Cyrus the Great, king of the world
Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, wealth – these three together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.
From the Mediterranean Sea and Hellespont in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen. Under his successors, the empire eventually stretched from parts of the Balkans (Bulgaria-Paeonia) and Thrace-Macedonia in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east. His regal titles in full were The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World.
The reign of Cyrus the Great lasted between 29 and 31 years. Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Either before or after Babylon, he led an expedition into central Asia, which resulted in major campaigns that were described as having brought “into subjection every nation without exception”. Cyrus did not venture into Egypt, as he himself died in battle, fighting the Massagetae along the Syr Darya in December 530 BC. He was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who managed to add to the empire by conquering Egypt, Nubia, and Cyrenaica during his short rule.
Cyrus the Great is also well recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy, as well as his influence on both Eastern and Western civilizations. Having originated from Persis, roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Fars, Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. Cyrus and, indeed, the Achaemenid influence in the ancient world also extended as far as Athens, where many Athenians adopted aspects of the Achaemenid Persian culture as their own, in a reciprocal cultural exchange.
The Persian domination and kingdom in the Iranian plateau started by an extension of the Achaemenid dynasty, who expanded their earlier domination possibly from the 9th century BC onward. The eponymous founder of this dynasty was Achaemenes (from Old Persian Haxāmaniš). Achaemenids are “descendants of Achaemenes” as Darius the Great, the ninth king of the dynasty, traces his genealogy to him and declares “for this reason we are called Achaemenids”. Achaemenes built the state Parsumash in the southwest of Iran and was succeeded by Teispes, who took the title “King of Anshan” after seizing Anshan city and enlarging his kingdom further to include Pars proper. Ancient documents mention that Teispes had a son called Cyrus I, who also succeeded his father as “king of Anshan”. Cyrus I had a full brother whose name is recorded as Ariaramnes.
In 600 BC, Cyrus I was succeeded by his son, Cambyses I, who reigned until 559 BC. Cyrus the Great was a son of Cambyses I, who named his son after his father, Cyrus I. There are several inscriptions of Cyrus the Great and later kings that refer to Cambyses I as the “great king” and “king of Anshan”. Among these are some passages in the Cyrus cylinder where Cyrus calls himself “son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan”. Another inscription (from CM’s) mentions Cambyses I as “mighty king” and “an Achaemenian”, which according to the bulk of scholarly opinion was engraved under Darius and considered as a later forgery by Darius. However Cambyses II’s maternal grandfather Pharnaspes is named by Herodotus as “an Achaemenian” too. Xenophon’s account in Cyropædia further names Cambyses’s wife as Mandane and mentions Cambyses as king of Iran (ancient Persia). These agree with Cyrus’s own inscriptions, as Anshan and Parsa were different names of the same land. These also agree with other non-Iranian accounts, except at one point from Herodotus stating that Cambyses was not a king but a “Persian of good family”. However, in some other passages, Herodotus’s account is wrong also on the name of the son of Chishpish, which he mentions as Cambyses but, according to modern scholars, should be Cyrus I.
The traditional view based on archaeological research and the genealogy given in the Behistun Inscription and by Herodotus holds that Cyrus the Great was an Achaemenid. However it has been suggested by M. Waters that Cyrus is unrelated to the Achaemenids or Darius the Great and that his family was of Teispid and Anshanite origin instead of Achaemenid.
Religion and philosophy of Cyrus the Great
Though it is generally believed that Zarathushtra’s teachings maintained influence on Cyrus’s acts and policies, so far no clear evidence has been found to indicate that Cyrus practiced a specific religion. Pierre Briant wrote that given the poor information we have, “it seems quite reckless to try to reconstruct what the religion of Cyrus might have been.” His liberal and tolerant views towards other religions have made some scholars consider Cyrus a Zoroastrian king.
The policies of Cyrus with respect to treatment of minority religions are well documented in Babylonian texts as well as Jewish sources and the historians accounts. Cyrus had a general policy of religious tolerance throughout his vast empire. Whether this was a new policy or the continuation of policies followed by the Babylonians and Assyrians is disputed. He brought peace to the Babylonians and is said to have kept his army away from the temples and restored the statues of the Babylonian gods to their sanctuaries.
His treatment of the Jews during their exile in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem is reported in the Bible. The Jewish Bible’s Ketuvim ends in Second Chronicles with the decree of Cyrus, which returned the exiles to the Promised Land from Babylon along with a commission to rebuild the temple.
Politics and Management of Cyrus the Great
Cyrus founded the empire as a multi-state empire governed by four capital states; Pasargadae, Babylon, Susa and Ecbatana. He allowed a certain amount of regional autonomy in each state, in the form of a Satrapy system. A satrapy was an administrative unit, usually organized on a geographical basis. A ‘satrap’ (governor) was the vassal king, who administered the region, a ‘general’ supervised military recruitment and ensured order, and a ‘state secretary’ kept the official records. The general and the state secretary reported directly to the satrap as well as the central government.
During his reign, Cyrus maintained control over a vast region of conquered kingdoms, achieved through retaining and expanding the satrapies. Further organization of newly conquered territories into provinces ruled by satraps, was continued by Cyrus’s successor Darius the Great. Cyrus’s empire was based on tribute and conscripts from the many parts of his realm.
Through his military savvy, Cyrus the Great created an organized army including the Immortals unit, consisting of 10,000 highly trained soldiers. He also formed an innovative postal system throughout the empire, based on several relay stations called Chapar Khaneh.
Cyrus’s conquests began a new era in the age of empire building, where a vast superstate, comprising many dozens of countries, races, religions, and languages, were ruled under a single administration headed by a central government. This system lasted for centuries, and was retained both by the invading Seleucid dynasty during their control of Persia, and later Iranian dynasties including the Parthians and Sasanians.
Cyrus has been known for his innovations in building projects; he further developed the technologies that he found in the conquered cultures and applied them in building the palaces of Pasargadae. He was also famous for his love of gardens; the recent excavations in his capital city has revealed the existence of the Pasargad Persian Garden and a network of irrigation canals. Pasargadae was place for two magnificent palaces surrounded by a majestic royal park and vast formal gardens; among them was the four-quartered wall gardens of “Paradisia” with over 1000 meters of channels made out of carved limestone, designed to fill small basins at every 16 meters and water various types of wild and domestic flora. The design and concept of Paradisia were exceptional and have been used as a model for many ancient and modern parks, ever since.
Cyrus’s legacy has been felt even as far away as Iceland and colonial America. Many of the thinkers and rulers of Classical Antiquity as well as the Renaissance and Enlightenment era, and the forefathers of the United States of America sought inspiration from Cyrus the Great through works such as Cyropaedia. Thomas Jefferson, for example, owned two copies of Cyropaedia, one with parallel Greek and Latin translations on facing pages showing substantial Jefferson markings that signify the amount of influence the book has had on drafting the “Declaration of Independence”.
The English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne penned a discourse entitled The Garden of Cyrus in 1658 in which Cyrus is depicted as an archetypal “wise ruler” – at a time when the Protectorate of Cromwell occurred in English history.
“Cyrus the elder brought up in Woods and Mountains, when time and power enabled, pursued the dictate of his education, and brought the treasures of the field into rule and circumscription. So nobly beautifying the hanging Gardens of Babylon, that he was also thought to be the author thereof.”