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Iranica Antiqua, vol.

XXXIX, 2004

HERODOTUS’ MEDIAN CHRONOLOGY FROM
A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
BY

David HENIGE
(University of Wisconsin — Madison)
To adopt a comparativist approach can, of course, be risky. There is always a
danger of minimizing the special character of the Hebrew Bible1.
Still, it has not been thought right wholly to discard the authenticity of
Herodotus where he is not absolutely contradicted by the monuments2.
“There was very heavy pressure on scholars to produce an answer to every
inquiry about unclear details, genealogical or otherwise, and it seems that any
answer, absolutely incredible though it might be, was preferable to no answer in
the eyes of both the learned audience and the scholars themselves.”3

If we take the study of the past to be the pursuit of truths, however elusive,
then we are limited in the number of strategies we can employ. The easiest, as
well as the most popular, is to accept our sources more or less as read, cry
Eureka!, and proceed to use them to declare victory. Experience shows that
this approach tends to find favor because all parties are pleased to believe that
modern historiography, and not the refractory past, has triumphed. Another
approach, more cautious and less widely embraced, involves progressively
circumscribing possibilities without necessarily embracing any one of them.
In this respect, adopting a comparative approach is crucial, since only it can
transcend the need to argue in circles because of the exiguousness of the
available localized evidence. Here I want to test this approach with respect to
the perennial question of the reliability of Herodotus’ Median chronology.

1 V.P. Long, “Introduction” in Israel’s Past in Present Research, ed. V. Philips Long
(Winona Lake IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 71. Long went on to retract at least part of this
argument.
2 George Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World (3 vols.:
New York, 1885), 2:572n.
3 Zoltan Szombathy, “The Nassâbah: Anthropological Fieldwork in Mediaeval Islam,”
Islamic Culture 73(1999), 86.

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D. HENIGE

Our earliest, and in some ways only source for the history of the kingdom of the Medes are a few paragraphs in Herodotus in which he mentions four rulers: Deioces, who ruled for 53 years; his son Phraortes, who
ruled 22 years; Phraortes’ son Cyaxares, who ruled for 40 years; and
Cyaxares’ son Astyages, who ruled for 35 years until Cyrus the Great conquered the Medes. Herodotus also mentioned a period of 28 years during
which the Scythians dominated the Medes, without going so far as to state
unambiguously whether these 28 years were subsumed into, or were additional to, the dynastic chronology that he was outlining.
There would seem to be several reasons for impugning Herodotus’
credibility in this matter. Many of Herodotus’ accounts have come under
critical scrutiny lately and only some have survived it4. The political
chronology of the ancient Near East has been whittled down consistently
for a century or more, losing a couple of millennia in the process. Nor,
other than the problematic references to Daiukku and Kashtariti mentioned
below, is there a shred of independent evidence regarding Median regnal
chronology that antedates Herodotus.
Nonetheless, for more than a century and a half historians have generally credited Herodotus’ account, whether or not explicitly grudgingly, if
only because monopolistic sources generally tend to attract belief. Nothing
adds value to a product more than scarcity, and nothing demonstrates this
truism more than the ways in which historians treat unique sources. For
Long’s “the Hebrew Bible” we can substitute “Herodotus” here, and a
myriad of other sources in a myriad of other cases. The unpalatable fact
remains that uniqueness is an accident of passing time and cannot possibly
lend gravitas to any source, even those that can pass the plausibly test.
This immunity continues to be conferred even while other aspects of
Herodotus’ testimony have received rather rude treatment. To some degree
this is surprising since there are several elements of Herodotus’ account, as
it is expressed, that are at least implausible, even if they manage to escape
outright refutation by other evidence. Here I want to discuss only the
chronology of the Medes as Herodotus offers it, and argue that, when viewed
conspectively, its implausibility teeters on the very brink of impossibility.

4 Particularly by Detlev Fehling, Herodotus and His “Sources”: Citation, Invention,
and Narrative Art (Leeds, 1990), only partly refuted by W.K. Pritchett, The Liar School of
Herodotos (Amsterdam, 1993).

