Cyrus, King of Persia

views updated


Reigned 559 to 530 b.c., the second of three Achaemenid kings to bear this throne name (Persian kuruš, Akkadian kuraš, Greek Κ[symbol omitted]ρος, Hebrew and Aramaic kōreš ), which is probably of Elamite origin. He is rightly known as Cyrus the Great. The ancient sources of information concerning Cyrus are (1) among the cuneiform inscriptions: the Cyrus Cylinder [J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 315316], the Verse Account of Nabonidus (ibid. 312314), and the Nabonidus Chronicle (ibid. 305306); (2) among the Greek historians: Herodotus, Xenophon, Ctesis, and berossus; (3) in the OT: Is 41.24; 44.28; 45.1; 46.11; Ez 1.111; 4.35; 5.1317; 6.35; 2 Chr 36.2223. The references to Cyrus in Dn 1.21; 6.28; 10.1 are of no historical value.

In 559 b.c. he succeeded his father, Cambyses I, on the throne of Anshan, a district of northwestern Elam. At that time Elam was under the control of the Achaemenide kingdom of Anshan and Parsa (southwest of Elam), which was in turn part of the empire of the medes, then ruled by Astyages. (There is probably no truth in the later legend that the daughter of Astyages was the mother of Cyrus.) In 553 Cyrus rebelled against his Median overlord, King Astyages, with the encouragement of Nabunaid (Nabonidus), King of Babylon (555538). The latter saw in this local rebellion a weakening of his archrival, Media. By 550, however, Cyrus had captured Ecbatana, dethroned Astyages, and been proclaimed king of the Medes and Persians. In a futile attempt to stop this advance, a defensive alliance was formed by Babylon, Egypt, Lydia, and Sparta. In 546 King Croesus of Lydia alone attacked Cyrus. After an indecisive battle Croesus retired and disbanded his mercenaries for the winter. In a surprise move Cyrus counterattacked in midwinter and burned Croesus' capital, Sardis. Leaving a lieutenant, Harpagus, to take over the rest of Asia Minor, Cyrus marched eastward, occupying the territory probably as far as the Jaxartes River.

As Babylon helplessly awaited its downfall, the voice of an unknown prophet (now commonly called Deutero-Isaiah) arose among the Jewish exiles there (c. 540). This man saw Cyrus as God's chosen "shepherd" and "anointed one" who would free His people from Babylonian bondage (Is 44.28; 45.1; 46.11). Cyrus is referred to in Is 41.2, which is part of the first of the Songs of the suffering servant (42.19).

The Persian army captured Sippar on Oct. 10, 539, and Babylon two days later. The Babylonian populace had become dissatisfied with Nabonidus, especially because of his religious innovations. When Cyrus made his triumphal entry a little later (Oct. 29, 539), he was welcomed as a great liberator by both citizen and exile alike.

The realm of the neo-Babylonian kings, comprising all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine, was thus incorporated by Cyrus into his vast empire that later extended from the Aegean Sea to the Indian frontier. Its administration centers were in susa, Ecbatana, babylon, and Pasargadae (in Parsa, 30 miles northeast of the later capital Persepolis). As the foundation of this empire Cyrus established a pax orientalis, a policy contrasting sharply with the actions of his predecessors. While he held firm control by placing Medes and Persians in highest local offices, by establishing an efficient communications system, and by his armies, he respected the indigenous religious and cultural sensibilities. In keeping with these enlightened policies, he issued an edict in 538 allowing the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple, for which he returned to them the treasures that had been plundered by Nebuchadnezzar (Ez 1.14;6.35; 2 Chr 36.2223).

In 530 Cyrus lost his life in battle against the nomads on his northeastern frontier in central Asia. He was buried in Pasargadae, where his empty tomb still stands. He was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (530-522), the last of the elder line of the Achaemenids, who in turn was succeeded by darius i, of the younger Achaemenid line.

See Also: persia.

Bibliography: j. buchanan, The Cambridge Ancient History, 12 v. (London and New York 192339) 4:115. a. t. e. olmstead, History of the Persian Empire: Achaemenid Period (Chicago 1948). f. h. weissbach, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. suppl. 4 (Stuttgart 1924) 112966. r. mayer, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 6:715716. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 477478.

[e. a. ballmann]