Saturday 16 July 2011

Cyrus, Cylinders and Confusion.

A while ago I mentioned that the Hebrew Bible was quite positive about the Persians, as opposed to Greek texts on the subject. Cyrus is seen as something of a liberator. For example, Isaiah 45:1 reads:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped,
To subdue the nations before him and ungird the loins of kings,
To open doors before him that gates may not be closed.

That is fairly unequivocally positive about him, particularly when you consider that he was not a Hebrew in any way, shape of form.

The next bit of positive (chronologically, anyway, the book is actually earlier in the Western Bible) is in Ezra 1:2-4:

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, beside freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.

This is more or less repeated in Ezra 6:2-5, under Darius, when the archives were searched and the decree of Cyrus re-discovered.

Now this is all well and good. The story we have is that the people of Judah were defeated by the Babylonians (II Kings 25) and taken off into exile beyond the Euphrates. The Babylonian empire then fell to Cyrus, who released the captives and sent them home to rebuild their temple. While there are arguments over the authenticity of these reports of the decree, nevertheless the overall impression created by the Biblical writers is positive. Cyrus is a good guy, the Lord anointed who let the people go free.

There is other evidence about Cyrus himself. Herodotus presents him as plucky, honourable and entirely lacking in the vicious traits which other rulers have. Furthermore, in 1879 a cylinder was found which referred to Cyrus (now in the British museum – its loan to Iran has been in the news recently). This cylinder refers, in Old Persian, to Cyrus restoring cults after his conquest of Babylon by the help of the god Marduk.

Now, given that it is known (sort of) that the Persian rulers practiced some sort of ethical monotheism (maybe), that Cyrus restored cults around Babylon after he took the city, and that Cyrus is favourably mentioned in the Bible, together with a decree ordering the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, it doesn’t take a genius to put all these things together and come up with a Cyrus who is an early proponent of human rights and freedom of religion.

There are other reasons for supposing that Cyrus was a great liberator. How else could an empire such as Persia hang together unless the people were inspired by the liberal and benevolent ruler? Communications were so poor, after all, that news of rebellion would take months to arrive at court, and then more months would elapse before anything could be done about it.

It also makes sense for Cyrus to pacify Judah, and restoring the cult at Jerusalem would be one method of doing this. Jerusalem, remember, is actually quite a difficult place to capture, being on a rocky outcrop, and it is in the lands between Mesopotamia and Egypt, much disputed in the ancient world until the Romans came along. If, as seems to be the case, there was an understanding that each people had their own god, then restoring the cult and house of the Lord at Jerusalem would be tantamount to strengthening the defences and currying favour with the local deity.

The fact is, actually, that Hebrew theology was moving beyond this at the time to claims that their God was more than just a local deity. He was, in fact, the high God, God of gods. Quite a lot of second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) has to do with this. However, it is unlikely that Cyrus would be particularly interested or bothered by that.

So, here we have a nice, politically correct story which reflects well on the Persian Empire, and nicely on the accuracy of the Biblical text, it all makes sense and everything comes up roses, as it were.

Given all that, it is a shame I’ve just read something that puts something of a coach and horses through the whole lot. A paper by Amelie Kuhrt (JSOT 25 (1983) 83-97) observes that most of what is going on in the Cyrus cylinder is what good rulers do the garner favour whatever their flavour. Restoring cults, in other words, is what conquerors do. The Assyrians did it, the Babylonians did it and, by gosh, Cyrus was not going to be left out. The fact that, possibly, none of these people actually restored anything is neither here nor there. The closest stylistic parallel to the Cyrus cylinder is, in fact, texts of Assurbanipal relating to his rebuilding of Babylon and restoration of the cult of Marduk. Cyrus acknowledges Assurbanipal as a worthy and respected predecessor on the cylinder itself.

So, Cyrus, it would seem, despite appearances to the contrary, was merely carrying on Assyrian policy. Although both the cylinder and the Biblical texts present him as a saviour and model of benign tolerance, he had no compunction about destroying temples (Herodotus 6.20), nor, in fact did the Achaemenids quail from moving populations into exile, such as the Miletians (Herodotus 6.20 again).

So the assumption that the Persian yoke was better than the Babylonian seems to be based on the experience of the Hebrews in Jerusalem, as documents by Ezra, and a slightly dodgy interpretation of a text which was actually based on an Assyrian model.

Does this make the Persians a particularly evil empire? Not really; they were just doing what came naturally to empires at the time. But perhaps our need to be more even-handed in our view of Persia as filtered by the Greek writers does need to be tempered by the idea that no empire was ever really established by being nice to people across the board.


  1. Slightly disjointed morning thoughts:

    Interesting post.

    While history is written by the winners, latter history often is riddled with the barbs of the losers explaining why the victor's victory wasn't all that, etc.

    There is also far more interest in attempting to debunk First Testament historical accuracy than in attempting to syncretise 'secular' history. Each field or sub-field has very little contact with each other; writers compete first for academic creds, then market gravitas, and finally there are those haters who simply warp the evidence in their chosen direction because the chances of the (book and Blueray purchasing) public finding out for decades is slim.

    Thanks for your posts. They are refreshing to read. :)

  2. I think you are right; history is an argument which, in my view, can cast a lot more heat than light.

    It gets worse as we go back, because there is less and less empirical data allowing more and more imagination to connect the dots, which can lead to some very strange ideas and interpretations.

    Of course, to make a mark, someone has to come up with a radically different theory to get tenure, big sales or publicity for a film. We land up with mountains of theory built on molehills of evidence.

    Glad you like the posts.

  3. The posts are always thought provoking, and I'll admit here that your scruples seem to be more sterling than my own.
    --Your ruminations regarding the ethics of the pastime make me feel...course and mean at times. I hope my professional training hasn't eroded more of my conscience than I thought. eep. :o

    Always good reading here at Polemarch. :D


  4. Well, I don't mean to prick anyone's conscience over ethics, but I do think it is something we usually ignore in the games, and that might be a bad thing. We might need an answer when someone says "Well, why is running a game about a neo-Nazi cell in modern Germany a bad idea?"

    I'm still not actually sure that there are real ethical questions about wargaming; there are a few hints of such, but they tend to be extreme examples which are not necessarily helpful to determining the extent of the problems.

    I am trying to think more widely about the hobby, along the lines of 'what are we doing when we play a wargame?' That turns out not be a an easy question to answer, and is bound up with 'what do wargame rules mean?' among other questions.