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Costume of a Median male (Friedrich Hottenroth)[1]

The Medes were an Indo-European people, related to the Persians. Later, they were conquered by the Achaemenid Empire, the First Persian Empire. Medes are particularly famous in history for their invasion of the Assyrian Empire and the consequent sacking of Nineveh which led to the final fall of the Assyrians.

Early history

The Medes were among the various Indo-Iranian peoples who began settling in modern Iran beginning in the 4th millennium BC. It is believed that the Medes were included in the last waves of these Aryan peoples to inhabit the Iranian Plateau in the 2nd millennium BC. The first mention of their name is attested in Assyrian texts which reports the raids led by Shalmaneser III in 836 BC.

Upon their arrival in the region, they established minor principalities which were often subject to raids from the adjacent Urartians and Assyrians. These brutal invasions urged the Medes to form a unified political entity and by the 8th century BC the Medes established a united kingdom under Deioces with Hagmatana (Ecbatana in Herodotus' texts and Hamadan in modern Persian) as their capital.

Resistance against Assyria

As a militarist empire, Assyrians used to raid and loot the northwestern parts of current Iran wherein at the time existed a dozen of weak principalities and micro-states. These raids were often brutal and would be accompanied with massacres and mass enslaving of the local population. The Medes were not to be exempted and suffered greatly. For instance, in 815 BC the Assyrian king Šamši-Adad led a bloody invasion of Media. According to their own reports, the Assyrians killed 2,300 Medes, took 140 of their horsemen as prisoner and razed Sagbita (the royal city of the Median chief Hanaṣiruk) as well as 1,200 settlements located near it to the ground. From this date on, the Medes were forced to pay tributes to the Assyrians in horses, cattle, and handicraft products. In another campaign in 737 BC, the Assyrians under the command of Tiglath pilesner III penetrated deeply into Median lands and this time they reached as far as the Salt Desert. In his account, Tiglat narrates that he had deported 6,500 people from northwestern Iran to Syria and Phoenicia. Also Sargon II deported many Medes to Syria and settled people from north Syria and Samaria in the cities of the Medes.

These mass deportations reflects the growing concerns of Assyrians about the Medes, as the Semitic invaders were facing fierce resistance in their looting campaigns. After the Medes unified under Deioces, they were not the once easy prays to Assyrian raids and with the help of other tribal confederations of Zagros mountains like Manna and Ellipi, the Medes managed to thwart Assyrian plans to subjugate all of the regions of western and northwestern Iran. The growing power of the Medes is furthermore attested in Assyrian reports, as they were referring to Median lands as "the provinces of the mighty Medes".

At the same time, the penetration of two nomadic Iranian peoples, Cimmerians and Scythians from the north posed a serious threat to Assyria and helped the Medes to strengthen their power. This new balance of power urged the Assyrian king Asarhaddon to undertake several expeditions into the territory of Iran. Between 679 BC and 677 BC, the Assyrians defeated the Manneans and their Scythian allies, and consequently seized two Median chieftains and brought them, together with their families and possessions, to Assyria and this was the last time an Assyrian army would penetrate that far into Median lands. The Medes and their allies started a guerrilla warfare against the Assyrian convoys and in a short time, this disguised resistance eventually resulted in the formation of a union against Assyria.

In about 672 BC the Medes and their allies rose in open rebellion against Assyria. The Median rebels began by besieging the Assyrian fortresses in the nearby provinces. The immediate aim of the revolt was to cut off the main line of Assyrian communication in the Zagros range and to cut off access to Media from the west. The revolt was successful, and the Medes achieved independence, although their state still did not yet include all Median provinces and tribes, and Assyria was still able to retain a few areas in western Iran.

Rise to power

By the middle of the 7th century BC, Media was a major regional power in the west Asia. Their main rivals and enemies were Assyria to the west and then Urartu to the north. Urartu had posed a real threat to Media and in the first half of the 7th century continued its military activity in the east, penetrating into Iranian territory. In the middle of the same century, however, all fortresses in the eastern periphery of the Urartu dominion were destroyed by fire or were abandoned after massive Median invasions. Probably, the Medes not only attacked the border bridgeheads but also penetrated into the interior of the Urartu. Thus, in the 640s BC, Urartu ceased to exist as an independent state as a result of revengeful onslaughts of the Medes . After this triumph, the Medes subjugated their akin Iranian tribe to the south, the Persians and now were fully ready to turn on their archenemies and previous masters, the Assyrians.

