Madyes: Master of Asia, Historical Enigma

Top Image: Deriv; Man With Cap, Probably Scythian, Bamiyan 3-4th Century (PHGCOM/CC BY-SA 3.0) and Gold Scythian neckpiece (FreeArtLicence)

Madyes, the mysterious Scythian stepped onto the world stage. There is not a great deal of information about him, nor has his name turned up in any of the Assyrian tablets. Herodotus and Strabo are the only two writers who mention him other than Arrian, who refers to him as “Idanthyrsus.”

Herodotus provides the most information about Madyes. Most historians have read and used Herodotus’ work for their research in dealing with this matter. But what if Herodotus was wrong? This would not be a new statement by any means nor is it to meant to demean Herodotus’ work. So let us look at Herodotus’ chronology from the Scythian invasion to the massacre of the Scythians by Cyaxares.
According to Herodotus, Madyes was the son of Bartatua (Protothyes) but there is no concrete evidence for this even though some suggest he is the son of Bartatua and the Assyrian Princess. Unfortunately, no evidence says Esarhaddon handed over his daughter in marriage. That is not to say it is not possible, but it has a high likelihood of being improbable.

Herodotus tells us that Madyes “burst into Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians whom they had driven out of Europe, and entered the Median territory.” This seems to be true to a certain extent, except for the fact that Madyes drove the Cimmerians from the battle into Europe rather than from Europe into Asia and not in the migratory sense. The sources provided by Herodotus and Strabo, along with Ashurbanipal’s inscriptions, do attest that Dugdammi’s defeat was by an outside element close to his borders and of the same ethnic stock, as both Herodotus and Strabo provide. Therefore, either Ashurbanipal paid for Madyes’ services or it is true that Bartatua married an Assyrian princess to strengthen Assyrian-Scythian relations through Bartatua’s son, Madyes. Madyes would become king of the Scythians and most likely was the nephew of Esarhaddon and cousin to Ashurbanipal, if this is true.

Now, Madyes was not king of all the Scythians, Umman-manda, or Cimmerians. However, it does seem that Madyes had a large army and possibly many provinces. His influence proved effective enough to sway Assyrian politics, as Bartatua had done to a certain degree. After Madyes took his father’s throne, Ashurbanipal may have asked him to deal with Dugdammi. Thus, according to Herodotus, Madyes defeated and chased the remaining forces of Dugdammi out of Asia and into Europe.
Herodotus goes on to say, “The Scythians, having thus invaded Media, were opposed by the Medes, who gave them battle, but, being defeated, lost their empire. The Scythians became masters of Asia.” After Madyes effectively defeated Dugdammi in 639 BCE, he thus sets off to conquer the eastern half of Dugdammi’s empire. The eastern half of Dugdammi’s empire would be the regions of Media and Mannea. Thus, the Scythians under Madyes took full control of Dugdammi’s empire. Therefore, to say, “The Scythians became masters of Asia” is incorrect and correct. It is incorrect to say the Scythians are the masters when they already had been, under Dugdammi, but it is correct to say the Scythians and other nomads have a new master by the name of Madyes.

The Scythians continued to push on conquering, for Herodotus states:

After this they marched forward with the design of invading Egypt. When they had reached Palestine, however, Psammetichus the Egyptian king met them with gifts and prayers, and prevailed on them to advance no further.

When Psammetichus became king of Egypt in 664 BCE, Assyria still held a tight grip over the country, which he was able to shake off over time, allowing him to reunite Egypt. Ashurbanipal could do little about the events transpiring in Egypt, since his borders were already buckling under pressure from systematic warfare with neighboring states. Thus, Ashurbanipal effectively pulled out of Egyptian affairs. Whether he removed Assyrian troops out of Egypt is a matter of debate, for the Assyrian inscriptions are silent on this matter, other than some reliefs that depict the issues going on in Egypt.

Assyrian troops would pull out of Philistia and the northern portions of what used to be the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 640 BCE. With Assyrian troops effectively gone from the region, Psammetichus moved into Philistia around 640 BCE, while King Josiah of Judah pushed north to retrieve the remnants of Israel shortly after 630 BCE. As for the Scythian invasion of Palestine, the year remains uncertain, but some suggest 626 BCE or shortly after.

