37 7. Cyrus and Median Origins As the first Persian king, Cyrus is the model by which all later kings measure themselves. He sets a precedent for rapid and substantial territorial expansion, and so we see his successors attempt to live up to his legacy and make their own mark by conquering new lands. In order to determine Persian identity in Herodotus’ narrative, it is instinctual to look to their first king. Cyrus’ origin story in the Histories show that he is born to be royalty. In Book One, we see how Cyrus as a child stands out from his peers by his kingly demeanor; he delegates tasks to his playmates and even doles out corporal punishment (1.114). However, the core of Persian identity, their imperialism, lies earlier than Cyrus’ ascension. It is not only his innate royal nature that brings about the nascent Persian identity, but rather the actions of his Median predecessors that set forth the norms of the Persian royalty. Herodotus posits that the source of the ubiquitous Persian imperialism in the Histories lay in Median practice, which is then passed on to Persians once they are conquered. Herodotus’ narrative on Cyrus’ origins begins farther back with the story of Deioces, a man chosen by the Medes to govern them. His achievements in establishing a strong monarchy are later seen incorporated into Persian imperial culture; the establishment of a grand royal space (the palace at Ecbatana) and the difficult privilege of seeing the king are mirrored in Darius’ construction of Persepolis and his closing off his residence to Intaphrenes and his old comrades (1.98-9; 3.118). The Median association with empire is strong enough that Tomyris, queen of the Massagetae addresses Cyrus as “king of the Medes” (1.206). When Greeks submit to the Persians demands for earth and water, they are said to “medize” (mêdizein).
38 Rosaria Munson notes that Cyrus’ father, a man of non-royal blood, is determined by Astyages to be a man “of peaceful behavior,” as denoted by the term êsuchiê (1.107). She points out that “as a public term, êsuchiê denotes a lack of the kind of political and military activism that is typical of individuals or states with ambition to rule like the Median kings.” 24 By virtue of the “miraculous nature of his birth” (1.204) and his kingliness as a child, Cyrus is apparently destined to be a king, but imperialism must still be learned from his Median predecessors. It is not until he is convinced to do so by the Median Harpagus that Cyrus ponders taking the crown for himself (1.125). It is difficult to determine whether historically the Persians were truly inspired by a Median model in the establishment of their centralized kingdom. While Herodotus draws this connection, the idea of a tightly controlled Median state is not supported by archaeology or by modern study. 25 However, their imperialist connotation cannot be denied, as such links as the term “medize” establish a clear idea in the Greek mind of aggressive Median character. 26 The many invasions undertaken by the Persians are thus seen by those that are attacked as an extension of Median foreign policy. However, Herodotus presents the motif of Persian expansion not just as a continuance of Median practice, but also that of the Lydians. The first full-scale invasion undertaken in the Histories is done by Croesus, king of Lydia against the Persians. In Book One, Croesus sets out to check Persia’s growing power under Cyrus (1.46). Crossing the Halys River, he attacks the Persians, against the advice of an advisor named Sandanis. His unnecessary attack on a people from which they have no riches to gain ends in the destruction of his empire. A pattern of failed invasions of uncivilized lands is thus established 24 Munson, R., “Who are Herodotus’ Persians?”, 460. 25 See above n. 21. 26 Graf, David., “Medism: The Origin and Significance of the Term”, 18.