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241

As Murphy noted, unnecessarily but accurately: “[t]he regnal succession of the Medes has perplexed researchers for over two thousand
years.”5 Not surprisingly, this perplexity has found an outlet in the devising of a variety of chronological schemata, which all depend on what date
is assigned to the deposition of Astyages and whether Herodotus’ Scythian
period is treated as interregnal or intrarregnal6. Along the way, accession
dates of 700, 708, and 728 BC. have been assigned to Deioces7. The
choices depend less on individual interpretations of Herodotus’ meaning
than on two historical data that exist outside Herodotus’ narrative.
Two references in the Assyrian records to putatively Mede chieftains
named Daiukku (ca. 715 BC) and Kashtariti (ca. 674) are intimately
involved in the decision-making. For obvious reasons, it has become
habitual to identify Daiukku with Deioces, while Kashtariti is conveniently taken to represent the “throne name” of Phraortes. Accepting these
identifications mandates that the Scythian period be given its own independent chronological niche, so that the four Median rulers can be
assigned regnal dates of 728-675, 675-653, 653-585, and 585-550 respectively. A necessary presumption in this schema is the unlikely proposition
that Cyaxares lived in exile or hiding, or was under house arrest for 28
years before finally succeeding his father Phraortes, after which he then
ruled another forty years.
During the course of the debate, the date of 728 has sometimes been
accepted without comment, sometimes implied by the dates given to Phraortes, sometimes by equating Daiukku and Deioces, and sometimes by
implying that Herodotus testified to a duration of 178 years and that this
period ended ca. 550 B.C. Along the way it has become, if not preponderantly or explicitly, at least the plurality view of those who think it possible

5 Edwin Murphy, The Antiquities of Asia: A Translation With Notes of Book II of the
Library of History of Diodorus Siculus (New Brunswick NJ, 1989), 43n.
6 Whether or not treated as concurrent with Cyaxares’ forty-year reign, the Scythian
period has been variously alloted anything from zero years (i.e., it never happened) to the
Herodotean 28 years, and just as variously dated, from 653 to 625 (the most common
hypothesis) to as late as 622/17-594/589.
7 With the exception of Diakonoff, noted below. The middle date long ago dropped
out of the competition once the fall of Astyages was fairly securely dated to ca. 550 BC
intead of ca. 559 BC.

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D. HENIGE

to date Median royal chronology precisely.8 Those who prefer the date of
700 B.C. perforce disown the Daiukku=Deioces scenario9. Others exercise
caution by declining to date Deioces or even question his existence as a
dynastic founder10.
In a few cases, however, the date has not been only accepted, but forcefully advocated. Among these instances, J.A. Scurlock has argued on
philological grounds that Herodotus used certain words by which he
intended to convey that any period of Scythian domination was excluded
from the 40 years of Cyaxares. He concluded that the 28-year period
should be assigned to Cyaxares, giving him an official reign of 68 years, if
an effectve one of only 4011. Scurlock was not unaware of the implications, but felt that “postulating an unusually lengthy term of office for
Kyaxares is certainly the lesser of two evils,” the greater evil being “the
rejection of all or part of Herodotos’ Median chronology.” As he candidly

