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Media and Medes

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(Medía, Mêdoi).

An ancient country of Asia and the inhabitants thereof. The Hebrew and Assyrian form of the word Media is mdy (Madai) which corresponds to the Mada by which the land is designated in the earliest Persian cuneiform texts. The origin and significance of the word are unknown. In Genesis 10:2, Madai is mentioned among the sons of Japheth, between Magog (probably the Gimirrhi and the Lydians) and Javan, i.e. the Ionians. In 2 Kings 17:6 (cf. 18:11) we read that Salmanasar, King of the Assyrians "took Samaria, and carried Israel away to Assyria; and he placed them in Hala and Habor by the river of Gozan, in the cities of the Medes". Reference is made to the Medes in Isaiah 13:17 (cf. 21:2) as enemies and future destroyers of Babylon, and again in 25:25, the "kings of the Medes" are mentioned in a similar connection. The only reference to the Medes in the New Testament is in Acts 2:9, where they are mentioned between the Parthians and the Elamites.

The earliest information concerning the territory occupied by the Medes, and later in part by the Persians, is derived from the Babylonian and Assyrian texts. In these it is called Anshan, and comprised probably a vast region bounded on the northwest by Armenia, on the north by the Caspian Sea, on the east by the great desert, and on the south by Elam. It included much more than the territory originally known as Persia, which comprised the south-eastern portion of Anshan, and extended to Carmania on the east, and southward to the Persian Gulf. Later, however, when the Persian supremacy eclipsed that of the Medes, the name of Persia was extended to the whole Median territory.

Ethnological authorities are agreed that the heterogeneous peoples who under the general name of Medes occupied this vast region in historic times, were not the original inhabitants. They were the successors of a prehistoric population as in the case of the historic empires of Egypt and Assyria; and likewise, little or nothing is known of the origin or racial ties of these earlier inhabitants. If the Medes who appear at the dawn of history had a written literature, which is hardly probable, no fragments of it have been preserved, and consequently nothing is directly known concerning their language. Judging, however, from the proper names that have come down to us, there is reason to infer that it differed only dialectically from the Old Persian. They would thus be of Aryan stock, and the Median empire seems to be the result of the earliest attempt on the part of the Aryans to found a great conquering monarchy.

The first recorded mention of the people whom the Greeks called Medes occurs in the cuneiform inscription of Shalmaneser II, King of Assyria, who claims to have vanquished the Madai in his twenty-fourth campaign, about 836 B.C. Whatever may have been the extent of this conquest, it was by no means permanent, for the records of the succeeding reigns down to that of Asshurbanipal (668-625), who vainly strove to hold them in check, constantly refers to the "dangerous Medes" (so they are called in the inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser IV, 747-727), in terms which show that their aggressive hostility had become a grave and ever-increasing menace to the power of the Assyrians. During that period the power of Anshan was gradually strengthened by the accession and assimilation of new peoples of Aryan stock, who established themselves in the territory once held by the Assyrians east of the Tigris. Thus after the year 640 B.C. the names of the native rulers of Elam disappear from the inscriptions and in their place we find reference to the kings of Anshan. The capital of the kingdom was Ecbatana (the Agamatanu of the Babylonian inscriptions) the building of which is attributed by the author of the Book of Judith (1:1) to "Arphaxad king of the Medes." Assuming that it is the city called Amadana in an inscription of Tiglath Pileser I, its origin would go back to the twelfth century B.C. At variance with this, however, is the Greek tradition represented by Herodotus, who ascribes the origin of Ecbatana to Deiokes (the Daiukku of the Assyrian inscriptions, about 710 B.C.), who is described as the first great ruler of the Median empire. The "building of the city" is, of course, a rather elastic expression which may well have been used to designate the activities of monarchs who enlarged or fortified the already existing stronghold; and it is scarcely necessary to recall that most of these ancient records, though containing elements of truth, are to a certain extent artificial. At all events, it is with the reign of Deiokes that the Median empire emerges into the full light of history, and henceforward the Greek sources serve to check or corroborate the information derived from the native monuments.

According to the somewhat questionable account of Herodotus, Deiokes reigned from 700 to 647 B.C. and was succeeded by Phraortes (646-625), but of the latter no mention is made in the inscriptions thus far discovered. His successor Cyaxares (624-585), after breaking the Scythian power, formed an alliance with the Babylonians, who were endeavouring to regain their long lost domination over Assyria. In league with Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, he captured and destroyed Ninive (606 B.C.) and conquered all the northern portion of Mesopotamia. Enriched by the spoils of the great Assyrian capital, Cyaxares pushed his conquering armies westward, and soon the dominion of the Medes extended from the confines of Elam to the river Halys in Asia Minor. Astyages (584-550 B.C.), the son and successor of Cyaxares, failed to maintain the friendly relations with Babylon, and when Nabonidus succeeded to the throne of the latter kingdom, the Medes and Babylonians were at war.

In the meantime a great internal movement was preparing the way for a change in the destinies of the empire. It was due to the rising influence of another branch of the Aryan race, and in history it is generally known as the transition from the Median to the Persian rule. At this distance both terms are rather vague and indefinite, but there is no doubt as to the advent of a new dynasty, of which by far the most conspicuous ruler is Cyrus, who first appears as King of Anshan, and who is later mentioned as King of Persia. Doubtless in the earlier part of his reign he was but a vassal king dependent on the Median monarch, but in 549 B.C. he vanquished Astyages and made himself master of the vast empire then comprising the kingdoms of Anshan, Persia, and Media. He is known to Oriental history as a great and brilliant conqueror, and his fame in this respect is confirmed by the more or less fantastic legends associated with his name by the Greek and Roman writers. His power soon became a menace to all western Asia, and in order to withstand it a coalition was formed into which entered Nabonidus, King of Babylonia, Amasis, King of Egypt, and Cræsus, King of Lydia. But even this formidable alliance was unable to check the progress of Cyrus who, after having reduced to subjection the whole of the Median empire, led his forces into Asia Minor. Cræsus was defeated and taken prisoner in 546, and within a year the entire peninsula of Asia Minor was divided into satrapies, and annexed to the new Persian empire. The west being fully subdued, Cyrus led his victorious armies against Babylonia. Belshazzar, the son of the still reigning Nabonidus, was sent as general in chief to defend the country, but he was defeated at Opis. After this disaster the invading forces met with little or no resistance, and Cyrus entered Babylon, where he was received as a deliverer, in 539 B.C. The following year he issued the famous decree permitting the Hebrew captives to return to Palestine and rebuild the temple (Ezra 1). It is interesting to note in this connexion that he is often alluded to in Isaias (40-48, passim), where according to the obvious literal meaning he is spoken of as the Lord's anointed. With the accession of the Achæmenian dynasty the history of Media becomes absorbed into that of Persia, which will be treated in a separate article.


Sources

BEURLIER in VIGOUROUX, Dictionnaire de la Bible, s.v. Médie; ROGERS in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, s.v. Medo-Persia; JACKSON, Persia Past and Present (New York, 1906); SAYCE in HASTINGS, A Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. Medes.

About this page

APA citation. Driscoll, J.F. (1911). Media and Medes. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10117a.htm

MLA citation. Driscoll, James F. "Media and Medes." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10117a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to Fr. John Hilkert and St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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