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Median Empire
c.678 BC–549 BC
A map of the Median Empire; based on Herodotus
Capital Ecbatana, modern Hamadan
Languages Median language
Religion Old Iranian religion (related to Mithraism, early Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism)
Government Monarchy
 •  678–665 BC Deioces or Kashtariti
 •  665–633 BC Phraortes
 •  625–585 BC Cyaxares the Great
 •  589–549 BC Astyages
Historical era Iron Age
 •  Established c.678 BC
 •  Conquered by Cyrus the Great 549 BC
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Neo-Assyrian Empire
Achaemenid Empire
Today part of
The Apadana Palace in Persepolis, Iran, northern stairway (detail) – ancient Achaemenid 5th-century BC bas-relief shows a Mede soldier in traditional Mede costume (behind Persian archer)

The Medes[N 1] (/mdz/, Old Persian Māda-, Ancient Greek: Μῆδοι, Hebrew: מָדַי) were an ancient Iranian people[N 2] who lived in an area known as Media (Northwestern Iran) and who spoke the Median language. Their arrival to the region is associated with the first wave of migrating Iranic Aryan tribes into Ancient Iran from the late 2nd millennium BC (circa 1000 BC) (the Bronze Age collapse) through the beginning of the 1st millennium BC (circa 900 BC).

This period of migration coincided with a power vacuum in the Near East, with the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1020 BC) which had dominated northwestern Iran and eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus going into a comparative decline, allowing new peoples to pass through and settle. In addition, Elam, the dominant power in Ancient Iran was suffering a period of severe weakness, as was Babylonia to the west.

From the 10th to late 7th centuries BC, the western parts of Media fell under the domination of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire based in northern Mesopotamia, but which stretched from Cyprus to Ancient Iran, and from the Caucasus to Egypt and Arabia. Assyrian kings such as Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal and Ashur-etil-ilani imposed Vassal Treaties upon the Median rulers, and also protected them from predatory raids by marauding Scythian and Cimmerian hordes.[3]

During the reign of Sinsharishkun (622–612 BC) the Assyrian empire, which had been in a state of constant civil war since 626 BC, began to unravel. Subject peoples, such as the Medes, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Scythians, Cimmerians, Lydians and Arameans quietly ceased to pay tribute to Assyria.

An alliance with the Medes and rebelling Babylonians, Scythians, Chaldeans, and Cimmerians, helped the Medes to capture Nineveh in 612 BC, which resulted in the eventual collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire by 605 BC. The Medes were subsequently able to establish their Median kingdom (with Ecbatana as their royal centre) beyond their original homeland and had eventually a territory stretching roughly from northeastern Iran to the Halys River in Anatolia. After the fall of the Assyrian Empire, between 616 BC and 605 BC, a unified Median state was formed, which, together with Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt, became one of the four major powers of the ancient Near East. The Median kingdom was conquered in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great, who established the Iranian dynasty—the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

A few archaeological sites (discovered in the "Median triangle" in western Iran) and textual sources (from contemporary Assyrians and also Greeks in later centuries) provide a brief documentation of the history and culture of the Median state. The Medes had almost the same equipment as the Persians and indeed the dress common to both is not so much Persian as Median. Apart from a few personal names, the language of the Medes is almost entirely unknown. However a number of words from the Median language are still in use, and there are languages being geographically and comparatively traced to the northwestern Iranian language of Median. The Medes had an Ancient Iranian Religion (a form of pre-Zoroastrian Mazdaism or Mithra worshipping) with a priesthood named as "Magi". Later and during the reigns of the last Median kings, the reforms of Zarathustra spread in western Iran.

Besides Ecbatana (modern Hamedan), the other cities existing in Media were Laodicea (modern Nahavand)[4] and the mound that was the largest city of the Medes, Rhages (also called Rey), on the outskirts of Shahr Rey, south of Tehran. The fourth city of Media was Apamea, near Ecbatana, whose precise location is unknown. In later periods, Medes and especially Mede soldiers are identified and portrayed prominently in ancient Persian archaeological sites such as Persepolis, where they are shown to have a major role and presence in the military of the Persian Empire's Achaemenid dynasty.

