Ancient Leadership in the Era of Donald Trump

There Can Be Only One

[UPDATE: Since the initial publication of this module a coin, which is not currency, has been issued featuring President Trump and Cyrus the Great: Also a term has emerged in Republican circles for the "King Cyrus Republicans": "evangelicals who stuck with Trump after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out because they wanted a conservative to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. That’s a reference to the sixth-century pagan Persian king who released Jews from bondage in Babylon" See also this report in Vox, "The biblical story the Christian right uses to defend Trump":]

Meet the creators of this module, John Esposito and Norman Sandridge

Part 1: The Cleansing Outsider as the King of the World

Part 2: God's Warrior Against the Lie

(Suggested background listening: United States of Eurasia by Muse, which contains the lyric: "Why split these states / When there can be only one?")

Introduction: President Trump "Quotes" Cyrus the Great

On March 22, 2017 the White House, in the voice of President Trump, released a congratulatory message of goodwill to those around the world who celebrate the Persian New Year (Nowruz). The message contained this supposedly “famous” quote from Cyrus the Great, the first king of the Persian Empire (c.600-530 BCE):

Cyrus the Great, a leader of the ancient Persian Empire, famously said that “[f]reedom, dignity, and wealth together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.”

In truth, this is not a quote from Cyrus the Great, much less a famous one, and it does not even come from an ancient source. It seems to have been taken from a Forbes article written by Ryan Holiday on helpful leadership quotations supposedly from Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, a fourth-century BCE, quasi-biographical account of Cyrus the Great. Holiday takes the quotations from a book by Larry Hedrick which he (Holiday) claims is an “excellent translation” of Xenophon’s work. As you can see, the White House truncated the first sentence from the Forbes quote here:  

Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, wealth--these three together constitute the greatest happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.

This quotation is indeed taken from Hedrick (Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War); but Hedrick’s work is not in any sense a “translation” of Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus. Rather it is a fictional story inspired by Xenophon and “based on” a translation from 1906 by the classical scholar Henry Graham Dakyns. Hedrick explains further how fictionalized he imagined his work would be:

I wanted to call my book 'The Spirit of Cyrus' to help connote that it's not history, and my original frame story...was that Cyrus was viewing contemporary history from the Great Beyond, finding it entirely wanting, and therefore had decided to send the text that was actually my fictional creation to earth as a corrective to our corrupt leadership practices (source: email correspondence on July 20, 2017). [Side note: this conceit is similar to that of the ancient Athenian comic playwright, Aristophanes, who in his play, The Frogs, has the god Dionysus travel to the Underworld to retrieve the wisest poet to save the city of Athens from moral and political ruin.]

Here, then, is Hedrick’s full, fictionalized text from which the Forbes quote was taken: 

Acting as a Liberator Creates Extraordinary Loyalty

“Finally I sent out a proclamation to announce that all slaves among the captives should come forward and identify themselves. Complying at once, a great crowd quickly gathered. I selected the strongest and granted them freedom. They’d be required to serve in the army, using arms from my growing stores. As for other necessities, I’d make sure that those were also supplied.

“Slaves are used to working hard, and they would still be expected to work hard, but they’d have the same advantages as everyone else in my army. When they heard my message, the new freedmen rejoiced in their liberation and took new hope for the future. Many were fated to rise high in the governance of my empire.

“Remember this lesson well: Whenever you can, act as a liberator. Freedom, dignity, and wealth--these three together constitute the great happiness of humanity. If you bequeath all three to your people, their love for you will never die.

“I led the freedmen to my officers and had them enrolled immediately, instructing that they be armed with shields and light swords, so as to follow the troopers and hold their horses whenever required. For the future, my Persian officers--in body army and carrying lances--were always to appear on horseback, and they were required to appoint new officers from the ranks to lead those troops who were still without steeds.”

Here now is the original Greek text that Hedrick worked from, followed by the translation by Professor Dakyns:

Xenophon, Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia) 4.5.56-58:

[56] αὖθις δὲ ὁ Κῦρος ἀνειπεῖν ἐκέλευσεν, εἴ τις εἴη ἐν τῷ Ἀσσυρίων ἢ Σύρων ἢ Ἀραβίων στρατεύματι ἀνὴρ δοῦλος ἢ Μήδων ἢ Περσῶν ἢ Βακτρίων ἢ Καρῶν ἢ Κιλίκων ἢ Ἑλλήνων ἢ ἄλλοθέν ποθεν βεβιασμένος, ἐκφαίνεσθαι. [57] οἱ δὲ ἀκούσαντες τοῦ κήρυκος ἄσμενοι πολλοὶ προυφάνησαν: ὁ δ᾽ ἐκλεξάμενος αὐτῶν τοὺς τὰ εἴδη βελτίστους ἔλεγεν ὅτι ἐλευθέρους αὐτοὺς ὄντας δεήσει ὅπλα ὑποφέρειν ἃ ἂν αὐτοῖς διδῶσι: τὰ δ᾽ ἐπιτήδεια ὅπως ἂν ἔχωσιν ἔφη αὑτῷ μελήσειν. [58] καὶ εὐθὺς ἄγων πρὸς τοὺς ταξιάρχους συνέστησεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἐκέλευσε τά τε γέρρα καὶ τὰς ψιλὰς μαχαίρας τούτοις δοῦναι, ὅπως ἔχοντες σὺν τοῖς ἵπποις ἕπωνται, καὶ τὰ ἐπιτήδεια τούτοις ὥσπερ καὶ τοῖς μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ Πέρσαις λαμβάνειν, αὐτοὺς δὲ τοὺς θώρακας καὶ τὰ ξυστὰ ἔχοντας ἀεὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἵππων ὀχεῖσθαι, καὶ αὐτὸς οὕτω ποιῶν κατῆρχεν, ἐπὶ δὲ τοὺς πεζοὺς τῶν ὁμοτίμων ἀνθ᾽ αὑτοῦ ἕκαστον καθιστάναι ἄλλον ἄρχοντα τῶν ὁμοτίμων. 

(56) Finally he sent out another proclamation, saying that if there was any slave among the Syrians, Assyrians, or Arabians who was a Mede, a Persian, a Bactrian, a Carian, a Cilician, or a Hellene, or a member of any other nation, and who had been forcibly enrolled, he was to come forward and declare himself. (57) And when they heard the herald, many came forward gladly, and out of their number Cyrus selected the strongest and fairest, and told them they were now free, and would be required to bear arms, with which he would furnish them, and as to necessaries, he would see himself that they were not stinted. (58) With that he brought them to the officers and had them enrolled forthwith, saying they were to be armed with shields and light swords, so as to follow the troopers, and were to receive supplies exactly as if they were his own Persians. The Persian officers themselves, wearing corslets and carrying lances, were for the future to appear on horseback, he himself setting the example, and each one was to appoint another of the Peers to lead the infantry for him. (Translation by Henry Dakyns 1906, the basis for Hedrick’s book; see xix-xx.) 

