Cyrus the Great and the founding of the Persian Empire

So, how did the great empire of the Achaemenids start out? From the deeds of a seemingly minor king named Cyrus.

The standard of Cyrus II, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia
The standard of Cyrus II, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia

The new Persian ruler of the region was a king names Teispes (Chishpish in Persian) who founded a new Persian dynasty sometime in the early 600s BCE. He was the son of a man named Achaemenes, and thus his dynasty took the name Achaemenid.

Teispes had two sons, Cyrus I and Ariaramnes with whom he divided his kingdom. Cyrus I took the city of Anshan (Tall-e Maliyan) and Ariaramnes the eastern territories of the kingdom known as Parsa.

Cyrus I had a son who he named Cambyses, who also eventually became king of the Persians. As Cambyses I, he married the daughter of the Median King Astyages, and around 575 BCE, the couple had a son who they named Cyrus (Koroush in Persian). This Cyrus, named after his grandfather, was to become Cyrus II, also known as Cyrus the Great.

Many believe this to be an image of Cyrus the Great, found in his ancient capital city of Pasargadae
Many believe this to be an image of Cyrus the Great, found in his ancient capital city of Pasargadae

There are several stories with regard to the birth and young life of Cyrus II. A popular version of Cyrus’ childhood told by the Greek historian Herodotus is that one night his grandfather, King Astyages, had a dream in which his grandson would become king. Specifically, a plant grew from the womb of his daughter Mandane, who was Cyrus’ mother, that encompassed Astyages’ kingdom and beyond. Astyages went to the Magi, the priestly class in Media, and asked them to interpret his dream. Their response was that his grandson would one day rise up against him, and so to prevent this, Astyages ordered his steward, Harpagus, to kill the baby soon after he was born. However, Harpagus could not bring himself to do the dirty deed and instead summoned a certain Mitradates to take the baby and leave it to die on a mountain. A shepherd who passed by saw the child and decided along with his wife to raise it as their own. The young boy grew up to be a bright and well-liked child. One day around the age of 10, Cyrus was playing with some noble children the game of shah, or king. Cyrus was elected to be the king of the group and, when one of his “subjects” disobeyed his orders, he had him punished. Being a child from a noble family, the boy went and complained to his parents that this commoner ordered him to be punished. Cyrus was then brought to Astyages who observed that the boy looked much like himself and with a certain noble quality to him. Astyages then asked Harpagus what exactly he did with the newborn he had ordered him to kill so many years ago. Harpagus, who could not lie, told Astyages the truth about how he could not kill the baby boy and that he left him to the care of others. For his disobedience, Astyages killed Harpagus’ own son and prepared a banquet in which he invited Harpagus, where his this son was served as the main course. As for Cyrus, Astyages saw no threat in such a young boy, who was also his grandson, and allowed him to return to his true parents. Years later, Harpagus urged Cyrus to revolt against Astyages, which he did and was able to replace him as ruler of the Persians and the Medes.

While this story is interesting, many elements are probably more fable than fact. What probably did occur was that Cyrus ascended to the throne of Anshan in 559 BCE and shortly after set out to conquer the surrounding regions. Cyrus first united both Persis and Parsa into one kingdom under his rule and then around 550 BCE, went to war against Media. We don’t know exactly what the cause of this war was. It is likely that Astyages, seeing his grandson becoming more powerful and independent, decided to replace him. It is also quite possible that Astyages was even a bit jealous of Cyrus. After all, many records indicate that Cyrus was very popular with his own subjects. In fact, even Herodotus and Xenophon, Greeks who considered Persians in general to be barbarians, considered Cyrus to be the ideal ruler. Other sources state that Astyages was a tyrant who had lost the confidence of his Median nobles and actually plotted with Cyrus for the latter to rebel with their support.  It is perhaps for this reason that Cyrus was able to take over Media in what many scholars believe was a bloodless coup. Some of Astyages own Median soldiers delivered their king to Cyrus and surrendered the Median capital of Ecbatana to him. Though he was the king of the Persians, being half Mede through his mother and Astyages grandson, Cyrus could have been seen to have had legitimacy in claiming the throne of both Media and Persia. Having the united the Persian and Median kingdoms, Cyrus created a new capital city called Pasargadae.

ruins of Cyrus' palace at pasargadae

As other Persian-speaking tribes joined accepted him as their ruler, Cyrus’ army, wealth and prestige grew.

Soon afterward, Cyrus went to the northwest of his nascent empire and conquered the kingdom of Urartu, near Lake Van in today’s Turkish Kurdistan. His control of the Median and Persian provinces was now complete. Of course, such land was not enough to make one King of Kings and the most powerful man in the world. There were other kingdoms to the west and east of his dominion, specifically Lydia, Egypt and Babylon.

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