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Tomyris, The Ancient Warrior Queen Who Beheaded Cyrus The Great

Tomyris, The Ancient Warrior Queen Who Beheaded Cyrus The Great

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

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

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

The grasslands were home to the Massagetae, a nomadic people known for their horsemanship. In 530 B.C.E., Queen Tomyris ruled over the Massagetae. Known for her fierceness, Tomyris was 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 in the world, and the Persian army could outmatch any rival. In contrast, the kingdom of the Massagetae was much smaller.

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

“They fight both on horseback and on foot,” the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the Massagetae 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, the warrior queen defended her territory.

Before sending his armies north, Cyrus tried a diplomatic solution: he sent ambassadors to Queen Tomyris asking if she would become his wife.

The plan was a ruse 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.

Queen Tomyris Versus Cyrus The Great

With the Persian army at her borders, Queen Tomyris warned Cyrus to retreat or face an attack in three days.

After three days, the Persians tricked the Massagetae, a ruse that led to Cyrus’ downfall. The Persians pretended to retreat, leaving behind a camp stocked with wine. The Massagetae, who were not used to wine and primarily drank milk, found the camp and celebrated by drinking the wine. When they got drunk, the Persians attacked, capturing many soldiers, including Tomyris’ son.

Tomyris’ son, Spargapises, felt shamed by his capture and asked Cyrus for permission to end his own life, which was granted. After Spargapises killed himself, Tomyris blamed Cyrus. She sent a message to Cyrus, vowing to kill him. “You bloodthirsty Cyrus,” she said, “don’t pride yourself on this success. It was the wine that ensnared my child, not a fair fight.”

She demanded, “Return my son to me. If you refuse, I swear by the sun, the lord of the Massagetae, that I will give you your fill of blood.”

Cyrus ignored her threat.

The Queen’s Revenge

Tomyris vowed to avenge her son’s death. When Cyrus ignored her, she raised her army and attacked Persia.

The Massagetae clashed with the Persians in what Herodotus called the fiercest battle between non-Greeks. They fought with lances and daggers, with neither side willing to yield. Cyrus assumed the Massagetae would be easy to defeat due to the larger Persian army and empire. However, Tomyris’ determination and vow to kill Cyrus gave the Massagetae an edge.

During the battle, Cyrus fell. Tomyris then had her soldiers find his body among the fallen Persians. When they brought it to her, she cut off his head and thrust it into a vat of blood. “I have conquered you in battle,” she declared, “and yet I am ruined by you, for you took my son with deceit.”

She shoved Cyrus’ head into the blood and said, “Thus I make good my threat and give you your fill of blood.”

The story of Tomyris lived on long after the Massagetae. Medieval and Renaissance artists depicted her beheading Cyrus and punishing his corpse. Herodotus, writing a century after Cyrus’ death, claimed that the story of Tomyris killing the king had more evidence than other explanations.

What happened to Tomyris after defeating the Persians is not recorded. Medieval writers suggest that the Massagetae evolved into the Huns who later invaded Europe. Although Tomyris vanished from historical records, her reputation for fierceness and brutality has endured for thousands of years.

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