The enduring secret to Cyrus the Great’s success

Few ancient monarchs have enjoyed such a consistent positive reputation as Cyrus the Great. Perhaps it’s time to become reacquainted.

The Tomb of Cyrus, Iran. Photograph taken in 1898.
The Tomb of Cyrus, Iran. Photograph taken in 1898. Credit: Penta Springs Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

It is a peculiarity of current scholarship that given the longevity of the Persian imperium (in its various manifestations) – over a thousand years, from the 6th C BC to the 7th C AD – and the impact of Persian ideas of government in the wider Islamic world, that greater attention is not expended on Persian statecraft and idea of leadership. It was not always thus. When British administrators from the East India Company sought to govern the legacies of the Mughal Empire, it was Persian they learnt and Persian ideas of government they absorbed. Earlier Muslim dynasties, not least the Abbasid Caliphate were also enthusiastic students for Persian ideas of kingship, defined as it had been by a moral code and an intimate relationship with religion. They were enabled in their appropriation by the Persian bureaucrats who came to staff their burgeoning bureaucracies.

But perhaps most striking was the admiration of the Greeks: the very people whose confrontation with the Persians has come to define our understanding of the ‘West’ and its tensions with the ‘barbarian’ East. Yet for all the popularity of the Persian Wars as the foundational moment in the narrative of the ascent of the ‘West’, the attitude of the Greeks towards their Persian rivals, was a good deal more respectful than modern perceptions allow. We tend to focus on Alexander the Great as the epitome of leadership and empire building, despite the fact that the empire he ‘built’ was inherited and the man he admired was Cyrus the Great.

Cyrus loomed large in the Greek imagination as someone who had achieved what their own political experience had suggested was impossible. As Xenophon explained in his largely fictive account of the Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia) – though some historians now argue that Xenophon was merely recounting the Persian account of Cyrus (distinct from that provided by Herodotus) which had over time become more mythic and heroic – the Greeks could not but conclude, ‘that man is by nature fitted to govern all creatures, except his fellow man’.

Yet, Xenophon continued, ‘when we came to realise the character of Cyrus the Persian, we were led to a change of mind…Cyrus, we know found the readiest obedience in his subjects, though some of them dwelt at a distance which it would take days and months to traverse, and among them were men who had never set eye on him, and for the matter of that could never hope to do so, and yet they were willing to obey him’.

Just how Cyrus managed to bring together peoples from as far afield as the Oxus to the Aegean and to command their allegiance was an achievement which both awed the Greeks and demanded an explanation. Xenophon’s explanation meanwhile was to prove one of the most influential manuals for government beloved by aspiring statesmen down to the period of the Enlightenment. But it was another book that served to popularise Cyrus in the Western imagination and to hint at the secret of his success.

This was of course the Bible where Cyrus was one of only two leaders to be accorded the title Messiah in the Old Testament (the other being King David), on account of his liberation of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity in 539 BC, one of the central myths of emancipation within the Judeo-Christian world, which retained its potency in our more secular environment on account of its apparent religious tolerance. Historians have since criticised such idealised accounts of Cyrus and the attempts to ascribe liberal motives to his empire building but as Greek writers testify, his dominion clearly represented something different, and this distinction is exemplified in the Biblical account which suggests that Cyrus was not only unusually political in empire building but aspired in some way or form to a moral code and purpose.

We may rightly question what that was but there is little doubt that Cyrus approached his task with a degree of political subtlety which escaped his Babylonian and Assyrian predecessors. A brief look at Assyrian bas reliefs will show scenes of war and bloodshed, extolling the military virtues of the conqueror and serving a terrible warning to those who might oppose him. Go to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Persians, and the reliefs are quite different. There are bas reliefs of Guards, but instead of scenes of war we have scenes of subject peoples lining up to pay tribute, not in bondage, but in apparent harmony. Some are even shown holding hands.

