Cyrus the Great’s Last Campaign: Who Killed Cyrus? – Part II

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.

[Read Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I]

Herodotus’ Account

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)

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.

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.

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.

“Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood” by Rubens. (Public Domain)

Ctesias’ Account

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

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.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top Image: Deriv; Tomb of Cyrus the Great (CC BY-SA 4.0) and Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle (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

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

The Military Campaigns of Cyaxares

Tomb of Cyaxares, Qyzqapan, Sulaymaniyah. Iraqi Kurdistan

Tomb of Cyaxares, Qyzqapan, Sulaymaniyah. Iraqi Kurdistan. (Public Domain)

For information about Cyaraxes’ background click HERE

Cyaxares on the March

When Cyaxares took power in Media, a Scythian chieftain by the name of Madyes conquered the Scythians of Media and dethroned Cyaxares. Madyes ruled for 28 years. Once he died, Cyaxares returned to power and regained his territory. Cyaxares would not have had been able to do this without an army capable of regaining and stabilizing the region, and with the ability to expand his borders. The armies at his disposal came from many backgrounds. It is safe to say that the armies of Cyaxares were a combination of horse archers and foot soldiers; one can assume he had siege craft to scale or take down the walls of the major cities in his way. In any case, the Median army was a force multiplier that could compete on the battlefield with any of the major powers in the region. In doing so, Cyaxares eventually helped the Babylonians defeat and conquer Assyria according to The Fall of NinevehChronicle.

When Assyria finally fell at Harran around 610-609 BCE, Cyaxares and his forces returned home back to the region of Media. The Babylonians, on the other hand, were now the masters of Mesopotamia, or at least some of it, since Cyaxares seems to have conquered portions of northern Assyria for himself according to The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle. Once back in Media, Cyaxares and his forces are all too silent among written records for a period. However, the relationship between the Scythians, Cimmerians of Media, and the Babylonians, appears to have a taken a turn for the worse. Whatever caused these two kingdoms to distrust one another is not known. Keep in mind that Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar and Cyaxares’ daughter (or possibly his granddaughter Amytis), supposedly tied the knot as husband and wife, thus uniting the two nations in friendly relations. This may be more romanticism than fact, but one should also consider that there is probably some truth behind this. However, this did not seem to work out, whether it was a marriage to seal a deal, or just negotiations to form an alliance. The fallout between the two powers may have been due to Cyaxares’ campaigns to the north of Babylonian kingdom.

Cylinder of Nabopolassar from Babylon, Mesopotamia.

Cylinder of Nabopolassar from Babylon, Mesopotamia. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The date when Cyaxares went on his campaign is unknown, but it must have been shortly after the fall of Assyria at Harran. Cyaxares’ reason may have been to recapture former territories that once belonged to his ancestors. In addition, Cyaxares knew that the time was right to take advantage of the weaker northern nations once allied to Assyria. The reason for this is that Nabopolassar defeated a force of Manneans in the tenth year of his reign and later invaded the region of Urartu, only to burn and pillage the area during the seventeenth year of his reign. Thus, Nabopolassar’s invasion of Urartian regions and the previous defeat of the Mannean forces most likely weakened – if not discombobulated – the northern nations from being able to go on the offensive at that time, thus making them desirable targets for Cyaxares’ expanding empire.

Cyaxares’ campaign toward the north and northwest of Media may have begun around 591-590 BCE. They had the upper hand, and his forces were confident that if they could beat down the might of Assyria then they could beat down anybody—and so they did. Cyaxares led his forces on a campaign to conquer the Kingdom of Urartu, but with some help.

Cyaxares and the Urartian forces are said to have been equal in number. Once both armies were in the arena, they gazed upon one another from a distance in the valley of Ararat. The Urartian army launched itself in a massive charge and concentrated its full power at the center of the Umman-manda/Scythian army. Cyaxares had his left and right cavalry flanks move forward and his infantry in the center move back. This formation, known as the bull’s horns or horseshoe pattern, was a common maneuver among nomadic steppe people. The purpose of this formation was to encompass and smother the enemy army in the center, and that is exactly what happened to the Urartian forces. They charged full speed ahead, screaming into the abyss with their kingdom in hand, only to come out the other side as echoes in the wind. However, not all the forces ended up that way due to the Urartian commanders retreating and on the second day surrendering to Cyaxares. Cyaxares and the Urartian commanders decided that no more bloodshed was needed. Once the two-day battle had finished, it is said that Cyaxares incorporated the Urartian cavalry into his forces, and from then on, we hear of the Urartian kingdom no more.

 Deriv; 5th century BC Achaemenid-era carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume (CC BY-SA 3.0) and eclilpse (CC BY 2.0).

Once Cyaxares had finalized the conquest of Urartu, he handed it over to a certain tribe of Scythians who had inhabited the region of Armenia beforehand and thus extended their domain.

