Cyrus II (559-530 BC)

"Founder of the first world-empire," "turning point in history," "liberator[1]," even "Messiah": Many glorious attributes have been used from antiquity until recent times to describe Cyrus[2] II ("the Great"), son of Cambyses I, and his deeds are still held in high esteem to this very day, not only by the people of Iran, but also by statesmen, religious groups, individuals, and public institutions from all over the world. But what do we really know about this famous and respected Persian king apart from the fact that he defeated the Median, the Lydian and the Neo-Babylonian [] (as well as many other) empires one after another, and finally ruled over a territory far greater than any king who had ruled before him?


While there is a bulk of literature with varying accounts on Cyrus' life and deeds from later times (most notably a number of references to him in the Hebrew Bible and the accounts of some Greek and later Roman writers),[3] contemporary sources are very limited, consisting mainly of his own official inscriptions [].[4] From these texts we learn that Cyrus II was king of Anšan and son of Cambyses (I); his lengthy cylinder inscription (Cyrus II 01) [] further reports him to be the grandson of Cyrus (I) and a descendant of Teispes (Šišpiš). Like himself, each of his ancestors is designated as "great king, king of Anšan."[5] This information seemingly contradicts the accounts of Greek writers which state that Cyrus' father, a Persian, was either (a) chosen by the Median king Astyages as the husband for his daughter Mandane precisely "because he thought him greatly inferior to even a middle-ranking Mede" (Herodotus I 107 []; translation by Kuhrt 2007a, p. 93) and hoped that he could thus avoid the fulfillment of his vision that her offspring (visualised as emiction) would flood the whole of Asia, or (b) the son of a very poor family who worked himself up to the position of Astyages' royal cup-bearer (Ctesias, FgrH 90 F66, 1–7 []).[6] However, although it is nowadays fashionable to regard the Greek stories about Cyrus' origins as mere legends, one cannot exclude the possibility that they may contain a kernel of truth: royal inscriptions and their genealogies are often sugarcoated (conditioned by their genre), and, therefore, the fact that Cyrus describes his father -- for whom no official inscriptions are known to us -- as "great king" and "king of Anšan" is no solid proof that he actually ever ruled as such.[7]

Conquest of an Empire

The political situation in Fars before Cyrus' rise to power is rather unclear: Herodotus (I 125 []) mentions the existence of various Persian tribes, but due to the lack of reliable sources there is no way to define their actual sphere(s) of influence or to establish what kind of relationship they had with each other and with neighboring peoples (e.g., the Medes). However, it is beyond doubt that at some point Cyrus fought against and defeated the Median king Astyages: Apart from later Greek and Latin sources, this victory is also recorded in a royal inscription of the Babylonian king Nabonidus [] (preserved on two clay cylinders from Sippar and - presumably - Babylon) who certainly would not have ascribed victories to a foreign king (his later archenemy) had those events not actually occurred. The relevant passage reads:

"Marduk said to me: 'The Mede of whom you spoke -- he, his land and the kings, who went at his side, are no more.' When the third year arrived, he[8] roused against him Cyrus, king of Anshan, his young servant. With his few troops he scattered the multitude of the Medes. Astyages, king of the Medes, he seized and took him captive to his land." (translation by Kuhrt 2007a, p. 56)

The real reason for Cyrus' revolt against Astyages is not stated in this text and the traditional interpretation of the phrase "his young servant" as meaning that Cyrus rebelled against Median overlordship (an idea strongly supported by Herodotus I 125-128 []) has recently been questioned (cf. Rollinger 1999, pp. 129-136). The so-called "Nabonidus Chronicle []" (a later, but quite reliable account) instead states that Astyages marched against Cyrus "for conquest" (col. ii 1 []). That source further adds that Astyages was taken prisoner by his own army, who rebelled against him and then delivered him to Cyrus (col. ii 2 []),[9] and that Cyrus afterwards marched to the Median royal city Ecbatana, plundered it, and took its treasures with him to Anšan (col. ii 3-4 []). Because the contents of that text are arranged chronologically by consecutive years, these events can be precisely dated to the year 550/549 BC.

