Friday, May 23, 2014

Cyrus the Neglected

History is littered with people who, through acts of heroism, ingenious discoveries, the perpetration of unthinkable atrocities, and sometimes a combination of all three, altered the world with their actions and ideas.

Many of these characters outlive by way of fame (of infamy) their frail shells. They enchant  future generations with the stories of their lives and lodge themselves in the public imagination.

You know who these historical celebrities are.

Genghis Khan, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Adolph Hitler, Confucius, Julius Cesar, Hannibal, Muhammad, and the apostle Paul are just a few that come to mind and I'm sure that you could add a few names to this list without thinking too hard. 

These select individuals--the heroes, saviors, and wise ones of ages past--fulfill our innate need to believe in something greater than ourselves, to venerate someone or something we see as special or divine. In their boldness, insight, sacrifice, love, empathy, passion, or perseverance, historical celebrities appear to us as more than human--literally greater than ourselves--and incite our awe.

They take on a special quality in our minds. We mythologize them.

For a modern look at this phenomenon, think of movie stars, athletes, and musicians. They appear to us as minor divinities. We obsess and gossip over their private lives and read magazines about them fueled by rumors and filled with trivialities.

In this regard we are no different from the Greeks and Romans who spent countless centuries speculating about the Olympians and telling stories about Zeus' scandalous affairs with mortal women.

Historical celebrities like the ones I listed above don't come often but when they do, they typically leave a lasting impression. We study their words and strive to emulate their character. We make movies about them and cast our own minor celebrities to play their parts. We read about them in science textbooks and employ their discoveries to make even greater scientific leaps.

It is unfortunate that some of these celebrities, either by the willful omission of subsequent powers or some cultural barrier, fade from the public imagination. Once powerful, influential, and wise, these figures are relegated to b-list status. Their accomplishments are trivialized or simply ignored and their fascinating life-stories are forgotten.

They become the ghosts of history, lurking not far from sight but rarely given their proper dues.

Cyrus the Elder is such a ghost.

Cyrus' Standard

Never has one so deserving of accolades been so neglected by the mainstream. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn't heard of Alexander the Great or Julius Cesar, and yet Cyrus' overall accomplishments overshadow those of both men.

Cyrus was a conqueror, organizer, and human rights activist. Beloved by his subjects--both those of his native Persia and of the ones he subsequently conquered--he was also idolized by Alexander the Great and Thomas Jefferson, just to name a few.

More importantly, Cyrus helped fuel a movement that continues to build steam today, some 2,500 years later, despite major opposition from various world powers.

But before I get into that, allow me first to properly introduce the man in question.

Cyrus, or Kurus as he would've been known in his native tongue, was born in 576BCE or somewhere thereabouts. His name either meant "Like the Sun" or "Humiliator of the enemy." Scholars aren't totally sure which one but both names are apt, as we shall soon see.

Little is known for certain about Cyrus' early life. The ancient historian Herodotus writes about Cyrus' birth and upbringing but the tale is so outlandish and archetypical, it is almost certainly myth.

Still, Herodotus' story merits a quick look because it ties into Cyrus' first conquest as king of Persia. According to the historian, Cyrus was actually the Median king Astyages' grand-son. Soon after he was born, the Astyages' magi predicted that Cyrus would one day usurp his grandfather. The king pulled a page out of the evil queen's book in Snow White and commanded his steward Harpagus to take Cyrus out and kill him.

Harpagus was way too squeamish to murder a little baby in cold blood so he tried to get a rugged bandit named Mitradates to do the deed. I can imagine what went through the bandit's mind: "Hey dude, just because I rob people doesn't mean I'm willing to kill a little kid! What do you take me for? An Assyrian?"

Another Saturday night in Assyria

Spoiler alert: Mitradates took little Cyrus into the mountains where he and his wife, deprived of their own son who died at birth, raised him.

Now as I said, this tale is almost assuredly false. Back in the day, it was standard practice to mythologize kings and other influential figures, embellishing their deeds or fabricating new ones entirely out of thin air. But in this rendition of Cyrus' early life we find an important connection to reality.

When Cyrus became king of Persia (modern-day Iran) in 559BCE, his kingdom was a vassal state of the Median Empire, the dominant force of the Near East at the time. Astiages, the same man who tried to have baby Cyrus killed in Herodotus' legend, wasn't terribly popular. His general, the same Harpagus allegedly tasked with slaying Cyrus, convinced the Persian king to rouse his subjects and lead them against Astyages.

The Medes had the Near East on lock.

Four years later, Cyrus marched into Ectabana, the Median capital, effectively conquering the once-powerful empire and laying the foundation for his own empire, one that would overshadow anything that came before it in size, scope, complexity, and organization.

Cyrus the Great had arrived on the big stage.

Join me next week as we further explore the life and deeds of this fascinating historical figure.