Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus II of Persia, was one of the greatest conquerors of the ancient world. He founded the first Persian Empire in 559 BC, and conquered the Median Empire, the Lydian Empire, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire during his 30 year reign.
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus recorded that Cyrus the Great’s conquests in Central Asia subjegated “every nation without exception” (Histories).
He’s also the only non-Jewish person the Bible refers to as a “messiah.”
Cyrus the Great wasn’t just a brilliant military strategist. He’s remembered as a surprisingly benevolent ruler. Instead of forcing his subjects to assimilate to his culture (like most other ancient rulers), he allowed each conquered nation to retain its own traditions, religions, and rights. The most widely-known example of his benevolence is recorded in the Bible. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem—along with the sacred relics the Babylonians had stolen—and he encouraged them to rebuild the temple King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed.
Cyrus the Great’s accomplishments are well-documented in ancient sources (though the timelines get a bit muddy here and there), but there’s much about him that we still don’t know. His birth is steeped in legend. His death is shrouded by uncertainty. In this guide, we’ll explore what we know and don’t know about this important ancient emperor—both from history and from the Bible.
Let’s start with the facts.
Facts about Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great lived from around 600 BC to 530 BC. Several ancient sources shed light on his life and deeds, including:
- The Nabonidus Chronicle. A Babylonian cuneiform text believed to have been written in the late sixth or early fifth century BC.
- The Cyrus Cylinder. A Persian cuneiform text from the sixth century BC.
- Histories by Herodotus. Herodotus was a Greek historian in the fifth century BC, and he’s regarded as the “father of history.”
- The Bible. Cyrus the Great is mentioned 23 times in the Bible, and the books of Isaiah, Ezra, 2 Chronicles, and Daniel all refer to him.
- The Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus. Josephus was a Jewish-Roman historian in the first century AD who had access to documents which have not survived.
Here’s what we know about him.
He founded the first Persian Empire
The Archimedean dynasty—the line of kings Cyrus comes from—began with Achaemenes in the late eighth or early seventh century BC. But until Cyrus the Great, the Archimedean kings were vassals of larger empires, most notably the Medes.
Cyrus the Great’s father was the Persian King Cambyses I. His mother was Princess Mandane, the daughter of King Astyages—the last king of the Median Empire and overlord of Anshan. So when Cyrus the Great succeeded his father’s throne in 559 BC, he was still subservient to his grandfather.
Cyrus didn’t remain loyal to the Medes for long, though. He revolted six years later in 553 BC, and King Astyages sent General Harpagus to defeat him. However, according to the historian Herodotus, Harpagus had actually instigated Cyrus’ revolt, and he defected with some of the Median army to help Cyrus take the throne.
So while Cyrus’ reign as King of Anshan began in 559 BC, his rebellion against his grandfather, known as the Persian Revolt, was what led to his founding of the Archimedean Empire—the first Persian Empire.
He was a great conqueror
When Cyrus (with Harpagus’ help) captured the Median city of Ecbatana in 550 BC, he allowed his grandfather, King Astyages, to serve as a member of his court, and married his daughter (and therefore his aunt) Amytis. He also allowed his grandfather’s vassals (including his uncle Arsames) to continue presiding over their respective lands—they were basically just demoted from kings to governors. These actions helped establish a peaceful transfer of powers, but as the new ruler of what was formerly the Median Empire, Cyrus inherited his grandfather’s enemies, too.
Cyrus’ conquest of the Median Empire triggered his wars with the Lydian and Neo-Babylonian Empires as well, and over the next two decades, he steamrolled his way into ruling the largest empire the world had seen so far. (His successors continued expanding the Archimedean Empire until about 500 BC.)
Cyrus had many titles
As the king of so many lands, Cyrus the Great earned himself numerous titles, including:
- King of Anshan
- King of Media
- King of Babylon
- King of Sumer and Akkad
- King of Lydia
- King of Persia
- King of Kings
- The Great King
- King of the Four Corners of the World
In the cuneiform artifact known as the Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus the Great also refers to himself with a different title, paying homage to his father: “son of Cambyses, great king, king of Anshan.”
