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Cyrus and Jefferson: Did they speak the same language?


By Wm. Scott Harrop
Source: Spring 2013 Newsletter, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia

Even as the Middle East grapples with Jeffersonian ideals of freedom and democracy, Americans are learning that Thomas Jefferson may have been inspired by an ancient Middle East ruler, Cyrus “the Great” of Persia.

This intriguing possibility arises from brilliant cultural diplomacy. The British Museum has loaned one its most iconic holdings, the Cylinder of Cyrus, for its first ever tour of the United States. During a similar tour of Iran in 2010, Iranians by the hundreds of thousands marveled at this 9 inch long clay artifact, crafted over 2,500 years ago.

Smaller than an American football, the Cyrus Cylinder stands to its admirers as the world’s first human rights proclamation. Having just conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., Cyrus, King of Persia, issued what amounts to a “press release” to appeal to his new subjects.

The Cylinder records Cyrus’s policies to repatriate displaced peoples, to encourage the conquered to continue in their local cultures and religions. It testifies to Cyrus restoring temples and leaving people free to worship the god(s) of their own choice.

Since, 1971, the United Nations has prominently displayed a replica of the Cylinder as the world’s first human rights charter, and has translated its text into all official UN languages.

Yet the image of Cyrus as a tolerant, even benevolent ruler is not well known in America today.  By contrast, America’s founders were well acquainted with the ideas of Cyrus.

At the recent unveiling of the Cylinder at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, boldly proclaimed that “when the American founding fathers” were “trying to decide how you will run the United States, what role will religion play, this is the model” they followed, and “the United States Constitution is a reflection of these ideas.”

“What appealed to the founding fathers about Cyrus,” according to MacGregor, was “a model of a state that was equidistant from all religions, rather than either adopting a state religion, or else being anticlerical.” Put differently, “the relic asks the question: can a state be equidistant from all religion?”

Invoking Cyrus as a model for Jefferson and the American founders will be extraordinary news to most students of Jefferson, early America, and the classics. Yet the startling claim deserves careful exploration in a Jeffersonian spirit of free inquiry.

Such analysis can begin by acknowledging a common language. As is well known, religious toleration was vital to Mr. Jefferson. For his tombstone, Jefferson requested to be remembered as author of the American Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the seminal Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which in turn inspired the American Constitution’s first amendment on religious freedom.

Yet contrary to media reports, Cyrus was unknown to Jefferson via the Cyrus Cylinder because it was not unearthed until 1879, 53 years after Jefferson’s death.

On the other hand, Jefferson and his contemporaries surely knew the favorable accounts of Cyrus in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Therein, Cyrus is the liberator of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, the generous enabler of their return to Jerusalem.

Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison and other founders also knew of Cyrus via their readings of Cyropaedia, an idyllic account of Cyrus’s life crafted by Xenophon, the Greek historian, philosopher, mercenary, and student of Socrates.

Thomas Jefferson's Cyropaedia at the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC.

In antiquity, and again from the Renaissance into Jefferson’s lifetime, Xenophon’s classical works were appreciated alongside Plato and Aristotle. Cyropaedia, “The Education of Cyrus,” was Xenophon’s masterpiece and was read widely by elite students in colonial America as a handbook of military success, social organization, and virtuous political leadership.

Xenophon’s Cyrus sharply contrasts to Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli famously intoned that it was “better to be feared than loved,” while Xenophon’s Cyrus explicitly preferred to be loved, not feared.

Jefferson owned at least three Cyropaedia copies during his life, in both Greek and Latin. In 1787, he even sought an Italian rendering.

Xenophon’s idealized account of Cyrus opens by lamenting man as the most difficult living thing to rule over, regardless of government form. Xenophon marvels that the subjects of King Cyrus obey him willingly, and he seeks to explain why.

For Xenophon, Cyrus exemplifies a just, tolerant ruler, a munificent monarch who preferred persua­sion over force, a ruler whose exhibited virtues included temperance, self-control, politeness, and mutual respect between peoples.

Jefferson also owned Andrew Ramsay’s best-seller “A New Cyropaedia: the Travels of Cyrus.” Ramsay, a Jacobite, casts Cyrus as a model of enlightened constitutional monarchy, fusing divine will and the laws of nature. Yet documenting Jefferson ownership of books about Cyrus is easier than demonstrating how and when Cyrus accounts influenced his thinking.

In 1815, Jefferson’s sale of his books to the Library of Congress included two copies of the Cyropaedia. Jefferson obtained both in 1806. One is currently on exhibit with the Cyrus Cylinder and shows substantial Jefferson markings.

The second copy was inherited from George Wythe, Jefferson’s beloved law mentor. This volume likely was in Wythe’s library while Jefferson was under his tutelage in the 1760s.

Family letters provide further hints of Jefferson’s high regard for Xenophon and the Cyropaedia. In early 1803, Anne Cary Randolph wrote to “Dear Grand Papa” that her brother, Jefferson Randolph, was busy “translating the history of Cyrus by Xenophon.” Seven years later, in a letter to another grandson, Francis Wayles Eppes, Jefferson advised him "to undertake a regular course of history and poetry in both languages. (Greek & Latin) In Greek, go first thro' the Cyropaedia, and then read Herodutus, Thucydides, Xenophon's Hellenus and Anabasis...." 

The Cyropaedia became less favored in western education not long after Jefferson passed from life. Yet in recent decades, a Cyrus revival has been emerging in fresh Cyropaedia translations and new debates over his legacy, his place in the history of human rights.

Credit the British Museum for unleashing the Cyrus Cylinder as a “weapon of mass diplomacy,” a catalyst to considering common principles between nations too often thought to embody “clashing civilizations.”

While inquiry is just beginning into how much Cyrus influenced Jefferson, the parallels are fascinating to contemplate. Jefferson’s ideals on religious toleration resonate with Cyrus; they spoke the same language.

Related Articles:

Ancient Persian Ruler Influenced Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Democracy - The discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder was a hundred years in the future when Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States adopted the progressive ideas of the ancient Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. They knew of Cyrus through classical Greek writers and Biblical accounts. -Lea Terhune, IIP 03/17/13

Cyrus Cylinder: Ancient Persia Foreshadowed Modern Values - The Cyrus Cylinder has left its British Museum repository for its first U.S. tour, beginning at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington. "The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia" showcases this 2,600-year-old archeological treasure amid other artifacts from the Achaemenid Empire (550-331 B.C.) founded by the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. -Lea Terhune, IIP 03/13/13

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The Cyrus Cylinder: Its Significance for Today

- The Cyrus Cylinder has traveled to the United States for the first time, and it will tour five major metropolitan centers, starting March 9th at the Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., traveling afterwards to Houston, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Despite its antiquity, the cylinder may still have a significant role to play on the international stage today. -Farhang Jahanpour 03/11/13



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