Underrated: Cyrus the Great

The rule of the ancient King of Persia was more enlightened than the despots of today’s Islamic Republic of Iran

Classics History Underrated

Anyone who knows Handel’s Messiah will be familiar with Isaiah’s vision of the new Jerusalem. But how many know that the man referred to by the prophet as the Lord’s shepherd, even as His anointed (“messiah”) is actually Cyrus the Great, King of Persia? Cyrus is credited by Isaiah (strictly speaking, the writer known to biblical scholars as Deutero — or Second Isaiah) with releasing the Jews from Babylonian captivity, and by the prophet Ezra with rebuilding the temple and returning the sacred vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem. No gentile is treated with such reverence in the Bible as Koresh, the Hebrew form of Cyrus. He was revered not only by Jews but by Christians too. Sir Thomas Browne took inspiration for one of his finest prose works, The Garden of Cyrus, from the Persian monarch’s celebrated parks at his capital, Pasargadae, the source of the Garden of Eden, or “Paradise”. The Persian empire Cyrus created was the largest the world had ever seen; and he was the archetypal ruler even for Alexander, the man who conquered it.

So who was Cyrus? We do not know precisely when he was born, but his reign began in 553 BC. He died in 529 BC while attempting to extend his conquests beyond the Caucasus, according to the “father of history”, Herodotus, who devotes much of his main work to Cyrus and his conquests of the Medes, the Lydians and the Babylonians. Having overcome Croesus, the fabulously rich king of Lydia, Cyrus nearly burnt him alive on a funeral pyre as a sacrifice, but after the fire was extinguished by a miraculous deluge he showed mercy by making Croesus his magus. Herodotus tells us that Croesus impressed Cyrus by invoking Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver, and it is possible that Greek ideas influenced Cyrus. Certainly his rule seems to have been more enlightened than that of most oriental despots in ancient or modern times.

Herodotus saw Cyrus, like other Persians, as a Zoroastrian; this view is supported by archaeological evidence. Yet Cyrus seems to have not merely tolerated other religions but revered their deities, including the God of Israel. A passage in the book of Ezra (repeated in Chronicles) has Cyrus issuing a proclamation: “The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him.” Isaiah goes even further: God calls Cyrus, his messiah, and tells him: “I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me.” This unambiguous monotheism was a daring novelty in the ancient world, and it is significant that this revelation is made to Cyrus, King of Persia and overlord of Judea.

We know from the celebrated Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, and from other recently discovered documentary evidence, that Cyrus did indeed decree after his conquest of Babylon in 539 that the captive peoples of the Babylonians be allowed to return to their ancestral homes, along with their liturgical equipment. Thanks to his novel and efficient imperial administration, with power devolved to regional governors or “satraps” linked to the monarch by regular couriers, Cyrus was able to enforce his policy of religious toleration throughout his vast realm. 

It would be a mistake to attribute modern attitudes to Cyrus. The last Shah of Iran claimed that the Cyrus Cylinder was the first charter of human rights, which it certainly was not. More reasonable would be a comparison with Magna Carta: both documents imply that the king, no less than his subjects, is subject to the law. More recently the Islamic Republic engaged in an unseemly dispute with the British Museum about the ownership of the Cylinder, even though the museum loaned it to an exhibition in Tehran. Meanwhile the Iranian regime only stopped the Tomb of Cyrus at Pasagardae being flooded by one of its hydroelectric projects after international pressure. Though robbed of all its treasures and adornments, the tomb is astonishingly intact, but the mullahs have little interest in preserving Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. 

Still less does the present Iranian regime resemble Cyrus’s eirenic and ecumenical empire, which was extended to Egypt under his successor Cambyses and consolidated by Darius I. The two centuries of Persian domination of the Near East after Cyrus’s death were a golden age for the Jews, far better than the subsequent Graeco-Roman era. Even the Greeks, whose greatest city, Athens, was burnt by Xerxes during the decades-long Persian Wars, wrote paeans of praise to Cyrus, such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia

Compare the legacy of Cyrus with that of today’s Islamic Republic: its best-known exports are fatwa and jihad, terrorism and anti-Semitism. The example of Cyrus the Great shows just how alien this regime is to the long history of Persia and its people.