Type of Government
Based in what is today northwestern Iran, the Mede Empire combined features of a monarchy and a tribal confederation. The archaeological remains of Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan), a heavily fortified capital city, suggest that the Median kings initiated ambitious programs of centralization and urbanization. There is little evidence, however, of an elaborate bureaucracy. Traditional tribal authorities and a hereditary priesthood called the Magi seem to have retained significant authority.
Most of what is known about the Medes comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–c. 420 BC) and the cuneiform records of the Assyrians. Neither is an unimpeachable source. Herodotus has a tendency to project Greek habits and ideals onto other peoples, and the Assyrians were long-standing enemies. As the Medes seem to have left no written records of their own, their origins and political development remain obscure. Most historians, however, believe that they arrived in Iran from Central Asia in the second millennium BC. Their organization was tribal and their way of life seminomadic, with only a few permanent settlements and an ongoing need for fresh pasturage. Herodotus names six separate Median tribes: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, and the Magi. Ethnically and linguistically, their closest relatives were probably the Persians.
Accounts of the monarchy’s founding are confused and contradictory. Herodotus credits Deioces (eighth to seventh centuries BC) as the founder, whereas local tradition revolves around Dayaukku (eighth century BC). They may or may not have been the same person. Also unclear are the circumstances that drove a loosely linked confederacy of tribes and clans to accept the rule of a king. Mass migrations were common in the region, and it is possible that pressure from an advancing group, perhaps the Assyrians or Scythians, forced the Median tribes to unite for protection under a single ruler.
The first Median king whose existence can be verified archaeologically is Cyaxares (d. 585 BC). His principal achievement was an alliance with the Babylonians and the subsequent destruction of the Assyrian Empire by the two allies in 612 BC. This victory gave the Medes control of eastern Anatolia (modern Turkey) and most of modern Iran. Crucial to their military success was a basic organizational reform. According to Herodotus, Cyaxares thoroughly reorganized his military in the field. Instead of mixing all his soldiers together, Cyaxares separated them into groups on the basis of weaponry, with archers in one group, spear carriers in another, and horsemen in a third. This simple change improved the military’s speed and facilitated the transmission of commands. It is possible that such structural reforms were not limited to the military. The Medes’ civil organization, however, is almost entirely unknown. The king must have had assistants, but historians believe his administration was not large, if only because large bureaucracies require the use of writing, a skill the Medes apparently lacked. Historians also think that the king met periodically with the leaders of the tribes and that local matters were left to the discretion of the locals.
Political Parties and Factions
Historians suppose that there were some rivalries and resentments between the tribes and that the king was occasionally drawn into them. It is not known, however, whether the king’s own tribe expected or received preferential treatment of any kind. The Magi are believed to have been one of the most powerful tribes, for their uncontested control of religious ceremony gave them a role in the most important palace rituals, including coronations and funerals. A reputation for casting curses and spells added significantly to their influence.
The relationship between the Medes and Persians was intense and complicated. In 550 BC Cyrus II (c. 585–c. 529 BC), a Persian who ruled his homeland on behalf of the Medes, openly rebelled. In the ensuing battle many Median troops deserted to the Persians. Cyrus was victorious, and the Mede Empire belonged to the Persians.
One of the most striking aspects of the Persian victory was the clemency shown the Medes. There was no sign of vengeance, which is often taken after a successful rebellion, and many Medes apparently retained their positions in the military and government. By the time Persia reached the height of its power sixty years later, the Medes were fully assimilated, with the possible exception of some Magi, and the Greeks were using the terms Mede and Persian interchangeably in reference to Cyrus and his successors, notably Darius I (550–486 BC) and Darius’s son Xerxes I (c. 519–465 BC).
Frye, Richard N. The History of Ancient Iran. Munich, Germany: C. H. Beck, 1984.
Lanfranchi, Giovanni B., Michael Roaf, and Robert Rollinger, eds. Continuity of Empire (?): Assyria, Media, Persia. Padova, Italy: Sargon, 2003.
Ragozin, Zénaïde A. The Story of Media, Babylon, and Persia, Including a Study of the Zend-Avesta or Religion of Zoroaster. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888.