According to the Histories of Herodotus, there were six Median tribes:[5]

Thus Deioces collected the Medes into a nation, and ruled over them alone. Now these are the tribes of which they consist: the Busae, the Paretaceni, the Struchates, the Arizanti, the Budii, and the Magi.

The six Median tribes resided in Media proper, the triangle between Ecbatana, Rhagae and Aspadana,[6] in today's central Iran,[7][8] the area between Tehran, Isfahan and Hamadan. Of the Median tribes, the Magi resided in Rhaga,[9] modern Tehran.[10] It was a sort of sacred caste, which ministered to the spiritual needs of the Medes.[11] The Paretaceni tribe resided in and around Aspadana, modern Isfahan,[6][12][13] the Arizanti lived in and around Kashan[6] and the Busae tribe lived in and around the future Median capital of Ecbatana, modern Hamadan.[6] The Struchates and the Budii lived in villages in the Median triangle.[14]


The original source for different words used to call the Median people, their language and homeland is a directly transmitted Old Iranian geographical name which is attested as the Old Persian "Māda-" (sing. masc.).[15] The meaning of this word is not precisely established.[15][16] The linguist W. Skalmowski proposes a relation with the proto-Indo European word "med(h)-" meaning "central, suited in the middle" by referring to Old Indic "madhya-" and Old Iranian "maidiia-" both carrying the same meaning[15] and having descendants including Latin medium, Greek méso, and German mittel.

The Median people are mentioned by that name in many ancient texts. According to the Histories of Herodotus;[17]

The Medes were called anciently by all people Aryans; but when Medea, the Colchian, came to them from Athens, they changed their name. Such is the account which they themselves give.

Historical geography of Media

The original population area of the Median people was Northwest Iran and named after them as "Media". At the end of the 2nd millennium BC the Median tribes emerged in the region (one of several Iranian tribes to do so) which they later called Media. These tribes expanded their control over larger areas subsequently, and, over a period of several hundred years, the boundaries of Media moved.[18]

Ancient textual sources

An early description of the territory of Media by the Assyrians dates from the end of the 9th century BC until the beginning of the 7th century BC. The southern border of Media, in that period, is named as the Elamite region of Simaški in present-day Lorestan. From the west and northwest it was bounded by the Zagros mountains and from the east by Dasht-e Kavir. The region of Media was ruled by the Assyrians and for them the region "extended along the Great Khorasan Road from just east of Harhar to Alwand, and probably beyond. It was limited on the north by the non Iranian state of Mannea, on the south by Ellipi."[19] The location of Harhar is suggested to be "the central or eastern" Mahidasht in Kermanshah province.[20]

On the east and southeast of Media, as described by the Assyrians, another land with the name of "Patušarra" appears. This land was located near a mountain range which the Assyrians call "Bikni" and describe as "Lapis Lazuli Mountain". There are various opinion on the location of this mountain. Damavand of Tehran and Alvand of Hamadan are two proposed identifications of that location. This location is the most remote eastern area that the Assyrians knew or reached during their expansion until the beginning of the 7th century BC.[21]

In the sources from Achaemenid Iran and specifically from the Behistun Inscription (2.76, 77–78) the capital of Media is named as "Hamgmatāna-" in Old Persian (and as Elamite "Agmadana-", Babylonian "Agamtanu-", etc.). The classical authors transmitted this as Ecbatana. This site is the modern Hamadan province.[22]

Archaeological evidence

Excavation from ancient Ecbatane, Hamadan, Iran

Median archaeological sources are rare. The discoveries of Median sites happened only after the 1960s.[23] For sometime after 1960 the search for Median archeological sources has been for most parts focused in an area known as the “Median triangle,” defined roughly as the region bounded by Hamadān, Malāyer (in Hamdan province) and Kangāvar (in Kermanshah province).[23] Three major sites from central western Iran in the Iron Age III period (i.e. 850–500 BC) are[24]

