History Files


The Middle East

Cyrus the Great

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 4 November 2008



Cyrus the Great, otherwise known as Cyrus II, or Kurush, was the first Achaemenid king of the peoples of Persia, a region of Iran to the south-east of the former Elamite capital at Susa.

Born in 580 BC, he came to power amongst the Persians in 559 BC, moving his capital to Susa. Initially he ruled as a subject of the Medes who were situated to the north and who apparently held great swathes of Iran and northern Mesopotamia under their control.

According to Herodotus, Cyrus was the grandson of the Median king, Astyages. When Cyrus rebelled in 553 BC, he removed the Persians from Median control, but it took three more years to decide the issue of who was in control in the Iranian highlands.

In 550 BC Cyrus won a decisive victory and Astyages was captured by his own nobles and handed over. Harpagus, a Median of the royal house, was the main cause of Astyages' defeat; his motive being revenge on the king who had killed his son and humiliated him.


Cyrus adopted a policy of treating the two peoples, Persian and Median, equally, and many Median officials gained positions in his administration. Harpagus was created one of Cyrus' generals and conquered Anatolia for him in 547-546 BC, destroying the mighty Lydian empire in 547 BC. His descendants reigned as satraps (or governors) in Lycia thereafter.

Cyrus campaigned to the east between about 546-540 BC, but while his campaigns in the west were well documented by the Greeks, there was no equivalent in the east, so few concrete facts have survived. However, it is known that he conquered Drangiana, Arachosia, Margiana and Bactria.

The Babylonians virtually invited him into southern Mesopotamia in 539 BC. Invading the unsettled empire, Cyrus fought just one major battle near the confluence of the Diyala and Tigris rivers. On either 12 or 13 October (sources vary), Babylon was occupied, suddenly creating an empire far larger than even the Assyrian Empire which the Medes had helped destroy.

With Babylonia, Cyrus also gained Phoenicia and the Mediterranean coast (although Arabia and Cilicia were lost). Unlike the Assyrians, Persia made Phoenicia part of a satrapy, thus ending the semi-independent existence the Phoenician city states had enjoyed under previous regimes.

In Depth

Coincidentally, this set the Phoenician settlement of Carthage free to survive on its own merit, so that it would soon become a major Mediterranean power that would clash with the Roman republic to the north.

Unlike the Assyrians, Cyrus adopted an enlightened approach to his subjects, permitting local forms of worship to continue and not enforcing a homogenous language or culture upon them. He also allowed the captive Judeans to return home, judging correctly that they would be cooperative subjects of the empire as a result.

Ruler of the Persian empire

Cyrus was better able, through his more benign policies, to reconcile his subjects to Persian rule, and the longevity of his empire was a result of this. His victory over Babylonia expressed all the facets of his enlightened policy of conciliation.

He presented himself not as a conqueror, but a liberator and the legitimate successor to the crown. He took the title 'King of Babylon, King of the Land', expressing continuity of rule from the Babylonian kings themselves, and the 1500 years of history that represented.

The Persian king, like Assyrian kings, was also 'king of kings', xshayathiya xshayathiyânâm (or shâhanshâh in modern Persian, the origin of the later 'shah of Iran'), or 'great king.' To the Greeks this translated as megas basileus.

Cyrus founded a new capital city for his empire at Pasargade in Fars, although Babylon would always remain a vitally important city for the Persians. He also established a government for his empire, appointing a satrap to represent him in each province.

The administration, legislation, and cultural activities of each province would be the responsibility of the satrap. According to Xenophon, Cyrus is also reputed to have devised the first postal system.

Death and later

Typically the end of Cyrus' reign was spent in military activity in Central Asia where, according to Herodotus, he died in battle in 530 BC.

Attacking the warlike Massagetai (possibly a Scythian tribe), he was challenged by their queen, Tomyris, to advance across the River Araxes (or Axartes) and fight them in their own territory with all the risks that a potential defeat would entail, or withdraw to a safe position inside his empire where the Massagetai would advance to meet him in battle.

Ever the one to accept a challenge, he advanced.

Managing to ambush and defeat part of the Massagetai army, Cyrus was killed by the queen's remaining forces and much of his own army was destroyed. Tomyris took Cyrus' head and placed it in a skin of human blood, giving him the fill of blood it seemed he had wanted.

Having been kept in safety across the Araxes during the campaign, his son, Cambyses (Kambujiya) II, succeeded him on the throne.

Alexander the Great, after he ultimately overthrew the Persians, deliberately assumed the universal pretensions of the Achaemenid kings, but the division of his empire after his early death eliminated any real claim of universal rule until the advent of the Roman Empire.


Main Sources

Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies - Herodotus: The Defeat of the Persians under Cyrus the Great by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetai, web site

Iran Chamber Society - web site

Postgate, J N - The First Empires

Scarre, Chris (Ed) - Past Worlds - The Times Atlas of Archaeology

The British Museum

The History of the Ancient Near East - Electronic Compendium

Van De Mieroop - A History of the Ancient Near East ca 3000-323 BC



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.