Cyrus II of Persia (c. 600-529 BC), commonly known as Cyrus the Great, was one of the greatest kings of Persia. He was the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the Persian Empire (c. 550-330 BC), which was the greatest empire known in the world up to that time.
He gathered under his banner all the tribes of Persia and then marched against and defeated their overlord, the Medes (549).
Now leading a nation that united the Medes and the Persians, Cyrus began attacking and defeating neighboring powers such as Lydia (c. 546).
He then defeated the Babylonian Empire (539) and its vassal states, including Syria and Palestine.
Either before or after his campaign against the Babylonian Empire, he led an expedition which led to battles that, according to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, brought “into subjection every nation without exception”.
At its height the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great extended from the Indus right through to Egypt and the Mediterranean.
Cyrus was a statesman and a humane one. He treated the peoples he defeated with humanity and respect. He allowed them to practice their traditional religions and cultures. He permitted them to join the Persian army and administration.
He allowed enslaved nations, such as the Jews, who had been carried into captivity in Babylon, to return to their native countries and practice their own religions there. On account of these magnaminous acts, the Old Testament called Cyrus the “Shepherd” and the “Annointed of Jehovah”.
The Persians themselves recalled his virtue and called him “Father”; the Babylonians called him the “Liberator” and the Greeks called him the “Lawgiver”.
In 1878 a remarkable archeological discovery was made in Babylon: the cylinder of Cyrus. Inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform writing, the cylinder gives a detailed description of Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon (539) and of his humane treatment of the inhabitants of that city. The cylinder has been acclaimed as the world’s first declaration of human rights.
The cylinder describes how Cyrus set up a state of peace and abolished forced labor: “The people of Babylon (…) the shameful yoke was removed from them.” It also refers by name to the Jews who had been brought as slaves to Babylon and had been permitted to their homeland.
Cyrus died while fighting the Massgetae in central Asia. He was succeeded by his son.
The ancient Greek historian, Xenophon (c. 428 – c. 354 BC), later wrote a didactic book, the Cyropaedia (or The Education of Cyrus), about Cyrus the Great, depicting him as a model ruler.
Cyrus founded the world’s most extensive empire up to his time. His kindness, tolerance and heroism are recalled in Persia’s national epic, the Shah Nameh (The Book of Kings).