The World's First Online Collaborative Commentary to an Ancient Text

Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Persian Oral History: Part Two

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Cyrus’ Campaign to Armenia

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Given the nature of our information about Cyrus, great consideration is due to those events about which Herodotus, Ctesias, and Xenophon all agree. Xenophon’s account (2.4.18ff) of the punitive expedition that Cyrus led against the Armenians on behalf of the Medes thus deserves special attention.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 There is a consensus among the classical authors that Cyrus had some connection to the Medes and that he spent much time in Media before his fallout with Astyages. Ctesias and Dinon make Cyrus a high-ranking officer in the Median court, whereas Herodotus, Xenophon, and the historians who followed them maintain that Cyrus’ Cyrus Interrogates the Armenian Kingmother was Mandane, the daughter of Astyages, the last king of the Medes. According to Herodotus, Astyages had no male descendants aside from Cyrus, thus making the Persian prince the presumptive heir to the Median throne.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Most modern scholars disbelieve the accounts of Cyrus’ Median affiliations, particularly those that make him a Median prince. In their opinion, these accounts reflect attempts by Cyrus’ propagandists to legitimize his rule over the Medes by presenting him as a member of the native royal family. One cannot doubt that these accounts provide a convenient justification for Cyrus’ seizure of power. However, convenient circumstances often underlie actual developments, and one must avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater in this instance.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It is accordingly significant that Darius I’s Bisutun Inscription (§§ 24, 33) seems to corroborate Herodotus’ statement that Astyages had no male issue.[1] Furthermore, Babylonian inscriptions confirm Herodotus’ account that the Median nobility mutinied against Astyages in favor of Cyrus in 550 bce. Their treachery is all the more remarkable given the dogged resistance that the Median aristocracy offered Darius I, a full-blooded Persian, when he claimed the throne in 522–521 bce. Cyrus, thus, probably did have strong ties to the Medes. As such, there is no intrinsic reason to doubt that he spent his early years at the Median capital of Ecbatana, where he could have cultivated relationships that later facilitated his victory over Astyages. Whether Cyrus was summoned to Ecbatana pursuant to the time-honored custom requiring vassal kings to send their sons as royal hostages to the court of their overlord, or whether he was, in fact, Astyages’ grandson, as Herodotus and Xenophon maintain, is for our immediate purposes moot.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Having established Cyrus’ Median ties, the Cyropaedia relates that the Persian prince undertook an expedition against the intransigent Armenians on behalf of the Medes. During the same campaign, Cyrus reportedly waged war against the Chaldaeans. The latter bore no relation to the Chaldeans of southern Mesopotamia but were descendants of the Urartians (the Chaldaean ethnonym derives from the name of Haldi, the chief god of the Urartian pantheon). This fixes the direction of Cyrus’ campaign in the mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Most modern historians tend to ignore the Cyropaedia’s account of an early military operation in this region as entirely fictitious, and many of the details that Xenophon provides are clearly fanciful. But this does not mean that the episode is not founded upon a kernel of truth. What is often overlooked is that both Herodotus and Ctesias allude to Cyrus’ early activity in the same region. According to Ctesias (Fragments of the Greek Historians 90 F4, 90 F66)), Astyages dispatched Cyrus to subdue the recalcitrant Kadusians, a confederation of mountain tribes that also lived between the Caspian and Black Seas. Herodotus (1.110) does not explicitly mention a campaign in this vicinity, but he provides that Cyrus spent his early years in the “mountains … to the north of Ecbatana, toward the Black Sea.” These different traditions may each reflect the memory of Cyrus having ventured to this region while in the service of the Medes.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Two other considerations point to the historicity of these traditions. First, Xenophon identifies the Armenian prince whom Cyrus befriended during this expedition as Tigranes. This is a genuine Iranian name, derived from tigra, meaning “arrow.” In the Armenian history attributed to the fifth century ce scholar Moses of Chorene (1.25–1.30), a native prince named Tigranes appears as an important ally of Cyrus before the overthrow of the Median Empire. Because the context in which this reference occurs evinces no debt to the Greek and Roman classics, Moses would seem to have recounted here an authentic historical tradition, apparently known also to Xenophon. Further corroboration may derive from the Bisutun Inscription, which mentions an Armenian stronghold called Tigra. Could this stronghold have gotten its name from a native dynasty of kings, whose dealings with Cyrus were known to Xenophon?

