Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I


Cyrus the Great or “Cyrus II” was King of Anshan from 559-530 BCE and known as the King of Four Corners of the world and founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus was the son of King Cambyses I of Anshan 580 to 559 BCE and his mother Mandane was the daughter of King Astyages of Media.

Illustration of relief of Cyrus the Great

Illustration of relief of Cyrus the Great (Public Domain)

In 559 BCE, Cyrus ascended the throne of Anshan. Cyrus, a vassal to King Astyages of the Umman-manda, rebelled against his grandfather Astyages in 553 BCE. With the support of several Median nobles, he marched on Ecbatana to overthrow Astyages, according to Herodotus.

Detail; Painting of king Astyages

Detail; Painting of king Astyages (Public Domain)

While lines were drawn between those supporting the new power on the block, Cyrus, and those supporting the establishment, Astyages, many of the Umman-manda forces switched sides and joined Cyrus. In a seesaw war that went on for some time, Cyrus gained the upper hand and went on to defeat the Umman-manda and take Astyages prisoner. However, this was Herodotus’ view, and one must consider other sources.

Dream Visions and Conflicting Chronicles

The Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus, in his first year as ruler (around 556 or 555 BCE), states in his chronicle that he had a dream given to him by the god Marduk:

At the beginning of my lasting kingship they (the great gods) showed me a vision in a dream…. Marduk said to me, ‘The Umman-manda of whom thou speakest, he, his land, and the kings who go at his side, will not exist for much longer. At the beginning of the third year, Cyrus, king of Anshan, his youthful servant, will come forth. With his few forces he will rout the numerous forces of the Umman-manda. He will capture Astyages, the king of the Umman-manda, and will take him prisoner to his country.

Nabonidus, king of Babylonia.

Nabonidus, king of Babylonia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nabonidus had obviously received intelligence reports that Cyrus intended to rebel and declare independence from Astyages. Notice that in the inscription Nabonidus speaks of the Umman-manda as a burden to his own kingdom. However, on the flipside, his dreams were hope and fear of the unknown. Nabonidus was familiar with Astyages but Cyrus was still a mystery.

In Nabonidus seventh year, he had this to say about the conflict between Cyrus and Astyages:

[Astyages] mobilized [his army] and he marched against Cyrus, king of Anshan, to conquer…. the army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. They handed him over to Cyrus […]. Cyrus marched toward Ecbatana, the royal city. Silver, gold, goods, property, […] which he seized as booty [from] Ecbatana, he conveyed to Ansan. The goods [and] property of the army of […].

This inscription paints a very different story than that of Herodotus. The difference is Astyages was the one who invaded Anshan to put down the rebellion, but in turn, his army rebelled and handed him over to Cyrus. However, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong. It is just the opposite as to what happened, since Herodotus says Cyrus invaded Media which is partially right—but only after the battle and imprisonment of Astyages did Cyrus march on Media to take the Umman-manda capital, Ecbatana.

Marduk and the Dragon Marduk, chief god of Babylon, with his thunderbolts destroys Tiamat the dragon of primeval chaos. Drawing from relief

Marduk and the Dragon Marduk, chief god of Babylon, with his thunderbolts destroys Tiamat the dragon of primeval chaos. Drawing from relief (Public Domain)

One must not forget that this was not the end of the war. Even though Astyages was now a prisoner, there were still three more years of bloodshed in store which would not end until around 550 BCE. During this war, Cyrus would lose three more battles before he finally gained the upper hand on the Umman-manda. The war could have ended much earlier for Cyrus had not so many men changed sides during the conflict, prolonging the war. Once the Umman-manda were defeated and vanquished, Cyrus entered Ecbatana, sat on Astyages’ throne, and proclaimed himself the new master of Asia.

War with the West

With Astyages defeated, Cyrus inherited a new problem — the western front. For it was in 585 BCE that the Umman-manda and Lydian Empire made an agreement that the boundary should be the Halys River, which is (modern day Kızılırmak River or Red River) in central Turkey. The king of Lydia at the time was Croesus.

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora.

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora. (Public Domain)

Croesus was famous for his wealth and power throughout Greece and the Near East. With his brother-in-law Astyages now defeated, Croesus saw opportunity to expand his borders in the name of avenging his brother-in-law’s death. However, before Croesus mobilized his forces, he sent an envoy bearing gifts to the oracle of Delphi.

Priestess of the Oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece.

Priestess of the Oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece. (Public Domain)

The envoy asked the oracle a question concerning what Croesus should do, and it is said the oracle turned to the men and declared:

“If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.”

