Cyrus II

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CYRUS II (c. 585c. 529 bce), called Cyrus the Great; builder and ruler of the Persian empire from 559 bce until his death. A king of the Achaemenid dynasty, Cyrus (OPers., Kurush) combined great ambition, shrewd calculation, and military expertise to establish the largest empire in world history. From his base in Anshan he conquered neighboring Media in alliance with the Babylonian king Nabonidus in 550, overtook Lydia in Asia Minor in 547, defeated resisting areas in the Greek mainland, then returned to Persia and drove his armies eastward as far as India. With his power thus increased, he conquered Babylonia and proclaimed himself king of all Mesopotamiaindeed, of the worldin 539.

Nabonidus had alienated the Babylonian priesthood through his extraordinary devotion to the moon cult. Capitalizing on Nabonidus's heresy, Cyrus achieved popularity in Babylon by restoring the cult of its chief god, Marduk, and by reestablishing the shrines and proper worship of other gods in their former locations. In a proclamation composed in Babylonian, Cyrus asserts that Marduk delivered his lands to the conqueror and that Bel (Enlil) and Nabu, the local Babylonian gods, love his rule. The Hebrew scriptures preserve two versions of an edict by Cyrus in which the conqueror attributes his victories to the Israelite god, "YHVH God of Heaven" who "commanded me to build him a temple in Jerusalem" (Ezr. 1:13, 6:35). The Judeans living in exile in Babylonia saw Cyrus as their liberator because he permitted them in 538 to return to their homeland in Judaea and to rebuild the Temple, which had been destroyed by Babylonia in 587/6. A prophet of the Judean exile, the so-called Second Isaiah, portrayed Cyrus as the "shepherd" chosen by the Lord to subjugate nations and reestablish the Jerusalem Temple (Is. 44:28, 45:1ff.; cf. Is. 41:1ff.).

Subsequent Jewish traditions tend to play down Cyrus's personal rectitude while seeing him as an instrument of God (B.T., Meg. 12a). Christian exegetes have often regarded Cyrus as a prefiguration of the Messiah.


Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, translated by Peter T. Daniels (Winona Lake, Ind., 2002), pp. 149, takes a somewhat more skeptical view of Cyrus's achievements than the more conventional account in Albert Ten Eyck Olmstead's History of the Persian Empire: Achaemenid Period (Chicago, 1948), pp. 3458. The relationship between Cyrus's policies and his support of local cults is delineated by Joseph Blenkinsopp in "Temple and Society in Achaemenid Judah," in Second Temple Studies, 1: The Persian Period, edited by Philip R. Davies (Sheffield, 1991), pp. 2253. Cyrus's Babylonian proclamation is translated by A. Leo Oppenheim in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. with suppl., edited by J. B. Pritchard (Princeton, 1969), pp. 315316, and a good analysis of this text, with bibliography in the notes, is Amélie Kuhrt's "The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (February 1983): 8397. The Hebrew and Aramaic edicts of Cyrus are analyzed by Elias J. Bickerman in "The Edict of Cyrus in Ezra 1," Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946): 249275.

Edward L. Greenstein (1987 and 2005)