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The Babylonian Traitor Gobryas

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The Cyropaedia’s account of Babylon’s fall in 539 bce is unique among the classical sources for emphasizing the role played by one of Cyrus’ key supporters. Gaubaruva, meaning “Cattle-Baron,” was a popular name among the ancient Iranians that the Greeks transmitted as “Gobryas.” Xenophon introduces a certain Gobryas about halfway through the Cyropaedia (cf. 4.6.1–11, 5.2.1–22). He describes him as a Babylonian nobleman, “well advanced in years.” Gobryas approaches Cyrus during the latter’s war against the Babylonians and Lydians. He declares that he possesses a castle and wide domains and that he was once the most devoted friend of the former Babylonian king.[2] He proceeds to state that his son had been betrothed to the Babylonian king’s daughter but that the marriage never occurred, because the Babylonian king’s son had killed the young man for outshining him at hunting. Gobryas places his province at Cyrus’ disposal, and, in hopes of avenging himself upon his son’s murderer, joins the Persian army. Cyrus immediately includes Gobryas within his circle of trust, and the aggrieved nobleman leads the Persian column that captures Babylon (7.5.24–30).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The details of Xenophon’s tale are typical of oriental legends and feature the common literary motif of the aggrieved nobleman seeking to avenge himself upon his royal oppressor. But the truth behind the story of a Babylonian collaborator is discernible from Mesopotamian records. According to the Babylonian Chronicle, days after Cyrus entered Babylon, “Gubaru [Gobryas], his [Cyrus’] governor, installed sub-governors in Babylonia.” This Gubaru clearly served as Cyrus’ chief administrative officer within the new province. One administrative text mentions Gubaru’s son, Nabugu, whose name supports, at least partially, Xenophon’s claim that Gobryas was of Babylonian descent.[3] In fact, “Gobryas” may have been the Iranian name that the traitor adopted upon switching sides to join Cyrus. As demonstrated by Simo Parpola, the adoption of a foreign pseudonym under such circumstances was commonplace in the ancient Near East. During the Assyrian period, multiple Egyptian aristocrats assumed Mesopotamian names upon receiving governorships from the Assyrian king, and many nobles in Hellenistic Babylonia carried both Greek (or Iranian) and Babylonian names. Gobryas may have observed the same custom.[4] In any event, the defector would naturally have been Cyrus’ key spokesman in Babylonia and the member of the Persian administration most memorable to the native population. His appearance in the Cyropaedia accordingly attests to Xenophon’s access to an authentic Asiatic tradition concerning the defector’s role in the Persian conquest.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 That said, the need exists to clarify a longstanding misunderstanding in the scholarly literature concerning Gobryas. Handicapped for many years by a poor understanding of the Babylonian Chronicle, scholars conflated the aforementioned Gubaru with another individual named in the same text, “Ugbaru, the governor of Gutium,” who led the Persian column that occupied Babylon. To make the identification with Xenophon’s Gobryas work, scholars have postulated the existence of a Babylonian province of Gutium in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, the governor of which province defected to Cyrus some time before 539 bce. However, it is now manifest that Ugbaru and Gubaru were two distinct persons and that Ugbaru perished days after the Persian occupation of Babylon, whereas Gubaru served as the chief administrator of the province for the better part of two decades.[5] Even so, the identification of Gobryas and Ugbaru has persisted, despite the complete lack of evidence concerning the existence of a Babylonian province called Gutium. Indeed, Gutium seems to have been at this time the Babylonian designation for the land of Media, the inhabitants of which the Babylonian scribes called the Umman Manda. It is also instructive to note that Old Persian Gaubaruva was never rendered as “Ugbaru” in Akkadian. Given these considerations, I subscribe to Diakonoff’s identification of Ugbaru with Oebaras, whom Ctesias knew as Cyrus’ chief officer and supporter in Iran.[6]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Cyrus’ Organization and Establishment of the Persian Empire

