Tomyris was an ancient ruler of the Massagetae, a Scythian pastoral-nomadic confederation in Central Asia. She became famous for her bravery and especially for the greatest battle she ever fought – the day when Cyrus the Great died.
Tomyris’ kingdom was located in the area to the east of the Caspian Sea, in parts of modern-day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, western Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan.
Most people remember Tomyris for her role in the defense against an attack by Cyrus the Great of the Achamenind Empire (600/ 576 – 530 BC). In 530 BC, she may have killed one of the most famous Persians in history.
Herodotus wrote that there were a few different stories about the death of Cyrus, and includes Tomyris as one of the possible causes for his demise. The story of Tomyris is also included in books by Strabo, Polyaenus, Cassiodorus, and Jordanes. However, the earliest writing about her comes from Herodotus, who lived from 484 to 425 BC.
The name of Tomyris and her son Spargapises, have roots in Persia, but the Hellenic forms of their names are most commonly used. Spargapises was the head of his mother’s army. During the battles mother and son fought together.
The Massagetae KingdomThere is little information about the cultural roots of Tomyris’ kingdom, but according to Ammianus Marcelinus, the origins of the Massagetae may have been the kingdom Alans (Indo-Iranians). They migrated westwards and became the dominant power in many parts of Asia and influenced Europe.
Procopius of Caesarea (500 – 560 AD) wrote in his History of the Wars Book III that the Massagetae were known in his times as the Huns. Evagrius Scholasticus (6th century AD) mentioned that the people known as the Huns, who were formerly known by the name of the Massagetae, appeared in Thrace.
Asia in 323 BC, showing the Massagetae located in modern-day Central Asia. (Public Domain)
Herodotus was the only one who left a clear description of the Massagetae culture:“In their dress and mode of living the Massagetae resemble the Scythians.
They fight both on horseback and on foot, neither method is strange to them: they use bows and lances, but their favorite weapon is the battle-axe. Their arms are all either of gold or brass. For their spear-points, and arrow-heads, and for their battle-axes, they make use of brass; for head-gear, belts, and girdles, of gold. So too with the caparison of their horses, they give them breastplates of brass, but employ gold about the reins, the bit, and the cheek-plates. They use neither iron nor silver, having none in their country; but they have brass and gold in abundance.”
The Most Important Battle in the History of the Massagetae
During the first attacks on the Massagetae, Cyrus was the winner. The Persians didn't see the small kingdom in the heart of Central Asia as dangerous enemy. They had already faced so many bigger and more famous armies, that the soldiers led by a woman and her son didn't seem to be a difficult rival.
According to ancient descriptions, the Persians won the first battle due to a very clever trap. They decided to leave the camp, which contained a rich supply of wine, and allowed the Massagetae to enter it.
The Scythians were not used to drinking wine so they got drunk immediately. The Persians then returned to the camp and attacked their enemies. Among the captured soldiers of Tomyris’ army was her son, who asked Cyrus for permission to commit suicide.
A painting of Cyrus the Great in battle from the Palace of Versailles. (public domain)
Tomyris was a fearless leader, but the pain of a mother who lost her son made her stronger than ever before. When she sent a message to Cyrus, he ignored her. She then challenged him to a second battle and the Persians believed that the second one would be already won before it even started.
However, this time Tomyris was well prepared and her army blocked the quick avenue of escape for Cyrus and his army. She led her army to victory over the Persians and saved her land, but also avenged the death of Spargapises.
Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century. (Public Domain)
The Legacy of a Warrior“The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years. Search was made among the slain by order of the queen for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corpse, “I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.” Of the many different accounts which are given of the death of Cyrus, this which I have followed appears to me most worthy of credit.” (Herodotus, I.214)Cyrus The Great won many battles. He was able to defeat many of the most powerful men of his times. However, many scholars say that his life ended under the knife of Tomyris.
Mattia Preti, Tomyris Receiving the Head of Cyrus, 1670-72. (Public Domain)
The tomb of Tomyris has never been found. There are also no reasonable archaeological finds connected with her. Thus, she is known best from the written stories by ancient writers. From them it seems that her fame is to be immortal.
Nowadays, Tomyris is still an inspiration to many writers, painters, and composers. She is a heroine of the poems by Eustache Dechampes, Uzbek author Xurshid Davron, Halim Xudoberdiyeva etc. She is also an inspiration of fantasy visual art. As there is a lack of her real portraits, many artists around the world have created their own visions of her. Her name was even given to one of the minor planets, which is known as 590 Tomyris.
Featured image: "Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood" by Rubens (Public Domain)
- Gera, Deborah Levine, Warrior Women, 1997.
- Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes, 1989
- Bachrach, Bernard S., A History of the Alans in the West, from their first appearance in the sources of classical antiquity through the early middle ages, 1973