When a Warrior Queen Took Down an Emperor

“Head of Cyrus Brought to Queen Tomyris,” circa 1622–1623. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Source Creative Commons

Why you should care

Because you shouldn’t tick off powerful royals.

When Queen Tomyris turned down the marriage proposal of Cyrus the Great, founder of the mighty Achaemenid Empire, little could she know that she was about to set off a chain of events that would cause her immense personal loss — and ultimately lead to the end of Cyrus’ reign.

The widowed Tomyris, leader of the nomadic Massagetae people, first encountered Cyrus around 529 BCE. She probably guessed that the Persian ruler’s proposal was a strategic attempt to quell the more murderous tendencies of the horse-riding, bow-toting Massagetae while acquiring territory at the same time. But Tomyris — whose name means “iron” — was having none of his power-grabbing ruse. Cyrus, one of the greatest conquerors the world has ever known, was about to discover just how ruthless this tough, Amazon-like sovereign could be.

When news of her son’s death reached Tomyris, she raged against Cyrus.

The ancient world was full of wild stories about the ferocious nomadic cultures living on the Eurasian Steppe — and the impressive positions women held in many of these societies. The Greek historian Herodotus (and others, like Strabo and Polyaenus) wrote about formidable ladies roving the steppe, including the mythical Amazons and their connections to the very real Massagetae and Scythian pastoral civilizations. The Greeks and Persians were fascinated by these tales of hardcore girl power — female warriors, courtship by combat and open marriages — so absent in their own cultures.

Modern excavations of Saka-Scythian graves (kurgans) in Russia and Ukraine back up some of these accounts. “So far, about 300 warrior-women remains have been identified … many battle-scarred, buried with their weapons, armor and horses, just like the male warriors of their tribes,” says Adrienne Mayor, Stanford University researcher and author of The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World. The horse and bow together served as equalizers, she explains, enabling women to be “as fast and deadly as men in battle.” 

Before butting heads with Tomyris, Cyrus was busy adding the “great” to his name by plowing through the ashes of the dying Assyrian Empire. Although no stranger to war, he was also a deft wielder of propaganda. “Cyrus benefited greatly by avoiding brutality wherever possible and honoring foreign cults,” like when he subdued Babylon without a fight, says Reza Zarghamee, author of Discovering Cyrus: The Persian Conqueror Astride the Ancient World.

But the Persian king wouldn’t be so fortunate with the Massagetae, irrespective of the cultural and linguistic roots (both were Iranian peoples) they shared. After a few initial skirmishes, Croesus (a Lydian king and counselor) advised Cyrus to feign abandoning his camps, leaving a lavish feast behind for the pursuing Massagetae — led by Tomyris’s son, Spargapises — to stumble across. Discovering the spread, the milk-drinking nomads, unaccustomed to wine, promptly got sloshed, and the Persians pounced, massacring the drunken lot. Spargapises was captured alive, but after sobering up, he committed suicide with a stolen dagger. When news of her son’s death reached Tomyris, she raged against Cyrus.

The queen herself charged into the fray when her army brutalized the Persians along the Syr Darya River. Cyrus and most of his men were slaughtered. A victorious and wrathful Tomyris recovered his corpse, lopped off his head, dunked it into a blood-filled wineskin and cried out, “Drink your fill of blood!” Revenge was hers.

And while Cyrus could have merely been defending his empire from the threat of raiding nomads or acting as brazen aggressor, in the end he didn’t get the girl, the land or even his life. Some historians have him dying several days after trading blows with Tomyris, while others have him expiring on a different battlefield. Even Herodotus acknowledged differing accounts of his ultimate demise. Zarghamee doubts the absolute accuracy of this gruesome saga, pointing to the “folklore motifs, with some Greek literary embellishment” found throughout, including the stereotypical “theme of the Persians defeating the steppe nomads by getting them drunk,” which appears in other stories as well. 

Regardless of how events actually played out, Queen Tomyris’ epic clash with Cyrus the Great is definitely a bloodstained tale for the ages — and a testament to the power of the nomads who once roamed the Eurasian Steppe.

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