The next military event mentioned in the chronicle (ii 15-18 []) is a successful campaign by Cyrus in the year 547/546 BC against a country whose name is unfortunately broken. The idea that this passage could deal with the war between Cyrus and the Lydian king Croesus (that is described in much detail by Herodotus I 53-54 [], 71- []88 []) has become and is still very popular, but various scholars who have collated the traces of the remaining signs on the tablet itself have come to the conclusion that the reading "Lydia" for the country in question is impossible. Instead, the name should probably be restored as Urartu.[10]

In 539/538, Cyrus II achieved his main victory, the defeat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire []. In this year -- again according to the "Nabonidus Chronicle" [] (iii 12-16 []) --, his army successfully routed the Babylonian army ("army of Akkad") at Opis (on the bank of the Tigris), seized Sippar and then Babylon without a fight, and finally captured the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus [], who had reportedly fled after the conquest of Sippar.[11] Interestingly, while the victory at Opis is ascribed to Cyrus himself, the chronicle states that he only came to Babylon more than two weeks after Ug/Gubaru (Gobryas), governor of Gutium, had entered and secured the city together with Cyrus' troops (iii 18 []). This fits, at least partly, with Herodotus' very detailed, but not necessarily trustworthy account of the events (I 191 []), which states that Cyrus had stationed a contingent of troops near the spot where the Euphrates River enters Babylon, and that he himself withdrew with another (non-combatant) part of his army in order to drain the river and thus make it fordable so that his troops could secretly enter Babylon. None of these details are mentioned in Cyrus' own famous cylinder inscription (Cyrus II 01 []), but that text likewise highlights the fact that the Persian king entered the city peacefully without battle.


The claim made in the "Cyrus Cylinder" (Cyrus II 01 []) that Cyrus had marched to Babylon on the explicit wish of the (Babylonian) god Marduk has led to much speculation about a possible involvement of the Marduk-priesthood at Babylon in his victory: the priests and/or other inhabitants of Babylon might have been fed up with Nabonidus []' unseemly deeds and opened the doors of Babylon for the new ruler on their own free will. However, one should not neglect the influence of the historical situation on the available sources: While there are also other hints that Nabonidus [] indeed was not very interested in his capital, its main god Marduk and his cultic rites,[12] his extremely negative image in later times was certainly influenced (if not created) by propagandistic activities in favor of the king who had replaced him. Thus, for example, Cyrus' scribes not only composed royal inscriptions praising their ruler's deeds and piety, but also a poetic condemnation of Nabonidus [] (the so-called "Verse Account of Nabonidus []").[13]

Cyrus himself never suffered a similar fate. This might primarily be due to the fact that his reign -- other than Nabonidus []' -- did not mark the end, but rather the beginning of a very successful empire: After his death, his son Cambyses II continued his father's expansion policy by conquering Egypt, later Persian kings even fought wars against the Greeks, and it was only 200 years after Cyrus' death that Persian rule was brought to an end by the conquests of Alexander the Great, and their territory fell to the Seleucid Dynasty []. But it is remarkable that Cyrus' fame was not only spread by his own successors, but also by other groups: The Judeans celebrated him as their liberator from the "Babylonian exile" that they had been brought to by Nebuchadnezzar II [] (cf., e.g., Isaiah 44- []45 []) and as restorer of Yahweh's temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 6.2-5 []), and even the Greek writers, who because of the Greco-Persian Wars described some later Persian kings (especially Xerxes) in very negative terms, acknowledged that Cyrus had been an outstanding ruler. Thus, for example, Herodotus described Cyrus as a very generous victor (cf., e.g., the clearly non-historical episode about him sparing the Lydian king Croesus after his defeat; I 86-88 []) and stated that no Persian would ever dare to compare himself to him (III, 160 []), and Xenophon even wrote an at least partly fictional biography of the life of Cyrus, the so-called Cyropaedia [], as a didactic play about the education of an ideal ruler. These idealizing images have not only shaped Iranian ideology (most prominently exhibited by the former Shah of Persia's "2500 year celebration of the Persian Empire"), but also strongly influenced European literary and artistic tradition. However, in recent times, after a critical re-evaluation of the relevant sources in their historical context, serious doubts about their actual value have been raised: While it can be shown that the accounts praising Cyrus' alleged humanitarianism or describing him as the instrument of god have all been written with specific intentions, there are also other sources (or neglected passages in the above-mentioned texts) indicating that Cyrus' policy was not so much different from that of other rulers of his time as previously assumed (cf. Wiesehöfer 1999, pp. 62-67).

