In the 7th century BC the king of one of the Persian tribes, Achaemenes, created a unified state in southern Iran, giving his name to what would become the First Persian Empire, the Achaemenids. By the time his 21-year-old great-grandson Cyrus II ascended the throne in 559 BC, Persia was a state on the up. Within 20 years it would be the greatest empire the world had known up until that time.

Having rapidly built a mighty military force, Cyrus the Great (as he came to be known) ended the Median empire in 550 BC when he defeated his own grandfather – the hated king Astyages – in battle at Pasargadae. Within 11 years, Cyrus had campaigned his way across much of what is now Turkey, east into modern Pakistan, and finally defeated the Babylonians. It was in the aftermath of this victory in 539 BC that Cyrus established a reputation as a benevolent conqueror. According to Herodotus in The Persian Wars, Cyrus declared he would ‘respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them… I will impose my monarchy on no nation…and if any one of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign’.

Cyrus colonised the old Median capital at Ecbatana, redeveloped Shush and built himself a new home at Pasargadae, establishing the pattern whereby Persian rulers circulated between three different capitals. Unfortunately for him, the Scythian Massagetae from the northeast of the empire decided he was indeed imposing his monarchy on them. Cyrus fully incurred the wrath of the Massagetae queen, Tomyris, after he captured her son (who killed himself) and slaughtered many of her soldiers in a battle made especially one-sided because the Massagetae army were drunk on wine planted by the Achaemenids. Herodotus writes:

When Tomyris heard what had befallen her son and her army, she sent a herald to Cyrus, who thus addressed the conqueror: ‘Thou bloodthirsty Cyrus, pride not thyself on this poor success: it was the grape-juice…it was this poison wherewith thou didst ensnare my child, and so overcamest him, not in fair open fight. Now hearken what I advise, and be sure I advise thee for thy good. Restore my son to me and get thee from the land unharmed… Refuse, and I swear by the sun…bloodthirsty as thou art, I will give thee thy fill of blood’.

Cyrus paid no heed to Tomyris, who gathered her forces for what Herodotus described as the fiercest battle the Achaemenids had fought. Cyrus and most of his army were slain. When his body was recovered Tomyris reputedly ordered a skin filled with human blood and, making good on her threat, dunked Cyrus’ head in it. Cyrus’ body was eventually buried in the mausoleum that still stands at Pasargadae.