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I’m taking a nine-hour drive north to a buddy’s place this weekend to go golfing and scout some youth football; it’s also a long weekend, and he’s throwing a party for his friends and neighbors in a newly renovated house. I’m looking forward to it! I think it’s gonna be a great time. Certainly a much better time than a party gone wrong in the 6th century BCE, which resulted in thousands of deaths and the destruction of multiple armies in a massive revenge plot. Let’s meet this week’s Historical Badass!
Born: c. 6th century BCE, central Asia
Occupation: Queen of the Massagetae
So I’ll preface all of this first by giving a quick run-down about the Massagetae tribe, because to understand them is to better understand just how scary Tomyris was as a leader. Details are still somewhat sketchy, but based on the writings of famous Greek author Herodotus, which have since been corroborated with some other sources, we know that they were a nomadic central Asian tribe, with ancestral homelands somewhere by Caspian Sea, possibly in Armenia and Azerbaijan, or more likely in what is now southern Kazakhstan, western Turkmenistan, or northern Iran. The Massagetae belonged to Scythian culture, which was predominantly a pastoral-based nomadic, herding cattle and sheep over the large plains of grass in central Asia. What made the Massagetae way more hardcore than other tribes, however, was that they ate their own dead. It was considered a real honor, when a person died of old age, to be sacrificed to the sun god, skinned, and roasted over an open fire. Pretty wild stuff.
Anyways, our story begins when Cyrus the Great, leader of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, was rampaging through the Middle East and Asia Minor, conquering all the lands he could get his hands on. His military might proved to be extremely effective, amassing huge swaths of territory starting around 550 BC, about nine years after he assumed the throne.
After taking much of what is now Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Afghanistan, Cyrus set his sights northward, into what was then Scythian territory. He initially proposed marriage to the widowed Tomyris in order to peacefully and diplomatically claim her lands, but when he was rebuffed, he launched an invasion. Cyrus put his army to work building a bridge to cross the Araxes River, but when Tomryis got word of this, she said, “King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetae in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.” After gathering his generals to debate the matter, Cyrus chose the Massagetae side of the river to wage war, despite much opposition from most of them.
With the help of his generals, he devised a very crafty plan to defeat the Massagetae. They would create what appeared to be a mostly abandoned camp, loaded up with delicious food and tons of wine. The Massagetae, being a very different culture than the Persians, were not used to wine at all – they mainly enjoyed smoking hashish and drinking fermented mare’s milk. So with all the eating and drinking going on, they proceeded to get absolutely shittered. Too wasted to defend themselves, the Achaemenids attacked the Massagetae and slaughtered them, plus they took the general Spargagises, Tomyris’ son, hostage. Things were not great.
When word got back that her son was now a prisoner of war, Tomyris was furious. She then sent a message to Cyrus, “Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed, triumphant over a third part of the host of the Massagetae. Refuse, and I swear by the sun, the sovereign lord of the Massagetae, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”
Cyrus ignored this message, seeing as he had Spargagises successfully hostage. When her son slipped his bonds and killed himself out of shame of being captured, however, Tomyris was even angrier. With no tactics of trickery, no devious formations, or anything, the Massagetae simply just charged head-on at the Achaemenids, out for vengeance, determined to destroy their invaders once and for all. Despite this being a severe mismatch on paper, the Massagetae’s pure rage managed to deliver them a victory, with massive amounts of blood shed.
This is where things get a bit murky. There’s a number of different accounts of the death of Cyrus the Great, but Herodotus believes this to be the most accurate one, for whatever that’s worth; at any case, it’s also by far the most awesome, so I’ll share it here for you.
As it was standard practise for Persian kings to fight on the battlefield and not merely just direct their armies, Cyrus is said to have been killed in the battle. According to Herodotus, Tomyris is said to have wandered onto the battlefield after the war to find Cyrus’ body. When she did, she beheaded the corpse, took the head, and stuck it in a wineskin filled with blood, saying “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.” She apparently then scooped out his brain and turned his skull into a wine goblet, which she used for the rest of her life. Holy shit.
So regardless of whether or not this story is 100% historically accurate, I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably a good idea to never, ever fuck with a woman whose kids you’ve hurt. Like, don’t do it. Especially not ones that will literally eat you afterwards. So all this to say is that if you haven’t heard from me for a few days after this party this weekend, maybe drop me an email and check to see that I’m doing ok. Otherwise, rouse the troops…