The Medes and Persians

Extending, as we have said, from the Mediterranean to the Indus, the Assyrian empire had included not only the chief Semitic nations of western Asia, but also that portion of the Indo-Germanic family which was contained between Mount Zagros and the river Indus. Essentially a prolongation of the great race which inhabited Hindoostan, the nature of their country - a vast table-land, here and there rising into hills, or presenting spots of great fertility - had made them quite different in character and habits from the settled and stereotyped Hindoos. All parts of this plateau of Iran, as it was called, including the present countries of Persia, Cabool, and Belochistan, were not alike; in some portions, where the soil was fertile, there existed a dense agricultural population; in others, the inhabitants were nomadic horse-breeders, cattle-rearers, and shepherds. All the tribes, however, were bound together by the ties of a common Indo-Persic language, quite distinct from that spoken by their Semitic neighbors and masters, and by a common religion. This religion, called the Religion of Zend, a modification probably of some more ancient form, from which Hindooism may also have sprung, was taught by Zerdusht or Zoroaster, a great native reformer and spiritual teacher, who lived six or seven centuries before Christ. The principal doctrine of his religion was that of the existence of two great emanations from the Supreme and perfect Deity the one a good spirit (Ormuzd), who created man, and fitted him for happiness; the other an evil spirit, named Ahriman, who has marred the beauty of creation by introducing evil into it. Between these two spirits and their adherents there is an incessant struggle for the mastery; but ultimately Ormuzd will conquer, and Ahriman and evil will be banished from the bosom of creation into eternal darkness. The worship annexed to this doctrine was very simple, dispensing with temples or images, and consisting merely of certain solemn rites performed on mountain tops, etc. Fire, and light, and the sun, were worshiped either as symbols or as inferior deities. A caste of priests, called the Magi, answering in some respects to the Brahmins of India or the Chaldaeans of Babylon, superintended these ceremonies, and commented on the religion of Zoroaster.

Various of the tribes of Iran, associating themselves together, constituted little nations. Thus adjacent to Assyria, and separated from it by Mount Zagros, was an agglomeration of seven tribes or villages, under the special name of the Medes, the country which they inhabited being thence called Media. South from Media, and nearer the sea, was another district of Iran, called Persis or Persia, inhabited also by an association of tribes calling themselves the Persians. Other nations of Iran were the Parthians, the Bactrians, etc. - all originally subject to the Assyrian empire.

Median history begins with a hero king called Deiokes (B.C. 710-657), who effected some important changes in the constitution of the nation, and founded the Median capital Ekbatana in one of the most pleasant sites in the world. His son, Phraortes (B.C. 657-635), pursued a career of conquest, subjugated Persia and other districts of Iran, and perished in an invasion of Assyria. He was succeeded by his son Cyaxares, who continued his designs of conquest, and extended the Median dominion as far west ward into Asia Minor as the river Halys. He was engaged in a repetition of his father's attempt against Nineveh, when he was called away to defend his kingdom against a great roving population, belonging, as is most likely, to the Scythian branch of the Caucasian race (although some reckon them Mongols), who, bursting with their herds of horses and mares -from their native seat in Central Asia, had driven the Cimmerians, a kindred race, before them into Asia Minor, and then had poured themselves over the plateau of Iran. Defeating Cyaxares, they kept him from his throne for a period of twenty-eight years, during which they ruled in savage fashion over Media, Persia, etc. At length, having assassinated their chiefs by a stratagem, Cyaxares regained his dominions, and drove the invaders back into the north. He then renewed his attempt against Nineveh took it; and reduced the Assyrian empire, with the exception of Babylonia, under his dominion. The Median empire, thus formed, he bequeathed (B.C. 595) to his son Astyages.

Astyages having given his daughter Mandane in marriage to a Persian chieftain named Cambyses, the issue of this marriage was the famous Cyrus, the founder of the Persian monarchy. The circumstances which led to the revolt of the Persians under Cyrus against the Medes, and the dethronement by him of his grand-father Astyages (B.C. 560), had been woven into a romance resembling the story of Romulus, even so early as the age of Herodotus (B.C. 408), so that that accurate historian could not ascertain the particulars. The native Persians,' says Mr. Grote, 'whom Cyrus conducted, were an aggregate of seven agricultural and four nomadic tribes, all of them rude, hardy, and brave, dwelling in a mountainous region, clothed in skins, ignorant of wine or fruit, of any of the commonest luxuries of life, and despising the very idea of purchase or sale. Their tribes were very unequal in point of dignity; first in estimation among them stood the Pasargadae; and the first clan among the Pasargadae were the Achaemenidae, to whom Cyrus belonged. Whether his relationship to the Median king whom he dethroned was a fact or a politic fiction we cannot well determine, but Xenophon gives us to understand that the conquest of Media by the Persians was reported to him as having been an obstinate and protracted struggle.'