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In this talk I present three versions of the death of Cyrus the Great and explain the differences that are found among them. I show that, in the absence of official written records, the life and death of Cyrus became a powerful but undefined and flexible framework for conveying whatever ideological message an author had in mind.
We have no Persian textual sources describing the death of Cyrus, so we must rely solely on our Greek historians. First, Herodotus says that there are many versions of Cyrus' death, but that the most plausible is that he was captured and killed during a frivolous war against the nomadic, savage Massagetae. Second, the Cyrus of Xenophon's Cyropaedia learned from a dream that his time had come. After three days of sickness, he summoned his two sons to his side and divided the kingdom between them. Following a thoroughly Greek meditation on morality and the immortality of the soul, Cyrus died. Finally, in Ctesias' Persika, we see hints of both death on the battlefield and in bed. In one fragment, Cyrus was captured by the Saka, but survived. In a different fragment, Cyrus was wounded while at war with the Derbices, but survived long enough to return to Persia. Again, he divided the empire between his sons before his death.
These three versions are irreconcilable: Cyrus cannot die in bed and in battle. The three versions are all the products of later manipulations of the character of Cyrus. Herodotus, in accordance with his belief in the inevitability of the mighty being brought low, created the story of Cyrus' needless war against the Massagetae and his subsequent ironic death. Xenophon and Ctesias' versions were influenced by the revolt of Cyrus the Younger against his brother King Artaxerxes, 150 years after the death of Cyrus the Great. These two historians were on opposite sides of the Battle of Cunaxa, but their accounts both stress that royal brothers must be loyal to each other in order for the realm to remain strong. For Artaxerxes, nothing could be better than to have Cyrus, the heroic founder of the dynasty, demand that younger sons obey their brothers, and this is likely the story that Ctesias learned at the royal court. Xenophon emphasized the wisdom, skill, and graciousness of Cyrus, and linked these traits to Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon's friend and employer.