Ancient History & Civilisation

King of the World

Astyages, it was said, even amid all the proofs of his greatness, was haunted by prophecies of doom: strange dreams tormented him, warning him of his downfall and the ruin of his kingdom. Such was the value ascribed by the Medes to visions of this kind that a whole class, the Magi, existed to divine what their meaning might be. Skilled in all the arts of keeping darkness at bay, these ritual experts provided vital reassurance to their countrymen, for it was a principle of the Medes, a devout and ethical people, that there was shadow lurking beyond even the brightest light. All the world, it seemed to the Magi, bore witness to this truth. A fire might be tended so that it burned eternally, but there was nowhere, not beside the coolest spring, nor even on the highest mountain peak, where the purity of its flame might not be menaced by pollution. Creation bred darkness as well as the daylight. Scorpions and spiders, lizards, snakes and ants, all crept and seethed, the visible excrescences of a universal shadow. Just as it was the duty of a Magus to kill such creatures wherever he found them, so shadows had to be guarded against when they darkened people’s dreams—and especially the nightmares of a king. “For they say that the air is full of spectres, which flow by exhalation, and penetrate into the sight of those with piercing vision.”11 Greatness, like fire, had to be tended with care.

That a kingdom as powerful as Media, less than a century after its first rise to independence and greatness, might once again be prostrated and subjected to foreign domination must, to many, have seemed implausible. But this, as the Medes themselves had good cause to know, had always been the baneful rhythm of the region’s power play: great empires rising, great empires falling. No one kingdom, not even Assyria, had ever crushed all who might wish to see it destroyed. In the Near East, predators lurked everywhere, sniffing the air for weakness, awaiting their opportunity to strike. Ancient states would vanish, new ones take their place, and the chroniclers, in recording the ruin of celebrated kingdoms, might find themselves describing strange and previously unknown peoples.

Many of these, just like the Medes themselves, were Aryans—nomads who had left little trace of their migrations upon the records of the time. In 843 BC, for instance, the Assyrians had campaigned in the mountains north of their kingdom against a tribe they called the “Parsua”; two centuries later, a people with a very similar name had established themselves far to the south, on the ruins of the venerable kingdom of Anshan, between the lower reaches of the Zagros and the sweltering coastlands of the Gulf. No chronicler, however, could know for sure if they were one and the same.12 Only by putting down roots, and by absorbing something of the culture of the people they had displaced, had the newcomers finally been able to intrude upon the consciousness of their more sedentary neighbors. These, reluctant to change the habit of centuries, had continued to refer to the region as they had always done; but the invaders, when they spoke of their new homeland, had naturally preferred to call it after themselves. So it was that what had once been Anshan came gradually to be known by a quite different name: Paarsa, Persia, the land of the Persians.13

In 559 BC, while Astyages still ruled in Media, a young man came to the throne of this upstart kingdom. His name was Cyrus, and his attributes included a hook nose, immense ambition and quite limitless ability. From even before his birth, it appeared, he had been marked out for greatness; for it was he—if the stories are to be believed—who had been prophesied as the bane of Median greatness. Astyages was supposed to have seen it all in a dream: a vision of his daughter, Mandane, urinating, the golden stream flowing without cease, until at last the whole of Media had been drowned. When the king had reported this the next morning, his Magian dream-readers had turned pale and warned him that any son of Mandane would be destined to imperil the Median throne. Hurriedly, Astyages had married off his daughter to a vassal, a Persian, the prince of a backward and inconsequential kingdom, hoping in that way to defeat the omen’s malice. But after Mandane had fallen pregnant, Astyages had dreamed a second time: now he saw a vine emerging from between his daughter’s legs, nor did it stop growing until all Asia was in its shade. Panic-stricken, Astyages had waited for his grandson to be born, and then immediately given orders that the boy be put to death. As invariably happens in such stories, the orders had been defied. The baby had been abandoned on a mountainside, to be discovered and brought up by a shepherd; or perhaps, some said, a bandit; or maybe even a bitch, her teats conveniently swollen with milk. Whatever its precise details, the miraculous nature of such an upbringing had clearly betokened a godlike future for the foundling—and so, of course, it had proved. Cyrus had survived and prospered. Once he had grown to a splendid manhood, his natural nobility of character had served to win him the Persian throne. Thus it was that all the wiles of Astyages had been foiled—and the empire of the Medes been doomed.

