In the Biblical record, the name is applied to three kings, one a Mede, the other two Persians. Some consider it possible that “Darius” may have been used, at least in the case of Darius the Mede, as a title or throne name rather than a personal name.
1. Darius the Mede, successor to the kingdom of the Chaldean king Belshazzar following the conquest of Babylon by the forces of Cyrus the Persian, at which time Darius was about 62 years of age. (Da 5:30, 31) He is further identified as “the son of Ahasuerus of the seed of the Medes.”—Da 9:1.
Exercising his administrative capacity, Darius appointed 120 satraps to serve throughout the realm, and he also appointed three high officials who, acting on behalf of the king’s interests, had jurisdiction over the satraps. The prime concern of the arrangement may well have been financial, as the collecting of revenues and tributes for the royal coffers was one of the chief duties of satraps. (Compare Ezr 4:13.) One member of the triumvirate of high officials assigned was Daniel, who so distinguished himself over the other officials and satraps that Darius contemplated making him prime minister. Evidently because of envy, though perhaps also because of resentment of the restraint against corruption and graft that Daniel’s integrity doubtless produced, the other two high officials, in league with the satraps, devised a legal trap. Appearing as a throng before the king, they presented for the king’s signature an edict, ostensibly favored by the entire body of all ranking government officials (Daniel not being mentioned, however). It would prohibit the making of “a petition to any god or man” other than Darius for 30 days. The proposed penalty was that the violator would be thrown into the lions’ pit. The decree had all the appearances of serving to establish Darius, a foreigner, firmly in his newly received position as king of the realm and of being an expression of loyalty and support on the part of the government officials advocating it.—Da 6:1-3, 6-8.
Darius signed the decree and soon was faced with the result, one that should have revealed to him the hidden purpose of the edict. For continuing prayer to Jehovah God, Daniel, as the edict’s first violator (compare Ac 5:29), was thrown into the lions’ pit despite Darius’ sincere efforts to find a way of circumventing the unchangeable statute. Darius expressed trust in the power of Daniel’s God to preserve him and, after a sleepless night and fasting, hurried to the lions’ pit and rejoiced to find Daniel still alive and unharmed. The king then not only had Daniel’s accusers and their families thrown into the lions’ pit as retributive justice but also had a proclamation made throughout the realm that “in every dominion of my kingdom, people are to be quaking and fearing before the God of Daniel.”—Da 6:9-27.
Historical records show that, from ancient times, Mesopotamian kings were viewed as divine and had worship offered to them. Many commentators consider that the restriction on the making of ‘petitions’ set forth in Darius’ edict was entirely with regard to petitions of a religious nature, not applying to requests of a general kind. The existence of a “lions’ pit” in Babylon is in conformity with the testimony of ancient inscriptions that show that Oriental rulers frequently had menageries of wild animals. The Soncino Books of the Bible (Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 49) in commenting on this states: “The Persians are known to have inherited from the Assyrian kings the practice of keeping these animals in their zoological gardens.”—Edited by A. Cohen, London, 1951.
After chapter 6 of Daniel the only further mention of Darius is with regard to events in his “first year” of rule. It was during that year that Daniel “discerned” the 70-year limit on the desolation of Judah and received the revelation concerning the 70 prophetic weeks and Messiah’s coming. (Da 9:1, 2, 24-27) The angel who brought Daniel the vision depicting the strivings of “the king of the north” and “the king of the south” also revealed that he had earlier acted as an angelic strengthener and fortress during Darius the Mede’s first year. (Da 11:1, 6) Commentators generally have understood that the angel rendered this service to Darius, but it seems more likely that such assistance was given to Michael, who is mentioned in the previous verse (Da 10:21) as contending alongside this particular angelic messenger. Thus there was angelic cooperation and collaboration in contending with the demon ‘prince of Persia’ who endeavored to thwart the fulfillment of Jehovah’s purposes.—Da 10:13, 14.
Identification of Darius the Mede. No reference to “Darius the Mede” has as yet been found in any non-Biblical inscription, nor is he mentioned by ancient secular historians prior to Josephus (Jewish historian of the first century C.E.). This has served as the basis or pretext for many critics to label Darius the Mede as a fictitious personage.
