Bible Chronology Timeline

Chronologies of the Mysteries of God

Genesis 5:1
“This is the book of the generations of
Adam. In the day that God created man,
in the likeness of God made he him”
Copyright notice

This page and its content is copyright © 2012. All rights reserved

Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in any form is prohibited other than the following:

You may print or download to a local hard disk extracts for your personal use only.

You may not distribute or commercially use the content on any other website or other form of electronic retrieval system.

The Ancient World From 586 to 400 B.C.

I. Introduction

Setting of This Period.—This article deals with the period of the Exile and Restoration of the Jews, at the time of two world powers, one succeeding the other—the Neo-Babylonian and Persian empires. This period begins with the destruction of the kingdom of Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem, by the brutal war machine of Nebuchadnezzar. After this catastrophe we find the Jews in captivity in the Mesopotamian valley watching the signs which heralded the political weakening of their oppressors, and the rising of new powers in the east—the Medes first and the Persians a little later. When Nebuchadnezzar, the strong man of Babylon, died, three ephemeral rulers successively occupied his throne. This evidence of weakness was apparent to the watchful Jews, as was possibly also, during the next decade, the report of a new star on the horizon—Cyrus of Persia, whom Isaiah had described as their future liberator. How their hearts must have beat fast when reports of Cyrus’ incredible successes reached them, the fall of Media and Ecbatana, then of Lydia with its impregnable capital, Sardis. Finally they saw the strong new nation of the east put an end to the weak Babylonian Empire.

Cyrus, the new emperor, was a largehearted, humane monarch who fulfilled the Jewish expectations and prophecies in all details. He permitted the return of the Jews and the restoration of their Temple and its service. Arriving in their old homeland, the returned captives had to struggle against numerous odds, especially against the hostile attitude and activities of their neighbors. The rebuilding of the Temple was accomplished under great difficulties in approximately twenty years. After a series of crises—of which that described in Esther was the most serious—a semi-independent status within the Persian Empire was finally obtained in the time of Artaxerxes I, who sent Ezra to Judea with extraordinary powers, in 457 B.C. Ezra’s work was hindered by the national enemies, but was finally brought to a successful completion by the strong leadership of Nehemiah. With the description of his work our Biblical sources become silent and the Intertestamental Period sets in.

Purpose of Article.—The purpose of this article is to give the history of the small Jewish nation against the historical background of its time. The history of the people of God cannot rightly be understood if one studies it as an isolated unit. The events are usually described but briefly in the Bible, and can fully be understood only if studied in the light of archeological and historical evidence.

The source material for this period of less than two centuries is very rich for some sections and extremely poor for others. The Bible is almost silent about any events lying between the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and the return of the Jews about 50 years later. Even the historical books which inform us about the restoration of the nation (Ezra and Nehemiah) leave large gaps uncovered in their narratives.

This is also true of our extra-Biblical source material. It is very limited during the time of the Babylonian Empire, as well as during certain periods of the time of the Persians. Furthermore, this material is of great variety and differs in reliability. Official Babylonian and Persian documents are scarce. Our most voluminous sources, the Greek histories, are tainted with hatred against the Persians and are contradictory and frequently unreliable. Nevertheless for lack of something better they prove useful and important for the historian who seeks to reconstruct the story of the events of that period.

In recent years archeological discoveries have greatly added to our knowledge of this very important period in the history of God’s people, and the following survey is based on the presently available evidence. The historical picture sketched in the following information may, of course, need modification in some details as added information becomes available through future discoveries of further source material.

Main Events of the Persian Empire and Judea Select for the full size image for the main events of the Persian empire.

Persian Empire

Chronology of the Period.—The chronology of this period is well established by means of some astronomical texts and a multitude of other dated documents. Since chronological problems are sufficiently examined in the article on chronology, we need not discuss them.

However, it should be said here that uncertainties concerning the accurate dates for certain events, as will be evident in several instances in this article, are not the result of uncertainties in the chronology of this period, but are due to fragmentary source material, or the ambiguous nature of their chronological data. Any clearly dated document of the period under discussion, be it Persian, Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, or otherwise, can easily be converted into the familiar B.C. scheme. But in many instances recorded events are not dated, or at least not exactly dated, in our Biblical and extra-Biblical sources. Such events must be put into the chronological scheme by a careful study of all factors involved. That in such cases scholarly conclusions vary, is understandable, and no date set down in this way can claim absolute accuracy; close approximation is all that can be reached.

The reader should therefore understand that where two dates are given, as, for example, for Cyrus’ defeat of Astyages, our source material on which these dates are based allows two different interpretations. He should also bear in mind that a date given in this article, which differs from one found in another work dealing with the same subject, is not necessarily better or less accurate than the other. It may in some instances be based on more recent evidence, in other cases on a different interpretation of evidence which allows more than one interpretation. While dates are necessary to understand history and cannot be dispensed with, the reader should always remember that many dates of ancient history are likely to be changed through the discovery of new evidence, and he should therefore not be surprised if certain dates herewith presented should later on prove to need correction.

