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Tomyris: The Massagetean warrior-queen who may have killed Cyrus the Great

Marija Georgievska

Tomyris was a Massagetean ruler who reigned over the Massagetae, a Scythian pastoral-nomadic confederation of Central Asia east of the Caspian Sea, in parts of modern-day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, western Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan.

Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood, by Rubens

Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood, by Rubens

The most known story about Tomyris involves the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great and his efforts to invade and subjugate Tomyris’ people.

Tomyris is mentioned by several ancient writers, among whom the first is Herodotus.

Tomyris is mentioned by several ancient writers, among whom the first is Herodotus.

She led her armies to defend against an attack by Cyrus and defeated and killed him in 530 BC (although this is debatable since Herodotus mentions that this was only one of many stories relating Cyrus the Great’s death).

Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century.

Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century.

According to the accounts of Greek historians, Cyrus was victorious in his initial assault on the Massagetae.

His advisers suggested laying a trap for the pursuing Scythians: the Persians left behind them an apparently abandoned camp, containing a rich supply of wine.

The Scythian army, led by Tomyris’ son Spargapises, stumbled upon the wine and, unfamiliar with the intoxicating effects of alcohol, drank themselves into a stupor.

After, the Persians attacked the incapacitated army and kidnapped Tomyris’ son.

Mattia Preti, Tomyris Receiving the Head of Cyrus, 1670–72.

Mattia Preti, Tomyris Receiving the Head of Cyrus, 1670–72.

According to Herodotus, Spargapises coaxed Cyrus into removing his bonds, thus allowing him to commit suicide while in Persian captivity.

Tomyris sent a message to Cyrus denouncing his treachery, and with all her forces, challenged him to a second battle. In the fight, that ensued the Persians were defeated with high casualties.

According to Herodotus, Cyrus was killed and Tomyris had his corpse beheaded and then crucified and shoved his head into a wineskin filled with human blood.

Queen Tomyris plunges the head of the dead Cyrus into a vessel of blood, by Alexander Zick.

Queen Tomyris plunges the head of the dead Cyrus into a vessel of blood, by Alexander Zick.

The names of Tomyris and her son Spargapises are of Iranian origins. Since the historians who first wrote of her were Greek, the Hellenic form of her name is used most frequently.

590 Tomyris is the name given to one of the minor planets.

590 Tomyris is the name given to one of the minor planets.

The history of Tomyris has been incorporated into the tradition of Western art.

Here is another story  about brave woman warrior from our vault:Pine Leaf was a Woman Chief and warrior of the Crow people

She was painted by Rubens, Allegrini, Luca Ferrari, Mattia Preti, Gustave Moreau and sculpted by Severo Calzetta da Ravenna. She is one of the subjects grouped under the Power of Women topos by art historians.