cyrus the great -- 5/24/23

Today's selection -- from Persians by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. Young Prince Cyrus, destined to become one of the great rulers of ancient Persia:
"Prince Cyrus, destined to become Cyrus the Great, the son of Cambyses I of Anshan and Mandane of Media, was born between 600 and 590 BCE. We cannot be certain of the date or even the place of his birth. No historical records exist of his childhood, his youth, or his ascendancy to power, although, to be sure, in the years, decades, and centuries following his death, legends of his nativity and infancy were celebrated in story and song. Classical writers said that every Persian schoolboy was taught Cyrus' birth-story and how he fought against the Medes. But, in terms of hard historical fact, sources for his early life are not forthcoming. What can be said with some authority, however, is that at his birth the infant Cyrus was the heir to the throne of Anshan and to the chiefdom of the Pasargadae, the most powerful of the Persian tribes. Through his mother, he was an heir to the ever-expanding kingdom of Astyages' Medes.

"The young Prince Cyrus was the apple of his mother's eye. It was Mandane who raised him within the tents and wagons assigned to the women and infants of the tribe. The first five years of Cyrus' life were spent at Mandane's side and she cared for each of his needs as, like all of the tribe's women, she spun wool, wove cloth, churned milk, and baked bread (at this early stage in 'Persia's history, queens were not exempt from physical labour, although all that changed with time). Until they turned six years old, Persian boys were raised among the women and girls and they barely saw their fathers or had any other adult male company, so the strong empathy created between mothers and sons became a defining feature of their subse­quent adult lives. In societies which valued gender segregation, sons tended to fill the voids in their mothers' lives created by husbands who were literally or emotionally absent or preoccupied; Persian women trained their sons to replace the older, adored, men and as a consequence they bonded with them very deeply.

"The infant Cyrus had been passed around from woman to woman, from one set of loving arms to another, because each of the tribe's womenfolk took turns looking after the children; they were all 'aunties', regardless of an actual blood connection. He had nursed from any number of them and had shared the breast milk of all of the tribe's nursing mothers -- as was expected. But as Man­dane's eldest son, the first boy to leave her womb, he was special and was considered by everyone in the tribe to embody the honour and future success of his family. One day Cyrus, son of Mandane, would be responsible not just for his mother's welfare, but for that of all the Persians.

"When Cyrus was an infant, Mandane had delighted in singing Median nursery rhymes to him, and it was through his mother that Cyrus quickly grasped the dialect of the Medes and thereafter spoke it throughout his life as easily as he did the Persian tongue. Mandane told him about life in the highlands of Media and cap­tivated him with the legends of the Medes: there was the story of Zāl, the white-haired baby who was abandoned by his father on the slopes of the Elburz Mountains and was nursed to adulthood by a great magical bird who nested in the snowy peaks of Mount Damavand. There was the tale of Sindokht -- 'the daughter of China' -- whose cleverness, wise counsel, and beauty made her a model of womanhood. And there were the stories of the devils (divs) of Mazandaran, that no-go area somewhere to the north -- or was it the east? -- which was filled with wickedness and lawlessness.
Mandane instilled in Cyrus a profound sense of belonging to the mountainous world of the north and she stressed to him, whenever the occasion arose, that, through her own blood, he was an heir to Astyages' throne (regardless of how many other children or grandchildren might have been born to the Median king's wives and concubines). She made a point too of reminding Cyrus that while his own father, Cambyses, also had a profusion of wives and children, it was he and only he who was heir to both the Persians and the Medes. This incontrovertible fact alone put Cyrus in a very privileged position.
Finally, the day came for Cyrus to be taken away from the women's tents. There was no choice, there was no discussion, and perhaps he cried as, clinging on to Mandane's veil with his soft little hands, he was passed into the arms of his father. His hair was cropped and he was thrust into the brooding society of the menfolk, and into the rough-and-tumble world of horses, hunting, and warfare, and of finding faults, punishments, and the flexing of muscles. It must have come as a shock to Cyrus, as to every Persian boy, to experience so swift and resolute a departure from all the comforts he had known. But Cambyses I doted on his son too and he carefully nurtured him through the years of Cyrus' childhood and adolescence as the boy mastered the skills needed for leader­ship. Like all Persian boys who emerged from the woman's world, Cyrus was taught to ride a horse, shoot a bow, and to tell the truth -- and in each of these valuable life principles Cambyses proved himself to be a patient but dogmatically focused master. Although Cambyses himself never gained a reputation for military excellence, later stories spoke of his determination to imbue his son with the qualities of good warrior kingship: 'Cyrus was preeminent among all men of his time in bravery and sagacity and other virtues; for his father had raised him after the manner of kings and had made him zealous to emulate the highest achievements,' said Diodorus Siculus, the Greek historian. Cambyses was proud to see how quickly Cyrus learned his lessons and honed the crafts of kingship.

"Quiet, unassuming, Cambyses died in 559 BCE and Cyrus grieved for him deeply. The funerary rituals for the revered monarch were carried out with full pomp and, as the news of his passing spread among the tribes, the whole of Persia went into mourning."



Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


Persians: The Age of the Great Kings


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


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