Thus saith Cyrus, king of Persia; All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given me." These are the opening words, according to the Bible, of the celebrated decree which proclaimed that a new day had dawned upon earth, a more generous and more human era had begun for mankind. When Cyrus, with his Persians, conquered Babylon, the thousands of years of Semitic rulership of the world ceased, and dominion passed into the hands of the earliest of the Aryan peoples. All the leading nations of today are of Aryan stock. Let us, therefore, mark and remember that year of Cyrus's triumph and of his great decree (538 B.C.); for the decree proclaimed peace--and mercy to the conquered.
The spirit of Semitic dominion under Babylon and Assyria had been almost inconceivably cruel. The people must, argues one of our historians, have been peculiarly "unimaginative," that is wholly unable to realize within themselves the agony of their victims, else they could never have inflicted upon entire nations such hideous pangs of bodily torture. The Persians were cruel, too, if judged by our modern views; but they were not wantonly so. Physical torture was employed by them only as a punishment for those who had been convicted of serious crimes. Moreover, the religious spirit of all the early Aryans seems to have been one of general toleration, as opposed to the narrow Semitic spirit. Almost every Semitic people had regarded themselves as the chosen people of their own particular god. They even believed themselves directly commanded by that god to destroy other nations, who had incurred his very human hatred by not knowing of his authority.
The deity of the early Persians was, on the other hand, a pure creative spirit Ahura-Mazda, "the Lord of great knowledge." Moreover, they recognized the life of the soul of man and its continued spiritual existence in worlds of good or evil after death. Their religion, at least in its earlier stages, involved a view of life equal in nobility to that of many a modern philosopher. The creator Ahura-Mazda, whom the later Persians identified with Mithra, the sun god, had two sons, light and darkness, good and evil, Ormuzd and Ahriman. These two were always in struggle for dominion over the universe, and in their tremendous warfare they called to their banners every living thing and every force on earth. Man holds a leading part in the great strife. Every one by his own will ranges himself upon one side or the other, for he helps the cause of Ormuzd by every generous act and thought, advances that of Ahriman by every deed of shame.
This truly noble philosophy of man's moral freedom and responsibility took definite form under the teaching of the sage, Zarathushtra, or, as the Greeks called him, Zoroaster. The Persian name seems to mean, "tawny camels," so perhaps Zoroaster was a camel-herder or camel-driver, as was the other, later teacher of the East, Mahomet. Zoroaster's doctrines, written down ages after his death, have been partly preserved in the sacred books of Persia, called the Zend-Avesta, or "comments upon wisdom." These fragmentary records show us the teacher as living under a chieftain, named Vishtaspa, or the "horse-owner," and as persuading his people to cease the old nomadic life of roving and of war, and to settle as peaceful farmers, in permanent homes.
We can not trace the Aryan races to anything like the antiquity of the Semites. The date of Zoroaster's life we can only guess, from the surviving records, to have been about 1500 B.C. The Aryans first come into historical view about a thousand years before Christ, when we find them invading India on the one hand and threatening Babylonia on the other. Assyrian and Babylonian records speak of these invaders vaguely as Scyths, or as the Manda or Kimmerians. We only really know that hordes of fierce, fighting nations began to press upon the Semitic civilization from the north, from the great plains of Russia, and of central Asia. Probably not all these hordes were Aryans. They come into no clear view until the day when Nineveh was destroyed (607 B.C.) by the joint armies of Babylon and of an Aryan chief whom old historians called Cyaxeres, king of the Medes.
These Medes of Cyaxeres and the Persians seem to have been tribes of one nation, more or less united. Migrating slowly southward, warring against both Semites and Turanians by the way, the Medes and Persians had settled in what is now modern Persia, the Medes in the north, the Persians in the south. The latter, indeed, took possession not only of the mountain region, which is still called from them Farzistan, but also of the lower hill country of ancient Elam, where the Elamites, as you will remember, had been exterminated by the last efforts of the Assyrian empire.
Herodotus, that celebrated old Greek who in his travels over Asia gathered and preserved for us so much of half-legendary history, tells us that these loose tribes of Median settlers were first formed into a united kingdom by Deioces, a mere villager whose justness and wisdom led his neighbors to appeal to him voluntarily to act as judge in their disputes. When his fame had thus extended far, Deioces suddenly and craftily refused to judge any more causes, on the plea that it took his time too much from his own affairs. As a result, the region fell into great disorder; and the people, seeing that they must have some sort of government, persuaded Deioces to act as their king.
Possessed of the means of enforcing his power, the humble judge revealed himself as a strong and arbitrary monarch, who surrounded himself with elaborate power and compelled obedience from all. He established a fixed code of laws, united the Medes into a single body, and directed them in the conquest of other nations. His splendid capital city, Ecbatana, he built in a circle enclosed within a series of seven walls. The outermost was white, the next black, and so through all the colors to the innermost wall of plated gold, which enclosed the king's palace and his treasure house. Within this, Deioces remained in almost solitary state, refusing all communication with his former intimates lest they should forget in the pleasantries of friendship the reverence due to the dignity of a monarch.
Thus says Herodotus. We have more trustworthy record of the grandson of Deioces, that Cyaxares who aided in the overthrow of Nineveh. Cyaxares was the first great Aryan conqueror, extending his power from its original seat in northern Persia over most of Asia Minor and part of ancient Assyria. He came to the throne in an hour of disaster. The king his father had ventured to attack Assyria, but had been completely defeated, and perished on the field of battle. Instead of suing for peace, Cyaxares withdrew the shattered remnant of his Medes, and in a distant region drilled them in regular military manoeuvres, until instead of a confused horde they had become a disciplined army. He then returned to the attack, defeated the Assyrians, and besieged them in Nineveh, their capital.
At this moment there came a fresh invasion of wild "Scythians" from the north, and Cyaxares was forced to turn upon the intruders in self-defense. After a severe struggle he conquered them. Herodotus says he invited all the Scythian leaders to a conference, got them intoxicated, slew them, and then made an alliance with their followers. At all events, there were many of these later Scyths to be found thereafter in the armies of Cyaxares.
Then this indomitable leader returned once more to his original purpose. Again he attacked Assyria, and this time Nineveh fell. Cyaxares and his ally, the Babylonian monarch, divided the Assyrian empire between them. They even cemented their alliance by a marriage, a daughter of Cyaxares wedding the Babylonian's son, the celebrated Nebuchadnezzar; and the two kingdoms continued thereafter in mutual respect and honorable peace.
The later wars of Cyaxares were in Asia Minor, where a new power, that of Lydia, had grown up to share with Media, Babylonia, and Egypt the sovereignty of the world. A total eclipse of the sun, occurring when Lydians and Medes were preparing for a decisive battle, so terrified both armies that they agreed to a peace. Yet, on the whole, Cyaxares was successful here as he had been against the Scyths and the Assyrians. Having by these wars built up the first beginnings of Aryan empire, Cyaxares died and was succeeded by his son. Astyages, who is mainly notable as the connecting link between his father and his grandson, the celebrated conqueror, Cyrus the Great, whose decree of liberty opened our story of Persia.