The site is located 14 km west of Malāyer in Hamadan province.[23] The excavations started in 1967 with D. Stronach as the director.[25] The remains of four main buildings in the site have "the central temple, the western temple, the fort, and the columned hall" which according to Stronach were likely to have been built in the order named and predate the latter occupation of the first half of the 6th century BC.[26] According to Stronach, the central temple, with its stark design, "provides a notable, if mute, expression of religious belief and practice".[26] A number of ceramics from the Median levels at Tepe Nush-i Jan have been found which are associated with the time (the second half of the 7th century BC) of the Median consolidation of their power in the Hamadān areas. These findings show four different wares known as “Common ware” (buff, cream, or light red in color and with gold or silver mica temper) including jars in various size the largest of which is a form of ribbed pithoi. Smaller and more elaborate vessels were in “grey ware”, (these display smoothed and burnished surface). The “Cooking ware” and “Crumbly ware” are also recognized each in single handmade products.[26]
The site is located 13 km east of Kangāvar city on the left bank of the river Gamas Āb". The excavations, started in 1965, were led by T. C. Young, Jr. which, according to D. Stronach, evidently shows an important Bronze Age construction that was reoccupied sometime before the beginning of the Iron III period. The excavations of Young indicate the remains of a part of a single residence of a local ruler which later became quite substantial.[23] This is similar to those mentioned often in Assyrian sources.[24]
  • Baba Jan (probably the seat of a lesser tribal ruler of Media).
The site is located in northeastern Luristan with a distance of roughly 10 km from Nūrābād in Lurestan province. The excavations were conducted by C. Goff in 1966–69. The level II of this site probably dates to 7th century BC.[27]

These sources have both similarities (in cultural characteristics) and differences (due to functional differences and diversity among the Median tribes).[24] The architecture of this archaeological findings that can probably be dated to the Median period show a link between the tradition of columned audience halls seen often in Achaemenid Iran (for example in Persepolis) and also in the Safavid Iran (for example in "the hall of forty columns" from the 17th century AD) and the Median architecture.[24]

The materials found at Tepe Nush-i Jan, Godin Tepe, and other sites located in Media together with the Assyrian reliefs show the existence of urban settlements in Media in the first half of the 1st millennium BC which had functioned as centres for production of handicraft and also of an agricultural and cattle-breeding economy of a secondary type.[28] For other historical documentation, the archaeological evidence, though rare, together with cuneiform records by Assyrian make it possible, regardless of Herodotus accounts, to establish some of the early history of Medians.[29]

Rise to power

Pre-dynastic history

rhyton in the shape of a ram's head, gold - western Iran - Median, late 7th–early 6th century BC

Iranian tribes were present in western and northwestern Iran at least from 12th or 11th century BC. The significance of Iranian elements in these regions were established from beginning of the second half of the 8th century BC.[30] By this time the Iranian tribes were the majority in what later become the territory of Median kingdom and also the west of Media proper.[30] A study of textual sources from the region show that in Neo-Assyrian period, the regions of Media and further west and northwest had a population with Iranian speaking people as majority.[31]

In western and northwestern Iran and in areas further west prior to Median rule there is evidence of the earlier political activitity of powerful societies of Elam, Mannaea, Assyria and Urartu (Armenia).[30] There are various and up-dated opinions on the positions and activities of Iranian tribes in these societies and prior to the "major Iranian state formations" in the late 7th century BC.[30] One opinion (of Herzfeld, et al.) is that the ruling class were "Iranian migrants" but the society was "autochthonous" while another opinion (of Grantovsky, et al.) holds that both the ruling class and basic elements of the population were Iranian.[32]

During the period of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BC) the Medes, Persians and other Iranian peoples of northern and western Iran were subject to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This changed during the reign of Cyaxares, who in alliance with Nabopolassar of Babylon and Chaldea and the Scythians and Cimmerians, attacked and destroyed the strife riven empire between 616 and 605 BC.[33]

Median dynasty

Protoma in the form of a bull's head, 8th century BC, gold and filigree, National Museum, Warsaw

