“Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed… Refuse, and I swear by the sun, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”
Queen Tomyris ruled over the Massagetae, a nomadic warrior tribe in what is now Eastern Iran. We know little of her life outside of one major military campaign in which she defeated Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. The Massagetae were famous for their skills in battle. They fought both on foot and on horseback, and were particularly adept with battle-axes. They worshipped the sun and wore armour made of gold and brass.
Tomyris had ruled alone since the death of her husband. Elsewhere, Cyrus the Great had been ploughing his way through ancient Mesopotamia. After conquering the Kingdom of Babylon which neighboured Tomyris’ lands, he was looking to expand his territory further. He sent an ambassador to Tomyris, asking for her hand in marriage. The Messagetae queen was no fool, and refused to give up her power to the Persian emperor. At once, Cyrus declared war and began building a bridge to cross the river into Tomyris’ territory.
Tomyris soon became bored of Cyrus’ building project, and sent a letter asking to move things along. She gave Cyrus the option of leaving in peace, or picking a side of the river to fight on. Cyrus was ready to call Tomyris over into Persian territory to do battle there, when one of his advisors, Croseus, chimed in with some advice that proves chauvinism is never a useful tactic. He told Cyrus that it would be a disgrace to give a woman any ground. They should take the fight to her.
Croseus also had a plan to lure the Messagetae armies into a trap – by cooking them dinner. Once they were on the other side of the river, the Persians made sure there was plenty of food laid out – as well as gallons of wine, which the Messagetae did not produce and were not used to drinking (preferring to imbibe in hashish and fermented mare’s milk, naturally). When the rival army arrived, they found not the Persians, but a delicious feast!
Unable to believe their luck, the army sat down and gorged themselves until they were too full and drunk to move. Cyrus took this opportunity to swoop in and take the incapacitated men prisoner. Among these was General Spargapises – Tomyris’ son.
When the Queen heard what had happened she was furious. She considered it a poor success to capture an army of drunken men, and threatened Cyrus that if she did not get her son back then she would give the Persians their ‘fill of blood’. When Cyrus simply ignored her, Tomyris gathered all of her forces and attacked.
The Massagetae won, destroying the Persian army. Cyrus was killed, ending his twenty-nine year reign. Once the battle was over, Tomyris commanded that Cyrus’ body was found and brought to her. Triumphant, she filled a skin with blood, sliced off her enemies head and dunked it in.
“Tomiris” by Peter Paul Rubens. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“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.”
Herodotus: Queen Tomyris of the Messagetai and the Defeat of the Persians Under Cyrus