Queen Tomyris with the head of Cyrus

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Tomyris is a sword-wielding, kingdom-leading, giant-killing queen

When it comes to the story of Cyrus the Great, many people highlight his bloody achievements, yet they also gloss over his death in battle. Most know little of the person who brought one of the most famous figures from the B.C. era to the ground. Who was the woman who slew the Achaemenid ruler? This is the story of Tomyris, one of history’s most powerful female fighters.

Finding her footing in the Massagetae

Tomyris was born in Central Asia into a unique, tight-knit culture located in what is present-day Kazakhstan (East of the Caspian Sea). Her people, the Massagetae, were heavily influenced by themes of community, heritage, and connectedness. Although little is known about the ethnicities and characteristics of the nomadic bunch, they were said to be skilled with a plethora of weapons, savvy on horseback, and highly dependent on one another for physical and spiritual support.

At times, their desire to remain close to their ancestors could get a bit extreme. In their pursuit to maintain their culture, the Massagetae went as far as picking the healthiest elders in their communities to kill and eat near the ends of their lives, consuming their flesh as a group. While this may sound outlandish, it was one of the ways that the Massagetae bound one another to each other.

“Human life does not come to its natural close with this people; but when a man grows very old, all his kinsfolk collect together and offer him up in sacrifice; offering at the same time some cattle also. After the sacrifice they boil the flesh and feast on it; and those who thus end their days are reckoned the happiest.

If a man dies of disease they do not eat him, but bury him in the ground, bewailing his ill-fortune that he did not come to be sacrificed. They sow no grain, but live on their herds, and on fish, of which there is great plenty in the Araxes River. Milk is what they chiefly drink. The only god they worship is the sun, and to him they offer the horse in sacrifice; under the notion of giving to the swiftest of the gods the swiftest of all mortal creatures.”

– Herodotus

In being a part of the Massagetae, Tomyris was not only trained with weapons and eager to engage with her community; she was also married into royalty, wedding the king of the Massagetae people. Sadly, after her husband passed away tragically, Tomyris was forced to take the throne and begin ruling over the Massagetae people. Although she attempted to avoid confrontation and lead her people honorably, the Achaemenid Empire had different (and disruptive) plans for her rule.

Threats from the Achaemenid Empire

While the Massagetae were unconcerned with conflict, their neighbor, the Achaemenid Empire, was prepared to stir up trouble to steal the land belonging to the Massagetae. Their founder—and one of their key coordinators in their attacks against neighboring empires—was the legendary fighter of the B.C. era, Cyrus the Great. With a name like that, both his friends and foes knew he meant business…yet he met his match in Tomyris.

At first, Cyrus underestimated Tomyris, believing that she would be foolish or frightened enough to agree to a marriage with Cyrus to avoid any direct conflict with the Massagetae. The way Cyrus saw it, a union with Tomyris would give him complete dominion over the Massagetae. However, Tomyris was still grieving the loss of her husband, and she wasn’t tricked by the manipulations of the Achaemenid ruler. She knew that if she agreed to a partnership with Cyrus, it would mean watching her culture crumble.

Queen TomyrisQueen Tomyris
Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, she refused his advances, not allowing him to slip through the back-door into cultural domination. Not-so-fortunately, Cyrus reacted as poorly as could be anticipated and immediately declared war on the Massagetae. He vowed that he and his people would invade Tomyris’s country and destroy/overpower its inhabitants. How did they plan on accomplishing this feat? By building a bridge across a river that ran between their two empires, barging in, and murdering everybody in sight.

Once Tomyris found out about Cyrus’s plans, she began to prepare herself and her people to face off with the aggressive Achaemenid and the relentless spirit of Cyrus. However, Cyrus and his men, who had forced many kingdoms, empires, and armies to fall before, weren’t concerned about what might happen when they touched down in the Massagetae territory. After all, what was a woman going to do to stop an invasion?

The initial turn of the war

Although Cyrus was prone to committing impulsive and violent attacks, he approached the first battle of the war from an intellectual angle—how could they capture the Massagetae people and execute as many of them as possible? Cyrus decided that they would set up a camp in the Massagetae territory, fill it with wine and food, and then take their leave to draw the Massagetae in. The plan worked. The Massagetae descended on the camp, killing some of Cyrus’s men.

“Meanwhile Cyrus, having advanced a day’s march from the river, did as Croesus had advised him, and, leaving the worthless portion of his army in the camp, drew off with his good troops towards the river. Soon afterwards, a detachment of the Massagetai, one-third of their entire army, led by Spargapises, son of the queen Tomyris, coming up, fell upon the body which had been left behind by Cyrus, and on their resistance put them to the sword. Then, seeing the banquet prepared, they sat down and began to feast.”

– Herodotus

Once in the camp, the Massagetae rejoiced what seemed to be their first victory, splurging on the alcohol and food belonging to the Achaemenid soldiers. Unfortunately, they celebrated a bit too soon. After becoming substantially intoxicated, Cyrus unleashed his men on the camp to slaughter the stumbling and disoriented Massagetae. He also took many people hostage, including Tomyris’s only son.

Tomyris battles back at the rageful leader

A furious Tomyris wrote to Cyrus about his kidnapping of her child, calling him a cowardly, murderous leader rather than a thoughtful or insightful ruler. Sadly, before her letter could have any impact on Cyrus’s behavior, her son requested permission to take his life under Cyrus’s imprisonment, and he was granted the allowance to do so. After the death of her son, Tomyris had every reason to lay down and grieve…yet her desire to win the war only grew stronger.

With the spirit of revenge, Tomyris reapproached the war from another edge—fighting with her people directly. In fact, she was the one who ordered the second battle with Cyrus, demanding they meet so she could take a second jab at his army. What did she have to lose? Her son and husband were gone, her village was under attack, and all that was left to do was her duty: protecting her people. In doing so, she pulled off one of the most significant murders in all the B.C. years.

“You bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not yourself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice—which, when you drink it, makes you so mad, and as you swallow it down brings up to your lips such bold and wicked words—it was this poison by which you ensnared my child, and so overcame him, not in fair open fight.

Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetai. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetai, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”

– Tomyris

Enacting revenge over Cyrus

When the Achaemenid soldiers showed up to the second battle, they did not doubt that they would be victorious over the Massagetae. However, they were unprepared for just how much rage the Massagetae were harboring…specifically Tomyris. She made a beeline for Cyrus the Great and, in one of the most violent clashes in history, fought the brute leader to the death.

Although there are mixed accounts of what unfolded during their second-battle duel, one thing is for sure: Tomyris’s people came out victorious. Not only did she (or one of her soldiers) win the fight against the great Cyrus, but she managed to behead the ruler following his death. She stuffed his decapitated skull into a sack, and proudly declared: “See now, I fulfill my threat; you have your fill of blood.”

While Tomyris’s name isn’t muttered nearly as often as Cyrus the Great, her role in his demise was significant enough to earn her a leg-up in plenty of historical tales. The fierce Massagetae leader proved that enough motherly love (and a drive for revenge) could take down even the toughest of foes.

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In all his arrogance, Cyrus the Great qualifies for a list like this.

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