The oracle suggested that Croesus should seek allies that were powerful to assist him in his war against Persia. Croesus visited the oracle again, and asked how long the Lydian empire would last. The oracle said to Croesus:

“Wait till the time shall come when a mule is monarch of Media: Then, thou delicate Lydian, away to the pebbles of Hermus: Haste, oh! Haste thee away, nor blush to behave like a coward.”

The mule that is mentioned was none other than Cyrus, for Cyrus was part royalty due to his mother being an Umman-manda princess, while his father Cambyses I was a petty vassal king.


In 547/46 BCE, once Croesus got answers that he thought were in his favor, he mobilized his forces and moved beyond the Halys River and entered into the province of Cappadocia. Cyrus likely had detachments scouting the border and once the large army of Croesus came in sight, they would have quickly dispatched a messenger to Cyrus. Once Cyrus arrived with his army, he sent envoys to Croesus’ camp with a message ordering Croesus to hand Lydia over to him. If agreed, Croesus would be allowed to rule Lydia but would have to remove his crown as king and accept the title Satrap. Croesus turned down the invitation and the two armies did battle at a place called Pteria in Cappadocia. The battle took place in the month of November and Croesus was defeated. Croesus and his forces retreated across the Halys River and back into Lydian territory.

Croesus then made a terrible mistake; he decided to disperse his army for the winter, thinking Cyrus would not attack until spring. Then without warning or thought, Cyrus did the unexpected. Cyrus and his forces fell upon the Lydian men that were in the process of demobilization. They were surprised, routed, and defeated. This was a risky move for Cyrus, due to the stories of Lydia’s army being superior, and the fact that they attacked during the winter, which can be rough. Cyrus probably sent spies throughout Lydia and received vital intelligence that the Lydian forces were demobilizing for the winter, thus making them easy targets. Cyrus understood the risk of waiting for spring to challenge them on their home turf.

Once the Lydian forces were routed, Croesus fled to Sardis where he took refuge. His supposed allies sent no troops and instead many of the provinces in Lydia defected over to Cyrus. Cyrus knew that there was no time to waste, and he pursed Croesus to Sardis, besieged the city, and on the fourteenth day, the city fell. It was during this time that Sparta sent forces to help Croesus, but on hearing that Sardis had fallen, turned back. Word that Sardis fell sent a shock wave through the Near East and is said to have been as great a shock as when the news of Nineveh fell in 612 BCE. In addition, the Chronicle of Nabonidus also mentions the fall of Lydia:

In the month of Nisan, King Cyrus of Persia mustered his army and crossed the Tigris downstream from Arbela and, in the month of Iyyar, [march]ed on Ly[dia]. He put its king to death, seized its possessions, [and] set up his own garrison [there]. After that, the king and his garrison resided there.

The conquest of Lydia as a whole was far from over, for there were still many Greek city-states angered about the situation and wanted the same terms that Cyrus gave to Croesus before the battle of Pteria. Cyrus said no, for he had other issues on his mind, and the revolts began once he had left for Ecbatana.

To suppress the revolts in Asia Minor, Cyrus sent a man by the name Mazares back with some troops to squash the rebellions and enslave those involved. Mazares did just that for some time until he died of unknown causes. The next person to take his place and keep the rebellions down was Harpagus. Harpagus put the final stamp on the rebellious situation in Asia-minor and placed Persian garrisons in the areas affected to secure the peace. However, it was not easy, for it took four years before Persian rule could be established among the populace.

Cyrus’ Eastern and Babylonian Campaigns

As the pacification of Anatolia continued, Cyrus turned his attention to the east. Herodotus tells us Cyrus had the Bactrians and Sacae on his mind and does speak of many minor campaigns but decided that they were not worth mentioning in detail due to their insignificant nature. Even though Herodotus is vague using terms such as Sacae and Bactrians, it is possible to piece together what may have happened in speculative detail. The reason could be that the various Saka and Bactrian tribes may have been a part of the Umman-manda Empire but were quite possibly just tributary states with no direct ties; and when the Umman-manda Empire fell to Cyrus, they stopped paying tribute and became more or less hostile to the new rule.

However, one must not overlook the Behistun Inscription, for Darius in 520 BCE mentions Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chrorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia, and Maka as having been areas conquered by Cyrus between 546-540 BCE. If so, then the Behistun Inscription helps us piece together the information Herodotus is reluctant to give in detail.

Behistun Inscription, describing conquests of Darius the Great in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran).

