The Achaemenid Empire


Death of Cyrus


Cyrus had spent ten years in compassing the downfall of Nabonidus, and, calculating that of Egypt would require no less a period of time, he set methodically to work on the organisation of his recently acquired territory; the cities of Phoenicia acknowledged him as their suzerain, and furnished him with what had hitherto been a coveted acquisition, a fleet. These preliminaries had apparently been already accomplished, when the movements of the barbarians suddenly made his presence in the far East imperative. He hurried thither, and was mysteriously lost to sight (529 B.C.). Tradition accounts for his death in several ways.


It might have been expected that Cyrus, after his conquest of Babylon, would have immediately proceeded towards the south-west. It has been suspected that the restoration of the Jews was prompted, at least in part, by political motives, and that Cyrus, when he re-established them in their country, looked to finding them of use to him in the attack which he was meditating upon Egypt. At any rate it is evident that their presence would have facilitated his march through Palestine, These considerations make it probable that an Egyptian expedition would have been determined on, had not circumstances occurred to prevent it.


What the exact circumstances were, it is impossible to determine. According to Herodotus, a sudden desire seized Cyrus to attack the Massagetae, who bordered his Empire to the north-east. He led his troops across the Araxes (Jaxartes), defeated the Massagetae by stratagem in a great battle, but was afterwards himself defeated and slain, his body falling into the enemy's hands, who treated it with gross indignity. According to Ctesias, the people against whom he made his expedition were the Derbices, a nation bordering upon India, Assisted by Indian allies, who lent them a number of elephants, this people engaged Cyrus, and defeated him in a battle, wherein he received a mortal wound. Reinforced, however, by a body of Sacae, the Persians renewed the struggle, and gained a complete victory, which was followed by the submission of the nation. Cyrus, however, died of his wound on the third day after the first battle.


It may be suspected that this expedition, which proved so disastrous to the Persian monarch, was not the mere wanton act which it appears to be in the pages of our authorities. The nations of the north-east were at all times turbulent and irritable, with difficulty held in check by the civilized power that bore rule in the south and west. The expedition of Cyrus, whether directed against the Massagetae or the Derbices, was probably intended to strike terror into the barbarians of these regions, and was analogous to those invasions which were undertaken under the wisest of the Roman Emperors, across the Rhine and Danube, against Germans, Goths, and Sarmatae. The object of such inroads was not to conquer, but to alarm—it was hoped by an imposing display of organized military force to deter the undisciplined hordes of the prolific North from venturing across the frontier and carrying desolation through large tracts of the Empire. Defensive warfare has often an aggressive look. It may have been solely with the object of protecting his own territories from attack that Cyrus made his last expedition across the Jaxertes, or towards the upper Indus.


If Xenophon is to be credited, he died peaceably on his bed, surrounded by his children,


Ctesias states that, having been wounded in a skirmish with the Æerbikes, one of the savage tribes of Bactriana, he succumbed to his injuries three days after the engagement.


Tomyris with the head of Cyrus


Queen Tomyris from a Russian drama . The name has

also become very popular in Central Asia and Turkey

According to the Herodotus, he asked the hand of Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetse, in marriage, and was refused with disdain. He declared war against her to avenge his wounded vanity, set out to fight with her beyond the Araxes, in the steppes of Turkestan, defeated the advance-guard of cavalry, and took prisoner the heir to the crown, Spargapises, who thereupon ran himself through with his sword. "Then Tomyris collected all the forces of her kingdom, and gave him (Cyrus) battle." Of all the combats in which barbarians have engaged among themselves, I reckon this to have been the fiercest.


The following, as I understand, was the manner of it:—First, the two armies stood apart and shot their arrows at each other; then, when their quivers were empty, they closed and fought hand to hand with lances and daggers; and thus they continued fighting for a length of time, neither choosing to give ground. At length the Massagetse prevailed. The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed. Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus; and when it was found, she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the copse, "I live and have conquered thee in fight, and yet by thee am I ruined, for thou tookest my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give thee thy fill of blood."


The engagement was not as serious as the legend would have us believe, and the growth of the Persian power was in no way affected, by it. It cost Cyrus his life, but his army experienced no serious disaster, and his men took the king's body and brought it to Pasargadæ. He had a palace there, his tomb can still be seen today.


