Cyrus the Mule or Cyrus the Persian?


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Cyrus the Mule or Cyrus the Persian?
Ctesias of Cnidus enjoyed a negative reputation for much of the 20th century. Jacoby (1922) declared him to be a writer of “scandal history” with little historical value, Momigliano (1969) found Ctesias disappointing, and Sancisi-Weerdenburg (1987) identifies Ctesias as a major culprit in producing the image of the effeminate Persian. Drews (1973) reads Ctesias, the writer of the first Persica since Herodotus, as a failed critic of Herodotus. In recent years, however, many scholars have attempted to redeem Ctesias as a historical source and literary author. Lenfant (2004) and Llewellyn-Jones and Robson (2010) have produced collections of Ctesias’ writings, both with extended introductions. Stronk (2007) argues that Ctesias should not be categorized as an historian but rather as an originator of historical fiction. The writing of history and the writing of historical fiction are often overlapping endeavors. This paper will explore one such area of overlap – Cyrus’ birth story as told by Herodotus and Ctesias. Cyrus’ birth is significant because, as a foundation story, it indicates how the Persians – or the Greeks who write about them – imagine the ethnic and moral origins of Persian society and their influence on the present day.

Herodotus acknowledges that there are many versions of Cyrus’ birth, but he claims that his version is “based upon what the Persians say, those who seek to tell the truth rather than exalt Cyrus’ achievements” (1.95). His version is superficially supported by the Cyrus Cylinder, a Babylonian text usually identified with Cyrus the Great, which names Cyrus as the “son of Cambyses, Great King, King of Anšan … from a family [that has] always [held the] kingship” (PFS *93). Herodotus provides a similar genealogy: Cyrus’ father is a noble Persian, to whom the Median king Astyages has married his daughter because of a dream (1.107). After a second ominous dream, Astyages plans to have him killed. As a result, Cyrus spends his early years raised by a herdsman and his wife before being brought to the attention of his grandfather by a Mede named Artembares and reunited with his parents. Herodotus claims that when his parents heard the story of his upbringing and the name of his foster mother (Cyno in Greek), they started the rumor that Cyrus had been raised by a dog (1.123). Herodotus alludes to another version – the story that Cyrus survived thanks to an actual dog (Justin I.4.10). A third version belongs to Ctesias, transmitted through Nicolaus of Damascus. Ctesias says that Cyrus is the son of a Mardian (a low ranking Persian tribe) bandit and his wife, who raised goats. Cyrus accesses the Median court by presenting himself as a slave to a lamp-bearer named Artembares, who adopted Cyrus and with his death left him a wealthy and influential personage in the Median state. Cyrus used his position to make his father the satrap of Persia. The revolt ensues, in part instigated by a dream Cyrus learns from his mother – the same dream which motivated Astyages to marry his daughter off to a Persian in Herodotus’ account.

The Cyrus Cylinder gives no account of Cyrus’ mother. Herodotus makes her a Median, which complements his narrative of Croesus’ attack on Persia (cf. the “mule” oracle, 1.55). Herodotus’ account also reflects traditional legends of nobility recognized and restored. In Herodotus’ version, Cyrus’ high birth is important, and his ethnic heritage convenient to the narrative. Ctesias, however, with his intimate access to court gossip and oral history, represents Cyrus as a successful social and political climber. This paper will argue that Ctesias’ version provides us with access to the manifold purposes Cyrus serves in the Greek imagination and suggests a potential restructuring of how the Greeks imagine that the Persians define their own ethnicity.

Works Cited

Briant, P. (2002) From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lakes, IN.

Drews, R. (1973) The Greek Accounts of Eastern History. Cambridge, MA.

Jacoby, F. (1922), sv. Ktesias, R.E. XI col. 2032-2037.

Lenfant, D. (2004) Ctesias de Cnide. La Perse, L’Inde, Autre Fragments. Paris.

Llewellyn-Jones, L., Robson, J. (2010) Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient. New


Momigliano, A. (1969) “Tradizione e invenzione in Ctesias.” Quarto contributo alla storia degli

studi classici e del mondo antico. Rome. 181-212.

Munson, R. (2009) “Who are Herodotus’ Persians?” CW 102.4: 457-470.

Pelling, C (1996) “The Urine and the Vine: Astyages’ Dreams at Herodotus 1.107-8.” CQ 46:


Sancisi-Weerdenberg, H. (1987) “Decadence in the Empire of Decadence in the Sources? From

Source to Synthesis: Ctesias,” in H. Sancisi-Weerdenberg (ed.), Achaemenid History, Vol. I. Sources, Structures and Synthesis. Leiden. 33-45.

Stronk, J. (2007) “Ctesias of Cnidus: A Reappraisal.” Mnemosyne 60: 25-58.


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