The Empire Of The Medes And Persians

The third of the great Oriental monarchies brought in contact with

the Jews was that of the Medes and Persians, which arose on the

dissolution of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The nations we have

hitherto alluded to were either Hamite or Shemite. But our attention is

now directed to a different race, the descendants of Japhet. Madai, the

third son of Japhet, was the progenitor of the Medes, whose territory

ed from the Caspian Sea on the north, to the mountains of Persia on

the south, and from the highlands of Armenia and the chain of Tagros on

the west, to the great desert of Iran on the east. It comprised a great

variety of climate, and was intersected by mountains whose valleys were

fruitful in corn and fruits. "The finest part of the country is an

elevated region inclosed by the offshoots of the Armenian mountains, and

surrounding the basin of the great lake Urumizu, four thousand two hundred

feet above the sea, and the valleys of the ancient Mardus and the Araxes,

the northern boundary of the land. In this mountain region stands Tabris,

the delightful summer seat of the modern Persian shahs. The slopes of the

Tagros furnish excellent pasture; and here were reared the famous horses

which the ancients called Nisaean. The eastern districts are flat and

pestilential, where they sink down to the shores of the Caspian Sea;

rugged and sterile where they adjoin the desert of Iran." The people who

inhabited this country were hardy and bold, and were remarkable for their

horsemanship. They were the greatest warriors of the ancient world, until

the time of the Greeks. They were called Aryans by Herodotus. They had

spread over the highlands of Western Asia in the primeval ages, and formed

various tribes. The first notice of this Aryan (or Arian) race, appears in

the inscriptions on the black obelisk of Nimrod, B.C. 880, from which it

would appear that this was about the period of the immigration into Media,

and they were then exposed to the aggressions of the Assyrians. "The first

king who menaced their independence was the monarch whose victories are

recorded on the black obelisk in the British Museum." He made a raid into,

rather than a conquest of, the Median country. Sargon, the third monarch

of the Lower Empire, effected something like a conquest, and peopled the

cities which he founded with Jewish captives from Samaria, B.C. 710. Media

thus became the most eastern province of his empire, but the conquest of

it was doubtless incomplete. The Median princes paid tribute to the kings

of Nineveh, or withheld it, according to their circumstances.

According to Ctesias, the Median monarchy commenced B.C. 875; but

Herodotus, with greater probable accuracy, places the beginning of it B.C.

708. The revolt of Media from Assyria was followed by the election of

Deioces, who reigned fifty-three years. The history of this king is drawn

through Grecian sources, and can not much be depended upon. According to

the legends, the seven tribes of the Medes, scattered over separate

villages, suffered all the evils of anarchy, till the reputation of

Deioces made him the arbiter of their disputes. He then retired into

private life; anarchy returned, a king was called for, and Deioces was

elected. He organized a despotic power, which had its central seat in

Ecbatana, which he made his capital, built upon a hill, on the summit of

which was the royal palace, where the king reigned in seclusion,

transacting all business through spies, informers, petitions, and decrees.

Such is the account which Rawlinson gives, and which Smith follows.

The great Median kingdom really began with Cyaxares, about the year

B.C. 633, when the Assyrian empire was waning. He emerges from the

obscurity like Attila and Gengis Khan, and other eastern conquerors, at

the head of irresistible hordes, sweeps all away before him, and builds up

an enormous power. This period was distinguished by a great movement among

the Turanian races (Cimmerians), living north of the Danube, which,

according to Herodotus, made a great irruption into Asia Minor, where some

of the tribes effected a permanent settlement; while the Scythians, from

Central Asia, overran Media, crossed the Zagros mountains, entered

Mesopotamia, passed through Syria to Egypt, and held the dominion of

Western Asia, till expelled by Cyaxares. He only established his new

kingdom after a severe conflict between the Scythian and Aryan races,

which had hitherto shared the possession of the tablelands of Media.

From age to age the Turanian races have pressed forward to occupy

the South, and it was one of these great movements which Cyaxares opposed,

and opposed successfully--the first recorded in history. These nomads of

Tartary, or Scythian tribes, which overran Western Asia in the seventh

century before Christ, under the new names of Huns, Avari, Bulgarians,

Magyars, Turks, Mongols, devastated Europe and Asia for fifteen successive

centuries. They have been the scourge of the race, and they commenced

their incursions before Grecian history begins.

Learning from these Scythian invaders many arts, not before

practiced in war, such as archery and cavalry movements, Cyaxares was

prepared to extend his empire to the west over Armenia and Asia Minor, as

far as the river Halys. He made war in Lydia with the father of Croesus.

