The Real Cyrus

The Real Cyrus March 10, 2012

I’m forever finding out that the things I once believed were not really cynical enough. Thom Stark corrected many of my romantic beliefs about the Bible and its authors. But it turns out I still had one remaining.

Somewhere I picked up the idea that Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Persia who allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, was a great example of enlightened rule. In a recent TED talk, Neil Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, spoke about the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cylinder, a triumphal declaration of Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon, explains how Cyrus repatriated displaced people, rebuilt temples to the Babylonian god Marduk, and in general acting like an enlightened and merciful conqueror. MacGregor spoke about it in glowing terms:

The Cylinder bears one of the “great declarations of a human aspiration,” comparable to the American Constitution and Magna Carta. Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire he established (ca. 550-330 B.C.E.) bequeathed to history “a dream of the Middle East as a unit, and a unit where people of different faiths could live together.”

Over at HuffPo, Jacob L. Wright … complicates this story:

As most historians who specialize in early Persian history would readily point out, the chief objective of Cyrus and his successors was no different than that of other imperial powers: to maintain control of their vast empire and to exploit the wealth of its subjects. […]

Influenced in great measure by the biblical image of Jews returning to their homeland under Persian hegemony, many assume that the rule of Persian kings was much more tolerant than that of the Assyrians. But recent research has demonstrated the significant lines of continuity between these two empires. The Persians engaged in the same mass deportations and harsh punishment of rebels for which the Assyrians are famous. The extent to which the Persian court involved itself in the affairs of its subject peoples was determined by concerns for the king’s prosperity. In order to ensure that wealth flowed from the provinces into the imperial coffers, rulers sometimes practiced the politics of benefaction, granting favors to representative groups in return for loyalty and compliance.

Hat tip to Robert Cargill, who sums it up well:

The fact that Persia preferred to rule its provinces, including עבר-נהרה (Avar-Nahara), the Persian province Yehud (known previously as Judah) through temples and religious leaders (and governors, rather than risking the rebellion of foreign kings), should not disguise the fact that it was just as authoritative as Babylonian and Assyrian empires that preceded it. In fact, Persia went the extra step of promoting a single national tongue – Aramaic – an issue that is just as controversial today in the US as it was then in Persia.

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