Who was Cyrus the Great?



Cyrus the Great, whose decree of liberty opens our story of Persia. Cyrus was king of the Persians, who, as the southern branch of this Aryan nation, had long been ruled by kings of their own, subordinate to the superior kings of Media. Cyrus himself boasts that he is the descendant of several kings tracing back to the Persian chieftain Achaemenes, the legendary founder of his race, who had been nursed in childhood by an eagle, which became the symbol of the royal race of Persia. Cyrus was a younger son, and as such held rule at first over the dependent Persian province of Elam. Then he succeeded to the throne of Persia, conquered that of Media, and finally mastered all the known world of Asia.

So great a figure did Cyrus become in the eyes of later generations that numerous different legends were woven about his birth. Most commonly accepted of these is the tale of Herodotus that King Astyages had a dream warning him of danger from his daughter, his only child, so he wedded her to one of his most obedient soldiers, Cambyses, a Persian, and sent the pair to rule in distant Persia. When their son Cyrus was born, Astyages ordered another of his soldiers, Harpagus, to slay the child; but instead Harpagus had the boy brought up in secret by a peasant. The strength and resolution of the lad Cyrus, no less than his kingly beauty, so distinguished him above all the other peasant lads that his birth was suspected, and finally Harpagus confessed it. Astyages then spared Cyrus at the entreaty of the boy's mother, but punished Harpagus by slaying the latter's son under circumstances of revolting cruelty.

Harpagus pretended a continued loyalty, but, being secretly determined on revenge, constantly urged his foster-child Cyrus to revolt against Astyages. This Cyrus did after he had succeeded his father on the subordinate throne of Persia. He summoned all the Persian men to meet him, bidding each bring a hatchet. When they were gathered in wonderment, he set them to a hard day's work at chopping trees, offering them no refreshment through all their labor. The next day he invited them to a feast, and when this reached its close, he asked them which day they had preferred. On their expressing clamorous preference for the feasting, he told them that their present lives were like the first day, but should be like the second if they would join him in overthrowing the Medes and snatching for their own race the first place in the dual empire. The Persians eagerly followed Cyrus; and Astyages, in sending an army to suppress the revolt, blindly entrusted the command to Harpagus. This was the vengeful father's moment of triumph. He urged his soldiers to desert the cruel Astyages for the noble and generous Cyrus. Many of them followed their general's counsel, and the rest were easily defeated. Then at the head of his united forces Cyrus attacked Astyages in his capital and overthrew him.

Whether Cyrus was thus really descended from the Median royal house, or whether the story of his birth and secret change in childhood was only an invention to lead the Medes to accept his kingship, it is certain that he did defeat Astyages and was accepted by both Medes and Persians as their joint king. Throughout his reign in his inscriptions and proclamations he refers to the two races always as of equal rank and loyalty. Neither did Cyrus reign over his people as the Semitic emperors of old had done, in a spirit of arbitrary and unbridled power. His hand was checked at every turn by the national laws. Whether we regard these as, indeed, the creation of his ancestor Deioces or only as the slow growth of custom, they had become the fixed form which the Bible repeatedly calls them, "the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not." A decree once established could not be broken even by the king.

Other nations took note of the internal revolution in Media by which Cyrus had come into power. They formed a coalition to seize a portion of the territories of the disorganized empire. All the world of civilization-Egypt, Babylon, Lydia, and a new power of which we now hear mention for the first time, the Grecian state of Sparta-united in an alliance. Cyrus got word of this, and before the allies had time to combine their forces, he marched his harmonious army of Medes and Persians across the border territories of Babylon to reach Lydia, the old enemy of his race.

The Lydians, under command of their king, Croesus, offered a brave resistance. But Cyrus, in a bold and brilliant campaign, outwitted and defeated Croesus and shut him up in his capital of Sardis with a mere remnant of the Lydian forces. Cyrus is said to have overthrown the Lydians in the final battle by placing camels in front of his own troops, with the result that the strange smell so terrified the horses of the Lydian cavalry that their ranks were scattered in confusion.

