And now we move on to the story of Cyrus the Great, Emperor of the Persians and arguably the mightiest of the House of Achaemenes. Funny side note: the Achaemenid dynasty ruled the Persian Empire for about four hundred years, right up to Alexander of Macedon. Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes all belonged to this dynasty.
Herodotus warns us that he’s done his best to reconstruct Cyrus’s origin story from contemporary accounts, but that most of those accounts were pretty clearly written with the goal of flattering the Persians, so, who knows? Also for some reason he feels he needs to start a few centuries before Cyrus’s birth, with the origins of the Mede Empire that Cyrus conquered when he came to power. Flashback to the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, which apparently spanned much of the Middle East out towards India and Ukraine for centuries! One group the Assyrians subjugated: the Medes.
Eventually the Medes revolted, triggering the empire’s fall. When the Medes successfully kicked out the Assyrians, all their other subjugated peoples were like, hey, we can do that, too. Next thing you know the Assyrian Empire was over and the region was a sprawl of squabbling successor countries, failed states, and anarchic war zones. But then Deioces, a Mede, had the idea of getting himself named king!
Deicoes accomplished this — getting himself named king — via a standard tyrant’s progress, as related in Plato’s Republic (Herodotus and Socrates were contemporaries, don’t you know). It’s more likely Herodotus imprinted his Attic sensibilities on the story than that this is where Plato got the idea. Step one, become really good at running his farm. Step two, agree to help his neighbors with their troubles. Step three, cultivate a deserved reputation for honesty, fair-dealing, and justice. Step four, allow your judgement to become an indispensable part of the local law-enforcement structures. Step five, declare that you’ve spent far too much time judging and not enough time managing your own affairs. Step six, allow your friends to convince the populace at large to bring you onto the public payroll full-time as a judge. Step seven, get yourself some bodyguards, and set about redefining the job description of judge until it matches despot. Herodotus tsk-tsks this dastardly plot to seize power, but doesn’t deny it worked.
As King of the Medes, Deicoes had the Medes build him a palace and a small army, and then around the palace he had them construct a walled city, his capital Ecbatana. Ecbatana’s walls were really cool, Herodotus claims: there were seven concentric walls, with each wall slightly higher than the next wall out, making a sort of cone. Inside the central wall was Ecbatana’s rich district, the palace and the treasuries and such, and the real estate value went down as you went further out. Each wall was painted a different color: from outermost in, they were white, black, red, blue, orange, silver, and gold.
Probably there were fewer than seven curtain walls. Archaeologists have identified the probable site of Ecbatana, but found zero evidence of concentric fortifications at all. Other fortresses dating back to this era have concentric walls, but always substantially fewer than seven. Seven walls is Minas Tirith territory! As for the colors, later historians theorize that they corresponded to the seven known planets in local mysticism, citing the poetry of Nizami Ganjavi (a Persian poet who lived hundreds of miles away and about two thousand years later). I think the lesson there is that later historians are sometimes grasping at straws.
Deioces was also the first king to pronounce that it was illegal to laugh at him or bug him; he wanted all his business done through a small cadre of stone faced messengers. His thinking, Herodotus speculates, was that if the Medes never saw him, they would forget that he was just a regular guy and ascribe holy and/or magical powers to him, such that they wouldn’t dare rebel against him. Plus there was a whole secret police thing that we don’t have time to get into detail about, where Medes were invited to spy on their neighbors for prizes.
After fifty-three years in office, Deicoes passed away, and the throne went to his son Phraortes. Phraortes set about conquering the old Assyrian Empire, and got as far as more or less conquering Persia, but after twenty-two years of inconclusive campaigning Phraortes fell in battle. His son Kyaxares, who has been mentioned a few times already, succeeded him.
Kyaxares was not content to be mere King of the Medes, as his father and grandfather had been; he sought to become Emperor of the Mede Empire. He invented the idea of organizing troops into battalions and platoons; before him armies were more sort of unruly mobs than anything else. With this incredible logistical technology Kyaxares conquered the bulk of the old Assyrian Empire.
Unfortunately the Mede Empire proved short-lived. When Kyaxares’s forces were scattered and exhausted after the long campaign, the Scythians came in from the north and conquered them, thereby obtaining rule over all Asia.
