Battle of Thymbra
In 612 BCE a coalition of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians destroyed the city of Nineveh, ending the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonians took over the southern part of the empire, while the Medes ruled the north. Medea was then the area of present-day northwestern Iran south of the Caspian Sea and into Armenia. The Medes also extended their control west to the borders of Asia Minor and east to Afghanistan.
Around 553 BCE Cyrus, son of Medean king Astyages, took up arms against his father. Cyrus was supported by powerful members of the aristocracy who resented Astyages’ tyrannical policies. The ensuing civil war went on for four years, but in 550 Cyrus won the Battle of Pasargadai in which he captured the Persian capital. He went on to take the Medean capital of Ecbatana in 550–549 and then spent several years consolidating his authority, winning over many former enemies by giving them positions of authority in the army and the government. Ruling as Cyrus II and known as Cyrus the Great, he became one of the most important of Persian rulers.
The increasing Persian power alarmed King Croesus of Lydia in Asia Minor, who appealed for assistance to Egypt, Babylon, and Sparta. Lydia was known for its excellent cavalry, which Cyrus rightly considered a threat to his own position. In 547 Croesus sent his troops across the Halys River into Medea, and Cyrus gathered an army to meet them. His army moved west along the frontier between Medea and Babylonia, crossing the Tigris River at Arbela. Gathering reinforcements in Armenia and Kurdistan, Cyrus gained the Cappadocian plain of Medea in late 547.
The two sides fought an inconclusive winter battle near Pteria. Because his forces had already stripped Cappadocia of much of its food, Croesus decided to withdraw for the winter to his capital of Sardis in western Anatolia. There he dismissed his Greek mercenaries and sent messages to his allies, informing them what forces he would require for a spring campaign. Cyrus’s advisers urged him to return home with his army as well and resume combat in the spring. Cyrus rejected what seemed to be wise counsel and decided to fight while Croesus was bereft of the mercenaries. Cyrus also knew that Croesus’s allies would not be able to reinforce him for at least several months.
After allowing sufficient time for Croesus to return to Sardis and dismiss the bulk of his forces, Cyrus followed, marching across Anatolia. Although Croesus received reports of the Persian advance, he dismissed them as untrue. Not until Cyrus had arrived with his army before Sardis did Croesus realize what had happened. Croesus still had reason for optimism, however. His forces were significantly larger than those of Cyrus, which numbered perhaps 20,000 to 50,000 men.
In early 546 the two armies came together on the Plain of Thymbra just outside of Sardis. Cyrus deployed his army in a large square, holding back his chariots and cavalry on the flanks, while Croesus deployed his forces in the traditional long ranks. Croesus opened the battle by sending his cavalry to envelop the Persian square. This created gaps in the Lydian line, and Cyrus sent against them cavalry men mounted on camels. One of his generals had noted that at Pteria, the Lydian horses were terrified of the camels the Persians used for supply purposes, and Cyrus now sought to take advantage of this. At the scent of the approaching camels, the Lydian horses bolted. Although the Lydian cavalrymen dismounted, they could not fight effectively on foot with their heavy lances.
Meanwhile, archers in the great Persian square launched volleys of arrows at the Lydian line, further breaking it apart. Cyrus then ordered his cavalry and infantry on the flanks to charge through the gaps in the opposing line, routing it. The remnants of the Lydian army withdrew into Sardis, which Cyrus promptly besieged.
After 14 days the Persians took advantage of a weak point in the city wall where it joined a cliff. Cyrus dispatched a force to secure the high ground
there and capture a portion of the wall as well as Croesus. Sardis surrendered the
His victory at Thymbra gave Cyrus the great resources of Lydia. (Croesus’s very name was synonymous with wealth.) The victory cut off Babylonia from an important military ally and thus helped Cyrus to defeat the new Babylonian Empire in 539.
Cook, J. M. The Persian Empire. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
Lamb, Harold. Cyrus the Great. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Xenophon. Cyropaedia. Translated by Walter Miller. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.