Cyrus The Great: Facts & Accomplishments

The first Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. Take a closer look at one of the most influential figures in the history of the near East.

Jun 15, 2020By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
portrait of cyrus the great
Portrait of Cyrus the Great by Aegidius Paulus Dumesnil 1721-1735, British Museum


Cyrus the Great (ca. 600-530 BC) was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, often referred to as the first Persian Empire. At the time of his death he had created the largest empire that the world had ever seen, stretching as it did from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. Yet Cyrus the Great is also remembered for his influence in the realms of religion, human rights, philosophy, and literature; as well as having created a stable political system through which his vast empire was administered. 


Cyrus the Great: Facts & Fiction 

babylonian clay brick cyrus names and titles
Fired clay brick with Babylonian inscription giving the names and titles of Cyrus, and the statement that he established peace in the land, Ur 6th century BC, British Museum


As with any figure of such stature, there are many myths and legends surrounding the life of Cyrus the Great. In some cases, however, the truth is even stranger than the fiction. One of the main sources which describes the life of Cyrus is the Cyropaedia (The Education of Cyrus), which was written by Xenophon (ca. 430-354 BC), a Greek historian, general, and student of Socrates. This work describes Cyrus as the ideal ruler and is considered to be a blend of political romance and historical fiction. Another important source is the Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC), who is often called the father of history. His work, The Histories, has often been criticized for seemingly fanciful accounts which many claim were made up for their entertainment value. There are also a number of chronicles written by the Babylonians, such as the Nabonidus Chronicle, but these are extremely fragmented.


The end result is that it requires difficulty to reconstruct the history of Cyrus the Great. Many of the details remain hazy and far too often we are forced to fall back on the myths and legends, some of which are even labeled as such in the very sources which record them. Yet even so, Cyrus the Great exerted an enormous influence over the history of the Ancient World and remains an admired figure to this day.


Early Life

achaemenid gold fluted bowl
Achaemenid Fluted Bowl,  6th-5th Century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


The early life of Cyrus the Great is shrouded in myth and mystery. He was born sometime around 600 BC and was the son of Cambyses, king of the Persians, and grandson of Astyages, king of the Median Empire. According to legend Astyages was warned in a series of prophetic dreams that Cyrus would one day supplant and kill him. Astyages ordered his top general Harpagus to kill the child, but instead Harpagus had Cyrus spirited away to live as a shepherd.

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At the age of 10 Cyrus came to the attention of Astyages after beating the son of a nobleman who refused to obey his orders. After interviewing the boy and his adoptive parents, Astyages discovered what had happened. Cyrus was sent back to his parents, but the son of Harpagus was executed and served to his father at a banquet as retribution. Other sources describe Cyrus living at the court of Astyages as the son of a poor Median family before being returned to his parents. Sometime after his return Cyrus married Cassandane, an Achaemenian and the great love of his life.


Overthrowing the Medes

gold plaque winged creatures
Plaque with winged creatures approaching trees,  8th-7th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art


When Cyrus the Great ascended the throne in 559 BC, he was one of many local rulers who owed allegiance to the mighty Median Empire. The Median Empire was at this time still ruled by Cyrus’ grandfather Astyages, but it is unclear as to exactly how and why hostilities broke out. When Astyages sent his army to attack Cyrus it was under the command of Harpagus. If the legends are to be believed, Harpagus had reason to hate Astyages, and encouraged Cyrus to revolt. Harpagus then defected to Cyrus and brought half of his army with him.


The war against the Medes lasted for three years (553-550 BC), and ended with the Persians capturing the Median capital of Ecbatana. Cyrus spared Astyages’ life and married Amytis, one of his daughters which pacified the Bactrians, Parthians, and Saka, who were former vassals of the Medes. With the conquest of Media Cyrus was able to unite the Persian people, with himself as their king.  


Cyrus the Great vs. Croesus of Lydia

gold stater of croesus lydia
Heavy Gold Stater of Croesus, Lydia, capital city of Sardis, 560-546 BC


Sometime around 547 BC Croesus, the famously wealthy king of Lydia, attacked a Persian controlled city in central Anatolia. Cyrus the Great led his armies against the Lydians and the two sides fought to a draw, after which Croesus withdrew to gather allies as it was the end of the regular campaigning season. However, Cyrus pressed on and attacked the Lydian capital at Sardis. When Croesus again marched out to do battle Harpagus advised Cyrus to place his camels in front of his army as the unfamiliar sight, sounds, and smell of the animals would cause the Lydian cavalry horses to shy away. Cyrus followed Harpagus’ advice and in the ensuing battle captured Croesus and routed his forces.