The Scythians almost invaded Egypt, but then the pharaoh, Psamtik (we’ll talk about him more later) bribed them to not invade instead, so they didn’t. Instead they looted the city of Ascalon, in Syria, and plundered the temple to Aphrodite there. Herodotus is given to understand that this particular temple to Aphrodite was the oldest in the world, and so it’s only natural that the Scythians who looted it were struck by a divine curse of impotence. This was just typical Scythian behavior: they pretty much ran the Middle East into the ground, in the relatively short time they ruled it. After maybe twenty years of increasingly erratic behavior from their Scythian overlords, the Medes decided they’d had enough, and poisoned them all at a feast. Kyaxares took over as Emperor of the Medes again, though by this point he was pretty old.
We still haven’t gotten to the birth of Cyrus! When Kyaxares died, his son Astyages became king of the Medes. Astyages had no son, but instead a daughter named Mandane, about whom he dreamed a weird and dreadfully prophetic dream. In the dream, Mandane urinated and the urine flooded the capital and then flooded all Media and then all of Asia. The Magi, Mede priest-sorcerers who were among other things dream-interpreters, warned against this dire omen.
Astyages was thus extremely reluctant to allow Mandane to marry and have children, in case the children should turn out to be horrible urine-elementals who would rampage across the world. However he couldn’t stop her from marrying forever, so he turned her over to a nice quiet Persian who wouldn’t make any trouble, Cambyses. Technically Cambyses was the king of the Persians, part of the Achaemenid dynasty there, but Astyages’s father had conquered Persia, so he was subservient to the Mede Empire.
After Mandane married Cambyses, Astyages soon had another bad dream. In this one, Mandane gave birth to kudzu, which soon covered all of Asia. Astyages thought this a pretty bad sign, and when Mandane and Cambyses’s son Cyrus was born, he ordered his cousin and chief henchman, Harpagos, to steal his grandson and kill it and bury it somewhere.
“Seems like a terrible idea to me,” said Harpagos. “But you’re the boss, boss.”
Cut to Harpagos and his wife sitting down for dinner, with little Baby Cyrus in a baby-caddy on the kitchen table.
“I can’t help but notice you’re sobbing,” Harpagos’s wife said. “Is something the matter?”
“This is just a shitty situation.” Harpagos puts his head in his hands. “Astyages ordered me to murder his grandson, but he doesn’t have a son and so this baby is his heir and also I’m his cousin and I’d be next in line for the throne if not for this baby and if I murder the baby then it’s going to come out eventually and people will be like, he can’t be king, he murdered the heir!”
“Hmm.” Harpagos’s wife considered. “That does sound shitty.”
Rather than kill Baby Cyrus, Harpagos and his wife decided to pass the buck and mail him out to the boonies. They sent him to a slave-shepherd they knew, Mitradates, and his slave-wife, whose name Herodotus is very apologetic to say was Spaca, because she was a slave and somebody thought that was funny.
And yes, “Spaca” translates to an extremely derogatory name for a woman which was just as offensive twenty-five hundred years ago as it is now, but Herodotus is trying to give it to us straight. St. Justin the Philosopher, writing a half-millennium in the future, declared that either Spaca was a slave or else she was an actual female dog like the one that suckled legendary heroes Romulus and Remus, Sargon, et cetera. Herodotus doesn’t cotton to Spaca having been anything but an unfortunately-named human woman.
Harpagos turned Baby Cyrus over to Mitradates without explaining that he was the heir. “King Astyages commands you to murder this baby,” he told Mitradates. “If anybody comes along and this baby is alive, then you’ll be punished! Don’t think you won’t!”
Mitradates took Baby Cyrus away to Spaca, who, Herodotus didn’t mention this before but it’s about to become plot-relevant, she was barren and had just miscarried and also she really wanted a baby. (Maybe you can see where this is going.) “Check it out,” Mitradates told Spaca. “I was given this baby and told to murder it, but I’m not sure if I should, since it’s the heir to the throne of the Mede Empire.”
“It’s the heir?”
“Yeah, you can tell because it’s dressed in finery and also because back in town everybody’s talking about how the heir was stolen and is presumed dead. And Harpagos, who gave me this baby, told me that Astyages demanded it be murdered. So, yeah. Putting two and two together, it’s pretty plainly the heir.”
