Cyrus Cylinder

Cyrus Cylinder

Just Like the Persians in Pictures

Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.

At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:

But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)

Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?

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A black and white photo of Pluto silhouetted against the emptiness of the outer solar system
The last photo broadcast by New Horizons as it approached Pluto and concentrated all its resources on collecting data rather than transmitting it. Photo by NASA/APL/SwRI

About 2550 years ago, the latest king of Babylon deposited a cylinder in the foundations of a building which proclaimed to the Babylonian literati that he was just the kind of king that all the best Babylonian literature said a king should be. Building and renovating monuments was one of the basic responsibilities of a Babylonian king, and Cyrus wished to be accepted by his new subjects. Cyrus expected that every few centuries workers in the service of another king would dig up his cylinder, read it, and deposit it again with appropriate honours. In fact, Cyrus assures his audience that he has done just that as he restored walls and temples:

(43) ši-ti-ir (Erasure) šu-mu ša2 {m}AN.ŠAR2-DU3-IBILA LUGAL a-lik mah-ri-[-ia ša2 quer-ba-šu ap-pa-a]l-sa(!) (44) […] (45) [… a-na d]a-ri2-a-ti3

“A cuneiform text in the name of Assurbanipal, a king who went before me, which appeared within it [… to] immortality.” (Cyrus Cylinder ed. Schaudig tr. Manning)

Until recently, only one example of this cylinder was known, and that was excavated from the foundations of that building (exactly where has since been lost as excavations in 1880-1881 were not documented to modern standards). But in December 2009 and January 2010, W.G. Lambert and Irving Finkel identified two fragments of a transcription of the cylinder onto a tablet which was signed by one Qishti-Marduk son of Marduk or Iqish-Marduk, son of X. While the cylinder was buried in the earth, its message could circulate in copies, and perhaps in speech as well.
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