A land and a people regularly mentioned in association with the Medes, both in the Bible and in secular history. The Medes and Persians evidently were related peoples of the ancient Aryan (Iranian) tribes, and this would make the Persians descendants of Japheth, perhaps through Madai, the common ancestor of the Medes. (Gen. 10:2) In an inscription, Darius the Great calls himself “a Persian, son of a Persian, an Aryan, of Aryan seed.”
Assyrian inscriptions relating to the time of Shalmaneser III (evidently a contemporary of Jehu of Israel) mention an invasion of Media and the receiving of tribute from kings of “Parsua,” a region apparently situated to the W of Lake Urmia and bordering on Assyria. Many scholars consider “Parsua” to be the name then applied to the land of the Persians, though others would associate it with the Parthians. At any rate, in later inscriptions the Persians are placed considerably more to the S, being settled in “Parsa” to the SE of Elam in what is now the province of Fars in modern Iran. Anshan, a district or city bordering Elam and possibly once within its domain, was also occupied by the Persians.
Thus, in their earlier history the Persians seem to have held only the southwestern portion of the extensive Iranian plateau, their boundaries being Elam on the NW, Media on the N, Carmania on the E and the Persian Gulf on the S and SW. With the exception of the hot, humid coastlands of the Persian Gulf, the land mainly consisted of the southern portion of the rugged Zagros mountain range, broken by long and quite fertile valleys having well-wooded slopes. The climate in the valleys is temperate, but on the higher plateau regions the arid, windswept lands experience severe cold in the winter months. Like the Medes, the Persians appear to have done much stock-raising, along with necessary agriculture, and Persian King Darius the Great proudly described his native land as “beautiful and rich in horses and men.”
Originally leading a somewhat austere, often nomadic life, the Persians manifested a great love for luxury and luxurious surroundings during the period of the empire. (Compare Esther 1:3-7; also the clothing given to Mordecai, 8:15.) Sculptures at Persepolis represent the Persians as dressing with flowing, ankle-length robes, girded at the waist, and wearing low-laced shoes. By contrast, the Medes are depicted as wearing a tight, long-sleeved coat ending above the knee. Both Persians and Medes apparently made use of trousers, and Persian soldiers are shown as wearing sleeved tunics over iron-scaled armor, and trousers. They were expert horsemen and the cavalry played an important role in their war strategy.
The Persian language is classed as within the Indo-European family and gives evidence of being related to the Indian Sanskrit. At some time in their history the Persians began to make use of the cuneiform style of writing, with, however, a greatly reduced number of signs as compared with the hundreds of signs used in Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform writing. Whereas during the rule of the Persian Empire some inscriptions are found in Old Persian with translations in Akkadian and in a language generally denominated “Elamite” or “Susian,” official documents used in the administration of the imperial territories were recorded primarily in Aramaic as an international language.—Ezra 4:7.
DEVELOPMENT OF MEDO-PERSIAN EMPIRE
Like the Medes, the Persians seem to have been ruled by several noble families. One of these families produced the Achaemenian dynasty of kings, the royal line from which came the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great. Cyrus, who, according to Herodotus and Xenophon, was born of a Persian father and a Median mother, united the Persians under his leadership. Till then the Medes had been dominant over the Persians but Cyrus gained a swift victory over Median King Astyages and captured his capital city of Ecbatana (550 B.C.E.). (Compare Daniel 8:3, 20.) The Median Empire thus passed under the control of the Persians so that their boundaries now embraced all the Iranian plateau and stretched westward through Assyria and Armenia as far as the river Halys in Asia Minor.
Although the Medes continued subservient to the Persians during the remainder of the Achaemenian dynasty, there can be no doubt as to the dual nature of the empire that resulted. Thus, Professor Olmstead’s History of the Persian Empire (1948, p. 37) says: “The close relationship between Persians and Medes was never forgotten. Plundered Ecbatana remained a favorite royal residence. Medes were honored equally with Persians; they were employed in high office and were chosen to lead Persian armies. Foreigners spoke regularly of the Medes and Persians; when they used a single term, it was ‘the Mede.’”
Under Cyrus the Medo-Persian Empire expanded farther W, reaching to the Aegean Sea as a result of the Persian victory over King Croesus of Lydia and the subjugation of certain Greek coastal cities. His major conquest, however, came in 539 B.C.E. when, at the head of a combined force of Medes, Persians and Elamites, Cyrus took mighty Babylon, in fulfillment of the Biblical prophecies. (Isa. 21:2, 9; 44:26–45:7; Dan. 5:28) With Babylon’s fall came the end of a long period of Semitic supremacy, now superseded by the first dominant world power of Aryan (Japhetic) descent. It also brought the land of Judah (as well as Syria and Phoenicia) within the Medo-Persian domain. By Cyrus’ decree in 537 B.C.E. the exiled Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, which had lain desolate for exactly seventy years.—2 Chron. 36:20-23; see CYRUS.
