The Last Conquests and Death of Cyrus the Great

Queen Tomyris being presented the head of Cyrus the Great - Painting by Peter Paul Rubens
Queen Tomyris being presented the head of Cyrus the Great

They say that two things are certain in life: death and taxes. If you’re the emperor of the most powerful empire that the world has ever known, you probably don’t have to pay taxes. You will no doubt have to face death. And so too it was with Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenid King of Persia (Iran).

Up until then, Cyrus had become the King of both the Persians and the Medes and gone on to bring the wealthy Kingdom of Lydia and the once mighty empire of Babylon under his control. He had plans to bring Egypt into his realm as well but before this, Cyrus decided to solidify the eastern borders of his empire. He ventured again towards the east (it is most likely that he had already conquered parts of these regions before his Babylonian campaign) across the Oxus River into Transoxiana, parts of what now make up the Central Asian states of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and southern Kazakhstan. Somewhere along the Jaxartes River (also known as the Syr Darya), Cyrus founded a city called Cyropolis that would be the easternmost extent of his empire. It was close to this area that the Greek historian Herodotus claims that the Persians met a Scythian tribe known as the Massagetae who were ruled by a woman, Queen Tomyris. Cyrus demanded the surrender of the Massagetae and Queen Tomyris, with the later refusing. Herodotus tells us that he even asked for her hand in marriage so as annex her domain diplomatically. Tomyris however declined, making war inevitable. Led by her son Spargagises, the Queen sent a her army out to meet Cyrus head on.

Queen Tomyris being presented the head of Cyrus the Great
Queen Tomyris being presented the head of Cyrus the Great

The Persians though had a plan. Herodotus’ tale goes that Cyrus’ advisers, Croesus among them, advised him to lay a trap for the Massagetae by feigning retreat and abandoning their camp with bottles of wine and food for a feast. After most of the men including Spargagises, were in a drunken stupor, the Persians attacked and took many of the Massagetae prisoner. Being the general of the army and the son of Queen Tomyris, Spargagises convinced Cyrus to have him untied. Cyrus, who was known to be an honorable and merciful king, granted Spargagises his wish. Once free though, Spargagises took his own life rather than remain a prisoner.

When news of the apparent suicide reached Queen Tomyris, she was outraged and put together another force to avenge the death of her son. In the second battle that ensued, the Massagetae routed the Persian forces and Cyrus was killed. Tomyris is said to have taken Cyrus’ corpse and beheaded it, sending it back to the Persians in a wine-filled bag.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great in the province of Fars, Iran.

Herodotus admits to having heard of other tales of Cyrus’ death, though this one to him appeared to be the most plausible.

The Greek Physician-Historian Ctesias also has a similar version to that of Herodotus. However instead of the Massagetae, he claims that Cyrus’ last battle was against a people called the Derbicae. They too lived on the steppes of Central Asia. In his book Persika, Ctesias claims that Cyrus’ was wounded in battle against the Derbicae but eventually was able to defeat them with the help of his Saka, a.k.a. Scythian, allies. As he laid dying, Cyrus appointed his elder son Cambyses to succeed him and gave governorship of Bactria, Chorasmia, Parthia, and Carmania to his younger son Tanyoxarces (who Herodotus calls Smerdis and will become a problem for Cambyses later on).

What we do know is that after Cyrus’ death, his body was taken back to the Persian capital of Pasargadae and buried in a relatively modest tomb, one which Cyrus is said to have designed himself.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses, who carried out his father’s wish to conquer Egypt.

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