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August 20, 2017

The Last Conquests and Death of Cyrus the Great

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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 land of Lydia and the fabled empire of Babylon under his control. He had plans to bring storied Egypt into his realm as well but before this, Cyrus decided that he needed to consolidate his rule in the lands on 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.

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

The story goes that Cyrus’ advisors told him to lay a trap for the Massagetae by abandoning their camp with bottles of wine, which Scythians were not used to drinking. After most of them, including Queen Tomyris’ son 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 her son’s death. 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-filld bag.

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

So according to Herodotus and other historians, mostly Greek, this is how Cyrus the Great, the father of the Persian people and the founder of the world’s largest empire of the the time, died as a soldier. His body was taken back to the Persian capital of Pasargadae and buried in a relatively simple tomb, one which Cyrus had designed himself.

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


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