Spaca of course fell in love with Baby Cyrus immediately. “He’s so beautiful! We are not murdering this baby! This is a sweet little baby, look at your toes, you’ve got little toes yes you do…” She came up with a plan and cajoled Mitradates into carrying it out. Her plan boiled down to swapping her recently-miscarried dead fetus for Baby Cyrus, telling people that Mitradates had killed the heir as ordered, and Spaca raising Baby Cyrus as their own. “The dead child will obtain a royal burial and the surviving one will not lose his life,” she said. “It’s win-win!”
So that happened, says Herodotus. No way was all this made up after the fact to justify the son of two slaves (one of whom was given the worst name) later becoming ruler of the Persian Empire. Definitely Cyrus was legitimately a member of the Achaemenid Dynasty, and in no way was this claim created to provide justification for the later ascension of Darius the Great. (We’ll get into that later.)
Ten years passed. Baby Cyrus grew up into Young Cyrus, a typically typical Persian village boy whose only claim to fame was that whenever all the kids in his village got together to play King & Spearmen & Laborers & Etc, Young Cyrus always insisted on playing the part of the King. One day one of Young Cyrus’s little friends, the son of Artembares (just some guy, don’t worry about it) refused to obey Young Cyrus.
“I wanna be king!” he said.
Young Cyrus’s response came quickly. “Usurper! Guards, seize this would-be regicide and hold him down while I horsewhip him!”
And for whatever reason, the other boys played along. The whipped boy then ran home and cried and complained to his parents about Young Cyrus. “The slaveboy whose parents belong to King Astyages was mean to me!”
“Well, clearly the thing to do is to march down to the palace with Young Cyrus, holding him by the ear like you see people do, and complain to Astyages about how one of his slaves’ sons is a little shit!” cried Artembares, because that makes sense.
And of course that happened, just like so. Herodotus observes that it would make no sense for people to be calling Young Cyrus by his official royal name, Cyrus, and so surely he had some lame slave name, but Herodotus doesn’t know what it was. Strabo of Amasya, that Johnny-come-lately of classical historians, claimed Cyrus’s slave-name was Agradates, but can you believe Strabo?
Speaking of other historians, Nicolaus of Damascus (close personal friend of Cleopatra, Marc Anthony, and Herod the Great) declared this whole story bunkum. Astyages turned Cyrus over to Artembares directly, and Artembares raised him as best he could. Artembares was Cyrus’s personal attendant, and had no son of his own on account of he was a eunuch.
Herodotus’s story makes more sense than the version where Cyrus was raised by animals, but has some holes. For instance: when Astyages found out that one of his (hundreds if not thousands of) slaves’ sons had arranged for the brutal whipping of another boy, he decided this was worthy of his royal attention. He dropped everything to form a special committee to investigate. Astyages summoned Young Cyrus’s alleged father, Mitradates, and chewed him out for having such an unruly boy who didn’t instinctively defer to his social betters the way a good slave should.
“But I was king!” insisted Young Cyrus, who refused to accept that he’d done anything wrong.
Something about Young Cyrus’s sense of entitlement struck a chord with Astyages. After getting rid of Artembares with some empty words, Astyages sat Mitradates down. “This isn’t your boy, is he?”
Mitradates insisted he was, and held to that story right to the point where Astyages signaled to the Royal Torturer to bring in the Royal Torture Pliers. Then he broke down sobbing and confessed everything.
“There, there,” said Astyages. “You’re right to feel so bad, yes, you’re a bad slave. But if I execute you for your sins, will you truly have learned anything? No, for as a slave you’re incapable of learning anything. I’m wasting my time talking to you. Harpagos!”
Thus Astyages turned his attention abruptly to Harpagos, who admitted it was true: rather than kill Baby Cyrus as he’d promised, he turned the baby over to Mitradates and accepted an in-retrospect suspiciously fetal corpse.
“Hmm, I think I’ll have one of my trademark sudden changes of heart,” said Astyages. “It’s good that my grandson is alive, because my daughter hasn’t spoken to me in ten years and I’ve been starting to feel a little guilty about it.” He clapped his hands together. “Celebratory disco party! Young Cyrus and your son, Harpagos, shall be guests of honor!”