He was a benevolent ruler
Cyrus the Great used powerful armies and military prowess to expand his kingdom. But he held it together with mercy and an unusual degree of compassion for the people he ruled. He spared his enemies and often gave them prominent positions—starting with his grandfather, Astyages. He incorporated nations and their cultures into his empire rather than imposing Persian traditions, customs, and religions on his subjects.
That’s not to say he didn’t do his share of killing, though. Herodotus claims that when Cyrus conquered the Lydian Empire, he made King Croessus an advisor, as he did with his grandfather—but some translations of the Nabonidus Chronicle (the cuneiform document regarding King Nabonidus of the Neo-Babylonian Empire) suggest Croessus was killed.
Herodotus was a diligent historian. But he also loved a good story (more on that later).
In any case, Cyrus had a reputation for improving the lives of his subjects, which according to the Bible, included the Israelites in exile.
He allowed exiles to return to Israel
In the early sixth century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar (ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire) besieged Jerusalem twice. The first time, he took Israel’s king captive along with 10,000 Israelites and all the gold vessels in Solomon’s Temple, and he installed a new king of his choice (2 Kings 24:13–17). The second time, he destroyed the temple and took all but the poorest Israelites captive (2 Kings 25:8217).
This began the period of ancient Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile.
And it ended shortly after Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, about 70 years later. Isaiah, Ezra, and 2 Chronicles describe how Cyrus returned the Jews to Jerusalem. No other ancient sources from this time directly claim Cyrus freed the Jews. But the Cyrus Cylinder does claim he returned religious relics and allowed captured people to go back to their homelands:
“I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there, to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.”
Since the Jewish people had been taken captive by the Neo-Babylonian Empire, it’s pretty safe to assume they were included in this group.
He returned stolen Jewish artifacts
Cyrus didn’t just free the Jewish exiles. He sent them home with the things that were taken from them. The accounts in 2 Kings 24:13 and 2 Kings 25:13–17 give a detailed description of what King Nebuchadnezzar stole from Solomon’s Temple:
- Gold articles
- Bronze pillars decorated with bronze pomegranates
- Movable stands
- The bronze sea (a large basin)
- Wick trimmers
- Bronze articles
- Sprinkling bowls
Altogether, there was more bronze than they could weigh (2 Kings 25:16). In Ezra 1, the Bible records a list of what Cyrus returned with the exiles:
“Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.
This was the inventory:
gold dishes 30
silver dishes 1,000
silver pans 29
gold bowls 30
matching silver bowls 410
other articles 1,000
In all, there were 5,400 articles of gold and of silver. Sheshbazzar brought all these along with the exiles when they came up from Babylon to Jerusalem.” —Ezra 1:7–11
And while, again, the Cyrus Cylinder doesn’t explicitly mention the Jews, the Bible’s claims do fit with how Cyrus treated other people who had been taken against their will, and whose religious articles had been stolen by their conquerors.
The Bible calls him the Lord’s “anointed”
Cyrus the Great is the only non-Jewish person the Bible refers to with messianic language. In Isaiah 45, the prophet says, “this is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus” (Isaiah 45:1).
The Jewish people would have been shocked to hear this terminology describing a non-Jewish person. In the past, God had used miracles to free them from captivity in Egypt, raised up a series of judges to save them from their enemies, and gave them king after king to lead them—why would he anoint a non-Jewish person to save them?
Isaiah 45 is partially about Cyrus the Great, but it’s also a prophecy about how God would save his chosen people however he pleased. And it pleased him to use Cyrus:
“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness:
I will make all his ways straight.
He will rebuild my city
and set my exiles free,
but not for a price or reward,
says the Lord Almighty.” —Isaiah 45:13
Did King Cyrus create the first bill of rights?
The Cyrus Cylinder describes how upon conquering Babylon, Cyrus liberated the people who had been taken captive, returned their stolen property, and improved the lives of Babylonians. It also lays out how Cyrus’ empire operated. According to the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, it represents “the first attempt we know about running a society, a state with different nationalities and faiths—a new kind of statecraft.”