Cyrus II died (perhaps at war)[14] in 530 and was buried in his newly founded capital Pasargadae; his free-standing tomb is still visible there today.[15]

For further information on the inscriptions of Cyrus II, click here or the "Inscriptions" link to the left.

Browse Cyrus II Online Corpus []

Selected Bibliography

Kuhrt, A., The Persian Empire. A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period, London/New York: Routledge, 2007 (esp. pp. 47-103)

Kuhrt, A., 'Ancient Near Eastern History: The Case of Cyrus the Great of Persia,' in: H.G.M. Williamson (ed.), Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (Proceedings of the British Academy 143), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 107-127

Rollinger, R., 'Zur Lokalisation von Parsu(m)a(š) in der Fars und zu einigen Fragen der frühen persischen Geschichte,' Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 89 (1999), pp. 115-139

Rollinger, R., 'The Median "Empire", the End of Urartu and Cyrus the Great's Campaign in 547 BC (Nabonidus Chronicle II 16),' Ancient West & East 7 (2008), pp. 51-65

Schaudig, H., Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros' des Großen samt den in ihrem Umfeld entstandenen Tendenzschriften. Textausgabe und Grammatik (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 256), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2001

Wiesehöfer, J., 'Kyros, der Schah und 2500 Jahre Menschenrechte. Historische Mythenbildung zur Zeit der Pahlavi-Dynastie,' in: Conermann, S. (ed.), Mythen, Geschichte(n), Identitäten: Der Kampf um die Vergangenheit 2 (Asien und Afrika 2), Hamburg: E.B.-Verlag, 1999, pp. 55-68


[1] Of the Babylonians or the Judeans, respectively. [Go back to body text]

[2] As recent research has discovered, Cyrus' name is certainly Elamite in origin (Kuraš, "He who bestows care" or "He (or x) gives fortune"); it seems to have been a rather common name at that time. [Go back to body text]

[3] For detailed references, see Kuhrt 2007a, pp. 47-103. [Go back to body text]

[4] Notably, these inscriptions all stem from Babylonia and are written in Akkadian. There is also a small number of Old Persian inscriptions [] (partly with Babylonian and Elamite translations) at Pasargadae written in Cyrus' name, but since the Old Persian script seems to have been invented only in the reign of Darius I, these texts (and the designation of Cyrus as "Achaemenid") are nowadays regarded as forgeries by that later king. [Go back to body text]

[5] This genealogy is seemingly confirmed by impressions of a cylinder seal whose owner is given as "Cyrus, the Anshanite, son of Teispes (Šešpeš)" on tablets discovered at Persepolis. However, due to the fact that Cyrus was a commonly used name, the identification with Cyrus I is not at all certain (cf. Rollinger 1999, p. 137). [Go back to body text]

[6] Of the Greek writers, only Xenophon -- who agrees with Herodotus in that Cyrus II was Astyages' grandson through his daughter Mandane -- states that his father Cambyses was "king of the Persians" (Cyropaedia I 2,1 []). [Go back to body text]