Some scholars present Cambyses (II) as being made “King of Babylon” by his father Cyrus soon after the conquest of Babylon. While Cambyses evidently did represent his father annually at the “New Year’s” festival at Babylon, he seems to have resided at Sippar during the rest of the time. Research based on study of cuneiform texts indicates that Cambyses evidently did not assume the title “King of Babylon” until Nisan 1 of the year 530 B.C.E., being made coregent with Cyrus, who was then setting out on the campaign that resulted in his death. Efforts to associate Darius with Cyrus’ son Cambyses II do not agree with Darius’ being “about sixty-two years old” at the time of Babylon’s fall.—Da 5:31.
The view that Darius might be another name for Cyrus himself does not harmonize with Darius’ being a “Mede” and “of the seed of the Medes,” this latter expression pointing to his father, Ahasuerus, as Median. Cyrus is definitely called “Persian,” and while his mother may have been Median as some historians claim, his father, according to the Cyrus Cylinder, was Cambyses I, a Persian.—Da 9:1; 6:28.
Others would identify Darius with a supposed “uncle” of Cyrus, presented by Greek historian Xenophon as “Cyaxares, the son of Astyages.” Xenophon relates that Cyaxares succeeded to the throne of Astyages, the Median king, but that Cyaxares later gave both his daughter and all of Media to his nephew Cyrus. (Cyropaedia, I, v, 2; VIII, v, 19) Both Herodotus and Ctesias (Greek historians more or less contemporaneous with Xenophon) give accounts contradicting that of Xenophon, however, and Herodotus claims that Astyages died sonless. The Nabonidus Chronicle shows Cyrus gaining kingship over the Medes through the capture of Astyages. Additionally, this identification of Darius with Cyaxares II would require the assumption that Astyages was known also as Ahasuerus, since Darius the Mede was “the son of Ahasuerus.” (Da 9:1) So this view is lacking in confirmation.
Who really was Darius the Mede?
More recently, a number of reference works have favored an identification of Darius with Gubaru (commonly identified with the Gobryas mentioned in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia), who became governor of Babylon after the Medo-Persian conquest of that city. Basically the evidence they present is as follows:
The ancient cuneiform text known as the Nabonidus Chronicle, in recounting the fall of Babylon, says that Ugbaru “the governor of Gutium and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle.” Then, after relating Cyrus’ entry into the city 17 days later, the inscription states that Gubaru, “his governor, installed (sub-) governors in Babylon.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, p. 306; compare Darius the Mede, by J. C. Whitcomb, 1959, p. 17.) Note that the names “Ugbaru” and “Gubaru” are not the same. While they appear to be similar, in the cuneiform style of writing the sign for the first syllable of Ugbaru’s name is quite different from that for Gubaru. The Chronicle states that Ugbaru, the governor of Gutium, died within a few weeks of the conquest. Other cuneiform texts show that Gubaru continued living and served for 14 years as governor not only of the city of Babylon but of the entire region of Babylonia as well as of the “Region beyond the River,” which included Syria, Phoenicia, and Palestine down to the Egyptian frontier. Thus Gubaru was ruler over a region that extended the full length of the Fertile Crescent, basically the same area as that of the Babylonian Empire. Darius the Mede, it will be remembered, is spoken of as being “made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans” (Da 5:31; 9:1), but not as “the king of Persia,” the regular form for referring to King Cyrus. (Da 10:1; Ezr 1:1, 2; 3:7; 4:3) So the region ruled by Gubaru would at least appear to be the same as that ruled by Darius.
Since Gubaru is nowhere called “Darius,” the suggestion is made that “Darius” was his title or throne name. W. F. Albright states: “It seems to me highly probable that Gobryas [Gubaru] did actually assume the royal dignity, along with the name ‘Darius,’ perhaps an old Iranian royal title, while Cyrus was absent on an Eastern campaign.” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 1921, Vol. XL, p. 112, ftn. 19) In answer to the objection that the cuneiform tablets nowhere speak of Gubaru as “king,” those advocating Gubaru’s identification with King Darius point to the fact that the title of king is likewise not applied to Belshazzar in the cuneiform tablets, yet the cuneiform document known as the “Verse Account of Nabonidus” definitely states that Nabonidus “entrusted the kingship” to his son.
Along this line, Professor Whitcomb points out that, according to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Gubaru, as Cyrus’ district-governor, “appointed . . . (district-governors) in Babylon,” even as Daniel 6:1, 2 shows that Darius “set up over the kingdom one hundred and twenty satraps.” Whitcomb therefore holds that Gubaru, as a governor over governors, was likely addressed as king by his subordinates. (Darius the Mede, pp. 31-33) And, referring to the extensive region over which Gubaru (Gobryas) exercised dominion, A. T. Olmstead says: “Over this whole vast stretch of fertile country, Gobryas [Gubaru] ruled almost as an independent monarch.”—History of the Persian Empire, 1948, p. 56.
