (he is not named, but apparently Belshazzar is meant) and the soldiers remaining in Akkad (possibly used in the old sense of the word, to indicate the district around Sippar), where it was seemingly expected that the main attack would be delivered. The reference to the governor of Erech might imply that some conspiracy was on foot more to the south - a movement of which the native authorities possibly remained in ignorance.
9. The Babylonian Chronicle - The Capture of Babylon
After a gap which leaves four years unaccounted for, we have traces of four lines which mention the goddess Ishtar of Erech, and the gods of the land of Par ... (?Persia) are referred to. After this comes the long entry, which, though the date is broken away, must refer to the 17th year of Nabonidus. A royal visit to a temple is referred to, and there is mention of a revolt. Certain religious ceremonies were then performed, and others omitted. In the month Tammuz, Cyrus seems to have fought a battle in Opis, and succeeded in attacking the army of Akkad situated on the Tigris.
On the 14th of the month, Sippar was taken without fighting, and Nabonidus fled. On the 16th Ugbaru (Gobryas) governor of Media, entered Babylon, with the army of Cyrus, without fighting, and there Nabonidus was captured with his followers. At this time Ê-saggil and the temples of the land seem to have been closed, possibly to prevent the followers of Nabonidus from taking sanctuary there, or else to prevent plotters from coming forth; and on the 3rd of Marcheswan (October), Cyrus entered Babylon. "Crowds collected before him, proposing peace for the city; Cyrus, command the peace of Babylon, all of it." Gobryas, his vice-regent, then appointed governors in Babylon, and the gods whom Nabonidus had taken down to Babylon, were returned to their shrines.
On the night of the 11th of Marcheswan, Ugbaru went against (some part of Babylon), and the son of the king died; and there was mourning for him from the 27th of Adar to the 3rd of Nisan (six days). There is some doubt as to whether the text speaks of the king or the son of the king, but as there is a record that Nabonidus was exiled to Carmania, it would seem most likely that the death of Belshazzar "in the night" is here referred to. The day after the completion of the mourning (the 4th of Nisan), Cambyses, son of Cyrus, performed ceremonies in the temple Ê -nig -h̬ad -kalamma , probably in connection with the new year's festival, for which Cyrus had probably timed his arrival at Babylon. According to Herodotus (i.191), Babylon' was taken during a festival, agreeing with Daniel 5:1 .
10. The Cylinder of Cyrus
The other inscription of Cyrus, discovered by Mr. H. Rassam at Babylon, is a kind of proclamation justifying his seizure of the crown. He states that the gods (of the various cities of Babylonia) forsook their dwellings in anger that he (Nabonidus) had made them enter within Šu -anna (Babylon). Merodach, the chief divinity of Babylon, sought also a just king, the desire of his heart, whose hand he might hold - C yrus, king of Anšan , he called his title - to all the kingdoms together (his) name was proclaimed.
The glory of Cyrus' conquests probably appealed to the Babylonians, for Cyrus next states that Merodach placed the whole of the troops of Qutû (Media) under his feet, and the whole of the troops of the Manda (barbarians and mercenaries). He also caused his hands to hold the people of the dark head (Asiatics, including the Babylonians) - in righteousness and justice he cared for them. He commanded that he should go to his city Babylon, and walked by his side like a friend and a companion - without fighting and battle Merodach caused him to enter Šu -anna.
By his high command, the kings of every region from the upper sea to the lower sea (the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf), the kings of the Amorites, and the dwellers in tents, brought their valuable tribute and kissed his feet within Šu -anna (Babylon). From Nineveh(?), the city Aššur , Susa, Agadé, the land of Ešnunnak , Zamban, Mê -Ṭurnu , and Dêru , to the borders of Media, the gods inhabiting them were returned to their shrines, and all the people were collected and sent back to their dwellings. He finishes by soliciting the prayers of the gods to Bel and Nebo for length of days and happiness, asking them also to appeal to Merodach on behalf of Cyrus "his worshipper," and his son Cambyses.
11. Cyrus' History from Greek Sources
It was probably between the defeat of Astyages and the capture of Babylon that Cyrus defeated Croesus and conquered Lydia. After preparing to attack the Greek cities of Asia Minor, he returned to Ecbatana, taking Croesus with him. The states which had formed the Lydian empire, however, at once revolted, and had again to be reduced to submission, this time by Harpagus, his faithful general, after a determined resistance. It was at this period that Cyrus subdued the nations of Upper Asia, his next objective being Babylonia (section 9 and the two preceding paragraphs).
In this connection it is noteworthy that, in the Babylonian official account, there is no mention of his engineering works preparatory to the taking of Babylon - the turning of the waters of the Gyndes into a number of channels in order to cross (Herod. i.189); the siege of Babylon, long and difficult, and the final capture of the city by changing the course of the Euphrates, enabling his army to enter by the bed of the river' (Herodotus i.190-91). There may be some foundation for this statement, but if so, the king did not boast of it - perhaps because it did not entail any real labor, for the irrigation works already in existence may have been nearly sufficient for the purpose. It seems likely that the conquest of Babylon opened the way for other military exploits. Herodotus states that he next attacked the Massagetae, who were located beyond the Araxes.