The list of Median rulers and their dates compiled according to A: Herodotus who calls them "kings" and associates them with the same family, and B: Babylonian Chronicle which in "Gadd's Chronicle on the Fall of Nineveh" gives its own list, is:

Deioces (reign 700–647 BC)

Phraortes (reign 647–625 BC)

Scythian rule (reign 624–597 BC)

Cyaxares (reign 624–585 BC) and

Astyages (reign 585–549 BC),

a total of 150 years.[34] Not all of these dates and personalities given by Herodotus match the other near eastern sources[34]

In Herodotus (book 1, chapters 95–130), Deioces is introduced as the founder of a centralized Median state. He had been known to Median people as "a just and incorruptible man" and when asked by Median people to solve their possible disputes he agreed and put the condition that they make him "king" and build a great city at Ecbatana as the capital of Median state.[35] Judging from the contemporary sources of the region and disregarding[36] the account of Herodotus puts the formation of a unified Median state during the reign of Cyaxares or later.[37]

Culture and society

Greek references to "Median" people make no clear distinction between the "Persians" and the "Medians"; in fact for a Greek to become "too closely associated with Iranian culture" was "to become medianized, not persianized".[24] The Median kingdom was a short-lived Iranian state and the textual and archaeological sources of that period are rare and little could be known from the Median culture which nevertheless made a "profound, and lasting, contribution to the greater world of Iranian culture".[38]


Median people spoke the Median language, which was an Old Iranian language. Strabo in his Geography (finished in the early 1st century AD) mentions the affinity of Median with other Iranian languages: "The name of Ariana is further extended to a part of Persia and of Media, as also to the Bactrians and Sogdians on the north; for these speak approximately the same language, but with slight variations".[39]

No original deciphered text is proved to have been written in Median language. It is suggested that similar to later Iranian practice of keeping archives of written documents in Achaemenid Iran, there was also a maintenance of archives by Median government in their capital Ecbatana. There are examples of "Median literature" found in later records. One is according to Herodotus that the Median king Deioces, appearing as a judge, made judgement on causes submitted in writing. There is also a report by Dinon on existence of "Median court poets".[40] Median literature is a part of the "Old Iranian literature" (including also Saka, Old Persian, Avestan) as this Iranian affiliation of them is explicit also in ancient texts, such as Herodotus's account[17] that many peoples including Medes were "universally called Iranian".[41]

Words of Median origin appear in various other Iranian dialects, including Old Persian. A feature of Old Persian inscriptions is the large number of words and names from other languages and the Median language takes in this regard a special place for historical reasons.[42] The Median words in Old Persian texts, whose Median origin can be established by "phonetic criteria",[42] appear "more frequently among royal titles and among terms of the chancellery, military, and judicial affairs".[42] Words of Median origin include:

  • *čiθra-: "origin".[43] The word appears in *čiθrabṛzana- (med.) "exalting his linage", *čiθramiθra- (med.) "having mithraic origin", *čiθraspāta- (med.) "having a brilliant army", etc.[44]
  • Farnah: Divine glory; (Avestan: khvarənah)
  • Paridaiza: Paradise, (as in Pardis پردیس)
  • Spaka- : The word is Median and means "dog".[45] Herodotus identifies "Spaka-" (Gk. "σπάχα" – female dog) as Median rather than Persian.[46] The word is still used in modern Iranian languages including Talyshi, also suggested as a source to the Russian word for dog sobaka.[47][48][49]
  • vazṛka-: "great" (as Modern Persian bozorg)[42]
  • vispa-: "all".[50] (as in Avestan). The component appears in such words as vispafryā (Med. fem.) "dear to all", vispatarva- (med.) "vanquishing all", vispavada- (med. -op.) "leader of all", etc.[51]
  • Xshayathiya (royal, royalty): This Median word (∗xšaθra-pā-) is an example of words whose Greek form (known as romanized "satrap" from Gk. "satrápēs – σατράπης") mirrors, as opposed to the tradition[N 3], a Median rather than an Old Persian form of an Old Iranian word.[52]
  • zūra-: "evil" and zūrakara-: "evil-doer".[42]


