Sunday, August 26, 2012

Influence of Cyrus upon Alexander

by Alexandros Kallistos

Cyrus the Great was much admired by Alexander and this admiration illuminates many of Alexander's actions in the Orient. He was a successsful military leader and a tolerant ruler. A better understanding of Cyrus helps us to understand Alexander.

One of the historical figures most admired by Alexander the Great is also most often overlooked; he is Cyrus the Great. Alexander revered and respected the achievements of Cyrus. He visited his tomb and took stern measures against those who had allowed it to be desecrated.

Even a brief look at the life of Cyrus will at once reveal to you why Alexander so admired Cyrus as their careers display a salient parallel. Both were born princes and became kings in small outland kingdoms and both sought through conquest to enlarge them. Some outstanding differences shall at once occur to anyone who studies this parallel.

To quote Charles Freeman in his book, "The Greek Achievement" - "In scope and extent his achievements ranked far above that of the Macedonian king, Alexander ("the great") who was to demolish the empire in the 320's but fail to provide any stable alternative."

There is ample opportunity for debate in this statement, but there is indeed, some truth in it. Cyrus created the greatest empire the world had ever seen and his successors added to it; this cannot be said of Alexander. There are certainly extenuating circumstances in the short life of Alexander, but the fact remains that he did not create an empire; the great conqueror, conquered.

In past years Alexander has been lauded as an enlightened ruler with a vision of the brotherhood of man, but here too it must be pointed out that he was following the previously written and implemented policies of Cyrus which had been in place for years.

Cyrus must be credited with creating the first human rights document in history. The stone cylinder now in The British Museum clearly states his policy of toleration of individual cultures and religions. He presents himself as a liberator rather than a conqueror and is scrupulous in his public support of all the many religions which he encounters. It was Cyrus The great who freed the Jews from their many years of slavery in Babylon and sent 40,000 of them back to Israel with lavish gifts to enable the building of a great temple to their God.

It can be argued that it is only through this apparent and magnificent benevolence that it was possible to rule so vast and diverse an empire, but whether it was benevolence or pragmatism, it was very much admired throughout the world and emulated, not innovated, by Alexander.

As Westerners we receive our early knowledge of the Persian Empire from the most hostile of sources, the Greeks and therefore, our perception of this culture is based upon highly biased information. Despite their understandably antagonistic disposition towards the Persians, the Greeks were impelled to grant a grudging admiration to the governance of Cyrus. Xenophon's "Cyropaedia" was well known through the world into the Roman Era. Publius Fabius Scipio is said to have had a copy of it with him at all times. It is impossible that Alexander was unfamiliar with this work and it would appear that his attempt at governing his great empire was based upon a foreknowledge of Cyrus through Xenophon and others. Again we see Alexander as not innovating a government based upon a concept of humanitarianism. but rather taking over an established system of governance which had proven to be eminently successful over the years.

An understanding of the life and works of Cyrus the Great at once illuminates many of the acts of Alexander which seem so problematic without this background. In many cases actions which appear so contra to traditional Greek culture are so indeed, as Alexander in the Orient is not emulating the ideas of his Greek teachers; he is following diligently in the footsteps of Cyrus the Great. Once again the pragmatist Alexander has astutely recognized a good thing and commandeered it.

If, through the millennia, Alexander scholars have swallowed whole the concept of his enlightened and anti racist benevolence, the cause is their own racial bias which prevents them from seeing Cyrus as the originator of all the humanitarian ideas accredited to Alexander.

Cyrus was not just a great conqueror, he was a great and innovative ruler. The original and unprecedented governmental structure which he created endured long past his time and past the time of Alexander. It was the genius of Cyrus which created this tolerant style of governance and it was the genius of Alexander which allowed him to transcend the cultural imperatives of his day and accept Persian ideas, something the Greeks never forgave.

The links to the left of this page will provide you with most of the knowledge we have of Cyrus the Great. Until quite recently there has been a scarcity of ancient Persian writings available and few translations published. Our primary sources are spare. We have been fortunate to have found in the ruins of Persopolis a large number of inscribed clay tablets. Originally of unbaked clay they would not have survived but for Alexander's burning of the city founded by Cyrus. The flames baked them hard.
The tomb of Cyrus the Great one of the remains at Pasargadae (present-day Iran), visited by Alexander the Great in 324 BC.


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