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Category Archives: Cyrus the Great

Cyrus’ Babylonian Campaigns

by March 17, 2014

By Cam Rea
Cyrus had already accumulated quite a lot of territory… but that didn’t mean he was done yet. So he cast his eyes around his neighboring regions to see which kingdom was ripe for the taking…. and he settled his gaze on the Kingdom of Babylon around 539 BCE.
King Nabonidus
His reason for invading may have been for no other reason than the ineffectiveness of its ruler. King Nabonidus had not only neglected the primary god of Babylonia, known as Marduk, but he had also moved away to Teima in Arabia quite unexpectedly. Moreover, the Babylonian king had decided to stay there for ten years while his son, Belshazzar, ruled the kingdom in his stead. The opinion of Nabonidus was so low, in fact, that his own people, the residents of Babylonia, desired a change in command.

Surely such a weak and unpopular ruler would have made the temptation to invade the Babylonian Kingdom irresistible to Cyrus.

The impending Persian threat of Cyrus forced King Nabonidus to return from Teima around 543 BCE, but it was already too late… by now the people of Babylonia were more interested in Cyrus as their king.

In 539 BCE, Cyrus and his forces officially 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 …

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. From Kislev to Adar, the gods of Akkad that Nabonidus had sent to Babylon returned to their sanctuaries. (Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles, p. 237-239)

Cyrus’ first battle against the Babylonians at Upu/Opis was a success, and of great significance. By taking Opis/Upu, Cyrus had flanked the Median wall that stretched all the way to Sippar. This meant that the very next day Cyrus was able to take the city of Sippar without a fight, thus having full control of the Median wall.

This was the wall that was intended to keep out the Cimmerians, Scythians, and any other undesirable barbarians… and it was now in Cyrus’ hands.

Divide of previous empires before Cyrus

With the Median/Umman-manda wall now out of the way, Cyrus began his march towards Babylon. On October 12, Ugbaru, Governor of Gutium, entered Babylonia without any resistance and arrested King Nabonidus of Babylonia who had earlier fled from Sippar. The former king was then 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. It was most likely him who guided Cyrus’ forces during the invasion and battle at Opis/Upu.
Now Cyrus himself entered the city on October 29 to restore the festivals and proclaim peace to all Babylon. But did he? Cyrus says on his cylinder:

When I entered Babylon as a friend and (when) I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, [induced] the magnanimous inhabitants of Babylon [to love me], and I was daily endeavoring to worship him.

My numerous troops walked around in Babylon in peace, I did not allow anybody to terrorize (any place) of the [country of Sumer] and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his (other) sacred cities. As to the inhabitants of Babylon [who] against the will of the gods [had/were…, I abolished] the corvee (lit.: yoke) which was against their (social) standing. I brought relief to their dilapidated housing, putting (thus) an end to their (main) complaints.

Marduk, the great lord, was well pleased with my deeds and sent friendly blessings to myself, Cyrus, the king who worships him, to Cambyses, my son, the offspring of [my] loins, as well as to all my troops, and we all [praised] his great [godhead] joyously, standing before him in peace. (Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, Vol 1, p. 207-208)

According to this text, it appears as if the people fully welcomed Cyrus, who only bestowed good to the region. However, this may have been another arrow in Cyrus’ quiver: Propaganda.

In fact, Cyrus’ takeover may not have been so peaceful as he would have us believe. Indeed, it’s been speculated that the city put up a temporal fight.
Cylinder of Cyrus
In 1970, Paul-Richard Berger identified a fragment as being part of the Cyrus Cylinder, which in turn was part of the Yale Babylonian Collection. This fragment mentions Cyrus restoring the city’s inner walls and moats, among other things, within Babylon. Therefore, it is possible that the Persian forces may have initially conducted siege warfare for a short time… though the incident was recorded differently.
Now this is not to say Cyrus was not a peace loving man… But it does appear that he was a propagandist, employing the usual breads and circuses and, in particular, catering to the people through their religious devotion to the Babylonian God Marduk.
While Cyrus and his family were most likely Zoroastrians (as was the common religion of Persia), the King did everything he could to restore the gods of the city to gain the respect of the people. Moreover, his son, Cambyses II, observed the New Year’s rite on March 24, 538 BCE, in what would appear to be humiliation by religious symbolism.
In other words, the high priest of Marduk grabbed him by the ear, forcing him to kneel! Cambyses then 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 would be pleased and thus concluded the ritual.

