Young Cyrus

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Ancient Persia

Herodotus - Young Cyrus

Written & read by Bertie.
Proofed by Jana Elizabeth.
Picture by Shutterstock

Hello this is Bertie,

And I’m here with another story from ancient Greek history.

This time I’m going to tell you story of young Cyrus, based on the writings of Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian. You might think that it sounds like a fairytale.

The story begins with Astyages, the king of the Medes, who lived in the part of the world that we now call Persia (Iran). He had a horrid series of dreams. One of them is slightly rude, but I think kids will appreciate the humour. He dreamt that his daughter peed so much that she drowned the entire kingdom in a vast flood, right up to the mountain tops.

He spoke to the Magi, who were his high priests, and supposedly skilled in interpreting dreams and telling the future. They warned him that he was in grave danger, because the dream meant that his daughter would give birth to a son who would overthrow him and take over the kingdom.

The king decided to marry his daughter off to somebody who was not very important, to try and lessen the likelihood that her son could grow up to be powerful. He chose a prince of the Persians, called Cambyses. At the time, the Medes ruled over the Persians and rather looked down on them. After a while , his daughter gave birth to a baby boy, who was, of course, half Persian and half Mede, and the king, again, grew anxious.

He called his most trusted officer, a man called Harpagus, and told him that he must kill the child, adding, “Carry out my orders to the letter, or pay the price.”

Harpagus replied, “Sire, I have never let you down before, and I shall not do so this time.”

King Astyages clapped his hands, and a servant brought over the tiny baby, wrapped in a swaddling cloth, and placed him into the burly arms of Harpagus. Harpagus was left holding the baby, and he sprinkled the tiny chap’s face with his tears.

In short, he could not go through with the crime of killing him. Or at least, he could not carry out the deed himself. Instead, he found a humble herdsman, and ordered him to take the child and leave him on a mountainside for the wild beasts to devour, or else, to pay the price.

This herdsman went to the palace to collect the baby, as ordered. There, he found the place filled with the sound of weeping. The child was wrapped in a richly embroidered cloth, with a solid gold clasp. He realised that he had been ordered to murder a young prince.

Well, the herdsman took the royal child home to his wife. As it happened, she had recently given birth to a baby who had not lived long. The couple decided to make up for this tragedy by bringing up the young prince as their own.

The boy was named Cyrus and he grew up tall and strong. When he was about ten years old, he became leader of his friends. In a game, the local children elected him to be their king. He gave orders and organised them into soldiers and farmers. He appointed officials, messengers, and spies. But one boy, the son of a noble, refused to obey Cyrus, the son of a herdsman. Cyrus ordered his soldiers to grab hold of this disobedient subject and give him a sound thrashing, which they did.

When the father of this young nobleman heard about his treatment, he was indignant. He went to King Astyages and complained that a young peasant had ordered his son to be beaten. Astyages sent a soldier to fetch the impudent Cyrus.

“Did you, a peasant, order this noble young man to be beaten?” he asked.

You might have thought that young Cyrus would have been terrified and might have broken down in tears. But that was not how he behaved - at all. He stood up straight and said, without any trace of fear, “Yes Sir, I did, and I was within my rights, because the other children elected me as their king, and this boy disobeyed my orders.”

When Cyrus spoke so boldly, Astyages was astonished, for he recognised something very familiar in this self assured and courageous young man. What he saw was just a little bit of himself. He realised, in that instant, who the boy was - his grandson, whom he had ordered to be killed.

In a rage, he called the boy’s father, who was actually his stepfather, and asked him about the birth of the child. The humble herdsman tried to say that Cyrus was his own true son, born to his wife, but the king was having none of it, and called for the torturer. Immediately the herdsman changed his story, and explained how he had saved the young prince. Astyages, in his fury, forgot to punish the herdsman and summoned Harpagus, who, seeing the father and the child, realised that the game was up, and also admitted the truth.

Now Astyages grew calm. He saw that Cyrus was a fine young boy, a fitting grandson for a king, and he was actually glad that he had survived. He called his Magi - the priests who could interpret dreams and tell the future - and asked them of their opinion. One of them replied, “Sire, you need not worry any more. The prophecy has been fulfilled in a harmless way. Cyrus has become a king in a child’s game. There is no reason to believe that rise to the throne again. This is what happened sometimes - fortunes become true in small and insignificant ways.”

On hearing this, the king praised Harpagus for saving the child, and told him to send his own son to the palace to be the friend and tutor of young Cyrus. Harpagus went home happy and relieved.

Little did he suspect that he would yet pay a terrible price for his disobedience. For Astyages was a cruel and unforgiving ruler. He had the son of Harpagus killed and he served him up to his father for dinner, not telling him what he was eating. When Harpagus discovered this appalling trick, he swore that one day, when the opportunity arose, no matter how long he had to wait for it, he would take his revenge against King Astyages.

And sure enough, when Cyrus became a young man, Harpagus secretly encouraged him to lead a revolt of the Persians against their masters, Medes. Incredibly, and perhaps, says Herodotus, because the gods had scrambled his brains, Astyages appointed Harpagus as his general. He seemed to have forgotten the terrible trick that he had played on the man. Hapragus led the army of the Medes out to meet the Persians and immediately surrendered to Cyrus.

On hearing the news of the disaster, Astyages called the Magi who had given him such bad predictions and had them punished. Then he made up a new army, but all he had left for soldiers were old men and young boys. He led them out to battle. It was hopeless. He was soon defeated and captured.

But Cyrus showed a characteristic that was very different from other leaders of the time. He did not put the defeated King Astyages to death. Instead he allowed him to live out his life peacefully at court. And as Cyrus grew greater and more powerful, he never lost this attractive trait of showing mercy to his enemies.

I said at the start, that the story of young Cyrus is a little like a fairytale. Perhaps you recalled Snow White, where the wicked Queen orders the huntsman to take out the young princess and kill her, but he cannot carry out the order, and so he lets her go free. Greeks might have thought of the legend of Oedipus. His father heard a prediction that his son would grow up to kill him. As soon as Oedipus was born, he ordered a shepherd to expose the baby on a mountainside, but the shepherd could bring himself to carry out the order, and brought up the child up as his own.

And there is an alternative legend about Cyrus that he was rescued by a family of dogs and brought up as a cub. You might think of the Jungle Book or of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who were raised by wolves. Herodotus explains this story by saying that actually, the wife of the herdsman had the name, ‘bitch’, which means a female dog. Now this It would be an incredibly insulting name in our own language and culture, but in those times, dogs were honoured in Persia, and according to Herodotus, this name o led to the misunderstanding about Cyrus being brought up by dogs.

Anyway, you can see that there were competing stories about the birth of Cyrus.

So why do you think these extraordinary legends grew up about the birth of Cyrus and were so widely believed? Well it seems that the origins of very special people, places, cities, even beliefs, are often surrounded in legend. We almost need to believe that extraordinary things come from extraordinary beginnings. It’s like a sign that the gods have intervened in human life to make special things happen. Cyrus did indeed grow up to be one of the greatest leaders in history. He was a very real person, who took over the empire of the Medes around 550 years before the birth of Christ, but as for the start of his life - well perhaps history has been sprinkled with just a little touch of fairytale dust. But then again there’s always the chance that it might all be true.

And soon I will tell you about how Cyrus carried even more historic and extraordinary deeds that are described not just by Herodotus but in the Bible and in ancient inscriptions - all of which gives us good reason to believe that those stories are actually be true.

For now, from me Bertie, for Storynory.com, goodbye.