Fortunately, the margin of possible error with regard to the dates of the period under discussion is very small and in no instance exceeds a few years. In most cases differences between the true dates and those given in this article will vary by not more than one year, and many dates presented are absolutely correct. In this regard the 6th and 5th centuries are founded chronologically on a more secure basis than several earlier or later periods of history.

The accompanying table presents the synchronisms between the different ruling houses of this period. The dates given for reigns of the kings of Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia (after 539 B.C.), as well as those given for the Jewish leaders, are exact, but those of the rulers of Media and Lydia are uncertain.







Amasis 570-526 Nebuchadnezzar 605-562 Cyaxares *625-585 Alyattes *617-560
Evil–Merodach 562-560 Astyages *585-550 Croesus
(Amel–Marduk) *560-546
Nergal–shar–usur (Neriglissar) 560-556
Labashi–Marduk 556
Nabonidus 556-539 Cyrus (As ruler of Medes & Persians) C. 553/2-530
Belshazzar (Coregent) 553?-539 (As ruler of Babylon) 539-530 Zerubbabel 537–
Psamtik III 526-525 Cambyses 530-522
Bardiya (Smerdis) 522
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-423 Ezra 457–† Nehemiah 444–†
Darius II 423-405/4
Artaxerxes II 405/4-359/8

* Uncertain dates.
Only dates of appointment are available.

II. The Neo-Babylonian Empire From 586 to 539 B.C.

The history of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from its foundation by Nabopolassar during the 7th century B.C. until 586 B.C., the year in which the kingdom of Judah, with its capital, Jerusalem, was destroyed.

Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.).—The great conqueror of Judah and destroyer of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar directed his attention to more than warfare. He carried on extensive building operations. Of his accomplishments in this line the king was exceedingly proud, as his many building inscriptions reveal. Babylon was practically rebuilt by this king. He enlarged the city and surrounded it with new fortifications, enclosing at the same time a new palace which he had built more than one mile north of the old palace quarter. The great temple of Marduk, called Esagila, was beautified and its temple tower Etemenanki, which had been in ruins at the time when his father took the throne, was completed. Numerous other temples were rebuilt or newly erected in Babylon and elsewhere during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, which had more building activity than any other period in the history of Mesopotamia.

Little is known of Nebuchadnezzar’s military activity after the Judean campaign, for there is nothing after his 11th year in the extant Babylonian chronicles, which recount many military campaigns of Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, and one of Nergal-shar-usur. However there is information extant indicating that Nebuchadnezzar fought for 13 years against Tyre (585-573 B.C.). That proud maritime power, trusting in its impregnable island position, refused to bow to the Babylonian monarch, and therefore drew the wrath of Nebuchadnezzar upon itself. One year before Nebuchadnezzar’s campaign against Tyre began, the prophet Ezekiel foretold the fate of the rich merchant city, which comprised large residential sections on the mainland, and warehouses, arsenals, factories, and shipyards located safely on a little rock island off the coast. Nebuchadnezzar’s forces conquered and destroyed mainland Tyre, to which Ezekiel’s prophecies apply, but besieged the island in vain for many years. Tyre finally gave in and surrendered under the condition of retaining its king, although it had to accept a Babylonian high commissioner, who kept a watchful eye over Tyre’s external and internal affairs and took care to safeguard Babylonia’s interests.

During this period a campaign against unruly elements among Judah’s former neighbors, Syria, Ammon, Moab, and also against Egypt, must have taken place, as Josephus claims, in the 23rd regnal year of Nebuchadnezzar (582 B.C.). Also Jews who had been left in the country after the debacle of 586 B.C. seem to have taken part in the anti-Babylonian activity, and this activity resulted in the punitive action of Nebuchadnezzar by which 745 more Jews were taken to Babylon as captives, according to Jeremiah 52:30.

Although the siege of Tyre had not been unsuccessful, the Chaldeans were disappointed, and considered the accomplishments not commensurate with the efforts of a 13 years’ siege, as Ezekiel’s words (chapter 29:18-20) reveal. The prophet, however, predicted that they would find rich booty in Egypt. Little is known of Nebuchadnezzar’s Egyptian campaign foretold in this prophecy. One lone tablet fragment in the British Museum speaks of Nebuchadnezzar’s war against Amasis of Egypt in the former king’s 37th regnal year (568 B.C.). That we cannot expect to find Egyptian records concerning this war with its apparently disastrous results for Egypt is understandable, but it is unfortunate that neither are there Babylonian records extant that allow us to see how Ezekiel’s prophecy was fulfilled. Since Amasis continued to reign over Egypt after this campaign, Nebuchadnezzar may have pardoned and reinstated him on the throne.

Of the great king’s last seven years nothing is known from secular sources. The book of Daniel speaks of a seven years’ madness of Nebuchadnezzar, which apparently was followed, probably shortly after his recovery, by his death (Daniel 4). Apparently this is not recorded in contemporary records, which diligently hide deficiencies of their rulers.

