Medes (Old Persian Mâda): tribe, ruled by a king, in the west of modern Iran; capital Ecbatana (modern Hamadan).

Two Medes
Two Medes

Media poses a problem to the scholar who tries to describe this ancient empire: the evidence is unreliable. It consists of the archaeological record, several references in Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform texts, the Persian Behistun inscription, the Histories by the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the Persian history by Ctesias of Cnidus, and a couple of chapters in the Bible. The trouble is that the archaeological record is unclear, that the oriental texts offer not much information, that the Greek authors are unreliable, and that several Biblical books appear to have been influenced by Herodotus. But let's start with a description of the landscape itself.

The Country

Although the boundaries of Media were never completely fixed, it is more or less identical to the northwest of modern Iran. Its capital Ecbatana is modern Hamadan; its western part is dominated by the Zagros mountains and border on Assyria; to the south are Elam and Persis; in the arid east, the Caspian Gate is the boundary with Parthia; and Media is separated from the Caspian Sea and Armenia by the Elburz mountains.

The Nesaean Plain, surrounding Ecbatana (modern Hamadan)
The Nesaean Plain, surrounding Ecbatana (modern Hamadan)

The country was (and is) dominated by the east-west route that was, in the Middle Ages, known as the Silk road; it connected Media to Babylonia, Assyria, Armenia, and the Mediterranean in the west, and to Parthia, Aria, Bactria, Sogdia, and China in the east. Another important road connected Ecbatana with the capitals of Persis, like Persepolis and Pasargadae.

Media controlled the east-west trade, but was also rich in agricultural products. The valleys and plains in the Zagros are fertile, and Media was well-known for clover (which is still called medicago), sheep, goats, and the horses of the Nisaean plain. The country could support a large population and boasted many villages and a few cities (Ecbatana, Rhagae, Gabae). The Greek author Polybius of Megalopolis correctly calls it the most powerful of all Asian countries, and it was generally recognized as one of the most important parts of the Seleucid and Parthian Empires.

Early History

Media is archaeologically poorly understood. Often, researchers have simply called those objects Median that were discovered under the stratum they had identified as Achaemenid. It would have been helpful if we could establish that certain types of archaeological remains (like house forms, ornaments, pottery, and burial rites) in the entire area of Media constantly recurred together, but until now this definition of a material culture has not been possible.

Still, it is reasonably clear that in the first quarter of the first millennium, nomadic cattle-herders speaking an Indo-Iranian language infiltrated the Zagros and settled among the native population. (The language of the newcomers can be reconstructed from loan words, personal names and toponyms.) The tribal warriors are mentioned for the first time in the Assyrian Annals as enemies of Šalmaneser III (858-824). KURMa-da-a ("the land of the Medes") included the Zagros, "bordered on the salt desert" and "continued as far as the edge of Mount Bikni" (i.e., Mount Damavand, east of Tehran); its inhabitants were divided into several smaller clans, and although the Assyrian kings were able to subdue several of them, they never conquered all of Media.

In fact, it is likely that the Assyrians were themselves responsible for the unification of the Median tribes. The repeated Assyrian attacks forced the various inhabitants of the Zagros and the country beyond to cooperate and develop more effective leadership. The Assyrians also appreciated products from the east, like Bactrian lapis lazuli, and the east-west route through Media became increasingly important. Tribal chiefs along the road could make substantial profits if only they were willing to give up their nomadic way of life and settle in more permanent residences. Trade may explain the rise of Ecbatana (Hâgmatâna, 'gathering place') as the central town of Media, and may have been the trigger that started the process of unification. Other towns that may have grown as a response to the demands of the Assyrian market are Hasanlu and Ziwiye in the northwest. Tepe Nush-e Jan appears to have been a fortified sanctuary. Another early settlement is Godin Tepe.


If we are to believe Herodotus, Media was unified by a man named Deioces,note the first of four kings who were to rule a true empire that included large parts of Iran and eastern Anatolia. Their names sound convincingly Iranian: a Daiaukku and a Uksatar (Deioces and Cyaxares) are mentioned in texts from the eighth century. Using the number of regnal years mentioned by the Greek researcher and counting backward from the year in which the last Median leader (who is mentioned in the Babylonian Nabonidus Chronicle) lost his throne, we obtain this list:

53 years
700/699 to 647/646
22 years
647/646 to 625/624
40 years
625/624 to 585/584
35 years
585/584 to 550/549

Unfortunately, there are several problems. In the first place, Ctesias offers another list of kings. Secondly, there is something wrong with the chronology: according to Assyrian sources, the Daiaukku and Uksatar mentioned above lived in c.715. Even worse, Daiaukku lived near Lake Urmia, not in Ecbatana. Besides, the story of Deioces looks suspiciously like a myth or saga about the origins of civilization. Finally, Herodotus' figures are suspect: (53+22) + (40+35) = 75+75 = 150 years. There is no need to doubt the existence of the two last rulers, who are also mentioned in Babylonian texts, but we may ask what kind of leaders they have been.

