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20 May 2016updated 03 Aug 2021 10:57am

Me and my monarch: Cyrus the Great of Persia

The real-life Daenerys?

By India Bourke

When history teachers fought back against Michael Gove’s 2013 attempt to limit the syllabus to an exercise in nationalism, it was global figures like Cyrus the Great – founder of empires, freer of slaves, and fantasy of the perfect monarch that they sought to defend.

2,500 years ago, this father of the Persian Empire captured lands stretching from Greece to India. Then, instead of suppressing his conquered peoples, he set them free. For evidence you need travel no further than the British Museum, where the Cyrus Cylinder, a 9 inch long clay inscription, recounts the ways he protected his new subjects; from repatriating the displaced, to respecting the diversity of local religion and cultures.

Praise for his tolerance has rung through the ages, from Machiavelli, to Thomas Jefferson, to the Shah of Iran – who, in 1971, threw a £1.5bn celebration in Cryrus’s honour. Today, the United Nations hails his Cylinder as the world’s first charter of human rights. Jewish scholars argue that, without his liberation of the Jews from Babylon, there may have been no modern Judaism at all.

And yet, until recently, I’d never heard of him. Did my education let me down?

No. The history classes of my comprehensive school days were eclectic at best: essays on the Turin Shroud, drawings of rats to learn about the Romans (I’ve no idea why rats), and, of course, exams on the Nazis. I wish I’d had more time and inclination to learn my Athelstans from my Alfreds. But my motley studies did impress on me one thing that a more traditionalist study of Monarchy-from-A-to-Z may have missed: that history is everywhere, you just need to be taught how to find it (and then interrogate the shroud out of it when you do).

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And so to Game of Thrones: the inspiration behind my discovery of Cyrus, my favourite monarch. For while Cyrus may have less dragons and feminist credentials than Daenerys Targaryen, “Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, and Breaker of Chains”, he shares her reputation for benevolent despotism. Plus he has reality on his side – just.

Most of what we know of Cyrus has come down to us through his Greek biographer, Xenophon, the 4th century BC student of Socrates. Xenophon’s book, The Education of Cyrus, describes how Cryus conquered nations and earned the “willing obedience” of his subjects. In many ways it is probably the first bestseller on leadership and business ever written. “Forget the 1-800-CEO Read,” says Forbes magazine: Xenophone’s account of Cyrus is the “greatest” example of its genre. Know thine places Richard Branson and Donald Trump.

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According to Xenophone, Cyrus prospered through the practice of loyalty, kindness, generosity, brevity, and self-reliance. And, of course, good hygiene: “My first rule is to avoid overeating. My next is to stay trim and strong by working off all the energy that food lends to my body,” says Larry Hendrick’s 21st century translation.

Within his army, Cyrus promoted meritocracy and equality of opportunity. He made a point of arming both aristocrats and commoners alike with the best weapons, and only allowing the strongest and most diligent to rise up the ranks. He even offered up himself as an example of just how well the system could work: “How often I’d have to prove myself worthy of Command!”, Xenophon has him proclaim.

And if, like Daenerys, he seems to good to be true, then perhaps this says more about us than them: over and over again throughout history, humanity has venerated powerful and sucessful leaders, whose perfection usually turns out to be just beyond the horizon.

Daenerys’ councillor Jorah Mormont puts it well: “You would not only be respected and feared, you would be loved,” he says to her, “Someone who can rule and should rule. Centuries come and go without a person like that coming into the world. There are times I look at you, and I still can’t believe you are real.”

While most of Xenophon’s biography is now thought to be fantasy, he was neither the first nor last to idealise this Persian king. According to Plato’s Laws, Cyrus is the good king who encouraged “freedom” (eleutheria), “friendship” (philia), and “community”. In the Old Testament he is the ‘God anointed’ (Isiah 45), who inspired “ecstatic joy” by freeing the Jews from Babylon (Pslam 126).

For both Daenerys and  Cyrus then, success is founded on the concept of ‘willing obedience’ – of people wanting to obey a leader who they recognise as stronger, braver and wiser than themselves; “a King by nature”, Xenophon wrote. Ruling through example rather than fear, it is posited, is the kind of ruling we can get behind.

Or is it? For perhaps Cyrus’s best legacy is the way he prompts us to question the very value – and flaws of individual leadership itself. 

There are hints in Xenophon’s story that Cyrus was not all sweetness and light. He promoted hierarchy through excessive financial rewards, enforced subordination, and deployed spies to inform on dissenters, who were unsparingly punished. He claimed to respect the law, and yet was its only interpreter. Hardly a paragon of democratic power.

So maybe he wasn’t as great as all that. But Cyrus is still my favourite monarch. For being part truth and part fiction, for making the best of monarchy’s bad lot, and, in the process, pointing out that it’s usually best if no-one is above the law. Especially those who command dragons.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.