8 Included in one or another of these approaches would be A.T. Olmstead, History of
the Persian Empire (Achaemenid Period) (Chicago, 1948), 23-29; Roman Ghirshman,
L’Iran des origines à l’Islam (Paris, 1951), 80; Robert Drews, “The Fall of Astyages
and Herodotus’ Chronology of the Eastern Kingdoms,” Historia 18(1969), 7-11; idem.,
The Greek Accounts of Eastern History (Cambridge MA, 1973), 27-29, 72-74; and
I.M. Diakonoff, “Media” in Cambridge History of Iran 2: 112-13 Diakonoff presumably speaks for these when he asserts that this dating “meets all the requirements of the
independent sources.”
9 E.g., A.R. Millard, “The Scythian Problem” in Glimpses of Ancient Egypt: Studies
in Honour of H.W. Fairman, ed. John Ruffle, G.A. Gaballa, and Kenneth A. Kitchen
(Warminster, 1979), 119-22; J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire (London, 1983), 3-4; and
Stuart C. Brown, “The Mêdikos Logos of Herodotus and the Evolution of the Median
State” in Achaemenid History III: Method and Theory, ed. Amélie Kuhrt and Heleen
Sancisi-Weerdenburg (Leiden, 1988), 74. For a similar non-equivalence argument, with
chronological implications for the earliest Achaemenids, see Pierre de Miroschedji,
“La fin du royaume d’Ansan et de Suse et la naissance de l’Empire perse,” Zeitschrift für
Assyriologie 75(1985), 268-85.
10 E.g., Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, “The Orality of Herodotus’ Medikos Logos, or
the Median Empire Revisited” in Achaemenid History VIII, Continuity and Change, ed.
Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Amélie Kuhrt, and Margaret Cool Root (Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Osten, 1994), 55, is content to argue that “[t]his does not
mean that I necessarily deny the historicity of these facts, merely that some scepticism to
the accepted chronology of these events might be useful.” There Sancisi-Weeerdenburg
emphasizes, and very rightly so, that relying on unattested Median “oral traditions” is a
dangerous course of action for more than one reason.
11 J.A. Scurlock, “Herodotos’ Median Chronology Again?!” Iranica Antiqua 25(1990),
149-63. Brown, “Mêdikos Logos, 77, regarded such a reign length as “improbable.”

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put it, echoing Rawlinson: “I see no reason to impugn [Herodotus’] accuracy unless the evidence actually requires it.”12 My argument here is that
the evidence — the comparative evidence, that is — does ordain, if not
absolutely require, that we “impugn” Herodotus’ evidence.
A question Scurlock failed to ask is: just how “unusual” is a reign of
68 years? At least as important, though Scurlock also does not raise it, is:
how unusual is a four-generation/four-ruler regnal chonology that lasts
178 years (or indeed more, assuming that Astyages would have ruled still
longer, but for the Persians)13. Scurlock is hardly particularly at fault in
this oversight; no other student of the problem has raised this question,
even to overrule it. Once raised, this question should not be answered from
the chronology of the Ancient Near East alone14. For the area we might
have one reign of over 90 years (Pepi II) — if so, much the longest known
to history, but now at last under attack — and another (Ramses II) of 67
years, but the sample is smaller than it needs or ought to be.
Looking more widely, we find that a database of succession in 660
dynasties, covering over 10,000 reigns reveals fewer than a dozen reigns
lasting 68 years or more — about 1% or one in a thousand15. More to the
point, we find only a couple of cases of a four-generation father-to-greatgrandson ruling sequence that exceeds 178 years16. The first is the series

12

Scurlock, “Median Chronology,” 159.
Thus in the twentieth century, for example, Bao-Dai of Vietnam outlived his deposition by 42 years, while Muhammad Zahir Khan, who was deposed as ruler of
Aghanistan in 1973, remains alive as of late 2003. For that matter, and much closer to
home, it was once widely held that Darius I’s grandfather Arsames, alive in 522 BC, had
been deposed by Cyrus nearly forty years earlier.
14 For a similar argument for other ancient Near East examples see David Henige,
“Comparative Chronology and the Ancient Near East: a Case for Symbiosis,” Bulletin of
the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 261 (February 1986), 57-68.
15 David Henige, The Chronology of Oral Tradition: Quest for a Chimera (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1974), 71-94, 121-44. In the present discussion I omit the many cases
among the Princely States of India where adopted “sons” succeeded to the thrones by
permission of their British overlords. Often these “sons” were sixty, even seventy, years
younger than their predecessors. By the same token I have not included any lamaistic
succession systems.
16 While we cannot be quite sure what Herodotus had in mind, all modern interpretations presume the biological-son option. In this sample therefore I use only cases that
are normative by our standards — that is, where “son” means the biological issue of the
preceding ruler. Any cases where we know too little to be sure that other son-types (e.g.,
classificatory, adopted, fictive) are not at issue are excluded.
13