We thus have four quotations: one from the White House/Trump, one from Forbes, one from Hedrick, and one from Dakyns translation of Xenophon. What main differences do you see in these four versions? What do you think Trump/the White House was trying to say by using the false quote? How do you think the message would have been different had each of the other three quotes been used instead (Forbes, Hedrick, Dakyns)?

Is the original quote in any sense “true” even if it is fake?

You may have noted that the quotation in the White House press release (“[f]reedom, dignity, and wealth,” etc.) is nowhere in the original ancient Greek or the Dakyns translation. We don’t have any real way of knowing whether Cyrus would have originally said something like this. But you may wonder whether Xenophon, for whom we do have a lot of material, would have agreed with the sentiment or whether he imagined Cyrus would have.

The basic claim is that freedom, dignity, and wealth make up humanity’s “greatest happiness.” The part that pertains to leadership is that leaders can supposedly win the love of their followers by providing these three things. Probably most ancient Greeks--and probably most human beings throughout history--would have agreed that being free (Gk. eleutheros) instead of being someone’s slave (Gk. doulos) is a necessary condition to happiness, even if we may disagree on the exact forms of freedom one needs to be happy. Dignity is a much vaguer concept in English and it might take a lot of different forms depending on someone’s class status and culture. But if we take dignity to mean “equality,” then it does seem to be the case that equality, at least in certain domains, is at least part of happiness for Xenophon’s Cyrus. And establishing certain forms of equality is part of Cyrus’ leadership, insofar as he proclaims that the new, international freedmen who serve in his army will receive their necessities (Gk. epitedeia) “exactly as if they were his own Persians” (ὥσπερ καὶ τοῖς μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ Πέρσαις). Elsewhere in the Education of Cyrus Xenophon has Cyrus serving exactly the same kind of food to his friends that he himself eats (8.2.3-4).

Finally, it is difficult to say whether Xenophon would have felt that wealth was key to happiness. A lot might depend on what we mean by “wealth.” Typically, “being wealthy” means having a lot more money and resources than the average person, enough to live off of without having to work a job. In Xenophon’s universe there are several characters who are not wealthy but who nevertheless seem very happy. Socrates is probably the best example, especially as he is depicted in Xenophon’s Economicus in contrast to a man named Critobulus, who does have a lot of money but finds the obligations of managing it to be so stressful that he must ask Socrates for advice. Similarly, in the Education of Cyrus a Persian man named Pheraulas becomes immeasurably wealthy after starting out as a poor commoner in Cyrus army but decides to give it all away to a Sacian man because he does not want to manage it (Education of Cyrus 8.3.36-50). Pheraulas measures happiness by his friendships instead. 

In short, one could make a case that Xenophon and Xenophon’s Cyrus see freedom, dignity, and wealth, properly qualified, as important parts of happiness for some but they are probably not sufficient for happiness and some may even find wealth a burden. It is even possible that when a leader makes someone else wealthy, it may be seen as a blow to that person’s own sense of dignity. For example, Cyrus bestows tremendous wealth through the spoils of war on his uncle Cyaxares, who is the prince of Media. Cyaxares, however, finds this humiliating and threat to his own status (Education of Cyrus 5.5.25-34). Everything that a leader does can be problematic in terms of bringing happiness to the community.

Possible in-class activity: Discuss the impressions students had about the message each one of the four quotations might have had on an audience that celebrates Nowruz. Which quotation seems most consistent with President Trump’s agenda? Do any of the quotations conflict with it, e.g., in terms of his administration’s attitude toward foreigners, the country of Iran (whose citizens are descended from ancient Persia), freedom, dignity/equality, or wealth? Perhaps also discuss Islamic Iran, pre-Islamic Iran (i.e., ancient Persia), the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the Shah’s prior attempts to associate himself with Cyrus.

Cyrus and Evangelical Christianity

Xenophon’s text, or rather a misquote of an adaptation of a translation of Xenophon’s text, effectively mediates between President Trump and Cyrus. However, that mediation is complicated further by another aspect of Cyrus’ reception. Cyrus is an important figure not only for Zoroastrians, but also for evangelical Christians, to whom he represents one of God’s anointed pagans. Within the evangelical community, the equation of Trump with Cyrus is commonplace.

The most famous proponent of the theory that Trump is Cyrus reborn is Lance Wallnau, a former business strategist with a doctorate in ministry. In an article published last October, about a month before the election, Wallnau wrote about how struck he was by an image of Donald Trump captioned with “45th President of the United States.” He wrote, 

I heard the Spirit impress upon my mind, "Read Isaiah 45." To be honest, I didn't recall what the chapter was about. I opened a Bible and began to read, "Thus saith the Lord to Cyrus whom I've anointed."

Wallnau clarifies what Isaiah means by “anointed” a few paragraphs later:

When Isaiah described Cyrus as the Lord's "anointed," the word in Hebrew denotes a person specifically chosen and set apart for a specific task. It never occurred to me God anoints secular leaders who are not part of the faith community. Then again, how else would you describe Cyrus, Churchill, Lincoln or even Reagan?

Finally, he then specifically equates the two men:

From my perspective, there is a Cyrus anointing on Trump. He is, as my friend Kim Clement said three years ago, "God's trumpet." I predicted his nomination, and I believe he is the chaos candidate set apart to navigate us through the chaos that is coming to America. I think America is due for a shaking regardless of who is in office. I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus.

This theory quickly gained traction in the evangelical community. It provided a way to reconcile Trump’s apparently unChristian personal characteristics, particularly his unapologetic appetite for wealth and power, for a Christian audience: Cyrus was also rich and powerful, and not a believer, but still did the Lord’s work. 

The Cyrus quotation from the White House’s Nowruz statement could, therefore, simultaneously appeal to multiple audiences on multiple levels. Trump’s evangelical base could read the same quote in a completely different light from how Iranian immigrants and Iranian-Americans would read it – perhaps even in an opposite light. Consider, for example, Wallnau’s interpretation of the fuller Isaiah 45 passage:

"Thus says the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed, whose right hand I have held—to subdue nations before him and to loosen the loins of kings, to open doors before him so that the gates will not be shut: I will go before you and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of bronze and shatter the bars of iron" (Is. 45:1-2).

Wallnau writes, “These two phrases, ‘the house’ and ‘the wall,’ should make believers stop and wonder. This is a direct promise to the church and restoration to society. The controversy over ‘building the wall’ in current-day politics is more symbolic than people think. What do walls represent in the Bible? Proverbs 25:28 says ‘He who has no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down and without walls.’ America has become a nation without walls, a nation without self-government. We are out of control fiscally and physically on our borders.”

