Many writers have ventured opinions as to who was the greatest monarch in human history. There is a standard list of candidates: David of Israel, Charlemagne of the Franks, Asoka of India, Elizabeth of England, and Tutmose of Egypt. But when all the votes are in, one figures in the minds of scholars and historians as the greatest.
He is Cyrus the Great of Persia, who in the mid-6th century BC ruled the greatest empire the world had ever known.
He started as the chief of a downtrodden tribe that overthrew its masters, and he went on to ensure that for the next couple of centuries no other nation would conquer his people again.
His motto seemed to be conquer or be conquered, and he always insisted that he conquered only for self-protection. While many aggressors have made that claim throughout history, in Cyrus’ case it rings true.
Cyrus created the world’s first truly large empire that ruled over diverse peoples, but he did it without exploitation and with great clemency, allowing local self-rule under a well thought-out policy of toleration.
Cyrus’ beginnings were relatively humble. Born near the beginning of the 6th century BC, he succeeded to the chieftainship of his people, a Persian tribe in the mountains of what is now central Iran. His people were insignificant compared to most nations of the ancient Near-East, such as the Medes, the Babylonians, and the Hittites. Cyrus and his tribe were under the lordship of the Medes.
A natural leader, Cyrus rallied other Persian tribes and marched against the king of the Medes, whose soldiers deserted him and went over to Cyrus, who now took his place as their ruler. The Lydian kingdom in Asia Minor (now Turkey), heard of the fall of the King of the Medes and began encroaching on Medean territory, which now was under Cyrus’ rule. Cyrus quickly marched against Lydia, undaunted by the Lydians’ great reputation for military prowess, especially their great cavalry.
Cyrus ranged his forces against the mighty Lydian line not in the usual parallelline formation but in separate and maneuverable square formations, with archers and slingshots in the middle of each square, which was defended by infantry. This was the first recorded instance in history of an alternative to simple parallel confrontation.
Cyrus also placed camels in the front of his army, knowing that the Lydian horses were not accustomed to the smell of camels and would panic. It worked. The Lydian cavalry was neutralized, and Persian square formations moved quickly and easily to envelope the Lydian mass, bringing quick and total victory to the Persians.
Cyrus’ treatment of the conquered Lydians was surprisingly mild, and he allowed them to maintain their government and rulers, although they remained subject to his authority.
By conquering Lydia, Cyrus extended his rule westward all the way to the Aegean Sea. Now he found that south of his new dominions was the great warlike kingdom of Babylonia. The Babylonians, however, were unhappy under their despotic rulers, and, hearing that Cyrus was a merciful conqueror, put up little resistance. Cyrus easily took Babylon and that automatically gave him rule over Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestinethe greatest empire the world had ever seen.
His Secret: Tolerance
Although Cyrus was a great soldier, one of the secrets behind his conquests was his reputation for mildness and tolerance that blunted any the opposition. In almost all cases, Cyrus allowed conquered states considerable autonomy, sometimes reinstating the government that he had conquered, leaving behind a royal governor and small Persian staff to oversee matters. Often the royal governor was drawn from among the conquered, as was the case in Lydia. Cyrus treated his provinces as kingdoms and their governors as kings.
Unlike other rulers in the ancient Near East, Cyrus did not deface the temples or disparage the gods of his adversaries, realizing instinctively that religion was in actuality more powerful than government.
Cyrus showed great tolerance for the beliefs of his conquered adversaries. He maintained their religious hierarchies, and showed deep respect for their gods even to the point of paying ceremonial homage to them. He himself was a Zoroastrian who believed in one god who embodied the overarching spirit of goodness.
In fact, when Cyrus took Babylon he officially declared a policy of religious toleration, which can be read today on the famous Cyrus Cylinder which this year is being exhibited in the U.S. on loan from the British Museum. Many historians see it as the first charter in history that guarantees religious rights.
Freedom of Worship
It encourages freedom of worship throughout his empire, and grants freedom to all people whom the Babylonians had deported from their homelands, allowing them to return and reestablish their places of worship. It is small wonder that Thomas Jefferson expressed a deep admiration for Cyrus.
Cyrus also released the Jews, whom the Babylonians had brought to Babylon generations before, allowing them to return to their ancestral land of Palestine to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
As a result, Jews throughout history have had nothing but praise for Cyrus, whose name they pronounced the Persian way as “Kurosh” or “Koresh.” In fact, Cyrus is the only gentile in history to whom Jews ever attributed messianic qualities.
Cyrus was an administrative genius who understood the virtues of de-centralized rule, limited by a relatively light supervisory touch. He and his successors did establish a general unity in the Persian empire. They created roads to link the empire together, developed an efficient postal service, and established a system of inspectors. These enabled the central government to know whether local rulers were governing fairly or arbitrarily, whether the administration of justice had become corrupt, or whether any local activity might threaten peace, security or stability
Immediately after his conquests, Cyrus’ advisers wanted the Persian people to enjoy the full fruits of lordship over their conquered people. They urged him to move the Persians down from the mountains and away from the plains of central Iran to take over the rich lands further west that were now under Persian rule.
Cyrus didn’t like the idea, for he always maintained that he did not conquer for the sake of conquest or to acquire wealth but to ensure liberty and security for his people.
Soft Earth, Soft People
He said that if his people wanted to make such a move he would not stop them, but he warned that if so they would soon become weak, and would be ruled by others instead of ruling over themselves. He famously observed, “From soft earth come soft people.” The Persians stayed where they were,and continued to enjoy their freedom for the next two centuries.
Cyrus ruled as emperor for almost 30 years and was laid to rest in the traditional land of the Persians. His tomb has long since been robbed and defaced, but the structure still stands on a desolate plain in central Iran. Many ancient visitors noted that the tomb is not very ostentatious nor did it have much in the way of inscriptions.
Most kings in the ancient Near East inscribed their tombs with long-winded, bombastic rhetoric proclaiming their great power, the glory and magnificence of their rule, and relating in proud and gruesome detail the fearsome brutality with which they scourged their enemies.
But, according to an early witness, the inscription on Cyrus’ simple tomb simply said, “Here I lie, Cyrus, King of Kings.”