In harmony with the above, some scholars consider it likely that Darius the Mede was in reality a viceroy who ruled over the kingdom of the Chaldeans but as a subordinate of Cyrus, the supreme monarch of the Persian Empire. A. T. Olmstead observes: “In his dealings with his Babylonian subjects, Cyrus was ‘king of Babylon, king of lands.’ By thus insisting that the ancient line of monarchs remained unbroken, he flattered their vanity, won their loyalty . . . But it was Gobryas the satrap who represented the royal authority after the king’s departure.” (History of the Persian Empire, p. 71) Those who hold that the Biblical Darius was indeed such a vicegerent point to the fact that Darius is stated to have “received the kingdom” and that he was “made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans” as evidence that he was indeed subordinate to a superior monarch.—Da 5:31; 9:1; compare 7:27, where “the Supreme One,” Jehovah God, gives the Kingdom to “the holy ones.”
While in many respects the information available concerning Gubaru appears to parallel that regarding Darius, and while Darius may have been a viceroy under Cyrus, still such identification cannot be considered conclusive. The historical records do not tell us Gubaru’s nationality nor his parentage to show thereby that he was a “Mede” and “the son of Ahasuerus.” They do not show that he had kingly authority to the extent of being able to make a proclamation or edict of the nature described at Daniel 6:6-9. Additionally, the Bible record appears to indicate that Darius’ rule over Babylon was not of long duration and that Cyrus thereafter took over the kingship of Babylon, though it is possible that they ruled concurrently and that Daniel made special mention of only the year that Darius came to prominence in Babylon. (Da 6:28; 9:1; 2Ch 36:20-23) Gubaru continued in his position for 14 years.
Why historical identification is uncertain. The truth of the Bible account is, of course, not dependent upon confirmation by secular sources. The numerous cases where individuals or events recorded in the Bible, once rejected as ‘unhistorical’ by critics, have eventually been demonstrated beyond denial to be historical should protect the student of God’s Word against giving undue weight to adverse criticism. (See BELSHAZZAR; SARGON.) The hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets unearthed in the Middle East still present a very imperfect history with various gaps and blanks. As for other sources, the ancient secular historians, copies of whose writings have survived (though often in fragmentary form), were few in number, the majority of them Greek, and they were separated from the events in the book of Daniel by one, two, or more centuries.
A far more cogent reason, however, for the lack of information concerning Darius in the Babylonian records is provided by the book of Daniel itself. It shows that Darius assigned Daniel to a high position in the government, much to the distaste of the other high officials. Their plot against Daniel was abortive, and Darius executed Daniel’s accusers and their families, likely incurring the animosity of the remaining officials by doing so. Darius’ proclamation ordering all in the kingdom to ‘fear before the God of Daniel’ inevitably must have caused deep dissatisfaction and resentment among the powerful Babylonian clergy. Since the scribes were assuredly under the direction of the aforementioned elements, it would not be in the least strange if the records were subsequently altered and evidence concerning him eliminated. Similar actions are known to have been taken in the history of those times.
The dual form of the Medo-Persian rule presented in the Bible must therefore be given its proper weight. (Da 5:28; 8:3, 4, 20) Though secular history accords overwhelming prominence to Cyrus and the Persians, the Bible record shows that the Medes continued in an apparent partnership arrangement with the Persians, and the laws continued to be those of “the Medes and the Persians.” (Da 6:8; Es 1:19) The Medes played a major part in the overthrow of Babylon. (Isa 13:17-19) Note, too, that Jeremiah (51:11) foretold that “the kings [plural] of the Medes” would be among Babylon’s attackers. Darius may well have been one of these kings.
2. Darius Hystaspis, also called Darius the Great or Darius I (Persian). He is viewed as one of the outstanding rulers of the Persian Empire. Darius describes himself as “son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, of Aryan seed.” (History of the Persian Empire, pp. 122, 123) He thus claimed royal descent from the same ancestor as Cyrus the Great, though being of a different family branch from Cyrus.