The reason for the Scythian invasion of Palestine seems to be due in part to the destabilization of the Assyrian Empire shortly after Ashurbanipal’s death in 631 BCE. This led to the rise of his son Ashur-etil-ilani. Ashur-etil-ilani’s reign would be very short and much undocumented. Ashur-etil-ilani would be deposed of in 627 BCE by a usurper named Sin-shumu-lishir, who reigned on the throne for a year or less. With this transfer of power through what looks to be a coup d’état, the Assyrian Empire was fractured and open to foreign conquest.

Egypt at that time had been spreading its sphere of influence throughout Palestine, but how much land they controlled the further they pushed north remains unknown. It seems possible that when Sinsharishkun recaptured the throne in 626 BCE, he sent messengers to the Scythians and Cimmerians to check the Egyptian advancement. But once the Scythians arrived on the scene they were paid off by the Pharaoh, as Herodotus mentions. Another alternative as to why the Scythians may have pressed on into Palestine is that they felt the pressure of the Egyptian advancement northward. Remember, the Scythians had hegemony over the lands to the north of Palestine and felt the need to attack or at least check out their new neighbor. If so, then the Egyptians must have made an impression, for they paid off the Scythians with either a handsome gift or tribute.

Herodotus’ description shows that the Egyptians were weak in terms of military power but were rich in treasure, and therefore were able to bribe the Scythians from pillaging or conquest. In doing this, the Egyptians had exposed themselves, admitting their vulnerability, but at the same time showed their value. Treasure defeated the potential threat and allowed Egypt to carry on unopposed from the nomadic north to fight another day. The amount of money given to the Scythians must have been great, but some decided to pillage “the temple of Celestial Aphrodite” at Ascalon, where “female sickness” overcame some few of the greedy. Those suffering from the curse would be deemed, “Enarees.”

Many do not accept the Scythian invasion of Palestine, finding the “female sickness” too similar to the story found in the book of I Samuel of how the Philistines got hemorrhoids in the same area that the Scythians would pass through later on. Tales can be intermingled over time. Another argument is that the Scythians were Assyrian mercenary troops assigned to certain posts to guard Assyria’s interests and borders. This I agree with somewhat, as indicated earlier, for Assyria had pulled out of the region before the invasion took place, while others just outright reject the whole invasion. However, I do think the Scythians really did invade Palestine, for “female sickness” is our clue.

Female sickness, according to Herodotus created Enarees. The Enarees were women-like men who were soothsayers or prophets who received training from the goddess Aphrodite. These Enarees were not homosexual or transvestite, but rather transsexual, as implied by the Roman poet Ovid. Ovid tells us that these Enarees were young boys who had been castrated and says, “Ah me, that you, neither man nor woman, serve the lady; you who can’t know the mutual delights of Venus! Whoever first cut off a boy’s genitals, that one, who made the wound, should suffer it himself.” Ovid, in book 1 section 8 of the Amores, explains further concerning the process of male to female transsexual gender change. “She’s a witch, mutters magical cantrips, can make rivers run uphill, knows the best aphrodisiacs – When to use herbal brews, or the whirring bullroarer, How to extract that stuff from a mare in heat.” The women are really men, and the urine that mares in heat produced allowed them to look more feminine, as Ovid explains. He tells the men to avoid this, and states, “Put no faith in herbals and potions, abjure the deadly stuff distilled by a mare in heat.” This deadly stuff is mare’s urine. The urine from a pregnant mare is high in estrogen levels and helps males develop female sexual characteristics.
Herodotus is partially right in his statement that the Scythians pillage the temple of Aphrodite at Ascalon. Nevertheless, the temple of Aphrodite Herodotus mentions most likely was the temple of the goddess Atargatis, where emasculation was practiced among the cult followers.
The followers of Atargatis, particularly men, would dance to the music and work themselves into a frenzy of wild behavior. During the music and orgies, from among the onlookers of the frenzy, a young man taken up in the emotions of the frenzy would strip off his clothes, pick up a sword, and make a loud shout in the midst of the crowd, then castrate himself before the onlookers. Then he would run through the streets carrying his testicles in hand and from whatever house he threw his testicles in, he would receive women’s garb to wear in order to join the temple priesthood of Atargatis.
Notice that the priesthood of Atargatis is similar to the soothsayers and prophets of the Scythians. Both are castrated, both dress as women and have woman-like features. Thus, the few Scythians that pillaged the city or temple of Ascalon may not have pillaged the temple at all, but might have been caught up in the Atargatis cult. A few, if not all who were there, castrated themselves and brought the practice home, and Herodotus and many others would describe this later on. Therefore, the Scythian invasion of Palestine is proved by these two descriptions of the adoption of a local religious practice.

Besides the Scythian invasion of Palestine, Herodotus continues to explain that the Scythians went on to become masters of Media for the next twenty-eight years. That rule would end when Cyaxares invited the leaders to a banquet, rendered them defenseless by getting them drunk with wine and massacred them. Afterward, the Medes regained their empire.
Herodotus says that King Madyes reigned for those twenty-eight years, but I doubt it. If Madyes reigned for twenty–eight years, he would have to start at the death of Dugdammi, which was around 640/39 BCE, and when you subtract twenty-eight years we come to either 612/11 BCE as the year of Madyes death. But if we take The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle into account, then Madyes would have to have died much earlier, because the first time we read of Cyaxares is in The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, and according to its chronology, Cyaxares arrived on the scene in 614 BCE. Thus, Madyes was dead and his reign over Asia after defeating Dugdammi did not last twenty-eight years as Herodotus says. Therefore, Cyaxares was free to go about his business in Asia unopposed as no Scythian threat seems near or far, and it could be argued that the Scythians, who did not oppose Cyaxares, joined his forces.

Whether or not the Scythians controlled the whole of Asia for twenty-eight years is true to some extent if you consider Dugdammi and add the reign of Madyes; then you have twenty-eight years and more. Now, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong, but if one considers that from the time Nineveh fell in 612 BCE to the Battle of the Eclipse or Halys, then you would get twenty-eight years. The notion of the Medes led by Cyaxares conquering a portion of Anatolia while bringing on the downfall of Urartu may in fact have been an invention of Herodotus.

Robert Rollinger’s paper, The Median “Empire”, the End of Urartu and Cyrus’ the Great Campaign in 547 B.C. (Nabonidus Chronicle II 16), makes a great argument that it was not the Medes who made their presence felt in Anatolia, but rather the Babylonians. This is shown in the inscription provided from The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle during the seventeenth year (609 BCE) of Nabopolassar’s reign:

The king of Akkad went to help his army and … [ … ] he went up [to] Izalla and / the numerous cities in the mountains … [ … ] he set fire to their [ … ] / At that time the army of [ … ] / [ma]rched / as far as the district of Urartu. / In the land … [ … ] they plundered their [ … ].

The Babylonians in 608-607 BCE continued to attack Urartu and the surrounding area including eastern Anatolia, and according to the inscriptions, acted alone, without the help from the Medes, during the eighteenth year of Nabopolassar’s reign. Overall, The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle supports a Babylonian domination of the north, including portions of eastern Anatolia. This does not mean that the Babylonians occupied or controlled the lands mentioned;, rather they are the only ones named as having conducted military activities in the areas and having some influence over the regions for a time. At least until the arrival of Cyrus the Great in which the Nabonidus Chronicle mentions that in 547 BCE Cyrus attacked and conquered the Kingdom of Urartu, leaving behind a garrison to watch over his newly acquired territory.
Therefore, I agree with Rollinger’s conclusion concerning Herodotus and the Halys River in which he states, “Herodotus’ image of the Median “Empire” has been modeled to a high degree on the Achaemenid Empire and the Halys border seems to be a much later invention.”

Beside the twenty-eight year domination by the Scythians, Herodotus goes on further to say:

The dominion of the Scythians over Asia lasted eight-and-twenty years, during which time their insolence and oppression spread ruin on every side. For besides the regular tribute, they exacted from the several nations additional imposts, which they fixed at pleasure; and further, they scoured the country and plundered every one of whatever they could.

This description is usual applied to Madyes. However, Herodotus may be attributing to Maydes acts described in the passage carried out by someone else, such as Dugdammi. Assyrian sources remain silent about Madyes and the troubles that came with him.