Rather than executing his erstwhile foe, Cyrus spared Croesus’ life and made him an advisor. When Cyrus began his return march to Persia the Lydians seized Croesus’ vast treasury hired an army of mercenaries and rose in revolt. Cyrus dispatched two of his generals to deal with the situation. After crushing the revolt they subdued the rest of Anatolia, adding Ionia, Lycia, Cilicia, and Phoenicia to the Persian Empire.


Liberation of Babylon

stele babylon nabonidus
Stele of Nabonidus, Babylon,  554-539 BC, The British Museum


In 540 BC Cyrus the Great captured the kingdom of Elam in eastern Mesopotamia so that his kingdom now bordered the Neo-Babylonian Empire. At this time the Neo-Babylonian Empire was ruled by Nabonidus, who came to power in a coup and then had a falling out with the powerful priesthood of Marduk one of Babylon’s chief gods. The result these and other actions, meant that Nabonidus was very unpopular with the Babylonian people who viewed Cyrus the Great as a potential liberator.


Cyrus invaded Babylonia in 539 BC and swiftly routed the Babylonian army in a short battle on the banks of the Euphrates River.  Nabonidus fled as Cyrus approached the city of Babylon itself. Babylon was one of the largest cities of the Ancient Near East, boasting both a sizable population and impressive defenses. The Persians captured the city by diverting the Euphrates into a nearby canal which allowed them to wade through the river bed and enter the city at night. Babylon thus fell without a fight and Cyrus prevented his troops from sacking the city. Nabonidus surrendered shortly thereafter, and Cyrus gained control of all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and the Levant. His great empire was now the largest that the world had ever seen.


Death & Burial

tomb cyrus the great
Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pasargadae, 529 BC


Sometime later Cyrus the Great came into conflict with the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation in Central Asia. Cyrus first proposed a marriage to the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, but was rejected. In response, Cyrus launched an invasion of the Massagetae’s territory, and the two sides engaged in battle. The exact details are unclear, but it appears that the Persian army was defeated and he was killed. According to one account, after the battle the body of Cyrus was brought before Tomyris, who had it beheaded. She then dipped the head in a vessel of blood; a symbolic act of revenge as Cyrus was said to have killed her son earlier through an act of deception.


After Cyrus the Great died, sometime around 530-529 BC, his remains were interred in his capital city of Pasargadae. Though the city is now in ruins, the tomb itself has survived. Made of limestone, it consists of a quadrangular base, followed by a pyramidal succession of smaller levels. The structure is curtailed by an edifice, with an arched roof composed of a pyramidal shaped stone, and a small opening or window on the side. Within the tomb Cyrus the Great was buried in a golden coffin, resting on a table with golden supports. According to the sources the tomb was filled with other luxurious items, and was surrounded by a beautiful garden.  Above the tomb was inscribed the words:  “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 begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones.”


Accomplishments of Cyrus the Great   

cyrus cylinder babylon
The Cyrus Cylinder, Babylon,  539 BC, The British Museum 


Besides being a conqueror, Cyrus the Great is also remembered for his many other achievements. He is considered an early proponent of human rights by many. After the conquest of the Neo Babylonian Empire, he issued an edict recorded on the so called Cyrus Cylinder, which restored all of the temples and religious practices as well as allowing many displaced peoples to return to their homes. This policy is recorded in two books of the Bible and is equated with the release of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. Throughout his empire Cyrus instituted a policy of religious tolerance. His wise policies have been admired and emulated by rulers, statesmen, and philosophers down to the present day.


To rule the vast empire Cyrus established a number of satrapies, or administrative regions ruled by satraps who were given broad powers. They were connected to the central government through the development of an efficient postal and road system. He was also an innovative builder who brought together techniques from all over the empire. The most famous unit in the Achaemenid army, the 10,000 strong Immortals, was founded by Cyrus. Across time and space many have rightfully revered the achievements of Cyrus the Great, who was also called the Father of his People.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.