Cyrus II the Great (c.575-530 BC) was the founder of the Persian Empire, and one of the most successful conquerors of the Ancient World, creating an empire that lasted for over two hundred years.
Cyrus was born into a world of four great powers. The Median Empire was vast, extending from the middle of Anatolia in the west to the borders of India in the east. To its west was the wealthy kingdom of Lydia. To the south was the ancient Babylonian Empire, based in Mesopotamia but including Assyria and Syria and stretching across the edges of Arabia towards Egypt. Finally the Egypt of the Pharaohs still existed, but it was now largely limited to the Nile Valley. The four major powers had been at peace with each other since the end of a war between the Medes and Lydia in 585 BC.
Cyrus inherited a Persian kingdom that was part of a wider Median Empire. His own inheritance was Persis, on the north coast of the Persian Gulf. This area had been ruled by his family for at least a century. The dynasty was said to have been founded by Achaemenes, possibly a legendary figure, who if he had existed probably lived in the early 7th century BC and ruled Persis under Median overlordship. He was succeeded by his son Teispes, who is said to have ruled during the 'Scythian interregnum', a period that saw the Median Empire overrun by Scythians from the east. Teispes took advantage of this to expand his own kingdom. On his death the kingdom was split, with eastern Persis going to Ariaramnes and western Persis to Cyrus I. Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses I, who survived the restoration of Median control by King Cyaxares (625-585 BC).
Cyrus was the son of Cambyses I and Mandana, daughter of the Median king Astyages, son of Cyaxares. Inevitably a great deal of legend surrounded his childhood. According to the most famous story Astyages decided to marry his daughter to Cambysis after a dream. The couple soon produced a son, the infant Cyrus. Astyages then had another dream, which suggested that Cyrus would overthrow him. Astyages sent Harpagus, one of his generals, to kill the child. The general refused to carry out the deed, and instead gave the child to a shepherd, with orders to make sure he didn't survive. According to Herodotus Harpagus was motivated by a combination of family loyalty (he was related to Astyages and thus to Cyrus) and an awareness that Astyages was aging, had no sons, and would probably be succeeded by Mandana. The shepherd's wife refused to allow him to kill the child, and they used their own recently stillborn child to trick Harpagus. Cyrus was hidden in the countryside for ten years, but his identify was then discovered. Astyages decided to take his grandson into his court, but punished Harpagus by executing the general's son and presenting his head to the general at a feast. Cyrus was then sent to his father's court in Persis where he was raised as a prince. Similar myths have been told about the founders of many other dynasties, and are normally meant to reflect the greatness of the founder.
One element of the story does appear to have some historical basis - Harpagus was clearly discontent with Astyages' rule, and played a major part in his eventual downfall.
The details of Cyrus's revolt against Median power are unclear. There are two rather different traditions of the war. In the first, reported by Herodotus, Harpagus convinced Cyrus to revolt. Astyages, unaware of his general's plotting, appointed him as commander of his armies. When the two sides clashed most of the Median army deserted to Cyrus. Only two battles were needed to destroy Median power. In the other tradition the war was rather more hard-fought. It ended with a battle at Murghab or Pasargadae, the fourth battle in the war. Cyrus had lost the first three, and had been forced back to the plains of Murghab, where the Persians had left their women and children. At first the battle went badly, and the Persians were forced to retreat, but they were then encouraged by their women, rallied, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the pursuing Medians. In the aftermath of this battle Cyrus founded the city of Pasargadae, naming after one of the tribes of Iran. Babylonia inscriptions support a combination of these stories, in which the revolt began in 553 and ended in 550 when the Median troops rebelled against Astyages. In either case by 550 BC Cyrus had overthrown Astyages, and had taken control of the massive Median Empire, giving birth to the first Persian Empire.
Only time would tell if Cyrus would be able to hold onto his conquests and create a long-lasting empire. The western half of his new Empire was long but narrow, running west to the River Halys and the border with Lydia, while to the south-west was Babylonia, now firmly established on the Tigris and Euphrates after the destruction of the last Assyrian Empire in 609 BC. If the two powers had united against him them Cyrus might have been in some trouble. Croesus and Nabonidus of Babylon may have formed an alliance, but if so it was ineffective.
Over the next few years Cyrus demonstrated his genius. His first target was Croesus of Lydia, who may have taken advantage of the fall of the Medes to expand east across the Halys. Cyrus began by ensuring that Nabonidus of Babylonia would stay neutral. He then invaded Cilicia, at the south-eastern corner of Asia Minor, cutting the land route between Babylonia and Lydia. The Persian-Lydian War finally broke out in 547. The two sides met at Pteria, east of the Halys, and fought an inconclusive battle. Croesus assumed that the campaigning was over for the year, and disbanded most of his army. The remaining troops returned to his capital of Sardis for the winter. To his surprise Cyrus followed them and laid siege to the city. Sardis fell in 546, and Croesus was captured. He was probably killed soon afterwards, although some stories have Cyrus keep him as an advisor. After the fall of Sardis, Cyrus sent some of his generals (including Harpagus) to conquer the Greek cities of Asia Minor, previously ruled by Lydia, while he appears to have returned to Persia, possibly to campaign in the eastern part of his empire. Cyrus's generals also had to put down a revolt in Lydia, which included a famous siege of Xanthus. Cyrus set up a system where each of the Greek cities was under the authority of the nearest Persian satrap, while the city was ruled by a local tyrant.
Cyrus's next target was Babylonia, then ruled by the unpopular Nabonidus. Having failed to support Lydia, Nabonidus found himself without allies. He was also unpopular at home, both with the Babylonian priesthood and with the exiled Jews, then captive in Babylon. Nabonidus was unable to put up much effective resistance and the city of Babylon fell in 539 BC. According to later sources Cyrus diverted the flow of the Euphrates to gain entry to the city. After he entered the city Cyrus seized the hands of the statue of the god Marduk, claiming that he came to rule as a Babylonian rather than as a conqueror. He also allowed the Jews to go home, ending the Babylonian Exile. In one easy step Cyrus had extended his empire to include all of Mesopotamia and Syria. It now stretched west from the coast of Asia Minor, east almost to the borders of India and south-west to the borders of Egypt. Amongst his conquests was the ancient city of Ur, where Cyrus became the last king known to have supported work on the temples (the city was abandoned soon afterwards, probably after the Euphrates shifted its course away from the city. He appointed his son Cambyses as vice-king of Babylon, with his base at Sippar.
Cyrus remained on the throne for another ten years, but little is known about this period. He must have put some effort into organising his new empire, for it survived his death relatively easily, something not achieved by later conquerors such as Alexander the Great or Tamerlane. Cyrus himself died in 529 BC while campaigning in far north-eastern corner of his Empire, somewhere in the area of the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers. Herodotus recorded a series of campaigns against the nomadic Massagetai. In the first Cyrus defeated them and captured the son of the ruling queen. The son committed suicide and his mother vowed to seek revenge. She later defeated and killed Cyrus in battle. There was a city of Cyropolis or Cyreschata in Sogdiana, which would suggest that Cyrus had reached that far east and been successful enough to establish a city that survived beyond his reign.
Cyrus was later remembered as the father of his people, and later became know as an example of the perfect prince. He was just as great a conqueror as Alexander the Great, but survived for long enough to make sure that his empire didn’t collapse soon after his death.
Cyrus was succeeded by his son Cambyses II (r.529-522). Cambyses was the son of Cyrus and Cassandane, another member of the Achaemenid family. Cambyses's short reign did include the conquest of Egypt, thus bringing the last of the four great powers of the Ancient Near East into the new Persian Empire.