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BC 788 - 550 BC - Median Empire

1 Arbaces (Varbak) 28 years 836808
2 Maudaces 20 years 808788
3 Sosarmus 30 years 788758
4 Articas 30 years 758728
5 Deioces 44 years 728675
6 Phraortes 24 years 675653
Scythian interregnum
7 Cyaxares 32 years 624585
8 Astyages (Azhdahak) 38 years584550
according to Eusebius'Chronicle
Other books record the kings differently
The combined revolt of the Mede Arbaces, the Chaldaean Phul-Balazu, and the Susianian Shutruk-nakhunta, in the year 788 BC, led to the capture of Nineveh, and the death of the Assyrian ruler Sardanapalus. Nineveh destroyed, and the hatred of his people gratified, Arbaces retired to the country he had freed by his valour, leaving Phul in possession of Assyria. He died there twentyeight years after, in 764, having ruled over Media to the time of his death. Arbaces was not really a king, especially in the sense in which all Asiatics understand that word, but rather the sole military chief of a nation with a republican government. After his death the Medes retained the same republican institutions, but were parcelled out, as it were, into small districts, there being no one of sufficient renown, power, or consideration to bind them together by the common tie of one central power. For many ages this was the normal condition of all the Iranians, among whom the tribal system, so well suited to their mode of life-warlike, pastoral, and agricultural, but not industrial.

Such was the nature of the republican organisation of the Medes for fifty years after the death of Arbaces. The nation was in a state of complete disorganisation; each of these districts was completely isolated from the others, content with its local liberties. It was only on rare occasions, in the presence of a danger menacing the common independence, that the sentiment of nationality and of union between the different tribes was aroused; one supreme chief was then elected a sort of dictator, whose power was only temporary.

Traditionally, the creator of the Median kingdom was one Deioces, who, according to Herodotus, reigned from 728 to 675 BCE and founded the Median capital Ecbatana (Hgmatna or modern Hamadan). Attempts have been made to associate Daiaukku, a local Zagros king mentioned in a cuneiform text as one of the captives deported to Assyria by Sargon II in 714 BCE, with the Deioces of Herodotus, but such an association is highly unlikely. To judge from the Assyrian sources, no Median kingdom such as Herodotus describes for the reign of Deioces existed in the early 7th century BCE; at best, he is reporting a Median legend of the founding of their kingdom.

Herodotus tells a charmingly naive story of the foundation of the Median kingdom by Deioces, son of Phraortes, a story in which Greek and Oriental colors are charmingly blended. "There was a certain Mede," says Herodotus, "named Deioces, son of Phraortes, a man of much wisdom, who had conceived the desire of obtaining to himself the sovereign power. In furtherance of his ambition, therefore, he formed and carried into execution the following scheme:-As the Medes at that time dwelt in scattered villages, without any central authority, and lawlessness in consequence prevailed throughout the land, Deioces, who was already a man of mark in his own village, applied himself with greater zeal and earnestness than ever before to the practice of justice among his fellows. It was his conviction that justice and injustice are engaged in perpetual war with one another. He therefore began this course of conduct, and presently the men of his village, observing his integrity, chose him to be the arbiter of all their disputes. Bent on obtaining the sovereign power, he showed himself an honest and an upright judge, and by these means gained such credit with his fellow-citizens as to attract the attention of those who lived in the surrounding villages. They had long been suffering from unjust and oppressive judgments, so that when they heard of the singular uprightness of Deioces, and of the equity of his decisions, they joyfully had recourse to him in the various quarrels and suits that arose, until at last they came to put confidence in no one else.

"The claims of Deioces and his praises were at once in every mouth, so that presently all agreed that he should be king. Upon this he required a palace to be built for him suitable to his rank, and a guard to be given him for his person. The Medes complied, and built him a strong and large palace on a spot which he himself pointed out, and likewise gave him liberty to choose himself a body-guard from the whole nation. Thus settled upon the throne, he further required them to build a single great city, and disregarding the petty towns in which they had formerly dwelt, make the new capital the object of their chief attention. The Medes were again obedient, and built the city now called Agbatana, the walls of which are of great size and strength, rising in circles one within the other."

