The Mysterious Darius

The astronomer Thales of Miletus is famous for being the first man to predict a solar eclipse, which happened on May 28, 585 BC. It so happened that on that day there was a battle between the Lydians, under King Alyattes I, and the Medes, under their king Cyaxares I. The battle was in full swing when two things happened: Nabonidus of Babylon arrived on the battlefield, having been sent by his father Nebuchadnezzar to mediate in the dispute between the Medes and Lydians, and the day suddenly turned dark. Dismayed at this sign of divine disfavour - because Thales' scientific wisdom had not yet reached the Middle East - the armies stopped fighting, which gave Nabonidus the chance to speak to the two kings and gave the kings the incentive to accept his mediation.

As was usual in ancient times, the treaty between them involved a marriage; in this case Cyaxares' son Astyages was to marry Alyattes' daughter Aryenis. The River Halys was declared to be the border between the two kingdoms and everyone went home well satisfied. That same year Cyaxares I died and was succeeded by Astyages and over the next few years Astyges' marriage was blessed with two children: a son named Cyaxares II and a daughter named Mandane.

The family tree of Cyrus the Great
The Family Tree of Cyrus the Great of Anshan

This was not the only dynastic marriage in the family. Cyaxares I had already married his daughter, Astyages' sister, Amytis to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Two things came from that marriage: first of all the poor girl, faced with the hot, flat plains of Mesopotamia grew homesick for the cool hills of her homeland and Nebuchadnezzar attempted to make her happy by building an artificial mountain for her - the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The second thing, of course, was that the family connection gave Nebuchadnezzar the excuse to mediate between his father-in-law and the Lydians and bring their five-year war to a close.

On the whole Astyages was a good ruler, governing his people wisely and well. During his reign the Zoroastrian religion spread throughout Media and Persia, teaching the idea of Dualism - that evil could be explained by the existence of a good god - Ahura-mazda, the god of light - and an equally powerful evil god - Ahriman, the god of darkness.

In fact, the whole world seemed to be stable and at peace. In Lydia Croesus was utilising the gold washed down by the river that flowed through his capital of Sardis to become the richest man in the world. Meanwhile in Babylon Nebuchadnezzar was building Babylon with burned brick and glazed tiles and making it the most glorious city of the ancient world.

Herodotus tells the story of how one night Astyages had a dream in which he saw his daughter, Mandane, urinating so copiously that she flooded the entire world. When the magii interpreted this dream to foretell that Mandane's child would rule the world Astyages saw this as a threat to his own throne and dynasty and promptly looked around for a nobody to whom he could wed his daughter. He fixed on Cambyses I, the ruler of Anshan. This man was the great-grandson of Achaemenes, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty whose greatness was yet future. He was regarded as sufficiently insignificant that marriage to him would negate the threat of the royal dream.

In due course word came back to Astyages that Mandane was pregnant and shortly thereafter he had another dream, in which a plant came out of his daughter's womb and covered the whole world. Seriously alarmed, he invited his daughter to come home for the birth and when the baby turned out to be a boy he ordered his steward, Harpagus, to take the child and kill him.

Harpagus, however, was too tender-hearted to do the deed and gave the infant to one of his cowherds with orders to expose him - that is, abandon him in some desolate spot and let nature or wild animals kill him. It so happened that the herdsman's wife had given birth to a still-born son that same day and she suggested that they swap the babies: the dead child was taken back to court as the slain prince and the living child was brought up as the herdsman's own son.

Ten years later the village lads were playing a game that involved them electing one of their number as a play "king" and on this particular day the choice fell on the herdsman's son. A passing courtier noted the boys regal bearing and fancied he saw a resemblance to Astyages. He reported the encounter to the king who was sufficiently curious to look into the matter and eventually the story came out.

Astyages bowed to the inevitable and sent Cyrus back to his mother, but he invited Harpagus to a feast, in the course of which he had Harpagus' son killed, cooked and served to his father. Only after Harpagus had dined heartily did Astyages reveal the source of the meat, an atrocity which Harpagus never forgave.