In keeping with the dual nature of the empire, a Mede named Darius became the ruler of the defeated Chaldean kingdom, though likely not independent from Cyrus’ suzerainty. (Dan. 5:31; 9:1; see DARIUS No. 1.) Babylon continued as a royal city of the Medo-Persian Empire, as well as a religious and commercial center. However, the torrid summers there generally seem to have been more than the Persian emperors wanted to endure, so Babylon seldom served as more than a winter location for them. There is archaeological evidence that, following the conquest of Babylon, Cyrus soon returned to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), situated some 6,280 feet (1,914 meters) above sea level at the foot of Mount Elvend, where winters of heavy snow and bitter cold are balanced by delightful summers. It was at Ecbatana that Cyrus’ memorandum concerning the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s temple was found several years after its being issued. (Ezra 6:2-5) The earlier Persian capital was at Pasargadae, some four hundred miles (643.6 kilometers) to the SE of Ecbatana, but at about the same altitude. Near Pasargadae, Persian emperors Darius, Xerxes and Artaxerxes later built the royal city of Persepolis, equipping it with a large network of underground tunnels, evidently to supply fresh water. A fourth capital was Susa (or Shushan) located near the Choaspes (Karkheh) River in ancient Elam, and occupying a strategic central location between Babylon, Ecbatana and Persepolis. Here Darius the Great built a magnificent palace that served generally as a winter residence, for, as at Babylon, the summer heat at Susa was extreme. However, as time progressed Susa became more and more the real administrative center of the empire.—See SHUSHAN.
RELIGION AND LAW
The Persian rulers, while as capable of cruelty as the Semitic kings of Assyria and Babylonia, initially at least seem to have endeavored to manifest a degree of fairness and legality in their dealings with the conquered peoples. Their religion apparently contained some concept of ethics. Following their chief god Ahura Mazda, a principal deity was Mithra, who became known, not only as a god of war, but also as the god of contracts, the one whose eyes and ears were ever alert to spy out any violator of an agreement. (See GODS AND GODDESSES.) Greek historian Herodotus wrote of the Persians: “Beginning from the age of five years to twenty, they instruct their sons in three things only—to ride, to use the bow, and to speak truth. . . . To tell a lie is considered by them the greatest disgrace.” (Book I, pars. 136-138) While the history of the Persian rulers shows them to be not above duplicity and intrigue, yet a basic adherence to some tribal creed of ‘keeping one’s word’ may be reflected in their insistence on the inviolability of the “law of the Medes and the Persians.” (Dan. 6:8, 15; Esther 1:19; 8:8) Thus, when Cyrus’ decree was found some seventeen years after its date of issuance, King Darius recognized the legality of the Jews’ position as regards the building of the temple and gave orders that full cooperation be extended to them.—Ezra 6:1-12.
Considerable administrative ability is evidenced in the Persian imperial organization. In addition to the king’s own privy council or advisory board, composed of “seven princes of Persia and Media” (Esther 1:14; Ezra 7:14), there were satraps appointed over major regions or countries, such as Media, Elam, Parthia, Babylonia, Assyria, Arabia, Armenia, Cappadocia, Sardis, Ionia, and, as the empire expanded, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, and others. These satraps were granted a measure of autonomy in the government of the satrapy, including the administration of judicial and financial affairs within their territory. (See SATRAP.) Within the satrapy there appear to have been subordinate governors of jurisdictional districts (numbering 127 in King Ahasuerus’ day), and within the jurisdictional districts there were princes of the particular peoples composing the district’s population. (Ezra 8:36; Esther 3:12; 8:9) Likely to overcome the disadvantage of the imperial capital’s being somewhat in a corner of the far-flung domain, a speedy system of communication was developed by means of a royal mail service employing couriers riding post horses, thereby connecting the throne with all the jurisdictional districts. (Esther 8:10, 14) Royal highways were maintained; one ran from Shushan all the way to Sardis in Asia Minor.
FROM CYRUS’ DEATH TO NEHEMIAH’S GOVERNORSHIP
The reign of Cyrus the Great ended in 530 B.C.E. due to his death while on a warring campaign. His son Cambyses II succeeded him to the throne and was successful in conquering Egypt. Though not referred to by the name Cambyses in the Bible, he is evidently the “Ahasuerus” to whom the opposers of the temple work sent accusations against the Jews, as stated at Ezra 4:6. Daniel, who had prospered “in the kingdom of Darius [the Mede] and in the kingdom of Cyrus the Persian,” was likely dead by this time, having been taken captive to Babylon in 617 B.C.E.—Dan. 6:28.
