Cyrus II the Great

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Cyrus portrait.jpg
Cyrus II the Great
Traditional Predecessor (Persia)Cambyses I
Alternative Predecessor (Medo-Persia)Cyaxares II

Traditional Reign? years]

successorCambyses II
birthca. 600
deathDecember 4, 530 BC
Syr Darya, Central Asia
spouse #1

Cassandane (died Feb/Mar 539 BC)
spouse #2Unnamed daughter of Cyaxares II
fatherCambyses I
motherMandane, daughter of Astyages

Cyrus II (also called Cyrus the Great), Kyros[1] (576–530 BC) was the Emperor of the Persian Empire. He is famous for conquering Babylon and letting the Jews go back to Israel.

At its greatest extent, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the largest ancient empire, spanning three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. The empire included modern-day Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and northern Saudi Arabia.

General History

Unfortunately the history of Cyrus the Great has not only had to stand the test of time, but also the essentially biased religious debates and onslaught of the literary genre of historical fiction. Yet the undeniable fact is that people tend to choose the history that best fits their narrative in both the academic world and in the lives of private individuals.

Therefore in the below section Original Sources we shall try to provide some overview as an aid to the reader.

Original Sources

Below we shall examine synopsis of the life of Cyrus the Great by examining each the original sources


Herodotus’s relates without confirmation from a single other source a story of how Cyrus’s grandfather Astyages, king of Media, was warned in dreams that his daughter Mandane would give birth to a child who would eventually usurp his throne. In order to prevent this, Astyages had Mandane marry a Persian 'commoner' named Cambyses so the child would not be part of his royal house. Then, when his daughter was about to bear her son, Astyages commissioned one of his servants to go to Mandane in Persia and slay the child. The servant was unwilling to kill the child himself, and so committed the task to a certain herdsman. The herdsman’s wife was about to give birth, and when she did so the child was stillborn. The couple buried the stillborn child and pretended they had carried out their commission, thereafter raising Cyrus themselves.[2] When Cyrus reached manhood and his true identity was revealed, Cyrus and the Persians became inveterate enemies of Astyages, eventually defeating him in battle (559 BC)[3] and confining him to his palace. (This is unlikely in itself and casts doubt on Herodotus’s whole scenario about Astyages; would a conqueror leave a conquered king in his capital while the conqueror was involved in foreign campaigns?) After that the domination of the Persians over the Medes continued for several years before, and then after, the capture of Babylon. According to Herodotus, when Cyrus conquered Astyages he made the Medes “slaves instead of masters and the Persians, who were the slaves, are now the masters of the Medes.” [4] According to Herodotus, then, Cyrus became overlord of the Medes, so that both Medes and Persians were subject to him well before the fall of Babylon to their forces and the forces of their allies (539 BC). Cyrus’s died, according to Herodotus, after the Persians were defeated by the forces of Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae. When the queen came upon Cyrus’s corpse she dipped his head in a skein of blood. [5]


In his Cyropaedia (Education of Cyrus) Xenophon agrees with Herodotus that Cyrus’s mother was Mandane, daughter of Astyages king of Media, but Xenophon makes it clear that the Cambyses she married was king of Persia, not a commoner. Xenophon relates that when Cyrus was twelve or slightly older, Mandane took him from Persia to Ecbatana, the Median capital, at the request of Astyages. The boy and his grandfather immediately developed a liking for each other, and when Mandane wanted to return, Astyages requested that the boy remain with him in order to complete his education. Cyrus agreed, saying he especially wanted to learn to ride a horse, a skill at which the Medes excelled but which the Persians did not practice at the time. The cordial relations between Astyages and his grandson continued during the years while Cyrus grew to manhood, and in no instance does Xenophon portray anything but affection between grandfather and grandson as long as Astyages was alive. When Astyages died, the kingdom passed, not to Cyrus, but to the son of Astyages, Cyaxares II (Cyropaedia 1.5.2). Cyaxares II, the brother of Mandane, was therefore the uncle of Cyrus. Cyrus became king of the Persians (only) on the death of his father Cambyses I, but he and the Persians remained, according to Xenophon, under the suzerainty of Cyaxares and the Medes until the death of Cyaxares, which happened about two years after the capture of Babylon in 539 BC. After Babylon was captured, Cyaxares had given his daughter in marriage to Cyrus, whose first wife apparently died a few weeks after the capture of Babylon,[6] with her dowry being the combined rule of the Medes and the Persians. This meant that after the death of Cyaxares the Persians instead of the Medes therefore became dominant in the empire that now included Babylonia and many other subject peoples. After a seven-year rule of the combined empire (537–530 BC),[7] Cyrus died a peaceful death and was succeeded by his son Cambyses II.[8]

