Media and its discontents.

Author:Waters, Matthew
Position:Continuity of Empire: Assyria, Media, Persia - Critical essay

The volume at hand is a collection of the proceedings of a conference entitled "Continuity of Empire: Assyria, Media, Persia," held April 26-28, 2001, in Padua, Italy; a few of the papers (see the preface, especially p. viii) were invited after-the-fact to supply additional perspectives for the published volume. The bold assertion of the conference title gave way to the addition of a question mark after "Empire" to reflect the editors' "more conciliatory" approach as reflective of the open state of many of the questions pursued at the conference and in the published proceedings. This volume is the mother lode for any researcher interested in the history of the mid-first millennium B.C., specifically, the state of the question(s) in the early third millennium A.D. about the place of the Medes in the nonlinear sequence of the great empires from Assyria to Persia, in which are usually included Media, Lydia, and Babylonia. The volume's contributions go beyond synthesis to address a number of stubborn problems associated with the Medes. One of its great virtues is its emphasis on the historiographic issues that lie at the root of the attendant historical problems.

The question of whether or not there was truly a "Median Empire" underlies the volume. Whether the realm of the Medes may be--or should be--classified as an empire depends not only upon perspective, of course, but also on the types and range of evidence considered, general and specific. For example, textual, archaeological, art-historical, Assyrian, Persian, and Greek evidence, among others. Definitions of the term "empire" come into play (note the remarks by the editors in the "Afterword," p. 402), and one's choice of definition will ultimately determine one's approach. This question of definition, while valid and interesting in its own right, does not concern the reviewer at present. Of the twenty-three contributions by twenty contributors (including the afterword, by the editors), the authors of five adhere to or are comfortable with a Median Empire as traditionally defined, ten lean against, and the remainder do not come down on either side (i.e., the question of "empire or not" does not impact their contributions). (1) The collective weight of the contributions, regardless of specific focus, emphasizes that, despite modern scholarship's massive gains in the last few decades regarding our understanding of ancient Near Eastern history, fundamental and vital questions about Medes, Media, and Median history continue to elude satisfactory answers.

A volume of this significance and magnitude deserves a broad audience and, therefore, is subjected to significant summary in this review, though the reviewer's own biases are reflected in the choice of minutiae discussed. Those articles that receive most attention here are those that impinge most immediately upon the overarching question of the Median Empire and its historical place in the succession ("continuity") of empires from Assyria to Persia, as it has been perceived in modern scholarship. The first part of the review focuses on those articles that deconstruct our previously conceived notions of a Median empire; the second part highlights those that hold close to (if they do not perpetuate) the traditional view of the Medes as a powerful, centralized state parallel to Assyria and Persia; and the third covers a number of those essays that deal with closely related issues. Many of these contributions react to the seminal articles by P. Helm and H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg that challenge the historicity of a Median Empire or, at least, Herodotus' account thereof. (2)

M. Liverani's article, "The Rise and Fall of Media," coupled with K. Radner's "An Assyrian View of the Medes" and G. Lanfranchi's "The Assyrian Expansion in the Zagros and Local Ruling Elites," provides the most compelling case for jettisoning all pre-conceived notions of a Median Empire or even of a unified Median entity capable of sustained, imperial activity. It is fitting that this is the first article in the volume. Liverani throws down the gauntlet straightaway: "It should be clear that the current reconstructions of the history of Media, based as they are on the classical information, run the risk of being so distant from historical reality as the pre-modern constructions of Assyrian and Babylonian histories are now assumed (and proved) to have been" (p. 1). Liverani's approach, with which the reviewer is entirely sympathetic, is to assess the Medes against the model of the earlier structure that pertains to their origins (i.e., the Zagros chiefdoms) rather than against the subsequent structure into which they were absorbed (i.e., the Achaemenid Empire).

