Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, and Sun Tzu would have had a lot to say about it!
2500 years ago, the Greek historian and soldier Xenophon wrote what is now called Cyrus the Great. In this episode, we're exploring the wisdom and virtue of Cyrus, as I take you through my favourite highlights of the story. Even the music is arranged with Persian instruments!
In the Collisions segment, I compare Cyrus the Great to The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This part gets into some of the impressive military strategies that Cyrus utilized.
The final book covered is Sun Tzu for Success by Gerald Michaelson. This is where we tie it all in to how we can use the wisdom of Cyrus and the strategies of Sun Tzu in our lives today.
This is a special episode for me, and if you enjoy it in any way, it would mean the world if you could leave a review and send me a message on Instagram! @kail.letkemann
Hope you enjoy!
Welcome. My name is Kail Letkemann, and this is the Books Collide Podcast.
Thank you for joining me as we set out to explore the wisdom of impactful books.
Now, 2500 years ago, a great leader named Cyrus conquered Babylon and founded the first Persian Empire. He became known as a leader of wisdom and virtue, who freed slaves from captivity and wrote mankind’s first human rights charter. Xenophon, a Greek historian, philosopher, and soldier, wrote Cyrus’s story in a document now called Cyrus the Great.
To me, this is a very special episode, because I read Cyrus the Great alongside two other books specifically to bring them together for this podcast. The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and Sun Tzu for Success by Gerald Michaelson. I’m laying it all on the line to bring you the wisdom of Cyrus, the strategy of Sun Tzu, and then tying it in to how we can apply this knowledge to our lives today.
Before we start, if this podcast brings you any value in any way, it would mean the world to me if you could leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. It just helps other listeners find the show and let’s them know whether or not to give it a try.
So, with that said, let’s get into Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great.
So the copy I have of Cyrus the Great is edited by Larry Hedrick. Hedrick is a military historian from Seattle who has studied Xenophon of Athens his whole life. Now Hedrick’s goal with this particular edition that I have was to make Cyrus the Great accessible for the modern business reader.
I’m telling you this because you might be familiar with some other version of this story, and in that case you should know that Hedrick has altered the language a bit, changed the names of some of the characters, and arranged the story in the first-person perspective, rather than Xenophon’s original third-person perspective. Now if you’re listening to this cold, then none of that matters to you, and you’ll be able to enjoy these thoughts with fresh ears.
So this 300 page book has a lot to say. It’s an epic story. It’s filled with quotable wisdom, military strategy, and exhilarating, if not embellished moments in history. To make it easier to follow along, and frankly, to make a cooler episode, I’m going to highlight the story in three sections. In each section, I’ll share the most inspiring wisdom and insights that guided Cyrus’s actions. We’ll come back to military strategy when this book collides with The Art of War in a later segment. Then we’ll apply it to modern day success with the final collision of the episode. So, let’s get started.
Our story begins in Persia in the 6th century BC. Cyrus was the son of Cambyses, the king of Persia. He grew up keen on impressing his father, whom he always considered his greatest teacher. Cyrus notes that his father expected him to endure hardship, pay respect to authority, and to revere the eldery. And he credits his father with inspiring him to love humanity, wisdom and courage.
As a young man, Cyrus served in the military, and spent all his leisure time studying civilizations. He strove to understand history, and everything he could about the world. From a young age, Cyrus desired to be an Emperor.
Then came his thirty-fourth birthday. It was at this time that Cyrus’s Uncle, Cyazarees, became king of Media, Persia’s neighbouring ally. Now, Cyazarees had an enemy, the great king of Assyria. This Assyrian King had been subduing many tribes, such as Syria, Babylonia, Arabia, and Hyrcania. His next target was Media, and Cyrus’s uncle was calling for help.
Cyrus was now ready to begin his true military career. Cambyses sent Cyrus to Media with an army of a thousand noblemen as officers, and thirty thousand archers, slingers, and javelin throwers.
When Cyrus set out for the war, his father Cambyses accompanied him for the first many miles of the journey. And this is the first fascinating part of our story. They spoke all along the way about the wisdom of life, leadership, and war.
“Give your soldiers all that they need, and they will follow you to the ends of the earth,” said Cambyses. Cyrus held his tongue, for the ends of the earth were exactly where he planned to take his army. He knew that his father would warn him of the dangers of such a heavy ambition.
