I spent many years studying the period from 539-332 BC.E. This is the period when the Jews were subject to the rule of the kings of ancient Persia. I focused on this period because there is much material outside of Tanach here that can shed light on the figures in Tanach. In this column I am going to discuss one of the ancient Persian kings: Darius I. He reigned from 522-486 B.C.E. I will summarize the extraordinary amount of material that we have about him from extra-biblical sources. This is the king in whose reign the Second Temple was built.
As further background, I have to point out that the Talmud assumes that the kings Koresh, Achashverosh and Daryavesh reigned in that order. But the accepted view of history today is different: Koresh, Cambyses, followed by a usurper for seven months, then Daryavesh (=Darius I), and then Achashverosh (=Xerxes). The Daat Mikra commentary (published by Mossad Harav Kook) follows the accepted (=non-Talmudic) view. I will be following this accepted view as well. (I have written much about this topic elsewhere.) So when I write about the Daryavesh/Darius in whose reign the Second Temple was built, I am taking the position that he is the father of Achashverosh. (This is the opposite of what most of you were taught when you were young.)
If you look at Tanach, there is only one story involving our Daryavesh/Darius. The story runs through Chapters 4 through 6 of the book of Ezra. The work on rebuilding the Temple had started in the reign of Koresh/Cyrus. But because of complaints made against the work by the opponents of the returnees, the work ceased. Due to the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the returnees renewed their rebuilding work in the reign of Daryavesh. This was almost 20 years after the initial permission by Cyrus, so the Persian governor asked the returnees who had given them permission to engage in this work. They responded that Cyrus had given the permission and that Darius should search for this decree. Darius had a search made and in the palace at Achmata (the modern Hamadan), Cyrus’ decree was found. Accordingly, Darius allowed the Jews to continue their work. He also ordered funds and supplies given to them, so that they would offer their sacrifices and pray for the life of the king and his sons. The Temple work was allowed to continue and it was finished in his sixth year (=516 B.C.E.)
So that is the limited role of the Persian king Daryavesh=Darius I in Tanach: one story in the book of Ezra, in which he orders a search for a prior decree and is willing to go along with it.
But what happens when we look for material about Daryavesh=Darius I outside of Tanach? It turns out that we have many inscriptions that he ordered, found in the remains of the three ancient Persian palaces: Shushan, Hamadan and Persepolis. More importantly, Herodotus (middle of the fifth century B.C.E.) writes extensively about his reign and military adventures. For example, we learn that he led a failed invasion of Greece. (The famous Battle at the Bay of Marathon took place in this invasion.) But the most important thing that Darius is known for is his trilingual inscription at Behistun (in Western Iran), as I will now explain.
Darius was not the son of Cambyses, but the son of a satrap named Hystaspes. (Hystaspes was a distant cousin of Cambyses.) So how exactly did Darius become king? Herodotus tells the following story. After reigning seven years, Cambyses died while out of the country. He had no children. He had previously ordered his brother Smerdis to be killed, but this was not known to the populace. While Cambyses was away, someone who looked like Cambyses’ brother Smerdis (and was also named Smerdis!) was able to instigate the populace to rebel against Cambyses and he usurped the throne, pretending to be Cambyses’ brother Smerdis. He ruled for seven months. But eventually a few individuals figured out, with the help of one of Cambyses’ wives, that this Smerdis was an impostor. (This wife was able to inspect his ears one night while he was sleeping. She had been told that the true Smerdis would have ears, while the impostor Smerdis had previously been punished by having his ears cut off. Her inspection revealed no ears!) Then Darius and six others decided to join together in a conspiracy to overthrow the impostor. After the conspiracy was successful and the impostor was killed, the conspirators agreed to make Darius the king. (I have just oversimplified a very long story told by Herodotus.)
But is there any truth to this story? How credible was Herodotus?
In the 17th and 18th centuries, European scholars began to travel to Media and Persia (modern-day Iran). They found the remains of Persian palaces in Shushan, Persepolis and Hamadan, with many surviving inscriptions. There was also a very lengthy inscription at a site called Behistun. This was a text with an accompanying relief, inscribed high above the ground on a rock face overlooking a main road. At first, no one could decipher any of these inscriptions. Eventually, several scholars made contributions toward the decipherment of this language (=Old Persian cuneiform). The most important work was done by Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson was an officer in the British army serving in Iran, and he became obsessed with trying to decipher the Behistun inscription. First he risked his life climbing the rock face and copying it. (This was with the help of a Kurdish boy, also named Smerdis. Just kidding! The boy’s name remains unknown to history.) Then Rawlinson dedicated many years in the 1830s and 1840s to deciphering this inscription.
So what was this inscription that Rawlinson ended up deciphering? It turns out that it was the story of how Darius became king, this time told by Darius himself! Lo and behold, it largely agreed with the material in Herodotus. Of course, there were some contradictions, but the basic story matched. For example, Herodotus had written that Darius became king with the help of six conspirators. Five out of the six names given by Darius matched the names given by Herodotus!
What about the relief that accompanied the inscription? It turns out that it was an image of Darius stepping on top of the impostor. (There are a few other figures in the image as well.) A picture of the Behistun inscription is found at Yehuda Landy, “Purim and the Persian Empire,” p. 14. (There are many pictures online.)
So the Behistun inscription ordered by Darius is a key source in ancient Persian history and a key source in evaluating the credibility of our main ancient narrative historical source, Herodotus.
But the Behistun inscription is important for an entirely different reason. The inscription was a trilingual one. It told the same story in Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. After the Old Persian portion was deciphered, scholars were able to decipher the Akkadian and Elamite versions as well. Akkadian was the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. The decipherment of Akkadian opened up a whole new field of archaeology. The cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Assyria and Babylonia could now be read! So our king Darius, with a minor role in Tanach, is one of the most important kings in ancient history. It was his Behistun inscription that opened the door to the study of the cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Assyria and Babylonia!
(Interestingly, Allied troops used the inscription for target practice during World War II. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.)
Finally, to end with a reference to the megilla, one of things we learn from the Old Persian inscriptions is that it was Darius who authorized the building of the palace at Shushan!
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected] He hopes that the U.S. and Iran can make peace one day so that he can lead the Teaneck Orthodox Retiree Association on an expedition to Behistun.
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.