Cyrus the Great made Persia the most powerful state in the world but he did do some strange things according to ancient historians like punishing a river. Credit: Zen Yandex

You Will Answer For The Horse! Here’s How the Persian King Cyrus Punished A River

According to the historical accounts of the father of history Herodotus, the Persian King Cyrus once ordered his army to punish a river..

Cruelty to water in one form or another seems to have been common among the Persian monarchs of the Achaemenid dynasty.

When King Xerxes in 480 BC was marching on Greece and his pontoon bridges in the Bosphorus were swept away by a storm, he ordered to carve the sea. He wanted to punish the storm but the storm had passed, and the strait remained. As a result, hundreds, if not thousands, of Persian warriors lined up along the water and began to violently whip the water.

Something similar happened sixty years before Xerxes, during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus, nicknamed Cyrus the Great for his vast conquests. According to the father of history Herodotus, having conquered Media, Lydia, Caria, Cappadocia, and smaller countries, Cyrus decided to deal with his main enemy in the Middle East – the king of Babylon Nabonidus.

The White Horse of King Cyrus

In 539 BC, the Persian army set out on a campaign. The path was not easy: heat, sandstorms, and in some places water barriers.

Approaching Hindu, King Cyrus wondered how to overcome one of the tributaries of the river Tigris, and while he was thinking, one of the sacred white horses rushed straight into the river. But either the current turned out to be too strong, or the horse simply did not know how to swim (although this is unlikely), but the horse from the king’s personal stable drowned. Right in front of the king’s eyes.

King Cyrus was very upset, then furious. And he ordered to punish the murderous river. On both sides, he placed slaves, gave everyone shovels, and ordered them to dig as long as they had enough strength – from dawn to dusk, and then vice versa.

Over the summer, 360 canals appeared – 180 on each side. The water rushed into these channels, and the river became shallow to such an extent that it became possible to pass it without wetting the knees.

“So it will be with every river that decides to interfere with my plans” – Cyrus exclaimed and ordered the army to cross the shallow water.

The Cunning Capture of Babylon

Crossing the river, the Persian army faced the forces of the king Nabonidus. Although these forces were great, the Persians won a decisive victory and soon came to Babylon – a city that had no equal in the world: rich, vast, and densely populated.

King Cyrus failed to take Babylon outright, a long and difficult siege began. It continued until Cyrus, remembering the untimely dead white stallion, did not dare to repeat the trick previously tried on the banks of the Gyndes River.

This time, the Euphrates, the river that crosses Babylon, was to be punished. King Cyrus again ordered the digging of canals, through which the water from the Euphrates eventually left, and the Persian soldiers were able to break into the city along the shallow channel.

Did Herodotus Tell The Truth?

This is what Herodotus says. Most likely, not everything in his story is true. Modern scientists, comparing data from different sources, believe that the engineering operation to divert the waters of the Euphrates from Babylon was performed not by Cyrus, but by Darius I in 522 BC.

As for the punishment of the Gyndes River because of the drowned horse, then, probably, the animal had nothing to do with it.

We can assume that at Hindus, King Cyrus faced the resistance of the Babylonians: the army of Nabonidus located on the opposite bank of the river prevented the Persians from crossing the river. Therefore, Cyrus ordered to build canals. When the river became shallow, the Persians crossed the Gyndes river without much interference and defeated the enemy.

But the story of Herodotus about the sacred white horse, you see, is much more beautiful.

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Cizek, A. (2018, November 23). Alexandru Cizek. Retrieved November 26, 2020, from

Herodotus on Cyrus’ capture of Babylon. (n.d.). Retrieved November 26, 2020, from

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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