Or so the legends had it. It is the nature of great men to attract tall stories, and it may be that the early proofs of Cyrus’ destiny were not quite so manifest as the Persians would later claim.14 Even so—and irrespective of whether there had truly been prophecies—his potential was evidently sufficient to alarm Astyages: for the Median king, overlord of the Zagros, and wary of high-flying vassals, decided, after six years of watching his grandson on the Persian throne, that Cyrus was altogether too able and dangerous to be left in place for long. Accordingly, in 553 BC, he mustered his fearsome horsemen and struck south. Heavily outnumbered, the Persians resisted ferociously. When it appeared that surrender was imminent, even their women took to the battlefield, to encourage Cyrus and his warriors to fight on. For three years, the conflict convulsed the Zagros—and then, suddenly, in 550 BC, it was over. Even the gods, it appeared, were taken by surprise. They began appearing in the dreams of neighboring kings to broadcast the startling news. “Cyrus scattered the large armies of the Medes with his small army. And he captured Astyages, King of the Medes. And he took him to his country as captive.”15 Not since the downfall of Assyria had there been an upset on such a scale.

How had it come about? Yes, Cyrus had proved himself a steely and indomitable opponent. As had his Persian subjects, a people so toughened by poverty that they had uncomplainingly endured the sternest hardships—even, notoriously, to the extent of wearing leather trousers. Yet Astyages, with all the resources of a mighty empire behind him, would surely still have triumphed—had he not been grievously stabbed in the back. The story of his betrayal was a strange one—and, as the years passed, the retellings of it grew ever more fantastical and grotesque. The bare essentials were not in doubt. Harpagus, commander of the Median army, and most prominent of the clan chiefs, had deserted to Cyrus, leading a rebellion in mid-battle, and taking Astyages captive. But why such treachery? Because—so the story went—Harpagus, a close kinsman of Astyages, had simultaneously been bound by the most terrible ties of obligation to the King of Persia. It was Harpagus, according to the Medes, who had been charged with the murder of the infant Cyrus, a task which—dissembling—he had claimed to have carried out. Years later, when the truth had at last emerged, Astyages was rumored to have wreaked a bloody revenge, butchering Harpagus’ son, jointing the corpse, and then serving it dressed as mutton to the unsuspecting father. Harpagus himself, having consumed his own child, had swallowed the insult too, and remained a loyal, if chastened, servant of his king. Or so he had pretended. His act had certainly been convincing, for when the war against the Persians broke out, Astyages had appointed Harpagus to the supreme command. Not the cleverest piece of man-management, perhaps—and, in reality, so foolish as to be palpably absurd.

So how had this tall story ever come to be believed? Maybe—somewhere within the shadow play of implausibility and rumor—a faint hint of the truth could still be glimpsed? The family relationship between Astyages and Cyrus had mirrored the close ties, of culture as well as blood, which had always bound the Persians to the Medes. Both peoples, after all, were Aryan; and, to an Aryan, it was only the “anairya”—the non-Aryan—who was foreign. Indeed, any of Astyages’ courtiers who were suffering from nostalgia had only to look south for a glimpse of the good old days. Like their Median cousins, the Persians were at heart a nomadic people, and their country, “rich with good horses, rich with good men,”16 had remained as much a confederation of different clans as a state. “King of Anshan” though he was, Cyrus had also claimed his throne by virtue of his status as his people’s greatest chieftain—for he was head of the Achaemenids, the leading family of the Pasargadae, the leading Persian tribe. Master both of the stiff rituals of a Near Eastern court and of assemblies of wild horsemen wheeling beneath the open sky, of ancient cities and of the hills and plains, of the Persians’ future and of the memories and customs of their past, Cyrus was adept at playing all these roles, and more. As a result, Persia had largely avoided the tensions that afflicted Media: between a king impatient with the traditional tribal structures of his people and a nobility still defined by them. The Median clan chiefs, suffering from the authoritarian ambitions of Astyages, had taken note. Over time, the contrast between their own king and Cyrus must have struck them as ever more pronounced. It was almost certainly this which had persuaded Harpagus to take his fateful step. “So it was that the Persians, who had once been the slaves of the Medes, became their masters,”17 and Cyrus, marching into Ecbatana, reaped the due rewards of his forbearance, acuity and charm.