Cyrus shared his vision of a new kind of leadership. “What angers me,” he said, “are all those kings who are fabled for the heaps of gold in their coffers, and their freedom from trouble and pain. I have a different vision. I say that the true leader shuns luxury and ease. Once in power, he should want to work harder than ever.” This sense of discipline and self-control would be a guiding principle for all of Cyrus’s life.
His father asked him, “Do you understand the basic reason why followers stay loyal to their leaders?”
“The loyalty of followers comes from self-interest,” Cyrus replied. “When they determine that their leader is no longer acting in the interest of his followers, their sense of loyalty collapses.”
“So the first thing you must do,” said Cambyses, “is ensure that everyone who serves you enjoys high morale and good health.”
Cambyses gave a final warning. “How many powerful men have craved to dominate the world - and by overreaching have lost everything they once possessed!"
That one struck Cyrus. He was thankful to his father for all the wisdom that he had shared. Cambyses departed, and it would now be up to Cyrus to create the future of the Persian Empire.
What strikes me about this first part of the story, before the military campaign begins, is that Cyrus and his father focus so much on internal wisdom. They spoke of logistics and many practical things as well, but it was this great understanding of humility and morality that impressed me.
There are three characteristics that I want to point out. The first one is a strong emphasis on treating people with kindness, and putting their best interest first. We can call this benevolence. Cyrus is implored to ensure that everyone under his command is kept in high spirits and good health. This is the job of a leader - to serve the people, and never put your own interests above theirs. This is just like Leaders Eat Last, which we covered in Episode 11. Cyrus and his father are talking about a circle of safety, where those on the inside feel safe and protected, and can turn all their attention to dangers on the outside.
The second characteristic that stands out to me here is self-control. Cyrus shunned the temptations of riches, and he wanted to set a better example than what he thought kings before him had been showing. One who is in power should not be slouching in luxury, but working harder than ever. His father agreed, saying, “In all labours, leaders must prove tireless if they want to enjoy the trust of their followers.” This is said many times, from many different angles, but in general, this self-control.
The third characteristic that I found fascinating was something I would call humble ambition. Cyrus had a lot of ambition, but his father always wanted to tame it. He said that those words pierced his heart, but agreed that his self-confidence must ride alongside a strong sense of humility. We can be blinded by ambition and lose all sight of practicality, and sometimes morality.
These three themes, benevolence, self-control, and humble ambition, will continue to show themselves throughout the rest of the story, and we’ll see how important they are as Cyrus prepares his soldiers to take on the imposing Assyrian forces.
In Media, Cyrus met with his uncle Cyazarees, the Median king. They discussed soldiers, alliances, and the impending Assyrian attack. Cyazarees was fearful. Cyrus, in all his ambition, quickly saw himself as the superior leader, and began preparing their armies.
In directing the encampment, Cyrus decided that noble officers would sleep in large tents with their commoners. He believed that “those who live together are far less likely to desert one another in a crisis.” And so all men were treated alike, and they ate, slept, and trained together.
Soon the time came for the first conflict between the Assyrians and the Persian-Mede alliance. Because his soldiers had developed solid bonds, and they were in such high spirits, Cyrus pressed for the psychological advantage. They would march to meet the enemy, and the enemy’s confidence would be shaken. He recalled the words of his father Cambyses, “Battles are decided more by the morale of the troops than by their bodily strength.”
And the battle did come. The Persians and the Medes met the Assyrians with courage at their fortifications, and drove them back behind their gates. Cyrus pulled his soldiers out of range, for they were outnumbered by the Assyrians, and dared not enter the camp.
This was a victory. The Assyrians fled. Their king had been killed in the battle, and the soldiers were shaken, running away even before securing their wives and children.
Cyrus praised his Persians and Medes. He lifted up those who were disciplined and brave. “Expressions of gratitude are always in order,” he said. Pursuing the Assyrians further into enemy territory, Cyrus made sure that enemy soldiers had a chance to surrender in peace. He prefered to act as liberator rather than conqueror. "Success always calls for greater generosity,” he said, “though most people, lost in the darkness of their own egos, treat it as an occasion for greater greed."
Cyrus’s actions reflect the first bit of advice that he received from his father. To always treat people well. He kept his people in high spirits, making them feel like equals. He expressed gratitude at every opportunity. And he liberated, rather than enslaved, those tribes who were oppressed by the enemy.
