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Medes, the First (Western) Iranian Kingdom


By: Khodad Rezakhani 


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Iran under the Median Dynasty



Note on Iranian kingdoms 

Medes is often called the first Iranian kingdom, one that set the institution of monarchy and created a united “country” out of scattered tribes.  The general consensus is that before the foundation of the Empire of Medes, Iranian tribes, before and after their migration to the plateau, existed in form of individual or small tribal confederations with no proper ruling hierarchy. 

However, the designation of the Median Kingdom as the first Iranian kingdom seems to be more influenced by their geographical position than their political precedence.  Due to their closeness to the more established and highly literate empires of Mesopotamia, Medes seem to have benefited from being mentioned in Assyrian and Babylonian historical accounts and chronicles.  This, more than suggesting that the Medians pioneered the institution of monarchy among the Iranian tribes, suggests their proper entry into written “history”.  Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that prior to the formation of this western-most Iranian kingdom, there had been at least one “pre-historic” kingdom in the eastern territories of Iranian tribes. 

This evidence is mainly linguistic, mythological, and up to a much smaller level, archaeological.  In short, mentions of kings such as Wishtaspa in the Avesta,  the obvious references of Indo-Iranian texts to their early “kings”, Avestan geographical tradition,, and the listing of ancient dynasties of Iran in books such as Khodhai-Namag, would tempt us to consider an Eastern Iranian kingdom at a point prior to the Median one.  The argument on whether the mythological kings of Avesta and Khodhai-Namag could have roots in reality has been a hot one in scholarly circles since almost the foundation of the discipline of Iranology.  Many tend to treat all of these kings as pure mythological and the result of Sasanian myth making agendas.  Others try to match the mythological kings with known historical characters (e.g. Wishtaspa with Darius’ father or Kai-Khosro with Cyrus), an effort that is dubious at best. 

Another effort, although not much endorsed by the established scholarship, is to put these “mythological” dynasties, at least up to a point, in a territory in eastern Iran.  Among the best supporting evidence is a look at the geography of early Avestan texts.  All of these texts paint the picture of a territory in eastern Iran, mentioning cities and geographical markers located to the east and northeast of the Iranian plateau (e.g. city of Bactria and River Helmand).  The major mentioned enemy is Turan that has been safely put over the river Jeihun (Oxus) in Central Asia, instead of the more known enemies in west of Iran: Assyria and Babylonia.   

Furthermore, the limited archaeological excavations of eastern Iran (Shahr-e Sukhte, Bactria, and BMAC) suggest an older settled civilization in that region than the one in the west.  This evidence, although at the point of guess and speculations at the time, can be further explored following more detailed archaeological research in this region.


Empire of the Medes 

Medes were one of the three western Iranian tribes that moved, along Persian and Parthian, from their original homeland into the western and southern territories of the Iranian Plateau, probably around 1000 BCE.  Medes were a confederation of tribes that occupied west and north-west of present day Iran and bordered the Assyrian empire in the west. Among the most historically famous of these tribes were the Magi (Mogh) who in their position as the hereditary priests, later played an important role in the development of Zoroastrianism.

According historical tradition, around 700 BCE, the leader of one of the Median tribes that was most likely located around the future city of Ecbatana, organised the Median tribes and was elected as the king of the Medes.  The circumstances in which he reached this position are not certain.  Based on stories told by Herodotus and later Persian texts, Daia-oku (Deiocos or Deioces in Greek), was elected in a council of Median to form a union of the Medes (ca. 701 BCE).  However, what preceded this election is a matter of guess and speculation. 

At least one Assyrian account mentions the name of Daia-oku around 20 years prior to the date he was supposedly elected as the King of the Medes.  In this account, Daia-oku is a Median rebel who organised several revolts against the Assyrian authority.  The Assyrian king was forced to put down the rebellion personally, and Daia-oku was exiled, along with his family, to Syria. 

It is likely that the continuous attacks of the Assyrians and Babylonian forces on the Median territory sparked a need for the formation of a union, and the election of Daia-oku was the result of such need.  We know that at the time of the aforementioned rebellion, Medians were a relatively new force in the Zagros Mountains, and probably the more fierce of the tribes who had successively occupied that territory and had been subjugated by the powerful empires to their west.