So even though Isaiah’s Cyrus was actually a breaker of walls, Wallnau interprets the connection between Cyrus and Trump as one that actually affirms the need for Trump’s promised wall across the Mexico border. An Iranian reader, on the other hand, coming from one of the countries that would be subject to the Trump administration’s proposed travel ban, might read Trump’s reference to Cyrus in a less anti-immigration light.

In short, the connection between Trump and Cyrus is filled with contradictory and competing readings and interpretations. It shows that equating one leader with another can have conflicting ideological motives and effects, and that substantial power is granted to the person – be he Wallnau, Xenophon, or any other writer – who defines the terms of the mediation between two leaders.

Possible in-class activity: discuss how comparisons between modern and historical leaders can be ideologically motivated, and how a single comparison can evoke different meanings for different audiences.

But Why Cyrus in Particular?

It is perhaps unsurprising that many twentieth-century Iranians see themselves in the tradition of their political founder. But why would Wallnau, Trump himself, or any modern American or European leader want to compare themselves to an ancient king whose name is not part of popular discourse in western Europe, and whose empire is sometimes (as in the popular and quite unhistorical Hollywood films 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire) portrayed as the antithesis of 'the West'?

The question is too complex to answer simply, of course. But we can see hints in historical texts ranging from Cyrus' own propaganda to colossal inscriptions on Persian cliffs to the aspirations of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Greek theories of leadership to Farsi epic about the history of the universe to American Founding Fathers' libraries to press releases from the United Nations in the late twentieth century. In a tradition that spans twenty-five hundred years, the figure of Cyrus the Great stands are one of the most co-opted symbols of a perfect leader whose subjects loved him and wanted him to lead them, whether or not they were themselves of Persian descent.

In the rest of this module we will examine just a few of the many hundreds of texts that might be chosen to describe Cyrus the Great and the Persian empire -- the divinely appointed 'King of Kings' whose universal rule would bring true peace and happiness for all mankind.


Part 1: The Cleansing Outsider as the King of the World

I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world (Cyrus the Great, ~539 BCE)

Candidate Trump, who had not previously held elected office, promised come to Washington as an outsider and, once in power, "drain the swamp".

Trump's specific claim gains generic plausibility from the intuitive plausibility of a universal claim: the leader who is not part of the corrupt system of government is free to transcend that system and to destroy it. A subtler implication, not claimed explicitly by candidate Trump, but embraced by Cyrus and perhaps also by parodic alt-right characterization of President Trump as 'God-Emperor Trump', is that, since the leader is outside the system, no system contains him.

The link between purification and universal rule appears in the oldest piece of Persian royal propaganda: the Cyrus Cylinder, a striking text supposedly composed by Cyrus himself to commemorate one of his most impressive victories. Here Cyrus, a Persian, is an ethnic outsider to Babylon. But Cyrus claims more than mere innocence of Babylonian corruption. He claims, further, that the supreme God of the Babylonians, Marduk himself, specifically called Cyrus to free the Babylonian people from the oppressive rule of its corrupt ruler.

Whether or not Cyrus wrote the text, he promulgated it and memorialized it on a baked clay cylinder that remains in rather good shape today.

The Cyrus Cylinder


The British Museum currently holds a 2500-year-old cylinder of clay, roughly nine inches long and four inches in diameter, unearthed in 1879, dating from the Persian conquest of the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE.

The conqueror was Cyrus; the text is written by Cyrus, or at least in Cyrus’ voice. But it is written in Babylonian -- the language of the conquered. And while of course its content praises Cyrus and the other Persian victors, it does not belittle the Babylonians. Far from it. Rather, it tells of a Cyrus, not only as liberator, but as specifically commanded to liberate the Babylonian people by Marduk, the Babylonian’s own supreme God, from their evil ruler Nabonidus, who had oppressed the people so horribly that the rest of the gods had actually left Babylon in order to avoid Nabonidus’ bad rule. But Marduk loved his people, so he specifically called Cyrus, a non-Babylonian, to return peace -- and true religion -- to Babylon:

[When ... Mar]duk, king of the whole of heaven and earth, the ....... who, in his ..., lays waste his.......
[........................................................................] broad? in intelligence, ...... who inspects (?) the wor]ld quarters (regions)
[..............................................................…] his [first]born (=Belshazzar), a low person, was put in charge of his country,
but [..................................................................................] he set [a (…) counter]feit over them.
He ma[de] a counterfeit of Esagil, [and .............]... for Ur and the rest of the cult-cities.
Rites inappropriate to them, [impure] fo[od-offerings ….......................................................] disrespectful […] were daily gabbled, and, as an insult,
he brought the daily offerings to a halt; he inter[fered with the rites and] instituted […....] within the sanctuaries. In his mind, reverential fear of Marduk, king of the gods, came to an end.
He did yet more evil to his city every day; … his [people ................…], he brought ruin on them all by a yoke without relief.
Enlil-of-the-gods became extremely angry at their complaints, and […] their territory. The gods who lived within them left their shrines,
angry that he had made (them) enter into Shuanna (Babylon). Ex[alted Marduk, Enlil-of-the-Go]ds, relented. He changed his mind about all the settlements whose sanctuaries were in ruins,
and the population of the land of Sumer and Akkad who had become like corpses, and took pity on them. He inspected and checked all the countries,
seeking for the upright king of his choice. He took the hand of Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, and called him by his name, proclaiming him aloud for the kingship over all of everything.
He made the land of Guti and all the Median troops prostrate themselves at his feet, while he shepherded in justice and righteousness the black-headed people
whom he had put under his care. Marduk, the great lord, who nurtures his people, saw with pleasure his fine deeds and true heart,
and ordered that he should go to Babylon. He had him take the road to Tintir (Babylon), and, like a friend and companion, he walked at his side.
His vast troops whose number, like the water in a river, could not be counted, were marching fully-armed at his side.
He had him enter without fighting or battle right into Shuanna; he saved his city Babylon from hardship. He handed over to him Nabonidus, the king who did not fear him.
All the people of Tintir, of all Sumer and Akkad, nobles and governors, bowed down before him and kissed his feet, rejoicing over his kingship and their faces shone.
The lord through whose help all were rescued from death and who saved them all from distress and hardship, they blessed him sweetly and praised his name.
I am Cyrus, king of the universe, the great king, the powerful king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters of the world,
son of Cambyses, the great king, king of the city of Anshan, grandson of Cyrus, the great king, ki[ng of the ci]ty of Anshan, descendant of Teispes, the great king, king of the city of Anshan,
the perpetual seed of kingship, whose reign Bel (Marduk)and Nabu love, and with whose kingship, to their joy, they concern themselves. When I went as harbinger of peace i[nt]o Babylon
I founded my sovereign residence within the palace amid celebration and rejoicing. Marduk, the great lord, bestowed on me as my destiny the great magnanimity of one who loves Babylon, and I every day sought him out in awe.
My vast troops were marching peaceably in Babylon, and the whole of [Sumer] and Akkad had nothing to fear.
I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon […, w]ho as if without div[ine intention] had endured a yoke not decreed for them,
I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds(?). Marduk, the great lord, rejoiced at [my good] deeds,
and he pronounced a sweet blessing over me, Cyrus, the king who fears him, and over Cambyses, the son [my] issue, [and over] my all my troops,
that we might live happily in his presence, in well-being. At his exalted command, all kings who sit on thrones,
from every quarter, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, those who inhabit [remote distric]ts (and) the kings of the land of Amurru who live in tents, all of them,
brought their weighty tribute into Shuanna, and kissed my feet. From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa,
Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti - the sanctuaries across the river Tigris - whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated,
the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements,
and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord,
I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries,
every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son,
may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace.” Every day I increased by [… ge]ese, two ducks and ten pigeons the [former offerings] of geese, ducks and pigeons.
I strove to strengthen the defences of the wall Imgur-Enlil, the great wall of Babylon,
and [I completed] the quay of baked brick on the bank of the moat which an earlier king had bu[ilt but not com]pleted its work.
[I.... which did not surround the city] outside, which no earlier king had built, his workforce, the levee [from his land, in/int]o Shuanna.
[........................................................................with bitum]en and baked brick I built anew, and [completed] its [work].
[..............................................................] great [doors of cedar wood] with bronze cladding,
[and I installed] all their doors, threshold slabs and door fittings with copper parts. [….......................]. I saw within it an inscription of Ashurbanipal, a king who preceded me;
[...................................................] in its place. May Marduk, the great lord, present to me as a gift a long life and the fullness of age,
[a secure throne and an enduring rei]gn, [and may I …... in] your heart forever.

