While Harpagos rampaged through Ionia and environs, Cyrus conquered most of the rest of the Middle East. He triumphantly rolled over of most of modern-day Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, excepting those portions that he’d already controlled; this period of Cyrus’s activites doesn’t interest Herodotus. Eventually Cyrus came to Babylon.
“You may not believe me,” says Herodotus, “but Babylon was, like, huge. It was walled, right? A big walled square. And the walls were, like, almost fifteen miles on a side. The walls were ten stories high and more than twenty feet thick, and there were, like, a hundred different gates.”
That doesn’t sound right, you might think. The famously massive walls of Constantinople, constructed a thousand years later, give or take several centuries, were under four miles long and barely eight stories high. But Herodotus is insistent. “It was huge! And this was way after my time so I’d have no way to know this, but Constantinople only had nine gates. Babylon had one hundred gates. Yes. That is exactly right. And the gates were made of bronze.”
Modern historians figure Herodotus’s wealth of specific facts about the layout of Babylon strongly suggest he visited it in person at some point, although they also agree that he got a lot of specifics wrong. The walls were, at most, about eleven miles total, not the fifty-odd miles Herodotus claims encircled the city. And while Herodotus describes them as being more than three hundred high, the walls in actual fact were almost certainly under one hundred feet tall, because otherwise they’d have fallen down. He was correct about the thickness of the walls, however; they averaged twenty-four feet thick, according to early 20th-century German archaeological reports. And while the total number of gates is unknown, there were a bunch and they did have bronze fittings.
One thing is undeniable: Herodotus, a well-traveled and cosmopolitan Greek, was blown away by the scope of Babylon. It was the greatest city he saw in his lifetime, and one of the greatest cities in the world. Babylon was so massive that, according to both Herodotus and Aristotle, when Cyrus captured it, it took two days for everyone inside the city to find out they’d been conquered.
How on Earth did Cyrus conquer such a huge citadel? Answer: through one weird trick!
On the way to Babylon Cyrus and his army crossed a river, the Gyndes (today called the Diyala River). One of Cyrus’s favorite horses drowned in an accident, and supposedly Cyrus was so angry at that mean ol’ river that he paused his march on Babylon, ordering his troops to spend several months digging what sound suspiciously like irrigation channels. Herodotus, though, claims they were for river punishment.
Anyway, Babylon. Funny story about Babylon. It had all of these crazy-go-nuts walls and defenses and maybe you think that Herodotus is blowing smoke, well, he isn’t but he doesn’t have to prove anything to you, it’s his book, and anyway once upon a time (a generation before Cyrus’s invasion) Babylon was ruled by this queen, Nitocris, who was the first ruling queen that Herotodus has mentioned so far. She was apparently very cunning and far-thinking and dedicated to her city’s defense. For instance, she had the river channeled into a winding path with a lot of oxbows, such that if someone invaded Babylon by the river, she would be able to play it like a tower defense game, arrows from a single central point raining down on the hapless invaders as they passed close by the tower once, twice, thrice. This is definitely why the river’s channel was laid out like this, Herodotus says. No way was it because of irrigation or anything!
I’m starting to think Herodotus doesn’t know as much about irrigation and earthworks as he thinks he does. Also, the archaeological record utterly fails to support the supposition that there was ever a queen of Babylon called Nitocris. Nitocris isn’t even an Babylonian name; it’s Egyptian. Historians are baffled as to this: was Nitocris simply a misunderstanding on Herodotus’s part, and the works he attributes to her done in fact by Nebuchadnezzar? At least some of them certainly were comissioned during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. A tablet dated to the reign of Hammurabi (long before Nebuchadnezzar) commemorates the creation of part of the waterworks Herodotus here attributes to Nitocris.
So who was she? Was she Amuita, one of Nebuchadnezzar’s wives (and a Mede princess, aunt of Cyrus)? Was she the invention of a drunken Babylonian informant who thought he’d have a good time filling Herodotus’s head with nonsense? Babylon did have a handful of ruling queens, mostly dowager widows ruling in the names of their underage sons, according to records; was Nitocris one of them? There’s really no way to know. But Herodotus treats her as a real person, and so shall we.