Cyrus stormed the Lydian capital as suddenly and daringly as he had conducted the entire campaign. He thus became complete master of all Asia Minor, except the Greek cities along its coast. When Croesus saw his own capture was inevitable he prepared, as other Asiatic sovereigns had done, to destroy himself, his household, and his treasures in one vast blazing funeral pyre. Probably he actually perished thus, though legend represents him as making friends with Cyrus at the last moment and becoming thereafter the Persian's vassal and faithful adviser.

The allies who had planned to unite with Lydia in despoiling Cyrus were singularly backward in taking up her cause. The Egyptians had actually placed some forces in the field, but these slunk home after the first defeats. The Babylonians hurried to make a peace treaty with the bold victor. The Spartans, who had expected the siege of Croesus' city to proceed in the usual leisurely fashion of the times, had prepared a fleet to sail to its assistance; but on learning of its downfall they disbanded the fleet and contented themselves with sending an ambassador to Cyrus to warn him that if he injured the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor he would incur the Spartan enmity.

Cyrus asked politely who the Spartans were, and where Greece was. Then he bade the ambassador take home to the Spartans his ironical thanks for their excellent advice of peace, and his warning that he might yet give them cause to cease babbling of others' woes and think about their own. As a matter of fact. an uprising in his own imperfectly secured domain of Media compelled the conqueror to leave Asia Minor in all haste. But the generals whom he put in charge there, especially Harpagus, his legendary foster-father, attacked the Greek cities in Asia, and in the course of a year or so brought them all into submission to Persian rule. Sparta, saved by her remoteness in far-off Europe, made no effort to protect the Asiatic Greeks.

Of the great campaign of Cyrus to the east of Media we have no clear record. This seems to have been the most tremendous effort of his reign. After suppressing the Median revolt he spent six years or more marching over the unexplored regions of Central Asia. What nations he met and conquered we do not clearly know; but whereas the ancient empires of Babylon and Assyria had planted their border but a few leagues east of their own Euphrates valley, the bounds of the growing world of civilization were now extended many hundred miles to the eastward. Cyrus fought in Chinese Turkestan, and may even have anticipated Alexander in carrying his conquests to the edge of India.

Then, as master already of the broadest empire earth had yet known, Cyrus returned home, in 539 B.C., to settle affairs with Babylon. The metropolis fell, as we have already seen, in the following year, and all its empire passed under the sway of the Persian. Most of the subject races hailed the change with joy. Cyrus had already shown within his own domain how much more gentle was to be the Persian yoke.

In all the known world, Egypt was now the only power left outside the Persian realm; for the cities of Greece yet lay, as we have seen, beyond the view of civilization, regarded as distant "islands" of the sea, the homes of barbarians set dimly on the utmost edge of the great Asiatic world. Cyrus prepared him-self for the Egyptian conquest. But before undertaking this he arranged and systematized the government of his empire. Then a revolt among the far eastern tribes summoned him thither, and in the east he died. The Greek author, Xenophon, who pictures Cyrus as the ideal monarch, tells us that he passed away in peace, engaged to the last moment in giving wise counsel to his children and expressing the utmost resignation at his end.

Herodotus had heard a wilder legend, that Cyrus on his second eastern expedition attacked a distant people ruled by Queen Tomyris. She entreated him to leave her and her nation in peace and to cease his blood-strewn march. But Cyrus entrapped her army during a drinking bout and defeated them, the Queen's son being among the slain. Then Tomyris in desperate revenge led her soldiers in person against the Persians, and Cyrus was killed in the encounter. Tomyris cut off his head and plunged it into a bath of blood, declaring that the ruthless conqueror should have his fill of what had been his favorite feast in life.

Such descriptions of the end of the famous world-ruler are obviously to be regarded as moral apologues of wisdom and of folly, rather than accepted as real history. The real lesson that Persia's story tells throughout is of the immeasurable misery which must exist under the rule of one man, the enormous power with which his heedlessness must sway multitudes whether for good or evil. It teaches us also what a whirl of almost irresistible temptations surround him who with merely human mind and heart holds in his hand unlimited and unquestioned power.

Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses.










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