(translated by Robert William Rogers in 1912; here is a slightly more up-to-date translation, but the public-domain translation above is good enough)

“Well okay,” you say. “It’s nice that Cyrus said he was the liberator blah blah. And it’s actually kind of interesting that he says that Marduk called him to liberate the Babylonians from their oh-so-awful ruler. But that’s just propaganda.”

Fair enough. But weaving yourself into a conquered people’s own stories of cosmic justice is weird all on its own. Normally you just declare your gods superior to theirs -- not that their gods specifically called you to liberate them.) But strangest thing is that Cyrus’ aren’t the only words to describe him this way. The propaganda seems to come -- and keeps coming -- from non-Persians too.

Modern Iran and the U.N. Secretary-General on Cyrus' Universal Rule

The ‘Cyrus cylinder’ (as it is simply called)  is sometimes cited as the first declaration of human rights -- and yet it is a text written in the voice of the conqueror, on the occasion of conquest, not perhaps an occasion one would generally consider the zenith of human rights.

And yet in 1971 -- three years after the first International Conference on Human Rights, convened in Tehran (the capital of Iran and one of the largest cities in the world) in 1968 -- when the Iranian royal family presented a replica of the Cyrus cylinder to the United Nations, no less an international diplomat than the Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant -- who in fact served as Secretary-General to the U.N. for ten years -- had this to say:

Another replica of man’s early attempts to establish peace in the world now graces this corridor, the scene of our present-day efforts towards the same end.

In creating the Persian empire twenty-five hundred years ago, Cyrus displayed the wisdom of respecting the civilizations and peoples whom he “unified” under his sway. He conquered discreetly, sparing capitals, leaders and officials. His clemency in victory and his understanding of the wishes of the people under his rule were unprecedented in the annals of the ancient Near East.
Since the General Assembly is currently seized with the question of Respect for Human Rights in Armed Conflict, this ancient document could not be more timely.

(from the official U. N. press release; facsimile here)

In other words, in 1971, on the anniversary of Cyrus the Great’s founding of the Persian empire, the Secretary-General of the United Nations saw himself as acting in the tradition of Cyrus the Great precisely in the context of establishing world peace.

Some ancient non-Persian peoples apparently thought about Cyrus along similar lines.

This apparently included -- to a limited extent -- the conquered Babylonians themselves.

The Nabonidus Chronicle: Babylonian Astronomers on Cyrus' Peaceful Conquest

Ancient Babylonians tracked time precisely by the position of the stars and recorded major events in each year. Fragments of the Babylonian chronicle of Nabonidus (the king that Cyrus defeated) have survived. In a few key passages Cyrus himself is mentioned; several corroborate the account of the Cyrus cylinder.

The setup (available here) is religiously bleak. The Babylonian gods have failed to appear at numerous rituals. Some rituals (such as the new year / planting festival Akitu) were not held at all. The Babylonian chronicle does not evaluate these events, but the chronicle’s picture of unhappy gods and irreligiosity seems to resemble the picture painted by the Cyrus cylinder.

Then Cyrus appears, and immediately the Babylonian army defects to his side:

The sixth year Astyages mustered (his army) and marched against Cyrus, king of Anšan, for conquest [...]
The army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. Th[ey handed him over] to Cyrus. ([...])
Cyrus <marched> to Ecbatana, the royal city. The silver, gold, goods, property, [...]
In the month Nisanu, Cyrus, king of Parsu, mustered his army and
crossed the Tigris below Arbela. In the month Ajaru, he marched to the land of…
He killed its king, took his possessions, (and) stationed his own garrison (there) [...]
and Sippar did not enter (Babylon). When Cyrus did battle at Opis on the [bank of]
the Tigris against the army of Akkad, the people of Akkad
retreated. He carried off the plunder (and) slaughtered the people. On the fourteenth day Sippar was captured without a battle.
Nabonidus fled. On the sixteenth day, Ugbaru, governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus, without battle
they entered Babylon
. Afterwards, after Nabonidus retreated, he was captured in Babylon. Until the end of the month, the shield-(bearing troops)
from Gutium surrounded the gates of Esagil. (But) interruption (of rites) in Esagil or the (other) temples
there was not, and no date (for a performance) was missed. On the third day of the month Arahsamna, Cyrus entered Babylon.
The harû-vessels were filled before him. There was peace in the city while Cyrus, (his) greeting to
Babylon in its entirety spoke. Gubaru, his district officer, appointed the district officers in Babylon.
[From the month Kislimu to the month Addaru, the gods of Akkad which Nabonidus had brought to Babylon
returned to their places.