Following the death of Cambyses II in 522 B.C.E. while he was returning from Egypt, the Persian throne was occupied for a short time by his brother Bardiya (or possibly by a Magian named Gaumata). Darius, with the aid of six other Persian nobles, slew the occupant of the throne and gained it for himself. Darius’ version of this is set forth in three languages in the immense inscription that he had carved on sheer cliffs at Behistun, facing a plain through which ran the principal caravan route from Baghdad to Tehran. According to the inscription, Gaumata was a usurper, posing as Cambyses’ brother who had been put to death. Most modern scholars accept this account (which is laced with repeated assurances by Darius that “it is true and not lies”) as basically factual, while some believe that Darius was a “monumental liar” and that the evidence indicates him to be the actual usurper. Whatever the case, Darius was faced with an empire in revolt upon assuming the kingship and is considered to have spent the next two years subduing the insurrectionary elements throughout the realm. Egypt, which had thrown off the Persian yoke, was reconquered by Darius about 519-518 B.C.E. Thereafter he extended the imperial borders into India in the E and into Thrace and Macedonia in the W. He is noted as well for his efficient reorganization of the administrative structure throughout the empire, for the formation of an imperial law code, called the Ordinance of Good Regulations, and for having reopened the canal connecting the Nile River of Egypt with the Red Sea.
It is particularly with regard to the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem that Darius Hystaspis figures in the Bible record. The temple foundation was laid in 536 B.C.E., but rebuilding work came under ban in 522 B.C.E. and “continued stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius” (520 B.C.E.). (Ezr 4:4, 5, 24) During this year the prophets Haggai and Zechariah stirred up the Jews to renew the construction, and the work got under way again. (Ezr 5:1, 2; Hag 1:1, 14, 15; Zec 1:1) This provoked an inquiry and the sending of a letter to Persian King Darius by Tattenai, the governor representing the imperial interests in the region W of the Euphrates, and other officials. The letter advised him of the construction work, set forth the Jews’ claim for the legality of the project, and requested an investigation in the royal archives to see if there existed written evidence to substantiate that claim. (Ezr 5:3-17) The Jewish declaration that contrasted the actions of the Chaldean Nebuchadnezzar, as the destroyer of the temple, with the Persian Cyrus, as the one authorizing its reconstruction, should have had an appropriate and felicitous effect on Darius since, in the first years of his reign, he had to overcome two revolts by rebels each taking the name Nebuchadnezzar (called Nebuchadnezzar III and Nebuchadnezzar IV by historians), claiming to be sons of Nabonidus, and endeavoring to make Babylon independent of the Persian Empire.
The official search of records in the archives at Ecbatana, the ancient Median capital, uncovered the document by Cyrus. Darius thereupon sent orders to Governor Tattenai that he and the other officials should not only refrain from interfering with the temple work but also provide building funds from “the royal treasury of the tax beyond the River,” as well as animals and other necessary supplies for the sacrificial offerings. Anyone violating the king’s order was to be impaled on a stake and his house “turned into a public privy.”—Ezr 6:1-12.
With this official cooperation and with continued prophetic encouragement (Zec 7:1; 8:1-9, 20-23), the temple work went on to successful completion “by the third day of the lunar month Adar, that is, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius” (Ezr 6:13-15; by March 6 of 515 B.C.E.). Since Darius’ inscriptions show him to be a devoted worshiper of Ahura Mazda, it is evident that his action, though serving Jehovah God’s purpose and doubtless having His direction, was basically taken out of respect for the irrevocable nature of the Medo-Persian laws and in harmony with a policy of tolerance by Darius’ government, evidence for which tolerance is found in some of his inscriptions.
Later Campaigns in Greece. Toward the turn of the century, various Greek cities of Ionia revolted against Persian domination, and though their revolt was quelled, Darius determined to punish Athens and Eretria for their having rendered aid to the rebellious cities. This led to a Persian invasion of Greece, resulting, however, in defeat of Darius’ forces at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E. Though Darius made careful preparations for a further Grecian campaign, he was unable to carry it out before his death in 486 B.C.E. He was succeeded by his son Xerxes.
3. Nehemiah 12:22 mentions the recording of Levitical heads of paternal houses “in the days of Eliashib, Joiada and Johanan and Jaddua . . . down till the kingship of Darius the Persian.” Since Eliashib was high priest at the time of Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem (Ne 3:1) and since by the time of Nehemiah’s second visit to that city (following the 32nd year of Artaxerxes [443 B.C.E.]) Joiada had a married son (Ne 13:28), it is likely that the “Darius” mentioned was Darius Ochus (also called Nothus), who ruled from 423 to 405 B.C.E.
A letter found among the Elephantine Papyri, reckoned as dating from the last years of the fifth century B.C.E., makes reference to “Johanan” as high priest at Jerusalem at that time.