Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2020.01.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2020.01.50

M. Rahim Shayegan (ed.), Cyrus the Great. Life and Lore. Ilex Series.   Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2019.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 9780674987388.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stuart McCunn (

[The Table of Contents is given below.]

Cyrus the Great: Life and Lore is an edited volume drawn from a conference held at UCLA in 2013. The aim of the conference was to bring new light to issues surrounding “the historical figure of Cyrus the Great, his world, and later reception in antiquity and beyond.”1 While the volume itself has no divisions above the individual chapters, the structure and presentation clearly reflects this tripartite focus.

The first five chapters, covering the historical figure of Cyrus, are closely interconnected. The Cyrus Cylinder is the most important document for this section, and the book helpfully starts off with a complete translation (“The Text of the Cyrus Cylinder” by Hanspeter Schaudig). Likewise, the second chapter (“Cyrus Rising” by Matt Waters) is an introductory chapter intended to provide a basic level of background knowledge for the following chapters. It is rare that such chapters prove innovative, but rather than providing a narrative of what we do know, Waters provides a summary of all the issues we do not understand. The emphasis is primarily philological. A disturbing number of conclusions about early Persian history depend on the meaning of one or two words. Does dâku mean that Cyrus defeated or annihilated the Babylonian army? Does ṣaḫri mean that Cyrus was young or insignificant? Laying out the source problems in this way provides a useful foundation for assessing the following chapters.

“Cyrus, Anshan, and Assyria” (David Stronach) engages with the difficult question of Cyrus’ identity. Cyrus identified himself as king of Anshan, an old Elamite city, but most of the obvious influences on Cyrus came from Assyrian and other empires. This chapter would have benefitted from stating its conclusions more clearly. If it is accepted that Cyrus’ original title truly was king of Anshan, then why is it significant that this is the title used in the Cyrus Cylinder? It cannot be a Babylonian effort to associate Cyrus with a long-established city-state if the connection predated the conquest of Babylon. The distinction between Cyrus ruling over Anshan (the region) rather than Anshan (the city) seems like it might bridge this gap, but the observation is made and then dropped.

“The Magnanimous Heart of Cyrus” by Hanspeter Schaudig focuses on Cyrus’ self-depiction by treating the Cyrus Cylinder as an apologia and comparing it with previous examples of the genre. This proves to be a fruitful line of enquiry. By emphasizing the cultural preconceptions of the term used for Cyrus and his army, Ummān-Manda, the chapter illuminates the religious framework of the text. Rather than translating Ummān-Manda as just “Persians” we have to recognize that it is a religiously fraught term for eastern barbarians summoned by the gods to punish impious kings. All of this is argued with a host of persuasive examples from Babylonian history, the most useful being a list of the sins of earlier kings from the Esaĝil Chronicle classified according to their conduct, offense, and punishment. Schaudig’s chapter is one of the best in the volume. Pongratz- Leisten’s chapter (“‘Ich bin ein Babylonier’: The Political-Religious Message of the Cyrus Cylinder”) also covers Cyrus’ depiction in the cylinder by analyzing the way it attempts to recruit the defeated Babylonians to Persia’s side.

Chapters six through eight cover various topics connected to the Persian Empire in the time of Cyrus. The first two chapters, “Cyrus and Post-Collapse Yehud” (William Schniedewind) and “Contrasting Portrayals of the Achaemenid Monarchy in Isaiah and Zecharia” (Marvin A. Sweeney), concern themselves with Judah and the end of the Babylonian captivity. Schniedewind provides an analysis of the province of Judah during the Babylonian exile through the lens of Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge, 1988). Tainter identifies three elements in post-collapse societies: decline in population, decline in monumental construction, and political fragmentation, and Schniedewind convincingly locates all three in Judah. This argument runs counter to the conclusion of biblical scholars (most notably Barstad) that the Babylonian captivity is fictitious and the population of Judah, particularly the area held by the tribe of Benjamin, remained largely in place.2 Schniedewind is part of a broader counter-reaction to Barstad, seen most notably in Avraham Faust’s Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period (Atlanta, 2012), and provides a good overview of recent research. Cyrus is naturally no more than tangentially connected to Babylonian Judah, although the chapter concludes with an effort to connect the topic with Cyrus’ ending of the exile, and thus provides an effective starting point for Sweeney’s chapter on Biblical accounts of Cyrus.

“Cyrus and Pasargadae” (Rémy Boucharlat) is in many ways the odd chapter out and suffers greatly from limitations of space: it could benefit from being expanded into monograph length study. As an archaeological survey of the site of Pasargadae it provides more questions than answers. Why was Pasargadae unwalled? What was the model for Cyrus’ city? Was there an urban population? The chapter does an excellent job of revealing just how much work remains to be done on Pasargadae.

