Cyaxares formed an alliance with king Nabopolassar ( 658 - 605 B.C.) of Babylon. This alliance was formalized through the marriage of Cyaxares daughter, Amytis with Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar II ( 634 - 562 ), the king who constructed the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as a present for his homesick Median bride.


Nebuchadnezzar II

the Hanging Gardens of Babylon

In 612 B.C. an alliance of Medes, Scythians, Babylonians and Elamites attacked Nineveh,Sin-shar-ishkun, the last Assyrian king, held out as long as he could; but when all his resources were exhausted, men and food supplies, he met his fate as a king, and burnt himself alive in his palace with his children and his wives, rather than fall alive into the hands of his conquerors ending the Assyrian Empire .


Map of the Lydia, Median ,Neo-Babylonian and

 Egyptian Empires around 600 B.C.

Click to enlarge .

The Babylonians would take no part in pillaging the temples, out of respect for the gods, who were practically identical with their own, but the Medes felt no such scruples. "Their king, the intrepid one, entirely destroyed the sanctuaries of the gods of Assur, and the cities of Accad which had shown themselves hostile to the lord of Accad, and had not rendered him assistance. He destroyed their holy places, and left not one remaining; he devastated their cities, and laid them waste as it were with a hurricane."


Media and Babylon divide territory

Nineveh laid low, Assyria no longer existed. Two great kingdoms rose simultaneously from her ruins. Cyaxares claimed Assyria proper and its dependencies on the Upper Tigris, but he specially reserved for himself the yet unconquered lands on the northern and eastern frontiers, whose inhabitants had only recently taken part in the political life of the times.


Nabopolassar, first king (625-605 BC) of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.



 Neo Babylonian Empire

Nabopolassar retained the suzerainty over the lowlands of Elam, the districts of Mesopotamia lying along the Euphrates, Syria, Palestine, The Median Empire gained control over the former Assyrian lands in eastern Anatolia ( Turkey ) which brought them into contact and war with the Lydian Empire ,the dominant political power in western Asia Minor.


Lydian Empire ( in blue )

In 585 B.C., peace was established between the Median and Lydian empires, with the Halys River fixed as the boundary and a new balance of power was established in the Middle East among the Medes, Lydians and Babylonians . Thus, by the 6th century BC, the Medes were able to establish an empire that stretched from the middle of present day Turkey to Afghanistan. Cyaxares died in 585 B.C. and was succeeded by his son Astyages (Ishtumegu)  ruled 585-550 BC .



Astyages succeeded his father in 585 B.C., following the Battle of Pteria 547 B.C. which ended a five-year war between the Lydians and the Medes. Married to Aryenis, the sister of King Croesus of Lydia, to seal the treaty between the two empires, Astyages ascended to the Median throne upon his father's death later that year. Astyages, who succeeded to the Median throne about B.C. 593, had neither his father's enterprise nor his ability. Born to an empire, and bred up in all the luxury of an Oriental Court, he seems to have been quite content with the lot which fortune appeared to have assigned him, and to have coveted no grander position.


Tradition says that he was remarkably handsome, cautious, and of an easy and generous temper. The long reign of Astyages seems to have been almost undisturbed, until just before its close, by wars or rebellions.


 The domestic relations of Astyages seem to have been unhappy. His "marriage de convenance" with the Lydian princess Aryenis, if not wholly unfruitful, at any rate brought him no son; and, as he grew to old age, the absence of such support to the throne must have been felt very sensibly, and have caused great uneasiness. Old age was now creeping upon the sonless king. If he was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time of his contract of marriage with Aryenis, he must have been nearly seventy in B.C. 558, when the revolt occurred which terminated both his reign and his kingdom.


The Persians and Cyrus



It appears that the Persian branch of the Aryan race, which had made itself a home in the country lying south and south-east of Media, between the 32nd parallel and the Persian gulf, had acknowledged some subjection to the Median kings during the time of their greatness.

Dwelling in their rugged mountains and high upland plains, they had however maintained the simplicity of their primitive manners, and had mixed but little with the Medes, being governed by their own native princes of the Achaemenid house, the descendants, real or supposed, of a certain Achaemenes. These princes were connected by marriage with the Cappadocian kings; and their house was regarded as one of the noblest in Western Asia.

