The kingdom of the Medes in Iran

According to Herodotus, one Deioces was the creator of the Median kingdom.  According to Herodotus, he ruled from 728 to 675 BC and established the Median capital Ecbatana (modern Hamadān). It has been attempted by many to associate Dāiukku, a local Zagros king mentioned in a cuneiform text as one of the prisoners deported to Assyria in 714 BC by Sargon II, with the Deioces of Herodotus, but such an association is highly erroneous. As per the Assyrian sources, no Median kingdom such as Herodotus describes for the reign of Deioces was present in the early 7th century BC; at best, Herodotus is reporting a Median legend of the founding of their kingdom.

According to Herodotus, Phraortes (reigned 675–653 BC) was the successor of his father Deioces and subjugated the Persians but lost his life in a premature attack against the Assyrians. Some of this legend may be true. Assyrian texts talk of a Kashtariti as the leader of a conglomerate group of Medes, Mannaeans, Scythians, and various other local Zagros peoples that posed serious threat to the peace of Assyria’s eastern frontiers during the reign of Esarhaddon (680–669 BC). It is a possibility that Phraortes is this Kashtariti, though the suggestion cannot be substantiated either historically or linguistically. That a Median king in this period exercised political and military control over the Persians is entirely reasonable, though it cannot be substantiated.

Starting as early as the 9th century BC and with rising impact in the late 8th and early 7th centuries, groups of nomadic warriors ventured in western Iran, possibly from across the Caucasus. Leading among these groups were the Scythians, and their ingress into the affairs of the western plateau during the 7th century may possibly mark one of the turning points in Iron Age history. Herodotus speaks in quite some detail of an epoch of Scythian domination, the so-called Scythian interregnum in Median dynasty history. His dating of this event remains unclear, but as per the tradition it is seen as falling somewhere between the reigns of Phraortes and Cyaxares and covering the years 653 to 625 BC. Whether such an interregnum even occurred and, if it in fact did, whether it should not be dated later than this are open questions. What is amply clear is that by the mid-7th century BC there were a great many Scythians present in western Iran, that they—together with the Medes and other groups—posed a severe threat to Assyria, and that their arrival threw prior power alignments quite out of balance.

Herodotus reports how, under Cyaxares of Media (625–585 BC), the Scythians were ousted when their kings were shrewdly induced at a supper party to get so drunk that they were then easily assassinated. More likely possibility is that about this time either the Scythians withdrew voluntarily from western Iran and went off to plunder somewhere else or they were absorbed into a quickly developing confederation under Median hegemony. Cyaxares is an entirely historical figure who appears in the cuneiform sources as Uvakhshatra. Herodotus talks of how Cyaxares restructured the Median army into units built around specialized armaments: archers, spearmen, and cavalry. The united and reorganized Medes were a potent match for the Assyrians. In 615 BC, they attacked one of the vital Assyrian border cities, Arrapkha, encircled Nineveh in 614 BC but failed to capture it, and instead effectively stormed the Assyrian religious capital, Ashur. An alliance between Medes and the Babylon was sealed by the engagement of Cyaxares’ granddaughter to Babylonian King Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadrezzar II (605–562 BC). In 612 BC the attack on Nineveh was repeated, and the city fell in late August (the Babylonians reached rather too late to participate fully in the battle). The Babylonians and the Medes collectively pursued the fleeing Assyrians westward into Syria. Assyrian appeals to Egypt for aid came to naught, and the last Assyrian ruler, Ashur-uballiṭ II, disappeared from history in 609 BC.

The difficulty, of course, was how to split the spoils among the victors. The cuneiform sources are relatively silent, but it would seem that the Babylonians inherited all of the Assyrian holdings within the Fertile Crescent, while their allies captured all of the highland areas. The Medes gained control over the lands in eastern Anatolia that had once been part and Parcel of Urartu and ultimately became embroiled in war with the Lydians, the leading political power in western Asia Minor. In 585 BC, possibly through the mediation of the Babylonians, peace was established between Media and Lydia, and the Halys (Kızıl) River was fixed as the frontier between the two kingdoms. Thus a new balance of power was established in the Middle East among Babylonians, Medes, Lydians, and, far to the south, Egyptians. At his death Cyaxares controlled vast territories: the whole of western Iran eastward, perhaps as far as the area of modern Tehrān; all of Anatolia to the Halys; and all of southwestern Iran, including Fārs.

Astyages succeeded his father, Cyaxares, on the Median throne (585–550 BC). Rather little is known of his reign. All was not well with the association with Babylon, and there is some indication to suggest that Babylonia may have feared Median power. The latter, nonetheless, was soon in no position to threaten others, for Astyages was himself under attack. Actually, Astyages and the Medians were soon overthrown by the rise to power in the Iranian world of Cyrus II (the Great) of Persia.

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