But before these conquests were made, he probably captured Nineveh and

destroyed it, B.C. 625. He was here assisted by the whole force of the

Babylonians, under Nabopolassar, an old general of the Assyrians, but who

had rebelled. In reward he obtained for his son, Nebuchadnezzar, the hand

of the daughter of Cyaxares. The last of the Assyrian monarchs, whom the

Greeks have called Sardanapalus, burned himself in his palace rather than

fall into the hands of the Median conqueror.

The fall of Nineveh led to the independence of Babylon, and its

wonderful growth, and also to the conquests of the Medes as far as Lydia

to the west. The war with Lydia lasted six years, and was carried on with

various success, until peace was restored by the mediation of a Babylonian

prince. The reason that peace was made was an eclipse of the sun, which

happened in the midst of a great battle, which struck both armies with

superstitious fears. On the conclusion of peace, the son of the Median

king, Astyages, married the daughter of the Lydian monarch, Alyattes, and

an alliance was formed between Media and Lydia.

At this time Lydia comprised nearly all of Asia Minor, west of the

Halys. The early history of this country is involved in obscurity. The

dynasty on the throne, when invaded by the Medes, was founded by Gyges,

B.C. 724, who began those aggressions on the Grecian colonies which were

consummated by Croesus. Under the reign of Ardys, his successor, Asia Minor

was devastated by the Cimmerians, a people who came from the regions north

of the Black Sea, between the Danube and the Sea of Azov, being driven

away by an inundation of Scythians, like that which afterward desolated

Media. These Cimmerians, having burned the great temple of Diana, at

Ephesus, and destroyed the capital city of Sardis, were expelled from

Lydia by Alyattes, the monarch against whom Cyaxares had made war.

Cyaxares reigned forty years, and was succeeded by Astyages, B.C.

593, whose history is a total blank, till near the close of his long reign

of thirty-five years, when the Persians under Cyrus arose to power. He

seems to have resigned himself to the ordinary condition of Oriental

kings--to effeminacy and luxury--brought about by the prosperity which he

inherited. He was contemporary with Croesus, the famous king of Lydia,

whose life has been invested with so much romantic interest by

Herodotus--the first of the Asiatic kings who commenced hostile aggression

on the Greeks. After making himself master of all the Greek States of Asia

Minor, he combated a power which was destined to overturn the older

monarchies of the East--that of the Persians--a race closely connected with

the Medes in race, language, and religion.

The Persians first appear in history as a hardy, warlike people,

simple in manners and scornful of luxury. They were uncultivated in art

and science, but possessed great wit, and a poetical imagination. They

lived in the mountainous region on the southwest of Iran, where the great

plain descends to the Persian Gulf. The sea-coast is hot and arid, as well

as the eastern region where the mountains pass into the table-land of

Iran. Between these tracts, resembling the Arabian desert, lie the high

lands at the extremity of the Zagros chain. These rugged regions, rich in

fruitful valleys, are favorable to the cultivation of corn, of the grape,

and fruits, and afford excellent pasturage for flocks. In the northern

part is the beautiful plain of Shiraz, which forms the favorite residence

of the modern shahs. In the valley of Bend-amir was the old capital of

Persepolis, whose ruins attest the magnificent palaces of Darius and

Xerxes. Persia proper was a small country, three hundred miles from north

to south, and two hundred and eighty from east to west, inhabited by an

Aryan race, who brought with them, from the country beyond the Indus, a

distinctive religion, language, and political institutions. Their language

was closely connected with the Aryan dialects of India, and the tongues of

modern Europe. Hence the Persians were noble types of the great

Indo-European family, whose civilization has spread throughout the world.

Their religion was the least corrupted of the ancient races, and was

marked by a keen desire to arrive at truth, and entered, in the time of

the Gnostics, into the speculations of the Christian fathers, of whom

Origen was the type. Their teachers were the Magi, a wise and learned

caste, some of whom came to Jerusalem in the time of Herod, guided by the

star in the East, to institute inquiries as to the birth of Christ. They

attempted to solve the mysteries of creation, but their elemental

principle of religion was worship of all the elements, especially of fire.

But the Persians also believed in the two principles of good and evil,

which were called the principle of dualism, and which they brought from

India. It is thought by Rawlinson that the Persians differed in their

religion from the primeval people of India, whose Vedas, or sacred books,

were based on monotheism, in its spiritual and personal form, and that,

for the heresy of "dualism," they were compelled to migrate to the West.

The Medes, with whom they subsequently became associated, were inclined to

the old elemental worship of nature, which they learned from the Turanian

or Scythic population.