Nitocris, in addition to her city defense via river, also focused on city defense via walls. Those impossibly huge walls Herodotus was talking about earlier? Nitocris created them. She loved walls! She was so in love with walls that when she died she had herself entombed inside the walls, over one of the one hundred gates we’re all going to pretend we believe existed. She also played a funny prank on her successors: inscribed on her tomb was the assertion that it contained great riches, which had been sealed up with her body. If some future lord of Babylon broke in and stole the cash, this inscription warned, then one of two things would happen. If the cash was needed to resolve some citywide fiscal calamity or budget shortfall, then boom, riches. But if someone broke into the tomb just to steal the money and be rich, with no intention of using it to save the city, then that tomb-robber would be a total jackass, future king of Babylon or no future king of Babylon.
Decades later, Darius the Great (who, spoiler alert, eventually becomes Emperor of the Persians after Cyrus’s death) decided to go ahead and break into the tomb. He wasn’t as wealthy as he could possibly be, he said, and wasn’t that crisis enough? But within the tomb was nothing but Nitocris’s corpse and a short note about what kind of jackass would break into a tomb. I guess Nitocris figured the over-under on one of her successors being a greedy jackass made it a safe bet. Nitrocris was pretty cool.
Of course this story makes no sense from a historic perspective, for like eight different reasons, but it does suggest that by the time Herodotus visited Babylon, people were pretty comfortable with making up crazy stories about what a dick Darius had been, and that itself is kind of interesting.
But that wasn’t until long after the current narrative. In the quasi-present of Cyrus’s invasion, Nitocris’s son Labynetos was king of Babylon, says Herodotus. In point of fact, the Babylonian records say that the king of Babylon at the time of Cyrus’s conquest was Nabonidus, whose mother was definitely not Nitocris. This was the tail end of an era of upheaval in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC, Cyrus conquered the city in 565 BC; in the intervening seven years Babylon had four different kings. However, Herodotus presents a coherent narrative so we’re just going to run with it, for the moment.
Labynetos’s strategy was to ignore Cyrus. He declared it National Wall Appreciation Day. He sent his troops out into the city, ordering them to go around teaching everyone wall carols, that was how confident he was that Cyrus would just dash himself harmlessly against those walls.
As I asserted before, Cyrus invaded Babylon through careful application of a clever trick. Back in Nitocris’s time, when she was doing all of her earthworking and wallmaking, she diverted the Euphrates river (which ran right through/under Babylon, in a special channel Nitocris had dug for it) into an artificial wetland. Cyrus simply reused her river-diverting system, which caused the water level in the Euphrates to drop until it was low enough that an army could wade down it into the city.
You might think that Nitocris might have thought of this, and that the Babylonians would therefore have grates and locks and stuff, blocking the Persians from invading. They did in fact have such grates! However everyone in the city was drunk on Labynetos’s Wall Appreciation Nog, so they weren’t paying attention. No one noticed when the river dried up, until the riverbed was just choked with Persian soldiers. For more information, see the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Daniel, Chapter 5 (though Daniel claims that Belshazzar the son of Nebuchadnezzar was the king in Babylon when Cyrus conquered it, and also that Cyrus and Darius were the same guy, neither of which were true as near as anyone can tell).
So Cyrus conquered Babylon. He didn’t stick around, though; he put some guy in charge and rode off to make more war on a whole different group of people. Having conquered the crazy rich, awesome city-state of Babylon, Cyrus’s next move was to march his army up towards the Black Sea and fight the Massagetai. The Massagetai were some people, who were in a place. They liked milk. It’s not important. There was a river and they were on the far side of it, that’s all you need to know. Herodotus is extremely vague on the geography and what facts he does give are totally wrong.
What is maybe important is that their ruler was another ruling queen, a widow named Tomyris. The archaelogical record is totally silent on Tomyris, but then, there wouldn’t be a lot of data available on the queen of a nomadic tribe in northern or eastern Iran. It’s not as if she would have been commissioning a bunch of a war monuments. And later classical historians mention her in several places, but then, classical historians were generally pretty willing to just crib from Herodotus whenever, and they don’t provide any information that Herodotus doesn’t give here. So was Tomyris real? I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes, because why would anyone in the ancient world (patriarchal as it was) create the myth that Cyrus the Great, Emperor of the Persians, Conquerer of Babylon, Assyria, Media, Lydia, and Diverse Additional Territories, was beaten in an incredibly humiliating fashion by a lady. Because man, Cyrus does not come out of this story smelling very good, let me tell you!
At first Cyrus tried for a political marriage, which must have been a pretty big deal. And Cyrus had just conquered Babylon, so I would think it would have had to have been a pretty sweet deal, too. However Tomyris wasn’t having any of it; she was not into Cyrus at all. Talks broke down almost immediately.