Behistun Inscription, describing conquests of Darius the Great in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran). (Public Domain)

Cyrus’ next campaign was directed towards the Kingdom of Babylon around 539 BCE, but it has also been suggested to have taken place a few years before. His reason for invading Babylonia may have been the ineffectiveness of its ruler Nabonidus, who neglected the primary god of Babylonia known as Marduk. Also it did not help that Nabonidus moved to Teima in Arabia quite unexpectedly and decided to stay there for ten years while his son Belshazzar ruled the kingdom. With an ineffective ruler reigning over the Babylonian Kingdom, it became more desirable to Cyrus while the people of Babylonia wanted a new ruler. Nabonidus did return from Teima around 543 BCE due to the Persian threat. However, it seems too late, for the people of Babylonia were more interested in Cyrus as being their king. He and his forces invaded the Babylonian Kingdom:

In the month of Tesrit, Cyrus having joined battle with the army of Akkad at Upu on the [bank] of the Tigris, the people of Akkad fell back. He pillaged and massacred the population. The fourteenth, Sippar was taken without struggle. Nabonidus fled. The sixteenth, Governor Ugbaru of Gutium and the army of Cyrus made their entrance into Babylon without fighting. Later, having returned, Nabonidus was taken in Babylon. Until the end of the month, the shield-(carriers) of Gutium encircled the gates of the Esagila, but there was no interruption (of rites) of any kind in the Esagila or in any other temple and no (festival) date was missed. In the month of Arahsamnu, the third day, Cyrus entered Babylon. (Drinking) straws (?) were filled up before him. Peace reigned in the city; Cyrus decreed peace for all Babylon. He installed Gubaru as governor of (all) the governors in Babylon.

Cyrus’ first battle against the Babylonians at Upu/Opis was of great significance, for the city of Opis was on the banks of the Tigris River, and by taking Opis/Upu Cyrus had flanked the Median wall that stretched to Sippar, which was on the banks of the Euphrates River but also controlled part of the wall. It was not until the next day that Cyrus took the city of Sippar without a fight and thus was now in full control of the Median wall. The very wall that was intended to keep out the Cimmerians, Scythians, and any other undesirable barbarians was now in their hands.

Mosaic depicting Persian archers. (Pre 4th Century BC)

Mosaic depicting Persian archers. (Pre 4th Century BC) (CC BY 2.0)

With the Median/Umman-manda wall now out of the way, Cyrus then began his march towards Babylon. On October 12, Ugbaru, Governor of Gutium, entered Babylonia without a fight and arrested King Nabonidus of Babylonia who had earlier fled Sippar. Nabonidus was exiled to the region of Carmania. According to Xenophon, this Ugbaru, also known as Gobryas, was in charge of a vast amount of territory for the Babylonians. When Cyrus invaded, Ugbaru/Gobryas reconsidered and switched sides, joining Cyrus’ army, which he most likely guided during the invasion and battle at Opis/Upu. Now Cyrus himself would have entered the city on October 29 to restore the festivals and proclaim peace to all Babylon. But was this what truly happened?

It’s been speculated that the city may have put up a temporary fight. In 1970, Paul-Richard Berger identified a fragment as being a part of the Cyrus Cylinder, which was a part of the Yale Babylonian Collection. This fragment mentions Cyrus restoring the city’s inner walls and moats among other things within Babylon. It becomes possible that the Persian forces may have conducted siege warfare for a short time. Now this is not to say Cyrus was not a peace-loving man. However, one should be careful, for Cyrus also was a propagandist, doing everything he could to restore the gods of the city to gain the respect of the people. An example of this would be his son Cambyses II. Cambyses observed the New Year’s rite on March 24, 538 BCE during which he was humiliated by religious symbolism. In other words, the high priest of Marduk grabbed him by the ear, forcing him to kneel! Cambyses is then to have said:

“I have not sinned, O Lord of the Lands. I have not destroyed Babylon, nor damaged the Esagila, nor neglected the temple rites.”

Then the high priest of Marduk slapped Cambyses’ cheek! As tears flowed down his face, the god was pleased and thus concluded the ritual.


Top Image: Deriv; Tomb of Cyrus the Great (CC BY-SA 4.0) and modern recreation of relief of Cyrus II (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Ctesias, and Nichols, A., (2008) The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction (Diss.) University of Florida

Dandamayev, Muhammad A. “Encyclopædia Iranica.” RSS. November 10, 2011. Accessed August 05, 2016.

Herodotus, Histories

Strabo, The geography of Strabo.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia

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