In the course of moving through these lands, an aged Assyrian nobleman named Gobryas surrendered to Cyrus. The Assyrian Prince who had taken over the kingdom was a cruel man who killed Gobryas’s son. And so Gobryas turned over his stronghold, his men, and his arms to the cause of Cyrus.
When Cyrus visited Gobryas at his castle, he was greeted with pitchers of gold, and chests of jewels in golden settings on golden chains. But rather than dining in luxury, Cyrus brought Gobryas out to their tents to feast with the army.
“You possess far more than I do,” said Gobryas, “for any place on earth can serve as your home. Any nook and cranny in the world can serve you as a resting place.”
But when the plain food was set before him, his face fell. This was not a meal that he was accustomed to. Nevertheless, he saw that the Persians were perfectly content with their food, never needing to indulge in luxury. Here’s what he said:
“I’m beginning to understand, Prince Cyrus, how superior you and your men are. You may not possess as many treasures as other warriors, but you’re worth far more to the gods. Most of us are always trying to increase our wealth, but you and your officers seem far more concerned with perfecting your souls.”
Cyrus is demonstrating the second point of wisdom. He told his father that he would never indulge in luxury and leisure, and he was true to his words. Luxury serves the ego, but self-control is the perfection of the soul. You can see that the example he sets is inspiring to his people, and it’s also another way that he shows benevolence, by treating everyone, including himself, as equal.
By gathering intelligence from spies and Assyrian defectors, Cyrus learned that the Assyrian prince in Babylon had stepped down as commander of the army, and appointed a man named Croesus, king of Lydia, to the position. Croesus was gathering mercenaries and allies of Assyria - Arabians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians - to assemble a massive force. In response, Cyrus takes his army, which had grown substantially, not to Babylon but to Lydia for a surprise attack.
In Lydia, Cyrus’s army is intercepted, and the largest, and deadliest conflict of the story takes place. Many are slain on both sides, including important allies to Persia and Media. Of the enemies, it was the Egyptians who held out the longest, and Cyrus ended the battle when he saw that the Egyptians were fighting valiantly, but being slaughtered violently.
Croesus fled to the city of Sardis, and Cyrus’s forces followed. They took Sardis by a gap in the city’s defences, revealed by a spy. Croesus, barricaded in his palace, begged Cyrus to negotiate. He surrendered all of the city's treasures, which Cyrus gifted to his allies, and then Croesus confessed his sins to Cyrus.
“After the new Assyrian king resigned from the command of his army,” he said, “he and his allies convinced me to be their leader. They gave me wonderful gifts, and I let myself be flattered by their praise. False ambition seduced me, and I imagined that I’d become the greatest ruler in all the world. Without realizing it, I turned my face from self-knowledge.” Croesus begged for mercy. “I’ll be content to lead a quiet life,” he finished, “and to serve you in any way I can.”
Croesus does indeed serve as an example of the dangers of false ambition, Cyrus’s father’s third piece of wisdom. Croesus imagined himself as the greatest ruler in the world, and he turned his face from self-knowledge, meaning he was never fit to rule the world. It was a false ambition. False ambition leads to risky decisions that can damage relationships, and in Cyrus’s time, lead to the deaths of many people.
Cyrus would go on to conquer the city of Babylon, ending his long campaign against the Assyrians, and establishing the great Persian empire. Cyrus became Cyrus the Great, and his ambitions did come to light. But in his days of victory, he still held on to those lessons he discussed with his father before his journey began. He never abandoned virtue.
He said to his officers, "It was our virtues, not our vices, that won us all that we now possess." In fact, I found that it was self-control that he held onto the most once he was victorious. "The great temptation of conquerors,” he said, “is to forsake the heroic life that won them the fruits of victory and gradually slide into a life of laziness and luxury."
So for example, he continued to live in his campaign tent even while his officers enjoyed their luxurious new homes in Babylon.
He spoke to his officers and generals, who were now his good friends, “We should all be grateful that our dreams have come true, but we should also realize that our enjoyment of these good things is rooted in the pains that we endured to gain them.”
Cyrus is reminding us that being virtuous, and self-aware in our ambitions is the right path to victory. But once victory is gained, if we abandon the virtues, the humility and self-awareness that got us there, we no longer deserve the prizes that we’ve won. As the god Apollo said to Croesus, "Know yourself, O king, and then happiness will be yours."
But where can we go from here?