In 559 BC Cambyses I died and Cyrus succeeded him on the throne of Anshan. Six years later, according to Herodotus, he was invited by Harpagus to rebel against Astyages. For whatever reason, Cyrus did indeed rebel and was promptly attacked by Astyages. For two years the Persians managed to hold their own but were gradually driven back into their heartland. In the third year Astyages appointed Harpagus to lead the army and he promptly led his troops over to Cyrus.

The result was that Persia became the dominant power in Iran. Cyrus treated Astyages leniently - Ctesias claims that Astyages was appointed as governor in Parthia. However a few years later Astyages was starved to death on the orders of a certain Oebaras, for reasons which are not explained.

The Medes still had a separate existence - they formed a semi-autonomous province in Cyrus' Persian empire and according to Josephus, in 539 BC Babylon was captured by the kings of Media and of Persia.

Against him (Nabonidus) did Cyrus, the king of Persia, and Darius, the king of Media, make war. Antiquities X.xi.2

A little later Josephus adds,

And this is the end of the posterity of king Nebuchadnezzar, as history informs us; but when Babylon was taken by Darius, and when he, with his kinsman Cyrus, had put an end to the dominion of the Babylonians, he was sixty-two years old. He was the son of Astyages, and had another name among the Greeks." Aniquities X.xi.4

This would seem to indicate that Daniel's Darius was the shadowy Cyaxares II, Cyrus' uncle, and that as a reward for his help, Cyrus appointed his uncle to govern Babylon for him. This may have been a political move because the Medes were still a power to be reckoned with and the historian Xenophon indicates that Cyrus still maintained the fiction that he was subordinate to the Median king. Appointing Cyaxares II the Mede as king of Babylon gave him honour without power and it may also have placated the Babylonians, because Cyrus had posed as liberator from the tyranny of Nadonidus and Belshazzar, a pose which would have been difficult to maintain if he had taken Babylon for himself.

The book of Daniel only mentions "the first year of Darius", which would be his first regnal year. The period from the conquest of Babylon to the next New Year's Day (mid-March) was regarded as Danius' "Accession Year", which was the period September 539 BC to March 548 BC. The next twelve months, from March 538 BC to March 537 BC constituted Darius's first official year, even though it was his second year on the throne.

As there is no mention of a second regnal year, it is likely that Darius died in late 538 or early 537 BC and Cyrus became de jure as well as de facto king of Persia, Media and Babylon. This means that 537 BC was the first year of Cyrus as sole king of Babylon (but the third year of his reign over Babylon), and it is almost certainly in this year that Cyrus came into prolonged contact with an aged Jewish statesman, who persuaded him to allow the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.

Putting all these snippets of information together, it appears that the Darius of Daniel is the Cyaxares II of Xenophon - but the difference in names does niggle (a word that has recently been declared by "woke" idiots to be racist!)

One possibility is that Cyaxares II took "Darius" as a throne name - something not unknown in the ancient world, but it does seem odd that he should choose a Persian or Median name instead of a Babylonian one. Another possibility is that the author of Daniel here blots his splendid record of accuracy and comes up with a mistaken or fictitious name. Given the paucity of the information we possess about this period, I am reluctant to assert that Daniel is wrong.

The main problem with the theory that Darius is Cyaxares II is that our only source for his existence is Xenophon. On the face of it, Xenophon should be a reliable historian. He was a friend of Cyrus II and a general in his army when he attempted to overthrow Artaxerxes II. He was thus in a position to obtain accurate information about Persian history, particularly as he lived only a century after the events he describes.

In his book Anabasis ("Ascent") Xenophon describes how he led his Greek contingent of 10,000 mercenaries from near Babylon, where Cyrus II was killed in battle, to safety on the northern coast of Asia Minor. The account is detailed, straight-forward, and couched in the very finest of Attic Greek, which has led to his recognition as one of the finest authors of antiquity.

Xenophon also wrote a number of philosophical works, mainly dealing with the life and teachings of Socrates, who he greatly admired. His Symposium claims to record what Socrates said during a soiree at which he was a guest, his Apology is supposed to be Socrate's speech at his trial. As Xenophon was only a young boy at the time of the symposium and was away with the 10,000 during the trial, the speeches he records are clearly his own inventions, though possibly based on some genuine memories, obtained at second-hand, of what was actually said on those occasions.