The great man among the Persians was Zoroaster--or Zerdusht, born,

probably, B.C. 589. He is immortal, not from his personal history, the

details of which we are ignorant, but from his ideas, which became the

basis of the faith of the Persians. He stamped his mind on the nation, as

Mohammed subsequently did upon Arabia. His central principle was

"dualism"--the two powers of good and evil--the former of which was destined

ultimately to conquer. But with this dualistic creed of the old Persian,

he also blended a reformed Magian worship of the elements, which had

gained a footing among the Chaldean priests, and which originally came

from the Scythic invaders. Magism could not have come from the Semitic

races, whose original religion was theism, like that of Melchisedek and

Abraham; nor from the Japhetic races, or Indo-European, whose worship was

polytheism--that of personal gods under distinct names, like Jupiter, Juno,

and Minerva. The first to yield to this Magism were the Medes, who adopted

the religion of older settlers,--the Scythic tribes, their subjects,--and

which faith superseded the old Aryan religion.

The Persians, the flower of the Aryan races, were peculiarly

military in all their habits and aspirations. Their nobles, mounted on a

famous breed of horses, composed the finest cavalry in the world. Nor was

their infantry inferior, armed with lances, shields, and bows. Their

military spirit was kept alive by their mountain life and simple habits

and strict discipline.

Astyages, we have seen, was the last of the Median kings. He

married his daughter, according to Herodotus, to Cambyses, a Persian

noble, preferring him to a higher alliance among the Median princes, in

order that a dream might not be fulfilled that her offspring should

conquer Asia. On the return of the dream he sought to destroy the child

she was about to bear, but it was preserved by a herdsman; and when the

child was ten years of age he was chosen by his playfellows on the

mountains to be their king. As such he caused the son of a noble Median to

be scourged for disobedience, who carried his complaint to Astyages. The

Median monarch finds out his pedigree from the herdsman, and his officer,

Harpagns, to whom he had intrusted the commission for his destruction. He

invites, in suppressed anger, this noble to a feast, at which he serves up

the flesh of his own son. Harpagus, in revenge, conspires with some

discontented nobles, and invites Cyrus, this boy-king, now the bravest of

the youths of his age and country, to a revolt. Cyrus leads his troops

against Astyages, and gains a victory, and also the person of the

sovereign, and his great reign began, B.C. 558.

The dethronement of Astyages caused a war between Lydia and Persia.

Croesus hastens to attack the usurper and defend his father-in-law. He

forms a league with Babylonia and Egypt. Thus the three most powerful

monarchs of the world are arrayed against Cyrus, who is prepared to meet

the confederation. Croesus is defeated, and retreats to his capital,

Sardis; and the next spring, while summoning his allies, is attacked

unexpectedly by Cyrus, and is again defeated. He now retires to Sardia,

which is strongly fortified, and the city is besieged, by the Persians,

and falls after a brief siege. Croesus himself is spared, and in his

adversity gives wise counsel to his conqueror.

Cyrus leaves a Lydian in command of the captured city, and departs

for home. A revolt ensues, which leads to a collision between Persia and

the Greek colonies, and the subjection of the Grecian cities by Harpagus,

the general of Cyrus. Then followed the conquest of Asia Minor, which

required several years, and was conducted by the generals of Cyrus. He was

required in Media, to consolidate his power. He then extended his

conquests to the East, and subdued the whole plateau of Iran, to the

mountains which divided it from the Indus. Thus fifteen years of splendid

military successes passed before he laid siege to Babylon, B.C. 538.

On the fall of that great city Cyrus took up his residence in it,

as the imperial capital of his vast dominion. Here he issued his decree

for the return of the Jews to their ancient territory, and for the

rebuilding of their temple, after seventy years' captivity. This decree

was dictated by the sound military policy of maintaining the frontier

territory of Palestine against his enemies in Asia Minor, which he knew

the Jews would do their best to preserve, and this policy he carried out

with noble generosity, and returned to the Jews the captured vessels of

silver and gold which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away; and for more than

two centuries Persia had no warmer friends and allies than the obedient

and loyal subjects of Judea.

Cyrus fell in battle while fighting a tribe of Scythians at the

east of the Caspian Sea, B.C. 529, He was the greatest general that the

Oriental world ever produced, and well may rank with Alexander himself.

His reign of twenty-nine years was one constant succession of wars, in

which he was uniformly successful, and in which success was only equaled

by his magnanimity. His empire extended from the Indus to the Hellespont

and the Syrian coast, far greater than that of either Assyria or


The result of the Persian conquest on the conquerors themselves was

to produce habits of excessive luxury, a wide and vast departure from

their original mode of life, which enfeebled the empire, and prepared the

way for a rapid decline.

Cambyses, however, the son and successor of Cyrus, carried out his

policy and conquests. He was, unlike his father, a tyrant and a

sensualist, but possessed considerable military genius. He conquered

Phoenicia, and thus became master of the sea as well as of the land. He

then quarreled with Amasis, the king of Egypt, and subdued his kingdom.