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D. HENIGE

Bernhard VII/Simon V/Bernhard VIII/Simon VI, who ruled the German
principality of Lippe from 1429 to 1613, significantly assisted by Bernhard VII’s rule of 82 years, the longest securely-documented tenure in history17. Oddly, the other case is the succession in the related principality of
Lippe-Biesterfeld from 1627 to 181018. There are several other four-generation sequences that exceed, if barely, the 178 years assigned to the
Median rulers, but these involve collateral successions, that is, the periods
encompassed four generations, but more than four rulers. This is no surprise since collateral successions almost always have the effect of lengthening a regnal generation, sometimes to eighty years19.
In the abstract then the odds are roughly 1 in 2500 that four generations
of four rulers could encompass a duration of 178 years (no matter what
dates are put to it). In reality they must be accounted even longer. The
documented cases of such long sequences in the historical record outside
the ancient Near East have occurred in far more benign circumstances than
those that presumably obtained in and and around Media from the time in
question, when warfare was endemic. There are no other cases where the
first ruler acceded as a fully mature adult (as must have been the case with
Deioces as Herodotus recounts the circumstances) and where the last ruler
did not die of old age but was deposed, meaning that computed averages
must be based on 178+x years rather than 178 years.
It is especially implausible that the founder of the dynasty should be
credited with a reign of 53 years, which virtually requires that he established his rule at a very early age, and if we presume that Astyages would
have ruled a few more years, given the chance, the implausibility grows
apace. As noted, some have argued that Cyaxares’ reign included the
Scythian domination, reducing the duration of the dynasty to 150 years.
This produces a slightly larger harvest for comparison, but would still

17 A.M.H.J. Stokvis, Manuel d’histoire, de généalogie et de chronologie de tous les états
du globe, depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours (3 vols,: Leiden, 1888-93),
3:317. It is no surprise than Bernhard succeeded at the age of less than one year.
18 Wilhelm Karl, Prinz zu Isenburg, Stammtafeln zur Geschichte der europaïschen
Staaten (3 vols.: Marburg, 1953), 1:147; Die Grafen zur Lippe-Biestefeld, ed. Willy
Gerking (Bad Oeynhausen: Heka-Verlag, 2001).
19 E.g., the Southern Hsiung-nu, BC 31 to AD 45 (six brothers); Schleusingen, 14801559 (three brothers); Songhay, 1582-1656 (eight! brothers); and Liechtenstein, 1858 to
1938 (two brothers)

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represent an uncomfortably high four-generation regnal period — and
carries the Daiukku incubus along with it.
This case is so outlandish that one imagines that intuition alone should
have raised a panoply of warning flags. Take the throne of Great Britain
for comparison. Going back 178 years takes us to the reign of George IV,
and since his time six generations have held the throne, even including one
reign of over 60 years and another one of over 50. Or to look at it another
way, in American history 178 years takes us back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine. How many of us have great-grandfathers old enough to have
founded a kingdom in the 1820s?
In short, there is not a scintilla of internal or external plausibility to
Herodotus’ schema. Scurlock mentions a few cases of modern skepticism,
but his own appointed task is to “rescue… Herodotos’ chronology from
oblivion.”20 Instead he has highlighted the need to side with skeptics in the
matter. Whatever we might want to make of Herodotus’ testimony, and whatever the virtues of probing ancient texts on a word-by-word basis, the plain
comparative evidence is overwhelmingly against accepting Herodotus’ (and a
fortiori Scurlock’s) chronology and, by implication, any part of his testimony
regarding the Medes before Cyaxares21. Scurlock claims that he does not
“pretend to be an apologist for Herodotos,” but in pressing for the latter’s
absolute reliability in this matter and with less reason that Herodotus himself
would have had, he only reminds us how beguiling the unique and coherent
source can be22.
Earlier, Robert Drews, basing himself on a large number of numbers in
Herodotus, concluded uncompromisingly that “[b]etween the accession of
Deioces and the fall of Astyages 156 years had elapsed.”23 Drews echoes
Scurlock, writing that “Herodotus’ figures are not exact, but are used
because we have nothing else.”24 This awareness does not prevent Drews
from relying, even more than most, on Herodotus’ chronological testimony.