One clue is a little list that Herodotus inserted in his Histories, in which he states that Deioces "united the Medes and was ruler of the tribes which here follow, namely, the Busae, Paretacenians, Struchates, Arizantians, Budians, and Magians".note But was Deioces the only leader to unite several tribes? It is not a strange or novel idea to interpret the various personal names we have as an indication of a fluid, still developing central leadership.

Herodotus' list can be seen as an attempt to create order in a confused oral tradition about earlier leaders; his description of Median history probably projects back aspects of the later, Achaemenid empire upon a loose tribal federation. He took the stories told by his Persian informers about the early history of Iran a bit too literally. Which does not mean that the leaders of tribal federations were not capable of exercising great political influence.

Although an Arbaces may have united several Median tribes too, Cyaxares and Astyages are generally recognized as the two last rulers of the federation of tribes. According to the Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, Cyaxares (called Umakištar) destroyed the Assyrian religious center Aššur in the summer of 614:

The Medes went along the Tigris and encamped against Aššur. They did battle against the city and destroyed it. They inflicted a terrible defeat upon a great people, plundered and sacked them. The king of Babylonia and his army, who had gone to help the Medes, did not reach the battle in time.

From this moment on, Cyaxares and the Babylonian king Nabopolassar joined forces, and two years later, the Assyrian capital Nineveh was captured by the allies:

The king of Babylonia and Cyaxares [...] encamped against Nineveh. From the month Simanu [May/June] until the month Âbu [July/August] -for three months- they subjected the city to a heavy siege. On the [lacuna] day of the month Abu they inflicted a major defeat upon a great people. At that time Sin-šar-iškun, king of Assyria, died. They carried off the vast booty of the city and the temple and turned the city into a ruin heap. [...] On the twentieth day of the month Ulûlu [10 August 612] Cyaxares and his army went home.

This proves that Cyaxares was more than just a tribal chief: he was a real king, capable of building an army that was strong enough to capture a city. Probably, the Persians, Armenians, Parthians, and Arians all paid tribute to the Medes. In other words, he controlled a large part of the Silk Road and had expanded his realm to Persis and Armenia, which appears to have been brought in submission after 609 and probably before 605.

Cyaxares' latest recorded act is the battle of the Halys, which he fought against the Lydian king Alyattes and can be dated to 30 May 585 BCE. This and the capture of Aššur in 614 fit within Herodotus' framework, which gives 40 and 35 years to the two last kings, but it is remarkable that Cyaxares was still firmly in charge in 585/584, and had been succeeded by Astyages in 584/583.

About the reign of Astyages, Herodotus tells an oriental fairy tale, which explains why he lost the throne. However, although the story may be more charming than reliable, the fact that Astyages lost his kingdom is confirmed by the Chronicle of Nabonidus, where we read that in the sixth year of the Babylonian king Nabonidus (550/549)

king Astyages called up his troops and marched against Cyrus, king of Anšan [i.e., Persia], in order to meet him in battle. The army of Astyages revolted against him and delivered him in fetters to Cyrus. Cyrus marched against the country Ecbatana; the royal residence he seized; silver, gold, other valuables of the country Ecbatana he took as booty and brought to Anšan.

It is possible that the rise of Persia and the demise of Media had deeper, economic causes. It seems that in the mid-sixth century, qanats were dug in Persis, which gave this part of Iran a competetive advantage compared to Media. However, dating the villages near qanats is not easy, and it may be that this development in fact postdates Cyrus' victory.

Anyhow, Cyrus took over the loosely organized Median empire, including several subject countries: Armenia, Cappadocia, Parthia, and perhaps Aria. They were probably ruled by vassal kings called satraps. In 547, Cyrus added Lydia to his possessions, a state that had among its vassals the Greek and Carian towns in the west and southwest of what is now Turkey.

Eight years later, he captured Babylon, and Cyrus understood that cities were not only there to be looted by nomads - as Cyaxares had done with Nineveh - but could be integrated in an empire. The Persian king also founded a city of his own, Pasargadae, and it is not exaggerated to say that the evolution from tribal society to early state that had started in Media, reached its conclusion in Persis.