Kingdom of Urartu 715–713 BC

Kingdom of Urartu 715–713 BC (Sémhur/CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is said that the Scythians who inhabited the region of Armenia helped him in his campaign against Assyria, that a certain chieftain by the name of Paroyr, son of Skayordi, assisted Cyaxares in his invasion and the sacking of Nineveh in 612 BCE. Afterwards, Cyaxares’ viceroy Varbakes crowned Paroyr king of Armenia. However, what becomes even more interesting is the name of Paroyr, son of Skayordi.

The name Paroyr has been suggested to be the Assyrian equivalent of Partatua (or Bartatua), who was a famous Scythian chieftain who made an alliance with Esarhaddon, king of Assyria. Thus it becomes quite possible that Paroyr was named after the great Scythian warrior due to legendary reason or it was just a common name among Scythian groups.

Gold Scythian belt title, Mingachevir (ancient Scythian kingdom), Azerbaijan, 7th century BC.

Gold Scythian belt title, Mingachevir (ancient Scythian kingdom), Azerbaijan, 7th century BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The name next mentioned is Skayordi, which is said to mean “son of a Scythian,” “a good Saka,” or “son of the Saka”. Thus, Paroyr was a Scythian whom Cyaxares must have regarded highly and in turn gave Paroyr’s Scythian tribe domain over Urartu. Whether Paroyr was alive during the conquest of Urartu by Cyaxares is debatable. It is certain that sometime after the conquest, around 570 BCE, a Scythian by the name of Yervand Sakavakyats came to the throne, thus establishing the Yervandunis Dynasty, also known as the Orontid Dynasty in Greek. Now whether Yervand was the first of this dynasty is not known and is debatable, for one would think it was Paroyr who had initially founded the dynasty, but that is another subject for another time. Once the Kingdom of Armenia was established, it became more or less a vassal to Cyaxares’ Umman-manda Empire.

An Armenian tribute bearer carrying a metal vessel with griffin handles. 5th century BC.

An Armenian tribute bearer carrying a metal vessel with griffin handles. 5th century BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In addition, it becomes quite possible that Cyaxares created it to not only to pay tribute to the Umman-manda, but also provide protection as a buffer state between the Umman-manda and possible threats of invasions from nomadic Scythians to the north in the Caucasus Mountains. Cyaxares had already experienced this once before, when Madyes and his Scythian forces invaded and subdued him for a time. Also, keep in mind that Babylonians to the south were just as much of a threat to Cyaxares as the Scythians were to the north. The only difference – and one speculates – is that the Babylonians were a visible enemy that could be dealt with in a time of crisis, while the Scythian/Saka tribes to the north of the Umman-manda Empire were in Terra incognita. In other words, they knew who the people were but did not know the strength of their forces nor the land in which they dwelt for sure. This is not to say that Cyaxares knew nothing about them; it was just better to avoid them due to unknown circumstances.

The Babylonians in turn seemed to feel the same about the Umman-manda; for it was during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that a great wall was built known as the “Median Wall,” otherwise known as the “Wall of Babylon.” This wall was placed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the northwest of Babylonia with the fortress of Opis at the end of the Tigris to the right and the fortress of Sippar guarding the left at the end of the Euphrates. This wall in many ways symbolized a divorce of friendly relations between the two powers. However, the wall also suggests that Nebuchadnezzar was fearful of the uncivilized, but this very wall also allowed him to go on campaigns to conquer the civilized.

Charging West

After the conquest of Urartu and the creation of the puppet kingdom of Armenia, Cyaxares continued to look west and next on his list was Cappadocia. When Cyaxares and his forces entered Cappadocia, the Cappadocians were not ready for a war. Instead, they sent the elders of their tribes to meet with Cyaxares and his commanders, and explained to them that they wanted no war and surrendered without a fight. They offered only bread and salt as their gift to the Umman-manda along with their kingdom. However, the reasons for their surrender may be due more to relations between the two than the inability to organize forces to wage combat. Scythians possibly inhabited Cappadocia when Cyaxares and his forces arrived.

After the peaceful submission of Cappadocia, Cyaxares and his forces remained in the region for the winter and prepared for the invasion of Lydia. These Lydians are said to have been very patriotic, but not experts in the conduct of war, and that the only strong element among their ranks was the cavalry. However, the Lydians did incorporate many Greek mercenaries into their ranks, not only for fighting but also for instructing Lydia’s forces. King Alyatts most likely knew that the Umman-manda was coming. After all, Cappadocia/Gamir was an area of interest to the Lydians, which Cyaxares had now swallowed up into his own empire. After the winter cold had passed, the Umman-manda pushed on into Lydia.

The edge of the brown area is the border of Lydia at the middle of the 6th century BC. The red line is a possible different border of Lydia.

The edge of the brown area is the border of Lydia at the middle of the 6th century BC. The red line is a possible different border of Lydia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once inside the borders, Cyaxares is said to have sent envoys to conduct a peace treaty with King Alyatts of Lydia. The terms of the treaty were clear and quite simple: “Surrender!” Cyaxares was hoping that the Lydians would be pushovers just as their Cimmerian kin in Cappadocia. Nevertheless, things were different now. The Lydians would rather put up a fight and die if need be, than to surrender to these Umman-manda barbarians from the east. Thus began the start of a five- to six-year war between the two powers.