20

Scurlock, “Herodotos’ Median Chronology,” 154, 160
Just as there is no incontrovertible reasons for assuming the Daiukku was in any
way a Mede, whatever that meant at the time, and so somehow to be connected with
Herodotus’ testimony.
22 Scurlock, “Herodotos’ Median Chronology,” 159.
23 Robert Drews, “The Fall of Astyages and Herodotus’ Chronology of the Eastern
Kingdoms,” Historia 18 (1969), 1-11.
24 Ibid., 5n.
21

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It does underscore, though, the only sensible reason for the ongoing gamesmanship over Median and early Persian chronology — use it or lose it25.
The temptation has been to suggest as few changes as possible to produce a version that salvages most, even all, of Herodotus, while at the
same time interpreting the remaining evidence in ways that are guided by
Herodotus’ version and the Assyrian evidence. Thus Labat chastised
another author, who did no more than transfer Deioces’ 53 years to Phraortes, “for overturning a good part of the chronology of Herodotus,” preferring a less radical solution himself26.
Cogent arguments against accepting Herodotus have been advanced,
but the present argument has never been deployed, even though it is probably weightier — in the sense of probabilities — than any of the others. Of
course, Herodotus’ testimony might be salvaged by an argument that the
word we translate as “son” could also mean descendant or successor, but
at this point the debate will have fallen on hard times. Still, the comparative data demand that such alternatives be deliberated. Among these would
be that more generations were represented, e.g., one (or more) of the rulers
was grandson of his predecessor, or not even related27; that, as was often
the case, Herodotus exaggerated and that the sequence actually ruled for a
much shorter time; that Deioces did not rule as long as Herodotus would
have it28; that there were more than one Deioces; that rulers’ names

25 Similar issues arise for the Mayan city-states of the first millennium, where the incidence of long reigns is extraordinarily high. More specifically, if modern interpretations of
the epigraphic data are correct, three rulers in Copán spanned the 160 years from 578 to
738 (50/67/43). No one seems to have noticed this striking datum, which qualifies as a
suspicious circumstance and ipso facto throws doubt on either the data or their interpretation. See, among others, René H. Viel, “The Pectorals of Altar Q and Structure 11: An
Interpretation of the Political Organization at Copán, Honduras,” Latin American Antiquity 10(1999), 377-99. Such a protracted three-reign period could occur only in a lamaist
succession system — or its simulacrum, the adopted son, and while succession practices
in Copán are uncertain, we can probably eliminate lamaism.
26 René Labat, “Kastariti, Phraorte et les débuts de l’histoire mède,” Journal Asiatique
(1961), 8, 11-12.
27 At one time some proposed to insert another Cyaxares between Deioces and Phraortes
28 Brown, Mêdikos Logos,“75, regards Deioces’ ascribed tenure as “implausibly but
not impossibly long,” but this is to be much too charitable. In support of this belief,
Brown (ibid., 81) refers to the 57 years ascribed to Alyattes of Lydia by none other than
Herodotus, and Victoria’s reign, but fails to note that she succeeded at the age of 18, did
not endanger herself on the field of battle, lived in a period of much better personal health,
and was succeeded by a son who had already grown so old waiting that he managed to

