When King Cyrus the Great was approaching the end of his days, he was consumed with desire to conquer the wild horsemen of the north. Queen Tomyris of the sun-worshipping Massagetae was his next target. Her husband had died and now she was the sole ruler of her people. So King Cyrus asked for her hand in marriage. But she refused, for Tomyris was wise as she was fair. She knew that it was not her, but her people, that Cyrus wanted. “King of the Persians,” she wrote to him, “I know that you are a great and powerful man. Do not covet my land, for it will end badly for you. Rule your own people, and let me rule mine.” Now the lands of the Massagetae were wide and empty; a man could ride for days and not see a single tree, lake or mountain. Entire armies could be swallowed up by the wilderness. Yet such was the desire of King Cyrus, that he gathered his army and marched to conquer Tomyris and her people.
The mighty River Araxes lay in his path, separating his kingdom from that of Tomyris. King Cyrus ordered for a bridge to be built so that he could cross immediately, for not even the boundaries set by heaven would stop him. Now a horseman sent by Tomyris came forward from the opposite bank of the river. He shouted, “King Cyrus! My Queen has this to say: I knew that you would not be content to live at peace with us. Now stop building this bridge of yours. If you so desire war, my people and I will ride three days’ distance from our side of the river, and you can cross at leisure and come fight us here. Or you withdraw three days’ distance, and I and my people will come fight you there.”
As the horseman left, King Cyrus called his generals together. What should the Persians do? Should they cross over to meet the Massagetae, or withdraw and allow the Massagetae to meet them? All of the generals wanted to withdraw, and allow the wild horsemen to cross the river and exhaust themselves.
And at that moment, wise Croesus spoke out. “My lord Cyrus,” he said, “it was heaven that made me your servant, and now I tell you what I know, that no man’s fortune stays with him forever. Though you have conquered all the kings of Asia, your fortune will not be endless. I advise you to cross over and meet Tomyris. If you allow the Massagetae to cross over, there will be nothing to stop them from destroying your kingdom should fortune fail you and you lose the battle. But if you cross over, even should you lose, your kingdom will not be destroyed. And should you win the battle, what will stop you from conquering the lands of the Massagetae? So here is my plan, o King.” And wise Croesus told Cyrus what to do.
That very night, as Cyrus lay down to rest, heaven sent him a dream. He saw a great and mighty man with a pair of wings on his shoulders. One wing covered Asia, the other covered Europe. This man, heaven told him, was Darius, son of Hystaspes, a fine young man in Persia. When Cyrus awoke he immediately sent for Hystaspes and told him of the dream. “Your son is plotting to steal my throne,” Cyrus said. “Return to Persia and stop him!” Hystaspes set off at once, bringing with him Croesus. Cyrus could now rest easy. He trusted his own fortune so much that he gave the dream no second thought. He did not know that heaven had told him that he would die, that young Darius would become king of Persia.
Now the Persians crossed the River Araxes. They marched for three days, then stopped and set up camp. To hearten themselves they prepared a marvelous banquet, serving the finest delicacies and best wine. That night, King Cyrus took the strongest half of his army and withdrew. For Croesus had planned it this way: that the savage Massagetae, seeing the great banquet before them, would not be able to resist. They would ride forward and attack the Persians as they ate, they would kill the weak soldiers left behind by King Cyrus. They would then fall upon the banquet and eat and drink themselves stupid.
Such was the plan of Croesus, and it worked marvelously. The next day King Cyrus and the remainder of his army returned. They found the wild horsemen drunk and asleep on the ground. So they fell upon them and killed many of them. Many more were taken prisoner, among them Spargapises, son of Tomyris, prince of the Massagetae. The young prince, however, could not bear the shame of living in chains. He begged and pleaded with his captors to at least free his hands. Once they unbound his chains he killed himself.
When Tomyris learned of this she became enraged. She sent a message to Cyrus: “I see that you have a great thirst for blood. You have killed my soldiers and my son not through courage but through trickery, through wine. We will come find you, and give you more blood than you can drink.”
The day that the sun-worshipping Massagetae came to meet the Persians, was the day that fortune failed King Cyrus. The two armies had begun the battle by shooting arrows at each other. When the arrows ran out, both sides charged and fought with spear, axe and sword. The Persians fought bravely, but in the end they were cut to pieces, and King Cyrus was killed.
When the last Persian soldier was dead, Queen Tomyris ordered her men to find the body of Cyrus. When the body was brought to her, she had a wineskin filled with human blood. She took Cyrus’ head and pushed it into the skin, and cried, “I have defeated you, yet you have tricked me and robbed me of my son. Now I fulfill my promise, I give you your fill of blood to drink!”
This was how King Cyrus met his end, the mightiest of kings. Yet even great kings must die. Fortune failed Cyrus on his final day, and his body was scorned by a woman.