There are very limited sources concerning the religion of Median people. Primary sources pointing to religious affiliations of Medes and found so far include the archaeological discoveries in Tepe Nush-e Jan, personal names of Median individuals, and the Histories of Herodotus. The archaeological source gives the earliest of the temple structures in Iran and the "stepped fire altar" discovered there is linked to the common Iranian legacy of the "cult of fire". Herodotus mentions Median Magi as a Median tribe providing priests for both the Medes and the Persians. They had a "priestly caste" which passed their functions from father to son. They played a significant role in the court of the Median king Astyages who had in his court certain Medians as "advisers, dream interpreters, and soothsayers". Classical historians "unanimously" regarded the Magi as priests of the Zoroastrian faith. From the personal names of Medes as recorded by Assyrians (in 8th and 9th centuries BC) there are examples of use of the Indo-Iranian word arta- (lit. "truth") which is familiar from both Avestan and Old Persian and also examples of theophoric names containing Maždakku and also the name "Ahura Mazdā".[53] Scholars disagree whether these are indications of Zoroastrian religion of Medes. Diakonoff believes that "Astyages and perhaps even Cyaxares had already embraced a religion derived from the teachings of Zoroaster" which was not identical with doctrine of Zarathustra and Mary Boyce believes that "the existence of the Magi in Media with their own traditions and forms of worship was an obstacle to Zoroastrian proselytizing there".[53] Boyce wrote that the Zoroastrian traditions in the Median city of Ray probably goes back to the 8th century BC.[54] It is suggested that from the 8th century BC, a form of "Mazdaism with common Iranian traditions" existed in Media and the strict reforms of Zarathustra began to spread in western Iran during the reign of the last Median kings in 6th century BC.[53]

It is also suggested that Mithra is a Median name and Medes may have practised Mithraism and had Mithra as their supreme deity.[55]


The Ganj Nameh (lit.: Treasure epistle) in Ecbatana. The inscriptions are by Darius I and his son in Xerxes I
Apadana Hall, 5th-century BC Persian-era carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume (Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots), in Persepolis, Iran

In 553 BC, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, rebelled against his grandfather, the Mede King, Astyages son of Cyaxares; he finally won a decisive victory in 550 BC resulting in Astyages' capture by his own dissatisfied nobles, who promptly turned him over to the triumphant Cyrus.[56]

After Cyrus's victory against Astyages, the Medes were subjected to their close kin, the Persians.[57] In the new empire they retained a prominent position; in honor and war, they stood next to the Persians; their court ceremony was adopted by the new sovereigns, who in the summer months resided in Ecbatana; and many noble Medes were employed as officials, satraps and generals.

Kurds and Medes

Russian historian and linguist Vladimir Minorsky suggested that the Medes, who widely inhabited the land where currently the Kurds form the majority, might have been forefathers of the modern Kurds. He also states that the Medes who invaded the region in the eighth century B.C., linguistically resembled the Kurds. This view was accepted by many Kurdish nationalists in the twentieth century. However, Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch Kurdologist, argues against the attempt to take the Medes as ancestors of the Kurds.[58]

"Though some Kurdish intellectuals claim that their people are descended from the Medes, there is no evidence to permit such a connection across the considerable gap in time between the political dominance of the Medes and the first attestation of the Kurds" - van Bruinessen

Contemporary linguistic evidence has challenged the previously suggested view that the Kurds are descendants of the Medes.[59][60] Gernot Windfuhr (professor of Iranian Studies) identified Kurdish dialects as Parthian, albeit with a Median substratum.[61] David Neil MacKenzie, an authority on the Kurdish language, thought that the Medes spoke a northwestern Iranian language, while the Kurdish people speak Kurmanji which is also a northwestern Iranian language.[62][page needed][not in citation given][contradictory] Garnik Asatrian stated that "The Central Iranian dialects, and primarily those of the Kashan area in the first place, as well as the Azari dialects (otherwise called Southern Tati) are probably the only Iranian dialects, which can pretend to be the direct offshoots of Median ... In general, the relationship between Kurdish and Median are not closer than the affinities between the latter and other North Western dialects — Baluchi, Talishi, South Caspian, Zaza, Gurani, etc."[63]

