Lesson #308: Tomyris’ Epic Quote

The great thing about history is that it’s full of interesting violence. I realize that sounds a bit disingenuous, or at the very least macabre, but there are really only a few constants in history and violence is one of them; people have always killed other people to get their hands on something — usually, at least on the larger killing scale, land — they want. Historically, if you can’t marry your way into it, you kill people for it.

Tomyris was the queen of the Massagatae, a nomadic band of Iranians who occupied pretty much all of Central Asia. Cyrus the Great was the ruler of the Achaemenid Empire (the First Persian Empire), which covered pretty much all of Ancient Near East. As such, Cyrus was the most powerful man on the planet around 550 BCE.* Having already conquered the Median Empire, the Lydian Empire, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and with an eye toward literally ruling the world one day, Cyrus and his troops were off fighting with the Massagatae. Eventually, it occurred to Cyrus that, ‘I’d like that lady’s land, but all this fighting is a drag; I’ll ask her to marry me.’ Tomyris declined and sent Cyrus a strongly worded letter suggesting that further advancement into Massagatae territory was ill-advised.

Given that he wanted the land and had superior forces, this was not advice that Cyrus heeded; he and his army kept on fighting.

Fast forwarding past a bit of Cyrus’ military genius and a Massagatae defeat in a first battle that ended with the capture, release, and subsequent honour suicide of Tomyris’ son (and General of the Massagatae army), Spargapises, an enraged Tomyris called for a rematch.

In an epic lesson about the ruthlessness of a warrior queen who has lost her son,  the Persians, despite their superior numbers, suffered heavy casualties and, ultimately, a loss in what turned out to be the bloodiest battle the world had yet seen.

Here’s where it gets awesome: According to the ancient historian Herodotus, Tomyris actively sought out Cyrus’ corpse (although other histories say she killed him herself), beheaded him, crucified his corpse, filled a wine skin with blood, stuffed Cyrus’ head into it and said, “I warned you I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall,”** which is possibly the most badass thing anyone has ever said in the history of ever.

The thing is, it’s entirely possible that none of this happened as described. Herodotus wrote all of this nearly 100 years after the fact, and he himself admitted that this was one of many stories he’d heard from credible sources about Cyrus’ death.***

Still, that’s a damn good story.

*He’s not called Cyrus the Great for nothing; he was known for his great respect for the traditions of the people he conquered, his work in the fields of human rights (which sounds counterintuitive, I know), his brilliant understanding of military strategy, and his approach to politics would shape the both the Eastern and Western worlds. 

**See Herodotus’ The Histories

***See Nino Luraghi’s The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus

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