Both the Umman-manda and Lydia won and lost engagements until a strange thing happed on May 28, 585 BCE. The sun went dark, a total eclipse occurred, and both sides stopped fighting due to their superstitious and eerie feeling that “maybe the gods are warning us?”

A total solar eclipse stopped a battle.

A total solar eclipse stopped a battle. (CC BY 2.0)

Thus, the battle ended at the Halys River and that river became the border between the two powers. The terms to the peace agreement included that Cyaxares’ son Astyages would marry the daughter of King Alyatts. Not only would the river Halys be the border between the two powers but so would the marriage act as a border as well. Cyaxares returned home, but he died the following year. His son Astyages would ascend to the throne of the Umman-manda.

Astyages’ Dream

Astyages was the second ruler according to most historians of the Umman-manda. However, what is quite interesting is his name. Astyages is the Greek form of his name, but the other versions of his name are Aztiag, Ajhdahak, Astiag, Sahak, Astiak, and Aspadas. The name Ajhdahak is of interest, for the word “Dahak” is another form of the name Dahae, and the Dahae were a Saka tribe also known as the Dasa in the Vedic, and in old Iranian they are known as Daha. In addition, the Iranian Avestan word “Azis” is applied to the word Dahak/Dahaka and becomes Azis-Dahaka/Dahak and means serpent or dragon. The Azis Dahaka is a mythological dragon or serpent, but also the term was applied to anyone who was a tyrant. However, there seems to be a grain of truth to this in terms of symbolism. The Dahak are said to be the Scythian Dahae, and remember that the name Dahak/Dahae are one in the same. Then is it possible to say that the serpent and dragon are the symbols of the Dahae?

According to Herodotus, Astyages’ reign was long and prosperous. His empire stretched from the Halys River in the west to quite possibly Hara in the east.

The Median Empire during both Cyaxares the Great, and Astyages.

The Median Empire during both Cyaxares the Great, and Astyages. (Public Domain)

Astyages was so prosperous and his force so strong that after a while it is said they became lazy and were more concerned with the collection of taxes than securing and governing the regions they controlled. But Astyages was living the good life until he had a dream that seemed to haunt him.

Astyages dreamed that his daughter Mandane was urinating so much that she flooded Asia. Therefore, Astyages ran to the Magi and asked them what it meant. The Magi told him that Mandane’s son would overthrow him. Astyages went on the hunt to find a suitable husband for his daughter Mandane. That man would be an Achaemenid vassal prince by the name of Cambyses of Anshan. The reason for selecting Cambyses was due to his peaceful and loyal nature. Surely, no son of Cambyses would ever think of taking the throne.

Then Astyages had a second dream. This time a vine grew from Mandane’s womb when she was pregnant and the vine grew so much it took over the world.

Astyages's dream (France, 15th century).

Astyages’s dream (France, 15th century). (Public Domain)

This drove Astyages mad enough to give the order to search out and kill the boy! Astyages sent his loyal court retainer Harpagus to do the job but once Harpagus found the child he decided he could not spill royal blood and decided against it.

Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus.

Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. (Public Domain)

Instead, Harpagus hid the child by giving him over to a shepherd by the name of Mithradates. Mithradates’ wife also gave birth to a son, but the child was stillborn. Therefore, Harpagus took the stillborn child to Astyages and pawned it off as the dead son of Mandane. As the years passed, this young boy would become none other than the famed Cyrus the Great, and young Cyrus’ first order of business once powerful enough was to challenge his grandfather Astyages for the throne.

Illustration of relief depicting Cyrus the Great

Illustration of relief depicting Cyrus the Great (Public Domain)

Mysterious Media

The origins of the Median Empire are a mystery. Understand that men like Cyaxares who founded his dynasty in the region of Media, came from an unknown tribe, perhaps Scythian or not. Whether Cyaxares was the son of Dugdammi is also up for debate.  However, the evidence brought forth indicates that the Median Empire was not predominantly Median/Medes, but an amalgamation of various nomadic and semi-sedentary tribes, which came to be known by those outside of Media as “Umman-manda.” The only reason why Cyaxares and the future rulers of Media were called Medes was that they settled and established a political and military powerbase in the region.

Just like when Cyrus established his rule over Persia, the west from that point on would slowly come to call Cyrus and the future rulers of the House of Achaemenid the Persian Empire, because Cyrus established his rule in the province of Persis (Persia). However, Cyrus’ legacy is like that of Cyaxares’ when it comes to the empires they governed. The writers in the near east were correct in calling them Umman-manda and not Median. Umman-manda was a better term in describing the ethnic and tribal smorgasbord since they are silent in naming the area after the ruling house of Cyaxares, which could suggest that his empire was still politically unstable and its future uncertain due to this instability. Whereas, Cyrus the Great was able to defeat his grandfather Astyages and take the throne. What is fascinating about this is that Cyrus did not create a new empire. Instead, he continued to rule as an Umman-manda/Median overlord. Nothing changed except for the ruling house and the location from which they ruled.

By Cam Rea 



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