Cyrus hit on a two-step plan: first, pontoon bridge across the river separating Cyrus-controlled territory from Tomyris-controlled territory. Second, army marches across river and conquers the Massagetai.
However as he was setting this plan into motion, Tomyris sent him one last angry diplomatic missive. “Dear Jerk,” she wrote. “I see what you’re doing with your stupid pontoon bridge! Just so you know I’ve evacuated the area on my side of the river, going like forty miles back, because I don’t want to fight you on my side of the river. You go over there, you’ll find nothing. If you’re not too much of a jerk, pull your army back away from the river. Then I’ll cross the river with my army, and we can fight and finally settle this. Or are you too much of a jerk? Love, Tomyris. PS you’re a jerk.”
“Sounds reasonable,” said Cyrus. “Can’t think of a reason not to let my enemy dictate the terms of our coming battle!”
Croesus was also there. He alone among Cyrus’s advisors was willing to point out the flaws in Cyrus’s thinking, which given that he was Cyrus’s prisoner/slave/vizier was kind of crazy. “Listen, Cyrus,” he said. “If you defeat her in battle it doesn’t really matter where you do it. But if you lose, it does matter. Lose to her on the far side of the river and we can retreat back across the river. Lose to her on this side of the river and us retreating means the Massagetai get to rampage around and loot this nebulously-described countryside.”
“You make a good point,” mused Cyrus.
“Also you may not have noticed by Tomyris is a woman. If she wants you to do a thing, you should do the opposite! That’s the manly way!” Croesus accentuated this point by pounding his fist. He almost knocked loose his fedora, he was so worked up.
“Heh, women.” Cyrus shook his head. “They’re basically terrible, am I right?” (They sure are, says Herodotus!)
“So first you march over the river,” suggested Croesus. “Then, how about this? You make camp and you leave out all of the liquor and ice cream and red meat and I don’t know, do we have any opium? In the morning you abandon camp but, whoops, you forgot to pack all your opium back up. There’s the sundae bar, still ready to go!”
“I don’t get where you’re going with this.”
“You push further into Massagetai territory. Tomyris’s army will circle around you to ambush you, but when they see all the hamburgers and scotch and heroin, they’re freak out because they don’t have any of those sweet luxury goods. The whole army will collapse into a big orgy of steak-eating and vodka-swilling and hot fudge sundaes. Then you mop ‘em up, no trouble!”
“I like this plan! Especially the part where I deliberately lead my army into an ambush. So we’ll do it, then. I’m going to lead my army over the river into Massagetai territory in what we’ll call Operation SITTING DUCK. That’s an ironic name because no way are we going to get ambushed. It’s them who will be the sitting ducks! This is a woman we’re talking about, after all!”
“Great,” said Croesus. “Now, just in case this totally awesome and infallible plan somehow fails, I suggest you make some minimal preparations. Just in case you die horribly, somehow. It won’t happen. But just to be on the safe side, you know?”
“Sure,” said Cyrus.
“Specifically, I think that you should leave me over this, the safe side of the river. So I can advise your replacement, when you die horribly in an ambush. Which, again, won’t actually happen. Don’t know why I mentioned it.”
So Cyrus handed over Croesus, his prisoner-vizier, to his son and heir, Cambyses II (Cambyses I, you might recall, was the king of Persia under Astyages and also Cyrus’s father). Cambyses II was a real piece of work and we’ll have a fair bit to say about him, never fear, but not until the start of THALIA.
“Go rule the Persian Empire until I get back, all right son? And listen to Croesus!” Cyrus waggled his paternal finger, Polonius style. “Although of course Operation SITTING DUCK will go off smoothly I have no doubt. I’ll be done subduing the Massagetai and their so-called queen before the end of the month.”
The first night over on the other side of the river, while they were still setting Operation SITTING DUCK up, Cyrus got some shut-eye and had a terrible dream. He dreamed that one of his generals, Hystaspes, had a son who was a giant winged monster and rampaged Mothra-style across the civilized world! This was foreshadowing, because Hystapes’s son Darius would eventually become Darius the Great, Emperor of the Persians.
When he woke up he called for Hystaspes. “Hystaspes,” he said, “I had a dream where you Mothra’s father.”
Hystaspes nodded, slowly. “Okay, sire.”
“It kind of freaked me out.”
Hystapes held up his hands in mock surrender. “You got me! I’m Mothra’s father!” He laughed, in hopes of breaking the tension, but it was a hollow laugh because Cyrus just glared at him.
“The dream was a metaphor, you idiot. It means your son Darius is planning to rebel against me.”
