This painting by Jean-Simon Berthélemy is generally known as The Beheading of Cyrus III, which is slightly misleading. It is based on Herodot’s account of the death of Cyrus the Great (Kourosh-e-Bozorg) who was the second, not the third ruler of his name.

Herodot relates that Cyrus wanted to acquire the realm of the Massagetae, at first by proposing marriage to their widowed queen Tomyris (Tamrayis). When she refused, he tried to conquer the territory. Tomyris challenged him to an open battle, but he resorted to a trick: Knowing that the Massagetae were unaccustomed to wine, he left a great amount of this fluid in a poorly defended camp. Cyrus easily defeated his intoxicated enemies and captured their commander Spargapises, Tomyris’ son. The queen sent him the following message:

“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.”

But Cyrus wouldn’t listen, Spargapises killed himself out of shame, Tomyris gathered the rest of her troups and completely obliterated the Persian army in a fierce battle.

Tomyris filled a skin with human blood, and searched among the Persian dead for Cyrus’ body; and when she found it, she pushed his head into the skin, and insulted the dead man in these words: “Though I am alive and have defeated you in battle, you have destroyed me, taking my son by guile; but just as I threatened, I give you your fill of blood.” Many stories are told of Cyrus’ death; this, that I have told, is the most credible.

Indeed, there are as many stories as there are authors who told it, but Herodot’s version seems to have stuck, and Tomyris became a popular figure, mentioned by many authors. She was often included in lists of female equivalents of the Nine Worthies, and the scene has been the subject of paintings and engravings.

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