The Medes, led by their king Cyaxares, decided to enter an anti-Assyrian alliance with the Babylonians who had renewed their power under Nabopolassar. In November 615 BC, they attacked the Assyrian province of Arrapḫa (present-day Kirkuk) and also annexed the territory of its ally Manna. In 614 BC, they seized Tarbiṣu near Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. They also surrounded Nineveh but did not succeed in taking it. In the same year the Medes besieged and captured Aššur, the ancient capital of the country. Nabopolassar with his army arrived on the field of battle only after the fall of Aššur. There the Medes and Babylonians concluded an alliance, reinforcing it by the marriage of Amytis, daughter of Astyages, Cyaxares' son, to Nebuchadnezzar, Nabopolassar's son.

In the spring of 613 BC, a revolt against Nabopolassar occurred in Suhu, a region on the middle Euphrates, which later spread to central and southern Babylonia. He was on the verge of losing his power to the Assyrians and was saved from this danger by the Medes. Finally, after three months of siege, in August of 612 BC, the joined forces of the Medes and Babylonians stormed Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, and took it. The major part in the city’s downfall was played by the Medes. The city was plundered, and the conquerors returned home with enormous booty. The remains of the Assyrian army managed to leave for the city Ḥarrān in Upper Mesopotamia, where Aššuruballiṭ II, a member of the royal family who was appointed the new king, continued the struggle against the Babylonians, who had to face him without any help from Media. In the meantime, the Assyrians were reinforced by the arrival of the Egyptian army of Pharaoh Necho II. In November 610 BC, the Medes returned to Mesopotamia and to the assistance of Nabopolassar. The joined forces of the Babylonians and Medes marched on Ḥarrān; upon their approach the Assyrians and Egyptians retreated to Carchemish, where they were eventually defeated. The Medes plundered Ehulhul, the main temple of Ḥarrān, and went home.

After his victory over Assyria, Cyaxares continued to expand the frontiers of his kingdom at the expense of northwestern and eastern neighbors. Judging by later indirect evidence, he succeeded in the conquest of the regions south and east of the Caspian Sea (i.e., Parthia and Hyrcania) and Armenia. In 590 BC, however, when the Median army approached the Halys river, they were attacked by Alyattes, the king of Lydia. The war lasted for five years, and, when a solar eclipse occurred during a battle on 29 May 585 BC, both sides decided to conclude a peace treaty, according to which the frontier was established along the Halys river. By signing the treaty, the Medes become the most powerful empire of the time, unprecedented in history, which stretched from north Mesopotamia to Bactria and India.

Fall of Median empire

In 585 BC, Cyaxares died, leaving his throne to Astyages, who might be the one that established Median control over Elam. After a long rule, he lost his kingdom to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 550 BC after a 3 years long war. According to Herodotus, during the war a Median nobleman aided Cyrus and deflected with a large part of the troops to Cyrus's side. It seems that Cyrus did not abolish the Median kingdom. What occurred was, rather, a transition of royal power from one dynasty to another. In any case, Cyrus and his Achaemenid successors adopted the official titles of the Median kings and their system of state administration.

Role of the Medes in the Achaemenid empire

In the Achaemenid empire, Media retained its privileged position, occupying the second place after Persia itself. Media was a large province, and its capital Ecbatana became one of the Achaemenid capitals and the summer residence of the Persian kings. The Median nobility maintained its privileged position under Cyrus the Great, and also to a significant degree under his successors, in spite of a dangerous rebellion of the Medes against Darius the Great in 521 BC. Gobryas, the first governor of Babylonia after its occupation by the Persians, may have been a Mede. It should also be mentioned that, along with the Persians and Elamites, Medes served in the standing army of the "10,000 Immortals" of the Achaemenids. The Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, and other peoples of the ancient world called the Persians "Medes" and regarded the Persian rule as a continuation of that of the Medes. As seen from some Babylonian documents drafted after the conquest of Mesopotamia by the Persians, many Medes resided in Babylonia as important state officials, military officers, and royal soldiers. Moreover, it seems that some Medes lived in Babylon and perhaps in other big cities as private individuals.

External links



  1. Detail of table 24 of Friedrich Hottenroth: Trachten, Haus-, Feld- und Kriegsgeräthschaften der Völker alter und neuer Zeit. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Gustav Weise, Stuttgart 1884