Ancient Persian history through Darius (Esther 1)

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Illustration: Darius the Great

Persia (modern Iran) is first attested in Assyrian documents from the ninth century B.C. The Persian empire reached its height under the Achaemenid kings of the sixth-fifth centuries B.C. The events of the latter books of the Hebrew Bible (Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi) took place against the background of Persian dominance.

We know virtually nothing of the early Persians except that they, along with the Medes, were Indo-Europeans who entered eastern Mesopotamia from the north around 1000 B.C. During the seventh century B.C. the Medes became a unified power, ruling over the Persians. Finally, in 612 B.C., in an alliance with the Chaldeans, the Medes captured Nineveh and brought the Assyrian empire to an end. The Persians ultimately became the dominant partner in their alliance with the Medes, with the rise of a king now called Cyrus the Great (ruled 559-530 B.C.).

Cyrus began to expand Persian power. Moving westward, he defeated Croesus, king of Sardis in Asia Minor. But his most significant campaign was against the Babylonian king Nabonidus. He routed the Babylonian army at Opis, and Babylon fell without a contest in October 12, 539 B.C. (Herodotius’ History, 1.189-91). After securing his empire, Cyrus sought to establish himself as a benevolent ruler. He protected existing temples from looting and rebuilt others. As a part of this policy he issued a decree in 539 B.C. authorizing the return of Judean exiles and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-4, Isaiah 44:28). Cyrus died during a military campaign in Central Asia and was succeeded by his som Cambyses (530-522 B.C.).

Cambyses conquered territory as far away as Egypt but died without an heir in 522 B.C. He was succeeded by Darius I Hystaspes (522-486 B.C.; Ezra 4:24, Haggai 1:1, Zechariah 1:1). According to Darius’ official account (recorded in an inscription on the rock face of a cliff at Behistun), a priest named Gaumata, falsely claiming to be Bardiya, Cambyses’ brother, seized power while Cambyses was in Egypt. Cambyses died en route back to Persia, but Darius took control of at least some of his returning forces and continued on to Persia. With the aid of six other ranking men, he killed Gaumata. The six proclaimed Darius the new king. Though not in line to inherit the throne, he was from another Achaemenid family.

Historians debate the credibility of Darius’ account of his rise to power. Some say he was himself no more than a usurper who killed the true heir. Others consider his story convincing.

Darius proved an able ruler and capable administrator. He established a new legal system, introduced coinage and constructed imperial palaces at Susa, Persepolis and Babylon. Early in his reign he quelled rebellions throughout the empire, in time extending its boundaries eastward to the Indus River and westward to the Aegean Sea. Darius organized this vast realm into 20 administrative districts, or satrapies, which allowed local peoples to enjoy a degree of autonomy.

Judea was part of the satrapy called “Beyond the River” (see Ezra 4:10, Nehemiah 2:7). According to Ezra 6 Darius reconfirmed a decree of Cyrus allowing the Jews to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem and actually underwrote the costs. We should not suppose, however, that Darius was devoted to Israel’s God. He viewed religion as a political tool for gaining support from subject peoples.

Darius overreached himself when he invaded Greece. Greek city-states on the western coast of Asia Min or (Turkey) were under Persian control, but with the support of the city of Athens they resisted Persian authority. Darius concluded that he had to subdue mainland Greece and proceeded to invade with a massive army in 490 B.C. Persian forces were routed at the battle of Marathon. Darius died in 486 B.C. and was succeeded by his son Xerxes (ruled 485-465 B.C.).


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