Cyrus the Great wanted to use more mounted soldiers because he knew how important they were especially since two of his greatest enemies used cavalry or soldiers on horseback. The Persian army was organized in a new fashion. The cavalry flanked both sides of the army in the middle which comprised of archers who attacked first from a distance. Afterwards, the horsemen attacked anyone left standing in the opposing army by throwing javelins, which were light spears thrown by hand.


The Iranian-speakers who migrated into the land of Iran and the surrounding area in the years before 1000 BC were not one single tribe or group. In time some of their descendants became known as Medes and Persians, but there were Parthians, Sogdians, and others, too, who only acquired the names known to us later in their history. And even the titles Mede and Persian were themselves simplifications, lumping together shifting alliances and confederacies of disparate tribes.

From the beginning, the Medes and Persians are mentioned together in historical sources, suggesting a close relationship from the very earliest times. The first such mention is in an Assyrian record of 836 BC—an account of an extended military campaign by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and several of his successors that was waged in the Zagros mountains and as far east as Mount Demavand, the high, extinct volcano in the Alborz range. The accounts they left behind listed the Medes and Persians as tributaries—those paying tribute to the stronger Assyrians. The heartlands of the Medes were in the northwest, in the modern provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Hamadan, and Tehran. In the region of the Zagros south of the territories occupied by the Medes, the Assyrians encountered the Persians in the region they called Parsuash, which has been known ever since as Pars or Fars.

Within a century or so, however, the Medes and Persians were fighting back, attacking Assyrian territories. Later traditions recorded by Herodotus in the fifth century BC mention early kings of the Medes, called Deioces and Cyaxares, who appeared in the Assyrian accounts as Daiaukku and Uaksatar; and a king of the Persians called Achaemenes, who the Assyrians called Hakhamanish. By 700 BC the Medes—with the help of Scythian tribes—had established an independent state, which later grew to become the first Iranian Empire. In 612 BC the Medes destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (adjacent to modern Mosul, on the Tigris). At its height the Median Empire stretched from Asia Minor to the Hindu Kush, and south to the Persian Gulf, ruling the Persians as vassals as well as many other subject peoples.


Around 559 BC a Persian prince named Cyrus (modern Persian Kurosh), claiming descent from the royal house of Persia and from its progenitor Achaemenes, became king of Anshan upon the death of his father. Persia and Anshan, at that time, were still subject to the Median Empire, but Cyrus led a revolt against the Median king Astyages, and in 549 BC captured the Median capital, Ecbatana (modern Hamadan). Cyrus reversed the relationship between Media and Persia—he crowned himself king of Persia, making Persia the center of the empire and Media the junior partner. But he did not stop there. He went on to conquer Lydia, in Asia Minor, taking possession of the treasury of King Croesus, legendary for his wealth. He also conquered the remaining territories of Asia Minor, as well as Phoenicia, Judaea, and Babylonia. This created an enormous empire that stretched from the Greek cities on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea to the banks of the river Indus—in extent perhaps the greatest empire the world had seen up to that time.

Cyrus’s empire took on much of the culture of previous Elamite, Assyrian, and Babylonian empires, notably in its written script and monumental iconography. But without romanticizing Cyrus unduly, it seems that he aspired to rule an empire different from others that had preceded it in the region. Portentous inscriptions recording the military glory of kings and the supposed favor of their terrible war-gods were commonplace in the Middle East in the centuries preceding Cyrus’s accession. In the nineteenth century an eight-sided clay object (known since as the Taylor Prism, after the man who found it), measuring about 15 inches long by 5.5 inches in diameter, covered in cuneiform script, was discovered near Mosul. When the characters were eventually deciphered, it was found to record eight campaigns of the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705 BC–681 BC). An excerpt reads:

Sennacherib, the great king . . . king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters . . . guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the needy, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the flame who consumes those who do not submit, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, has entrusted an unrivaled kinship to me . . . has made powerful my weapons . . . he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare. . . .

In the course of my campaign, Beth-Dagon, Joppa, Banaibarka, Asuru, cities of Sidka, who had not speedily bowed in submission at my feet, I besieged, I conquered, I carried off their spoils. . . . I approached Ekron and slew the governors and nobles who had rebelled, and hung their bodies on stakes around the city. . . .

As for Hezekiah the Jew, who did not submit to my yoke: 46 of his strong, walled cities . . . by means of ramps and by bringing up siege-engines . . . I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. . . .

The way the pharaohs of Egypt celebrated their rule and their victories was very similar to this, and although Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, appears on the Taylor Prism as a victim, some parts of the Bible describing the Israelites and their God smiting their enemies do not read very differently, either.

By contrast, another clay object, about 9 inches by 4 inches, also discovered in the nineteenth century and covered in cuneiform script, tells a rather different story. The Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, was found where it had been deliberately placed—under the foundations of the city wall of Babylon. It has been described as a charter of human rights for the ancient world, which is an exaggeration and a misrepresentation. But the message of the cylinder, particularly when combined with what is known of Cyrus’s religious policy from the books of Ezra and Isaiah, is nonetheless remarkable. The kingly preamble from the cylinder is fairly conventional:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, rightful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters (of the earth), son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, great king, king of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, great king, king of Anshan of a family that always exercised kingship. . . .