(Nabonidus Chronicle, ii.1-iii.22, excerpted from here

Note the claims that appear in both the chronicle and the Cyrus Cylinder: the willingness of Cyrus’ enemies to follow (even defect to) him; the peacefulness of Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon; the Babylonian gods’ happiness with Cyrus’ victory.

Cyrus' propaganda is apparently spread by Babylonian texts as well.

Or, less cynically: for the Babylonians too, being conquered by Cyrus is apparently a good thing.

The Babylonian chronicles are not widely known outside of scholarly circles. The text is admittedly quite fragmentary and interpretation involves rather a lot of filling-in-the-gaps. But the figure of Cyrus as world ruler chosen by God to free people from their unholy rulers and now beloved by his new subjects also appears almost two dozen times in the most widely read book ever written.

The Hebrew Bible: Cyrus the Messiah

The Hebrew Bible mentions Cyrus twenty-three times, every time in glowing terms, usually as a deliberately chosen instrument of God, usually in connection with the worship of the Hebrew God (particularly the rebuilding of the temple), often in explicitly messianic terms. Here are just two passages that paint a Cyrus very similar -- but from a Hebrew perspective -- to the Cyrus painted in Babylonian on the Cyrus cylinder.

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord (יהוה‏) moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing:

“This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:

“‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.

Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.

(Ezra 1.1-7, NIV translation)

As the Cyrus Cylinder claims that Cyrus was called by the Babylonian God Marduk to liberate the Babylonians, so this passage from the book of Ezra claims that Cyrus was called by the Hebrew God Yahweh (יהוה‏) to liberate the Hebrews from exile. The Persian Cyrus, who has no personal interest in Hebrew religion, nevertheless benefits this non-Persian people by following the command of their God.

In the book of Isaiah, Cyrus' divine anointment is even more explicit. The Hebrew God (יהוה‏) addresses Cyrus the 'Messiah' (משיח):

“This is what the Lord says to his anointed (משיח),
   to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
   and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
   so that gates will not be shut:
 I will go before you
   and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
   and cut through bars of iron.
 I will give you hidden treasures,
   riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
   the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
For the sake of Jacob my servant,
   of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
   and bestow on you a title of honor,
   though you do not acknowledge me.

(Isaiah 45.1-4, NIV translation)

Again the other people's God selects (here literally 'anoints') Cyrus as their religious savior. The gates of all enemies open before him, as the gates of Babylon opened before him in the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle. Note, however, the additional affirmation of Cyrus' religious pluralism: the Hebrew God will honor Cyrus, and fight on his side, even though Cyrus does not acknowledge him. The Hebrew text declares Cyrus God's anointed without making him one of the chosen people.

Greek Historiography: Cyrus the Liberator from Toil and Slavery

The Greek Herodotus -- often considered the ‘father of [European] history’ -- is less interested in Cyrus’ divine mission, perhaps because Herordotus is generally less (although still often) interested in the role of the gods in human history than (for example) Babylonian astronomers and Hebrew prophets are. Herodotus' text focuses especially on the succession of empires in his corner of the world -- what we would now perhaps call western Eurasia -- which eventually led to the wars between Greeks and Persians that his readers perhaps remembered only too well.

For Herodotus' Greeks, the Persians are a great enemy. But Herodotus does not villainize Persians as a people, and the story he tells of Cyrus' rise to power is consistent with Near Eastern ruler mythologies and with later Greek and Persian accounts of Cyrus himself (that may however have been influenced by Herodotus' version).

Herodotus’ Cyrus is also a liberator -- but of the Persians themselves from the Medes, the people whose empire was the largest until Cyrus' Persian empire. In Herodotus’ version, Cyrus’ liberation of the Persians is also the founding of the first Persian state, the event commemorated by a huge Iranian festival in 1971, the year of the U. N. document quoted above.

Earlier in Herodotus' tale, Cyrus’ future lordship over the world had been confirmed by numerous signs and prophecies, starting before he was born. Now, when it finally comes time to overthrow the king of the Medes, he maneuvers the Persians to want themselves to rebel, by showing them how much better life in freedom can be:

When Cyrus heard this, he considered how most cunningly he might persuade the Persians to revolt; and this he thought most apt to the occasion, and this he did: writing what he would on a paper, he gathered an assembly of the Persians, and then unfolded the paper and declared that therein Astyages appointed him leader of the Persian armies. “Now,” said he in his speech, “I bid you all, men of Persia, to come each of you with a sickle.” (There are many tribes in Persia: those of them whom Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt from the Medes were the Pasargadae, the Maraphii, and the Maspii. On these hang all the other Persians. The chief tribe is that of the Pasargadae; to them belongs the clan of the Achaemenidae, the royal house of Persia. The other Persian tribes are the Panthialaei, the Derusiaei, and the Germanii, all tillers of the soil, and the Dai, the Mardi, the Dropici, the Sagartii, all wandering herdsmen.)

So when they all came with sickles as commanded, Cyrus bade them clear and make serviceable in one day a certain thorny tract of Persia, of eighteen or twenty furlongs each way in extent. The Persians accomplished the appointed task; Cyrus then commanded them to wash themselves and come on the next day; and meanwhile, gathering together his father’s goats and sheep and oxen in one place, he slew and prepared them as a feast for the Persian host, providing also wine and all foods that were most suitable. When the Persians came on the next day he made them sit and feast in a meadow. After dinner he asked them which pleased them best, their task of yesterday or their present state. They answered that the difference was great: all yesterday they had had nought but evil, to-day nought but good. Then taking their word from their mouths Cyrus laid bare all his purpose, and said: “This is your case, men of Persia: obey me and you shall have these good things and ten thousand others besides with no toil and slavery; but if you will not obey me you will have labours unnumbered, like to your toil of yesterday. Now, therefore, do as I bid you, and win your freedom. For I think that I myself was born by a marvellous providence to take this work in hand; and I deem you full as good men as the Medes in war and in all else. All this is true wherefore now revolt from Astyages with all speed!”

The Persians had long been ill content that the Medes should rule them, and now having got them a champion they were glad to win their freedom.

(Herodotus, Histories, 1.125-127, translated by Alfred Godley in 1920; full text here; with original Greek in sidebar here)

Perhaps some God has chosen Cyrus, as in Cyrus' words here and in the Persian and Hebrew texts quoted above. But in Herodotus the proof of the excellence of Cyrus' rule lies in his subjects' experience of freedom, not in his anointment by a God. The command of this king brings his subjects out of slavery; the effect of following this king is happiness. Moreover, the group Cyrus liberates is not a monolithic 'Persia', which has not yet been constituted as a unity. Rather, Herodotus emphasizes the diversity of Cyrus' soon-to-be-Persian-followers by listing the various tribes and their professions, all of which choose to follow Cyrus together. As he first comes to power, Cyrus leads the many sub-groups of Persians; soon his benevolent rule will extend beyond all the Persian tribes to include all the non-Persian peoples in the region as well.

