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Thursday, May 25, 2017

HERODOTUS: History (Book 1 Ch. 95-216)

In this section Herodotus traces the rise and fall of Cyrus.  The rise of Cyrus was either inevitable or highly unlikely, depending on how we interpret the sources Herodotus gives us.  He says he will “follow those Persian authorities whose object it appears to be not to magnify the exploits of Cyrus, but to relate the simple truth.”  The truth turns out to be not so simple.  This much we know for sure: “The Assyrians had held the Empire of Upper Asia for five hundred and twenty years, when the Medes set the example of revolt from their authority.”  Herodotus relates how at first “Deioces collected the Medes into a nation, and ruled over them alone.”  His son, Phraortes, went a step further.  He “began by attacking the Persians; and marching an army into the country, brought them under the Median yoke.”  Then Phraortes’ son, Cyaxares, “was the first who gave organization to an Asiatic army… who before his time had been mingled in one mass, and confused together.”  After combining the Median and Persian empires, Cyaxares set his sights on conquering the Assyrian empire.  “A battle was fought in which the Assyrians suffered a defeat.”  After 520 years of Assyrian rule what we now call Asia Minor was united under a Mede-Persian empire.  Almost united.  A few city-states still wanted independence.  This would eventually lead to war between the Persians and the Greeks.  But this is just background information for the real story Herodotus wants to tell: the rise of Cyrus.  Astyages became king after Cyaxares.  He had a daughter and dreamed she would give birth to a boy who would de-throne him.  So instead of marrying her to a Mede nobleman he gave her to Cambyses, “a Persian of good family, indeed, but of a quiet temper, whom he looked on as much inferior to a Mede of even middle condition.”  This is where Cyrus enters the stage of world history.  In a story reminiscent of Oedipus the King, Cyrus is miraculously saved from being killed as an infant.  When he’s grown to manhood he leads a revolt of the Persians and defeats the army of the Medes.  That’s how he became sole ruler of a vast empire.  For almost thirty years he was victorious and spread his rule over most of the peoples surrounding him.  Eventually he tried to conquer the wrong people.  “The Massagatae were ruled by a queen named Tomyrisa.”  When he invaded her country Tomyrisa warned Cyrus to back off.  She sent a message and told him to “be content to rule in peace thy own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern.”  Cyrus ignored her warning and invaded anyway.  This was a fatal mistake.  A battle was fought and “at length the Massagatae prevailed.  The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years.”  What does all this have to do with the Greeks?  Before his fatal encounter with the Massagatae Cyrus had subdued most of Asia Minor.  But the Greek city-states in Ionia and Aeolia resisted.  They appealed to mainland Greece for help.  No help was offered but the Spartans did send a ship of fifty men to keep an eye on what was happening and warn Cyrus not to molest any of the Greek cities.  Cyrus saw them and asked “Who these Spartans were, and what were their number, that they dared to send him such a notice?  …If I live, the Spartans shall have troubles enough of their own to talk of, without concerning themselves about the Ionians.”  In hindsight it was clear that Cyrus had enough problems without trying to conquer the Massagatae.  He had his hands full just keeping his provinces in Asia Minor under control.  Cyrus had conquered Lydia but as soon as he left, they revolted.  He asked his political aide Croesus (the former king of Lydia) “Where will this end, Croesus, thinkest thou?  It seemeth that these Lydians will not cease to cause trouble both to themselves and others.”  The Ionians and Aeolians, like the Lydians, saw themselves as freedom fighters.  Cyrus saw them as a “cause of trouble both to themselves and others.”  Persia didn’t need Spartans or other Greeks stirring up more rebellion.  By the end of Book 1 Cyrus is dead.  But the Persian empire is still intact.  This is a war just waiting to happen.   


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