The Military Campaigns of Cyaxares

Tomb of Cyaxares, Qyzqapan, Sulaymaniyah. Iraqi Kurdistan

Tomb of Cyaxares, Qyzqapan, Sulaymaniyah. Iraqi Kurdistan. (Public Domain)

For information about Cyaraxes’ background click HERE

Cyaxares on the March

When Cyaxares took power in Media, a Scythian chieftain by the name of Madyes conquered the Scythians of Media and dethroned Cyaxares. Madyes ruled for 28 years. Once he died, Cyaxares returned to power and regained his territory. Cyaxares would not have had been able to do this without an army capable of regaining and stabilizing the region, and with the ability to expand his borders. The armies at his disposal came from many backgrounds. It is safe to say that the armies of Cyaxares were a combination of horse archers and foot soldiers; one can assume he had siege craft to scale or take down the walls of the major cities in his way. In any case, the Median army was a force multiplier that could compete on the battlefield with any of the major powers in the region. In doing so, Cyaxares eventually helped the Babylonians defeat and conquer Assyria according to The Fall of NinevehChronicle.

When Assyria finally fell at Harran around 610-609 BCE, Cyaxares and his forces returned home back to the region of Media. The Babylonians, on the other hand, were now the masters of Mesopotamia, or at least some of it, since Cyaxares seems to have conquered portions of northern Assyria for himself according to The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle. Once back in Media, Cyaxares and his forces are all too silent among written records for a period. However, the relationship between the Scythians, Cimmerians of Media, and the Babylonians, appears to have a taken a turn for the worse. Whatever caused these two kingdoms to distrust one another is not known. Keep in mind that Nabopolassar’s son Nebuchadnezzar and Cyaxares’ daughter (or possibly his granddaughter Amytis), supposedly tied the knot as husband and wife, thus uniting the two nations in friendly relations. This may be more romanticism than fact, but one should also consider that there is probably some truth behind this. However, this did not seem to work out, whether it was a marriage to seal a deal, or just negotiations to form an alliance. The fallout between the two powers may have been due to Cyaxares’ campaigns to the north of Babylonian kingdom.

Cylinder of Nabopolassar from Babylon, Mesopotamia.

Cylinder of Nabopolassar from Babylon, Mesopotamia. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The date when Cyaxares went on his campaign is unknown, but it must have been shortly after the fall of Assyria at Harran. Cyaxares’ reason may have been to recapture former territories that once belonged to his ancestors. In addition, Cyaxares knew that the time was right to take advantage of the weaker northern nations once allied to Assyria. The reason for this is that Nabopolassar defeated a force of Manneans in the tenth year of his reign and later invaded the region of Urartu, only to burn and pillage the area during the seventeenth year of his reign. Thus, Nabopolassar’s invasion of Urartian regions and the previous defeat of the Mannean forces most likely weakened – if not discombobulated – the northern nations from being able to go on the offensive at that time, thus making them desirable targets for Cyaxares’ expanding empire.

Cyaxares’ campaign toward the north and northwest of Media may have begun around 591-590 BCE. They had the upper hand, and his forces were confident that if they could beat down the might of Assyria then they could beat down anybody—and so they did. Cyaxares led his forces on a campaign to conquer the Kingdom of Urartu, but with some help.

Cyaxares and the Urartian forces are said to have been equal in number. Once both armies were in the arena, they gazed upon one another from a distance in the valley of Ararat. The Urartian army launched itself in a massive charge and concentrated its full power at the center of the Umman-manda/Scythian army. Cyaxares had his left and right cavalry flanks move forward and his infantry in the center move back. This formation, known as the bull’s horns or horseshoe pattern, was a common maneuver among nomadic steppe people. The purpose of this formation was to encompass and smother the enemy army in the center, and that is exactly what happened to the Urartian forces. They charged full speed ahead, screaming into the abyss with their kingdom in hand, only to come out the other side as echoes in the wind. However, not all the forces ended up that way due to the Urartian commanders retreating and on the second day surrendering to Cyaxares. Cyaxares and the Urartian commanders decided that no more bloodshed was needed. Once the two-day battle had finished, it is said that Cyaxares incorporated the Urartian cavalry into his forces, and from then on, we hear of the Urartian kingdom no more.

 Deriv; 5th century BC Achaemenid-era carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume (CC BY-SA 3.0) and eclilpse (CC BY 2.0).

Once Cyaxares had finalized the conquest of Urartu, he handed it over to a certain tribe of Scythians who had inhabited the region of Armenia beforehand and thus extended their domain.

Kingdom of Urartu 715–713 BC

Kingdom of Urartu 715–713 BC (Sémhur/CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is said that the Scythians who inhabited the region of Armenia helped him in his campaign against Assyria, that a certain chieftain by the name of Paroyr, son of Skayordi, assisted Cyaxares in his invasion and the sacking of Nineveh in 612 BCE. Afterwards, Cyaxares’ viceroy Varbakes crowned Paroyr king of Armenia. However, what becomes even more interesting is the name of Paroyr, son of Skayordi.