Note Herodotus' emphasis on the importance of Persian discontent toward their rulers. Compare the role of majority dissatisfaction in many populist power structures, discussed in an another module of this course.

Greek Quasi-Biography: Cyrus the Leader That Even Foreigners Want to Follow

The supposed willingness of Cyrus’ subjects -- more than this, the desire of his subjects to follow him -- is a core concern of Xenophon himself, whose work we have seen spectacularly mangled above. The Cyropaedia opens with some puzzlement over whether people want to be ruled at all -- note, as in Herodotus’ story, the apparently incontestable universal appeal of freedom -- but presents the figure of Cyrus as something of a surprising answer to the paradox of ‘leadership of the free’:

...Thus, as we meditated on this analogy [in which Xenophon contrasts domesticated herd animals, who generally follow their leaders, with humans, who generally not not like to be ruled], we were inclined to conclude that for man, as he is constituted, it is easier to rule over any and all other creatures than to rule over men. But when we reflected that there was one Cyrus, the Persian, who reduced to obedience a vast number of men and cities and nations, we were then compelled to change our opinion and decide that to rule men might be a task neither impossible nor even difficult, if one should only go about it in an intelligent manner. At all events, we know that people obeyed Cyrus willingly, although some of them were distant from him a journey of many days, and others of many months; others, although they had never seen him, and still others who knew well that they never should see him. Nevertheless they were all willing to be his subjects.

(Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.1.3)

The Cyropaedia proceeds to explain how this thing that Xenophon once thought generally impossible for any human could possibly be true. The answer is: well, Cyrus was apparently really that Great. The rest of the work is about exactly what makes him so Great. Which attributes Xenophon things make a leader as Great as Cyrus are beyond the scope of this module and this course; but check out this module from another course by Dr. Norman Sandridge, some of whose scholarly work focuse on the Cyropaedia directly.

Note that, while the Persian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and Greek sources all present Cyrus as someone who brings freedom and happiness to his subjects (Persian or otherwise), the Greek sources much more strongly emphasize the consent of those subjects -- not just the selection by their God. These Greek authors' political philosophies are shaped by a particular form of democracy, the sort of political constitution we discuss in another module. It is perhaps due to this Greek interest in the consent of the governed and attribution of this consent to Cyrus' subjects that Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams all owned copies of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia -- though apparently John Adams found his first read-through rather dull.

Cyrus Literally Drains the Babylonian Swamp

Herodotus and Xenophon preserve a story about the conquest of Babylon that the Persian and Babylonian sources don't -- but which at a symbolic level seems to harmonize oddly with Trump's own imagery.

Both the Cyrus Cylinder nor the Chronicle of Nabonidus claim that Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle. But neither explains how he accomplished this -- an incredible feat, it would seem, because Babylon was renowned for its impregnable fortifications (many of which survive spectacularly), and because archaeological evidence suggests that Nabonidus had carefully transported a great deal of Babylonian wealth (including gods) within the walls of Babylon, presumably because he expected that the city would be difficult to take.

Herodotus, however, claims that Cyrus took Babylon by diverting the great river Euphrates so that the water surrounding the city would low enough that his men could walk through:

Then at the beginning of the following spring, when Cyrus had punished the Gyndes by dividing it among the three hundred and sixty canals, he marched against Babylon at last. The Babylonians sallied out and awaited him; and when he came near their city in his march, they engaged him, but they were beaten and driven inside the city. There they had stored provisions enough for very many years, because they knew already that Cyrus was not a man of no ambition, and saw that he attacked all nations alike; so now they were indifferent to the siege; and Cyrus did not know what to do, being so long delayed and gaining no advantage.

Whether someone advised him in his difficulty, or whether he perceived for himself what to do, I do not know, but he did the following. He posted his army at the place where the river goes into the city, and another part of it behind the city, where the river comes out of the city, and told his men to enter the city by the channel of the Euphrates when they saw it to be fordable. Having disposed them and given this command, he himself marched away with those of his army who could not fight; and when he came to the lake, Cyrus dealt with it and with the river just as had the Babylonian queen: drawing off the river by a canal into the lake, which was a marsh, he made the stream sink until its former channel could be forded. When this happened, the Persians who were posted with this objective made their way into Babylon by the channel of the Euphrates, which had now sunk to a depth of about the middle of a man's thigh.

(Herodotus, Histories 1.190-191)

Xenophon (Cyropaedia 7.5.15) tells a similar story. There is no direct archaeological evidence that this actually happened, but Babylonian texts and indirect archaeological evidence (of possible fortifications at canal mouths) show that Babylonians were at least aware that a lowered Euphrates might threaten the city of Babylon and took some measures to prevent enemies from doing what Cyrus did. Whatever Cyrus actually did, the image of the king as master of rivers and swamps harmonizes symbolically with the concept of the outsider who conquers a corrupt empire in order to cleanse it of its leaders' sins.

But why should anyone believe such a ruler’s claims? What is to prevent truth and power from coming apart? In modern terms: how do you know which "news" (about Cyrus, or Trump, or anyone with an incentive to portray themselves in a particular light) is "fake news" and which is the truth?

Of course a leader can be a liar too.

A Persian king twenty years after Cyrus had a monumental response to this objection. In the most spectacular of all ancient Persian rock-carvings, this king claimed that the alliance between the (Persian) leader and the truth was not an accident.

Part 2: God's Warrior Against the Lie

You who shall be king hereafter, protect yourself vigorously from lies; punish the liars well, if thus you shall think, 'May my country be secure!' (Darius the Great,  ~500 BCE)

When an outsider frees a people from their evil leaders, the outsider's new regime is legitimated in part by its moral superiority to the old. But where moral superiority and leadership align -- especially when the leadership is global -- the line between country and cosmos can grow fuzzy, and line between religion and rule can become blurred.

Moreover, when a ruler takes power by the will of God, the ruler must maintain power in accord with the will of God. If God exists and rules the world, then the human who rules the world must at least not disagree with God. But how can a ruler agree with God? Or more pragmatically: how can a ruler make themselves seem to agree with God?
In this section we'll consider one way a leader might present themselves as morally aligned with God -- a way both Trump and Persian kings have apparently taken. 

Let's imagine, rather cynically, and with no particular aim at historicity, the thought-process of a hypothetical leader whose cold, calculating purpose is simply to find something that everyone thinks is bad, that the leader can then present themselves as opposing:
Well, let's see. What does everyone think is bad? Killing? Well, what about war? or revenge? No, I guess some killing is's too complex to distinguish moral superiority. How about rape? No, lots of ancient peoples are perfectly fine with rape -- and lots of modern people too. Even if people claim it's wrong, plenty of people don't care enough to do much about it. Racism? Nope, clearly some people feel strongly that racism is bad and others -- like, say, people who commit genocide -- feel strongly that it is just fine. Lets' go down the list...

