Who was Cyrus the Great?

Cyrus went down in history as one of the most benevolent conquerors of all time, allowing his subjects to live—and worship—as they pleased.

Illustration by Bettmann, Getty
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Engraving of Cyrus the Great. Cyrus governed with singular tolerance and mercy; his rule has been heralded through the ages.
Illustration by Bettmann, Getty

Who was Cyrus the Great?

Cyrus went down in history as one of the most benevolent conquerors of all time, allowing his subjects to live—and worship—as they pleased.

Like many ancient rulers, the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great (ca 590– ca 529 B.C.), also known as Cyrus II, was born of royalty. On the death of his father, Cambyses I, Cyrus ruled the Achaemenid dynasty and expanded his ancestral realm into a mighty empire. He triumphed not just through conquest, but also by showing singular tolerance and mercy to those he defeated.

A brilliant military strategist, Cyrus vanquished the king of the Medes, then integrated all the Iranian tribes, whose skill at fighting on horseback gave his army great mobility. His triumph over Lydia, in Asia Minor near the Aegean Sea, filled his treasury with that country’s tremendous wealth.

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After conquering lands surrounding Mesopotamia, Cyrus closed in on Babylon. Disgruntled over imposed forced labor and the demotion of their city’s patron deity, Marduk, Babylonians turned against their king and saw no reason to oppose Cyrus, who was known to spare those who yielded to him. In 539 B.C. they opened their gates to the Persians, who entered the city “in peace, amidst joy and jubilation,” according to an inscription touting Cyrus’s triumph.

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He honored his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children and they, on their part, revered Cyrus as a father.
   
Xenophon, author of Cyropaedia

A man of mercy

The benevolent nature of Cyrus’s reign took many forms. He placated the formerly powerful Medes by involving them in government. He adopted habits of dress and ornamentation from the Elamites. Across his conquered lands, he returned images of gods that had been seized in battle and hoarded in Babylon. And in Babylon itself, he publicly worshipped the city’s revered Marduk.

Cyrus’s most renowned act of mercy was to free the captive Jews, whom Nebuchadrezzar II had forced into exile in Babylon. Cyrus allowed them to return to their promised land. The Jews praised the Persian emperor in scripture as a savior to whom God gave power over other kingdoms so that he would restore them to Jerusalem and allow them to rebuild their Temple.

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The Cyrus Cylinder, created in the 6th century B.C., is considered the first declaration of human rights.

Legacy of benevolence

Cyrus the Great died around 529 B.C., while campaigning against defiant nomadic tribes around the Caspian Sea. One measure of his greatness was the esteem in which he was held in later years by the Greeks, despite the bitter wars they waged against his Persian successors. More than 150 years after Cyrus’s death, the Greek author Xenophon memorialized the ruler in his work Cyropaedia.

“He honored his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children,” Xenophon wrote, “and they, on their part, revered Cyrus as a father.”

Those words served as inspiration for at least one of America’s Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson owned not one but two copies of Cyropaedia.

Equally high praise for Cyrus’s legacy is found in modern times, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. There on display is a replica of what’s called the Cyrus Cylinder. Written in Babylonian cuneiform around the time of Cyrus’s conquest of the city—and unearthed in its ruins by British archaeologists in 1879—the cylinder chronicles Cyrus’s numerous acts of mercy. It describes his willingness to let conquered subjects retain their traditions, a practice unheard of in a time when rulers “owned” not only the conquered lands but also the people living in them. The cylinder is generally regarded as “the first bill of human rights,” and Cyrus’s reign exemplary for ruling with pluralism and tolerance.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.