The name Paroyr has been suggested to be the Assyrian equivalent of Partatua (or Bartatua), who was a famous Scythian chieftain who made an alliance with Esarhaddon, king of Assyria. Thus it becomes quite possible that Paroyr was named after the great Scythian warrior due to legendary reason or it was just a common name among Scythian groups.

Gold Scythian belt title, Mingachevir (ancient Scythian kingdom), Azerbaijan, 7th century BC.

Gold Scythian belt title, Mingachevir (ancient Scythian kingdom), Azerbaijan, 7th century BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The name next mentioned is Skayordi, which is said to mean “son of a Scythian,” “a good Saka,” or “son of the Saka”. Thus, Paroyr was a Scythian whom Cyaxares must have regarded highly and in turn gave Paroyr’s Scythian tribe domain over Urartu. Whether Paroyr was alive during the conquest of Urartu by Cyaxares is debatable. It is certain that sometime after the conquest, around 570 BCE, a Scythian by the name of Yervand Sakavakyats came to the throne, thus establishing the Yervandunis Dynasty, also known as the Orontid Dynasty in Greek. Now whether Yervand was the first of this dynasty is not known and is debatable, for one would think it was Paroyr who had initially founded the dynasty, but that is another subject for another time. Once the Kingdom of Armenia was established, it became more or less a vassal to Cyaxares’ Umman-manda Empire.

An Armenian tribute bearer carrying a metal vessel with griffin handles. 5th century BC.

An Armenian tribute bearer carrying a metal vessel with griffin handles. 5th century BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In addition, it becomes quite possible that Cyaxares created it to not only to pay tribute to the Umman-manda, but also provide protection as a buffer state between the Umman-manda and possible threats of invasions from nomadic Scythians to the north in the Caucasus Mountains. Cyaxares had already experienced this once before, when Madyes and his Scythian forces invaded and subdued him for a time. Also, keep in mind that Babylonians to the south were just as much of a threat to Cyaxares as the Scythians were to the north. The only difference – and one speculates – is that the Babylonians were a visible enemy that could be dealt with in a time of crisis, while the Scythian/Saka tribes to the north of the Umman-manda Empire were in Terra incognita. In other words, they knew who the people were but did not know the strength of their forces nor the land in which they dwelt for sure. This is not to say that Cyaxares knew nothing about them; it was just better to avoid them due to unknown circumstances.

The Babylonians in turn seemed to feel the same about the Umman-manda; for it was during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that a great wall was built known as the “Median Wall,” otherwise known as the “Wall of Babylon.” This wall was placed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the northwest of Babylonia with the fortress of Opis at the end of the Tigris to the right and the fortress of Sippar guarding the left at the end of the Euphrates. This wall in many ways symbolized a divorce of friendly relations between the two powers. However, the wall also suggests that Nebuchadnezzar was fearful of the uncivilized, but this very wall also allowed him to go on campaigns to conquer the civilized.

Charging West

After the conquest of Urartu and the creation of the puppet kingdom of Armenia, Cyaxares continued to look west and next on his list was Cappadocia. When Cyaxares and his forces entered Cappadocia, the Cappadocians were not ready for a war. Instead, they sent the elders of their tribes to meet with Cyaxares and his commanders, and explained to them that they wanted no war and surrendered without a fight. They offered only bread and salt as their gift to the Umman-manda along with their kingdom. However, the reasons for their surrender may be due more to relations between the two than the inability to organize forces to wage combat. Scythians possibly inhabited Cappadocia when Cyaxares and his forces arrived.

After the peaceful submission of Cappadocia, Cyaxares and his forces remained in the region for the winter and prepared for the invasion of Lydia. These Lydians are said to have been very patriotic, but not experts in the conduct of war, and that the only strong element among their ranks was the cavalry. However, the Lydians did incorporate many Greek mercenaries into their ranks, not only for fighting but also for instructing Lydia’s forces. King Alyatts most likely knew that the Umman-manda was coming. After all, Cappadocia/Gamir was an area of interest to the Lydians, which Cyaxares had now swallowed up into his own empire. After the winter cold had passed, the Umman-manda pushed on into Lydia.

The edge of the brown area is the border of Lydia at the middle of the 6th century BC. The red line is a possible different border of Lydia.

The edge of the brown area is the border of Lydia at the middle of the 6th century BC. The red line is a possible different border of Lydia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once inside the borders, Cyaxares is said to have sent envoys to conduct a peace treaty with King Alyatts of Lydia. The terms of the treaty were clear and quite simple: “Surrender!” Cyaxares was hoping that the Lydians would be pushovers just as their Cimmerian kin in Cappadocia. Nevertheless, things were different now. The Lydians would rather put up a fight and die if need be, than to surrender to these Umman-manda barbarians from the east. Thus began the start of a five- to six-year war between the two powers.