...hang on, what about lying? Surely nobody wants anyone to tell them a lie. Maybe it's fine to lie to your enemies, but it is absolutely never fine to lie to anyone who is actually thinking about lying.

There we go. Lying is the thing that everyone thinks is bad. I will oppose it and everyone will follow me.
As far as we know, nobody ever thought exactly these thoughts. But during the 2016 presidential campaign, both sides regularly accused one another of lying (Trump liar compilationHillary liar compilation) -- even when many of the statements called 'lies' were merely contradictory to one another, sometimes separated by years or even decades, that through themselves indicate only rhetorical incoherence or even simply a change of mind over time. Perhaps the accuser interprets the speaker of inconsistency as a liar because both inconsistent statements can't simultaneously be true, and the same individual spoke both statements -- albeit without any internal indication of intent to deceive. The danger of the lie is so great that the mere accusation 'liar' is enough to produce opposition.

The importance of truth-telling in leadership has become more explicit over the course of the Trump presidency. The term "fake news" once referred to evidence-free stories circulated on social media, often published on sites leaning to the right and criticized by media leaning to the left. But now President Trump has co-opted the term "fake news" to refer specifically to his opponents. Moreover, as both candidate and president, Trump has enjoyed and cultivated the reputation of someone who "tells it like it is". Trump is the truth-teller, the champion of the people; his enemies are liars, the deceivers of the people.

The truth/lies dichotomization in the Trump era also builds on years of broader politicized, dualistic accusations of dishonesty. Fox News presents itself as 'fair and balanced', not primarily because its own coverage is neutral, but because its right-leaning bias balances the left-leaning bias of the rest of the 'mainstream media' ('MSM'). German radicals since the middle of the nineteenth century (Marxists and Nazis alike) attacked the 'Lügenpresse' (‘lying-press’, a term recently revived by alt-right websites). The Gospel of John (8:44), Satan is called a liar (Greek: ψεύστης) and ‘the father of the lie’.

In this portion of the module we will consider an even more ancient deployment of the truth/lies dichotomy in a leader's self-presentation, specifically aimed at justifying rule and empire: a huge, fifty-by-eighty-foot carving on the side of Mt. Behistun (in modern Iran) by the Persian king Darius the Great.

The Behistun Inscription

This piece of Persian royal propaganda ties together three themes that either Trump himself or his supporters have also tied together: (1) combat against the lie, (2) appointment by God, and (3) restoration of the people's former glory.

The carving is still visible today:


The bottom half of the image is a picture of the Persian king (Darius himself) facing a row of smaller non-Persian kings, each dressed in recognizably ethnic clothing. (Note already the echoes of Cyrus: the peoples Darius rules are not necessarily Persian.) Darius is accompanied by a mysterious winged figure, later identified with Ahuramaza, the ‘Wise Lord’ and supreme God of Zoroastrianism.

The top half of the image is a text in three languages: Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite (a language now extinct and apparently not closely related to any other known language, but common in the southern part of the Persian empire at the time). An illiterate viewer might get the gist of the message by looking at the pictures alone, but a literate viewer didn’t need to know Persian in order to read the words of the Persian king.

Nor do you need to know much Old Persian to pick up the claim that ‘the lie’ -- Old Persian drauga -- is just about the worst thing there is, and that the job of the Persian king is -- with the grace of Ahuramazda -- to combat that lie.The inscription narrates Darius' rise to power, his consolidation of empire, his connection with the supreme God of the ancient Persian religion, and the mission of all future Kings of Kings.

The justification for all of this begins with a spectacular phrase, repeated in this and other Persian royal inscriptions: "and the lie multiplied in the land":

King Darius says: The following is what was done by me after I became king. A son of Cyrus, named Cambyses , one of our dynasty, was king here before me. That Cambyses had a brother, Smerdis by name, of the same mother and the same father as Cambyses. Afterwards, Cambyses slew this Smerdis. When Cambyses slew Smerdis, it was not known unto the people that Smerdis was slain. Thereupon Cambyses went to Egypt. When Cambyses had departed into Egypt, the people became hostile, and the lie multiplied in the land, even in Persia and Media, and in the other provinces.

King Darius says: Afterwards, there was a certain man, a Magian [maguš], Gaumâta by name, who raised a rebellion in Paishiyauvada, in a mountain called Arakadriš. On the fourteenth day of the month Viyaxana (11 March 522 BC) did he rebel. He lied to the people, saying: 'I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, the brother of Cambyses.' Then were all the people in revolt, and from Cambyses they went over unto him, both Persia and Media, and the other provinces. He seized the kingdom; on the ninth day of the month Garmapada (1 July 522 BC) he seized the kingdom. Afterwards, Cambyses died of natural causes.
King Darius says: The kingdom of which Gaumâta, the Magian, dispossessed Cambyses, had always belonged to our dynasty. After that Gaumâta, the Magian, had dispossessed Cambyses of Persia and Media, and of the other provinces, he did according to his will. He became king.

King Darius says: There was no man, either Persian or Mede or of our own dynasty, who took the kingdom from Gaumâta, the Magian. The people feared him exceedingly, for he slew many who had known the real Smerdis. For this reason did he slay them, 'that they may not know that I am not Smerdis, the son of Cyrus.' There was none who dared to act against Gaumâta, the Magian, until I came. Then I prayed to Ahuramazda; Ahuramazda brought me help. On the tenth day of the month Bâgayâdiš (29 September 522 BC) I, with a few men, slew that Gaumâta, the Magian, and the chief men who were his followers. At the stronghold called Sikayauvatiš, in the district called Nisaia in Media, I slew him; I dispossessed him of the kingdom. By the grace of Ahuramazda I became king; Ahuramazda granted me the kingdom.

King Darius says: The kingdom that had been wrested from our line I brought back and I reestablished it on its foundation. The temples which Gaumâta, the Magian, had destroyed, I restored to the people, and the pasture lands, and the herds and the dwelling places, and the houses which Gaumâta, the Magian, had taken away. I settled the people in their place, the people of Persia, and Media, and the other provinces. I restored that which had been taken away, as it was in the days of old. This did I by the grace of Ahuramazda, I labored until I had established our dynasty in its place, as in the days of old; I labored, by the grace of Ahuramazda, so that Gaumâta, the Magian, did not dispossess our house.

