As we have seen , many of the emperors of the land of Sumer and Akkad crowned themselves the King of the Four Corners of the world. None deserved this title more than Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenid Empire, the First Persian Empire. His empire stretched from Hellespont in the Dardanelles, to the Israeli coast of Mediterranean Sea to the Azerbaijani, Iranian and Turkmen coast of the Caspian Sea, all the way up to include modern day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and to the east Afghanistan and Pakistan. Cyrus was perhaps the most honorable emperor in history.
The founder of the Achaemenid dynasty was purported to be Achaemenes, a shadowy figure which some historians believe to be a product of Darius’s imagination, created to give legitimacy to his rule. Achaemenes had a son Teispes, who captured the Anshan and enlarged his kingdom to include Pars proper. Teispes had a son Cyrus I who inherited the throne of Anshan. Teispes had another son Ariaramnes who was ancestor of Darius the Great.
We have already seen the rise of Cyrus. We will now look at how Cyrus conquered his way to create the greatest empire of his time.
Croesus was the king of Lydia in Asia Minor during the early half of sixth century BCE. Croesus was known in the early Greece for his legendary wealth – As wealthy as Croesus. Due to various events in his life, he became a more mythical figure in classical antiquity. Once Solon, a Greek philosopher and statesman, had an audience with Croesus. Croesus showed him his wealth and opulence and asked him “Which man is happy?”. Solon replies that there are three who are happier than Croesus: Tellus, who had children and grandchildren and who died old, gloriously fighting for his country; Brothers Kleobus and Biton, who pulled the oxcart containing their mother who wanted to attend the festival of Hera. Pleased by their devotion, their mother prayed to Hera to give her children the best gift the Gods can give to a Mortal. Hera gave them immortality, figuratively, by letting them die peacefully in their sleep during the festival, thus ensuring that they would be remembered as heroes and their fame would live on, giving them immortality. Croesus was obviously not satisfied with the answer that Solon gave. Tyche (Fate) had other things in mind for Croesus. Croesus gave refuge to a Phyrgian prince, Adrastus. Adrastus was the son of Gordias (Of Gordian knot fame) and had killed his brother in a fit of rage. Croesus had a vision that his son, Atys, would fall victim to an iron spear and had prevented him from participating in any war and had married him off early to continue the line. Atys convinced Croesus to let him go on a boar hunt. Since the boar would not obviously carry a spear, Croesus let him go. During the hunt Adrastus tried to spear the boar but missed and killed Atys instead. Adrastus begged Croesus to let him be killed ritually as a penance which Croesus refused. Unwilling to live with the blood of another innocent on his hand, Adrastus committed suicide.
Now this Croesus looked at the rise of Cyrus and was in two minds whether to accept the sovereignty of Cyrus or oppose him. He asked the Delphic Oracles whether he should attack Cyrus. The Oracles replied that if Croesus crosses River Halys (The treaty boundary of Lydia and Media), he would destroy a great empire. The answer was clear enough for Croesus. He made an alliance with the Nabonidus, the Chaldean of Babylon, Spartans and Egyptians and attacked and captured the Median city of Pteria. Persians tried to incite revolt in Lydia using the Ionian Greeks, which failed. Cyrus then marched on to the city Pteria. The resulting battle was a stalemate and Croesus retreated to his capital of Sardis. In those times, armies withdrew during the Winter months and reformed for attack in the spring. Cyrus, however wanted to give Croesus a surprise party and marched on to Sardis.
North of Sardis, near Thymra, the two armies met. As an aside, Thymra was the location of a famous temple to Apollo where Achilles murdered Troilus, whom fate had linked with the city of Troy, thus foreshadowing the fall of Troy. Thymra was also the temple where Cassandra had received her prophetic visions. If you have seen the movie Troy, this was the temple on the beach where Brad Pitt’s Achilles cuts of the head of statue of Apollo and captures Cassandra.
