Literature Study GuidesHistoriesBook 1 The Rise Of Cyrus The Great Summary

Histories | Study Guide

Herodotus

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Histories | Book 1, The Rise of Cyrus the Great | Summary

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Summary

Having introduced Cyrus as Croesus's conqueror, Herodotus relates Cyrus's rise and that of the Persians. He begins by discussing the Assyrians, who were "masters of upper Asia" for over 500 years. Their rule was overthrown by the Medes, who revolted and won their independence. Herodotus tells the history of the Medes and the construction of their capital, Ecbatana, in what is now western Iran. Astyages, king of the Medes, marries his daughter to a Persian, Cambyses. Cambyses and the Persians are subjects of the Medes at the time. Astyages is plagued with visions that the child of Cambyses will rule Asia. Thus when the child, Cyrus, is born, he orders the child killed. Harpagus, the official who is tasked with the murder, secretly refuses. Instead, he gives the child to a shepherd to raise in secret. Cyrus's talents show through, even at a young age. Among other signs of his greatness, Cyrus plays a game in which the other village children crown him king. Cyrus is soon revealed to be alive, and Harpagus suffers a cruel punishment for his disobedience. His own son is cooked and served to him. Harpagus, desiring revenge, convinces Cyrus to lead the Persians in a revolt. When Cyrus does so, Harpagus, who has been made commander of the army, switches sides and supports Cyrus. Astyages is defeated and the Persians not only win their freedom, but conquer the Medes. Some Persian customs are then discussed, including the Persians' hatred of lying and their fondness for foreign customs and fashions.

Analysis

Herodotus backtracks, having introduced Cyrus as Croesus's conqueror. Herodotus often introduces a person, people, or a place then circles back to contextualize their circumstances, sometimes in exhaustive detail. He believes that to understand Cyrus, his audience must understand the history of Persia, and he lays this out, reaching far back into history to their origins as members of the wider Assyrian Empire (the ancient empire that ruled Iran and Mesopotamia). It is likely he consulted Persian sources for this information. This impression is confirmed by his detailed discussion of Persian customs later in this section.

The story of Cyrus's origins related in this section is heavily mythologized. The narrative includes a number of dramatic tropes that have more to do with myth than reality. Among them are Astyages's (r. 585–50 BCE) dream that the young Cyrus will destroy him; the secret hiding of the future ruler; the future king displaying his qualities; and the unspeakably cruel punishment of the advisor who defied the king.

Herodotus ties Cyrus's rise to his personal qualities and also to the Persian desire for liberty. The desire of free people to rule themselves is a clear theme in Histories. Cyrus has a number of important factors on his side: the Persians, at last united; Harpagus, desirous of revenge and secretly plotting against his ruler; Astyages's wickedness; and the prophecy that Cyrus is destined to rule.

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