The people would have seen this submission to the Babylonian gods by the king’s son very favorably.
Of course, Cyrus may very well have been legit… believing in the god Marbuk and promoting religious tolerance in the region. But one would think that a man, who ruled over such a vast empire and conquered the superpower of the Near East, had to have had the help of a little propaganda now and then.
And so with that Cyrus had the entire region and had become a grand emperor. That, however, was not the end. There was one last campaign to go…

Cyrus and the West

by March 11, 2014

By Cam Rea
Once Cyrus defeated Astyages, he inherited a new problem… And that problem was the western front.
Croesus on the Pyre
This was because in 585 BCE, Cyrus’ predecessors, the Umman-manda, and the Lydian empire had made an agreement that the boundary between their two territories was the Halys River. The king of Lydia at the time was Croesus, who was famous for his wealth and power throughout Greece and the Near East. Moreover, Croesus was Astyages’ brother-in-law.
Once Astyages was overthrown by Cyrus, Croesus felt the need to avenge his defeat, though in reality, he saw it as an opportunity to extend his borders. However, before Croesus mobilized his forces, he sent embassies with many gifts to the oracle of Delphi to ask the important question. In response, the oracle turned to the men and said:

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

The oracle also suggested to Croesus that he should seek some powerful allies to assist him in his war against Persia.

When Croesus visited the oracle again, he asked how long the Lydian empire would last? To this, 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.” (Herodotus, The Histories, p. 27-28)
The mule was none other than Cyrus. While Cyrus was part royalty, due to his mother being an Umman-manda princess, his father Cambyses I was a petty vassal king or, quite possibly, a mere tribal chief. At least in the eyes of Astyages.

Croesus got the answers that he thought were in his favor.

Map of Halys River - Thanks to

Therefore, in 547/46 BCE, he moved his forces beyond the Halys River and entered into the province of Cappadocia.
In response, Cyrus journeyed to meet the invaders at the border. There he sent envoys to Croesus’ camp with a message ordering Croesus to hand over Lydia to him. If Croesus agreed, Cyrus would allow him to stay in Lydia, but would remove his crown as king, forcing Croesus to accept the title Satrap of Lydia.
Evidently, Croesus turned down the invitation and the two armies battled at a place called Pteria in Cappadocia.
The war took place in the month of November and Croesus was defeated. He and his forces retreated across the Halys River and back into Lydian territory.
But then Croesus made a terrible mistake; he decided to disperse his army for the winter, thinking Cyrus would not attack until spring. Without warning or thought, however, Cyrus and his army fell upon the Lydian forces that were in the process of demobilization.

They were surprised, routed, and defeated.

This was a risky move for Cyrus and his forces, due to the stories of Lydia’s army being superior. Perhaps, Cyrus knew that once the Lydian forces returned home for the winter they would be easier to defeat while they were demobilizing. Or perhaps Cyrus wanted to test whether Lydia was, in fact, more superior… and happily found them wanting.

Croesus as imagined by Claude Vignon
Once the Lydian forces were routed and were no longer a substantial threat, Croesus fled to Sardis where he took refuge. Many of his supposed allies sent no troops and instead defected over to Cyrus.
Cyrus knew that there was no time to waste and pursued Croesus to Sardis. There he 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.
Indeed, the word that Sardis fell is said to have sent a shock wave through the Near East.
Sardis, however, was just the beginning. Cyrus the Great wanted all of Lydia.
The Chronicle of Nabonidus mentions the defeat of the previous empire:

“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.” (Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles, p. 237)

The conquest of Lydia as a whole, however, was far from over, for there were still many Greek city-states mad about the situation. When negotiations between them and Cyrus fell through, the revolts began.