Nor, even after this first great victory, did the subtlety of his balancing act fail. The kings of Assyria, honing the traditional rights of conquest to a peak of savagery, had prescribed unspeakable cruelties for defeated enemies, but Cyrus, prompted by calculation and—no doubt—by temperament as well, preferred the course of mercy. Having lured important swaths of the Median aristocracy into his camp, he resisted the temptation to treat their countrymen as slaves. Even Astyages, rather than being flayed, fed to animals or impaled, was pensioned off into princely retirement. True, the treasury was emptied and its contents carted away to Anshan, but Ecbatana was otherwise spared the fate of Nineveh. Cyrus had no intention of destroying the most strategically sited city in the Zagros. The most pleasant, too—for if, in winter, the cold was savage, with blizzards blocking off the passes, in summer, while the lowlands of Persia burned, Ecbatana was a paradise of greenness, the mountain peaks behind it still capped with cooling snow, the slopes below the walls terraced with orchards and gardens, the air bright and crystal clear. Not only did the city remain the capital of Media, but it became, during the broiling summer months, the effective capital of Cyrus’ whole empire. No wonder that the Medes were able to feel, if not exactly the equals of their conquerors, then at least associates in the great adventure of their new king’s reign.

And that adventure, as events were soon exhilaratingly to prove, had only just begun. The downfall of a king as great as Astyages had sent shock waves throughout the whole Near East. Not only the Median Empire but the decades-old international status quo had been left in rubble. Suddenly, it seemed, there was everything to play for, and neighboring great powers, still barely able to take the Persians seriously, began to wonder what pickings might be on offer for themselves. In 547 BC, Croesus, the King of Lydia, led a huge army over the River Halys to find out. Cyrus, having descended from the Zagros, advanced hurriedly to meet him, the ruined cities of Assyria standing sentinel as he passed by, nothing now but dust-blown and jumbled heaps of mud, mute witnesses to the precariousness of power. Yet such a lesson might serve an ambitious man as inspiration as well as warning, and Cyrus, even though it was by now late in the campaigning season, pressed on urgently, eager to engage Croesus. As before, when the Lydians had met with the Medes, an indecisive battle was fought; but this time there was no eclipse, and no end to the war. Instead, with winter drawing on, Croesus withdrew to his capital, Sardis, never imagining that Cyrus would dare to follow him, for the city was so far to the west that the Aegean lay only three days’ journey beyond it—a tremendous distance from the Median frontier. But the Persians did not retreat. Instead, braving the bitter cold, they shadowed Croesus, never alerting him to their presence, allowing him time to dismiss his allies, lurking and waiting for his conscripts to melt away. Then, with Sardis denuded, Cyrus struck. Frantically, Croesus cobbled together what few troops remained. A desperate battle, with the Lydians staking everything on a final cavalry charge—and then the storming of Sardis, and the capture of Croesus himself. Far off in the Fertile Crescent, the details were recorded with a terseness that hardly hinted at their seismic effect: “[Cyrus] defeated the King [of Lydia], seized his possessions, and stationed his own garrison there.”18 Over the Lydian Empire itself, the news of Croesus’ downfall burst with such a thunderclap that the priestess of one temple was said to have sprouted a beard from the shock. As well she might have done, for in the space of just six years, the Persians, so small in numbers, once so backward and obscure, had made their kingdom the greatest power in the world.