Like an eastern despot, he had, while in Egypt, in an hour of

madness and caprice, killed his brother, Smerdis. It happened there was a

Magian who bore a striking resemblance to the murdered prince. With the

help of his brother, whom the king had left governor of his household,

this Magian usurped the throne of Persia, while Cambyses was absent, the

death of the true Smerdis having been carefully concealed.

The news of the usurpation reached Cambyses while returning from an

expedition to Syria. An accidental wound from the point of his sword

proved mortal, B.C. 522. But Cambyses, about to die, called his nobles

around him, and revealed the murder of his brother, and exhorted them to

prevent the kingdom falling into the hands of the Medes. He left no


The usurper proved a tyrant. A conspiracy of Persians followed,

headed by the descendants of Cyrus; and Darius, the chief of these--the son

of Hystaspes, became king of Persia, after Smerdis had reigned seven

months. But this reign, brief as it was, had restored the old Magian

priests to power, who had, by their magical arts, great popularity with

the people, not only Medes, but Persians.

Darius restored the temples and the worship which the Magian

priests had overthrown, and established the religion of Zoroaster. The

early years of his reign were disturbed by rebellions in Babylonia and

Media, but these were suppressed, and Darius prosecuted the conquests

which Cyrus had begun. He invaded both India and Scythia, while his

general, Megabazus, subdued Thrace and the Greek cities of the Hellespont.

The king of Macedonia acknowledged the supremacy of the great

monarch of Asia, and gave the customary present of earth and water. Darius

returned at length to Susa to enjoy the fruit of his victories, and the

pleasures which his great empire afforded. For twenty years his glories

were unparalleled in the East, and his life was tranquil.

But in the year B.C. 500, a great revolt of the Ionian cities took

place. It was suppressed, at first, but the Atticans, at Marathon,

defeated the Persian warriors, B.C. 490, and the great victory changed the

whole course of Asiatic conquest. Darius made vast preparations for a new

invasion of Greece, but died before they were completed, after a reign of

thirty-six years, B.C. 485, leaving a name greater than that of any

Oriental sovereign, except Cyrus.

Unfortunately for him and his dynasty, he challenged the spirit of

western liberty, then at its height among the cities of Greece. His

successor, Xerxes, inherited his power, but not his genius, and rashly

provoked Europe by new invasions, while he lived ingloriously in his

seraglio. He was murdered in his palace, the fate of the great tyrants of

eastern monarchies, for in no other way than by the assassin's dagger

could a change of administration take place--a poor remedy, perhaps, but

not worse than the disease itself. This tyrant was the Ahasuerus of the


We need not follow the fortunes of the imbecile princes who

succeeded Xerxes, for the Persian monarchy was now degenerate and

weakened, and easily fell under the dominion of Alexander, who finally

overthrew the power of Persia, B.C. 330.

And this was well. The Persian monarchy was an absolute despotism,

like that of Turkey, and the monarch not only controlled the actions of

his subjects, but was the owner even of their soil. He delegated his power

to satraps, who ruled during his pleasure, but whose rule was disgraced by

every form of extortion--sometimes punished, however, when it became

outrageous and notorious. The satraps, like pashas, were virtually

independent princes, and exercised all the rights of sovereigns so long as

they secured the confidence of the supreme monarch, and regularly remitted

to him the tribute which was imposed. The satrapies were generally given

to members of the royal family, or to great nobles connected with it by

marriage. The monarch governed by no council, and the laws centered in the

principle that the will of the king was supreme. The only check which he

feared was assassination, and he generally spent his life in the

retirement of his seraglio, at Susa, Babylon, or Ecbatana.

The Persian empire was the last of the great monarchies of the Oriental

world, and these flourished for a period of two thousand years. When

nations became wicked or extended over a large territory, the patriarchal

rule of the primitive ages no longer proved an efficient government. Men

must be ruled, however, in some way, and the irresponsible despotism of

the East, over all the different races, Semitic, Hamite, and Japhetic, was

the government which Providence provided, in a state of general rudeness,

or pastoral simplicity, or oligarchal usurpations. The last great monarchy

was the best; it was that which was exercised by the descendants of

Japhet, according to the prediction that he should dwell in the tents of

Shem, and Canaan should be his servant.

Before we follow the progress of the descendants of Japhet in Greece,

among whom a new civilization arose, designed to improve the condition of

society by the free agency displayed in art, science, literature, and

government--the rise, in short, of free institutions--we will glance at the

nations in Asia Minor which were brought in contact with the powers we

have so briefly considered.