The notion of imperial conquest, or the need to build a city that is enduring, is central to the inquiries of Herodotus. What is lasting human greatness? How can we inquire into our shared human past while preserving this question? What is the just city? Is the just city also an enduring city? All of these questions are integral to Herodotus’s work.
The first barbarian empire identified is that of the Lydians, inherited from the actions of Gyges, the man who by fate acquired a a vast empire. His descendants, Sadyattes and Alyattes, conquered the surrounding territories. For instance, when conquering Miletus, they laid siege to the city and all but burned down every house in order to maintain a slave labor population, the fruits of which they could plunder. The empire of the Lydians comes to us as a tyrannical rule, one that is prone to frequent revolution and attack. A self-conscious rule that destroys the cultures of the people it conquers (see the burning of the temple of Athena, called ‘Asseos’ 1.19). Croesus, the son of Alyattes, inherited this vast kingdom and expanded it into Asia even further, and in his vast splendor, Croesus reclined comfortably in his riches until Solon, the lawmaker of Athens, arrived in his travels at Sardis. When Solon fails to affirm either Croesus’s wealth or his happiness, Croesus grew angry as Solon chose only two examples, both Argives. Croesus asks Solon if he is nothing more than the “common man”. Solon’s advice is to look to the end of a man’s life to discover his true happiness and wealth, otherwise he is merely a lucky man. Thus, if we look to the ends of Croesus’s empire, we find it in decay -his son was killed in boar hunting accident, and his empire was conquered by Cyrus’s Persian empire. Croesus’s empire, one that had desperately chased after prosperity and happiness at the same time, had found neither. Though Croesus was kept as a trusted advisor to Cyrus, this was largely because of his account of Solon’s visit that he gave when nearly burned alive by Cyrus.
In contrast, the Persian Empire has its roots in rebellion as Cyrus overthrew the Medes under Astyagas and claimed kingship. As a result of the war, the Empire lived under constant war and expansion in his 29 year rule from the Medes to the Lydians to Ionia and Babylon. However, unlike the Lydians, the Persians did not subjugate its conquered territories. They were all allowed to adopt and maintain their cultural customs, and in fact, the Persians were open enough to assimilate the habits and practices of their conquests, as well, unlike the Scythians -a nomadic tribe who ruthlessly ruled Asia or a brief two decades but collapsed as they did not integrate any new customs into their tribe and also failed to establish an enduring politeia. However, Cyrus was often praised by his conquered peoples, earning him the moniker of “The Great”. Elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is referred to by the subjugated Jews as the “Annointed One” (Isaiah 45:1). He was remembered for his empire that did not force Persian influence upon its conquered territories, but rather adopted the various cultures, unlike the Scythians that forced subjugation and were also a nomadic group without a connection to place.
For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.