The King and Us

Cyrus the Great is one of the best-known, best-loved figures of Near Eastern antiquity. His forward-looking vision of pluralism, many contend, makes him almost unique among the conquerors and kings who came before and after him. But historian John W.I. Lee points out that this view of Cyrus does not survive examination with a critical eye — and that the man who inspired Alexander the Great actually offers another lesson in leadership: realism can provide an impetus to protect human rights as much as idealism.

Cyrus II has a reputation as a progressive on human rights that is only somewhat justified.

Flickr. Cyrus II has a reputation as a progressive on human rights that is only somewhat justified.

Cyrus II — commonly called Cyrus the Great — looms large in world cultural and political history. This is understandable. He transformed an obscure dynasty, the Achaemenids, ruling an obscure city-state, Anshan, in what is now southwestern Iran into the driving force behind one of the largest and most consequential empires of its age. Through his serial conquests of the Median Empire, the Lydian Empire, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire under King Nabonidus (as well as major territorial acquisitions in Central Asia), he built what was the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River.

Quite the model for anyone struggling with questions of leadership: a nobody from a backwater becoming a hegemon and leaving behind a legacy of awe and splendor. As if that were not enough, Cyrus is widely regarded (unusually for a world-historical conqueror) as a progressive on the question of human rights. This reputation comes in large part from the tremendous affection the Jews of antiquity held this Persian king in. And with good reason: his conquest of Babylon led to the eventual end of their exile. Another major prop is the “Cyrus Cylinder,” a document manu propria setting forth Cyrus’s genealogy, victories, and political principles, which has helped cement in the popular imagination the idea of Cyrus as a forward-looking leader, one with a healthy respect for an early form of political pluralism.

But how close does this image of Cyrus hew to the historical reality? We spoke with John W.I. Lee, one of the leading historians of Western Asia and an expert on the Achaemenids, about how to reconcile the bright, broad strokes of this vision of Cyrus with the more finely shaded facts.

This can be a difficult task. “On the one hand,” Lee said, “most people who look at the past are not interested in the nitty-gritty. There is a popular image of Cyrus. It serves an important purpose in modern constructions of Iranian identity — whether it’s in the Islamic Republic itself or amongst the immigrants in the United States. Everybody wants to quote the Cyrus Cylinder. Shirin Ebadi, when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, called it a human rights document. George W. Bush called it a human rights document. But if you look at what Cyrus actually says in the Cyrus Cylinder, there’s no declaration of human rights, period. It’s a very formulaic and standard set of things that conquering kings would often do: remission of labor service, for example; allowing people who had been exiled or resettled to return to their lands, allowing local religious cults in trying to practice what they were practicing before. There are statements in the Cyrus Cylinder that indicate that Cyrus acted benevolently when he conquered Babylon, but the modern image has taken those and expanded them into concepts that didn’t exist in the ancient world. You’ll find some fake translations of the Cylinder that talk about how he established a minimum wage, how he abolished slavery.”

And, Lee points out, the Cylinder is at odds with Babylonian documents as well. “We have a number of contemporary documents, the Babylonian Chronicles, which talk about the entry of Cyrus into Babylon,” he notes. “There are some important divergences. For example, the Cylinder says his troops entered Babylon peacefully, but one of the Chronicles tells us there was a battle north of the city, so there was fighting. The image you’re getting from the Cylinder is a scrubbed-clean image of what Cyrus is. Here is the best way to think about it. It’s 539 BC. You’re Cyrus and you have a small army. You’re king of a very upstart kingdom. Anshan is not a big player in the world of the first millennium BC. All of a sudden you have conquered the biggest, greatest city in the world: Babylon, the navel of the universe.”

And therein lies precisely the main problem in contemporary thinking about Cyrus. By focusing on him as a human-rights visionary, the attention paid to his actual achievements is scanted. His conquest of Babylonia is something that should, properly viewed, provoke admiration and astonishment. The fact that Cyrus was able to take and maintain control of this far superior state is due, as Lee sees it, to two major factors.

The first is military: “Cyrus,” Lee told us, “had a good army. He conquers not just Babylon but by this time he’s probably conquered all the way out to Sardis, in Libya — western Turkey. He’s conquered probably up into central Iran to where Hamadan or Ecbatana is today. After conquering Babylon, he’s going to go out into central Asia. He’s one of the great conquerors of world history. The armies of Anshan may have been small, but they seem to have been very fast-moving. Herodotus tells us that Cyrus kept his army moving even in the wintertime, which was unusual.”

“Sometimes the necessity of governing makes people in power tolerant and open to other cultures.”

—John W.I. Lee

The second falls into the political and administrative world. Cyrius had, says Lee, “to figure out how to control this city because it’s the big city in the region, it’s got the manpower and the resources he needs, and he can’t afford to have a revolt or a rebellion. The army is good, it conquers very rapidly, but he doesn’t have the manpower to have a militarized administration. What are you going to do if you conquer this huge area? The answer is: bring in the locals, find people who are willing to work with you and let them continue to be in charge. That’s a way to let them preserve their prestige and their status and you can have them do the work of administration. When Cyrus first arrived, all the institutions stayed in place — some of the same officials, the same kinds of mechanisms of governing, the same families. All without a jump from the last day of King Nabonidus to the first day of King Cyrus. All the administrative stuff stayed in place. That’s how he governs. I think that’s an important part of the context of the Cyrus Cylinder. He’s not just standing somewhere and issuing a proclamation. It’s in the context of having conquered this huge city with its own tradition of being powerful and independent. He can conquer with his army, but he can’t govern through military force. Using local administrators is the origin of the Persian reputation for tolerance.”

That, and perhaps its contrast with some other political structures in the region. Lee points to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians, he notes, “did have a program of what you could call Assyrianization. They were going to make people Assyrian. They were going to have governors who were from the home territories. They definitely in their public space were about military force: if you mess with us, we will impale you in front of your city and burn you to the ground and stack up heads.”

Any serious consideration of Cyrus reveals a legacy at odds with its widespread portrayal. This is a matter of crucial importance to the study of history. But it also has a shade of geopolitical meaning unique to the current foreign policy woes of the U.S. Lee cites the fact that Cyrus has played a polarizing role in Iran’s postwar political life. For the Pahlavi kings, he served as a powerful prophet of Iranian global greatness. For the Islamists involved (among many other factions) in the revolution of 1978, he was a symbol of secular tyranny. Getting past the superficial reading of Cyrus as a proto-republican, then, is a critical task in its own right. “To engage with modern Iran,” says Lee, “you have to engage with an understanding of its ancient history, to really engage with the reality of Iran’s past.”

Those contemporary leaders hoping to learn from Cyrus’s example should take heart. His example is a powerful one that protecting basic rights, be they of your citizens or your employees, your administrators or your colleagues, is not merely for starry-eyed progressives. As Lee puts it, “Sometimes the necessity of governing makes people in power tolerant and open to other cultures. You can turn that into a virtue in your public documents. If you look at the reliefs at Persepolis showing the Persian people, it’s remarkable how they’re all differentiated by where they’re from. They have different clothes, different gifts that all show their place in the empire. Diversity is written into the very nature of the Persian Empire. They’re not trying to make everyone Persian and impose a single language or culture or religion upon the empire.” The case of Cyrus II proves, among many other things, that toleration can serve a powerful realpolitische imperative.