But it continues, describing the favor shown to Cyrus by the Babylonian god Marduk:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon to love me, and I was daily endeavouring to worship him. My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize any place of the country of Sumer and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his other sacred cities . . .

and concludes:

As to the region . . . as far as Assur and Susa, Agade, Eshnunna, the towns of Zamban, Me-Turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sanctuaries on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which had been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Sumer and Akkad whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former chapels, the places that make them happy.

Like the proud declarations of Sennacherib, this is propaganda—but it is propaganda of a different kind. It shows Cyrus in a different light, and according to a different scale of values. Cyrus chose to present himself showing respect to the Babylonian deity, Marduk. Perhaps it would have been different if Cyrus had conquered Babylon by force, rather than marching into it unopposed (in 539 BC) after its inhabitants revolted against the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus was a ruthless, ambitious man; no one ever conquered an empire without those characteristics in full measure. But we know that he permitted freedom of worship to the Jews, too. Cyrus and his successors permitted them to return home from exile and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. For those acts they were accorded in the Jewish scriptures a unique status among gentile monarchs.

The logic of statecraft alone might have suggested that it would be more sustainable in the long run to let subjects conduct their own affairs and worship as they pleased. But that policy had to be acceptable to the Iranian elite, including the priests—the Magi. Leaving aside the question of Cyrus’s personal beliefs, which remain unclear, it is reasonable to see in the policy some of the spirit of moral earnestness and justice that pervaded the religion of Zoroaster. The presence of those values in the background helps to explain why the Cyrus cylinder is couched in such different terms from the militaristic thunder and arrogance of Sennacherib. The old answer was terror and a big stick, but the Persian Empire would be run in a more devolved, permissive spirit. Once again, an encounter with complexity, acceptance of that complexity, and a response. This was something new.

Unfortunately, according to Herodotus, Cyrus did not end his life as gloriously as he had lived it. Having conquered in the west, he turned to campaign east of the Caspian. According to one account he was defeated and killed in battle by Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae, another Iranian tribe who fought mainly on horseback, like the Scythians.

The Massagetae are interesting because they appear to have maintained some ancient Iranian customs that may shed light on the status of women in Persian society under the Achaemenids. There are signs in Herodotus (Book 1:216) that the Massagetae showed some features of a matrilineal, polyandrous society, in which women might have a number of spouses or sexual partners, but men only one. Patricia Crone has suggested that this feature may resurface in men’s apparent holding of women in common as practiced later by the Mazdakites in the fifth century AD, and by the Khorramites after the Islamic conquest. Mazdaism certainly permitted a practice whereby an impotent man could give his wife temporarily to another in order to obtain a child; it also sanctioned the marriage of close relatives. But in general, Persian society seems to have leaned toward limiting the status of women, following practices elsewhere in the Middle East. Royal and noble women may have been able to own property in their own right—and even, on occasion, to exert some political influence. But this seems to have been an exception associated with high status rather than indicative of practices prevalent in society more widely.

Cyrus’s body was brought back to Persia, to Pasargadae, his capital, to rest in a tomb there. That tomb, which can still be seen (though its contents have long since disappeared), is massively simple rather than grandiose—a sepulchre the size of a small house on a raised, stepped plinth. This tomb burial has raised some questions about the religion of Cyrus and the other Achaemenid kings. Many of his successors were placed in tombs of a different type—rock tombs halfway up a cliff face. Tomb burial was anathema to later Zoroastrians, who held it to be sacrilege to pollute the earth with dead bodies. Instead they exposed the dead on so-called Towers of Silence, to be consumed by birds and animals. Could the Achaemenid kings really have been Zoroastrians if they permitted tomb burial?

Some have explained the inconsistency by suggesting that different classes of Iranian society followed different beliefs—different religions, effectively. As we have seen, there probably was some considerable plurality of belief within the broad flow of Mazdaism at this time. But it seems more likely that the plurality was socially vertical rather than horizontal—a question of geography and tribe rather than of social class. Perhaps an earlier, pre-Zoroastrian tradition of burial still lingered and the elevated position of all the royal tombs was a kind of compromise. Halfway between heaven and earth—itself a strong metaphor. Around the tomb of Cyrus lay a paradise, a garden watered by irrigation channels (our word paradise comes, via Greek, from the Old Persian paradaida, meaning a walled garden). Magian priests watched over the tomb and sacrificed a horse to Cyrus’s memory each month.

Cyrus had been a conqueror, but a conqueror with imagination and vision. He was at least as remarkable a man as that other conqueror, Alexander, whose career marks the end of the Achaemenid period just as that of Cyrus marks the beginning. Maybe as a youth Cyrus had a Mazdaean tutor as remarkable as Aristotle, who taught Alexander.


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