Liverani briefly surveys the archaeological evidence from the contrarian perspective that the incongruity of the archaeological evidence with the written sources stems entirely from a misguided emphasis on the classical sources. In fact, as he argues, the archaeological evidence of Median sites (e.g., Nush-i Jan, Godin, and Baba Jan) fits squarely with the evidence offered by Mesopotamian sources (p. 3): a floruit in the late eighth and seventh centuries but a decline in the first half of the sixth century. But this leaves the elephant in the room: how do we explain the Medes' integral role in the downfall of Assyria? To put their capacity for conquest in the context of a general (and generic, based on limited data) "decline of Assyria" seems reasonable, but there is certainly more to the story. (3) Liverani is straightforward in his interpretation of what happened, regardless of how and why it did: "The idea that the two victors (Babylonia and Media) shared the territory of the Assyrian empire is completely wrong. The Medes assumed the dirty job of destruction, while the Babylonians assumed the role of the restorers" (p. 7).

Liverani's sketch of Median history from "loose tribes to secondary state formation" (with a de-emphasis on the royal dynasty, p. 4) is a convincing counterpoint to the more established perspective of Media as a great (and usually inferred: centralized) empire. (4) For example, from Liverani's perspective, the desertion of Astyages' army reveals that his authority was loose and dependent upon the will of the troops and their local leaders. The Babylonian evidence in this case better describes the image of a destructive force with a loose, unifying leadership (p. 7). The absence of a discernible Median strategy for the period leading up to and following the sack of Nineveh fits into this view, but it must be stressed that we are dealing with slim evidence. Liverani also marshals biblical evidence to support his deconstruction of a Median Empire and convincingly applies this evidence to his framework of Median history. For example, the two primary Median rulers, Cyaxares and Astyages, were not emperors in the mold of the Persian Empire but rather authoritative chiefs (see pp. 7-9).

Liverani underscores that the search for the roots of the Persian Empire should be sought primarily (though obviously not exclusively) in Elam. In the Greek historiographic view, Media usurped the role that Elam had actually played in Persia's formation (p. 10). This Greek historiographic view dominated the subsequent tradition. (5) While one might hope that researchers would trample the corpse of a bloated Median "empire" in a surge to find Persia's ultimate roots as an empire in Elam, and thus highlight Elam as a key to the continuity between Assyria and Persia, that surge has not yet manifested itself. Liverani's summary conclusion is worth repeating:

An unbiased evaluation of the extant data leads us to believe that in the period from 610 and 550 B.C. the tradition of "empires" was preserved by Chaldean Babylonia and by Ansan/Persia, while the Zagros area under Median hegemony reverted to a stage of tribal chiefdoms, with no literacy and no administrative tools, the forts and ceremonial buildings of the previous period being dismissed as no longer in line with a new social and political order. (p. 11) This is sweeping and somewhat problematic, but the overall conclusion is compelling nonetheless and well fits the current state of our evidence. Liverani ends his article with a provocative but intriguing correlation between the motivation for the Medes' attacks on Assyria and the religious innovation in ancient Iran represented by the Mazdaean belief system, especially in conjunction with the traditional date for Zoroaster's life (i.e., 258 years before Alexander) (p. 12). Such a proposal is speculative and rife with difficulties, of course, but it may be worth a more thorough reassessment. (6) Liverani notes the "quite peculiar" role of Medes under later Achaemenid rulers. By Darius I's time there was a strong Mazdaean element in Achaemenid royal ideology, and the Medes' connection with this has yet to be satisfactorily explained.

K. Radner's article complements Liverani's, and while its focus is different, the conclusion is the same: without Herodotus and the Greek tradition, it is "highly doubtful" (p. 37) that modern researchers would posit the existence of a Median Empire. Radner focuses solely on the Assyrian perspective by tracking the Median presence in Assyrian sources. From the beginning the Medes are referred to as living in fortified settlements, and there is no indication of a tribal organization. The problems remain as to where, what, and whom the term we translate as "Median" (Assyrian Ma-da-a and variants) refers. The only constant is that "the term 'the country [KUR] of the Medes' (7) does not refer to a clearly defined geographic region" (p. 38; see n. 4 above).

According to Radner, the earliest Assyrian incursions (mid-ninth to mid-eighth centuries) appear to focus mainly on plunder. Shalmaneser III's Black Obelisk, with the first reference to the Medes, (8) places them near the lands of Messu, Araziash, and Harhar, accessible from Assyria via the Diyala to...

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