Tomyris, The Female Ruler Who Killed Cyrus the Great
Tomyris was a widowed queen who ruled over a nomadic tribe called the Massagetae near modern day Kazakhstan around the sixth century B.C. They were a warrior tribe notable for their battle skills and cannibalistic tendencies (they had an honored ritual of sacrificing their elderly and eating them).
Unfortunately not much is known about her and her peoples. Most of what we know about Tomyris and her people centers around one military conflict and comes from the writings of Herodotus. Massagetae are said to be a branch of the Scythians and mirrored their dress and lifestyle (Scythians are considered the Greek inspiration for Amazons). They fought both on horseback and on foot, they used bows and lances (from horseback) and seemed to favor the battle ax.
The following is what Herodotus had to say about Massagetae life at this time.
“The following are some of their customs; – Each man has but one wife, yet all the wives are held in common; for this is a custom of the Massagetae and not of the Scythians, as the Greeks wrongly say. 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 goes on to tell us that Spargapises, the son of Tomyris, was the head of his mother’s army and during battles mother and son fought side by side, and thus, managed to subdue nearly all the surrounding nomad tribes. But around 529 B.C. Cyrus the Great looked towards the neighboring Massagetae as the next target of his ever reaching Persian expansion. At first, Cyrus proposed marriage to Tomyris, and after she rejected him, he declared war.
Cyrus then began his invasion of the Massagetae territory by building bridges and war towers along his side of the river Jaxartes to take the territory by force. Tomyris sent him a warning to cease his encroachment and challenged him to meet her in honorable warfare, inviting him to a nearby location where their two armies would formally engage each other. He accepted her offer, but upon learning that the Massagetae were not familiar with wine and it’s effects, he decided to leave with his best warriors, leaving behind his least capable soldiers to do battle and a banquet with a rich supply of wine. After slaughtering all the remaining soldiers, the Massagetae warriors led by Tomyris’s son Spargapises partook in this feast and drunk themselves into a stupor. Seeing the enemy had fallen for the trap, the Persians then returned to the camp and slaughtered the Massagetae. Spargapises managed to avoid being killed, but was captured and take hostage. Upon hearing this, Tomryis sent another message to Cyrus saying
“Cyrus who can never get enough blood, do not be elated by what you have done; it is nothing to be proud of if, by the fruit of the vine—with which you Persians fill yourselves and rage so violently that evil words rise in a flood to your lips when the wine enters your bodies—if, by tricking him with this drug, you got the better of my son, and not by force of arms in battle. Now, then, take a word of good advice from me: give me back my son and leave this country unpunished, even though you have savaged a third of the Massagetae army. But if you will not, then I swear to you by the sun, lord of the Massagetae, that I shall give even you who can never get enough of it your fill of blood.”
Cyrus the Great, chose to ignore this warning. Upon sobering, Spargapises committed suicide in shame, further enraging Tomyris. According to Herodotus, Spargagises actually convinced Cyrus to remove his bonds, thus allowing him to commit suicide while in captivity.
Tomyris then lead a second wave of troops into battle herself against the Persians and it is here that Cyrus the Great was ultimately killed. His forces suffered massive casualties in what Herodotus referred to as the fiercest battle of Non-Greeks in the ancient world. He describes it thus:
“The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years. Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, “I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.”
Of course there are other accounts for the death of Cyrus, but this is the most commonly accepted.