According to the popular Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus went on his last campaign to subdue the Massagetae, a tribe located in the southernmost portion of the steppe regions of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan around 530 BCE, where he would die in battle. But did he?
The reason to question the narrative surrounding Cyrus’ death is that there are conflicting reports. Therefore, it is crucial to examine the sources of Herodotus, Ctesias, Xenophon, and Berossus to find if Cyrus really died in battle against the Massagetae.
Ten years after subduing the Babylonians in 539 BCE, Cyrus turned his attention towards the northeastern part of the empire to bring “the Massagetae under his dominion. Now the Massagetae are said to be a great and warlike nation, dwelling eastward, toward the rising of the sun, beyond the river Araxes, and opposite the Issedonians. By many they are regarded as a Scythian race.” The Araxes Herodotus mentions is not the Araxes River that runs along the countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran in the Caucasus, but instead the Jaxartes, which is northeast of the Oxus River, east of the Aral Sea.
Sunset over Sir-Darya river, Kazakhstan. In Ancient Greek river is called Yaxartes (Jaxartes) (Petar Milošević /CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sometime after Cyrus had subdued the Babylonians, he decided to secure his northern borders, probably due to Saka raids into the Chorasmia satrapy by building a series of forts. One such fort was called Cyropolis, and established on the Jaxartes River .
However, the raids did not stop, and why would they? Even with a series of forts built, the nomadic element would still find a way to penetrate the border undetected. Cyrus, seeing that had two options to consider, took the diplomatic approach first by sending ambassadors to Queen Tomyris, Massagetean ruler “with instructions to court her on his part, pretending that he wished to take her to wife.”
Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century. (Public Domain)
As the Persian ambassadors crossed into Massagetae territory and approached Tomyris’ residence, she must have sent envoys of her own out to ask the Persian ambassadors as to why they had come. This was probably to check the men for weapons and question the reason for being there. After telling the Massagetae officials of their mission, it was relayed back to Tomyris. Tomyris, considering what they said, realized that it was “her kingdom, and not herself, that he courted.” Instead of hearing it from the Persian envoys, she “forbade the men to approach.” When the Persian envoys returned and informed Cyrus of her answer, he mustered his forces.
Asia in 323 BC, showing the Massagetae located in modern-day Central Asia. (CC BY 3.0)
Cyrus lead his forces to the Jaxartes River, “and openly displaying his hostile intentions; set to work to construct a bridge on which his army might cross the river, and began building towers upon the boats which were to be used in the passage.” As the Persians were securing their passageways into Massagetae territory, envoys from Tomyris arrived to present Cyrus with a message which stated:
King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desires than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetae in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.
Cyrus considered this offer, called his advisors together, and made the argument before them. They all agreed to let “Tomyris cross the stream, and giving battle on Persian ground.” However not all were game to this idea. Croesus the Lydian, who was present at the meeting of the chiefs, disapproved of this advice, stating:
Now concerning the matter in hand, my judgment runs counter to the judgment of your other counselors. For if you agree to give the enemy entrance into your country, consider what risk is run! Lose the battle, and there with your whole kingdom is lost. For, assuredly, the Massagetae, if they win the fight, will not return to their homes, but will push forward against the states of your empire. Or, if you win the battle, why, then you win far less than if you were across the stream, where you might follow up your victory. For against your loss, if they defeat you on your own ground, must be set theirs in like case. Rout their army on the other side of the river, and you may push at once into the heart of their country. Moreover, were it not disgrace intolerable for Cyrus the son of Cambyses to retire before and yield ground to a woman?
Therefore, Cyrus agreed with Croesus that it would be best to face the Massagetae on their territory. Persian envoys delivered the message to Tomyris, stating “she should retire, and that he would cross the stream.” Tomyris thus moved her forces and awaited the Persian army. While he gathered his forces to cross the river, he named Cambyses II as the next king should Cyrus die.
Tomyris had her son, Spargapises lead a third of the Massagetae towards Cyrus’ forces. Cyrus left a small detachment behind with food and drink to lure the Massagetae, which they took, and then defeated the small Persian detachment and begin to eat and drink. Once the Massagetae became inebriated, the Persian forces fell on the camp and killed many, taking a few prisoners alive, including Tomyris’ son Spargapises. Spargapises, learning of what had happened, committed suicide. Tomyris, upon learning what had happened, considered the tactics of Cyrus as cowardly. Tomyris vowed revenge and Cyrus did not take heed to the warning. Cyrus pushed further into Massagetae territory where he and his forces met up with the Massagetae face to face. There are no details of the battle. One can speculate that the Massagetae won over the Persians using steppe tactics, which one would think Cyrus would have been accustomed to and able to defend against. However, whatever counter tactics Cyrus used, was all for nothing. The Massagetae won the battle, killed Cyrus, and recovered his body from the battlefield.