Deioces, proclaimed king in 710, at the time of the most brilliant conquests of Sargon, when the Assyrian power seemed likely to swallow up all around it, did not live to see the commencement of the decline of that power. He completed the constitution of the Medes as a nation, joining all the tribes into one compact body. After a reign of fifty-three years, he died in 657, whilst Asshurbanipal was still on the throne at Nineveh, leaving a well-consolidated government to his son Phraortes (Fravartis).

Phraortes (657-635) [656-634 / 647-625], was a conqueror. Nothing positive is known of the first seven years of his reign, but they must have been occupied in driving the Assyrians from the portions of Media which they had occupied since the time of Sargon; for at the time of the termination of the foreign conquests of that prince he was incontestably master of the whole of Media, although great part of the country was under foreign rule in the time of Deioces. The great campaigns of Phraortes commenced in 650, and his arms were at first directed to the East.

Phraortes commenced by subjecting Persia to his sceptre; that country, long divided into tribes with no federal connection, had commenced the formation of a united kingdom about the time that Media, under Arbaces, shook off the Assyrian yoke. But the conquests of the Median king in that direction did not stop there; in a few years he reduced to obedience all the nations, for the most part Iranian, on this side of the Hindoo Koosh and the deserts of Carmania. On the other side of Media, to the west, the Arian nation of the Armenians who had been in alliance with the Medes since the time of Arbaces (to whose assistance the Armenian king Baruir marched in the war against Nineveh), were compelled also to acknowledge the suzerainty of Phraortes, and, probably as the reward of this submission, had his country freed from the Assyrians who partly occupied it.

Having subjugated all these nations, Phraortes thought himself in a position to undertake again the work of Arbaces, and to attempt the destruction of Nineveh, once more raised by Sennacherib from its ruins, and to subject Assyria to his sceptre. The Assyrians, though enervated by long-continued success, though their empire was fast falling into decay, and their conquests were one by one escaping from their hands, were still a warlike people. The Median invasion stimulated their courage, and produced an energy that shed lustre on the name of Asshur-edililani III. A vigorous resistance was made, and in a great battle Phraortes and the flower of his army fell (635).

His son Cyaxares (Uvakhsatara) succeeded him on the throne (635-595) was even a more warlike king. Taking warning from the unfortunate end of his father, his first care was to give to the Medes a good military organisation; he formed the warriors into regular corps, brought into one body all similarly armed men, who had hitherto fought in a confused mass, subjected them to severe discipline, and in this way prepared them for new conquests. The first trial he made of his forces was against the Parthians, who had revolted on the death of Phraortes. Again entertaining his father's projects, he contemplated the ruin of Nineveh. A treaty was concluded between Cyaxares and the Chaldaean Nabopolassar for the conquest and partition of Assyria, and the pledge of the alliance was a marriage between Amytis, daughter of Cyaxares, and Nebuchadnezzar, the youthful son of Nabopolassar.

In 625 the death of Asshur-edililani presented the opportunity of realising the projects of the allies. The Medes and the Chaldseans simultaneously invaded Assyria, the one from the north, the other from the south. Cyaxares had already defeated the Assyrians in a pitched battle, and had formed the siege of Nineveh, whilst Nabopolassar was advancing with all his forces to join him before that city.

Meanwhile, beginning as early as the 9th century, and with increasing impact in the late 8th and early 7th centuries, nomadic warriors of Iranian stock, dominated by a group known as the Scythians, entered western Iran, probably from across the Caucasus. Dominant among these groups were the Scythians, and their entrance into the affairs of the western plateau during the 7th century may perhaps mark one of the important turning points in Iron Age history.

The king of the Medes was suddenly attacked by a numerous army of Scythians, under Madyas their king. These Scythians rushed like a torrent into Media. Cyaxares attempted to stop them, but lost a battle ; and in one day fell from the position of the master of great part of Asia to that of a subject of these barbarians. The Scythians ruled all Western Asia for eighteen years.

Herodotus wrote in some detail of a period of Scythian domination, (the so-called "Scythian interregnum" in Median dynasty history). Precise dating of this event remains uncertain, but traditionally it is seen as falling between the reigns of Phraortes and Cyaxares circa 653 to 625 BC a period during which a great many Scythians had descended on western Iran, who, along with the Medes and other Iranian groups, expanded their control from Central Asia to Mesopotamia and posed a serious threat to Assyria (in present-day Iraq).

