Nearly 2500 years following his death, thousands of people still visit Cyrus the Great’s tomb at Pasargarde, a village in the Fars Province of Iran, annually. Visitors pay homage to a man who had the vision and the strength of character to implement reforms that brought peace to his subjects and respected the principles of human rights and religious tolerance. Cyrus is also remembered for his masterful diplomacy and his magnanimous treatement of defeated rivals.
The son of kings, Cyrus was born in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. There are many varying stories about his birth, ancestry, and early years. What is clear, however, is that as a child, Cyrus exhibited many of the same characteristics that he did as an adult and a leader – benevolence, tolerance for the less fortunate, and courage. Cyrus succeeded his father to the throne in 549 BC and began a period of political, social, and economic growth unparalleled in Persian history, an era now referred to as the Persian orAchaemenid Empire.
During his reign, Cyrus conquered the Median, the Lydian and the Neo-Babylonian empires. He later led an expedition into central Asia, which further expanded the territories under his rule. The reforms that he instituted during his 30 years on the throne combined the unique strengths, customs, and values of each of the conquered territories with the rich culture of Persia. Ruling from his capital at Pasargadae, Cyrus the Great’s beliefs and principles, and respect for the cultures and peoples he conquered, were instrumental in defining what would later be called one of the first charters of human rights: the Cyrus Cylinder.
The cylinder hails Cyrus as the king who was given the task of bringing peace and order to the Babylonians. It describes how Cyrus improved the lives of the citizens of Babylonia, repatriated displaced peoples, and restored temples and cult sanctuaries.
Although not specifically mentioned in the document, the cylinder’s text has traditionally been seen by biblical scholars as corroborative evidence of Cyrus’ policy of the repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity.
Cyrus was married to Cassandane, an Achaemenian and the mother of four of his children, Cambyses II, Bardiya (Smerdis), Atossa, and another daughter. His son Cambyses II became the king of Persia, and his daughter Atossa married another Persian king,Darius the Great, and bore him Xerxes I. Both Darius and Xerxes are well-known leaders in ancient Persian history.
Today Cyrus the Great is not known only for the cylinder that bears his name but also for his impact on ancient and modern history. The Persian Empire and its rise under Cyrus introduced Persian philosophy, literature, and religion to the world, where they continued to play a prominent role for centuries to come. Cyrus is also well regarded for his role as a statesman and politician. The reforms he instituted in the Persian Empire would later be emulated in other parts of the world. Referred to as “The Lawmaker” by the Greeks, Cyrus advocated for a government that was developed to benefit its subjects and included one of the first constitutions and judicial systems. He also implemented the creation of standardized gold and silver coins, thus transitioning the empire from a barter economy into a money economy. His rule greatly influenced the thinking of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, Alexander the Great, the Macedonian ruler, and the government of the Roman Empire. He is referred to by name in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the patron and deliverer of the Jews.
O man, whoever you are and wherever you come from, for I know you will come, I am Cyrus who won the Persians their empire. Do not therefore begrudge me this bit of earth that covers my bones.
Epitaph of Cyrus, as quoted in “Life of Alexander,” in Plutarch: The Age of Alexander, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (1973), p.326.
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