Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, and Parthians: Polyhistor, Bion and Agathias on a succession of empires (mid-first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, and Parthians: Polyhistor, Bion and Agathias on a succession of empires (mid-first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2024,

Ancient authors: Alexander Polyhistor (mid-first century BCE), FGrHist 273 F81a, and Bion (before the early third century CE), FGrHist 89 F1a, as discussed by Agathias Scholastikos (sixth century CE) (link to FGrHist).

Comments: In this passage, Agathias draws on works by Alexander Polyhistor and Bion (who only survives in two fragments on this same topic) in order to sketch out a succession of dominant peoples, beginning with the Assyrians. The notion of a succession of powerful peoples was a common way of framing historical surveys.

For a brief introduction to Agathias and Agathias’ more in-depth discussion of Zoroaster and the Persian Magians which attends this same discussion, go to this link.


[Assyrian domination]

(2.25.3-10) The Assyrians are the first people we know about from our tradition. They say the Assyrians conquered all of Asia as far as the river Ganges. Ninos (or: Ninus) seems to have been the founder of the kingdom, and he was followed by Semiramis and the whole line of their descendants stretching as far as Beleus the son of Derketades. When Beleus, the final offspring of the tribe (phylē) of Semiramis, died and the family died out, a man called Beletaran, who was head gardener in the palace, fraudulently gained possession of the kingdom and set up his own family. The story has been written by Bion and by Alexander Polyhistor and takes us down to Sardanapallos.

[Median domination]

This is when, as they say, the kingdom was whithering away and Arbakes the Mede and Belesys the Babylonian took it from the Assyrians, killing their king and bringing it under the control of the Medes. This was one thousand three hundred and six years or more after Ninos’ rise to power. This figure is based on the chronology of Ktesias of Knidos and matches with that given by Diodoros of Sicily. A period of Median domination then ensued in which everything was ordered according to that people’s laws and customs.

[Persian domination]

After not less than three hundred years of rule by Medes, however, Cyrus the son of Cambyses defeated Astyages in battle and brought the country under the control of Persians. One could hardly expect him to have done otherwise seeing that he was himself a native Persian and resented the fact that the Medes had fought on the side of Astyages. The Persian kings ruled for two hundred and twenty-eight years but their empire disintegrated completely when it was overrun by the forces of a foreign king.

[Greco-Macedonian domination]

Alexander, the son of Philip killed their king Darius the son of Arsames, took over all of Persia and re-organized the state along Macedonian lines. So outstanding in fact were the achievements of that invincible warrior that, even after death had removed him from the scene, even though his successors were Macedonians, they controlled a foreign land for a very long time and came to hold considerable power. In fact, I think that on the strength of their predecessor’s reputation they would have remained in power right up to the present day if internal dissensions and frequent wars of conquest directed against one another and against the Romans had not sapped their strength and destroyed the myth of their apparent invincibility. The Macedonian supremacy lasted a mere seven years less than that of the Medes, if we are to accept the testimony of Polyhistor on this matter too.

[Parthian domination]

Despite their long period of domination, however, the Macedonians were finally overthrown by the Parthians. These members of a previously insignificant dependency then became rulers of the entire empire with the exception of Egypt. Arsakes [reigning ca. 247-217 BCE], the leader of the revolt, gave his name to the dynasty of the Arsakids that succeeded him, and it was not long before Mithridates made the name of the Parthians very famous. . . [omitted discussion of Magians and the Sassanian empire, on which go to this link].


Source of translation: Translation by Harland in consultation with  J.D. Frendo, Agathias: The Histories (Books 2-4), Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 2a (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1975).

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