Queen Tomyris had the head of Cyrus cut from his body, which she dipped in blood as a symbolic act of revenge for her son, but also you could say she was giving Cyrus his fill as well. As to how much of this is truth and how much of this is fiction is up to the reader to decide. Herodotus does seem plausible in his account but he is not the only one.
“Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood” by Rubens. (Public Domain)
To support Herodotus’ view as to what happened to Cyrus, the fifth century BC Greek physician and historian Ctesias states the story slightly differently in books VII-IX of Persika, stating, “Cyrus marched against the Derbices, whose king was Amoraeus.” The Derbices or Derbikes according Strabo 11.8.8, 9.1, the first century BCE Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, are said to have been located east of the Caspian Sea. Pliny indicates in his work Natural History 6.18.48 that the Derbices were on both sides of the Oxus River. However, other modern historians suggest that the Derbices were the Dyrbaians. Ctesias describes the Dyrbaians as living “to the south extending all the way to Bactria and India. Its men are blessed, wealthy, and very just, never committing any crime or killing anybody.” While this seems plausible, more is needed before making conclusions, because Ctesias is describes them as two separate tribes. However, the key words here are “Bactria and India.” As Cyrus entered Derbices territory, they attacked.
Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle (CC BY 3.0)
By placing their elephants in an ambush, the Derbikes repelled the Persian cavalry causing Cyrus himself to fall off his horse at which point an Indian – for the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes and supplied their elephants – hit Cyrus after he fell with a javelin below the hip to the bone, inflicting a fatal wound; however, Cyrus was taken up before dying and brought back to camp by his servants. Each side lost 10,000 men in the battle. After hearing about Cyrus, Amorges (King of Amyrgians, the Scythians (Saka) tribe) came with all speed at the head of 20,000 cavalries from the Saka; however, after hostilities resumed, Amoraeus (Amoraios, king of the Derbikes) was killed along with his two children in a major victory for the Persian and Sakidian contingent in which 30,000 Derbikes and 9,000 Persians perished.
This inscription seems to suggest that the Derbikes and Dyrbaians may be one in the same. The reason for this is that the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes. The Dyrbaians territory extended all the way to Bactria and India, which indicates the plausibility that they had Indian allies who could provide war elephants. If this is the case, Cyrus and his Persian army traveled much further eastward to expand his borders as opposed to Herodotus account. Furthermore, Cyrus does not die but his fell off his horse and was struck with a javelin to the hip. However, he survived only to die later and the battle itself ended up being a Persian victory. Another interesting aspect is where Cyrus fights and dies—fighting the Saka, according to Herodotus, while Ctesias tells us he was aided by them.
The Accounts of Berossus and Xenophon
Herodotus and Ctesias provide the most information concerning Cyrus battle and death. However, two other sources tell a different tale and are short. According to the Babylonian fourth/third-century priest-chronicler Berossus, Cyrus died fighting the Dahae. According to Xenophon in his work Cyropaedia 8.7.25, Cyrus died peacefully in his own capital with directions for his burial.
Now as to my body, when I am dead, my sons, lay it away neither in gold nor in silver nor in anything else, but commit it to the earth as soon as may be. For what is more blessed than to be united with the earth, which brings forth and nourishes all things beautiful and all things good? I have always been a friend to man, and I think I should gladly now become a part of that which does him so much good.
What can be made from the account provided from Berossus is not much. Yes, Cyrus died against the Dahae or Daai. The Dahae were a Saka tribe much like the Massagetae. However, no details of the reason for war or of the battle survived, thus leaving one to wonder whether the story was similar to Herodotus’ or to that of Ctesias’. As for the account provided by Xenophon, there is no description of being wounded in battle that resulted in his death.
The End of Cyrus
If one takes three out of the four accounts one has a possible connection. Three out of the four speak of war with a Scythian/Saka tribe. Two out of four speak of Cyrus dying in battle. One out of four says he died three days after the battle and the other account of the four speaks of a peaceful death. Only two out of the four accounts mention a name of his adversary. What can be made from this is that Cyrus either sought to expand his empire by attacking the Derbikes/Dyrbaians (if they are truly one and the same) for their riches, or truly fought the Massagetae or Dahae to protect his northeastern borders from further raids. In both cases, he was fighting a Scythian/Saka element. Overall, there is no conclusive way to know how Cyrus died. But given that three of the four accounts speak of a violent death it seems without a doubt that the famous Cyrus the Great, builder of largest empire the ancient world had yet seen, died in battle or shortly after fighting the Scythians/Saka to the northeast of his empire.
Tomb of Cyrus the Great. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Cam Rea
Ctesias, and Nichols, A., (2008) The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction (Diss.) University of Florida http://etd.fcla.edu/UF/UFE0022521/nichols_a.pdf
Dandamayev, Muhammad A. “Encyclopædia Iranica.” RSS. November 10, 2011. Accessed August 05, 2016. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/cyrus-iii
Strabo, The geography of Strabo.