The Domain of Cyrus the Younger
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Categories: Ancient

The Domain of Cyrus the Younger

A map of the eastern Mediterranean showing the Aegean coast, Lydia, and Greater Phrygia loyal to Cyrus, the Peloponnese, the Chersonesos, Kilikia, and Paphlagonia allied to Cyrus, part of southern Anatolia in revolt, and everything else east ot the Hellespont loyal to the king
Map of Cyrus’ domain [tan], allies [orange], royalist territories [red], and unruly territories [grey] in 401 BCE. Territories uninvolved in the struggle are white. Map by Daniel Dallet with additions based on Xenophon and Strabo, original at

Three years ago I was presenting a poster at a different Melammu conference. Most of the contents of that poster are based on my dissertation (which is available for free download) or paintings and photographs which belong to other people, but I did create one map especially for the poster. This week, I thought I would share it, and some of my thoughts on what is wrong with this picture.

Notice that the Chersonesos (the peninsula west of the Hellespont) is orange. One of Cyrus’ Greek friends had occupied it with an army “to protect it from the Thracian barbarians.” Another was busy trying to keep control of Larissa in Thessaly, but sent Cyrus a small army. In principle, much of the Aegean was allied with Sparta, and the Spartans were Cyrus’ friends too. Because most of these cities were not involved, I chose to count only the Peloponnese proper as supporting Cyrus. Sparta’s decision to support Cyrus proved costly, because it led to yet another war at the end of which the King made them surrender the cities along the coast of western Anatolia.

“The map is not the territory,” as Alfred Korzybski reminds us, and this map has more limits than some. While I think it transmits some important information, it also misleads.

A colleague pointed out that the sharp, clear lines between territories say more about our expectations than the ancient world. Ancient kingdoms and provinces seem to have had rather vaguely defined boundaries, although cities and sacred spaces often had very clear limits and sometimes even marked them with standing stones and inscriptions. Benjamin Isaacs thinks that Roman provinces may have been defined in terms of cities and rivers, but that there was no attempt to draw a line over every hill and through every pasture declaring that one governor had authority on one side and another on the other. Even inside the lands which a king claimed, it was a very different thing to live in a provincial capital or in a remote village. If someone wished to escape the King’s power, they could flee to the interior or out of his domain. I used solid lines and colours to separate lands controlled by different factions because I am not skilled in digital art and wanted to be able to colour the map without too much trouble. However, it is unlikely that anyone at the time could have drawn such precise boundaries, and that the people along those boundaries would have cared if they had tried.

I was not sure how to colour Lycaonia, an obscure district in southern Anatolia. By my reading, Xenophon just says that Cyrus told his soldiers that it was in revolt so they could loot it. Xenophon presents the soldiers as restless and Cyrus as reluctant to admit that he was marching against the King, so we should think carefully about how we interpret this. It might be that Lycaonia was more or less loyal to the King, but remote enough that Cyrus thought that he could get away with giving it to his men. It might also be that the Lycaonians were more or less obedient but had managed to avoid paying some taxes and rob or murder some people who the King did not want them to, so Cyrus had an excuse to rob and murder them in return. For all their boastful inscriptions and proud palaces, ancient kings and Caesars usually had trouble enforcing their will. They could do horrible things to people who caught their attention, but they did not have time to find and punish everyone who defied them.

Assigning Egypt a colour is also complicated. Our sources are not clear, but they do tell us that there were revolts in the Nile Delta around this time, and that Cyrus’ court included a Carian with an Egyptian name who fled to the rebels when he heard that Cyrus was dead. We do not know the exact chronology or have proof that Cyrus was negotiating with the Egyptians, but it might be that a good part of Egypt should be marked as allied with Cyrus or in revolt in 401. I also chose to distinguish between the small fertile area close to the Nile, and the eastern and western deserts. While Pharaohs posted guards and scouts and claimed authority over the oases and the major roads, their control over the deserts was much less direct.

By focusing in on the eastern Mediterranean, I was unable to show how this area fits into the empire as a whole. In my master’s thesis, I estimated that Cyrus controlled something like 5% of the King’s subjects and 5-10% of the tax base (“3. The Population of Cyrus’ Domain” and “4. The Revenues of Cyrus’ Domain”), an area with population and revenues on the order of late medieval England. One reason why Cyrus rushed to battle was that he did not have the men or money for a long defensive fight: the one advantage he had was that his armies were ready while the King’s were not. Battle was legitimating: if he had defeated his brother in battle, most people would have seen it as proof that the gods favoured his claim. (A thousand years later, the Strategikon of Maurice complained about the same problem, and how soldiers might refuse to fight again even if their general realized the mistake he had made in the first battle). It is impossible for the same small map to both show the Aegean in detail, including relatively small areas which picked different sides, and show a whole empire stretching from the Nile to the Indus with an emphasis on how small the part in revolt was. (And in fact, until Cyrus started moving Artaxerxes may well have been more worried about the revolt in Egypt, or other troubles east of the Zagros which the sources do not mention at all).

On the other hand, I still think that this map has some value. It does remind people of the different districts of Anatolia at the end of the fifth century BCE and of what they were called. It also makes the complex political situation inside and outside the empire clear, even at the cost of oversimplifying. Sometimes we get the impression that these aristocratic revolts were driven by personal conflict and self-assertion. If we look below the surface of our sources, we see that this one was proceeded by a great deal of alliance-building, plotting, and searching for allies. All kinds of individuals, cities, tribes, and factions were considering their options and choosing sides or trying to keep out of trouble. (Pharnabazus, the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia south of the Sea of Marmara, does not show up on either side except in a story that when Alcibiades told him about Cyrus’ plot he passed the warning on to the King in his own name and had Alcibiades killed when the Greek insisted on seeing the King personally). We don’t know what everyone was offered, and how they decided, but it took more than bruised ego and lordly pride to turn a family squabble into a war.

Edit 2016-09-24: s/penninsula/peninsula;, added to Daniel Dallet’s website

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