You are here

Cyrus the Cupbearer: Near Eastern Influence in Ctesias' Persica

C Sydnor Roy

Texas Tech University

Cyrus the Cupbearer: Near Eastern Influence in Ctesias’ Persica

In the past fifteen years, Ctesias’ Persica, has gained renewed scholarly attention. Scholars such as Lenfant (2004), Stronk (2007), and Waters (2017) have helped shift our perception of Ctesias away from considering him, with Jacoby (1922), a bad historian, towards recognizing that his account offers a rich tapestry of Near Eastern oral and folk history, and that Ctesias’ goals may have been less historical than literary. Since the Persica comes down to us in fragments and epitomes mediated through later writers such as Diodorus, Photius, and Nicolaus of Damascus, it remains difficult to assess the literary qualities of Ctesias’ writing, but it is possible to get a feel for his interests, the type of stories he conveys, and the structure of the text. A central, and heavily analyzed, section of the narrative involves Ctesias’ account of the birth and rise to power of Cyrus the Great.

            According to Ctesias (whose account here is passed down to us through both Photius and Nicolaus of Damascus), Cyrus was born to parents who were both Mards, one of the Persian tribes held in low esteem. His father was a bandit and his mother a goat-herder. Cyrus took his fate into his own hands by apprenticing himself (or, more accurately, making himself a slave) to a gardener in the palace of Astyages, king of the Medes. He then rose through the ranks to the position of cupbearer to the king, and was adopted by the chief cupbearer, the eunuch Artembares. When Artembares died, Cyrus inherited his wealth and position. Ctesias’ account is deeply at odds with Cyrus’ account on the Cyrus Cylinder, Herodotus’ account, and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, which depicts Cyrus as son of the Persian king and natural heir to Astyages. The account Ctesias gives, rather, seems to be reflective of several Near Eastern folk histories. As Drews (1978) first argued, the narrative has strong ties to the legend of Sargon of Akkad, a unifying king who controlled most of Mesopotamia through conquest in the 24th or 23rd century BCE. His legend involves him being exposed at birth by his mother, a priestess, and then adopted by a gardener before rising to the rank of cup-bearer to Ur-Zababa, king of Kish. His birth father is unknown. Sargon’s story soon transforms into the trope of the exposed infant who rises to power seen in many Near Eastern and European traditions.

            Although scholars acknowledge the influence of this folk history on Ctesias’ story (Briant (2002), Lenfant (2004), Nichols (2008), Waters (2017)), they are divided upon Ctesias’ motivations in choosing this account over others, of which he was well-aware. Briant and Lenfant suggest that the choice to give Cyrus a rags-to-riches story is a subtle jab at Cyrus, and thereby Cyrus the Younger, since it goes against Greek ideas about inherited nobility. Nichols and Waters reject this interpretation, focusing instead on how it shows Ctesias’ engagement with oral histories. All recognize that Ctesias most likely did not encounter the original story of Sargon but was familiar with the folk-motif of his story from later manifestations in Near Eastern sources. I propose that one of these influences, as yet unnoted by scholars of Ctesias, is the Hittite Song of Emergence. Both van Dongen (2011) and Clay and Gilan (2014) have highlighted parallels between this text and Hesiod’s Theogony, but these parallels have yet to be explored in later Greek authors. The key element of the similarity between the Sargon story, the Song of Emergence, and Ctesias’ account of the rise of Cyrus is the position of cupbearer taken by Sargon, Kumarbi (and Anu before him), and Cyrus himself. After going through an analysis of the position of cupbearer, I will argue that the Hittite intertext suggests that Ctesias’ account of Cyrus’ rise to power is meant specifically to praise, and possibly suggest a god-like status for, Cyrus.

Session/Panel Title

Principles and Practices of Greek Historiography

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy