Cyrus the Great Research Paper

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In the sixth century, the Persian king Cyrus founded the Achaemenid Persian Empire by conquering the Medes, Lydians, and Babylonians. He earned loyalty and respect by allowing conquered peoples to retain their religions and traditions, and he freed the Hebrews who had been held captive in Babylon.

Cyrus the Great belonged to the Pasargadae tribe who immigrated to the Iranian Plateau during the first millennium BCE and settled in the area known as “Persis” or Persia, which is the southwestern portion of the Iranian Plateau along the Persian Gulf. During the sixth century BCE the Persians took control of the areas of Anshan and Susa (in modern Iran) and installed Persians as local rulers. Cyrus himself claimed that he was king of Anshan (he became king in 559–558 BCE) and that his forefathers were kings of the same area that is now identified with Marv Dasht. Three legends are attached to Cyrus and his upbringing. The first states (from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus) that he was the son of Cambyses, son of Cyrus I. His mother was Princess Mandane, who was the daughter of Astyages, the last king of the Medes, an Iranian people. Because Astyages had been warned by omens that the boy would take his throne some day, he decided to have the boy killed. Cyrus had been given to Harpagus, a Mede, to kill, but Harpagus was not able and gave Cyrus to a shepherd, who raised Cyrus as his own son. According to Herodotus, Cyrus displayed the genius of leadership in his youth that is ultimately derived from native Persian legends. Finally Cyrus’s true identity was discovered, and he was sent to Persia, where he was able to unify the Persian tribes and create a kingdom for himself.

The second legend states that Cyrus was left in the forest and that a female dog suckled him and protected him from wild beasts. This legend clearly demonstrates Indo-European elements (compare the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome). The third legend (by Nicolaus of Damascus) states that Cyrus’s father was a bandit, who was given to a wealthy and noble family of the Median court to raise.

In 550 BCE Cyrus met Astyages in battle and won a major victory in which many of the Median forces defected to him. Now ruler of a confederation of Median-Persian forces, Cyrus set out to conquer the neighboring regions. He moved onto Anatolia (in modern Turkey) and faced the rich kingdom of Lydia with its famous King Croesus with his capital at Sardis. The oracle of Delphi had warned Croesus that if he fought Cyrus, he would destroy a great kingdom, which, in fact, would be his own. Sardis and Croesus fell into the hands of Cyrus in 547 BCE. This event was followed by the conquest of Mesopotamia with its chief city, Babylon, in 539 BCE. The Babylonian king Nabonidus was despised by the local population for neglecting the New Year festival and especially for neglecting the temple of the great Mesopotamian god Marduk. Cyrus entered the city almost unopposed and, as part of his policy of respecting local people and their religion and culture, made his way to the temple of Marduk. There he made offerings and paid homage to the great Mesopotamian god, presented himself as a servant of Marduk, and made arrangements for the rebuilding of the temple. This tactic on the part of Cyrus would pay off in many parts of the soon-to-be Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BCE). Unlike the Assyrians, who used brute force to subdue the local population, the Persians allowed local traditions to survive and the provinces to be autonomous, providing security and collecting taxes. At this time the Hebrews who had been held captive in Babylon (the period in Jewish history known as the “Babylonian Captivity”) were also freed and allowed to go back to their homeland. According to the Bible (Ezra 6:2–5), Cyrus decreed that the Temple of Jerusalem be rebuilt and that what had been taken away by Nebuchadnezzar (Chaldean king of Babylon) be brought back to Jerusalem. Hence, the Old Testament (Isaiah, Ezra) remembers Cyrus and the Persians kindly. In Isaiah 45:1–3 the respect and compact between Cyrus and Yahweh, the Jewish god, are mentioned, again suggesting the king’s religious liberality.

Cyrus the Great also left us a firsthand account of his tolerance and worldview, which is known as the “Cyrus Cylinder” in the Akkadian language (Semitic language common in Mesopotamia at the time). This account also reveals aspects of his royalty. He was presented with all the titles of the Mesopotamian kings, such as “a great king, king of kings, king of the Four Corners of the world.” He stated that the people had the freedom to practice their religion and live as they wished, which we could consider as the first human rights declaration. By the time of his death at the hands of nomadic Iranian people known as “Sakas” in 530 BCE in Central Asia, Cyrus had established an empire that spanned from the Iranian Plateau to the Mediterranean Sea. His tomb is at Pasargadae, the location where he defeated the Median king and where Cyrus had his stronghold. The Achaemenid Persian Empire would further expand and last for two centuries.


  1. Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander, a history of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
  2. Frye, R. N. (1984). The history of ancient Iran. Munich, Germany: C. H. Beck.
  3. Gershevitch, I. (Ed.). (1979). The Median and the Achaemenian periods. In The Cambridge history of Iran, 2. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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