What the exact terms were upon which they stood with the Median monarch is uncertain. Herodotus regards Persia as absorbed into Media at this time, and the Achaemenids as merely a good Persian family. Nicolas of Damascus makes Persia a Median satrapy, of which Atradates, the father of Cyrus, is satrap, Xenophon, on the contrary, not only gives the Achaemenids their royal rank, but seems to consider Persia as completely independent of Media; Moses of Chorene takes the same view, regarding Cyrus as a great and powerful sovereign during the reign of Astyages.

It is certain therefore that Persia continued to be ruled by her own native monarchs during the whole of the Median period, and that Cyrus led the attack upon Astyages as hereditary Persian king. The residence of Cyrus at the Median Court, which is asserted in almost every narrative of his life before he became king, inexplicable if Persia was independent, becomes thoroughly intelligible on the supposition that she was a great Median feudatory.

In such cases the residence of the Crown Prince at the capital of the suzerain is constantly desired, or even required by the superior Power, which sees in the presence of the son and heir the best security against disaffection or rebellion on the part of the father.

Possible Reasons for Cyrus' Revolt

It appears that Cyrus, while at the Median Court, observing the unwarlike temper of the existing generation of the Medes, who had not seen any actual service, and despising the personal character of the monarch, who led a luxurious life, chiefly at Ecbatana, amid eunuchs, concubines, and dancing-girls, resolved on raising the standard of rebellion, and seeking at any rate to free his own country.


Zoroastrism verses the Magi

It may be suspected that the Persian prince was not actuated solely by political motives. To earnest Zoroastrians, such as the Achaemenids are shown to have been by their inscriptions, the yoke of a Power which had so greatly corrupted, if it had not wholly laid aside, the worship of Ahura Mazda, must have been extremely distasteful; and Cyrus may have wished by his rebellion as much to vindicate the honor of his religion to obtain a loftier position for his nation.

If the Magi occupied really the position at the Median Court which Herodotus assigns to them . They "were held in high honor by the king, and shared in his sovereignty" the priest-ridden monarch was perpetually dreaming and perpetually referring his dreams to the Magian seers for exposition, and then guiding his actions by the advice they tendered him, the religious zeal of the young Zoroastrian may very naturally have been aroused, and the contest into which he plunged may have been, in his eyes, not so much a national struggle as a crusade against the infidels. It will be found hereafter that religious fervor animated the Persians in most of those wars by which they spread their dominion. We may suspect, therefore, though it must be admitted we cannot prove, that a religious motive was among those which led them to make their first efforts after independence.

Cyrus' plan to escape the court

According to the account of the struggle which is most circumstantial, and on the whole most probable, the first difficulty which the would-be rebel had to meet and vanquish was that of quitting the Court. Alleging that his father was in weak health, and required his care, he requested leave of absence for a short time; but his petition was refused on the flattering ground that the Great King was too much attached to him to lose sight of him even for a day. A second application, however, made through a favorite eunuch after a certain interval of time, was more successful; Cyrus received permission to absent himself from Court for the next five months; whereupon, with a few attendants, he left Ecbatana by night, and took the road leading to his native country.


Hamadan (Ecbatana) today


The next evening Astyages, enjoying himself as usual over his wine, surrounded by a crowd of his concubines, singing-girls, and dancing-girls, called on one of them for a song. The girl took her lyre and sang as follows: "The lion had the wild boar in his power, but let him depart to his own lair; in his lair he will wax in strength, and will cause the lion a world of toil; till at length, although the weaker, he will overcome the stronger."

The words of the song greatly disquieted the king, who had been already made aware that a Babylonian prophecy designated Cyrus as future king of the Persians. Repenting of the indulgence which he had granted him, Astyages forthwith summoned an officer into his presence, and ordered him to take a body of horsemen, pursue the Persian prince, and bring him back, either alive or dead. The officer obeyed, overtook Cyrus, and announced his errand; upon which Cyrus expressed his perfect willingness to return, but proposed, that, as it was late, they should defer their start till the next day. The Medes consenting, Cyrus feasted them, and succeeded in making them all drunk; then mounting his horse, he rode off at full speed with his attendants, and reached a Persian outpost, where he had arranged with his father that he should find a body of Persian troops. When the Medes had slept off their drunkenness, and found their prisoner gone, they pursued, and again overtaking Cyrus, who was now at the head of an armed force, engaged him. They were, however, defeated with great loss, and forced to retreat, while Cyrus, having beaten them off, made good his escape into Persia.

