Cyrus the Great Founds the Persian Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Cyrus’s march against Croesus, whose rich kingdom of Lydia controlled most of western Antolia, led to the capture of the Lydian capital of Sardis and the founding of the Persian Empire, led by the Achaemenian kings until it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 b.c.e.

Summary of Event

Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenian emperor, founded Persia by uniting the two original Iranian tribes, the Medes and Persians, in 549 b.c.e. Cyrus’s name in Old Persian was Kurush, which probably meant “old dog” or possibly just “son” in a local dialect. According to the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 424 b.c.e.), Cyrus’s father was the Iranian nobleman Cambyses I (c. 530 b.c.e.) and his mother, the Median princess Mandane, was the daughter of Astyages, the last king of the Medes, who ruled the area of Persia at the time of Cyrus’s birth. However, other notable historians, such as Ctesias (fl. c. 400 b.c.e.), claimed that many accounts of Cyrus’s life were merely legends. Although intertribal marriages to solidify power were common, it may also be that the account of Cambyses’ Median marriage was fabricated to encourage Median acceptance of Cyrus’s rule. Cyrus the Great Astyages Croesus Nebuchadnezzar II

Cyrus inherited the throne of the district of Anshan in 559 b.c.e. and quickly gathered under his leadership local tribes in Iran, especially in Pars, now the province of Fars. (The form “Pars” is the root of the word “Persian,” while the later form “Fars” underlies the name of the Persian language Farsi.) Cyrus revolted five years later against his Median overlord Astyages and made the Median capital of Ecbatana (modern Hamadan, Iran) the center of what became the Persian Empire. Cyrus became disturbed at the cruelty of previous Median rule after observing Astyages slay his own general’s son in punishment for a minor misdeed by the father; his own rule emphasized reconciliation and respect instead of brutality and humiliation. Cyrus took over the loosely organized Median government, including its subject states of Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, Drangiana, and Aria, which were ruled by semiautonomous vassal kings called satraps. However, he left in place most of the existing governments of regions he conquered, allowing most midlevel officials to retain power and thus to maintain nearly all their indigenous traditions and cultures for the good of the empire.

In 547 b.c.e., Cyrus marched against Croesus, whose rich kingdom of Lydia controlled most of western Anatolia, and besieged the capital of Sardis (near modern Izmir). Croesus, Nabonidus of the Neo-Babylonia Empire, and Ahmose II of the Saite Dynasty in Egypt, joined briefly by the Greek city-state Sparta, attempted an unsuccessful alliance against Cyrus’s advance. The Ionian Greek cities along the coast of the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor revolted against his expansion one year later but were crushed before Cyrus turned toward Babylonia. Cyrus is said to have invaded Egypt, a claim most historians doubt; nonetheless, his victories gave him the largest empire in the world at that time and paved the way for future Persian victories.

Cyrus the Great, shown restoring the sacred vessels to the Jews, built a vast empire.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Cyrus’s innovative government utilized both Median and Persian nobles as civilian officials. Unlike previous emperors, Cyrus was remarkably humane and did not force conquered nations into a single mold; rather, he left the major institutions of each subject kingdom relatively unchanged. Cyrus showed forbearance and respect toward the religious beliefs and cultural traditions of his newly conquered subjects. Cyrus even honored the gods of his captured subjects, notably the Babylonian god Marduk. The Assyrians and Babylonians, by contrast, had brutally massacred and exiled whole peoples in the hope of preventing later rebellions against their rule. Even the Greeks, who at this time considered the Persians to be their chief threat to independence, considered Cyrus a highly capable and just ruler. Addressing his newly conquered subjects in their own languages, Cyrus took the title king of Babylon, king of the land. His policies enabled peace to prevail in the region until the conquest of Persia two centuries later by Macedonian king Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.); the region was then divided among four Greek generals on Alexander’s death.

In 539 b.c.e., Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon—the ancient world’s center of scholarship and science, which encompassed modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel—was well received by the Jewish community, which had been held captive there for the previous seventy years. Cyrus allowed more than forty thousand of his Jewish subjects to return to Palestine to reestablish the kingdom of Judah and commanded them to build the second temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. Cyrus may have had as a secondary motive the fact that a Jewish government in Palestine would create a buffer state between the western border of Persia and Egypt in anticipation of Egyptian aggression.