I believe that reading different books helps us internalize the important lessons that we learn from them. In reading many books, I’ve noticed that they tend to cross paths. And whenever they do, I call those moments collisions, and I look for those moments in every book I read.
Well if you follow me on Instagram, then it’s no surprise that I had to compare Cyrus the Great to The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu, also known as Sunzi, was a Chinese military strategist, and though it isn’t known exactly when he was born, he likely walked this earth at the same time that Cyrus ruled the Persian empire. His handbook, The Art of War, has been studied by generals and leaders for two and a half thousand years. Some ancient strategists have offered commentary on Sun Tzu’s writings, and this commentary has made it into the canon of The Art of War.
Now briefly, one of the virtues Cyrus held in high regard was benevolence. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says that five factors are to be assessed in war. One of them he calls The Way. This is sometimes translated as ‘moral law’ or ‘moral influence.’
One of the commentators, Zhang Yu, said this means that if people are treated with benevolence, faithfulness, and justice, then they will be of one mind, and will be glad to serve. According to Xenophon, he got this completely right. Cyrus’s men were treated as equals, and as a result, they were of one mind, and always willing to serve.
And I also talked about self-awareness. Remember that Croesus fell for false ambition, and in doing so, he abandoned his self-knowledge, or self-awareness. Croesus lost his ability to see what he could and could not achieve, and so he had no chance at winning in battle.
Sun Tzu said this: “If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles (that’s Cyrus); if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle (that’s Croesus).”
Knowing oneself requires clear thinking, and this is lost when blinded by greed and false ambition. Though Cyrus had great ambition, he never let it go farther than his self-knowledge. Croesus did, and that’s why he made decisions that led to his downfall.
Now I wanted to touch on those two things, but we’ve talked a lot about Xenophon’s Cyrus as a leader of virtue. I haven’t yet gone into detail about Cyrus as a leader of great military strategy.
Sun Tzu has a lot to say about military strategy, and so much of it is right on point in Cyrus the Great, but there’s one framework in particular that I want to share with you.
Sun Tzu ranks four strategies from best to worst. He says this:
"The superior military strategist strikes while schemes are being laid. The next best is to attack alliances. The next best is to attack the army. The lowest is to attack a city. Siege of a city is only done as a last resort."
This means that the first choice is to undermine the enemy’s strategy, and after that, to undermine the enemy’s alliances. These two options minimize casualties. The next choice is to attack the army, and the worst thing possible is to attack a city. Particularly a walled city. This is to minimize casualties and destruction to the city you hope to take.
I found it fascinating that in every instance I could find, Cyrus seems to prioritize his strategies the same way.
For example, Cyrus and his army were approaching the prized city of Babylon, but they knew that it would be foolish to get close. So instead, they decided to capture three outlying Assyrian fortresses. Here’s what Cyrus said:
“My goal was to employ cunning and diplomacy before resorting to force. In my attempt to minimize the harm inflicted on my own troops - as well as on the fortresses and populations that might soon be mine - I was always eager to negotiate a reasonable peace.”
So they overran the weakest fortress, negotiated an alliance with the other two, and thus had a much stronger position against Babylon without laying siege.
Now let’s go back to the large conflict I had described earlier, between Cyrus’s army and Croesus with his Egyptian allies. Open battle between two forces was not recommended by Sun Tzu, because of the number of casualties on both sides. But in some cases, it had to happen. There were many allies of Croesus at that battle, but the Egyptians were the strongest. The weaker ones were fought back first, and when the Egyptians were left standing, Cyrus used the situation to negotiate.
He sent a message to the Egyptians pointing out that their allies had fled, and that they were the only ones still fighting. Did they wish to sacrifice their lives for the sake of those who abandoned them? In this way, the Egyptians surrendered in peace, saving lives on both sides, and leaving Croesus without his allies - meaning Croesus would surrender without another battle.
At this point in Cyrus the Great, the Persians and all their allies marched back to Babylon to launch their final attack, and I thought for sure that they would disregard Sun Tzu’s advice and siege the city. However, once they arrived, Cyrus surveyed the walls of Babylon and determined that they could not be scaled at any point. Instead, they used two of Sun Tzu’s favourite tactics - deception and espionage.
Spies inside the city found a weakness in the wall where the Euphrates River entered the city, and during a Babylonian festival when the citizens were drunk, they stuck into the citadel and captured the Assyrian king - no battle, and no siege necessary. Sun Tzu would be proud.
