Cyrus the Great’s Accomplishments

Battle of Thymbra, 546 BC

Cyrus the Great, also referred to as Cyrus I and Cyrus the Elder, was an Anshan king who ruled over the Persian Achaemenid Empire from 559 to 530 BC. He rose to the throne after the death of his father, King Cambyses I. His people called him “Father of his people,” alluding to his gentle and accepting manner of leadership. 

Establishment of the Achaemenid Empire

As one of the biggest empires during Cyrus’ period, the Achaemenid empire was the result of several military campaigns pioneered by the Persian king, assisted by his generals. Its creation was first conceptualized by Achaemenes, after whom the empire was named. Thus, Achaemenids refer to the offspring of Achaemenes, including Cyrus the Great. Furthermore, Achaemenes’ successor, Teispes, was the first to call himself the “Anshan king” after taking control of the city of Anshan; he was most likely the reason for Cyrus’ title as the “Anshan king” from then on. 

After becoming king, however, Cyrus was still under the service of the Median king Astyages because Persia was one of its vassal states. He had to pay the Median empire for their protection and independence as a state. It was composed of Iranian peoples that lived in the middle of northern and western Iran, a place called Media. The Median king, Astyages, was Cyrus’ grandfather through his mother. According to the ancient Babylonian text, The Nabonidus Chronicle, Asytages attacked Cyrus and his kingdom, triggering the conflict. The Median empire became its first military conquest.

The two opposing groups fought from 550 to 549 BC. Cyrus gathered different Persian tribes to defeat Astyages. He headed the Pasargadae tribe, while other tribes such as the Maspii, Maraphii, Derusiaei, and others were mentioned by the Greek Historian Herodotus. Cyrus then called on representatives from each tribe and told them each to bring a sickle. On the first day that they convened, the Anshan king had them prepare the land with their sickle, while on the second day, they bathed and feasted. Cyrus then asked the group which day they would prefer to which they responded that they would choose the second day. He then informed them that those who would only stand by him would experience the joys of the second day while those that would not experience many trials. This event gained him loyal soldiers, from the Persian tribes. 

Furthermore, Cyrus was also assisted by the general Harpagus, who held a grudge against Astyages and riled up his army to defeat him. They triumphed over Ecbatan and took over the entirety of Media. In the aftermath of the takeover, Cyrus made a capital city in the place where the final battle took place. He named it Parsagadae, after his tribe. 

Upon conquering Media, Cyrus became the Persian king. The Assyrian kingdoms subjected to the Median empire also became part of his empire. 

Next, Cyrus moved to conquer the Lydian empire and Asia Minor. Astyages was previously allied with the Lydian king Croesus, the Babylonian king Nabonidus, and the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis II. The two other leaders planned to combine their armies to defeat Cyrus and the Achaemenid empire. 

Cyrus and Croesus battled in 547 BC. The Achaemenids triumphed over the Lydians with an intelligent strategy from Harpagus, who placed their dromedaries at the front of their battle line, scaring the Lydian cavalry horses. Cyrus was able to capture the capital of Sardis, gaining him the Lydian empire. Herodotus wrote that Cyrus kept Croesus alive, but the Nabonidus Chronicle stated that he was killed in the aftermath of the battle. Due to the addition of Lydia to the Achaemenid empire, Cyrus was able to gain access to the major seaports in the Mediterranean and near the Aegean sea. 

The Achaemenid empire continued to expand during Cyrus’ rule. With his generals Mazares and Harpagus, they took parts of Asia Minor. The commander Gubaru also initiated the attack on Opis that would lead to the capture of Babylonia. Nabonidus fled before Cyrus reached and captured Sippar. 

Along with his acquisition of the Babylonian empire, Cyrus also gained control over Syria and Palestine. The Behistun Inscription of Darius the Great reveals that Cyrus must have amassed the biggest empire during his time. When he died, the Achaemenid empire had expanded from Asia Minor to the Indus River. 

Prosperity in Several Cities

Cyrus’ rule saw the flourishing of many cities as they accumulated wealth and progress. In particular, the capital Pasargadae was known for its Royal Garden that would later house the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, documented by the Greek historian Aristobulus to hold the ruler’s golden tomb and numerous treasures before it was looted. In the 1960s, the British Institute of Persian Studies team discovered the “Pasargadae Treasure,” evidence of the capital’s ornate treasures. Today the city remains a UNESCO World Heritage site. Additionally, Media’s former capital, Ecbatana, also grew in its riches, according to several Greek historians. Meanwhile, Babylon, Babylonia’s capital, became Cyrus’ refuge during the winter season. 

Released Jews from Captivity

Cyrus was also acclaimed for his acceptance of the cultural diversity and religious differences of the empire, including his vassal states. An artifact called the “Cyrus Cylinder” held cuneiform inscriptions that attest to his mercy. The Persian king allowed prisoners of war and displaced persons to return to their homes. As mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, the Jews who were trapped in Babylon were allowed to go back to Judea and build a temple in Jerusalem. 

The cylindrical clay decree showed that Cyrus aimed to abolish slavery and allow people to choose their own professions. This is also why Cyrus was often called the “Father of his people .”Modern sources praise Cyrus as a “human rights activist.” 

Tolerance for Local Independence

Despite conquering numerous cities and tribes to expand his empire, Cyrus allowed his subjects to maintain their local leaders to keep the peace, order, and economic growth in his vassal states. Not only were they allowed to continue with their own religious practices, but Cyrus also allowed them to celebrate their local traditions as well.