However Astyages was still scheming. When Harpagos’s son showed up for his disco cake, Astyages smiled and led him back to the kitchen and then came out a little later with a big platter of meat and some clothes Harpagos’s son wasn’t going to be needing any longer. Astyages served Harpagos a slice of this meat, and then just to make sure literally everyone understood what was happening, he also proffered Harpagos’s son’s severed head and hands and feet.
Because Harpagos was some kind of sociopath, when he saw his son’s severed head and looked down and realized he’d been eating a piece of his son, Harpagos didn’t scream or retch or anything. Instead he sat quietly, thanked Astyages for the meal, said that it was all so delicious, and then he quietly gathered up all the uneaten portions of his son and carried them home. Herodotus theorizes that Harpagos wanted to bury his son, or as much of him as he could, but for all Herodotus actually knows, Harpagos took a doggie bag and ate leftovers for days.
Meantime Astyages had a problem: Young Cyrus. Back when Cyrus had been born, Astyages had a terrible prophetic dream he’d interpreted as meaning that Cyrus would usurp his throne and become king. He’d been helped in this by his Magi, who prided themselves on solid dream-interpretation; they’d assured him that if his grandson wasn’t killed, then one day Cyrus would rule the Mede Empire. And so Astyages called in the Magi to chew them out for failing to predict this latest confusion.
“Hey hey hey,” said the lead Magus, sweating and tugging at his collar. “Nothing we said has at all been contradicted by current events! Young Cyrus is, like, the boy-king of his village, even!”
Astyages was, in a word, skeptical. “So you’re saying that because he played a king game, that invalidates your prophecy?”
“Not at all!” The Magus struggled to come up with a rationale. “See, the thing is, he’s basically been the king of his village and the boys there, right? So that’s what we predicted, and it happened. So we spoke, so it was! And now definitely he’s not going to become king of anybody else, I mean, then he’d be a double-king, and how often do you see that?”
“Hmm. I think I’m going to decide that he’s not a threat to my rule, and accept him as my grandson,” announced Astyages. “Now, advise me, my Magi!”
The Magi exchanged glances. “He’s definitely not a threat to your rule,” said one.
“You could accept him as your grandson,” suggested another. “And you can trust us, because we’re Medes like you, not like your half-Persian grandson.”
“Wise advice indeed! Let’s make it happen!” Astyages clapped his hands together. “Dismissed!”
So he sent the Magi away without executing any of them, and called Young Cyrus back in. “Grandson,” he said without preamble, “I have done you very slightly wrong. Mistakes were made. Not by me of course, but still, it happened on my watch and even though I’m not responsible, I must claim responsibility. You’re allowed to live. In fact, I’ll tell you who your real parents are, and send you to meet them.”
“Uh…“ Young Cyrus was somewhat at a loss for words.
“Say, ‘thank you, sire,’” suggested Astyages.
“Thank you, sire?”
“Don’t mention it!” Astyages clapped his hands together. “Dismissed!”
And so Young Cyrus traveled to Persia, where he met his father Cambyses and his mother Mandane, who were legit surprised to learn that they had a son. It was a happy reunion, of course, marred by only one unpleasant fact.
“Your adoptive mother was named Spaca, which we say as Kyno?” asked Mandane. “No offense, but you know what that word means, right?”
Cambyses nodded. “I can’t go around telling all my Persian friends that my long-lost son was raised by a woman named Kyno. They’d think I was making some kind of terrible misogynistic joke.”
“Here’s what we can do, let’s tell people you were raised by wolves,” suggested Mandane. “Much classier!”
“Ooh, that’s good. People will also hold his table manners to a lower standard, and be impressed by his ability to speak eloquently and walk upright!”
And so Cambyses and Mandane told people that their son had been raised by wild animals, definitely not by Mede slaves with obscene words for names, no sir. (Five hundred years down the line, Strabo of Amasya would take this cover story at face value, but of course Herodotus didn’t know anything about that.) Young Cyrus grew up into Cyrus, out in Persia, where the sky was blue and the grass was green and everything was find and dandy, an idyllic life never to be spoiled.
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