Legend of Cyrus the Great of Persia’s Childhood: Story of the Founder of the Persian Empire

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Detail of Cyrus Hunting Wild Boar by Claude Audran the Younger, Palace of Versailles

Cyrus the Great was the founder of the most successful Persian Empire. The legend of his birth, however, is fascinating, and sets the stage for his ruling success.

Cyrus the Great of Persia became the first ruler of the Persian Empire, which he created upon taking down the Median Empire, Lydian Empire, and Babylonian Empire. Following is a summary of Cyrus’ early life and rise to command of the most powerful empire in the world at the time, according to Herodotus’ Histories.

Story of Cyrus’ Birth According to Herodotus

Cyrus the Great of Persia was born as the grandson of a Median king, named Astyages, likely around 600 BCE. Upon his birth, the king had a dream which was interpreted to him to mean that his grandson would overthrow him, so he ordered a subordinate, Harpagus, to kill the child. Harpagus was unable to fulfill this onus so he employed another, Mitradates, a shepherd to carry out the king’s request, telling him to leave the infant to die on a hillside.

Cyrus the Great’s Childhood

Mitradates could not kill the child either, and when his wife gave birth to a stillborn child at that same time, the shepherd brought the young Cyrus into their home, and placed their stillborn son on the mountain, where the young Cyrus was to be placed and left to die. King Astyages was satisfied that it was Cyrus who was left to die on the hillside. However, actual grandson of Astyages was indeed alive, according to Herodotus, and he was raised by the herdsman and his wife.

Cyrus the Great and King Astyages

Cyrus exhibited noble behavior even at a very young age, and people took not of the young man, thought to be a herdsman’s son, who behaved like a king. Astyages noticed that he and the boy seemed very similar, and questioned Harpagus, whom the king had ordered at first to kill the boy, asking him to explain what he had done with the baby Cyrus, and Harpagus confessed that he had not killed him, but given him to the shepherd Mitradates, telling the herdsman to leave the baby to die on the mountainside.

Infuriated that Harpagus had disobeyed him, Median King Astyages invited Harpagus to a dinner under friendly guise, and then revealed to Harpagus that what he had eaten was his own son upon the meal’s conclusion. The King had done this to illustrate the consequences of defying him. Cyrus, however, was allowed to live on.

Though there is much speculation that Herodotus’ account is exaggerated or only legendary, the Median King Astyages was indeed overthrown by Cyrus the Great of Persia, who conquered many others, and founded the mighty Persian Empire. His son in law Darius the Great lead the empire in later years, and Darius’ son, Xerxes I went on to engage the Greeks in the Greco-Persian Wars, and was victorious over the Greeks in the legendary battle at Thermopylae, off of which the movie 300 is based.