Herodotus also describes how Cyaxares overthrew the Scythians by inducing them at a supper party to get so drunk that they were then easily slain. It is also possible that, about this time, either the Scythians withdrew voluntarily or were simply absorbed into a rapidly developing confederation under Median hegemony.

Between 615 and 610 the Medes sacked three cities (Assur, Nineveh, and Harran) and departed immediately thereafter. As soon as he was delivered from these barbarian invaders, Cyaxares renewed his alliance with Nabopolassar and his enterprise against Nineveh. An alliance was made between the Babylonians and the Medes, and the allies stormed and destroyed the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, in 612 BC, a date used today by the Kurds, who claim descent from the Medes, to begin their Kurdish era of time reckoning. In 606 the proud city was taken and destroyed, and this time for ever. Some sources concluded that the two conquerors divided Assyria between them, the northern part was assigned to the Medes, and the southern to the Babylonians. Liverani concludes: "The idea that the two victors (Babylonia and Media) shared the territory of the Assyrian empire is completely wrong. The Medes assumed the dirty job of destruction, while the Babylonians assumed the role of the restorers."

Possibly at this time that the Medes became masters of Susiana [Elam of old], a country bordering both on the Median provinces and on Persia. This country had been finally united to Assyria by Asshurbani-pal; the kings of Chaldaea of the dynasty of Nabopolassar never possessed it, and we find that Cyrus governed there as soon as he took the place of Astyages on the throne. It seems that Susiana was assigned to the Medes, as part of the spoils of the Ninevite kingdom. But Mesopotamian texts relate no contact between Medes and Elamites.

Three years afterwards (in 603), the emigration of one of the Scythian tribes who had remained in Media in a state of slavery, and the asylum given them by Alyattes, king of Lydia, brought about a war between Cyaxares and that kingdom, which had a few years before become supreme over Phrygia and Cappadocia, and consequently bordered on the Armenian frontier of the Medes. " The war between the Medes and the Lydians continued," says Herodotus, "for five years with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes." The river Halys, flowing through the midst of Cappadocia, was chosen as the boundary of the two empires.

By 600 BC, the Medes under Cyaxares had carved out an empire that stretched from the southern shore of the Black Sea in Asia Minor to present-day Afghanistan. Cyaxares's successor, Astyages, sat on the Median throne (585-550 BC) during a period of rapid Median decline. Astyages (Ajtahaga), son of Cyaxares, succeeded to the throne. His reign was a long one, and for thirty years seems to have been marked by no event of importance. Astyages was not a warlike, conquering prince; history records no expedition of his beyond the frontiers established by his predecessors for the Median monarchy All that has been recorded of him marks him as a suspicious and perfidious tyrant, and his cruelty and bad faith brought about the catastrophe that terminated his reign.

Astyages had a daughter named Mandane, whom he married to a Persian named Cambyses (Kambujiya), son of Teispes, and grandson of Achaemenes, who no doubt was, though the ancient writers do not say so, satrap, or vassal king of his own country. After this marriage, according to the story of Herodotus, he saw in a dream a vine growing from his daughter, and overshadowing all Asia. Having required the Magi to interpret this dream, they told him that a child should be born of Mandane, who should one day reign in his place. Astyages was desirous of securing his throne, and he therefore summoned his daughter to him, and putting her under close restraint, determined to put to death the infant to which she was about to give birth. When the child was born, Astyages called Harpagus, one of his most devoted servants, and directed him to put to death the son of Cambyses. Harpagus, unwilling to stain himself with such a crime, directed one of the herdsmen of Astyages to expose the infant on a desert mountain, where it was sure to die. But the herdsman did not obey the order, and brought up the son of Cambyses, who was at first called Agradates, and afterwards Cyrus, in place of his own still-born son.

By 551 BC the rise of Cyrus II the Great prepared the foundation for a second Iranian dynasty, achieved even greater heights, and soon controlled an even larger realm the Achaemenid Empire which would shape the emerging region of Afghanistan as never before.




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