(Behistun Inscription, column 1, lines 10-15)

Note the convergence of these three very modern themes already in Darius' opening text. (1) The people were ruled by a liar; he lied to them and killed anyone who threatened to expose his lie. Nobody else opposed this lying king -- until Darius prayed to the supreme God, Ahuramazda. (2) Ahuramazda helped Darius overthrow the liar; (3) Darius restored the Persian empire to its former glory. Darius continues Cyrus' propagandistic themes -- the restoration of temples, the appointment by God -- but adds the theme of restoration, as a founder like Cyrus cannot as easily do, and strikingly introduces the theme of the lie.

But Darius does more than remove the evil ruler and replace that ruler with himself. The Persian king is also the King of Kings (Persian: shahanshah), the king of the universe (in the words of the Cyrus Cylinder), the ruler of many non-Persian peoples as well. Just as Darius called the previous Persian king a liar, so he accuses all the non-Persian kings -- rulers who did not want to remain subject to Darius' rule, the kings depicted on the top of the Behistun carving -- of lying to their people as well. Near the end of the inscription, Darius lists them and tells how each one of them lied:

King Darius says: This is what I have done. By the grace of Ahuramazda have I always acted. After I became king, I fought nineteen battles in a single year and by the grace of Ahuramazda I overthrew nine kings and I made them captive.

One was named Gaumâta, the Magian; he lied, saying 'I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus.' He made Persia to revolt.

Another was named ššina, the Elamite; he lied, saying: 'I am king the king of Elam.' He made Elam to revolt.

Another was named Nidintu-Bêl, the Babylonian; he lied, saying: 'I am Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabonidus.' He made Babylon to revolt.

Another was named Martiya, the Persian; he lied, saying: 'I am Ummanniš, the king of Elam.' He made Elam to revolt.

Another was Phraortes, the Mede; he lied, saying: 'I am Khshathrita, of the dynasty of Cyaxares.' He made Media to revolt.

Another was Tritantaechmes, the Sagartian; he lied, saying: 'I am king in Sagartia, of the dynasty of Cyaxares.' He made Sagartia to revolt.

Another was named Frâda, of Margiana; he lied, saying: 'I am king of Margiana.' He made Margiana to revolt.

Another was Vahyazdâta, a Persian; he lied, saying: 'I am Smerdis, the son of Cyrus.' He made Persia to revolt.

Another was Arakha, an Armenian; he lied, saying: 'I am Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabonidus.' He made Babylon to revolt.

King Darius says: These nine king did I capture in these wars.

King Darius says: As to these provinces which revolted, lies made them revolt, so that they deceived the people. Then Ahuramazda delivered them into my hand; and I did unto them according to my will.

(Behistun Inscription, column 4, lines 52-55)

Darius' enemies' lies were precisely that they claimed to be kings, legitimated by descent from kings. Their kingdoms (which Darius considers provinces) were deceived by these lies; in fact, the lies themselves (not the people's will!) made the people revolt. Note how the accusation of the lie allows Darius to transfer blame from his rebellious subjects to their 'lying' leaders. Darius follows Cyrus in presenting himself as a liberator of the people from their evil leaders without needing to claim that the people he conquered welcomed him with open arms -- a claim that, in Cyrus' case, is at least made plausible by the corroborating Nabonidus Chronicle, but which in Darius' case is apparently unevidenced.

So far Darius has presented himself, first, as the only leader with the courage to oppose the 'lie that multiplied in the land'; second, the conqueror of a whole set of 'lying' kings; and third, the servant of the supreme God Ahuramazda. But why did Ahuramazda choose Darius in particular? The last section of the inscription explains:

King Darius says: On this account Ahuramazda brought me help, and all the other gods, all that there are, because I was not wicked, nor was I a liar, nor was I a despot, neither I nor any of my family. I have ruled according to righteousness. Neither to the weak nor to the powerful did I do wrong. Whosoever helped my house, him I favored; he who was hostile, him I destroyed.

King Darius says: You who may be king hereafter, whosoever shall be a liar or a rebel, or shall not be friendly, punish him!

(Behistun Inscription, column 4, lines 63-64)

As Darius follows in Cyrus' tradition of freeing the people from oppressive corruption, and as Ahuramazda wished Darius to punish the lying kings, so Darius exhorts future kings to do the same.

But What If the Guy Who Accuses Others of Lying Is the Biggest Liar of All: Herodotus Subverts Darius' 'Truth-Telling' Self-Presentation

You might respond to the carving on Behistun: "Okay, so Darius claims to be a truth-teller, well that's nice, but of course any liar would say the same thing." The Greek historian Herodotus may have thought something similar. At any rate, he seems to have deliberately subverted Darius' claim to truth-telling by putting an explicit theoretical justification of lying in Darius' mouth, at a crucial moment in Herodotus' own account of how Darius came to power. For Herodotus, Darius' coup against the 'lying king' Smerdis only worked, not only because Darius invented a clever lie, but also insisted that some lies are acceptable, even necessary, for the sake of the greater good:

To this [Darius has just tried to force his fellow conspirators to act immediately, or else Darius will reveal the conspiracy to the pretend-king] Otanes [a co-conspirator with close ties to the royal family, who had been more or less the leader of the coup until Darius joined] replied, seeing Darius' vehemence, “Since you force us to hurry and will tolerate no delay, tell us now yourself how we shall pass into the palace and attack them. For you know yourself, I suppose, if not because you have seen them then you have heard, that guards are stationed all around; how shall we go past the guards?”

“Otanes,” answered Darius, “there are many things that cannot be described in words, but in deed; and there are other things that can be described in words, but nothing illustrious comes of them. You know well that the guards who are set are easy to go by. There is no one who will not allow us to pass, from respect or from fear, because of who we are; and further, I have myself the best pretext for entering, for I shall say that I have just arrived from Persia and have a message for the king from my father. When it is necessary to lie, lie (ἔνθα γάρ τι δεῖ ψεῦδος λέγεσθαι, λεγέσθω). For we want the same thing, liars and those who tell the truth; some lie to win credence and advantage by lies, while others tell the truth in order to obtain some advantage by the truth and to be more trusted; thus we approach the same ends by different means. If the hope of advantage were taken away, the truth-teller would be as ready to lie as the liar to tell the truth. Now if any of the watchmen willingly let us pass, it will be better for him later. But if any tries to withstand us, let us note him as an enemy, and so thrust ourselves in and begin our work.”

(Herodotus, Histories 3.72)

Herodotus’ depiction of Darius seems so directly opposed to the story carved on Mt. Behistun that some scholars believe that Darius commissioned the inscription precisely in order to claim legitimacy for a rule that was obviously illegitimate -- or that Herodotus actually saw the inscription (or a copy) and directly attacked Darius’ claim that he came to power by siding with the truth against the lie. The aggressive claimant to truth-teller status, Herodotus perhaps suggests, is perhaps instead the liar who protests lying too much.

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