Hystapes was nonplussed. “I don’t think that follows. My son is… heck, my whole family! We’re all of us completely loyal to you! I mean, I’m your cousin! We’re of the same noble house! If you were to die, and then I were to die, and then your son Cambyses and your other son Smerdis were all to die, then my son Darius would be your rightful heir! You have no reason to think we’re anything but in your corner!”
“I wish I could believe that. I really do. But I had this dream, so, you know.”
“I am absolutely certain my son is not plotting against you.”
“Don’t care what you think. Go to Babylon and check in on him.”
“Okay then.” Hystapes knew better than to argue when Cyrus got like this. “He’ll be fine, you’ll see. If he is treasonous I’ll execute him myself,” he added over his shoulder as he turned to walk away. “But he won’t be treasonous. I promise!”
“Whatever,” grumbled Cyrus.
In the morning Operation SITTING DUCK sprang into action! In what I consider a totally blown opportunity for a stunning ironic reversal, Croesus’s plan worked perfectly! Remember, Croesus told Cyrus to basically let his army get outflanked in unknown territory by an army fighting on its home turf. Somehow that worked out for them. About a third of Tomyris’s army, led by her son Spargapises, swung around Cyrus. As soon as they saw those sundae bars and martini stations, they gorged and drank and passed out drunk or high.
Cyrus turned back and his soldiers just mopped up, murdering some of the Massagetai while they slept it off. A little over half Spargapises’s expeditionary force was captured, including Spargapises himself. The rest were killed.
The next morning a Massagetai messenger delivered another diplomatic missive to Cyrus from Tomyris.
“Dear Jerk,” she wrote. “I bet you’re real pleased with yourself. Well, you shouldn’t be! Don’t be all proud of your damn fruit of the vine, by which I mean liquor. You and all your Persian jerk friends have been poisoning yourselves for years. Us Massagetai don’t drink, and you’re wicked for drinking. If it had been a fair fight my Spargy would have kicked you back to Babylon. Nevertheless, you jerk, I’m going to give you a chance to redeem yourself. Return my son, let all your prisoners go, agree not to return, and leave. You get to tell people that you beat a third of the Massagetai army, and since the Massagetai army will no doubt be sung of three thousand years from now, that’s not nothing! ‘As tough as a Massagetai warrior,’ that’s how the expression will go. Future historians will know all kinds of things about our culture, and there definitely won’t be a total lack of consensus on exactly who we were and where we lived and how populous our nation was and the only thing anybody’s really sure of is that we liked milk!
“But if you don’t let my son go and then leave, then I swear by all that is holy (probably we worship the Sun? That’s just the kind of thing future historians will all be totally in agreement on, is our religious practices) that I will drown you in the blood of your soldiers. Love, Tomyris. PS you’re still a jerk.”
“Feh,” said Cyrus. “Go wake up Spargapises, if he’s still out. Tell him that his mother tried to ransom him but forgot to offer any money.”
One of Cyrus’s men headed over to Spargapises in his makeshift tiger cage, and prodded the poor hungover Massagetai prince until he woke up.
“Where am I?”
“Cyrus’s camp. We totally captured you while you were passed out. Also you aren’t getting released.”
“Screw that!” cried Spargapises, and killed himself as soon as someone let him out of his manacles so he could reach his own throat.
Then, long story short, Tomyris slaughtered Cyrus and all his men in what Herodotus calls the fiercest battle ever fought that didn’t involve Spartans. Afterwards Tomyris was pissed because Cyrus died of multiple stab wounds, not of drowning in the blood of his own soldiers like she’d promised him. So she went out and filled a wineskin with blood she drained from dead Persian soldiers, found Cyrus’s shattered corpse on the battlefield, and forced the blood into his lungs. “My son is dead because of you!” she shouted, then quietly exited history without leaving any kind of archaeological trace.
The moral of this story is DO NOT SCREW WITH TOMYRIS QUEEN OF THE MASSAGETAI. Fortunately it’s a moral the rest of history seems to have learned, because no one ever screwed with the Massagetai afterwards. As far as we know at least.
This concludes CLIO, the stories of Croesus and Cyrus. The next entry will cover some of Herodotus’s digressions in the back half of the story, and then we’ll move on to EUTERPE. EUTERPE, the second book of the Histories, is a book-length digression; the actual narrative doesn’t resume until the start of the third book, THALIA. EUTERPE is a guide to a country Herodotus considers to be probably the greatest in the world, the land of mystic wonder and ancient marvels: Egypt.
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