Iran has called the Cyrus Cylinder “the first human rights charter in history” (Art and Cultural Heritage: Law, Policy, and Practice, Neil MacGregor) and embraced it as an important cultural symbol. The United Nations isn’t so bold as to call it the first, but they did refer to it as an “ancient declaration of human rights” in 1971, and they still call it “one of the earliest expressions of human rights”.
However, historians have been pretty critical of the idea that this inscription is akin to a bill of rights or human rights charter.
While the government laid out in the Cyrus Cylinder was unique for its time, proclamations like this were fairly commonplace: a king would conquer a new land, denounce the previous king, and announce reforms and make promises to his new subjects. The Cyrus Cylinder goes so far as to claim Marduk, Babylon’s primary god, chose Cyrus to free his people (sound familiar?) and punish Nabonidus for dishonoring him.
In recent decades, many historians have just come out and said it: the Cyrus Cylinder is ancient propaganda.
Still, this important inscription gives a glimpse of the kind of ruler Cyrus wanted to be seen as. And the description of how he treated conquered people parallels his treatment of the Jews in the Bible (even if they aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Cyrus Cylinder).
Cyrus the Great in the Bible
Cyrus the Great is mentioned 23 times in the Bible. But there are really only two passages where he plays a major role: a prophecy in Isaiah 45 and a proclamation in Ezra 1. The rest of the verses that refer to him either echo Ezra 1 or simply mention him in passing. He’s not a major Old Testament character, and if you aren’t familiar with those passages, it’d be easy to miss his scriptural significance.
Cyrus is only a blip in the biblical narrative, but he is significant. In each of these main passages, he plays an integral role in Jewish history, and elsewhere, his presence serves as a valuable anchor for scholars as they try to understand the timeline of events in Scripture.
The prophecy about Cyrus the Great in Isaiah 45
The Book of Isaiah contains a prophecy about Cyrus’ rise to power and the role he would play in God’s plan for the Israelites. The first seven verses of Isaiah 45 are addressed directly to Cyrus. Here, God reveals his plan to make Cyrus a mighty conqueror—even though Cyrus doesn’t even know who he is—and then God introduces himself to Cyrus as the creator and ruler of everything.
“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.” —Isaiah 45:1–4
The rest of the prophecy anticipates the Israelites’ confusion. God assures them that he can use whomever he pleases, and that they have no right to question his plans or his authority.
Cyrus’ proclamation in Ezra 1
The Book of Ezra opens with a proclamation King Cyrus makes upon taking the throne in Babylon—a proclamation which triggers the return of the Jewish exiles, the restoration of stolen Jewish artifacts, and the rebuilding of the temple.
“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem’” —Ezra 1:2–4
Interestingly, this proclamation echoes Cyrus’ words to the Babylonians who worshiped Marduk in the Cyrus Cylinder. Cyrus likely adopted the religious language of his subjects in order to affirm his authority, but he also clearly respected the diverse religions of the people he conquered.
Myths about Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great’s rise to power is fascinating by itself, and it leaves us with some big questions—namely, why did his grandfather’s trusted general, Harpagus, incite Cyrus to revolt, then betray his king and change sides?
And while we know a little about Cyrus’ lineage, we know almost nothing of his childhood.
Herodotus, “The Father of History,” is often regarded as the first person to arrange various historical accounts into a cohesive narrative. But he also had a reputation for using (and perhaps even inventing) legends to fill in the gaps.
And there were some gaps here.
In Histories, Herodotus tells us that Astyages (Cyrus’ grandfather) had two dreams about his daughter, Mandane (Cyrus’ mother). And, well, I’ll let Herodotus tell you about them.
“He dreamed that she urinated so much that she filled his city and flooded all of Asia. He communicated this vision to those of the Magi who interpreted dreams, and when he heard what they told him he was terrified;” —Herodotus, Histories, Book I
Herodotus doesn’t tell us what the Magi said, but presumably it had to do with a grandchild overthrowing Astyages’ kingdom—because what did Astyages do next? He had his daughter marry someone he considered a wimp: Cambyses I—who as you’ll remember, is the father of a certain man who became one of the greatest conquerors in the world.
