Like much else in his History, Herodotus’ account of Cyrus combines elements of both historical and mythical narratives (source). One place where these elements intermingle is the account of Herodotus’ childhood at 1.108-122. Herodotus gives significant time to Cyrus’ birth and the prophecies surrounding him, but only depicts one event from Cyrus’ childhood: his play at kingship that leads to his encounter with Astyages (1.114-116). However, this one scene plays a central role in both building parallels between Cyrus and mythical heroes and placing him firmly in the historical world (Chiasson 2012: 222). Key to this passage’s success is Herodotus’ manipulation of the culturally distinct elements of make-believe childhood play in the Classical world.
While there may have been more variety in the actual Greco-Roman world, the extant literary and material record provides a specific and limited view of childhood pretend play; children largely played games where they mimicked the actions they would take as adults, using toys that imitated the real life tools they would one day use (Layne 2012: 50-1). Herodotus manipulates this element of Greco-Roman culture, using the divergences between “normal” childhood play and Cyrus’ behavior to mark the Persian Emperor as being akin to mythic heroes without connecting him to any specifically superhuman capacity.
When Cyrus plays the role of king as a child despite his supposed lineage, he transcends the play practices of his social class. While this might not mark future authority in a modern setting (Sorensen 2014: 30), it is essentially unprecedented in the extant Greco-Roman tradition. It therefore places Cyrus beyond the bounds of normal cultural practice, functioning as an analogue to heroic childhood action, a key component of the stories of mythical heroes as children (Pache 2004). Even so, the use of the usually quotidian space of play as opposed to a fantastic story tethers Cyrus firmly to the historical world.
Cyrus’ play also diverges from the make-believe play shown elsewhere in the Classical tradition in his choice of “toy.” While most children utilized non- or semi-functional toys in their make-believe (Layne 2012: 51), Cyrus apparently uses a functional whip. This again marks a transcendence, or perhaps transgression, of child’s play, transforming the pretend into the painfully real, and normal play into the foreshadowing of future action. Furthermore, by making Cyrus’ “kingly” toy a whip, a symbol of enslavement and violence rather than authority and status, Herodotus provides a commentary on the position of Persian Emperor that Cyrus will one day create, one that will be confirmed by Astyages more clearly mythically inspired punishment of Harpagus 1.119.
Outside of its context, Herodotus’ use of a single game of make believe may not have been enough to establish Cyrus’ semi-mythologized character. However, when placed in the context of the distinctive practices of childhood play in the Classical world, it can showcase the Persian Empire breaking out of cultural shackles, transcending human limits without having to move into a supernatural space.
Learning the Rules: Games and Education in the Ancient World