Cyrus decided to not stick around and left for his capital Ecbatana… for he had other issues on his mind.

Instead, Cyrus sent a man by the name Mazares with some troops to squash and enslave all those rebelling throughout Asia Minor. Mazares did just that, until he died of unknown causes. He was immediately replaced by a man named Harpagus, who was successful in putting the final stamp on the revolts. Moreover, he placed Persian garrisons in the areas affected, in order to secure the peace.

However, this was not easy. It took four years before Persian rule could fully be established among the populace.
It was then that Cyrus had to worry about the East…

Cyrus the Great – Armies

by February 26, 2014

The early military machine of Cyrus the Great wasn’t what you would think it was… it wasn’t professional by any means. In fact, when Cyrus set out against Media he relied more on friends and kinsmen from local tribes, who united due to the troubled times. When it was over, these ‘soldiers’ returned to their own homes and pastures, leaving Cyrus with almost nothing.
Persian ImmortalsInstead, the professional and conquering army of Cyrus would not come until later, when he had conquered Media… and even then it would take some time for it to really come together. Once it had, however, Cyrus had a great army, which would continue through his successors.
But the question is… what made them great?
To answer this, we must take a deeper look into the military apparatus of the Persian army. Only then we may be able to understand why they were able to conquer such a vast and diverse territory.
To begin with, there were ‘the Immortals’, a fearsome army of 10,000 men that was created by Cyrus the Great. They were recruited from the lower classes of Persia to serve as the king’s personal bodyguard day and night. Wherever the king went, so did they.
A Persian ImmortalThere were 10,000 men at all times. If, for any reason, one of these soldiers fell ill, wounded, or even died, he was immediately replaced to ensure that the number of guards was always at 10,000.
Hence the name ‘Immortals’.
Additionally, they kept silent when marching in mass. Imagine this eerie scene for one moment. You are facing these fighting machines from the other end of the battlefield, when all you feel is the earth tremble slightly under your feet. A whole army of silence approaches you, quickly advancing. Back then, it was common for most warriors to scream and shout when in combat in order to intimidate their opponent. The Immortals did the exact opposite. They killed them with silence.
Besides this elite royal guard, there was the cavalry. In the early days, they made up only 10% of Cyrus’ entire army, while the other 90% was infantry, or foot soldiers. As time went on, however, Cyrus started to notice the importance and the effectiveness of cavalry forces, and so increased their ratio to 20%
This additional cavalry was light, carrying only a bow. Moreover, the men were mainly of non-Persian ethnicity, though they were commanded, for the most part, by Persian officers. Their duty was to harass the enemy with a barrage of arrows and draw them into an attack. A hit and run approach that would be annoying to any attacker.
Persian nobles formed the heavy cavalry. They were armed with two javelins, a wooden or metal lance and they carried an akinakes as well as a small oval shield. The armor of a heavy cavalryman was of leather, overlapped with metal disks such as bronze, iron, and gold, and was often colored in order to distinguish one unit from another.
Persian infantry varied between light and heavy. The light units carried spear and swords, while their heavier counterparts bore a longer spear, a shorter sword and a battle-axe. These heavier infantry wore black hoods that covered their head and much of their face.
Ancient Persian ChariotAlongside the cavalry and infantry units, there were the charioteer units. The Persian chariot was slightly higher and heavier than its Assyrian, Egyptian and Babylonian equivalents, requiring four horses to pull it, instead of the standard two. Moreover, these chariots had the ability to carry an extra man; one drove the cumbersome vehicle while the other passenger was a soldier, either a spearman or an archer. To make it even more destructive, Cyrus had scythes installed on the axle, which extended two yards out from the wheel.
Overall, it was a deadly machine, but only when it was able to grace the battlefield, as no charioteer, or for that matter horse, would plow into a forest of spear points and shields. Instead the chariot was more effective against light infantry, loose formations, and troops of undisciplined men unwilling to stand their ground in the face of combat.
In addition to archers, charioteers and spearmen, there was a very unlikely group that was of great importance to the army: combat engineers. These men would move ahead of the advancing forces to repair or build roads and bridges. They would dig ditches or used pontoon boats as floats for bridges to get the massive and heavy army across.
In fact, to transport this huge army was a feat in itself. The Persians, with all their ingenuity and complexity of their military system, still had to have a supply line able to accommodate this giant juggernaut when on the move.
Cyrus the GreatThe job in supplying the Persian army was left to the commissariat. While in transit, the commissariat was split into two, one in front of the army and the other at the back. The commissariat that moved ahead was tasked with finding suitable places to encamp, with clean water and fields for their livestock to graze. The rear commissariat, on the other hand, had to keep the army supplied with all types of weaponry, such as bows, swords, spears, arrows, armor, among others.
Now, due to the amount of equipment the commissariat needed, it was inevitable that they would eventually run out. In order to solve this problem, the Persian king required that each satrap, or governor, keep a certain amount of supply on hand for the incoming army, so it could restock before the next big move.
The Persian army was truly a professional fighting force of a complex magnitude that in many ways would not be matched until the Macedonian and Roman Empires.
However, with their professionalism, also came their weakness. As stated before, they were complex. Those in their ranks were from diverse backgrounds and educations, and most importantly, not skilled in same weapons.
But Persia did well with this standing army. Most of the regions under Persian control had only a hodgepodge of military units, many of which were light infantry, such as archers and spearmen, with little to no armor whatsoever.
The Persians, therefore, relied on quantity over quality in its military ranks. It succeeded in the region of the world they were in, but as time went on, they would face armies who were all about amour and standard structure. Armies that were small in comparison, but undoubtedly more disciplined.
That is where their true challenge would lay….