In any case, Daia-oku apparently succeeded in fulfilling his mission and founded the Median Kingdom, centred in the city of Ecbatana (Med. *hegmatane: “Gathering Place”), supposedly the seat of the great council that elected him as the king.  Not much is known of Daia-oku’s reign or even of his successors for that matter.  A major issue in the historiography of Medes is the proper order of the kings and their names.  The usual pattern includes Daia-oku being followed by his son Fravartish, who was succeeded by Hovakh-shatra, and the dynasty coming to a close with the death of Ishto-vigo, the supposed maternal grandmother of Cyrus the Great. 

Like that of his father, the reign of Fravartish (Gr. Phraortes, 666-635 BCE) was mainly spent in the continuing job of organising the Median tribes and fighting off the Assyrian. We do not know much about the threats that the young kingdom felt from the east, since Medians have not left us any documents, and the Assyrian accounts naturally were not interested in what was on the east of Medes.  On the other hand, the tribes that lived to the north of Media were of utmost importance for both Assyrians and the Medes.  Cimmerians, a nomadic (and probably Iranian) tribe that lived in Caucasus and the Pontic steppes, attacked Media and Assyria around the beginning of the 7th century BCE.  Probably due to their ethnic closeness with Medes, the Cimmerians entered a treaty with the Medes against the Assyrians, instead of slaughtering them.  They attacked Assyria, but failed to defeat Assurhaddon, the powerful king of Assyria.  Following the Cimmerian attacks, another Iranian tribe from the Pontic Steppe, the mighty Scythians, launched a devastating attack on the territory of Fravartish and subjugated the Medes for 28 years (653-525 BCE).  During this time, they organised occasional attacks on Assyria that assisted in weakening of that great empire and provided the pretext for its final defeat by the Medes.  Fravartish ended his days under the Scythian rule while trying to secure a treaty with them against Assyria. 

Hovakh-shatra or Kyaksar/Cyaxares (according to the Greek historians, 635-595 BCE), was the most dramatic and important of all Median kings.  Early in his rule, he managed to change the relationship of his kingdom with Scythians and instead of being a subject of their king, Protothyas (Portoti?), he became an ally of the nomadic leader.  He re-organised the Median military and made it into a well formed army consisted of heavy and light cavalry and long bowmen, a division he adapted from the Scythians.  He also used the famous Iranian chariots that carried slashing scythes on their wheels and where to become the tales of legends a hundred years later. 

Along with military development, Hovakh-shatra set out to secure his diplomatic alliances.  By this time, Ashur-Banipal, the legendary and ruthless Assyrian Emperor was dead, and his successors were incapable of continuing his works. Meanwhile, a new Chaldean dynasty was rising in Babylonia, the old rival of Assyria.  The king of that dynasty, Nabopolassar, had set out to secure the borders of his kingdom and had even managed to take control of parts of the kingdom of Elam.  Hovakh-shatra had well calculated his options for a successful campaign against Assyria and knew that the assistance of Nabopolassar would be invaluable to such action.  Thus, in 615 BCE, after signing a treaty with the king of Babylonia, Hovakh-shatra started his march on Assyria.  In November of that year, the fortress of Khorsabad, less than 20 km to the north of Nineveh, was invaded. The holy city of Ashur was next to fall, and by 612, Ashur-Ilani, the king of Assyria, was forced to surrender Nineveh, his great capital.  The combined forces of Media and Babylonia razed Nineveh to the ground and put an end to the most powerful empire of their time. 

By this time. Hovakh-shatra ruled over Media, Assyria, much of the former Urartu territory, and was in strategic alliance with Babylonia.  Elam, the other powerful ancient kingdom, was destroyed by Ashur-Banipal a quarter century earlier.  At a point unknown to us, Persians had managed to integrate themselves into the Neo-Elamite society, and at the time of Hovakh-shatra, we witness the presence of a Persian ruler in the Elamite highland capital of Anshan (Anzan).  In turn, Persians themselves seemed to have been engaged in a tributary alliance with the Medes, and their kings to have been vassals of the Median emperor.  

Hovakh-shatra was succeeded by his son, Ishto-vigo or Azhidhak (the latter might have been an honorary title meaning "Dragon", Astyages in Greek). The new king, finding himself the master of an empire vaster than that of Assyria, appears to have been a classical case of settled tribal king.  According to the accounts of both Persians and Greeks, Ishto-vigo embraced the luxury and splendour of Assyria and failed to continue the works of his father.  He built extravagant palaces (by Median standards), and wrapped himself in luxurious clothing, and organised his court according to the Assyrian model.  Other than Assyria, his style, especially in architecture, was probably influenced by the other great pre-Iranian kingdom of Western Asia, that of Urartu, just to the north-west of Medes. The downfall of that kingdom, circa 100 years earlier, had left its inheritance to be taken over by the Medians and Assyrians, in addition to the local rulers.  Urartan fortifications and highland structures were the main blue-print for the Median fortification and castle building. 

