December 530 BC: Tomyris, a “Worthy Woman”, Kills Cyrus the Great

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A Brief History

In December 530 BC, a few hundred years after the life and death of the historical inspiration for the legendary Asian Queen Semiramis, another amazing Ancient Asian queen reigned.  This sixth-century woman, Tomyris (whose name means “brave”), led her armies to victory against the forces of the First Persian Empire then ruled by Cyrus the Great.  Despite Cyrus’s previous military successes over the course of decades, Tomyris finally succeeded where others had failed by defeating the Persians and killing Cyrus, although historical accounts about the exact details of Cyrus’s death vary.

Digging Deeper

By 530 B.C., Cyrus the Great had spent nearly thirty years establishing a massive empire.  He conquered in succession such Asian peoples as the Medes, the Lydians, and the Babylonians.  He next set his sights on the lands of the Massagetae, who were then ruled by a woman named Tomyris, a name that has numerous spellings.  Tomyris ruled an area of Central Asia that is now perhaps parts of modern Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Desiring these Central Asian lands in an attempt to bring peace and stability to the northern borders of his empire, Cyrus, whose previous wife and queen had died several years prior, now offered marriage to Tomyris, whose husband had also died some time earlier.  Nevertheless, being suspicious of Cyrus’s intentions, Tomyris rejected his proposal and so he instead prepared to take her kingdom by force.  Tomyris warned Cyrus: “King of Persia, abandon your zeal for this enterprise.  You cannot know if in the end it will come out right for you.  Stop and rule your own people, and put up with the sight of me ruling mine.  But no: you are hardly going to take this advice, since peace is the last thing you desire.  If you really are committed to a trial of strength with the Massagetae, you need not bother with all the hard work of bridging the river; we will pull back three days’ journey away from the river and then you can cross over into our land.  Or if you would rather meet us in your land, you withdraw the same distance.”

Cyrus decided to challenge Tomyris in her land.  To defeat the Massagetae, Cyrus set a trap.  He learned that his enemy were not experienced with the effects of wine and so he left a small force of Persians as bait for the Massagetae to attack.  After slaughtering this Persian bait, the Massagetae discovered a large stock of food and wine at the Persian camp.  The seemingly victorious Massagetae then ate and drank themselves into a point of being relatively incapacitated when Cyrus attacked with a larger Persian force.  The inebriated and surprised Massagetae were defeated with many killed or captured, including Tomyris’s son, Spargapises.

After learning that Cyrus had used trickery to capture her son, Tomyris angrily said, “You bloodthirsty man, Cyrus!  What you have done should give you no cause for celebration.  You used the fruit of the vine–the wine which you swill until it drives you so mad that as it sinks into your bodies foul language rises up to your tongues.  That was the drug, that was the trick you relied on to overcome my son, rather than conquering him by force in battle.  Now I am giving good advice, so listen carefully: give me back my son, and then you can leave this country without paying for the brutality with which you treated a third of the Massagetan army.  But if you do not, I swear by the sun who is the lord of the Massagetae that for all your insatiability I will quench your thirst for blood.”

After Spargapises recovered from his drunkenness and realized what had happened, he begged Cyrus for freedom.  Cyrus obliged, but the humiliated Spargapises quickly committed suicide.  With his suicide died any remaining chance of peace between Cyrus and Tomyris.  In the subsequent hard-fought battle between the forces of Cyrus and those of Tomyris, not only did the warrior woman’s army defeat and manage to kill the great king and wipe out most of the Persians who fought in the battle, she subsequently had his corpse beheaded and then crucified, giving “overkill” a new definition!  She reportedly even thrust his head into a wineskin full of human blood, declaring the following: “Although I have come through the battle alive and victorious, you have destroyed me by capturing my son with a trick.  But I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.”

Ancient historians wrote of her victory over Cyrus, including the renowned historian Herodotus, but as is often the case in these ancient accounts, those accounts were written a century or so after the actual events.  Still, the exploits of Tomyris rank her high in the pantheon of great warrior women, and when 14th Century pundits wrote of the Female Worthies, Tomyris was included by Eustache Deschamps and other writers. The Nine Worthies was a list of great men in groups of 3 categories, Pagans, Jews, and Christians that appeared in the early 14th Century by various authors. Apparently a few decades later it occurred to some poets to make another list of “worthies” that would enumerate nine women of great accomplishment. These lists varied among authors.

Although many modern people in the Western World may not be familiar with Tomyris and her deeds, she does appear in some wonderful works of art (including by the Baroque master, Rubens) and her name is often given to newborn girls in Turkey and Central Asia, while a group of butterflies’ scientific name bears her name as does a minor planet (590 Tomyris).  More significantly to modern gamers, Tomyris appears in the August 6, 2016 release of Firaxis Games’s Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, joining the ranks of other legendary women rulers who have appeared in the series, such as Celtic leader, Boudica!

Question for female colleagues: Why has everyone from Medieval Christian Europeans to modern video game makers continued to consider this Ancient Asian ruler worthy of comparison with other great women leaders in world history?  What makes her story so compelling to so many people of such different backgrounds?

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you consider Tomyris a “worthy” woman?  Should she have accepted Cyrus’s proposal of marriage?  How might history have occurred differently had she done so?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Chrystal, Paul.  Women at War in the Classical World.  Pen & Sword Military, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a painting titled Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris (between circa 1622 and circa 1623) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.  This work is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1925.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.