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 As indicated, the Cyropaedia credits Cyrus with establishing de novo almost every noteworthy institution regarding Achaemenid administrative, military, and court practices. This runs counter to the traditional view that Darius was the great organizer of the Achaemenid Empire. The original bases for this latter view, which existed within scholarly circles long before the commencement of meaningful archaeological work in Iran, are Herodotus’ statements regarding Darius’ introduction of a uniform currency, the daric (4.166, 7.128), and division of the Achaemenid Empire into twenty administrative units, or satrapies, for tax purposes (3.89). Regarding these territorial divisions, Herodotus makes the extreme claim that, before Darius, the Persian kings did not maintain a fixed system of tribute and merely received arbitrary “gifts” from their subjects. Relying upon Herodotus’ testimony and other evidence, some scholars have even inferred that the Achaemenid Empire lacked the attributes of a true state before Darius embarked upon his administrative reforms. But how accurate is this view?

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 One cannot deny that Darius did much to enhance the administrative efficiency of Achaemenid Empire. Michael Jursa’s recent study of Babylonian temple records demonstrates that the Persian administration operated more smoothly under Darius than under Cyrus and Cambyses II.[7] The Elamite tablets from Persepolis further indicate that, toward the end of his reign, Darius embarked upon fiscal reforms, whereby state laborers received their wages in silver rather than in kind. Also relevant is Darius’ development of a powerful and enduring imperial artistic program, best known through the ruins of the palace complex at Persepolis, which he founded. The reliefs at this site bespeak a complicated ceremonial of royalty, such that one might think that Darius also facilitated the institutionalization of court practices.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Despite Darius’ plentiful contributions to developing the character of the Achaemenid state, we would be hasty to deny Cyrus his due credit as an administrator. Both the Babylonian evidence and the Bisutun Inscription prove that the satrapal mode of government preexisted Darius. Even the famous system of checks and balances on the satrap’s authority, which the Cyropaedia (8.6.1) attributes to Cyrus but most scholars regard as a later innovation, seems to have preceded Darius, if we may trust Herodotus’ account (3.128) of the downfall of the Persian satrap Oroetes. Similarly, the elaborate and costly construction projects that Cyrus undertook in the Persian homeland at Pasargadae and Taoce show that the founder of the Achaemenid Empire possessed the resources and ability to organize, pay, and direct the efforts of multiethnic labor teams drawn from the various subject nations.[8] Equally important, the presence of age-old Near Eastern royal symbols and motifs at Pasargadae proves that, like Darius, Cyrus sought to establish a cohesive imperial artistic program focused upon the exaltation of the monarchy. It is true that this program had not yet reached maturity when Pasargadae was built, but that does not detract from its existence. All of this is to say that Darius, in all probability, built upon and honed the administrative apparatus that had existed under Cyrus.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Considered in this light, Xenophon’s claims regarding the various political, military, and court institutions that Cyrus founded are hardly outrageous. I am not suggesting that Xenophon got it right in all instances, but his belief that Cyrus introduced these institutions may have been genuine and, to an extent, well founded. To this end, I would like to draw attention to two points. First, many of the administrative terms employed in the Achaemenid bureaucracy appear to be of Median, rather than Old Persian, origin. The implication is that the Achaemenids continued administrative practices current within the Median Empire. This would likely include, among other things, the organization of the empire into satrapies (Greek satrapes reflects Median *khshathrapava(n), “protector of the realm,” as opposed to Old Persian khshassapava(n)) and the establishment of an intelligence service headed by an official known as the King’s Eye (the official title for which has been reconstructed to be *spasaka, reflecting a Median rather than an Old Persian linguistic form).[9] The Achaemenid king most likely to have presided over this bureaucratic carryover would have been Cyrus, who, as discussed above, probably had strong Median ties and who certainly masterminded the Persian conquest of Media.[10]

