Cyrus and his empire

Cyrus and the Jews

Sandwiched between the mighty kingdoms of Assyria and Egypt were two micro-states. North of Lake Galilee was Israel - wiped out by the Assyrians in 722 BC. Its population was deported and resettled randomly across their empire. Israel effectively disappeared for ever. South of Galilee was Judah - which was slightly luckier. Crushed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II, in 597 and again in 586 BC, 10,000 Judaeans were deported - as a group - to Babylon. According to Jewish accounts, Cyrus helped them return to Palestine and gave money to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem which the Babylonians had destroyed. Many thousands of Judaeans returned home but not all. Yahweh was the main god (chief among many) for both states - he became the one god after the Babylonian exile.

There were 150,000 Jews in Iraq in 1947. Most left for Israel after 1948 - today only a handful remain.

From Isaiah:

I [ie Yahweh, chief god of the Jews] say to Cyrus, “You shall be my shepherd
To carry out all my purpose,
So that Jerusalem may be rebuilt
And the foundations of the temple may be laid.”
Thus saith the Lord to Cyrus his anointed,
Cyrus, whom he has taken by the hand
To subdue nations before him …

His last campaign

Cyrus probably planned that his next campaign would be to add Egypt to the empire. But for some years he must have had to concentrate on administration of the vast empire he had built up. The various regions were organised into semi-independent provinces (called satrapies) ruled by a satrap appointed by Cyrus and responsible to him. The Persian kings, according to the Greeks, had officials based in the satrapies called “The king's Eye” and “The king's Ear”: their job was to spy on their satrap and report back. The Greeks found the idea of a man called the King's Eye very funny – a man dressed up as an eye appears in an Athenian comedy.

The various armies of the conquered states had to be reorganised into the Persian war machine. He needed to dispense justice to his 10 million subjects spread over 2 million square miles. And he was building himself a modest capital, at Pasargadae, in the land of Persia near where his family had come from. When he finally got round to planning his attack on Egypt, there was a problem at the other end of the empire. The story is only found in Herodotus. The queen of the Massagetae, called by the Greeks Tomyris, who ruled between the Aral Sea and Afghanistan, was threatening his frontiers. Cyrus insisted on leading the army against her himself. It ended badly. After losing a battle against her, Cyrus, advised by old Croesus, laid a trap. He left his camp empty, baited with quantities of wine. The Massagetae, used to fermented mare's milk and hashish, but unfamiliar with wine, soon got very drunk. It was then that Cyrus attacked, routing them and capturing the queen's son. Herodotus takes up the story:

When Tomyris found out what had happened to her army and her son, she sent a messenger to Cyrus: “Bloodthirsty Cyrus, do not feel proud of what you have done. You Persians, filled with the fruit of the vine, go crazy – as the wine goes down, evil words come up. Such  is the trick you caught my son with: you did not beat him in a fair fight. If you give him back to me, you may leave my land, unharmed. Or else I swear by the sun I shall satisfy your thirst for blood.”

Cyrus ignored this. When the queen's son sobered up, he begged to be untied. As soon as he had his hands free he killed himself. Tomyris now attacked in full force. This battle, in my opinion, was the most brutal ever fought by barbarians ... at last the Massagetae won. Most of the Persian army perished, and Cyrus was dead.

Tomyris then filled a wine-skin with human blood, and went looking for Cyrus's corpse. When she found it, she shoved his head into the wine-skin. “You tricked my son and killed him”, she said. “Now, just as I promised, I shall satisfy your thirst for blood.”

The defeated Persian army took Cyrus's body back to Pasargadae, where his rather modest tomb can still be seen. The date was 530 BC, and Cyrus had ruled for 30 years.


  • Discussion: what does Herodotus think of Tomyris? {One of the few female warrior queens. Learners might be reminded of Boudicca/Boadicea. Is she better, worse or just the same as the men?}
  • Discussion: the idea of "empire". What is an empire? What other empires do you know of?

One Greek, Xenophon, wrote a biography of the young Cyrus, it's more an affectionate portrait of Xenophon's ideal ruler than historical fact. But sources agree that he was charming, humane, brave, approachable and tolerant, though firm. As a general, he was master of the surprise attack, and had imaginative methods for capturing fortresses. He was exceptionally skilled in handling his soldiers, able to make them love and respect him as well as fear him. Xenophon describes how he trained his men to the hardships of war by taking them on hunting expeditions, especially lion-hunts.


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