If Madyes did do the things that Herodotus suggests, whom did it affect? The civilizations of Mesopotamia and Palestine, particularly Judah, seem to have escaped this ransacking. Egypt did pay a fee to the Scythians during what would have been the rule of Madyes. However, if we consider Dugdammi, mentioned in Assyrian sources, then we may have a case, for the Assyrians feared Dugdammi and it seems if anyone could get Assyria to pay tribute, Dugdammi would have been the person to do so. But even the Assyrians mention Dugdammi paying tribute to them. Therefore, I would suggest that the statement made by Herodotus is in fact much broader than he realized. In other words, if you consider the Scythians and Cimmerians from Esarhaddon to Ashurbanipal, you will find these nomadic peoples raiding and pillaging whoever they can whether it is Assyria, Lydia, or others in their vicinity. This is not to say Herodotus is wrong, but rather he is right in one sense and that is the Scythians and Cimmerians did in fact, regardless of the leader mentioned or not, before Madyes, pillage and raid. Madyes is not the pillager who is forcing tribute with ease as Herodotus tells.

As for the Scythian dominion that Herodotus speaks of, I do question whether the Scythians ruled as a single entity. It seems more plausible that they controlled Asia, not as a centralized united empire, but rather as a loose tribal community that goes about their own business, unless an outside element threatens their pastures and way of life. Consider the Assyrian inscriptions earlier in the book: the Assyrians name names, but none of chieftains seem to hold a firm grip on their own people, other than those tribes who are sympathetic to rebellion against Assyria. Once again, the only true Scythian king, according to Assyrian sources, was Dugdammi, but I am skeptical about Madyes kingship over the nomadic peoples.

During the Scythian-Cimmerian presence in Asia, most of the conquered or neighboring peoples would adopt the manners and customs of the Scythians and Cimmerians. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and others may have sent selected trainees to go to the Scythians to learn certain military skills, such as with bows and arrows, much desired by the regional powers, particularly Assyria, and then Babylonia. Thus, Scythianization became the trend from Asia Minor to the Indus valley and from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf for twenty-eight or more years. Once King Madyes died, Cyaxares hosted a banquet and invited the many Scythian chieftains, possibly in order to debate who should be king. However, the question remains, why did Cyaxares go on to massacre them?

Cyaxares invited Scythians of noble status and possibly many others, including those of non-Scythian birth. Every nomadic nation within the confines of the loosely held Scythian confederation was invited to dine and debate. As for the massacre, not everyone at the banquet was murdered.
I would suggest that the only people targeted were those that supported a continuation of an alliance with Assyria, or would protect Assyria in a time of crisis. This would be due to treaties and loyalty oaths that may have been undertaken when Madyes was alive and Assyria needed extra help in dealing with Dugdammi. The massacre that took place does not mean that Cyaxares hated the Scythian lords, but rather their continued policy of supporting the Assyrians. Remember, Cyaxares had no blood ties with the country, nor treaties or oaths to tie him to the Assyrians. Cyaxares most likely understood that a continued alliance with Assyria was dangerous due to its history of instability with neighboring countries.

There is an alternative to consider concerning the massacre: fratricide. This may be farfetched speculation, but Cyaxares actually may have been killing his brothers or cousins to acquire the throne of Madyes. Therefore, it is possible that the father of Cyaxares was Madyes.

With a weakened Assyria stumbling around due to all the previous conflicts conducted by Ashurbanipal, the time was right for war. Once the personages of power who supported Assyria were removed, Cyaxares drove out the remainder who escaped execution. The forces of Cyaxares must have been in hot pursuit of those who did not yield to his rule. Cyaxares was in charge with no real threat to challenge him since both Madyes and Ashurbanipal were now dead. Cyaxares most likely thanked the gods that these “two birds” had been killed with one stone.

By Cam Rea


Arrian. Anabasis Alexandri (Books V-VII) Indica (Book VIII). Translated by E. Iliff Robson. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1966.

Cernenko, Dr. E.V. The Scythians 700-300 BCE

Glassner, Jean-Jacques and Benjamin R. Foster. Mesopotamian Chronicles. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Herodotus. The Histories.

