Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Motives (Cyrus the Neglected part 3)

Despite the similarities between Cyrus and Alexander--both men conquered vast swaths of land, subjugated people from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and tolerated their foreign religions--it's clear that the two men were motivated by radically different things.

As we saw last time, the Macedonian Kid was driven by his lust for immortality. He considered himself Achilles reborn and his conquest of the known world was a means of achieving everlasting fame, nothing more, nothing less.

Alexander's motives manifest themselves in the way he managed (or more accurately, didn't manage) his newly acquired territories. He was the ultimate hands-off manager: he'd roll in, make friends with sympathetic nobles, pay lip service to local gods, appoint someone to run things in his absence, then move on.

Alexander had little concern for the people he conquered and as a result, he failed to capture their long-term loyalty. It's not that he treated his new subjects poorly, just that he was largely indifferent to their plight.

The complete opposite can be said of Cyrus.

Before we can truly appreciate Cyrus' attitude toward the foreigners he conquered, we must first take into account the standard practices of his times.

Let's start with the Assyrians. A militaristic people known for their depravity and sadism, they were fond of flaying their captives or staking them, taking care to avoid vital organs so that the victim would writhe and suffer for hours and sometimes days on end. When the Assyrians came knocking at the city gates, you had two options: surrender or endure unspeakable horrors.

Just enjoying the show...
The Assyrians were so nasty, it took a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, Cimmerians, Scythians, and Persians to take them down, and in the subsequent vacuum of power there rose two new dominant states: the Neo-Babylonian and Median empires.

The Medes were a tribal people whose king had always been more of a "first among equals" than a supreme ruler. In 553BCE however, some fifty years after the fall of Assyria, the Median king Astyages tried to overstep his authority and started punishing the tribal chieftains who were supposed to be his equals. The chieftains would have none of it. Harpagus, the king's own steward, enlisted the help of a young Cyrus who succeeded in overthrowing Astyages.

Despite their defeat at the hands of Cyrus, the Medes retained a prominent position in his growing empire. In battle they stood shoulder to shoulder with the Persians, fighting as equals, and many Medes were appointed to positions of authority, power, and prestige. Cyrus even made the Median city of Ecbatana his summer capital.

The time-share in sunny Ecbatana
See how radically Cyrus differed from the Assyrians before him? Rather than enslave and torture those he conquered, he made them a detrimental part of his empire, not as a gesture but with genuine intent. He entrusted his onetime foes with important tasks and respected their cultural and religious practices. He treated them as if they were his own people.

When the city of Sardis, a former ally of the deposed king Astyages and Cyrus' next acquisition, revolted against Persia, he sent Mazares, a Mede, to pacify the city. And when, after having conquered much of Asia Minor, Mazares died, he sent Harpagus, another Mede, to finish the job. These people were not merely pawns to Cyrus: he knew them intimately and made good use of their skills.

***

Of the two states to inherit the remnants of Assyria, the Neo-Babylonian empire was by far the strongest, surpassing the Medes in territory and military might.

The Babylonians weren't very nice to the people they conquered. They didn't employ torture and fear to ensure obedience though: they preferred to exile entire populations, sending them to foreign lands in hopes that it would break their will to fight.

There is one group of people in particular who were repeatedly subjected to this form of punishment. Brought en masse to Babylon in a series of forced migrations, they had once been the most prominent citizens and brightest youths of their land; now, thanks to their stubborn refusal to accept Babylonian rule, they were subject to king Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar, or Chad as I like to call him, was the oldest son of the man who liberated Babylon from the Assyrians. Like his father, he was an eager campaigner, taking over a sizable piece of real estate during his lifetime.
 

He was a great builder, restoring Babylon, which had been devastated during the reign of the Assyrians, to its former glory and building the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world.

I can see Diddy liking this place.
Chad demanded tribute from his neighboring states, a standard practice that is the ancient equivalent of a gangster selling you protection from bad people when the only bad people you need protecting from is the gangster himself.

The people of Judah, a small kingdom in the Levant, wouldn't stand for it. They refused to pay tribute and were besieged by the Babylonians for their insubordination. This culminated in 597BCE when Chad sent the Jewish king Jehoiakim to sleep with the fishes. 10 years later, Chad leveled Jerusalem due to further rebellion.

Old Chad was smart. He didn't torture and massacre the exiled Jews where they stood; instead, he sent their youngest, brightest, and most prominent citizens to work in Babylon. 47 years later, when Cyrus took Babylon without a fight, the Jews were still there.

Here we have our first chance to compare Cyrus directly to one of his peers. The Jews, after all, were the prisoners of the Babylonians, who were now themselves subject to Cyrus' rule. How did the Jews view Cyrus, the conqueror of their conquerors?

Join me next time for the conclusion of Cyrus' story and why anyone should care about his legacy.

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