When discussing who the most important figures in history were, there are several people who almost always come up. Depending on who you talk to you’ll hear them mention Jesus, Julius Caesar, George Washington, Muhammed, etc. I think it’s a shame that Cyrus the Great never comes up. The name doesn’t mean much to most people in the Western World. That’s a shame because he saved our entire way of life.
Cyrus was born around 590 in Persis (or Persia). At the time, Persia was a province of the larger kingdom of the Medes. The Medians controlled the vast majority of the Near East but even they weren’t the major power in the world. Up until this time in history, the dominant cultures were the Mesopotamians (Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians) and the Egyptians. When Cyrus came of age and took over as the leader of the Persians, the rest of the civilized world found out just how extraordinary he was.
Though he at first accepted the Medes as his betters, Cyrus soon revolted and after a series of stunning campaigns he defeated them and consolidated all of their territories as Persia. The vassal state was now the dominant force in the Near East.
This would’ve been impressive by itself but Cyrus was just getting started. Threatened by his push for power, the Lydians attacked the Persian kingdom. By doing this, Lydia (which covered what is now Turkey and small parts of Greece) simply gave Cyrus an excuse to go to war. He won decisively and added their land to his new Empire.
You may note I just used the word Empire for the first time. Cyrus was not the first conqueror in history but he did it in a way remarkably different from his predecessors. Rulers before him lorded over lands with shared cultures and languages. If you subjugated another culture, you disassembled it to make it conform to your own.
Starting with the Lydians, when Cyrus defeated a people, he allowed them to keep their individual identities and granted them certain rights under his protection. As long as a people were loyal to his rule, he allowed you to keep your individual language, culture, religion, and identity. He financed the building of temples, public spaces, and housing to make sure life actually improved under his rule. Not only this, a subject of Persia often enjoyed a better quality of life than they had before. Cyrus was not a ruler of a kingdom, wiping out peoples’ cultural identities to glorify his own. He was the ruler of an Empire, where many different people thrived under the same rule while retaining their own way of life.
After defeating the Lydians, Cyrus turned his attention to Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers) is the birthplace of human civilization. It was home to many regional powers over the years (the Sumerians, Assyrians, etc.) but they all shared a common language and culture. Their most important city was Babylon which is why in the Bible they’re all referred to as Babylonians. Along with the Egyptians, the Babylonians had been the most powerful and advanced people in the world. The Assyrians were the dominant force there and they had conquered and destroyed most nations surrounding them.
Cyrus saw the chink in their armor. The Assyrians rulers were brutal, even for the ancient world, and not even their own people were spared harsh treatment. Seeing this as an opportunity, Cyrus went on the attack. After some initial resistance, the Babylonian forces crumbled. Given the promise of a ruler who would treat them better and raise their standard of living, the people of Mesopotamia lost their will to fight him. From this point until recent history, the people of this region lived under the rule of foreign nations.
This is when the story becomes truly interesting for a modern audience. There were many different races of people in Mesopotamia. One of the most important were the Semites. Long before Cyrus’ time, a branch of the Semitic people had formed an individual culture based on the worship of a single God. Over time, they had been enslaved, escaped to freedom, and formed their own nation of Israel with its capital city of Jerusalem. These people were, of course, the Jews.
Some fifty years before Cyrus’ conquests, the Babylonians had conquered the Jews, burning Jerusalem to the ground. The Jews were dispersed with the goal of killing their culture and reintegrating them back into the Babylonian way of life. If this had continued, the Judeo-Christian tradition would’ve been killed before it had a chance to thrive.
One of Cyrus’ first orders of business after conquering Babylon was to free the people the Babylonians had defeated. This was in keeping with his legacy of respecting the cultures of the people in his Empire. To the Israelites, he not only granted them permission to return to their land but also gave them money to rebuild Jerusalem, effectively saving their culture. This is why he’s about the only non-Jewish person regarded as holy in the Old Testament. He’s glorified by both Ezra and Isaiah as the ruler who “Yaweh has given all the lands of the Earth.”
Cyrus died shortly after this. The Persian Empire went on to further glories and defeat (at the hands of the Greeks in three wars). He set up, in my estimation, two legacies which have been vital to our way of life:
1. He established the world’s first true Empire. The model he used, of respecting the people you’ve conquered and trying to make their lives better under your rule, was used to great success by the Greeks and the Romans to build their empires. The Greeks and Romans, in turn, created what we now refer to as Western Culture.
2. He liberated the Jews. Our modern values are based on the Judeo-Christian tradition (even if you’re not religious). Had Cyrus not conquered the Babylonians and then financed the Israeli rebirth, the tradition would’ve died in its infancy. Without it, there is no “All men are created equal.” Today, the majority of people in the world belong to religions out of this tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and most developed nations operate under ethical principals it established.
I don’t remember Cyrus ever being mentioned in any of my formal history education. If he was, it was a footnote. As far as I’m concerned, he should be at least a name on the tip of people’s tongues. He’s revered in his home country (modern Iran) and though they operate on many standards he would’ve reviled, knowing more about him might even help us connect better with the people there.