In Roman sources the Parthians are described as a unification of Medes and Scythians. Their costumes, culture and language are described as a mixture of both with increase of power being more like that of the Medes.[64]

Some linguists see a direct derivation from Median to Parthian and from Parthian to Kurdish.[who?][clarification needed][citation needed] All three languages belong to the Northwest Iranian group of the wider Iranian language family. Median is classified as Northwestern Old Iranian. Parthian was Northwestern from the Middle Iranian Period. And Kurdish is a Neo-Iranian language from the Northwestern Branch.

See also


  1. According to the OED entry "Mede", the word is from Classical Latin Mēdus (usually as plural, Mēdī) from Ancient Greek (Attic and Ionic) Μῆδος (Cypriot ma-to-i Μᾶδοι, plural) from Old Persian Māda.[1]
  2. A) "..and the Medes (Iranians of what is now north-west Iran).." EIEC (1997:30). B) "Archaeological evidence for the religion of the Iranian-speaking Medes of the .." (Diakonoff 1985, p. 140). C) ".. succeeded in uniting into a kingdom the many Median tribes" (from Encyclopædia Britannica [2]). D) "Proto-Iranian split into Western (Median, and others) and Eastern (Scythian, Ossetic, Saka, Pamir and others)..." (Kuz'mina, Elena E. (2007), The origin of the Indo-Iranians, J. P. Mallory (ed.), BRILL, p. 303, ISBN 978-90-04-16054-5<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>)
  3. "..a great many Old Persian lexemes...are preserved in a borrowed form in non-Persian languages – the so-called “collateral” tradition of Old Persian (within or outside the Achaemenid Empire).... not every purported Old Iranian form attested in this manner is an actual lexeme of Old Persian."[52]


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  19. (Levine 1974, p. 119)
  20. (Levine 1974, p. 117)
  21. (Levine 1974, pp. 118–119)
  22. (Levine 1974, p. 118)
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  28. (Dandamayev & Medvedskaya 2006, p. ?)
  29. (Young 1997, p. 448)
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 (Dandamaev et al. 2004, pp. 2–3)
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  32. (Dandamaev et al. 2004, p. 3)
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  35. (Young 1988, p. 16)
  36. (Young 1988, p. 19)
  37. (Young 1988, p. 21)
  38. (Young 1997, p. 450)
  39. Geography, Strab. 15.2.8
  40. (Gershevitch 1968, p. 2)
  41. (Gershevitch 1968, p. 1)
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 42.3 42.4 (Schmitt 2008, p. 98)
  43. (Tavernier 2007, p. 619)
  44. (Tavernier 2007, pp. 157–8)
  45. (Tavernier 2007, p. 312)
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  50. (Tavernier 2007, p. 627)
  51. (Tavernier 2007, pp. 352–3)
  52. 52.0 52.1 (Schmitt 2008, p. 99)
  53. 53.0 53.1 53.2 (Dandamayev & Medvedskaya 2006, Median Religion)
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Further reading

  • "Mede." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 16 January 2008.
  • Dandamayev, M.; Medvedskaya, I. (2006), "Media", Encyclopaedia Iranica Online Edition<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gershevitch, Ilya (1985), The Cambridge History of Iran, 2, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-20091-1<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dandamaev, M. A.; Lukonin, V. G.; Kohl, Philip L.; Dadson, D. J. (2004), The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, p. 480, ISBN 978-0-521-61191-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Young, T. Cuyler, Jr. (1988), "The early history of the Medes and the Persians and the Achaemenid empire to the death of Cambyses", in Boardman, John; Hammond, N. G. L.; Lewis, D. M.; Ostwald, M (eds.), Persia, Greece and the Western Mediterranean c. 525 to 479 BC (Cambridge Histories Online ed.), Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–52, doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521228046.002CS1 maint: display-editors (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links