Cyrus the Great and Astyages

The defeat of Astyages to Cyrus the Great

Astyages was the last king to rule the Median Empire, his tenure running from 585 to 550 BC. Not much information is presented about Astyages in the ancient texts; however, the Greek geographer and historian Herodotus described a legend that connects him to Cyrus the Great, his grandson and the founder of the Achaemenid empire. 

The Legend by Herodotus

In his writings, Herodotus chronicled a dream that Astyages, whose daughter named Mandane, birthed a son that would be the fall of his empire. To prevent this prophecy from taking place, Astyages gave his daughter’s hand to the reserved prince, Cambyses I of Anšan, whom the Median king believed to be harmless. 

In his succeeding dream, Astyages would be warned of the potential threats that Mandane’s child would have upon his reign. Consequently, he asked his general, Harpagus, to murder Madane’s child, whom she named Cyrus. The military leader was unable to kill the small child, thus giving the baby to Mithridates, a shepherd who recently had a stillborn infant. The man raised Cyrus as his son and provided Harpagus with the body of his deceased baby. 

At the age of ten, Cyrus went by the name Agradates. He played “King and Court,” a childhood game at the time, and whipped the son of a nobleman, who in turn reported the incident to his father. Astyages met the young boy in court and recognized him as his grandson; he understood that Harpagus did not follow his orders. 

The king feigned remorse about his command to kill the boy and invited Harpagus and his son to a celebration of Cyrus’ escape from death. He asked Harpagus’ son to come to the palace first and served his general a feast with his son as part of the menu. Harpagus would hold a grudge over Astyages from then on, calling the meal an “abominable supper.”

Cyrus went unpunished after the ordeal, becoming a royal cupbearer in his teenage years. He acted as an adviser and messenger to Astyages while planning to overthrow his grandfather with Harpagus. 


In 552 BC, Cyrus started a revolt in Persia, enabling him to march on the Median empire. He won several battles, such as the Battle of Hyrba and the Battle of the Persian Border. Cyrus’ forces advanced quickly as Harpagus betrayed Astyages, allowing the Persian troops to triumph in the Battle of Pasargadae Hill. The Median governors conceded to Cyrus, resulting in the creation of the Achaemenid empire.

The ancient Babylonian text, Chronicle of Nabonidus, documents Astyages’ defeat but excludes Harpagus’ name from its account. In it, Cyrus’ taking of Ecbatana is mentioned. 

The information regarding what happened to Astyages differs among the ancient sources. The Greek historian Ctesias wrote that he became a governor in Parthia but was killed by one of his rivals, Oebares. Meanwhile, according to Herodotus, the Median king stayed in court for the remainder of his years. After Cyrus gained control over the Median empire, he went on his Lydian conquest.