Cyrus the Great’s Empire

Ancient Near East, 540 BC

Cyrus the Great was the son of Cambyses I, a Persian king. Once he succeeded, his father, Cyrus founded the first Persian empire through his conquests of the Median, Lydian, and Neo-Babylonian empires which resulted in the creation of the Achaemenid empire. Each of the territories he controlled attested to his mercy and religious tolerance during his thirty-year rule from 559–to 530 BC. 

Median Empire

In the 6th century BC, the Median empire dominated present-day Iran. Within their territory was the subject kingdom of Persia, over which Cyrus the Great or Cyrus II ruled after he succeeded his father, Cambyses I. His predecessor was the King of Anshan, while his mother, Mandane, was the daughter of Astyages, who reigned over Media from 600 to 599 BC. 

The Greek historian Herodotus provided an alternative, mythical account in which his grandfather, Astyages, attempted to have the infant Cyrus killed due to a prophecy that his grandson would overthrow him. Harpagus had been assigned to murder the baby and failed to do so out of pity for the child. The military leader had a shepherd kill Cyrus; however, he failed as well and raised Cyrus as his own. Astyages would later punish Harpagus for his incompetence by feeding him his own son. Consequently, Harpagus would carry this grudge with him, pushing him to side with Cyrus to take over Media. 

The historian Strabo expressed that the name given to Cyrus by the parents who took him in was Agradates. He returned to Cambyses I, and from then, he was given the name of his grandfather, Cyrus I. This was possibly due to the Persian custom to name one’s son after their grandfather. Another possibility forwarded by Strabo was that Cyrus chose the name inspired by the Cyrus river near Pasargadae. 

According to an account by Cyrus, which is widely accepted, he maintains that he rose to Persian king after the death of his father, Cambyses I. His throne was in the capital, Pasargadae. As a vassal territory to the Median empire, Cyrus was still under the control of the overlord Astyages. 

The Nabonidus Chronicle, a Babylonian text from the time, describes the Median king’s attack against Persia, specifically on the Anshan king Cyrus. Herodotus wrote that Harpagus, Astyages’ commander, initiated a mutiny against his king, allowing several soldiers and civilians to defect to Cyrus’ side. This event is further explained in the Nabonidus Chronicle, which documented the three-year war. At the end of the conflict, Cyrus took Ecbatana and imprisoned Astyages. 

Media was only the first empire that Cyrus overthrew as he gained his victory sometime in 550 BC. Herodotus and the Greek historian Ctesias then stated that Cyrus allowed Astyages to live after being captured. The Persian king also married Astyages’ daughter, Amytis, which gained the favor of the Parthians, Bactrians, and Saka. From then on, the Median empire’s vassal states belonged under Cyrus’ rule. With these areas, he combined Parsa and Anshan to the Persian Proper, establishing them under the Achaemenid empire. 

Lydian Empire

Before Cyrus attempted to take over Babylonia in 539 BC, he first had to conquer Lydia, a portion of western Asia Minor. The Lydians under king Croesus were the first to strike against Cyrus in the city of Pteria at Cappadocia. They took the city and forced its residents into slavery. 

The Persians approached the situation by inviting the Lydian populace in Ionia to join the Achaemenid empire; however, their advances were rejected. Thus, Cyrus raised an army against the Lydians. He headed towards them while collecting more soldiers and eventually ending the Battle of Pteria with a draw for both sides.

Before winter ended, Cyrus marched on the Lydian capital of Sardis, an unexpected attack due to the cold season, which is usually spent in a truce. The ambush delayed Croesus’ call for allies and aid; however, Cyrus’ general Harpagus had a plan that would lead them to victory. He positioned the Archanemdian one-humped camels to be on their army’s frontlines, scaring the enemy’s horses with their strange smell and disorienting the Lydian cavalry. Croesus was imprisoned, and Cyrus conquered Sardis and the Lydian empire. 

Contemporary sources conflict with one another regarding what happened to Croesus. Herodotus claims he was not executed, while the Nabonidus Chronicle alluded that he was killed. 

In the aftermath of Cyrus’ takeover, the Lydian Pactyas, who was assigned to transfer the Croesus imperial treasury to Cyrus but instead started a rebellion in the capital. The commander, Mazares, was tasked with quashing the uprising. Pactyas was not mentioned again in historical texts, but Mazares was assigned next to resume marching to Asia Minor, where he passed away under unknown circumstances. Harpagus continued into Asia Minor in his place.

Cyrus’ general established a hold on Cilicia, Lycia, and Phoenicia. His use of earthworks to infiltrate the cities despite their tall walls was unanticipated. The objective to conquer these areas was completed in 542 BC, allowing Harpagus to return home. 

Neo-Babylonian Empire

Cyrus started his conquest of the Babylonian empire sometime around 540 BC, as implied in the Nabonidus Chronicle. In October of the following year, Cyrus then met the Babylonian army in the Battle of Opis. The former Sumerian city Sippar was taken soon after. No intense fight was engaged between the Babylonians and Cyrus; the civilians did not contest them. Meanwhile, the last king of the Babylonian empire, Nabonidus, took refuge in Sippar and then in Borsippa. Both Sippar and Borsippa were Babylonian territories. 

Once Nabonidus returned to his kingdom, he conceded to Cyrus. The Persian king then marched into the capital city of Babylon on the 29th of October. Along with the territory of Babylonia, Cyrus also received control over its subjects in Judea, Syria, and Arabia Petraea. 

Cyrus’ policies in Babylonia are depicted in the artifact the “Cyrus Cylinder,” where cuneiform inscriptions reveal the Persian king’s efforts to support religious freedom by repatriating displaced persons. 

At the time, Cyrus the Great had accumulated the biggest empire on the globe, with the Achaemenid Empire extending from Asia Minor to the Indus River.