The Death of Cyrus the Great
When a Queen of nomads killed the King of Kings
The year is 529 B.C, Cyrus the Great has united most of the Persian and Median Tribes and founded the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
He has conquered the ancient kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon granting himself the ancient Assyrian title of King of Kings. Having created the largest empire of it’s time stretching from modern Turkey to Afghanistan, he now sets his sights north, to the vast Eurasian steppe in present day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and marches to a conflict that will be his last.
Scythians and the Massagetae
Along the Eurasian grasslands many tribes and peoples existed throughout history. During ancient times these tribes and confederations very often became difficult to distinguish, but many broadly use the term of Scythian for this group of ill-defined Indo-Eurasian, although distinctions exist within this group.
The Scythians spoke a language closely related to the Indo-Iranian of the time and had frequent interactions with the more “civilized” kingdoms and empires they encountered. They were skilled horse riders and treated their horses spiritually, often burying them in adorned garments and treasures.
In present day southern Kazakhstan, west of the Caspian Sea roamed a group of nomads known as the Massagetae. They were a war-like nation, who were described as sexually promiscuous and may have consumed cannabis.
They primarily drank fermented mares milk and ate from their livestock. Furthermore, when a Massagetae man was too old to care for they would kill him with his “beasts of flock” and cook the combined flesh to eat. This was said to be a desired death, while the Massagetae who died of sickness were not eaten but buried and lamented.
The following is an account of ancient history as told by the Father of History, Herodotus of Halicarnassus. As with all ancient history the veracity is debated.
Just before 530 B.C., Cyrus the Great in an attempt to extend his dominion offered to marry the then widowed queen of the Massagetae, Tomyris. Knowing very well that Cyrus wanted to wed her to subjugate her people to Persian rule, Tomyris refused Cyrus’s advances.
This prompted the King of Kings to advance directly towards the Massagetae in an attempt to conquer and integrate the Massagetae into his mighty empire. As he was preparing for his assault, Tomyris sent Cyrus a messenger telling the King to cease his conquest and return to his own country or suffer battle with the Massagetae.
Cyrus consulted with his advisors and after much discussion they decided that they would set a trap for the Massagetae army. Leaving a small force of Persians as bait, the Persians littered their camp with provisions, most notably large amounts of wine.
When the Massagetae army, under the leadership of Tomyris’s son Spargapises attacked and defeated the small force of soldiers left behind, they began to feast on the Persian provisions. Unused to the effects of alcohol, the Massagetae quickly became inebriated, and the main Persian force arrived and easily defeated the drunk Massagetae.
Cyrus took Spargapises hostage and planned to use him as ransom to pacify the Massagetae. Tomyris when realizing this sent a message offering Cyrus an ultimatum. Should he return Spargapises unharmed, Tomyris would allow Cyrus to “depart unpunished” from her lands even after all the destruction he caused the Massagetae. But should continue his conquest, Tomyris will give Cyrus the “fill of blood that he is so insatiated for”.
Cyrus and his advisors were unsure how to continue, however, when the imprisoned Spargapises sobered up and realized his predicament he asked if he could become unbound in his cell. Once unbound Spargapises managed to commit suicide.
Cyrus did not have his bargaining piece anymore and the Persian army were stretched in an unfamiliar hostile land. Tomyris rallied all the tribes that aligned themselves with the Massagetae, and the two armies waged one final battle
The battle was said to be one of the “stubbornest of all fights that were ever fought by men that were not Greek”, however eventually the Massagetae prevailed and a substantial portion of the Persian army perished. Cyrus was slain and Tomyris had his head severed and stuffed in a wineskin bag.
Herodotus then concludes the account with Tomyris declaring “Though I live and conquer thee, thou hast undone me, overcoming my son by guile; but even as I threatened, so will I do, and give thee thy fill of blood.”
Tomyris in legend
With renewed interest in classical history and literature during the Renaissance era, Tomyris became a culturally significant character and her supposed defeat of Cyrus has inspired many cultural references, even as much as being referenced in Shakespeare's King Henry Part 1 in the following passage:
The plot is laid: if all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus’ death.
Tomyris’s legendary feats captured a developing theme of female empowerment and triumph over powerful men, which became increasingly popular during the Renaissance.
A conclusion on the veracity and Herodotus’s potential bias
A note on the veracity of Herodotus’s story must be emphasized. As in all ancient history, it is very difficult to accurately conclude what did happen, we can only take what was said at the time and supposed facts and artifacts as evidence.
Many modern and ancient historians after Herodotus believe that Cyrus may not have been slain in battle and if he was, he was not decapitated as we can point to Cyrus’s tomb which supposedly does hold his remains. If we believe this tomb to truly hold his remains, Alexander the Great made no comment on Cyrus being beheaded when he visited his tomb.
It is hard to believe that Cyrus’s body would not be recovered considering his stature and the sophistication of the empire he created. Furthermore, Herodotus was believed to be opposed to the Persian rule of the Greek city states, so much so that a romanticized account in a 10th century Byzantine text called the Suda references Herodotus leading a revolt against the Persian rule in Halicarnassus.
Still all ancient histories remain murky as the annals of history age and expand. Tomyris’s triumph whether true of fictive, remains one of the many occurrences that show that even the greatest of rulers can be defeated by overextending their reach and underestimating their foreign adversaries.
Herodotus. Histories. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Scythian. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved October 4, 2019.