The final topics concern Cyrus’ reception. The first chapter, “Cyrus the Great and Ancient Propaganda” (Daniel Beckman), is probably the strongest. It is concerned with the analysis of propaganda in the ancient sense, which he defines as “a conscious attempt by a social group to impose or encourage an attitude by exploiting communication media.” The three vehicles of propaganda discussed are the Cyrus Cylinder, Herodotus, and Xenophon/Ctesias. Rather than assessing the reliability of each source, Beckman seeks a consistent methodology for identifying their purpose. He identifies three key aspectsof a communication that need to be identified: the sender, message, and recipient. Once these are known it becomes possible to assess the source’s reliability and the nature of its bias, a fact demonstrated mainly through three case studies. The Cyrus Cylinder is the easiest source to analyze in this way since we know the intended recipients: it was written by someone representing Cyrus and meant for the people of Babylon. As such, it is easy to see that the message of his legitimacy was the intent of this work of propaganda. The Greek authors naturally pose more problems since their audiences were not the intended recipients of the original propaganda and as such the original intent has been obscured. Beckman suggests that Herodotus’ account of Cyrus’ upbringing comes from stories intended to placate the Medes after Cyrus’ conquest. By making clear that Cyrus was the enemy of Astyages only, and not of the Medes, the propagandists emphasize the ties between the two peoples. Xenophon and Ctesias are seen as reflecting the rival propaganda of Cyrus the Younger and Artaxerxes II respectively. Even if we accept that they are not repeating the propaganda uncritically, it seems needlessly simplistic to reduce Xenophon’s great fictional biography to a mere reproduction of royal propaganda. Still, this basic approach seems promising as a way of clarifying the content and intent of propaganda and may prove useful outside this context.

“Cyrus the Great: A Hero’s Tale” (Maria Brosius) compares depictions of Cyrus with depictions of modern heroes (specifically Jason Bourne). This reception study aims to show how modern tales of heroism display the same components as ancient tales, but it is sometimes unclear why specific elements are chosen for comparison. Does it matter, for example, that both men have varying accounts of their death? Whatever the truth of Cyrus’ fate, it cannot reflect authorial intent like the representation of Bourne.

The Romans had nothing to say about Cyrus that they didn’t get from the Greeks, which is the main problem facing “Cyrus the Great and Roman Views of Ancient Iran” (Jason M. Schlude). While the chapter expands the focus from Cyrus to the depiction of Parthians as Neo-Persians the discussion still seems thin. The conclusion that Roman views of the Parthians as successors to a noble empire were incompatible with the view of the Parthians as a degenerate bunch of Eastern despots would benefit from comparison to better-documented Roman views of the Greeks.

The use of Achaemenid lineage as a source for legitimacy in later Near Eastern empires is the topic of “The Shaping of Political Memory” (Marek Jan Olbrycht). While there is nothing astonishingly novel in the identification of later kings’ “blood ties” with their Macedonian and Achaemenid predecessors (and the indifference of the Parthians to such matters), it is useful to have a clear statement of the facts. Touraj Daryaee’s chapter (“On Forgetting Cyrus and Remembering the Achaemenids in Late Antique Iran”) explores the curious replacement of the Achaemenids with the fictional Kayanids in Sassanid legend. Daryaee has made this argument before, but where this chapter differs is his focus on the cause.3 He argues that the reason for the Persian omission of the Achaemenids lies in the late antique view of history as unfolding according to a sacred, religious narrative. This seems unquestionably an aspect of the change, but cannot provide the whole explanation. What made the Achaemenids unsuitable for a religious narrative?

“Traces of Poetic Traditions about Cyrus the Great and his Dynasty in the Šāhnāme of Ferdowsi and the Cyrus Cylinder” by Olga M. Davidson attempts to connect the story of Key Khosrow and his destruction of a fortress occupied by demons from the Šāhnāme (c. AD 1000) with Achaemenid epic. Though the parallels are questionable, they are more plausible than some efforts to find a historical basis for the myths in this poem.

The Achaemenid Persians often slip through the historical cracks since they lie at the intersection of four separate disciplines: Ancient History, Biblical Studies, Iranian Studies, and Archaeology. To be thorough, any conference on the topic needs to draw on experts in all four fields. This multidisciplinary approach is one of the monograph’s greatest strengths. Few researchers opening this book will come away without having learned of some evidence and debates with which they were unfamiliar. While the book contains much detail of use to someone interested in Cyrus’ life, it would not serve as the best introduction to the topic. For that it would be better to turn to Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander (Winona Lake, IN, 2002) or the Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 2 (Ilya Gershevitch, ed., Cambridge, 1985).

Table of Contents

Introduction, by M. Rahim Shayegan
The Text of the Cyrus Cylinder, by Hanspeter Schaudig
Cyrus Rising: Reflections on Word Choice, Ancient and Modern, by Matt Waters
Cyrus, Anshan, and Assyria, by David Stronach
The Magnanimous Heart of Cyrus: The Cyrus Cylinder and its Literary Models, by Hanspeter Schaudig
“Ich bin ein Babylonier”: The Political-Religious Message of the Cyrus Cylinder, by Beate Pongratz-Leisten
Cyrus and Post-Collapse Yehud, by William Schniedewind
Contrasting Portrayals of the Achaemenid Monarchy in Isaiah and Zechariah, by Marvin A. Sweeney
Cyrus and Pasargadae: Forging an Empire – Fashioning “Paradise”, by Rémy Boucharlat
Cyrus the Great and Ancient Propaganda, by Daniel Beckman
Cyrus the Great: A Hero’s Tale, by Maria Brosius
Cyrus the Great and Roman Views of Ancient Iran, by Jason M. Schlude
The Shaping of Political Memory: Cyrus and the Achaemenids in the Royal Ideologies of the Seleucid and Parthian Periods, by Marek Jan Olbrycht
On Forgetting Cyrus and Remembering the Achaemenids in Late Antique Iran, by Touraj Daryaee
Traces of Poetic Traditions about Cyrus the Great and his Dynasty in the Šāhnāme of Ferdowsi and the Cyrus Cylinder, by Olga M. Davidson


1.   Brochure.
2.   Barstad, Hans, 1996. The Myth of the Empty Land. Oslo.
3.   c.f. Daryaee, Touraj, 1995. “National History or Keyanid History?: The Nature of Sasanid Zoroastrian Historiography.” Iranian Studies 28, No. 3/4: 129-141.

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