Reconciling Herodotus & Xenophon

The account given by Herodotus regarding the birth and early upbringing of Cyrus is plainly fabulous, with precedents in other fables of the ancient Near East. Herodotus himself casts doubts on its authenticity when he writes at the end of the tale that “there are no less than three other accounts of Cyrus which I could give” (1.195.1). The cuneiform records from the time of Cyrus also contradict Herodotus’s statement that Cyrus’s father was a commoner. In the Cyrus Cylinder Cyrus states that his father Cambyses, grandfather Cyrus I, and great-grandfather Teispes were all kings of Persia before him, thus contradicting Herodotus but supporting Xenophon on Cyrus’s background.[9] Regarding the death of Cyrus (peaceful in Xenophon, bloody in Herodotus), Shahrokh Razmjou wrote, “The story in Herodotus . . . seems to be fictitious.”[10] Steven Anderson comments: “Aside from the way in which such an account [of Herodotus] seems too sensational to be true, one may also note that Cyrus had carefully prepared a tomb for himself in Pasargadae which remains to this day. If statements by other classical writers are to be believed, this tomb actually housed Cyrus’ corpse in antiquity, and was not merely a centopath.”[11] The existence of the tomb in Persia argues for a peaceful burial, not his death in the far-off land of the Massagetae as Herodotus relates. Herodotus himself once again casts doubt on his own account of the death of Cyrus when he relates “Many stories are told of Cyrus' death; this, that I have told, is the most credible” (2.114.5).

in the Cuneiform

In the late 1800s several cuneiform texts dealing with the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire were found and translated. None of these texts named Cyaxares II, and, more than that, most of them had Cyrus taking over the kingship of Media and Persia directly from Astyages, with no room for an intervening Median king. The conclusion seemed obvious: Herodotus was correct in maintaining that Astyages had no male heir, and hence Xenophon, who had a great deal to say about Cyaxares II as the son of Astyages and uncle of Darius, must be rejected. It was now understood that Cyrus became king of both Media and Persia by defeating the Medes, including his grandfather Astyages, several years before the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, just as Herodotus said. Later scholarship, however, began pointing out some problems with the cuneiform texts. If the supposed coup of Cyrus was such a definite act, why could not these texts agree on when it happened, and the circumstances of the coup? The Dream Text of Nabonidus said that Cyrus and the Persians defeated the Medes in the third year of Nabonidus (553/552 BC); [12]the Nabonidus Chronicle seems to place it in Nabonidus’s sixth year (550/549);[13] and Herodotus, by giving Cyrus 29 years of reign, would place it in 559 BC (Histories 1.214.3). The Cyrus Cylinder, which is apparently the earliest of these documents, does not say that Cyrus defeated the Medes in war, claiming only that Marduk “made the Guti country and all the Mandan hordes [Median troops] bow in submission to his (i.e. Cyrus’) feet.”[14] According to the Cyropaedia (4.6.1–11) the Gutians were not conquered militarily by Cyrus. Their governor Gobryas/Ugbaru submitted voluntarily because of the wrongs done to him by Belshazzar. The submission of the Medes to Cyrus could be similar, which would be more in keeping with Xenophon’s account that has the Median soldiery willingly serving Cyrus even while they were still under the de jure rule of their king, Cyaxares II.

in the Bible

In the Bible, Cyrus is mentioned in 2 Chronicles (36:22, 23) as the monarch who issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland from Babylon. His name appears repeatedly in the book of Ezra that relates details regarding those who returned from exile. The book of Daniel has three references (Daniel 1:21, 6:28, 10:1) that name him as reigning some time after the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, but apparently (according to the usual reading of the texts) with a Median king named Darius intervening between the Babylonian Belshazzar and the Persian Cyrus.