The circumstances involving the end of Cambyses’ rule are confused. One account, set forth by Darius the Great in his Behistun Inscription, and recounted by Herodotus and others with certain variations, is that Cambyses had his brother Bardiya (called Smerdis by Herodotus) secretly put to death. Then, during Cambyses’ absence in Egypt, a Magian named Gaumata, posing as Bardiya (Smerdis), usurped the throne and was able to gain recognition as king. Cambyses, while returning from Egypt, either became sick and died or committed suicide, thereby leaving the usurper secure on the throne. The other version, favored by some historians, is that Bardiya had not been killed and that he, not some impostor, usurped the throne during Cambyses’ absence.
Whatever the case, the reign of Cambyses is considered as having ended in 522 B.C.E. and the rule that followed is believed to have lasted less than one year, ending also in 522 B.C.E. with the assassination of the usurper (either Bardiya or Gaumata the pseudo-Smerdis). Yet, during this brief rule it appears that a second charge against the Jews was directed to the Persian throne, the king then being designated in the Bible as “Artaxerxes” (perhaps a throne name or title), and this time the accusations were successful in producing a royal ban against further construction on the temple. (Ezra 4:7-23) The temple work then lay idle “until the second year of the reign of Darius the king of Persia.”—Ezra 4:24.
Darius the Great
Darius I (called Darius Hystaspis, or, Darius the Great) evidently engineered or instigated the slaying of the one occupying the Persian throne. His father Hystaspes appears to have held the position of a satrap in the empire and was of the same Achaemenian family as Cyrus, though of a different branch. Darius does not seem to have gained recognition as king until 521 B.C.E., the first part of his rule being marked by violent revolt throughout the empire, requiring several military campaigns to effect submission. Typical of the treatment dispensed to the rebel leaders was that given to Fravartish (Phraortes), who headed the revolt in Media. When finally captured, his nose, ears and tongue were cut off, his eyes put out and he was then put on public exhibition before being impaled.
During Darius’ rule the temple work at Jerusalem was again renewed with royal approval and the temple was completed during his sixth year of rule (probably early in 515 B.C.E.). (Ezra 6:1-15) Darius’ reign was one of imperial reorganization and expansion. He reconquered rebellious Egypt, subdued Libya, and extended Persian dominion as far E as India and as far W as Thrace and Macedonia. At least by this time the Persian rulers had fulfilled the prophetic symbolisms of Daniel 7:5 and 8:4, where, under the symbols of a bear and also a ram, the Medo-Persian Empire is represented as seizing territories in three principal directions: to the N (as Assyria and Babylon), the W (Asia Minor and Thrace) and the S (Egypt). In a punitive campaign against Greece, however, Darius’ forces suffered defeat at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. Darius died a few years later (486 B.C.E.) before being able to avenge this defeat.—See DARIUS No. 2.
Xerxes, Darius’ son, succeeded to the throne. He is evidently the king called “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther. His actions also fit the description of the fourth Persian king who would “rouse up everything against the kingdom of Greece.” (Dan. 11:2) Endeavoring to retaliate for the Persian defeat at Marathon, Xerxes launched massive forces against the Greek mainland in 480 B.C.E. but suffered crushing defeats in both naval and land battles at Salamis, Thermopylae, and Plataea. While Xerxes is represented by some modern historians as a “weakling,” it appears that their judgment is based on the writings of the Greeks, who may well have been strongly prejudiced against Xerxes due to his military activity against their homeland. His reign was marked by certain administrative reforms and the completion of much of the construction work his father had initiated at Persepolis.—Compare Esther 10:1, 2.
The Greek stories of the end of Xerxes’ reign revolve around marital difficulties, disorders in the harem, and a supposed dominance of Xerxes by certain of his courtiers. These traditional accounts may reflect, though in a very confused and twisted way, some of the basic facts of the book of Esther, including the deposing of Queen Vashti and her replacement by Esther, and also the ascension of Mordecai to a position of great authority in the realm. (Esther 2:17; 10:3) According to the secular accounts, Xerxes was assassinated by one of his courtiers. While most secular authorities present 466/465 B.C.E. as the date of his death, thereby giving him a rule of some twenty-one years, an earlier date of 475/474 B.C.E. accords with the Bible record and has creditable testimony in its favor from certain of the ancient secular historians.—See ARTAXERXES No. 3.
