Kyros and Deiokes in Herodotos’ Histories

Maria Sarinaki

Among the most crucial details in the Herodotean account of Kyros I of Persia is the episode in which the ten-year-old boy, still considered ‘the son of the shepherd’, betrays his actual dynastic origin while playing the king with his friends (1.114-119).  This paper focuses on an aspect of the episode that has not so far received scholarly attention.  My argument is that Kyros’ behavior is modeled explicitly on the policy of his maternal ancestor Deiokes, founder of the Median Empire (1.96-101). A comparison of the two passages reveals striking similarities regarding the way the two characters are unanimously chosen as kings, the steps they take in organizing their rule (building a palace, appointing specific magistrates), and their role in the distribution of justice.

Seeing Kyros as an echo of his remote great-grandfather has considerable implications for his function in the Histories.  Through this structural and thematic link, Herodotos a) underlines Kyros’ legitimate right to the throne, by demonstrating the innate royal attributes that his grandfather Astyages has tried to eliminate; b) qualifies Kyros specifically as ‘the first king’, thus alluding to his prospect of creating the new kingdom of Persia rather than continuing the Median rule; c) integrates both figures in a common pattern of the idealized ‘father’ whose successors progressively deviate from him; d) illustrates his cyclical view of nature, formulated as a programmatic thesis early on (1.5.3-4), by equating the respective founders of two kingdoms, of which the one succeeded the other; e) draws attention to Kyros’ double identity (Median and Persian), which reflects the Herodotean interest in crossing ethnic boundaries; and f) introduces the issue of territorial restraint, which Deiokes consciously privileges (1.101), and which Kyros himself eventually fails to apply, with the exception of the passage that most profoundly exalts him, i.e. the anecdote concluding the Histories (9.122).

In a broader context, the Kyros-Deiokes parallel contributes essentially to Herodotos’ narrative goals.  It offers a model for imperial behavior that entails strong criticism of any expansionist ambition.  As such, it provides a unifying perspective for evaluating the course of all the Eastern monarchies, the Ionian Revolt and the Persian Wars.  Through the theme of double ethnicity, it makes Kyros a foil of Herodotos himself (Ionian and Karian), which, in conjunction with other remarkable similarities between the two (symbolic thought, gaining knowledge through traveling), suggests that the former should be treated as the spokesman of the latter.  In such case, we may conclude that the final anecdote of the Histories, where the anti-expansionist message is morally and philosophically condensed, is the ending Herodotos intended.  For all these reasons, the analogy I am proposing reinforces the validity of the Histories not simply as Herodotos’ response to the Persian Wars, but also as his anticipatory comment on the rising Athenian Empire, condemned to the same fate as its Persian forerunner.

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