The swift rise of the Persian Empire is one of the most remarkable developments of Antiquity. Within mere decades this new superpower subdued all the lands between the Aegean Sea and the steppes of Central Asia, including world powers like Lydia and Babylon. Most of these conquests were carried out by one man: Cyrus the Great. How did he bring such a vast area under his rule in such a short time?
Around 1000 BC the Medes and the Persians migrated from the steppes of Central Asia to the Iranian Plateau. They were originally semi-nomadic herdsmen who were organized in loose tribal coalitions. Around 700 BC, however, they settled down: the Medes in northwestern Iran and the Persians in the southwest, in the region that is now known as Fars. Back in 700 BC the Fars region was known as Anshan and was inhabited by Elamites, an ancient people who had lived in the region since the fourth millennium BC and had given rise to several kingdoms. Elamite culture was still dominant, but the destruction of the Elamite capital of Susa in 647 BC by the Assyrians had led to political decline. The Persians settled among the Elamites of Anshan and took over many of their customs. Led by the Achaemenid dynasty the Persians took over political power in Anshan after the decline of Elam. These Achaemenids tried to emulate the administrative system of the Elamites and used Elamite as an administrative language. The Perso-Elamite kingdom of Anshan soon became one of the most stable and prosperous states of Iran.
Around the same time the Medes had formed a powerful tribal coalition that included most of Northern Iran, the Armenian Highlands, and Eastern Anatolia. The Median warlord Cyaxares had gained a lot of prestige among his people by organized several raids to the declining Assyrian heartland (615-609 BC) and most Iranian tribes willingly followed his lead. The Median tribal coalition was a worthy rival to the Persian kingdom of Anshan. The Median Empire was probably larger and had more troops at its disposal, but the kingdom of Anshan was more stable and more prosperous.
The Fall of Ecbatana
Because of the rivalry between Medes and Persians and because of Anshan’s riches, the Median warlord Astyages, a son of Cyaxares according to Herodotus, invaded Anshan. At that time Anshan was led by the young Achaemenid king Cyrus. According to Herodotus Cyrus was a maternal grandson of Astyages, but this claim may simply be a foundation legend meant to connect the Achaemenid dynasty to the earlier Median dynasty. Astyages first attacked Anshan in 553 BC, but Cyrus repelled his invasion. Three years later, in 550 BC, it was Cyrus’s turn to attack the Medes. During this campaign the troops of Astyages, along with their generals and many noblemen, revolted against their king and took him captive. They delivered Astyages to Cyrus and Cyrus went on to capture Ecbatana, the Median capital. With this deed Cyrus the Great had presented himself as the mightiest ruler in Iran. This deed alone inspired many Iranian tribes to submit to Cyrus.
During the 540s BC Cyrus the Great often campaigned across Iran, Armenia, and Anatolia. In 547 Cyrus conquered Urartu (modern Armenia) and a few years later he conquered Lydia, ruled by the famous king Croesus. Upon subjugating Lydia he easily captured the Greek city states on the Ionian coast. Cyrus also campaigned in Khorasan, where he subdued the few remaining chiefs, who had not acknowledged him as their new leader. During those campaigns he allegedly reached present day Tashkent, far into Central Asia. After Cyrus the Great had asserted his position as leader of Iran, Anatolia and Central Asia and gained access to vast reserves of manpower, he turned his face towards Babylonia, where king Nabonidus ruled.
Nabonidus & Sîn
King Nabonidus of Babylon was a usurper. He had, perhaps reluctantly, been appointed king after a coup against king Labashi-Marduk in 556 BC. Initially Nabonidus attempted to live up to the expectations of his people: he maintained order within the empire and restored several Mesopotamian temples. Nabonidus was a very religious man who worshiped the moon god Sîn as his personal god. He also was an educated man, who discussed literary works with priests and scholars and who did not shy away from arguing with them. Nabonidus’s personal preference for Sîn can be deduced from his inscriptions, in which he describes Sîn with epithets worthy of a supreme deity. His praise for Marduk on the other hand, the patron deity of Babylon, was only lukewarm. Another piece of evidence for Nabonidus’s personal preference for Sîn is the extraordinary value that he attached to the restoration of Sîn temples in Harran and Ur. This preference for Sîn may well have offended the priests of Marduk; not because they condemned the worship of Sîn, but because Nabonidus neglected the worship of Marduk.
