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Queen Tomyris Versus Cyrus The GreatTomyris, The Ancient Warrior Queen Who Defeated Cyrus The Great

Queen Tomyris Versus Cyrus The GreatTomyris, The Ancient Warrior Queen Who Defeated Cyrus The Great

When the Persians invaded her lands around 530 B.C.E., Queen Tomyris vowed to give their king his fill of blood. And she kept that promise.

It was a historic clash between rulers. In 530 B.C.E., a warrior queen faced the king of Persia in battle. Only one emerged victorious.

By all accounts, the Persians should have won. Their king, Cyrus the Great, led an army of 200,000 soldiers to conquer the steppe lands north of their empire.

These grasslands were home to the Massagetae, a nomadic people known for their horsemanship. Queen Tomyris ruled the Massagetae. She was a fierce warrior queen, deeply protective of her family and her people.

The Warrior Queen Of The Massagetae

The Persian Empire stretched from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Indus River in the east. It was one of the mightiest empires, with an army that could outmatch any rival. In contrast, the Massagetae’s kingdom was much smaller.

In the sixth century B.C.E., Queen Tomyris ruled the lands north of Persia and east of the Caspian Sea. The Massagetae were a nomadic people living in the steppes of Central Asia. Their women rode horses, fought in battles, and ruled.

“They fight both on horseback and on foot,” wrote the Greek historian Herodotus in his Histories. “They use bows and lances, but their favorite weapon is the battle-axe.”

Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia, expanded his empire by conquering the Babylonians. Then he turned his attention north to the Massagetae.

There was just one problem: Queen Tomyris refused to submit to the Persians.

Tomyris ruled the Massagetae after her husband’s death. Together with her son, Spargapises, she defended her territory.

Before sending his army north, Cyrus tried diplomacy: he sent ambassadors to Queen Tomyris asking her to marry him.

This was a trick to seize control. Tomyris saw through it — as Herodotus says, she knew “it was her kingdom, and not herself, that he courted.” She rejected the proposal and told Cyrus to focus on ruling his own lands rather than trying to take hers.

Undeterred, Cyrus sent his army north to invade the Massagetae lands.

With the Persian army on her borders, Queen Tomyris warned Cyrus: if he did not retreat, the Massagetae would attack in three days.

When the three days passed, the Persians tricked the Massagetae, leading to Cyrus’ downfall. The Persians camped on one side of the river dividing Persia from Massagetae territory and pretended to retreat. When the Massagetae advanced, they found the Persians’ abandoned camp filled with wine.

The nomadic horsemen were not accustomed to wine as they mostly drank milk, as Herodotus explained. Celebrating their success, the Massagetae drank the wine. Drunk, they were then attacked by the Persians, who captured most of their soldiers, including Tomyris’ son.

Ashamed by his capture, Spargapises asked Cyrus for permission to end his own life. Cyrus agreed, and Tomyris’ son killed himself.

In her book “Judith,” Deborah Levine Gera describes how Tomyris blamed Cyrus for her son’s death. She sent a message to the king vowing to kill him: “You bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not yourself on this poor success. It was the grape juice, which makes you mad when you drink it, that ensnared my child. Restore my son to me. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetae, that I will give you your fill of blood.”

Cyrus ignored her threat.

The Queen’s Revenge

Tomyris demanded vengeance for her son’s death. When Cyrus ignored her, she raised her army and attacked Persia.

The Massagetae fought the Persians in what Herodotus called the fiercest battle between non-Greeks. They battled in close combat with lances and daggers, with neither side yielding.

Cyrus underestimated the Massagetae, thinking they would be easy to defeat because of the larger Persian army and empire. But Tomyris’ determination to slay Cyrus gave her people an edge.

During the battle, Cyrus fell. Queen Tomyris then had her army find the king’s body among the fallen Persians. When they brought it to her, she cut off his head and thrust it into a vat filled with human blood.

“I have conquered you in battle,” Tomyris declared, “and now I fulfill my threat and give you your fill of blood.”

The story of Tomyris lived on long after the Massagetae era. Medieval and Renaissance artists depicted her beheading Cyrus. But did Tomyris truly kill Cyrus the Great in such a brutal manner? Few records survive from Cyrus’ final years. Herodotus, writing a century after Cyrus’ death, claimed there was more evidence supporting Tomyris’ story than any other explanation.

What happened to Tomyris after she defeated the Persians is not recorded in history. Medieval writers suggest the Massagetae evolved into the Huns, who invaded Europe on horseback. Despite vanishing from historical records, Tomyris’ reputation for fierceness has lasted for thousands of years.

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