Not that the victory had been theirs alone. The Median cavalry, perfectly equipped for a winter campaign with their sheepskin coats and their tough mountain horses, had more than played their part. Median generals, too. Of all the advice given to Cyrus during the campaign, the best had come from Harpagus, who had suggested, just before the final Lydian cavalry charge, that the baggage camels be placed at the forefront of the Persian battle line. Cyrus had duly given the order, the Lydians’ horses, startled by the unfamiliar stench, had swerved and bolted, and the battle had been won. Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that Cyrus, buoyed by this victory, sought to conciliate the Lydians just as he had previously wooed the Medes, anairya though his new subjects were. Croesus, like Astyages, was spared execution, and welcomed into his conqueror’s entourage; his fabulously well-stocked treasury was kept at Sardis; even the gathering of tribute was entrusted to native grandees. The Lydians, however, startled by this magnanimity, interpreted it as weakness; and no sooner had Cyrus left for Ecbatana than the very aristocrats whom he had most trusted, those in charge of the treasury, were rising in revolt. It was a fatal miscalculation. Cyrus, menaced by what he justly regarded as the basest treachery and ingratitude, responded with furious expedition. Fresh troops, with fresh orders, were sent speeding from Ecbatana. There was to be no clemency now. Instead, the Persians were commanded to demonstrate their mastery of more traditional methods of pacification: cities were to be ravaged, rebel leaders executed, their followers enslaved. And all was done as the King of Persia had instructed.

Yet Cyrus, even as he showed his capacity for repression, had not abandoned the fundamentals of his imperial policy. The Medes, if no longer the Lydians, were still to be offered a form of partnership in his dazzling new order. Accordingly, Harpagus, first and most valued of all Cyrus’ foreign servants, was sent west, to take command of the Persian forces. Reaping opportunities that would never have come his way had he remained loyal to Astyages, the clan chief from the Zagros arrived in Lydia sporting the splendid title of “Generalissimo of the Sea.”19 Living up to this office with savage efficiency, he had no sooner finished off the Lydians than he was looking to plant his standards along the extremities of Asia, right on the shore of the “bitter sea,”20 the Aegean itself. There, dotted along the coastline, and enticingly prosperous, were the gleaming cities of a people known to the Persians as the “Yauna”—the Ionians.*4 Emigrants centuries previously from Greece, the men of Ionia remained as determinedly and defiantly Greek as any of their countrymen back in the motherland across the Aegean. Too quarrelsome to present a united front, they certainly proved easy meat for Harpagus. City by city, he brutally subdued them all. Indeed, so menacing was his reputation that many Ionians, rather than submit to Persian rule, opted for flight across the sea, emigrating to Sicily or the Italian peninsula. One city, Phocaea, evacuated its entire population, “women, children, moveable property, everything, in fact . . . leaving the Persians to take possession of nothing but an empty shell.”21 A dark shadow had been cast over the Ionian imagination, and the memory of Harpagus’ coming would long serve to blacken even the most intimate moments of joy:

In winter, as you lie on a soft couch by the fire,

Full of good food, munching on nuts and drinking sweet wine,

Then you must ask questions such as these:

“Where do you come from? Tell me, what is your age?

How old were you when the Mede came?”22

Not, it might be noted, “How old were you when the Persian came?”—for such was the impact of Harpagus upon the Ionians that it left them perplexed, even as they submitted to their new masters, as to who precisely these were. Ever after, when referring to the Persians, the Greeks would invariably say, “the Medes.” Such confusion was hardly surprising. What were the ethnic complexities of the Zagros to a people so far distant from them? That cities on the western sea should find themselves subject to a people they had barely heard of suggested the dawn of a new and unsettling age. The world seemed suddenly shrunken. Never before had one man’s reach extended quite so far. Cyrus, however, far from glorying in his achievements, remained restless and anxious for more. For all the scale of his victories in Lydia, he dreaded the danger that he imagined lurking in his rear. Back from Sardis, he turned his gaze toward the eastern horizon. Ignore what lay beyond that and even the most brilliant conqueror might find that his greatness had been raised on shifting sand. No kingdom could reckon itself wholly secure while it still feared the depredations of migrant tribes and the thunder of hoofbeats across the plains of Iran. Who better to appreciate that than a Persian, himself a descendant of nomads?