Ivantchik, Askold I. Les Cimmeriens au Proche-Orient

Kristensen, Anne. Who were the Cimmerians, and where did they come from? Copenhagen: Det kongelige Danske videnskabernes selskab, 1988.

Morkot, Robert. Historical Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian Warfare. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Na’aman, Nadav. “Chronology and History in the Late Assyrian Empire 631-619 BC.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 1991: 81:243-267.

Rea, Cam March of the Scythians: From Sargon II to the Fall of Nineveh

Robert Drews, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe

Saggs, H.W.F. The Might that was Assyria

Stern, Ephraim. Archaeology of the land of the Bible: The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian periods, 732-332 BCE Vil II. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Tsestkhladze, Gocha R. Ancient Greeks West and East: edited by Gocha R. Tsetskhladze. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Gold Diggers!


Pure gold precipitate produced by the aqua regia refining process Public Domain

I came across a quote by Herodotus awhile back on Classical Wisdom Weekly’s facebook page. The main theme was “giant gold-digging ants.” Sounds fanciful, right? Well, behind every myth is a general truth. I think we all can agree on that. Herodotus states in The Histories book 3.102:

Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold. For it is in this part of India that the sandy desert lies. Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Hellene ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold.1

Understand that Herodotus had never been to India or anywhere nearby. One would think that even Herodotus would have been skeptical of the supposed giant gold-digging ants. However, I could be wrong?

There may be truth to this story after all, no, not the giant ants, but men who may have looked like ants. They were not ants but Saka (Scythians) Tigraxauda.

The name Saka Tigraxauda also Tigra-Khaud is said to mean “Saka that wore pointed caps.” The name Tigra-Khaud is a corrupt form of the Sanskrit rendering of “Tigra-kakud.” When translated, Tigra-kakud means, “pointed projection,” which is a metaphor for horns. In the northern India province of Kashmir, it was said that unnatural sized ants “Tigra-kakud” dug for gold. This proved only to be Saka wearing a horned headdress as they dug for gold and attacked anyone who intruded on them like army ants. However, this description of the Saka wearing pointed hats is generic for most Saka wore pointed hats to some degree.2 The location of the Saka Tigraxauda was east of the Caspian Sea and found between the provinces of Hyrcania and Chorasmia.3 The Saka Tigraxauda are also suggested to have been none other than the Massagetae, even though not everyone agrees that they were.4

Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul-Oba kurgan burial near Kerch, Crimea. The warrior on the right strings his bow, bracing it behind his knee; note the typical pointed hood, long jacket with fur or fleece trimming at the edges, decorated trousers, and short boots tied at the ankle. Scythians apparently wore their hair long and loose, and all adult men apparently bearded. The gorytos appears clearly on the left hip of the bare-headed spearman. The shield of the central figure may be made of plain leather over a wooden or wicker base. (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) Public Domain

However, another explanation comes from Herodotus once again. In book 3 passage 102-105, Herodotus mentions that the ants in question were slightly smaller than a dog but bigger than a fox. French ethnologist Michael Peissel suggests that the creature Herodotus called an ant was probably a Himalayan marmot that can be found on the Deosai Plateau in Gilgit-Baltistan province in modern-day Pakistan. The reason for this claim is that when Peissel interviews the Minaro tribe who lived on the Deosai Plateau. The Minaro informed him that they, like their ancestors, had been collecting gold dust from the marmots that bring it to the surface when they are burrowing.5

Himalayan marmot in central Asia. CC BY-SA 3.0

In conclusion, the gold-digging ants were either Saka or marmots. While both are a possibility, the Himalayan marmot may very well be the fabled ant known for gold digging.

If you wish to read a fictional about giant ants, please check out H.G. Wells’s book, “Empire of the Ants.” Check out the 1977 film if you wish. Not bad.

By Cam Rea


1. Herodotus, The Histories, 3. 102.
2. Swami Parmeshwaranand, Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Vedic Terms Vol. 2 Vol. 2. (New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2000), 455.
3. Guive Mirfendereski. “The Saka Nomenclature: A Persian appraisal”
4. David Christian, A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 130-131.
5. ; See also Michel Peissel, “The Ants’ Gold: The Discovery of the Greek El Dorado in the Himalayas”. Collins, 1984.


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