They overran the highlands of modern-day northwest Iran and developed a mighty force which helped to destroy Assyria and maintained a strong influence on the ancient Near East. Their influence would remain for generations, yet their glory and legacy would be left to their conquerors: we have no written documentation from their own hands, and their story is told by others. Such was the ironic fate of Media and the Medes.
Media represented the territory nestled between the Zagros Mountains to the west and northwest, the Great Salt Desert (Dasht-e Kevir) to the east, Elam to the southwest, and Persia to the southeast, in the northwestern portion of modern day Iran. The meaning of the term “Media” or “Mede” in Old Iranian is not definitively known, but is most likely akin to “central, in the middle,” consistent with other Indo-European terms (cf. “median”). Herodotus, a Greek historian, claimed the Medes were originally known as Arians (Histories 7.62); in various Greek and Roman stories, the Medes took their name from Medea, wife of Jason of the Argonaut fame, or her son Medus, likely on account of the similarity of the names. Herodotus also recorded how the Medes really represented a collection of Iranian tribes: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, and the Magi (ibid. 1.101).
According to archaeological evidence and the Assyrian chronicles, Iranian tribes moved into northwest Iran following the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations in the Near East (ca. 1150-1050 BCE); they spoke Indo-European languages and were most likely people of the steppe. During this time the Middle Assyrian Empire, the Elamites, and the Babylonians had declined in power, allowing a more free migration of peoples. Media would be conquered and controlled by the Neo-Assyrian Empire for many centuries (ca. 911-625); the Assyrians would settle some of the exiled Israelites in the land of the Medes (2 Kings 17:6, 18:11). According to Herodotus, the Median tribes were brought under singular control by Deioces around 700; he and his son Phraortes would reign until 625 (ibid. 1.95-130). Other sources suggest the Medes only came together under the reign of the most capable and mighty Median ruler, Phraortes’ son Cyaxares. Under Cyaxares the Medes would conquer their Iranian neighbors, including the Persians; Cyaxares allied with Nabopolassar the Chaldean king of Babylon, and they fought against and defeated the Assyrians, eliminating the Assyrian Empire as a going concern (612-609, as prophesied in Nahum 1:1-3:19). Cyaxares would extend the Median Empire to include Armenia, areas of northern Mesopotamia, and parts of eastern Anatolia. Cyaxares died in 585 and his son Astyages reigned after him. Astyages would be overthrown in a revolt by his grandson Cyrus the Persian of Anshan in 550, establishing the Achaemenid Persian Empire and ending the Median Empire as a going concern.
The Persians may have militarily conquered the Medes, yet the Medes maintained significant pride of place and influence throughout the days of the Persian Empire and long afterward. It would seem that Cyrus left much of whatever infrastructure the Medes had developed in their empire, and maintained Median generals, nobles, and officials in his court and government. The Median capital of Ecbatana remained the summer residence of the royal court throughout the time of the Persian Empire (cf. Ezra 6:2). Thus, even though we have no other corroborating evidence to attest to the Darius the Mede who ruled Babylon after Belshazzar according to Daniel 5:31-6:28, we have no reason to doubt his existence or his heritage; Cyrus might well have appointed him to rule over Babylon on his behalf. The author of Esther spoke of the power of Persia and Media, the princes and princesses of Persia and Media, and the unalterable law of the Persians and the Medes in the days of Xerxes, well over fifty years after the demise of the Median Empire (Esther 1:3, 14, 18, 19; cf. Daniel 6:15). The Greeks, who maintained significant interaction with the Achaemenid Persian Empire, did not strongly distinguish between Medes and Persians; they considered becoming too “Iranian” with being “Medianized.” The Magi had always been the more “priestly” tribe among the Medians, upholding and promoting Zoroastrianism throughout the days of the Persian Empire; it is likely that the Greek term used for the Magi was later applied to any kind of priestly caste, for magic and magicians, and most famously to describe the wise men who came from the east to see Jesus (cf. Matthew 2:1-12). yet the association demonstrates another aspect of the pervasive influence of the Medes. Jewish people lived in Media in the days of the Second Temple; some Jewish people from Media were present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and heard of Jesus raised from the dead (Acts 2:9). The later Parthian and Sassanid Empires also highly prized the territory of Media and the heritage of the Medes.
Media and the Medes remain an astonishing phenomenon in the ancient Near Eastern world: a confederation of tribes which powerfully influenced the trajectory of history and shaped a major world empire, yet one which left very little evidence for itself in the written and archaeological records. While some have proven willing to cast doubt and skepticism regarding the Medes and their empire, we do better to trust the ancient sources that the Medes did establish a great empire, co-opted by the Persians, who proved willing to continue to uphold the integrity, value, and structure of Median society and make it their own.
To this end we should look very skeptically upon any endeavor which would try to disassociate the Medes from the Persians in terms of the empires envisioned by Daniel in Daniel 2:31-45, 7:1-28: the Babylonian and Median empires existed simultaneously, and neither the Jewish people nor the Greeks made significant distinctions between the Medes and the Persians (cf. Daniel 5:28). Thus Babylon was the gold head and the lion from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s vision; Persia, or Medo-Persia if one is so inclined, was the silver chest and the bear; the latter two empires would thus be Macedonian and Roman. Thus the interpretation of the empires as Babylon, Media, Persia, and Macedonian is right out.
Media truly was in the middle of the events of the Near Eastern world in the middle of the first millennium BCE. We cannot fully understand how much the Medes influenced the Persian Empire and all successive empires after them, but we can appreciate their place in the history of the ancient Near Eastern world and their importance in Biblical history.
Ethan R. Longhenry
“Medes” (accessed 2021/05/23).