One more, following up on Epimenides and Akhenaten – this time a person named in the Bible and one whose relationship to the idea of monotheism was a bit looser – but that’s getting ahead. Cyrus the Great started out as Cyrus the only kind of big deal. He was king of a comparatively small region called Anshan. He clashed with another such territory (Ecbatana) held by one of the Median tribal chieftains and quickly doubled his holdings. To simplify a lot of political and military stuff – there was an alliance between Cyrus and the whole of the Medes. The Medes perceived they were getting the short end of the stick in this partnership and rebelled. Cyrus crushed the Medes and the Medo-Persian Empire becomes the Persian Empire with Cyrus now a Really Big Deal. Somewhere in the middle of the cooperative period, the Medo-Persian forces also conquered Babylon. This is reflected in the book of Daniel with Belshazzar and the handwriting on the wall. In the end, Cyrus held all the Median territories and all the Babylonian territories and others. For instance. in acquiring Babylon – Cyrus also acquired Israel which Babylon had conquered earlier.
Despite the brutality of his rapid military expansion (Especially if you ask the Medes!) Cyrus the Great also goes down in history as Cyrus the Humane. Certainly the Jews fared much better under the Persians than under the Babylonians – barring that potential setback in the book of Esther – but that part comes well after the death of Cyrus who only held his vast empire for 9 years before passing on in 530 BC. Anyway – that humane thing:
The Babylonians had practiced cultural annihilation in the course of their conquests. For instance, with Israel – they had taken what they considered the best and brightest of the Jewish population and shipped them off to other portions of the empire where they might serve Babylonian interests. At the same time, they relocated a lot of non-Jews from other regions they had conquered to Israel and forced a lot of mixed marriages. The result was the Samaritans who populated Palestine at the time Israel returned – a return arranged by Cyrus – as predicted by Isaiah (44:28, 45:1) and as reported in the first chapter of the book of Ezra and II Chronicles 36:22-3. The famous Cylinder of Cyrus – discovered in the 19th Century uses language mirroring that of II Chronicles – only referring to lots of peoples and territories – not just the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar had taken captive peoples from their homes and relocated them. Cyrus let them all go home and endorsed and sought the favor of all the various gods of their various tribes and territories in the process. (Cyrus figured all the territorial gods were really manifestations of one larger God) Cyrus even helped finance all these home-goings and provided a certain amount of legal protection for all the returning refugee groups since it was certain the people the Babylonians had settled in all those lands would not be glad to see the original inhabitants returning.
This was, indeed, humane. Of course, Cyrus was also self-interested. Cyrus knew what happened to the old Assyrian kingdoms. The Medes and Babylonians happened to them. And Cyrus knew that he, himself, leading the Persian Empire had happened to the Medes and Babylonians. And Cyrus was keeping a keen eye on what, he was sure, would be the next Big Dog – those Greeks off in the West. For what it’s worth, Cyrus was right. Alexander the Great would swallow up the empire built by Cyrus the Great. But it would take a while and lots of Greeks before the rise of Alexander would fail to get it done: partly because Cyrus established a lot of semi-independent Persian Vassal States, each with a fierce new interest in defending their own territory and ALL of them between him and the Greeks! All of this is also in the background of the book of Esther. The later Persian King, Ahasuerus, was totally consumed with worry over the steady advance of the Greeks. The big six-month party featured in Esther was an attempt to make sure of his alliances with all those vassal states – to make sure they’d rather fight (for the Persians) than switch (allegiance to the Greeks).
OK – again – why should you want to know all this? I find that those not disposed to take the historical accuracy and authenticity of the Bible seriously fall into two equal but opposite errors.