The Jews took their deliverance as a fulfillment of prophecy: Nearly 160 years before Cyrus was born, the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed that Yahweh would raise up a king who would allow the Jewish nation to reclaim their homeland, even though Jerusalem was prospering at the time and another century would pass before it was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. Cyrus besieged Babylon and, according to Herodotus, diverted the Euphrates River, which passed under the city walls, by building a canal, thus enabling his army to assault the city when the river became low enough. According to the Bible, the Babylonians were recklessly unaware of Cyrus’s advance; as he entered the city, Nabonidus’s son, Belshazzar, was holding a festival of dancing and revelry (Daniel 5). With the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus gained control over much of the Middle East from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of India.

With the conquest of Asia Minor complete, Cyrus marched east to Central Asia, where he was killed in battle with a nomadic, horse-riding tribe called the Massagetae at the river Araxes. The precise limits of Cyrus’s eastern conquests remain debatable; many historical accounts suggest that his empire might have progressed to the Peshawar region of what is now Pakistan. Cyrus’s primary capitals were Susa, Ecbatana, and Babylon, and he was buried at his magnificent palace at Pasargadae. He left his name on a city in central Asia called Kureskhata (later called Kurkath) near Khojert in modern Leninabad, Russia. Cyrus was succeeded by his eldest son, who took the royal name Cambyses II in 529 b.c.e., despite opposition by another son, Smerdis.


Although Cyrus the Great was a great military conqueror who consolidated the Persian Empire into the world’s most powerful state, he is best remembered for his unprecedented religious tolerance, cultural understanding, and benevolent attitude toward his defeated subjects. The fusion of disparate cultures into the first world state was his most important legacy. The Hellenes referred to him as “lawgiver” and the Jews as the “anointed of the Lord.” The doctrines of Cyrus were continued by future emperors of the Achaemenian Dynasty, most notably Darius the Great (r. 522-486 b.c.e.), who brought together skilled craftspeople from all parts of the empire to build the city of Persepolis.

Cyrus can also be credited with creating gold and silver coinage and developing the first postal service: He built a series of stations, at distances based on how far a horse could travel in one day, to facilitate efficient communication between his satraps. Cyrus ordered all governors to treat their subjects as if they were their own children, disallowed slavery, and refused to allow anyone to be executed for a first-offense crime. The Athenian author Xenophon (c. 431-c. 354 b.c.e.) wrote a famous biography known as the “Cyrus saga,” which depicted him as a model ruler with impeccable moral and ethical values. Cyrus later came to be considered the father of the Iranian monarchy: In 1971, Iran celebrated the twenty-five hundredth anniversary of its foundation, tracing that date to the end of Cyrus’s reign.

On his conquest of Babylon, Cyrus issued a famous decree inscribed on a clay cylinder discovered in Babylon in the late nineteenth century, now housed in London’s British Museum, which is considered by many to be the first declaration of human rights. Cyrus’s policy regarding captives, inscribed on the cylinder, was to “gather all their [former] inhabitants and return [to them] their habitations.” A replica of this cylinder is on display at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finegan, Jack. Light from the Ancient Past. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1946. Noted scholar relates the importance of the Cyrus Cylinder in the declaration of human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958. A text which relates the science of archaeology to numerous sacred scriptures. The name Cyrus is mentioned twenty-two times in the Bible, giving evidence to his prominence during this critical period in the history of Judaism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whiston, William. Josephus: The Complete Works. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998. The often-referenced writings of a famous author from Jewish roots who had access to numerous now lost historical records.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia. Translated by Azizeh Azodi. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. A history of the origins of Persia written from a Near Eastern perspective. The first half of the book is on the Achaemenian period.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Alexander the Great; Croesus; Cyrus the Great; Darius the Great; Isaiah; Flavius; Nebuchadnezzar II; Xenophon. Persian Empire

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