This of course also goes to the heart of what Xenophon seeks to explain: how Cyrus and his immediate successors at least, were able to convince a diverse and dispersed collection of peoples, that the dominion of Persia was not only something desirable, but reflected the right and natural order of things. What we see here, in essence, is the construction of authority as the basis of power, as the basis of a political rather than a military imperium. This is not to say that the Persians did not exercise military force, but it was selective rather than routine and did not serve as a central pillar of their dominion.

Of the three Persian empires (Achaemenid, 559-330 BC, Parthian 240BC – 224AD, and Sasanian 224-642AD) that held sway in the ancient world, the Achaemenid was the most extensive and arguably the least militarised. It could, as Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480BC indicated, mobilise forces on a tremendous scale, but as a rule it did not maintain a large standing army and as Xenophon experienced (and recounted in his Anabasis), it was possible for an armed force of rebels to exit the heart of the empire effectively unopposed.

The Persians justified their dominion on the basis of good governance, law and access to justice, underpinned by a moral purpose. This provided for a harmonious existence as explained and provided for by a Zoroastrian world view. In the Achaemenid period this worldview enjoyed more flexibility and fluidity that it was to have later, but some basic themes already existed. The duality of creation and man’s function, as a key aspect of the Wise Lord’s (Ahura Mazda) good creation to partake in the battle against evil, and the wicked creation of Ahriman. Mankind was an agent in this struggle and the king, the best among men in this struggle and the link between the material and spiritual worlds.

This moral universe was perhaps best encapsulated by a prayer of Darius the Great’s prayer in which he beseeched Ahura Mazda to protect his people from the Lie and keep them in the service of the Truth – this is reflected in Herodotus’ claim that Persian youths were all taught to ride, shoot the bow and tell the truth. The ‘Truth’ represented the good order which was in turn reflected in the king as the chief representative of Ahura Mazda. To rebel against the king therefore was to rebel against the truth and the right order and deserved the swiftest and most violent of punishments. This moral universe was not therefore a matter of debate. It justified and supported the political order and reinforced the authority of the king.

It provided a political clarity that proved attractive in an otherwise chaotic world. The Biblical statement, that ‘the laws of the Medes and the Persians which altereth not’, can be seen as both boast and warning, but it is above all clear and people knew where they stood. The Greeks on the other hand revel in a ‘disorder’ that Herodotus has Cyrus decry as bewildering, ‘I have never yet been afraid of men who have a special meeting place in the centre of their city where they swear this and that and cheat each other’. For the Greeks this Persian order represented bondage. For the Persians it represented common sense as long as governance was good, administered with moderation and above all just.

The centrality of Justice, which also relates to balance and harmony was key to Persian Statecraft and offered them an explanation for failure. As long as the Achaemenids survived there was no need to explain why the good order might fail, but Alexander’s conquest was not simply a military failure but a moral one. Indeed, Persian failure has rarely relied on military explanations alone, preferring to see this as an aspect of deeper moral collapse, or to use a Western expression, decadence.

This leads us to another important aspect of statecraft and leadership that came into focus in the post Achaemenid period and was acutely defined under the Sasanians – the contingency of Divine Grace (Farr-e Izadi). The King represented the great agent of the Divine will on earth and was Ahura Mazda’s chief lieutenant in the struggle against the Lie. All mankind of course had a role to play but the King’s was the most important. If the King himself however strayed off the true path into the Lie, suffered from hubris and failed to dispense Justice, then he too might lose the Divine Grace. Moral turpitude would inevitably lead to decline and fall. Good behaviour would enhance one’s moral capital and reinforce the protective grace. Bad behaviour would see that protection withdrawn. It was incumbent on the monarch therefore to behave well and unlike other theories of Divine Right or indeed straight divinity, there was no such concept of absolute loyalty to the king. Bad, unjust kings, deserved not only to fall but to be opposed and overthrown.