Astyages invades Persia

When Astyages heard what had happened, he was greatly vexed; and, smiting his thigh, he exclaimed, "Ah! fool, thou knewest well that it boots not to heap favors on the vile; yet didst thou suffer thyself to be gulled by smooth words; and so thou hast brought upon thyself this mischief. But even now he shall not get off scot-free." And instantly he sent for his generals, and commanded them to collect his host, and proceed to reduce Persia to obedience. Three thousand chariots, two hundred thousand horse, and a million footmen (!) were soon brought together; and with these Astyages in person invaded the revolted province, and engaged the army which Cyrus and his father Cambyses had collected for defence.

Battle and death of Cambyses

This consisted of a hundred chariots, fifty thousand horsemen, and three hundred thousand light-armed foot, who were drawn up in front of a fortified town near the frontier. The first day's battle was long and bloody, terminating without any decisive advantage to either side; but on the second day Astyages, making skilful use of his superior numbers, gained a great victory. Having detached one hundred thousand men with orders to make a circuit and get into the rear of the town, he renewed the attack; and when the Persians were all intent on the battle in their front, the troops detached fell on the city and took it, almost before its defenders were aware. Cambyses, who commanded in the town, was mortally wounded and fell into the enemy's hands. The army in the field, finding itself between two fires, broke and fled towards the interior, bent on defending Pasargadse, the capital. Meanwhile Astyages, having given Cambyses honorable burial, pressed on in pursuit.


Pasargadae ruins


The country had now become rugged and difficult. Between Pasargadse and the place where the two days' battle was fought lay a barrier of lofty hills, only penetrated by a single narrow pass. On either side were two smooth surfaces of rock, while the mountain towered above, lofty and precipitous. The pass was guarded by ten thousand Persians. Recognizing the impossibility of forcing it, Astyages again detached a body of troops, who marched along the foot of the range till they found a place where it could be ascended, when they climbed it and seized the heights directly over the defile. The Persians upon this had to evacuate their strong position, and to retire to a lower range of hills very near to Pasargadae. Here again there was a two days' fight. On the first day all the efforts of the Medes to ascend the range (which, though low, was steep, and covered with thickets of wild olive) were fruitless.


Their enemy met them, not merely with the ordinary weapons, but with great masses of stone, which they hurled down with crushing force upon their ascending columns. On the second day, however, the resistance was weaker or less effective Astyages had placed at the foot of the range, below his attacking columns, a body of troops with orders to kill all who refused to ascend, or who, having ascended, attempted to quit the heights and return to the valley. Thus compelled to advance, his men fought with desperation, and drove the Persians before them up the slopes of the hill to its very summit, where the women and children had been placed for the sake of security.


There, however, the tide of success turned. The taunts and upbraidings of their mothers and wives restored the courage of the Persians; and, turning upon their foe, they made a sudden furious charge. The Medes, astonished and overborne, were driven headlong down the hill, and fell into such confusion that the Persians slew sixty thousand of them. Still Astyages did not desist from his attack.


The authority whom we have been following here to a great extent fails us, and we have only a few scattered notices from which to reconstruct the closing scenes of the war. It would seem from these that Astyages still maintained the offensive, and that there was a fifth battle in the immediate neighborhood of Pasargadse, wherein he was completely defeated by Cyrus, who routed the Median army, and pressing upon them in their flight, took their camp. All the insignia of Median royalty fell into his hands; and, amid the acclamations of his army, he assumed them, and was saluted by his soldiers "King of Media and Persia."


map of Persia

Meanwhile Astyages had sought for safety in flight; the greater part of his army had dispersed, and he was left with only a few friends, who still adhered to his fortunes. Could he have reached Ecbatana, he might have greatly prolonged the struggle; but his enemy pressed him close; and, being compelled to an engagement, he not only suffered a complete defeat, but was made prisoner by his fortunate adversary. By this capture the Median monarchy was brought abruptly to an end.


Astyages had no son to take his place and continue the struggle. Even had it been otherwise, the capture of the monarch would probably have involved his people's submission. In the East the king is so identified with his kingdom that the possession of the royal person is regarded as conveying to the possessor all regal rights.