Cyrus the Great

by February 25, 2014

By Cam Rea
Sculpture of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great or “Cyrus II” was King of Anshan from 559-530 BCE. He was the son of King Cambyses I of Anshan (580-559 BCE) and his mother, Mandane, was the daughter of King Astyages of Media. The names Cyrus and Cambyses are interesting, as both appear to be connected to the Indo-Iranian tribes of the Kuru and Kambysene. Moreover, they may have been Scythian.

As mentioned, Cyrus came to throne around 559 BCE, after most likely being a vassal to his overlord and grandfather, King Astyages of the Umman-manda. Around 553 BCE, he rebelled against King Astyages when he marched on the capital Ecbatana of his own accord to claim the throne. When Cyrus and Astyages’ forces clashed, many of the Umman-manda forces switched sides and joined Cyrus. It should be no surprise then that he defeated the Umman-manda and took his grandfather Astyages prisoner.
However, this is Herodotus’ view, as there are a few other sources one must consider.
Take, for instance, the Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus. In Nabonidus’ first year as king, (556 or 555 BCE), he 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.” (Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, p. 80-81)
Putting mysticism aside, Nabonidus obviously received intelligence reports that Cyrus was going to rebel and declare independence from Astyages.
It seems that the Kingdom of Babylonia had had many problems with the Umman-manda, so perhaps Nabonidus’ dream was mere hope.
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 […].” (Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, p. 31)

King AstyagesFrom this inscription, we get a variation on the story described by Herodotus. The main difference is that it was Astyages who invaded Anshan to put down the rebellion. Then, in turn, his army rebelled and handed him over to Cyrus. However, this is not to say Herodotus was wrong. Herodotus says Cyrus invaded Media, which is partially right, but it was only after the battle and imprisonment of Astyages did Cyrus march on Media to take the Umman-manda capital, Ecbatana.
In addition, we must forget that this was not the end of the war between the two.
Even though Astyages was now a prisoner, the fight went on for three more years, not coming to a close until around 550 BCE.
But before that moment, Cyrus would lose three battles, and out of the many defeats, many would defect over to the Umman-manda side and vice versa.
It was only once the Umman-manda was finally defeated and vanquished that Cyrus entered the capital Ecbatana and sat on Astyages’ throne. Now the Persians were the new “masters of Asia.”
Tune in Next week to hear about his Armies and the destruction Cyrus will wreak…
Read Part Two here: Cyrus the Great – Armies