Cyrus, Alexander, and the King of the World

Ongoing research on Ctesias in conjunction with another project, a synthesis of Achaemenid history, reinforces the pervasive impact Near Eastern traditions had on both Greek encounters with the Near East and on Greek historiography. Ctesias’ version of Cyrus the Great’s origins and rise to power is so fundamentally different than that found in Herodotus – and different from that intimated by Cyrus himself in his genealogy – as to be irreconcilable. What was his source? I return to that later.

Alexander’s reception into Babylon in 331 BC, as relayed by Arrian 3.16.3-5 and Quintus Curtius 5.1.17-23, has been interpreted as more support for the (stereotype of the) despised rule of the Persians. While there was of course periodic resistance or resentment, on the whole that stereotype has little staying-power. The seminal treatment of Kuhrt 1990 (and see Briant 2002, 862-64 et al.) views Arrian’s and Quintus Curtius’s treatments – emphasizing voluntary surrender of the city amidst ritualistic acts symbolizing an orderly transfer – through Near Eastern traditions in the longue durée. Earlier examples include the Babylonian conquests of the Assyrian king Sargon (in 710) and the Persian king Cyrus (in 539).

The case of Cyrus is of main focus here, relayed by a Babylonian chronicle. After a hard-fought battle and decisive victory at Opis against the forces of the Babylonian king Nabonidus, Cyrus was received into the city of Babylon without a fight. This was a carefully choreographed entrance that belied the violence that preceded it. The main thrust of another text – the so-called “Verse Account of Nabonidus,” attributable to the agency of Cyrus – is the vilification of Cyrus’ predecessor Nabonidus, with the underlying but obvious theme that Cyrus will restore all to its rightful place, including and especially the cultic observances, a similar theme found in the Cyrus Cylinder. These are Babylonian texts meant for a Babylonian audience. Cyrus carefully arranged not only his entry into Babylon but also the associated message.

Arrian’s and Quintus Curtius’s accounts are quite different in origin and in form; they are neither indigenous nor contemporary (indeed, they are much later), and they are also narrative histories. But beneath their stylized approach, they reveal the same pattern. Alexander’s victory at Gaugamela, and Darius III’s withdrawal to Ecbatana, left the way to Babylon open and undefended. The Persian commander Mazaeus delivered the city to Alexander. A fragmentary Babylonian astronomical diary also relates this event (Sachs and Hunger 1988, text no. 330). The surrender of the city only occurred after negotiations between Alexander and the Babylonians assured a peaceful transition and, by extension, a traditional reception for Alexander. (The surrender of the city was not a given, for which see the discussions referenced above.) This reception culminated in Alexander’s due respect to the Babylonian god Marduk (Bel) and his temple, the restorations of which, also part of the traditional pattern, would come later.

To add to the parallels with Cyrus’ conquest, in the astronomical diary Alexander is called “King of the World” (Akkadian šar kiššati), the same title that is used to describe Cyrus in the “Verse Account of Nabonidus” (Schaudig 2001, 569). The title šar kiššati has a long history of use by Assyrian and Babylonian kings. The application of this traditional title to the Persian Cyrus was not accidental. Similarly in the case of Alexander, whereby its use not only implies continuity of tradition but also supplies an additional link to the Persian conqueror, especially in light of the striking similarities between Cyrus’ and Alexander’s receptions into Babylon.

Works Cited

Briant, P. 2002, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, translated by P. Daniels, Winona Lake, IN

Kuhrt, A. 1990, “Alexander and Babylon,” Achaemenid History V: The Roots of the European Tradition, ed. H Sancisi-Weerdenburg and J. Drijvers, Leiden, pp. 121-30

Sachs, A. and H. Hunger 1988, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia I: Diaries from 652 B.C. to 262 B.C., Vienna

Schaudig, H. 2001, Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros’ de Großen, AOAT 256, Münster