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The second point I would like to raise is that, in societies where oral literature predominates, the tendency is to place great emphasis upon the history of distant epoch-defining periods but to forget historical events beyond three or four generations. Such societies often have a “floating gap” in their historical knowledge, as they habitually attribute anything that occurred beyond the recent past to the more remote epoch-defining period for didactic and ideological reasons. The Persians of Xenophon’s day clearly regarded Cyrus’ reign as the beginning of a new epoch in world history. Furthermore, because Cyrus came to power more than a century and a half before Xenophon’s involvement in Persian matters, they would not have been acting out of character – based on what we know about oral literary societies – in crediting Cyrus with establishing the Achaemenid Empire in all respects. Xenophon may have been influenced by such accounts of Achaemenid history related to him by his Persian contacts.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Indeed, such influence could explain, among things, Xenophon’s clearly erroneous statement at the beginning of the eighth book of the Cyropaedia that Cyrus conquered Egypt. Enough learned Greeks were around during the fourth century bce to point out to Xenophon that Cambyses II, and not Cyrus, was the Persian king who subjugated the Land of the Nile. So one should wonder why Xenophon would have included a statement that might so blatantly undermine the credibility of everything else he had to say in his Cyropaedia. The answer may be that Xenophon placed undue reliance upon a Persian source, for whom Cambyses’ reign was historically inconsequential and who, in accordance with standard conventions of oral historiography, attributed the Achaemenid conquest of Egypt to the epoch-making ruler Cyrus.  

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [1] In this inscription, Darius I relates that, whereas his opponents in Babylonia and Persia claimed to be the sons of kings whose reigns had recently ended (i.e., Nabonidus and Cyrus II), those of his enemies with ties to the Medes did not claim descent from Astyages, but rather from the latter’s father Cyaxares.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 [2] In the Cyropaedia, Xenophon follows Greek convention of the time by referring to the Babylonia as Assyria and to the Babylonian people as Assyrians. He also speaks of two rulers of Babylonian, an elderly king who was followed on the throne by his son. Some conflation of historical characters is probable, but the tendency among scholars is to identify the elderly king and successor as Nabuchadrezzar and Nabonidus, respectively, or as Nabonidus and Belshazzar, who served as regent of Mesopotamia and was remembered as a ruler in the Book of Daniel.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 [3] See Dandamaev (1992), 103–104.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [4] See Parpola (2003), 344–345. Also Basello (2006), 28, on a similar practice in Elam.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [5] On Gubaru’s tenure as satrap of Babylonia and Trans-Euphrates, see Fried (2004), 31–32.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [6] Greek Oibaras = Akkadian Ugbaru, Old Persian *Hubara, “Bearer of Good,” equivalent to *Vahubara by analogy to Old Persian *Humanah/*Vahumanah, “Good Mind”; cf. Greek Oibazos = Old Persian *Hubadu-/*Hubazu-, attested in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, and Elamite Ukpish = Old Persian *Hubi-.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [8] See, e.g., Henkelman (2008), 305, 309; Briant (2002), 62–96, and (2013), 6–9.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [9] Harmatta (1971) provides other examples of Median nomenclature in the Achaemenid bureaucratic terms. Note that the Cyropaedia mentions the institution of satrapies (8.6.1ff) and the office of the King’s Eye (8.2.10–12, 8.6.16).

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [10] Cyrus’ Median connections might also validate the Cyropaedia’s assertion that he made the Magi the official priests of his empire (8.1.23) and that he was the first Persian king to preside over the Ten Thousand Immortals (7.5.66–68). As known to Herodotus (1.101) and other classical authors, the Magi were a sacerdotal Median tribe, and according to Heracleides of Cyme (Athenaeus 12.514d), the Median kings had “Immortal” warriors in their army. Another purported innovation of Cyrus that scholars have been perhaps too quick to dismiss concerns his invention of scythed chariots. Because Herodotus does not mention these weapons of war, the tendency is to date their development to Xenophon’s own time. However, evidence exists for the ancient Indians using scythed chariots during the early years of the fifth century bce, ostensibly due to Persian influence; see Gabriel (2002), 213–214.

Source: http://www.cyropaedia.org/2013/12/09/xenophons-cyropaedia-and-persian-oral-history-part-two/