So it was that Cyrus, disdaining to stamp out the revolt in Lydia in person, had instead taken the opposite route from Ecbatana, following the Khorasan Highway as it wound ever east.23 This, for Persians and Medes alike, was to journey back into their past, toward the legendary homelands of their ancestors, “rich in pastures and waters . . . the abode of cattle,”24 where everything seemed on a more heroic scale, the plains much vaster, the mountains touching the sky. Fighting his way into the uplands, gazing at last toward the Hindu Kush, Cyrus would have been able to watch the dawning of the sun over the peaks of Central Asia—“the undying, swift-horsed sun; who, foremost in a golden array, takes hold of the beautiful summits, and from them looks over the abode of the Aryans with a beneficent eye.”25 This same “abode of the Aryans,” long after the Persians had emigrated from it, had remained the fiefdom of swaggering noblemen, backward in comparison to their cousins in the Zagros, perhaps, but rich, and hulking, and addicted to war. Once Cyrus had succeeded in forcing their submission, they were to provide him with formidable new resources of manpower and wealth. The badlands would never entirely lose their turbid character, for their new master, chameleon-like as ever, was careful to portray himself as the heir of the region’s traditions, leaving the local noblemen to continue in their rambunctious ways—but in the cause, henceforward, of the Persian king. Loose though it was, the order imposed by Cyrus was subtly calibrated to meet his needs: not only troops and gold, but a buffer zone. The establishment of an immense arc of provinces, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Aral Sea, served to fence off the approaches to Persia where they had always been most vulnerable, in the northeast, which previously had lain wide open to incursions from the steppes of Central Asia. Gandhara, Bactria and Sogdiana: these lands, once breeding grounds of menace and instability, were now transformed into bulwarks of Persian might.

And bulwarks of much besides. Savages, as all civilized peoples were agreed, belonged exactly where Cyrus was pinning them, in the remote bleakness of the rim of the world. What might happen otherwise was still the stuff of nightmares. The Medes, for instance, preserved lurid folktales of how their empire, at the very peak of its might, had been subjected to the slant-eyed Saka, a notoriously brutal people, cruel and untamed like the steppes from which they came, who had held on to Media for twenty-eight years. There was great alarm, then, when Cyrus, advancing from Sogdiana into what is now Kazakhstan, found himself confronted by these same demons from the Median past, readily distinguishable by their high pointed caps and their alarming facility with axes. A leader of the Saka, captured by Cyrus and treated with notable chivalry, duly submitted to the invaders, and his people, taking service with the Persian king, soon established themselves as the most ferocious of the imperial troops. But this had been only a single tribe. Beyond its homeland lay further plains, bandit-haunted and drear, their immensity mocking all human ambition—even that of the greatest conqueror ever known. How far they stretched no one could say for sure, nor what might be found at their extremities: griffins, some claimed; and tribes of men with goats’ feet; and frozen wastes, where the inhabitants hibernated for six months every year; and beyond them, surrounding the world, the great River Rangha, as wide as the most immense sea.26 Cyrus, crossing the monotony of the steppelands, certainly had no intention of pushing that far; and when at length he found a broad river obstructing his path, he rested on its bank, and there, amid mudflats and the buzzing of mosquitoes, called a halt, at last, to his advance. The river itself, the Jaxartes, was shallow and island-dotted, affording only the barest of natural frontiers; so Cyrus, making good the deficiencies of nature, ordered the construction of seven frontier towns, naming the greatest one after himself—“Cyropolis.”27 Henceforward, like a slave, the featureless savagery of the steppes was to wear the mark of the Persian king.