[7] There are other possibilities. Cf., e.g., the "Nassouhi Prism" (ii' 7'-13' = Prism H) in which Ashurbanipal boasts that after his glorious victory over Elam, Kuraš, king of Parsumaš (identification with Cyrus I has recently been questioned; cf. Kuhrt 2007a, p. 54), sent his eldest son Arukku to the Assyrian court as a hostage. One could imagine a similar scenario for the father of Cyrus II or even Cyrus himself -- having been sent as a hostage to the Median court would not prevent him from being of royal blood. But of course, this is mere speculation. [Go back to body text]

[8] Lit.: "they", scil. Marduk and Sîn; cf. Rollinger 1999, p. 129. [Go back to body text]

[9] This fits well with Herodotus' account (I 127-128 []) that part of the Median army deserted to the Persian side (because Astyages had been reckless enough to appoint Harpagus -- a man who had reportedly saved Cyrus' life when the latter was still a baby and, therefore, had been punished severely by Astyages -- as general). However, according to Herodotus' story, Astyages had not been taken captive immediately, but had started another attack against Cyrus before he was finally defeated. More details on this battle are given by Ctesias (FGrH 688 F9 1 []): According to his version of the story, Astyages fled to Ecbatana where he was hidden by his daughter Amytis and her husband Spitamas, and only gave himself up when Cyrus gave the order to torture his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. Cyrus later married Astyages' daughter Amytis after he had killed her husband Spitamas for having lied. The historical value of these stories cannot be judged. However, the diverging account in Xenophon's Cyropaedia (VIII 5.17-20) [] -- according to which power was passed from the Medians to the Persians in a peaceful way by a marriage agreement between Cyrus and the daughter of the last Median king (here: Cyaxares, an uncle of Cyrus) who did not have another heir -- contradicts extant Babylonian sources and is very likely to be mere fiction. [Go back to body text]

[10] Cf. Rollinger 2008, pp. 56-57. This reconstruction might also explain why Cyrus' victory was relevant enough from a Babylonian perspective to be included in a Babylonian chronicle. [Go back to body text]

[11] The chronicle (iii 16 []) states that this happened after he had returned to Babylon; according to Berossos' Babyloniaca [] (FGrH 680 F 10a) Nabonidus [] was besieged at Borsippa. [Go back to body text]

[12] Cf., e.g., Nabonidus []' own inscriptions (Schaudig 2001, pp. 335-547), which clearly show that he had a particular interest in the moon-god Sîn. Moreover, at least one of these texts mentions that during his reign there were difficulties with the inhabitants of Babylonia, and that he went on a ten-year sojourn to the Arabian peninsula (Schaudig 2001, pp. 488-489 3.1 ex. 1 i 14b-27a). [Go back to body text]

[13] A more neutral description of his reign appears in the so-called "Dynastic Prophecy" (col. ii 11-24). [Go back to body text]

[14] On this matter, we have only the accounts of later Greek writers. According to Herodotus (I 214 []) many different stories were told about Cyrus' death; he himself regards the version that Cyrus was killed in a battle against the Massagetae as the most trustworthy one. Ctesias (Persica = FGrH 688 F9 (7-8) []) instead states that Cyrus died from a wound that he received from an Indian during a campaign against the Derbicae, while Xenophon (Cyropaedia VIII, 7 []) claims that Cyrus died as an old man peacefully at home. [Go back to body text]

[15] At least, it is generally assumed that a rectangular building made of stone that fits the description of Cyrus' tomb by the later Greek writer Arrian (Anabasis VI, 29.4-7 []) very well, should be identified with it. Note, however, that no trace of the inscription that was reportedly fixed on the tomb has been preserved. [Go back to body text]

Alexa Bartelmus

Alexa Bartelmus, 'Cyrus II (559-530 BC)', RIBo, Babylon 8: The Inscriptions of Cyrus II and His Successors, The RIBo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2016 []

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