Tomyris- The woman who brought down Cyrus the Great

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Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood by Rubens Photo Credit- Public Domain

Tomyris was the empress of the Massagetae people, who were herders and nomads in Central Asia, east of the Caspian Sea. There is not much known about the Massagetae, however, it is thought their way of life was similar to the Scythians. They kept herds of cattle and fought from horseback as well as from foot. There are also stories they sacrificed and ate their elders. This is not concrete, but gives you an idea of what was thought of them.

Around this time, Cyrus the Great was at the head of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from Asia Minor to India. Looking around, he thought the land of the Massagetae would make a fine addition to his Empire. At first he went about trying to acquire the Massagetae in the time tested ways. Cyrus asked Tomyris for her hand in marriage. What woman wouldn’t want to be the wife of an emperor? However, Tomyris was a widow with a grown son, and was not interested in Cyrus’ proposal. She refused him. Cyrus did not take the rejection well.

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Tomyris Receiving the Head of Cyrus by Mattia Preti Photo Credit- Web Gallery of Art:

So if he couldn’t get the Massagetae by fair means, Cyrus would get them by foul. In 529 BCE he began plans for an invasion, and started laying the necessary infrastructure by building a bridge over the Araxes River and massing boats. Tomyris took matters into her own hands and sent Cyrus a message to cease his building and meet her in honorable warfare at a place a day’s march from the river. Cyrus agreed, and marched out but not without pulling a sneaky trick or two. He set up camp at the new location and took his best soldiers and left, leaving the least capable ones. He also stocked the camp to the brim with food and wine. The Massagetae were nomads and unfamiliar with wine and its effects. When the part of the Massagetae army, headed by Tomyris’ son Spargapises, attacked and easily defeated the soldiers who were still there. Once in camp, the soldiers helped themselves to the provisions and proceeded to get dead drunk. Cyrus then rushed in with his best soldiers and decimated the inebriated Massagetae. Spargapises was captured, and Cyrus thought he had Tomyris exactly where he wanted her. He sent her a message saying that if she gave up her lands and her freedom to marry him, she could have her son back. According to Herodotus, Tomyris replied, “Now listen to me and I will advise you for your good: give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact, and be content with your triumph over one-third of the Massagetae. If you refuse, I swear by the sun our master to give you more blood than you can drink, for all your gluttony.” So the answer was no, then.

In the meantime, Herodotus reports, when Spargapises regained his sobriety he tricked his guards into loosening his bonds and killed himself. Cyrus had lost his bargaining chip, such as it was. Tomyris engaged Cyrus in a second battle and personally lead the charge against his battle hardened troops. Herodotus described it as “more violent than any others fought between foreign nations”. Cyrus and his army were trapped between the Massagetae and the Araxes River. There was no escape and they were slaughtered.

After the battle, Tomyris had Cyrus’ body brought to her. She filled a wineskin with human blood and forced it down his throat allegedly saying, “See now, I fulfill my threat; you have your fill of blood.” She also supposedly had Cyrus’ head turned into a wine bowl, which she kept on her banquet table until her own death.

After this bloody story, not much else is known about Tomyris. However, it is safe to say, I doubt she was crossed again.

ER