Now this is all well and good, but how can we take these military strategies and heroic stories and apply them to finding success in our own life? Well, Gerald Michaelson wanted to answer that question, and he wrote a book called Sun Tzu for Success. He takes the moral principles, the strategies, and the tactics laid out by Sun Tzu, of which there are many more than what I covered, and he reinterprets them for the modern world. These lessons help us understand how to apply the stories from Cyrus the Great to our lives as well.
He starts with Personal Characteristics. The first personal characteristic that Michaelson takes from The Art of War, is Know Yourself. Michaelson says that we can be our own enemy, so we have to understand our strengths and weaknesses. Remember, Croesus was his own enemy because he abandoned self-knowledge.
The second is Have Moral Integrity. He says, "Although integrity does not guarantee success, lack of integrity is a prescription for failure.” Moral integrity may not have guaranteed Cyrus’s success, but it did guarantee him sturdy alliances. And his enemies could not keep alliances at all, because they were oppressive.
The third is Practice Discipline. Sun Tzu says “If discipline is not enforced, you can not employ the troops.” This is a lot like Cyrus’s obsession with self-control. He expected self-control of his officers, who were therefore able to command the armies without distraction.
Michaelson also talks about Sun Tzu’s strategies. For example, Building a Personal Network. He takes this from Sun Tzu who said “Foreknowledge must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation.” Sun Tzu’s talking about spies. But Michaelson says that the foundation of your personal growth is the size and strength of your network. Not because they spy on the enemy, but because we need relationships with people who know more than we do, so that we can always grow. Cyrus invested a vast amount of energy acquiring allies and being good to people who in turn stayed loyal to him. And he employed spies!
Another strategy Michaelson talks about is to Win Without Fighting. Sun Tzu says it’s no good to fight a hundred battles and win a hundred victories. He says “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.” Cyrus did this by sneaking into Babylon by the Euphrates River. Michaelson says this can be applied when we think about innovation. He says, “Innovation often gives you the kind of strength that, in itself, declares victory. Winners innovate to find new ways to victory without encountering competition.” Create something unique, and you won’t have a battle to fight.
The last strategy I’ll talk about is Pursuing Momentum. There’s a great commentary by Du Mu in The Art of War that describes momentum brilliantly.
"Roll rocks down a ten-thousand-foot mountain, and they cannot be stopped - this is because of the mountain, not the rocks. Get people to fight with the courage to win every time, and the strong and the weak unite - this is because of the momentum, not the individuals."
In his campaign, Cyrus had all the momentum. His force never stopped. His soldiers experienced small victories at first that built up their belief, and then larger victories and greater alliances. Cyrus and his army became unstoppable. In the same way, we can utilize momentum in our own lives. When you experience one win, try to push for another. When you get something going, don’t lose that momentum.
Cyrus and Sun Tzu knew that the spirit of a person and of an army is elevated at speed. And that elevated spirit combined with self-knowledge, moral integrity, discipline, strong partnerships, and innovative thinking… that’s a blueprint to follow on the battlefield, and anywhere we wish to pursue success.
Thirty years after Cyrus the Great conquered the Assyrian Empire, he returned to his homeland as an old man. He had fallen ill, and he knew that these were his final days. He called for his two sons to be with him by his bedside, and looking upon them with fading eyes, spoke the last words of his life. The most important lessons that he could teach his sons, just as his father had taught him. So, I will leave you, with these final words from Cyrus the Great:
"You must never forget that the empire isn't guarded by magic. If you succeed, it will only be through the strength of your faithful friends. You must never imagine that such loyal hearts spring up like grass in the field. No, every leader must actively raise up his followers, and you must win their hearts by the kindness that springs from love. If God requires reverence, so does the human race, and you must treat all people with benevolence."
But we can’t stop here, there’s more wisdom to explore, so if you’ve enjoyed this journey so far, please subscribe to the Books Collide Podcast, so you don’t miss future episodes. This was a special episode for me, so I’d love to hear what you took away from it, please, DM me on Instagram @kail.letkemann. Or go to BooksCollidePodcast.com, you can find it there.
The next episode will also be a special one, because we’ll be going over The Art of Influence by Chris Widener, and Chris will be joining me on the podcast, so please tune in for that!
Until then, I will remind you, to never, stop, reading!