Herodotus goes on:
“But during the first year that Mandane was married to Cambyses, Astyages saw a second vision. He dreamed that a vine grew out of the genitals of this daughter, and that the vine covered the whole of Asia.”
Oh, did I mention his daughter Mandane was pregnant with Cyrus at this time? Well, she was. And his advisers said this dream meant his grandson would revolt and overthrow him. So like any doting soon-to-be-grandfather would, Astyages called his daughter to the Median capital and commanded his most faithful servant, Harpagus, to kill the child.
Harpagus promised to do so, but was conflicted. He didn’t want royal blood on his hands, so he passed the buck to one of Astyages’ cowherds and asked to see the body to confirm that the deed was done.
Well, the cowherd’s wife happened to be pregnant and had a miscarriage, so they decided to show Harpagus the stillborn baby and raise Cyrus as their own.
Cyrus got older and had a Moses moment—he tried to boss around a nobleman’s son, then had the other boy beaten for not obeying him. Astyages had Cyrus and his adoptive father come to court, and they spilled the beans. Astyages sent Cyrus back to live with Mandane and Cambyses I, and then plotted revenge on Harpagus—who again, had no idea Cyrus was alive this whole time.
Heads up: things are about to get graphic.
Since Harpagus failed to kill Astyages’ grandchild, Astyages chops Harpagus’ son to pieces, then cooks him and feeds him to Harpagus at a banquet. At the end of the banquet, the servants bring Harpagus his son’s head, feet, and hands on platters to show him what he ate.
So yeah, I’d say that gives Harpagus a pretty good reason for betraying Astyages when Cyrus grew up.
But while this story makes Harpagus’ motivation disturbingly clear, it’s also made up.
And one would hope that, were it true, Cyrus wouldn’t have asked his grandfather to stay on as an adviser after conquering him. That’s not a guy you want whispering ideas in your ear.
How did Cyrus the Great die?
Unfortunately, pinning down exactly when and how Cyrus the Great died is a lot like trying to figure out how the apostles died. There are too many conflicting accounts to say for sure what happened—but we have a pretty good idea. He probably died in combat in 530 BC.
At the end of Histories, Book I, Herodotus confidently gives us a detailed account of how it happened before admitting: “Many stories are told of Cyrus’ death; this, that I have told, is the most credible.” Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, Herodotus wasn’t always a great judge of credibility.
If Herodotus is to be trusted, though, Cyrus the Great died fighting the Massagetae. He sets up the battle by remarking, “This fight I judge to have been the fiercest ever fought by men that were not Greek.”
After firing all of their arrows, the Persians and Massagetae rush to fight in close range, and that’s when it happens:
“The greater part of the Persian army was destroyed there on the spot, and Cyrus himself fell there, after having reigned for one year short of thirty years. Tomyris filled a skin with human blood, and searched among the Persian dead for Cyrus’ body; and when she found it, she pushed his head into the skin, and insulted the dead man in these words: ‘Though I am alive and have defeated you in battle, you have destroyed me, taking my son by guile; but just as I threatened, I give you your fill of blood.’
Oh, um, graphic warning. Missed that one.
Another historian from the fifth century BC says Cyrus died fighting the Derbices—a small tribal group.
Xenophon, another historian from the fifth century BC says Cyrus died of natural causes, safe at home. Which is probably a more appropriate (and believable, though less heroic) death for a 70-year-old man.
There are other accounts as well from people who lived much later. One says Cyrus married Queen Tomyris (the bag of blood lady from Herodotus’ story) and then she killed him. Another one says he was fighting . . . some other ancient group of people.
Conqueror, ruler, messianic figure
Cyrus the Great ruled the largest empire the world had yet seen. And after his death, it continued to grow larger through his descendants. The Archimedean Empire was bigger than Pharaoh’s kingdom. It was bigger than Nebuchadnezzar’s. But unlike so many of the ancient empires we see in the Bible, God didn’t use Cyrus the Great to discipline the Israelites, but rather, to save them from oppression.
Cyrus’ may not have created the first bill of rights, but the way he governed diverse people groups and tolerated the various cultures of his subjects was virtually unheard of, and has served as a model for many governing bodies since.
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