Many of these ideas were refined and redacted during the late Sasanian period most notably during the reign of Khusrau I Anoushiravan (531-79). Khusrau I became emblematic of the just king, such that long after the Achaemenids (and Cyrus) had receded out of the Persian memory, Khusrau I was ascribed every achievement of the ancient period, barring those assigned to mythical times. It was Khusrau’s rule that became emblematic of Just rule during the Caliphate and a manuscript recounted by the British soldier-diplomat Sir John Malcolm in the early 19th C, relates how the Abbasid Caliph Harun al Rashid discovered Khusrau’s tomb where he acquired the secrets of good governance. Naturally the Caliph then decided to destroy the entrance to the tomb so that no others could discover it.

Whatever the veracity of this tale, and there are many reasons to doubt it, it testified to the attractions of Persian ideas of government in the Islamic world, and it is quite clear that Sasanian ideas of statecraft and leadership cast a long shadow. This reflected the moral core in these Persian ideas, and the centrality of religious belief, all of which meant that these ideas would translate and adapt quite easily to the new Islamic rubric. Indeed, a favourite among Muslim rulers were the words ascribed to Ardashir I, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty on the close relationship between religion and kingship:

Know that Kingship and religion are twin brothers; there is no strength for one of them except through its companion, because religion is the foundation of kingship, and kingship the protector of religion. Kingship needs its foundation and religion its protector, as whatever lacks a protector perishes and whatever lacks a foundation is destroyed.

These ideas were burnished and disseminated by the large cohort of Persia bureaucrats who staffed the administration of the Caliphate as well as the successive dynasties. The Sasanian empire had of course been completely absorbed into the new Caliphate, unlike the Byzantine Empire, and as such its administration was effectively swallowed whole. Persian administrators populated the entire establishment from Chief Vizier down to the local bureaucrat, few converted, and many championed the old ways of doing things as recounted by the Arab satirist Al Jahiz in the 850s who noted how the Persian bureaucrat never tired of boasting about the ‘admirable way the country was run under the Sasanians’.

Among the more popular sayings ascribed to the Sasanians was the Circle of Justice which decreed that authority and order depended on money, which required cultivation (trade), which in turn required justice and good governance, which required authority and so on. There were many variations on this theme with some longer and more detailed than others, but all noted the imperative to maintain justice such that in time the primacy of justice over all other attributes became established. One might tolerate a heathen king but never an unjust one.

The most famous of these bureaucrats was Nizam ol Mulk, the chief vizier to the Saljuq Sultan in the 11th C, whose manual of government remains required reading for many in Iran and the wider Muslim world to this day. Nizam ol Mulk drew on a range of sources for his manual, including the history (as he understood it) of pre-Islamic Persia. He was assisted in this task by the fact that a near contemporary of his, the poet Ferdowsi, had compiled the histories of pre-Islamic Persia, in a single epic poem – for the ease of recitation – charting the ascent of man through to the fall of the Sasanians.

This epic, known as the Book of Kings (Shahnameh) was probably the single most important means of transmission of Persian ideas of government and ethics and was wildly popular in the Persianate world and beyond, including notably among both Mongols and Turks. The consequence of this was that Persian ideas of statecraft and leadership were absorbed among both the Mughal and Ottoman administrations (along with the Safavids in Iran itself) where they were inherited by successor states, not least the East India Company and its Indian Civil Service. Meanwhile, the Biblical Cyrus remains popular in Israel and among Christian communities in the United States.

Many of these ideas have naturally been superseded by modern ideas of political thought and governance more suited to the complex dynamics of our own age. Attempts to ascribe modern sensibilities to ancient forebears rarely work despite the best efforts of modern leaders, and certainly few ancient monarchs have enjoyed such a consistent positive reputation as Cyrus the Great, even if his own kinsmen had forgotten about him over time.

Yet for all the simplicity of the ideas they retain a force and value of use to this day: the moral purpose, centrality of authority and necessity of justice. Good governance must enjoin harmony, balance and measure of moderation and will only survive – and indeed thrive – if it is consistent in pursuit of its moral goals. An unjust government cannot survive and will deservedly fall, losing the Divine Grace (and moral purpose) that sustains it. It is not without reason, that Cyrus and the Cyropaedia were popular among renaissance princes and their enlightenment successors. Perhaps it’s time to become reacquainted.


Ali Ansari