Although the above picture, that of extravagant and wasteful king, might be an accurate one for the later part of Ishto-vigo's reign, at least in the beginning he should have been an active military leader, if his nickname of "Dragon" is to be taken seriously.  Also, the mightiness of his rule and the fact that until the very end, it held a tight grip of Median territories, might lead us to believe that the corruption of Ishto-vigo's reign can be attributed to the finishing years of his long reign.

Ishto-vigo was the last Median king, and his reign was put to an end by one of his vassals, and a supposed grandson, from Persia, known to history as Cyrus the Great (559 BCE).  Again, Greek and Persian accounts tell us of increasing corruption at the Median court, popular uprising, and a call by the opposing forces in the Median nobility for deployment of Persian forces to topple the tyranny of the Median Emperor.  Cyrus, originally the Persian ruler of Anshan, then the ruler of all Persians, led an army against the Median capital of Ecbatana, and put and end to the life of his maternal grandmother and his empire.  This marks the beginning of the Persian Empire, the largest empire known to man until that time. 

The above account is undoubtedly one told by the Persians, and narrated by them to the Greeks.  How the true story was might not have been much different than the one above, although parts about the "call by Median nobility" and the popular uprising is obviously an attempt to make the Persian attack less of an invasion and more an act of liberation.  However, the sceptic in every historian might want to take this even further and look into stories such as Cyrus' descent from Ishto-vigo as a way of legitimising the succession of the Persian prince to the throne of the Median Emperor.

Apart from the above speculations, the issue of the reign of individual Median rulers is a matter worth contemplating.  Ascribing all of the successes of the Median kings to one single king, Hovakh-shatra, extremely long reigns (atypical of ancient times, minimum of 30 years each), and the need for gradual development of an empire, leads some to imagine the possibility for an alteration of the history of Medians by their successors.  This has parallels in the history of Mesopotamia, and shows up later in the Sasanian account of the Arsacid history.  Whatever the truth, it seems impossible to prove this alteration, since the Median Empire, which was on the border of pre-history and written history, has not left us any first hand accounts, and we are forever bound to study them through the works of their successors. 


Life and Economy During the Median Era

The Iranian tribes that moved to the west of the Iranian plateau, including the Medians, were pastoralists.  Their major economic activity, since the time they lived with their Indo-Aryan cousins in the steppes of east Caspian, was centred on breeding horses, cows, sheep, and rarely goats.  They were known as the best horse breeders of their time, and even prior to their arrival in Zagros Mountains, their horses were known in Mesopotamia.  They also excelled in metallurgy, especially iron work, and built the strongest and fastest chariots of the time. 

When the Iranian tribes arrived in the west and south of the plateau, they witnessed a thriving economy based on trade of tin, copper, and iron ores from the queries in western Iran.  This trade and the control of it was the major objective of Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, and preserving a continuous flow of material to their markets was essential to the military success and wealth of these empires.  The age long struggle of both of these empires to subjugate the tribes that lived in western Iran and the pre-text for much of their military campaigns to the region was this trade.  Elam, the great civilisation of Karun and Kor River basins was formed when the highland tribes descended from the mountains and established their control over the lowland territories, and by extension, over the trade route that ended up in Ur, Sumer, Babylonia, and Nimrud. 

The rulers who established the Median Empire did not overlook this important matter.  In fact, they initially might have gained local power by successfully defending the native tribes of western Iran against the continuous attacks by Assyrians and Babylonians.  Their possession of superior military devices enabled the Median tribes to fight against the superior Assyrian armies, and to gain favour and land from the native tribes. 

After crushing the Assyrians and establishing their highland kingdom, Medians took control of the trade route and built up a fortune of their own by trading the valuable metals and other products, whether produced locally or through lands in the east, such as precious stones from Central Asia and various products from the east (cloth and die, for example).  This made the Median nobility extremely rich, but might not have had much affect on the local population since most likely the actual trade was still done by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and various people from merchant cities of Syria. 