Both the Umman-manda and Lydia won and lost engagements until a strange thing happed on May 28, 585 BCE. The sun went dark, a total eclipse occurred, and both sides stopped fighting due to their superstitious and eerie feeling that “maybe the gods are warning us?”

A total solar eclipse stopped a battle.

A total solar eclipse stopped a battle. (CC BY 2.0)

Thus, the battle ended at the Halys River and that river became the border between the two powers. The terms to the peace agreement included that Cyaxares’ son Astyages would marry the daughter of King Alyatts. Not only would the river Halys be the border between the two powers but so would the marriage act as a border as well. Cyaxares returned home, but he died the following year. His son Astyages would ascend to the throne of the Umman-manda.

Astyages’ Dream

Astyages was the second ruler according to most historians of the Umman-manda. However, what is quite interesting is his name. Astyages is the Greek form of his name, but the other versions of his name are Aztiag, Ajhdahak, Astiag, Sahak, Astiak, and Aspadas. The name Ajhdahak is of interest, for the word “Dahak” is another form of the name Dahae, and the Dahae were a Saka tribe also known as the Dasa in the Vedic, and in old Iranian they are known as Daha. In addition, the Iranian Avestan word “Azis” is applied to the word Dahak/Dahaka and becomes Azis-Dahaka/Dahak and means serpent or dragon. The Azis Dahaka is a mythological dragon or serpent, but also the term was applied to anyone who was a tyrant. However, there seems to be a grain of truth to this in terms of symbolism. The Dahak are said to be the Scythian Dahae, and remember that the name Dahak/Dahae are one in the same. Then is it possible to say that the serpent and dragon are the symbols of the Dahae?

According to Herodotus, Astyages’ reign was long and prosperous. His empire stretched from the Halys River in the west to quite possibly Hara in the east.

The Median Empire during both Cyaxares the Great, and Astyages.

The Median Empire during both Cyaxares the Great, and Astyages. (Public Domain)

Astyages was so prosperous and his force so strong that after a while it is said they became lazy and were more concerned with the collection of taxes than securing and governing the regions they controlled. But Astyages was living the good life until he had a dream that seemed to haunt him.

Astyages dreamed that his daughter Mandane was urinating so much that she flooded Asia. Therefore, Astyages ran to the Magi and asked them what it meant. The Magi told him that Mandane’s son would overthrow him. Astyages went on the hunt to find a suitable husband for his daughter Mandane. That man would be an Achaemenid vassal prince by the name of Cambyses of Anshan. The reason for selecting Cambyses was due to his peaceful and loyal nature. Surely, no son of Cambyses would ever think of taking the throne.

Then Astyages had a second dream. This time a vine grew from Mandane’s womb when she was pregnant and the vine grew so much it took over the world.

Astyages's dream (France, 15th century).

Astyages’s dream (France, 15th century). (Public Domain)

This drove Astyages mad enough to give the order to search out and kill the boy! Astyages sent his loyal court retainer Harpagus to do the job but once Harpagus found the child he decided he could not spill royal blood and decided against it.

Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus.

Painting of king Astyages sending Harpagus to kill young Cyrus. (Public Domain)

Instead, Harpagus hid the child by giving him over to a shepherd by the name of Mithradates. Mithradates’ wife also gave birth to a son, but the child was stillborn. Therefore, Harpagus took the stillborn child to Astyages and pawned it off as the dead son of Mandane. As the years passed, this young boy would become none other than the famed Cyrus the Great, and young Cyrus’ first order of business once powerful enough was to challenge his grandfather Astyages for the throne.

Illustration of relief depicting Cyrus the Great

Illustration of relief depicting Cyrus the Great (Public Domain)

Mysterious Media

The origins of the Median Empire are a mystery. Understand that men like Cyaxares who founded his dynasty in the region of Media, came from an unknown tribe, perhaps Scythian or not. Whether Cyaxares was the son of Dugdammi is also up for debate.  However, the evidence brought forth indicates that the Median Empire was not predominantly Median/Medes, but an amalgamation of various nomadic and semi-sedentary tribes, which came to be known by those outside of Media as “Umman-manda.” The only reason why Cyaxares and the future rulers of Media were called Medes was that they settled and established a political and military powerbase in the region.

Just like when Cyrus established his rule over Persia, the west from that point on would slowly come to call Cyrus and the future rulers of the House of Achaemenid the Persian Empire, because Cyrus established his rule in the province of Persis (Persia). However, Cyrus’ legacy is like that of Cyaxares’ when it comes to the empires they governed. The writers in the near east were correct in calling them Umman-manda and not Median. Umman-manda was a better term in describing the ethnic and tribal smorgasbord since they are silent in naming the area after the ruling house of Cyaxares, which could suggest that his empire was still politically unstable and its future uncertain due to this instability. Whereas, Cyrus the Great was able to defeat his grandfather Astyages and take the throne. What is fascinating about this is that Cyrus did not create a new empire. Instead, he continued to rule as an Umman-manda/Median overlord. Nothing changed except for the ruling house and the location from which they ruled.

By Cam Rea 



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