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Useful Notes / Cyrus the Great

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In scope and extent his achievements ranked far above that of the Macedonian king, Alexander who was to demolish the empire in the 320s (BC) but fail to provide any stable alternative.
Charles Freeman, The Greek Achievement

Cyrus (Persian: Kūruš, circa 600 – circa 530 BC) was one of the most famous rulers in history. He was born a prince of a recently-settled Iranian tribe, the Persians. According to a legend (a variation of one familiar in biographies of conquerors), at Cyrus' birth, Astyages, Cyrus' grandfather and king of the Medes (a neighboring Iranian tribe of whom the Persians were vassals), heard in a dream that Cyrus was destined to seize his kingdom, whereupon Astyages ordered the baby abandoned. He was found by a herdsmen and raised as a son. Eventually, he proved himself as a warrior and came back to avenge himself. The more probable version of his story is that he had always been a prince and later vassal king. In any case, in a series of campaigns, he made himself king of the Medes as well. From there he began a life of conquest that spread until he had the largest and perhaps most successful empire yet created in the world, The Achaemenid Empire.

One of the most notable things about Cyrus was his skill not just as a warrior, but also as a politician. Previous conquerors had ruled by fear alone. Cyrus grasped the fact that if he was magnanimous and made enough Pet the Dog gestures to his new subjects, he would win their willing submission from comparison with the probable alternatives. In essence he conquered as much through bribery as through war. It would probably be overly cynical to say that this was all Pragmatic Villainy. Being a gracious conqueror (by comparison) seems to have fit his personality so well that there was some truth to it. Among the most famous of his gestures was encouraging the resettlement of the Jews in exile in Babylon. This got him a curious place in The Bible as the only Gentile prince to be specifically named as a deliverer of Israel.

Tropes as portrayed in media:

  • Germans Love David Hasselhoff: The Bible loves Cyrus for letting the Jews return back to the Promised Land. Thus he's the only Gentile afforded the title of Māšīyaḥ: "annointed", i.e. "Messiah".note 
  • Had to Be Sharp: Herodotus has him give this as the reason the Persians continued living in the mountains instead of moving down to the richer lands of Mesopotamia after conquering them: "Soft lands breed soft men."
  • Improvised Weapon: According to one tale, he won a battle by herding baggage camels ahead of his army so that the enemy horses would be scared off by an unfamiliar scent.
  • Old Soldier: According to most accounts, he died in battle at the age of 70. He'd been King for 29 years at that time and spent most of them fighting and conquering.
  • The Paragon: Just look at some of these quotes that informed his leadership style.
    "Success always calls for greater generosity—though most people, lost in the darkness of their own egos, treat it as an occasion for greater greed. Collecting boot [is] not an end itself, but only a means for building [an] empire. Riches would be of little use to us now—except as a means of winning new friends."
    "When I became rich, I realized that no kindness between man and man comes more naturally than sharing food and drink, especially food and drink of the ambrosial excellence that I could now provide. Accordingly, I arranged that my table be spread every day for many invitees, all of whom would dine on the same excellent food as myself. After my guests and I were finished, I would send out any extra food to my absent friends, in token of my esteem."
    "There is a deep—and usually frustrated—desire in the heart of everyone to act with benevolence rather than selfishness, and one fine instance of generosity can inspire dozens more. Thus I established a stately court where all my friends showed respect to each other and cultivated courtesy until it bloomed into perfect harmony."
  • Pride Before a Fall: The moral of the story of Herodotus' version of his death at the hands of the Warrior Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae.
  • True Companions: How Cyrus seemed to view and talk about his friends.
    (when asked how he planned to dress for a celebration) "If I can only do well by my friends, I'll look glorious enough in whatever clothes I wear."
  • You Killed My Son: According to Herodotus (who admittedly liked a good yarn) a prince Cyrus was fighting against had on a whim forced one of his nobles to eat his own son. This noble for some odd reason happened to be in command of a large part of the army on the day of battle and refused to fight, leaving Cyrus with the victory. If this story is true it is a clinical example of Stupid Evil. This could also apply to his troops capturing Queen Tomryis' son being the cause for his killing himself in shame, which then led to Tomyris going all-out savage on him and his army.

Appearances in works

  • Xenophon's The Education of Cyrus is a highly fictionalized account of the education and exploits of Cyrus the Great and the establishment of the Achaemenid Empire. Deliberately written as a "mirror of princes" to guide the proper education of wise and just rulers, Xenophon basically used Cyrus and his career as a canvas on which to paint his pragmatic picture of the Socratic philosopher-king.
  • Cyrus is a playable leader of the Persians in Civilization IV and VI.