Artaxerxes (Longimanus) to Darius II
The reign of Xerxes’ successor, Artaxerxes’ (Longimanus), is notable for his authorization of Ezra’s return to Jerusalem with a large contribution for the support of the temple there. This occurred in Artaxerxes, seventh year (469/468 B.C.E. according to the above-mentioned dating). (Ezra 7:1-26; 8:24-36) Some have assumed the reference to “a stone wall in Judah and in Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9) to mean that Ezra was commissioned by Artaxerxes to rebuild the city walls. However, the Hebrew term does not necessarily refer to a massive wall, such as surrounded a city, but often describes a wall such as encompassed a vineyard (Num. 22:24; Isa. 5:5) or lined a courtyard. (Ezek. 42:7, 10) (The Revised Standard Version of this text says “to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem,” while The Jerusalem Bible reads: “safety and shelter in Judah and in Jerusalem.”) Thus, this protective “wall” evidently refers figuratively to Jehovah’s extension of “loving-kindness before the kings of Persia” on behalf of his people, as mentioned in the same verse.
Thus, it was not until the twentieth year of Artaxerxes that a commission was given to Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, including “the wall of the city.” (Neh. 2:1-8) Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah as “governor in the land of Judah,” giving him a military escort for the trip there. (Neh. 2:9; 5:14, 15) Nehemiah later returned for a time to the court of Artaxerxes in that king’s thirty-second year. (Neh. 13:6) Historians date Artaxerxes’ death as of 424/423 B.C.E.
An abortive rule by Xerxes II is considered to fit in between the rule of Artaxerxes and that of Darius II. Darius II, Artaxerxes’ son by a concubine, succeeded to the throne after Xerxes II was murdered. His original name was Ochus but he adopted the name Darius upon becoming king in 423 B.C.E., according to secular history. He seems to be the “Darius” referred to at Nehemiah 12:22.
Papyrus documents of Biblical significance
A considerable number of papyrus documents were written in Aramaic by a Jewish colony in Elephantine, an island in the Nile River near Syene (Aswan) Egypt, and these have been recovered and are dated by secular historians as from the reign of Darius I (beginning about 521 B.C.E.) to at least the reign of Darius II (c. 423-404 B.C.E.). The names “Sanballat” and “Johanan” occur in them and are thought to refer to those persons bearing the same names mentioned at Nehemiah 4:1 and 12:22. These papyri demonstrate the accuracy with which the books of Ezra and Nehemiah depict conditions and official communications during the Persian rule. As Professor Wright states: “Now . . . we are able to see that the Aramaic of Ezra is precisely that of its age, while the government documents are of the general type which we have become accustomed to associate with the Persian regime.” (Biblical Archaeology, p. 208) One document, credited to Darius II, contains a royal order concerning the celebration of the Passover by the Jewish colony in Egypt.
DOWN TO THE FALL AND DIVISION OF THE EMPIRE
Following Darius II came Artaxerxes II (called Mnemon), during whose reign Egypt revolted and relations with Greece deteriorated. His reign (dated as from 404 to 358 B.C.E.) was followed by that of his son Artaxerxes III (also called Ochus), who is credited with some twenty-one years of rule (358-338/37 B.C.E.) and is said to be the most bloodthirsty of all the Persian rulers. His major feat was the reconquest of Egypt. Secular history then gives a two-year rule for Arses and a five-year rule for Darius III (Codomannus), during whose reign Philip of Macedonia was murdered (336 B.C.E.) and succeeded by his son Alexander. In 334 B.C.E. Alexander began his attack on the Persian Empire, defeating the Persian forces first at Granicus in the NW corner of Asia Minor and again at Issus at the opposite corner of Asia Minor (333 B.C.E.). Finally, after the Greeks had conquered Phoenicia and Egypt, the Persians’ last stand, at Gaugamela in 331 B.C.E., was crushed and the Persian Empire came to its end.
Following Alexander’s death and the subsequent division of the empire, Seleucus Nicator obtained control of the major portion of the Asiatic territories with Persia as its central part. The Seleucid dynasty of kings, thus begun, continued until 64 B.C.E. Seleucus Nicator seems to be the one with whom the prophetic figure of the “king of the north” of Daniel’s prophecy first begins to manifest itself, opposing the Ptolemaic line of kings in Egypt, who initially appear to fill the role of the symbolic “king of the south.”—Dan. 11:4-6.
The Seleucid kings were restricted to the western part of their domain by the incursions of the Parthians, who conquered the territory of Persia proper during the third and second centuries B.C.E. They were defeated by the Sasanians in 226 C.E. and the Sasanian rule continued until the Arab conquest in 642.
The prophecy of Ezekiel (27:10) includes Persians among the men of war serving in the military force of wealthy Tyre, and contributing to its splendor. Persia is also listed among those nations forming part of the hordes directed by the symbolic “Gog of the land of Magog” against Jehovah’s covenant people.—Ezek. 38:2, 4, 5, 8, 9.
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The Great Sea