a brief but crucial era of four decades, from 560 to 522 B.C., during which time the Persian kings Cyrus and Cambyses assembled a world-spanning empire. Scholars and others often ask what causes historical change: Do great men and women shape history, or are deeper societal processes and currents responsible, including the lives of those who may have shaped history but are not recorded by it? The likely answer is that we need to combine these perspectives to gain a true understanding of the past.
Cyrus came from Anshan, a city, or city-state, in southwestern Persia, on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Anshan was part of a larger region, Elam, which extended along the Persian Gulf from Anshan to Susa.
The founder of the Persian Empire was Cyrus of Anshan, who came to the throne in 559 B.C. Anshan was a kingdom of Elamite origin that lay in the modern province of Fars in southern Iran.
Many accounts refer to Cyrus's empire as the "Empire of the Persians and the Medes." To which extent was this was a willing merger of equals? Or did the Persians dominate the Medes? Culturally and linguistically, the Medes and the Persians, while distinct, were also similar, and for many historical purposes, we can tolerate conflation and continue to use the concept of "Medes and Persians" without precisely untangling them. In some segments of time, the two groups were largely geographically coextensive. The Zagros Mountains run parallel to the coastline of the Persian Gulf, a few miles inland.
The first stages of Cyrus's reign are difficult to recover. Possibly his first move was to reconquer the old Elamite city of Susa. That victory may brought him into conflict with the Medes in the central Zagros. Babylonian chronicles record wars between the Medes and Anshan in the later 550s.
Cyrus was a political genius, inasmuch as he knew how to accumulate the cooperation and even loyalty of those whom he had conquered. Ecbatana lies northwest of Susa; by making Ecbatana one of Persia's capitals, Cyrus gave the Medes a sense of ownership in the larger empire.
Cyrus ultimately conquered the Medes but then made sure to present himself as a legitimate Median king. He honored the former Median king, Astyages, and perhaps married one of his daughters. Ecbatana, along with Susa, became an important Persian administrative center.
The western extreme of Cyrus's empire was Turkey, also known as Anatolia or Asia Minor. By advancing westward across the Halys River, also known as the Kızılırmak River, Cyrus planted Persian outposts in Ionia, which is the western coast of Turkey. The Halys is roughly in the middle of Anatolia. Here the Persians encountered both Greeks, who'd formed colony cities in Ionia, and Lydians. Lydia was a region just to the east of Ionia, and it was ruled by King Croesus from his city of Sardis.
In 546 B.C., Croesus sent his powerful army eastward across the Halys River, where the Lydians ran into Cyrus. The initial fight was a draw, and because winter was approaching, Croesus withdrew to Sardis, likely planning to return in the spring.
The Persian army was known for its many successes and few failures during Cyrus's reign; its experience in Asia Minor would be no exception.
Instead of hunkering down for the winter, the Persians marched on Sardis. Croesus led his troops out to meet Cyrus, but according to Herodotus, the scent and appearance of Persian camels arrayed on the front line spooked the Lydian horses. After a hard fight, the Persians trapped the Lydians in Sardis.
The fall of Sardis was recorded by Herodotus, who is the source for many details about Cyrus and his empire. Professor John Lee continues:
The walled city of Sardis was formidable, but Cyrus announced that the first man to scale the wall would be rewarded. A Persian named Hyroeades led an assault party up a path he had observed being used by a Lydian; the city fell and Croesus was taken alive.
The expansion to the west would be a source of revenue for the Persians. Both cash and produce could be expected from Anatolian colonies.
Cyrus was generous with Croesus, retaining him in the royal entourage. The Persian king put a garrison in Sardis and sent Lydian gold east to fill his own coffers.
An early revolt foreshadowed more significant challenges which the Persians would face in Turkey. Cyrus managed to maintain his control there; his successors - Darius and Xerxes - would face similar challenges.
Cyrus then hurried back east, but the Lydian governor he left behind almost immediately rebelled, with the help of some Ionian Greek cities. Cyrus sent troops back to Lydia and Ionia. The Persians managed to quell the revolt, but the conquest of Ionia wasn't yet complete.
After expanding westward into Asia Minor, Cyrus turned his attention to other possible acquisitions. After exploring opportunities to the north and east, he looked to Mesopotamia:
Cyrus spent much of the rest of the 540s expanding his empire in central Asia, but the real prize lay in the Tigris and Euphrates valley: the ancient city of Babylon.
By the time Cyrus moved on Babylon, that city was past its prime: the glories of Nebuchadnezzar were merely a memory. Babylon's king, Nabonidus was not particularly popular among his people (he restricted religious freedom among them by discouraging the worship of the Babylonian god Marduk), or among the Jews then held captive in the city. It was easy for Cyrus to win the people's favor by restoring the Marduk religion and by freeing the Jews.
At the time, King Nabonidus ruled Babylon, but some of his subjects allied with Cyrus, including the governor Gobryas. Nabonidus had a strong army and held out against Cyrus for several years. At last, on October 12, 539 B.C., a Persian army under Gobryas entered Babylon; Cyrus himself arrived soon after, and Nabonidus was taken alive.
Cyrus, who was no gentle soul, goes down in history finally as a liberator. Although perhaps unearned, this reputation was cemented by his liberating the Hebrews to return to their homeland, resume their worship, and build a temple. In many ways, Cyrus was an oppressor, an aggressive empire builder, who did not shy away from unprovoked attacks or from massive loss of human life. His personal morality would have been equally dubious - he had concubines in addition to multiple wives, and lived only a generation or two removed from his ancestral practice of human sacrifice. Yet his clear mark in history is as an emancipator:
Cyrus allowed the people of Israel and others who'd been deported to Babylon to return home. To the Hebrew people, he allowed the right of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.
Cyrus took Persia from one kingdom among many and made it the dominate empire in the world during his time. It would remain in that status under his successors for several generations.