We should not be too hard on Xenophon; it was entirely acceptable for ancient authors to show their skill in rhetoric by composing speeches and putting them in the mouths of their characters as what they might have said or should have said. Even Herodotus engages in this practice, as does Josephus, who gives long speeches by Moses and other Biblical characters as well as by the zealots on Masada! We may wonder at the detailed accounts in Acts of sermons by Peter and Paul and suspect that they also are inventions by St Luke, though certainly faithful to what those men did actually teach and preach.

It is clear from reading the Cyropaedia that it is more like a work of philosophy than a work of history. It is full of detailed conversations between various characters, all of which read like the dialogues Xenophon imagined between Socrates and his fellow guests. The words, the phrases and the concepts are Socratic in nature and entirely unlike anything that Persians might have said. Indeed, the alleged details of Cyrus' upbringing are based on Spartan principles and far removed from the little we know about Persian customs!

Less excusable is the fact that Xenophon's tale is extremely muddled; Cyrus, in conjunction with Cyaxares, attacks the Assyrians, whose forces are commanded by Croesus of Lydia(!), and captures Babylonia (but not Babylon) before moving up to attack Sardis and only then returning to capture Babylon. Xenophon does not state that Cyaxares was appointed to rule in Babylon, but merely depicts Cyrus offering him a palace in that city with no indication that Cyaxares ever took advantage of the gift.

And now when the march had brought them into Media, Cyrus turned aside to visit Cyaxares. After they had met and embraced, Cyrus began by telling Cyaxares that a palace in Babylon, and an estate, had been set aside for him so that he might have a residence of his own whenever he came there, and he offered him other gifts, most rich and beautiful. And Cyaxares was glad to take them from his nephew. Cyropaedia VIII.v.17

We might dismiss Xenophon's Cyaxares II as an invented foil for Cyrus' wit and wisdom were it not for the Behistun Rock inscription of Darius the Great. There he mentions two rebels who claimed to be of the family of Cyaxares.

Another was Phraortes [Fravartiš], the Mede [Mâda]; he lied, saying: 'I am Khshathrita, of the dynasty of Cyaxares.' He made Media to revolt. Another was Tritantaechmes [Ciçataxma], the Sagartian [Asagartiya]; he lied, saying: 'I am king in Sagartia, of the dynasty of Cyaxares.' He made Sagartia to revolt.

I rather doubt that the word "dynasty" existed in Old Persian! I suspect that what Darius actually wrote was "family". If these rebels were referring to Cyaxares I, it would be a fairly weak claim because after a century the blood-line would be very diluted. On the other hand, if they were referring to Cyaxares II then the claim would be of the same vintage as Cyrus himself.

Another find that is claimed to support the authority of Xenophon is the Harran Stele of Nabonidus, who refers to "the kings of the land of Egypt, of the land of the Medes, of the land of the Arabs and all the hostile lands". As this was written only a couple of years before Cyrus conquered Babylon, it is claimed that the reference to the Medes - but not the Persians - is evidence that Media was still the dominant partner, as the Cyropaedia states. Against this I can cite the fact that even as late as the time of Thermopylae, the Greeks were still referring to the Persian invaders as "Medes" - presumably old habits die hard. It is quite possible that Nabonidus was doing the same.

More significant is the fact that on the great Apadana staircase relief in Persepolis, Medes and Persians alternate with no obvious distinction between them other than their dress. This appears to contradict Herodotus, who speaks of Cyrus subjugating the Medes and making them as slaves. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the Apadana reliefs depict the state of mutual harmony that Darius the Great desired (or that he instituted) and have no bearing on the question of whether Cyrus conquered Media or cooperated with it.

What is most interesting is that Herodotus himself admits that his account may not be correct!

