One of the Iranian peoples who overran the plateau and settled in the area known to ancient sources as Media, corresponding to the modern area of Tehran, Hamadan, Isfahan, and southern Azerbaijan. The Medes are first mentioned as Matāi in the Assyrian inscriptions that recount the campaigns of Shalmaneser III in 836–835 B.C., although earlier notices record Iranian names from the area. Another term found in later Assyrian records is Umman-Manda, which sometimes includes the Medes as well as other peoples, but it may be a generic term for nomads or barbarians. The Assyrians made many expeditions to the land of the "mighty Medes," primarily in search of horses for their cavalry. The Medes were famous for their horses, but there is mention also of castles or fortified towns of the Medes in Assyrian inscriptions.
It is impossible to reconstruct a history of the Medes before they captured nineveh, the Assyrian capital, in 612 b.c.; but one may assume that the Median tribes became united in a confederacy under a chief called Dayukku or Deioces in the second half of the 8th century b.c.
The center of his rule was probably the modern area of Hamadan, ancient Ecbatana. Herodotus (1.101) says the Medes were composed of six tribes, several of them probably non-Iranian in origin. In about 700 b.c. the Median state was disrupted by an invasion of Cimmerians from the north. These were followed by Scythians, who seem to have ruled over Media from c. 652 to 625 b.c. Another attempt to unite the Medes during the agitated 7th century by a chief Khshathrita (Akkadian Kashtaritu, Greek Phraortes) is reported in Assyrian annals, and this attempt bore fruit when his son Uvakhshtra or Cyaxares defeated the Scythians.
Cyaxares was the real founder of the empire of the Medes, and under him the Persians to the south and other Iranian tribes to the east were included in the empire. Herodotus (1.103) says he reorganized the army, and he probably reconstructed the state also. Cyaxares led the Median army against Assyria, and in 614 the city of assur (Asshur) was captured. Then a pact was made with the new Babylonian King Nabopolasser (626–605), and the allies captured and destroyed Ninive in 612.
After the fall of Assyria, Cyaxares extended his kingdom into Anatolia. War with the Lydians ended in 585, after the battle of the "eclipse of the sun," and the Halys River (modern Kizil Irmak) became the boundary between the Lydian and Median kingdoms.
The loose far-flung empire may have been organized into satrapies, but very little is known about the Medes, not only because of lack of sources, but also because of the absence of archeological excavations in Median territory. It is not known what writing the Medes employed in their empire, but Aramaic and Akkadian probably were two means of written communication. The religion of the Medes and the role of the Magoi or magi, one of the Median tribes, according to Herodotus, are both unclear.
The Median empire was overthrown by cyrus, king of Persia, whose rise is told in several Greek sources as well as in the Akkadian "Nabonidus Chronicle." The last ruler of Media, Astyages (Ishtumegu in Akkadian) c. 585–549 b.c., marched against his revolting vassal Cyrus in 549, but his army apparently revolted and gave Cyrus victory. The latter captured Ecbatana and carried off much booty. Cyrus founded the empire of the Achaemenids on the basis of the Median state. An unsuccessful revolt of the Medes at the beginning of the reign of darius i is mentioned in his Behistun Inscription. The Medes continued to play an important role in the new empire, sometimes described as a dual monarchy of the Medes and the Persians. Although the name Media is found later in history, the people are not significant as a distinct entity. Some modern Kurds claim descent from the ancient Medes and begin a "Kurdish era" from the fall of Ninive.
See Also: persia.
Bibliography: r. n. frye, The Heritage of Persia (London 1963) 69–81. Herodotus 1:95–130. i. m. dyakonov, Istoriya Midii (Moscow 1956). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 1492–94.
[r. n. frye]