Cyrus’s army was outnumbered 2:1 in the battle with his ~200,000 strong army facing ~420,000 Lydian alliance troops. Cyrus had maintained his army in a loose square formation with the strong camel and cavalry in the rear with he leading the right rear cavalry. The square contained the Phalanx, archers, slingers and archer towers and perhaps the Persian Immortals as well. Chariots were front and center. Croesus on the other hand had his Egyptian infantry in the center and elite cavalry on the flanks. The chariots were facing the Persian chariots.
Croesus attacked with the chariots and his flanks to envelope the Persian center not realizing the potential of the elite shock troops at the rear of the Persian lines. Soon after, Cyrus’s rear cavalry attacked the flanks that had developed cracks due to archer fire from the square as well as overextension. The scent of the camels in the Persian rear left flank caused the horses on the Lydian right flank to panic. This resulted in the right cavalry of Lydian army to fight dismounted. Heavy attack by the Persian cavalry flanks resulted in Croesus’s flanks dissolving and fleeing. Persians then enveloped the Lydian infantry which surrendered after a valiant fight back. The remaining Lydians fled back to Sardis.
The siege of Sardis lasted for 14 days after which the entire Asia minor including the Greek colonies of Ionia was annexed into the Persian empire. Legend has it that Cyrus ordered Croesus to be burnt alive on a pyre. Croesus remembered his conversation with Solon and realized the fickle nature of fate called out “Solon!” three times. Puzzled by this outburst, Cyrus asked the pyre to be extinguished without success. Apollo then intervened and a great downpour snuffed the fire. Apparently Croesus then became a loyal adviser to Cyrus.
Nebuchadnezzar II, the Chaldean king of Babylon, the destroyer of the First Temple, built a wall from the Tigris river to the Euphrates river, called the Median Wall, to protect the city of Babylon. The wall was reportedly around 20 feet wide and 100 feet high and stretched from the city of Opis to the Sippar (See map below for the locations). Neo-Babylonian empire of Chaldean Nabonidus was the only remaining power in the Mesopotamia in conflict with the Persians. It was thus critical for Cyrus to bypass the Median Wall via Opis in his drive for supremacy in the Mesopotamia.
The conquest of Babylonia was a culmination of Cyrus’s publicity campaign portraying his as a just and tolerant ruler in contrast with Nabonidus as well as his campaign of bribery to bring the regional governors of Babylonia under his fold.
The armies of Cyrus and Nabonidus met near Opis as per the Nabonidus Chronicle. The details of the battle are not given but it resulted in the defeat of Babylonians probably a complete rout. There is mention of a massacre but whether it is massacre of Babylonian Army by Cyrus or of Babylonian citizenry by Cyrus or a brutal crushing of a possible revolt by Nabonidus is not clear. Cyrus Cylinder though portrays Cyrus as peacefully conquering Babylon. The contemporary evidence from Nabonidus Chronicle and Cyrus Cylinder are contradicted by later historical accounts that imply that a Cyrus laid siege to the city of Babylon and massive engineering works were undertaken to dredge the Euphrates to allow the troops to reach the city. This account though is not supported by any archaeological evidence.
After the conquest of Cyrus crowned himself the King of the Four Corners of the World. His empire was the largest empire that the world had ever seen.
Details of death of Cyrus is lost to history with Herodotus giving what appears to be a heavily fictionalized death in battle with Massagetae with their ruler Tomyris. Tomyris defeated Cyrus in the second battle and to avenge the death of her son, beheaded Cyrus and dipped his head in a vessel filled with blood to quench his thirst for blood. Herodotus, wisely adds a “disclaimer” that this was one of the many accounts of death of Cyrus that he had heard.
Cyrus was buried in his capital city of Pasargadae where his tomb still remains. Alexander the Great, visited the tomb after his conquest of Persia and Plutarch reports the below inscription on the tomb
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
Cyrus allowed the people of Israel who were uprooted and sent into exile by Nebuchadnezzar to return to their homeland thus earning him the title of “Lord’s Messiah” in the Jewish Tanakh. Cyrus innovations in politics and administration of the satrapy system of governance allowed governance of empires with massive size. Cyrus was an inspiration to many of the great politicians and emperors including Alexander the Great and Thomas Jefferson. Xenophon in his Cyropedia describes Cyrus as the perfect ruler.