Statue of Tomyris holding the head of Cyrus the Great

Statue of Tomyris holding the head of Cyrus the Great

Tomyris (c.530 BCE) was Queen of the Massegetai tribe of people. The Massegetai lived primarily east of the Caspian Sea in modern day Iran. They were a warlike nation, and were very like the Scythians. The Massegetai fought on horseback and on foot, and used bows, lances, and the battle axe. Their weapons were mostly made of brass and gold alloys, as iron and silver were not found in their country. Armor was probably brass coated in gold, as even though the armor looked gold in appearance, gold is far too heavy and soft to be effective armor.

Queen Tomyris took the throne after the death of her husband. Being the queen of a powerful and expansive tribe, Cyrus the Great—a Persian warlord—propositioned her with marriage. Knowing that Cyrus was most likely more interested in her lands than in her—and would keep her from having power once she was his wife—Tomyris refused the offer. In response, Cyrus the Great enlisted his forces and made for war with the Massegetai tribe.

At the Araxes River, Cyrus ordered his soldiers to begin building a bridge and boats in order for his army to cross. Tomyris sent a warning to Cyrus, telling him to cease production of the boats and move back so the Massegetai could fight the Persians on Persian ground. Cyrus continued building and advanced into Massegetai territory. He was met by Tomyris’s heir and his army, which he defeated. In anger, Tomyris sent him another warning: that she would quench his thirst for blood if he did not cease his advances. He ignored this. In response, Tomyris gathered the rest of her fighting force and met the Persians in open battle. The battle is accounted by the Athenian strategist Herodotus, and began with arrows being shot first, and then battle with lances, daggers, and battle-axes. It was described as an extremely fierce battle, neither side willing to give in. Finally, the Massegetai prevailed against the larger Persian force. Tomyris had Cyrus’s head brought to her, which she stuffed in a wineskin filled with blood. She reportedly said something to the effect of: “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.”

Before Tomyris and the Massegetai, Cyrus the Great was an unbeatable Persian general.

Legacy: In the 14th c., Eustace Deschamps added Tomyris to his poetry as a “Female Worthy”.

Her name was adopted in zoological taxonomy, and was also given to a minor planet (the 590 Tomyris).