12. The Massagetae
One-third of their army was defeated, and the son of Tomyris, the queen, captured by a stratagem; but on being freed from his bonds, he committed suicide. In another exceedingly fierce battle which followed, the Persian army was destroyed, and Cyrus himself brought his life to an end there, after a reign of 29 years. (He had ruled over Media for 11, and over Babylonia (and Assyria) for 9 years.) According to the Babylonian contract-tablets, Cambyses, his son, was associated with him on the throne during the first portion of his 1st year of rule in Babylon.
13. The Sacae, Berbices, Etc
According to Ctesias, Cyrus made war with the Bactrians and the Sacae, but was taken prisoner by the latter, and was afterward ransomed. He died from a wound received in battle with the Berbices. Diodorus agrees, in the main, with Herodotus, but relates that Cyrus was captured by the Scythian queen (apparently Tomyris), who crucified or impaled him.
14. Doubt as to the Manner of His Death
It is strange that, in the case of such a celebrated ruler as Cyrus, nothing certain is known as to the manner of his death. The accounts which have come down to us seem to make it certain that he was killed in battle with some enemy, but the statements concerning his end are conflicting. This absence of any account of his death from a trustworthy source implies that Herodotus is right in indicating a terrible disaster to the Persian arms, and it is therefore probable that he fell on the field of battle - perhaps in conflict with the Massagetae, as Herodotus states. Supposing that only a few of the Persian army escaped, it may be that not one of those who saw him fall lived to tell the tale, and the world was dependent on the more or less trustworthy statements which the Massagetae made.
15. Cyrus' Reputation
That he was considered to be a personage of noble character is clear from all that has come down to us concerning him, the most noteworthy being Xenophon's Cyropedia and Institution of Cyrus . The Babylonian inscriptions do not reproduce Babylonian opinion, but the fact that on the occasion of the siege of Babylon the people trusted to his honor and came forth asking peace for the city (apparently with every confidence that their request would be granted); and that the Babylonians, as a whole, were contented under his rule, may be regarded as tacit confirmation. Nabonidus, before the invasion of his territory by the Persian forces, was evidently well disposed toward him, and looked upon him, as we have seen, as "the young servant of Merodach," the patron deity of Babylon.
16. Why Did the Babylonians Accept Him?
It is not altogether clear, however, why theBabylonians submitted to him with so little resistance - their inscriptions contain no indication that they had real reason to be dissatisfied with the rule of Nabonidus - he seems to have been simply regarded as somewhat unorthodox in his worship of the gods; but could they expect an alien, of a different religion, to be better in that respect? Dissatisfaction on the part of the Babyloninn priesthood was undoubtedly at the bottom of their discontent, however, and may be held to supply a sufficient reason, though it does not redound to the credit of Babylonian patriotism.
It has been said that the success of Cyrus was in part due to the aid given him by the Jews, who, recognizing him as a monotheist like themselves, gave him more than mere sympathy; but it is probable that he could never have conquered Babylonia had not the priests, as indicated by their own records, spread discontent among the people. It is doubtful whether we may attribute a higher motive to the priesthood, though that is not altogether impossible. The inner teaching of the Babylonian polytheistic faith was, as is now well known, monotheistic, and there may have been, among the priests, a desire to have a ruler holding that to be the true faith, and also not so inclined as Nabonidus to run counter to the people's (and the priests') prejudices. Jewish influence would, in some measure, account for this.
17. Cyrus and the Jews
If the Jews thought that they would be more sympathetically treated under Cyrus' rule, they were not disappointed. It was he who gave orders for the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:23 ; Ezra 1:2 ; Ezra 5:13 ; Ezra 6:3 ), restored the vessels of the House of the Lord which Nebuchadnezzar had taken away (Ezra 1:7 ), and provided funds to bring cedar trees from Lebanon (Ezra 3:7 ). But he also restored the temples of theBabylonians, and brought back the images of the gods to their shrines. Nevertheless the Jews evidently felt that the favors he granted them showed sympathy for them, and this it probably was which caused Isaiah (Isaiah 44:28 ) to see in him a "shepherd" of the Lord, and an anointed king (Messiah, τῷ Χριστῷ μου , tō̇ Christō̇ mou , Isaiah 45:1 ) - a title suggesting to later writers that he was a type of Christ (Hieron., Commentary on Isaiah 44:1 ).
18. Cyrus in Persia - His Bas-Relief
From Persia we do not get any help as to his character, nor as to the estimation in which he was held. His only inscription extant is above his idealized bas-relief at Murghâb , where he simply writes: "I am Cyrus, the Achemenian." The stone shows Cyrus standing, looking to the right, draped in a fringed garment resembling those worn by the ancientBabylonians, reaching to the feet. His hair is combed back in the Persian style, and upon his head is an elaborate Egyptian crown, two horns extending to front and back, with a uraeus serpent rising from each end, and between the serpents three vase-like objects, with discs at their bases and summits, and serrated leaves between.
There is no doubt that this crown is symbolical of his dominion over Egypt, the three vase-like objects being modifications of the triple helmet-crown of the Egyptian deities. The king is represented as four-winged in the Assyro-Babylonian style, probably as a claim to divinity in their hierarchy as well as to dominion in the lands of Merodach and Aššur . In his right hand, which is raised to the level of his shoulder, he holds a kind of scepter seemingly terminating in a bird's head - in all probability also a symbol of Babylonian dominion, though the emblem of the Babylonian cities of the South was most commonly a bird with wings displayed.
Recommended for You
More on Christianity
World Religions - Main pages
IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.