Nabonidus in Arabia
In the fourth year of his reign Nabonidus marched towards northern Arabia and conquered all oases up to Yathrib (present day Medina). That way, he brought most of the Arabian trade routes under his control. At the end of the war season, however, Nabonidus did not return to Babylon. Instead, he took up residence in the oasis of Tayma. He appointed his son Belshazzar as viceroy over Babylon, while he himself remained in Arabia for ten years and built a huge palace for himself. During this period he did not visit Babylon one time; not even for the New Year festivals. The choice to stay in Tayma for ten years is remarkable. He apparently tried to escape his responsibilities as a king, which made him even less popular among his subjects. In the meanwhile Cyrus the Great was running from one success to another. He even crossed Babylonian territory unpunished on his way to Urartu. In 543 BC Nabonidus finally returned to Babylon, but it was too late. The threat of a large scale Persian invasion was growing larger every day and the Babylonian Empire was caught unprepared.
The Fall of Babylon
In 539 BC Cyrus the Great invaded the Babylonian Empire from Media. He crossed the Diyala river and headed for the banks of the Tigris. Near the city of Opis the Persian and Babylonian armies met. The Persians gained a resounding victory and the Babylonian army routed. The Persians then looted the city of Opis and massacred the inhabitants. This cruel act may have been part of Cyrus’s strategy. The raids of the Medes under Cyaxeres were still engraved into the memory of the Babylonians, so the massacre at Opis may have been an attempt to overwhelm them with shock and awe. If this was indeed Cyrus’s intention, his strategy worked out well. The priests of Marduk, who were unsatisfied with Nabonidus, opened up the gates and gave Cyrus a hero’s welcome. Now that the Babylonians were at his feet, Cyrus ordered his soldiers to refrain from looting or frightening the people of Babylon and made a sacrifice to Marduk in Babylonian fashion. He participated in all religious ceremonies and declared that all idols that had been taken from their temples by Nabonidus for safekeeping, along with their priests, should be brought back to their home cities.
Cyrus’s policy towards Babylon
With all these deeds Cyrus presented himself as a pious and virtuous Babylonian king; something that Nabonidus had never been in the eyes of the Babylonian priesthood. That way he won the hearts and minds of the people. Cyrus’s policy towards Babylonia was largely pragmatic. He had already won over the Iranian tribes through his successful campaigns and the promise of loot, but in order to win over the Babylonians he had to play a different game. Towards his Iranian subjects he had to present himself as a charismatic warlord, but towards his Babylonian subjects he presented himself as a traditional Babylonian king. This was the key to Cyrus’s success. He knew that he had to make his leadership acceptable to the local population if he wanted to reign over such a huge territory, especially to local elites like the Iranian warlords and the Babylonian priests.
After the conquest of Babylon Cyrus ruled for another nine years before he died in 530 BC on his campaign against the Massagetae. His son Cambyses succeeded him and largely continued his father’s policies. Cambyses and his brother Smerdis both died in 522 BC, ending the male line of descent from Cyrus only eight years after his death. However, Cyrus’s conquests created a solid foundation for the first Persian Empire and contributed to the cultural unification of the Middle East.
The most recent book that deals directly with Cyrus’s reign is Cyrus the Great (2013) by Touraj Daryaee and Pierre Briant. Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander (2002), a thorough standard work on Achaemenid history, also contains a lot of detailed information on Cyrus’s rule. For more information on the relations between Persians and Elamites I recommend Henkelman’s The Other Gods Who Are (2008) and for an in depth study of Nabonidus’s reign Dougherty’s Nabonidus and Belshazzar (2008) is essential.