Cyrus' tomb during the empire


Cyrus' Tomb today



Tomb of Cyrus the Great




The character of Cyrus, as represented to us by the Greeks, is the most favorable that we possess of any early Oriental monarch. Active, energetic, brave, fertile in stratagems, he has all the qualities required to form a successful military chief. He conciliates his people by friendly and familiar treatment, but declines to spoil them by yielding to their inclinations when they are adverse to their true interests. He has a ready humor, which shows itself in smart sayings and repartees, that take occasionally the favorite Oriental turn of parable . He is mild in his treatment of the prisoners that fall into his hands, and ready to forgive even the heinous crime of rebellion. He has none of the pride of the ordinary eastern despot, but converses on terms of equality with those about him. We cannot be surprised that the Persians, contrasting him with their later monarchs, held his memory in the highest veneration, and were even led by their affection for his person to make his type of countenance their standard of physical beauty.



 The Cyrus Cylinder

The genius of Cyrus was essentially that of a conqueror, not of an administrator. There is no trace of his having adopted anything like a uniform system for the government of the provinces which he subdued. In Lydia he set up a Persian governor, but assigned certain important functions to a native; in Babylon he gave the entire direction of affairs into the hands of a Mede, to whom he allowed the title and style of king; in Judaea he appointed a native, but made him merely "governor" or "deputy;" in Sacia he maintained as tributary king the monarch who had resisted his arms. Policy may have dictated the course pursued in each instance, which may have been suited to the condition of the several provinces; but the variety allowed was fatal to consolidation, and the monarchy, as Cyrus left it, had as little cohesion as any of those by which it was preceded.


Though originally a rude mountain-chief, Cyrus, after he succeeded to empire, showed himself quite able to appreciate the dignity and value of art. In his constructions at Pasargadae he combined massiveness with elegance, and manifested a taste at once simple and refined. He ornamented his buildings with reliefs of an ideal character. It is probably to him that we owe the conception of the light tapering stone shaft, which is the glory of Persian architecture. If the more massive of the Persepolitan buildings are to be ascribed to him, we must regard him as haying fixed the whole plan and arrangement which was afterwards followed in all Persian palatial edifices.


In his domestic affairs Cyrus appears to have shown the same moderation and simplicity which we observe in his general conduct. He married, as it would seem, one wife only, Cassandane, the daughter of Pharnaspes, who was a member of the royal family. By her he had issue two sons and at least three daughters. The sons were Cambyses and Smerdis; the daughters Atossa, Artystone, and one whose name is unknown to us. Cassandane died before her husband, and was deeply mourned by him. Shortly before his own death he took the precaution formally to settle the succession. Leaving the general inheritance of his vast dominions to his elder son, Cambyses, he declared it to be his will that the younger should be entrusted with the actual government of several large and important provinces. He thought by this plan to secure the well-being of both the youths, never suspecting that he was in reality consigning both to untimely ends, and even preparing the way for an extraordinary revolution


He believed that he was destined to found a single empire in which all the ancient empires were to be merged, and he all but carried his task to a successful close: Egypt alone remained to be conquered when he passed away.

Cyrus the Great' Cylinder


In a reign just short of 30 years he had established the largest empire yet known in the world through his polices of tolerance,military strategy and strong belief in his Zoroastern destiny . His tolerance can be seen in Cyrus the Great' Cylinder ( made after the conquest of Babylonia ), the cylinder has been considered as the world's first known charter of human rights, as there are passages in the text have been interpreted as expressing Cyrus’ respect for humanity. It promotes a form of religious tolerance and freedom . This is a departure from the policies of repression seen in other empires, such as the Assyrian Empire .


Cyrus believed that Ahura Mazda, the God of Zoroastrianism had given him the duty to unite the people of the world in justice and peace.


His wife Cassandane or Kassandanê, a daughter of Pharnaspes of Phrygia Governor of Persia, and an Achæmenian like himself, had borne him five children; two sons, Cambyses II and Smerdis, and three daughters, Atossa, Roxana, and Artyston.


Image of Cyrus the Great from :

Cyrus the Great by Jacob Abbott



Cyrus was buried in the city of Pasargadae, where his tomb remains today. Though the city itself is now in ruins, the burial place of Cyrus the Great has remained largely intact; and the tomb has been partially restored to counter its natural deterioration over the years. According to Plutarch, his epitaph said,

"O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore grudge me this little earth that covers my body."



 Cyrus conquers Babylon


 Cambyses II