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BC 788 - 550 BC - Median Empire - The Modern View

The question of whether or not there was truly a “Median Empire” is increasingly controversial, with most tending to answer in the negative. There are no grounds for postulating the existence of a vigorous, separate, and united Median kingdom substantially before 615 BC. Despite modern scholarship’s massive gains in the last few decades regarding understanding of ancient Near Eastern history, fundamental and vital questions about Medes, Media, and Median history continue to elude satisfactory answers. While it seems reasonable to acknowledge Median influence on the Persian Empire, it is not possible at present clearly determine or even define what this may have been.

In the wake of the Bronze Age Collapse, two major groups of Iranians suddenly appeared in Mesopotamian cuneiform sources — the Medes and the Persians. For a Babylonian (as for a Greek or an Egyptian) the generic ethnic term Mede may have also included the Persians. Of the two, the Medes were the more widespread and important group. The Medes occupied the vast upland of Iran in historic times, though they were not the original inhabitants. They were the successors of a prehistoric population. They would thus be of Aryan stock, and the Median empire seems to be the result of the earliest attempt on the part of the Aryans to found a great conquering monarchy.

The Medes excelled in battle and formed a dynasty during the second half of the 7th century BC under their founder Daiaukku (known to Greeks as Deiocres, who according to Herodotus reigned from 728 to 675 BC), his successor Phraortes (675-653 BC, who united the Iranians, including the Persians, under a single banner, and lost his life in a premature attack against the Assyrians), followed by his son Cyaxares (625-585 BC). Eventually the rising influence of another branch of the Aryans led to the transition from the Median to the Persian rule. At this distance both terms are rather vague and indefinite, but there is no doubt as to the advent of a new dynasty.

While they referred to themselves as Aryan, others called them the Medes ("people of the Mada", a region in the northwestern portions of present-day Iran, roughly the areas of present day Kurdistan, Hamedan and Tehran, which ancient Greek sources referred to as Media or Mede). It is now commonly accepted that so called “Median Empire” was not the direct predecessor of the Achaemenid Persia, and the term “empire” for the polity build by Medes is inadequate. Most probably, they were semi-nomadic people, who formed a kind of loose confederation, what is especially evidenced on the basis of cuneiform sources.

Matt Waters notes that "modern scholarship is engaged in a concerted deconstruction of the “Median Empire” — at least as traditionally defined, that is stretching from the Halys river in Anatolia through northern Mesopotamia and Iran to points eastwards, perhaps as far as Bactria. This deconstruction has resulted in a modified picture of the Medes as a loosely connected federation of tribes capable of short-term, devastating effectiveness (e.g. the overthrow of the Assyrian Empire) but as an entity with neither the structure nor the cohesion to maintain an empire in the sense of a bureaucratic, centralized, supra-regional entity." An inscription of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (r.556–539 BC) describes the Medes as an Umman-manda, a term which is usually translated “horde” or the like.

These opinions, which are generally effect of recent studies on the subject, have not been reflected in the studies on the religion of this group. In the secondary literature, the old opinion that Medes were Zoroastrians and through their mediation, Persians became followers of this religion, has remained unchallenged. This opinion is out of date, and there is no evidence for serious Median influences on Persian religion. On the other hand, it seems that Median culture was in a large degree dependant of contacts with Iranian nomadic peoples, like Scythians. In addition, the beliefs of these two ethnic groups appear to be closely related. Certainly, the available sources do not allow for attributing Zoroastrianism to Medes, and even the use of more general term of Mazdaism, that is the cult of Ahura Mazda, should be very cautious. It seems that the beliefs of the Medes were more closely linked to Old Iranian roots.

The Hebrew and Assyrian form of the word Media is mdy (Madai) which corresponds to the Mada by which the land is designated in the earliest Persian cuneiform texts. The origin and significance of the word are unknown. In Genesis 10:2, Madai is mentioned among the sons of Japheth, between Magog (probably the Gimirrhi and the Lydians) and Javan, i.e. the Ionians. In 2 Kings 17:6 (cf. 18:11) we read that Salmanasar, King of the Assyrians "took Samaria, and carried Israel away to Assyria; and he placed them in Hala and Habor by the river of Gozan, in the cities of the Medes". Reference is made to the Medes in Jeremiah 13:17 (cf. 21:2) as enemies and future destroyers of Babylon, and again in 25:25, the "kings of the Medes" are mentioned in a similar connection. The only reference to the Medes in the New Testament is in Acts 2:9, where they are mentioned between the Parthians and the Elamites.

The Babylonian Berosus, writing soon after Alexander the Great, states that at a very early time, the Medes conquered Babylonia, and that eight Median kings reigned thereafter in Babylonia for a space of 224 years. This information is preserved by Eusebius, who took it from Alexander Polyhistor. This is an early instance of the occupation of the rich lowlands by warlike tribes of the neighboring highlands; and indeed the contrast between the plain of the Euphrates and Tigris, peopled mainly by Semites, and the tableland of the Iranians, surrounded by lofty mountains, is a very important factor in the whole history of wide regions of Asia. But it is, to say the least, not certain whether Berosus means the Iranian people afterwards called Medes. The expression might have a merely geographical signification, and it is at all events possible that at that distant period tribes of different descent dwelt in the land. In any case, this was no Iranian empire, but only a Babylonian dynasty founded by foreigners.

M. Liverani writes that "An unbiased evaluation of the extant data leads us to believe that in the period from 610 and 550 b.c. the tradition of “empires” was preserved by Chaldean Babylonia and by Ansan/Persia, while the Zagros area under Median hegemony reverted to a stage of tribal chiefdoms, with no literacy and no administrative tools, the forts and ceremonial buildings of the previous period being dismissed as no longer in line with a new social and political order."

The series of the great Iranian monarchies was long believed to begin with the Median empire of Ecbatana. Unfortunately there is but little trustworthy information about its history, being almost wholly dependent on what two Greeks, Herodotus and Ctesias, who wrote long after the fall of the kingdom, report from the mouths of Orientals. These two authorities differ so widely that their statements are to a great extent mutually exclusive. Nevertheless careful investigation has shown that many of the statements of Ctesias (which are only preserved through the medium of later writers, like Diodorus) rest on the same basis as those of Herodotus. Indeed, without Herodotus and the Greek tradition, many modern scholars believe that it is highly doubtful that modern researchers would posit the existence of a Median Empire.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:25:22 ZULU