Media supports Cyrus

Cyrus, apparently, had no need even to besiege Ecbatana; the whole Median state, together with its dependencies, at once submitted to him, on learning what had happened. This ready submission was no doubt partly owing to the general recognition of a close connection between Media and Persia, which made the transfer of empire from the one to the other but slightly galling to the subjected power, and a matter of complete indifference to the dependent countries. Except in so far as religion was concerned, the change from one Iranic race to the other would make scarcely a perceptible difference to the subjects of either kingdom. The law of the state would still be "the law of the Medes and Persians." Official employments would be open to the people of both countries. Even the fame and glory of empire would attain, in the minds of men, almost as much to the one nation as the other. If Media descended from her preeminent rank, it was to occupy a station only a little below the highest, and one which left her a very distinct superiority over all the subject races.


If it be asked how Media, in her hour of peril, came to receive no assistance from the great Powers with which she had made such close alliances, Babylonia and Lydia the answer would seem to be that Lydia was too remote from the scene of strife to lend her effective aid, while circumstances had occurred in Babylonia to detach that state from her and render it unfriendly.


Events in Babylon

The great king, Nebuchadnezzar, had he been on the throne, would undoubtedly have come to the assistance of his brother-in-law, when the fortune of war changed, and it became evident that his crown was in danger. But Nebuchadnezzar had died in B.C. 561, three years before the Persian revolt broke out. His son, Amel-Marduk, who would probably have maintained his father's alliances, had survived him but two years: he had been murdered in B.C. 559 by a brother-in-law, Nergalsharezer or Neriglissar, who ascended the throne in that year and reigned till B.C. 555. This prince was consequently on the throne at the time of Astyages' need. As he had supplanted the house of Nebuchadnezzar, he would naturally be on bad terms with that monarch's Median connections; and we may suppose that he saw with pleasure the fall of a power to which pretenders from the Nebuchadnezzar family would have looked for support and countenance.


Reasons for the Fall of Media

In conclusion, a few words may be said on the general character of the Median Empire, and the causes of its early extinction.

The Median Empire was in extent and fertility of territory-equal if not superior to the Assyrian. It stretched from Rhages and the Carmanian desert on the east to the river Halys upon the west, a distance of above twenty degrees, or about 1,300 miles. From north to south it was comparatively narrow, being confined between the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian, on the one side, and the Euphrates and Persian Gulf on the other. Its greatest width, which was towards the east, was about nine, and its least, which was towards the west, was about four degrees. Its area was probably not much short of 500,000 square miles. Thus it was as large as Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal put together.

In fertility its various parts were very unequal. Portions of both Medias, of Persia, of Armenia, Iberia, and Cappadocia, were rich and productive; but in all these countries there was a large quantity of barren mountain, and in Media Magna and Persia there were tracts of desert. If we estimate the resources of Media from the data furnished by Herodotus in his account of the Persian revenue, and compare them with those of the Assyrian Empire, as indicated by the same document, we shall find reason to conclude, that except during the few years when Egypt was a province of Assyria, the resources of the Third exceeded those of the Second Monarchy.


The weakness of the Empire arose chiefly from its want of organization. Nicolas of Damascus, indeed, in the long passage from which our account of the struggle between Cyrus and Astyages has been taken, represents the Median Empire as divided, like the Persian, into a number of satrapies but there is no real ground for believing that any such organization was practiced in Median times, or to doubt that Darius Hystaspis was the originator of the satrapial system.


The Median Empire, like the Assyrian, was a confederation of kingdoms, each ruled by its own native prince, as is evident from the case of Persia, where Cambyses was not satrap, but monarch. Such organization as was attempted appears to have been clumsy in the extreme. The Medes (we are told) only claimed direct suzerainty over the nations immediately upon their borders; remoter tribes they placed under these, and looked to them to collect and remit the tribute of the outlying countries. It is doubtful if they called on the subject nations for any contingents of troops. We never hear of their doing so. Probably, like the Assyrians, they made their conquests with armies composed entirely of native soldiers, or of those combined with such forces as were sent to their aid by princes in alliance with them.



 Cyaxares attacks Assyria


 The rise of the Achaemenid Empire