This branding of his identity upon the land of the Saka proclaimed an imperious dual message. No more would the untamed war-bands beyond the Jaxartes be permitted to raid southward; and no more would those behind it have to fear for their security. Cyrus’ strategy had always been to menace his enemies and to reassure his slaves—and by 540 BC, with the eastern frontier stabilized, he felt ready to put it to its ultimate test. Returning to the Zagros, he fixed his predatory gaze on that supreme goal of every conqueror’s ambition, the wealthy flatlands of what is now southern Iraq, stretching from Assyria to the Persian Gulf, the stage for splendid cities since the very dawn of time. No man could truly be hailed as the master of the world until he had subdued its ancient heartland—as Cyrus, the arriviste, was all too well aware. Yet he would also have known that its inhabitants were no backward frontiersmen, untutored in the propaganda of despots. Indeed, it was they who regarded the Persians as savages. Cyrus, a man who specialized in overturning hostile preconceptions, chose to meet this new challenge head on. Launching his invasion of enemy territory, he claimed to be defending it; leading an immense army, he affected to be an avatar of peace. And everywhere, strongholds met him with an opening of their gates.

In truth, Persian firepower being what it was, this had been the only sane policy for the defenders to adopt. The one army which sought to defy the invasion had been summarily obliterated; for Cyrus, as he had shown in Lydia, was not averse to the occasional atrocity when he felt that it might serve a salutary purpose. Yet his preference, by and large, was to live up to the high-flying claims of his propaganda. His regime once established, there were no more pogroms. Executions were kept to the barest minimum. His diktats were couched in a moderate and gracious tone. To cities crowded with ancient temples, and scented with incense, Cyrus presented himself as a model of “righteousness and justice,” and his “universal lordship” as a payback from the gods.28But which gods, precisely? Coolly, Cyrus posed as the favorite of them all. Assorted priesthoods duly scrabbled to hail him as their own, and assorted peoples as the heir to their customs and concerns—the perfect gilding on his mastery of the world. A glorious thing, for the clan chief of the upstart Achaemenids, to be the patron of ancient cities such as Ur and Uruk. Not even in their records, although they reached back to the dawn of time, could be found another man who had risen quite so fast, so far.

To many, inevitably, there appeared something fearsome, even monstrous, about this prodigy. When Cyrus at last fell in battle he was seventy, his appetite for conquest still unassuaged, for his death had come north of the Jaxartes, far beyond the limits he had once set on his own ambitions.29 In her triumph, the queen of the tribe which had killed him was said to have decapitated his corpse, and dropped the head into a blood-filled wineskin, so that the old man’s thirst might glut itself at last. This was to cast Cyrus as a spirit of the kind that haunted the imaginings of the Near East, a demon of the night, eternally hungry for human flesh. Among those who had submitted to him, however, a quite different tradition would be preserved. Cyrus, the man who had convulsed the world, would be remembered with an almost unqualified admiration, for his exceptional nobility of character, and as the architect of a universal peace. For centuries afterward, even among its bitterest enemies, the glow of its founder’s memory would suffuse the empire of the Persians. “He eclipsed all other monarchs, either before him, or since.” Such was the verdict of Xenophon, an Athenian, writing almost two centuries after Cyrus’ death. “No matter whom he conquered, he would inspire in them a deep longing to please him, and to bask in his good opinion. They found themselves longing to be guided by his rulings—his, and no one else’s.”30 An astonishing verdict, it might be thought—and yet Cyrus had indeed seduced as well as forced himself on the world, persuading a host of different peoples that he understood them, respected them and desired their love. No empire had ever before been raised on such foundations. No conqueror had ever before displayed such clemency, such restraint.

This had been the genius of Cyrus—and his reward had been dominion on a scale beyond all dreams.

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