Cyrus the Great Became Top Leader Of His Era By Championing Just Rule

Leaders & Success
By Matthew Benjamin

When the conqueror Cyrus the Great rode into Babylon, the city's vanquished erupted in cheers.
Yes, they'd have to bend to his rule. But Cyrus (580-530? B.C.) made sure that wouldn't be difficult. In contrast to other rulers of his day, he was just. In fact, his style of government was a critical factor in his becoming the greatest ruler of his time.

Cyrus' Persian Empire, which extended from India to the Mediterranean Sea, was the most powerful state in the world until its conquest two centuries later by Alexander the Great.

Cyrus was born to nobility in a small highland tribe, the Achaemenians, in central Persia. The tribe paid tribute to several regional kingdoms, including Media to the west and Babylonia to the south.
Cyrus' father was a minor king who was venerated in his own lands but became utterly humble when he visited his more powerful neighbors to take tributes of wild horses.

Once when young Cyrus went on such a trip to Media, he was bewildered by his father's reduction in stature. More disturbing to him, however, was the great cruelty of the Median king, Astyages. According to one account, Cyrus saw Astyages slay his own general's son as punishment for the general's minor misdeed.

That same general later betrayed Astyages, causing the king to lose his authority and possessions.
Such instances taught Cyrus that cruelty and humiliation were not effective. He decided he would govern through conciliation instead.

Cyrus' first military conquest was of Media in 550 B.C. One of his first acts was to do away with the draconian tradition that would have had him raze the city and murder its citizens en masse.

Cyrus appointed a Mede as chief adviser and then ruled the kingdom in a kind of dual monarchy, with both Medes and Persians holding high offices. The satrapy, as this system of government became known, put a native Mede in power as a semiautonomous ruler, or satrap.
Cyrus instituted certain checks, though. For example, several of the satrap's underlings reported directly to Cyrus.

  "Nevertheless, the close relationship between Persians and Medes was never forgotten. Medes were honored equally with Persians; they were employed in high office and were chosen to lead Persian armies," wrote A.T. Olmstead in his "History of the Persian Empire."

From Media, Cyrus went on to conquer the western land of Lydia and several Greek states on the Aegean Sea. He then turned east, taking the ancient kingdom of Drangiana, Arachosia, Margiana and Bactria. He converted most into satrapies and put natives in command.

He also showed great respect for conquered peoples' religious and cultural beliefs. At that time, every tribe or kingdom had its own gods and rites.  While it was customary for conquerors to deface the idols and religious statues of those they defeated, Cyrus forbade that practice. When it did occur, he quickly remedied it.

"Large numbers of foreign captive divinities gave further opportunity for royal benevolence," Olmstead wrote. That earned him the respect and homage of the races over whom he ruled.
Cyrus' biggest conquest was Babylonia, a wildly rich and powerful kingdom in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was, however, in decline. Babylonian king Nabu-naid was unpopular with many segments of his population. He had alienated the high priests and captured and enslaved ten of thousands of Jews.

Cyrus took Babylon, the greatest city of the ancient world, in 539 B.C. He did so to the cheers of its citizens, who welcomed him as ruler because of word of his just treatment. He lived up to that reputation, freeing more than 40,000 enslaved Jews and allowing them to return to Palestine. He is mentioned 22 times in the Bible for these and similar deeds.

Cyrus always took pains to convey that he was not a foreign king and conqueror, but a liberator and, therefore, a legitimate holder of the crown.  For example, after conquering Babylon, he immediately addressed its citizens in their own language and added "King of Babylon" to the top of his long list of titles. It was an unheard of gesture of respect.

"In the eyes of his Babylonian subjects, Cyrus was never an alien king," Olmstead wrote. "The proclamation of Cyrus to the Babylonians, issued in their own language, was a model of persuasive propaganda."
  He also left in place most of the existing government and allowed most midlevel officials to retain their positions.

Cyrus was a great learner. He observed the customs and traditions of the cultures he conquered and made sure the best elements were put to use for all of Persia's benefit.
Cyrus invented, or appropriated and improved upon, the idea of the postal system, according to the Greek historian Xenophon. Figuring out how far a horse could travel in one day, Cyrus built a series of posting stations, each one day's ride apart, across his empire. The system ensured the efficient flow of information between him and his satraps.