Thus far I have been engaged in showing how the Lydians were brought under the Persian yoke. The course of my history now compels me to inquire who this Cyrus was by whom the Lydian empire was destroyed, and by what means the Persians had become the lords paramount of Asia. And herein I shall follow those Persian authorities whose object it appears to be not to magnify the exploits of Cyrus, but to relate the simple truth. I know besides three ways in which the story of Cyrus is told, all differing from my own narrative. Histories I.95

The solution to the difficulty may be that Cyaxares II was not the child of Aryenis but of a secondary wife. Such a child would not be considered as in the royal line of succession (though it would be equally unthinkable for Astyages' daughter to become queen), yet if Cyrus was wanting to honour the Medes or flatter the Babylonians, he might pick this child as the de facto successor to the Median throne. The Cyropaedia indicates that Cyrus and Cyaxares became acquainted while hunting and so he was appointed ruler in Babylon on the basis of youthful friendship rather than legitimacy.

However that still leaves the problem of the name. I am not a philologist, but it does not seem to me that "Cyaxares" can be turned into "Darius"! On the other hand, I do not know what the Hebrew for "Cyaxares" is and given that "Xerxes" comes out as "Ahasuerus" in Hebrew (the Persian original is "Xšaya-ṛšā" and even cuneiform Akkadian had difficulty with it, rendering the name as "ḥšyʾrš"!) I suppose it might be possible for "Cyaxares" to turn into "Darius".

Such conflicts and contradictions are part and parcel of being an historian and the hope - indeed, expectation - is that future discoveries will shed new light on such problems when they occur. Those who want to go into the matter further can consult Wikipedia - though be warned; while researching this article I decided to read the whole of the Cyropaedia to see for myself what it did actually say. As a result I had to delete several wild claims in Wikipedia and remove a couple of citations which did not say what the article's author said they said!

Here is the Wikipedia article. Another article worth reading is Conservapedia, which is not well-written, but which does include some interesting information about William Shea's investigation of Babylonian cuneiform contracts, of which Wikipedia appears to be ignorant.

Cyaxares II We will examine the evidence for this Cyaxares II a little later on, but it must be admitted at the start that it is somewhat tenuous. Return

a good ruler It depends on whose view of the king you accept. Herodotus paints him as a capricious and superstitious tyrant; Xenophon depicts him as a kindly and doting grandfather. Probably both pictures are partially correct - on the whole he was a good ruler but he was influenced by the religion of his time which placed great reliance on the interpretation of dreams and omens. Without those omens - and the interpretation placed on them by the priests - he was a kindly gentleman and once the dreams were out of the way he was the doting grandfather. Return

and kill him Herodotus' account appears to be contradicted by the Cyropaedia of Xenophon, which claims that a warm friendship existed between Astyges and Cyrus and makes no mention at all of an attempt to kill Cyrus. Return

led his troops This account by Herotus is confirmed by the Nabonidus Chronicle, which states:

"In the sixth year (of Nabonidus) Astyages mustered his army and marched against Cyrus, king of Anšan, for conquest [...] The army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. Th[ey handed him over] to Cyrus."


Ctesias Ctesias' works only exist as fragments, quoted by others. Although Ctesias had opportunity to learn about Persia - he was Artaxerxes II's personal physician - and claimed that all his information was from the Persians themselves, his Persica appears more like an historical romance with none of the checks on accuracy and reality that a modern historical romance would consider necessary.

The most extensive summary of Ctesias' Persica is in the writings of Photius. The claim that Astyages was appointed as governor in Parthia does not occur in Photius; I have not been able to check whether it is in other sources for this work, so the statement is on the authority of Wikipedia, which is usually - but not always - reliable. Return

the Assyrians In fact it was Cyaxares I who attacked the Assyrians, in conjunction with Nabopolassar of Babylon, capturing Nineveh in 612 BC, twelve years before Cyrus was born! It is always possible that Xenophon or his sources were confused between the two rulers with the same name.Return

such problems It always gives me sardonic amusement when the ill-informed claim that the contradictions in the Biblical account or between the Biblical account and received history, lead them to give up faith in the Bible. No one rejects Herodotus in toto because of the problems in his history; instead a lot of brain-power has been expended trying to either resolve the contradictions or discover the true course of events. The Bible is remarkably free of contradictions and where such have been alleged, the majority have been resolved - in the Bible's favour - as further information is discovered. It is not unreasonable to wait for further information on Darius the Mede; it is unreasonable to make him an excuse for rejecting the Bible, either as an historical source or as a spiritual guide. Return

© Kendall K. Down 2021