In the sense of local economy, the pastoral tradition of Aryan Medians was most likely mixed with the local subsistence agriculture to create a more efficient farming society, one that both cultivated the land and bred live stock.  We see a continuation of horse breeding as a major economic activity, one that played a role in trade economy as well.  Also, with their settlement on different environments, many of these new tribes, Medians, as well as Persians and Parthians, might have adopted some local traits such as fishing, handy crafts, or pottery.  Metallurgy, both for military and decoration use, also continued, as we can see by the wealth of silver and gold work that appear throughout this time.  In short, the larger concentration of economy at this time was on the trade that flowed out and through the Iranian plateau towards Mesopotamia and Western Asia, while the domestic production was mainly agricultural.


Social Formation and Religious Life of the Median Society

Domestic life in the Iranian society was based on patriarchal/tribal formation.  It is true that many historians and archaeologist point out to possible evidence for a more matriarchal society in the Iranian plateau prior to the arrival of Iranians.  That is indeed a plausible idea, especially while noting the land centred agricultural system of the native population.  However, we know that by the time that the Median Empire was founded, the society in most of the plateau was patriarchal.  It might seem a little far fetched that the culture of an incoming population which certainly were fewer than the local population could have changed the local population so dramatically, but in the face of less evidence, we lay this matter to rest. 

Iranian society was consisted of several tribes, closely linked and probably related via a common ancestor, forming tribal confederations. This is how we first meet them in history, as larger entities called Medes, Persians, and Parthians. We do not know when the differentiation between the individual Iranian tribes and their division into Median, Parthian, Persian, and possibly proto-Sogdian and such happened.  This might have been prior to their migration from their original homeland, after the movement of some towards the west, and even just prior to their settlement in different areas of Iranian plateau.  Whenever this division might have been, by the time we find them in their designated territories, they had already developed distinct characteristics that included language/dialectal differences. 

Each tribe was divided into classes, and this system was translated into the greater tribal confederacy.  The priestly class, the soldier/ruler class, the artisan class, and the agricultural class are the ones we can identify.  Social mobility in this system is not known to us, although we can conclude that although not as harsh as the Indian caste system, this system should have been rather rigid in the matter of social mobility.  As far as we know, a process of reducing the local inhabitants into the status of "outcasts" and "untouchables" did not happen in the Iranian tribes, probably due to the fact that unlike the Indo-Aryans, Iranian tribes did not invade the plateau.  When the Indo-Aryans arrived in the Indus River valley, they saw a thriving civilisation (Mohenju-daru/Harrapan Culture) which they needed to overcome in order to be able to settle in those parts.  On the other hand, Iranian tribes did not face such civilisation and instead met local people who were in danger of an outside enemy, namely the Babylonian and Assyrians.  Thus, while the Indo-Aryans had to overcome the natives to guarantee their survival, Iranians found their survival in a union with the locals. 

Out of all of the Iranian tribal confederations, Medians are the only ones with a priestly tribe.  Magi or the Mogh were members of a tribe who traditionally held the position of priests and preserved the mythology and spiritual tradition of the whole Median society.  The function of this tribe might go back to the time before the division of Iranian tribes into individual confederations and tell us about their role as a priestly tribe in the original proto-Iranian or even Indo-Iranian social system.  This claim can be further strengthened when we see the Magi taking up the same role in the Persian Empire, telling us of their continuous influence in the Iranian society and the fact that residues of their former role might have been remaining even in the memories of Persians.

The mythologies that the Magi protected consisted of a complicated pantheon of gods and a dualistic world view.  The Iranian pantheon is a direct descendant of Indo-Iranian pantheon, and consists of both the natural and supernatural divinities.  Basically, the two Indo-Iranian groups of gods, one the Daevas and the other the Asura/Ahura, originally controlling the forces of nature and social matters respectively, metamorphosed into two groups of good and evil gods.  This happened in both the Indo-Aryan and Iranian societies, with the difference that the Ahuras in Iran were the good deities, while the Daevas became the evil gods, a process that worked in the opposite manner among the Indo-Aryans. 

In Iran, some gods of the local population, such as the goddess of water and fertility (Inana/Araduui Sura Anahita), were incorporated into the Iranian pantheon.  Many gods of different groups were re-arranged, and a complex religious system was created in which the gods ruling social matters such as friendship, social contract, government, fighting, and truth gained more importance than the gods of natural phenomenon.  The belief in the confrontation of good and evil also became a prominent matter in this religious system.  With the establishment of the Median Empire and later the mighty Persian Empire and the end of scattered tribal system in favour of a central government, the ultimate competition between the forces of good and evil was limited to competition between two elements of "truth" (Av. Rta-) and wrong-ness (Av. druj-).  This is when a religion that was formed about one thousand years earlier, entered the social and political life of the Iranians and a great religion gained prominence.   



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