Cyrus is mentioned in Isaiah in the following passages:
Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself, who frustrates the signs of liars . . . who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, “She shall be rebuilt,’ and of the temple, ‘your foundation shall be laid’” (Isaiah 44:24, 25, 28, ESV). Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of Iron. I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name. I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other (45:1–6). I have stirred him up in righteousness, and I will make all his ways level; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward,” says the LORD of hosts (45:13). . . calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country (46:11). “Assemble all of you, and listen! Who among them has declared these things? The LORD loves him; he shall perform his purpose on Babylon, and his arm shall be against the Chaldreans. I, even I, have spoken and called him; I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way” (48:14, 15).

The problem with these passages are that they are prophetic, which means that those who do not believe that God exists have to explain them away by saying they are vaticinia ex eventu (prophecies after the event), that is, writings that look back on a historical event but which pretend they were written before the event as prophecy of the future. Thus in much of the “critical” literature on Isaiah, it is presented as a foregone conclusion that these portions of Isaiah were written after Cyrus’s decree, but ultimately that conclusion, no matter how confidently asserted, is based on the critics a priori assumption that there is no God, or, if there is a God, he either does not know the future or, if he knows it, he is incapable of, or unwilling to, impart this knowledge to his prophets or anyone else. For those who believe that God not only exists, but that he desires to make his will and his foresight known, there is no reason to take as their starting place the presupposition of the skeptics that prophecy is impossible, the presupposition that controls much of the modern criticism of the book of Isaiah and the Bible in general. The prophetic references to Cyrus in Isaiah are therefore something of a watershed between these two opposing ways of approaching and interpreting the Bible.

Josephus (Antiquities 11:1–3) relates that the Jews read these prophecies of Isaiah to Cyrus, and this reading of the prophecies caused Cyrus to assemble the leaders of the Jews and announce to them his decision that they could go back to their country and rebuild the city and the Temple. As might be expected, skeptics with a priori presuppositions about the impossibility of predictive prophecy confidently label this passage in Josephus as unhistorical, but a reading of the passage shows that, if the prophecy really was written over a century and a half earlier by the historical Isaiah, what the Jews did in approaching Cyrus about the prophecy was entirely reasonable and to be expected.

The Achaemid Family Tree showing the merging or the royal houses of the Medes and the Persians to create the Medo-Persian Empire.

External links


  2. Histories 1.107.1 –1.113.3.
  3. Histories 1.214.3.
  4. Histories 1.129.4.
  5. Histories1.212.1 –2.114.5.
  6. Nabonidus Chronicle, as cited in Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles (ed. Benjamin R. Forster; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 239. The translation of Glassner that has the mourning period for the queen (and hence her death) occurring in the month Adar (February/March) is to be preferred to the earlier translation found in James Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), 306b, that has the mourning start in Arahshamnu (=Heshvan, October/November).
  7. Cyropaedia (8.7.1)
  8. Cyropaedia (8.7.11)
  9. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 316a.
  10. Shahrokh Razmjou, ”The Cyrus Cylinder: A Persian Perspective,” in The Cyrus Cylinder: The King of Persia’s Proclamation from Ancient Babylon, ed. Irving Finkel (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 125, n. 8.
  11. Steven D. Anderson, Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal (revision of the author’s PhD dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary) (Grand Rapids, 2014), 30.[3]
  12. Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556–539 B.C. (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 108.
  13. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 305b.
  14. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 315b.