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dropped out before Herodotus set to work29. Whatever the case, the rich
comparative data by themselves rule out the likelihood, if not quite the
possibility, that Herodotus was correct. Ingenious efforts at rehabilitation
must deal with this hard fact before proceeding. None has.
The failure of students of Median chronology to raise the issue biological implications of a 728-550 chronology is not surprising since their
paramount goal has been to harmonize Herodotus, Sargon, and Esarhaddon by duly equating Diaukku with Herodtous’ Deioces and Kashtariti
with Herodotus’ Phraortes. If Herodotus can be shown to be right — or
even not to be wrong — then the credibility of his accounts of, say, Lydian
and early Achemenid history are enhanced. It is not too much to suggest
that every attempt to determine Median royal chronology has as its purpose to sustain not only the chronological details in Herodotus, but the
generalities. Thus, to take an extreme example, I.M. Diakonoff departed
company from other scholars’ dates, but not with their purposes, when he
assigned the reign of Deioces to 767 to 715 solely to accommodate Assyrian testimony that Daiukku was exiled to Hamath in the latter year, the
assumption being that this event must have marked the end of his tenure30.
In fact, the rush to assign and reassign dates to the four Median rulers in
light of the Assyrian evidence reflects and extends a similar effort for the
rulers of Tyre that resulted from the discovery of an Assyrian inscription
mentioning a Tyrian ruler not included in Josephus’ wildly implausible
account of Tyrian history31.
Whatever its limitations, the historian who draws on a wide variety of
past experience is likely to benefit from the narrowing of probabilities that
so often results from the greater catch from casting the net more widely.
This can particularly be the case when we are dealing with bounded vari-

reign only nine years himself, all very different from the context provided for Deioces.
Ultimately Brown, like Drews, labors mightily on Herodotus’ behalf, and concludes that
“no sound reasons emerge… to lead us to doubt” Herodotus’ “basic chronology” except
the episode of the Scythian interregnum.
29 In an extreme example of applying this alternative, Fl. de Boor, “La dynastie déjocide: une contribution à l’histoire de Médie,” Le Muséon 18(1899), 5-26, posited four
rulers beween 678 and 625 BC.
30 So stated in Roman Ghirshman’s review of Diakanoff’s Russian-language history of
Media, Bibliotheca Orientalis 15 (1958), 258.
31 See David Henige, Historical Evidence and Argument, (Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 2004).

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ables such as life expectancy. Conversely, failing to be aware of relevant
historical experience from other times and places can lead to arguments
that, when put into a context, can too easily be shown to be insufficiently
grounded. In the end, perhaps the greatest benefit of the broadly comparative method is that it vitiates suggestions like that of Long that certain
sources — or kinds of sources — should be given “special” treatment. By
expanding the search, the comparative method helps to destabilize fixated
thinking. This is turn allows — unfortunately it does not force — the historian to consider other lines of evidence, some of which can actually
undermine prior arguments to the point where they are no longer safe.
Faith in Herodotus, like that in Homer, has its cyclical aspects. All the
attempts to date Deioces and his successors spring from a desire to take
Herodotus’ testimony seriously, even literally. As always, one must distinguish between a source and that source’s sources. On that basis, the present argument is not necessarily a criticism of Herodotus per se, since we
are uncertain either where he got his data or to what extent he transformed
these in his narrative, or even that he was solely responsible for the final
product32. Whether or not Herodotus, or his sources, provided the reign
lengths and genealogical filiations as they have come down to us, neither
would have been in as position to regard them as quite as outlandish as we
now must, given the database of comparative evidence available. No doubt
it is the fact the we have Herodotus, and only Herodotus, to provide us
with information on an otherwise obscure time and place that best
accounts for the pride of place and virtual amnesty his narrative has been
granted. The comparative evidence, however, suggests that this is entirely
unwarranted. In the future we might best emulate the latest comment on
the matter, which dismissively refers to Herodotus’ account as “probably
fanciful” and get on with better things33.

32

T.C. Young, jr., “The Early History of the Medes and the Persians and the
Achaemenid Empire to the Death of Cambyses” in CAH2 4:5-6, 16-23, provides a wellstated and skeptical, though not nihilistic, view of Herodotus’ value.
33 Hans van Wees, “Herodotus and the Past” in Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, ed.
E.J. Bakker, I.J.F. de Jong, and H. van Wees (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 335.

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