Amel-Marduk, Nergal-shar-usur, and Labashi-Marduk (562-556 B.C.).—When Nebuchadnezzar, one of the most brilliant rulers of antiquity, died near the beginning of October, 562 B.C., after a reign of 43 years, his son Amel-Marduk, the Evil-Merodach of the Bible, ascended to the throne (562-560 B.C.]). The ancient historians know of him only as a man who led a wicked and unbridled life, but the Bible informs us that he pardoned Jehoiachin, the imprisoned king of the Jews, and bestowed royal honors upon him (Jeremiah 52:31-34), in the 37th year after he had been deported from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Amel-Marduk did not display the strength of his father, and after a reign of less than two years was murdered by revolutionaries, who put one of their own on the throne, Nergal-shar-usur (Greek: Neriglissar), who had not only been one of Nebuchadnezzar’s most honored courtiers (Jeremiah 39:3, 13), but also his son-in-law, hence Amel-Marduk’s brother-in-law. Nergal-shar-usur (560-556 B.C.) made an incursion into Cilicia in 557/56, recorded in the chronicle. He claimed to have built temples and palaces and to have destroyed enemies and burned to death his antagonists.

Since he came to the throne as a comparatively old man, he died after a short reign of less than four years. His son Labashi-Marduk succeeded him for probably less than two months, reigning for some time during the months of May and June, 556 B.C. Then a gang of conspirators tortured him to death and made Nabonidus, one of their own party, king of Babylon.

Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.).—The ancestry of the new ruler has not definitely been established, but it seems that his father had been a prince of Haran by the name of Nabû–balâṭsu–iqbi, and his mother was probably Shumûa–damqa, a priestess of Sin (the moon-god), who, according to a monument thought to be erected in her honor, had held this office in the Sin temple of Haran since the time of Ashurbanipal. One opinion is that when Haran was conquered by the Medes and Babylonians in 610 B.C., she and her young son may have been carried captive to Babylon, and that she was taken into the harem of Nebuchadnezzar, rising there in the course of time from concubine to a favorite wife. Royal favors were also bestowed on her son Nabonidus, who became an influential officer in the administration of the empire, as we see from the fact that he was probably chosen in 585 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar to act as mediator in the war between the Medes and Lydians. It is likely that he was married to one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters and thus became the king’s son-in-law, for which reason Daniel could call Nebuchadnezzar Belshazzar’s father, meaning according to Hebrew usage “ancestor” or “grandfather” in this case (Daniel 5:11). The following genealogical sketch will show the relationship between the various rulers of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, who are numbered in sequence from Nabopolassar to Nabonidus.

At the time Nabonidus came to the throne a strong ruler was needed. The Medes had become bold under the preceding weak rulers of Babylonia, and had annexed the region of Haran. This was an act of aggression, which if unchecked could serve as an encouragement to further raids. Nabonidus, therefore, during his first regnal years considered it his first duty to reconquer Haran. By doing this he gave promise of becoming a strong and determined ruler. However, this expectation was not met, because the king seemed to have had too wide interests and too far-reaching plans. He was fond of the worship of the moon god Sin, and rebuilt the Sin temple of Haran, which had been in ruins since 610 B.C. He also erected sacred buildings in Ur, where he made his daughter priestess of Sin, was deeply interested in the ancient history of his nation, and dug up old records. Nevertheless, he seems to have recognized dangers that loomed to the east and took measures to meet them, among which is reckoned his campaign against Arabia, to be mentioned below.

In 553 B.C., while campaigning in eastern Palestine, he fell ill and went to the Lebanon to recuperate. He immediately summoned his son Belshazzar and entrusted the kingship to him, by which act he tried to guarantee the perpetuity of his royal house, and thus to make sure that no usurper would be put on the throne at Babylon during his absence. In this way he became free to carry out new plans of empire expansion. In the meantime, Belshazzar returned to Babylon and early in 552 (probably) ruled over the home provinces in the name of his father as coregent. This explains why, when he wanted to honor Daniel in a special way, he could offer him only the third place in the kingdom, the highest that it was in his power to give, since he himself occupied the second place (Daniel 5:16).

As soon as Nabonidus had recovered from his illness he began an invasion of north western Arabia and conquered the oasis of Tema, which was to become his residence for many years to come, and where he built large palaces. The real reason for this conquest is not known. Some historians have thought that Nabonidus went to Arabia in order to have a more secure capital in the event Mesopotamia were lost to the Iranian Medes and Persians, or because he was mentally ill and needed this place of seclusion. Whatever the reason may have been, Nabonidus stayed in Tema at least until his 11th regnal year, 545 B.C., and during this time carried out several successful raids against southern Arabian tribes.

In the meantime he had estranged himself completely from the leading elements of Babylonia, especially from the priests. His long absence from the capital caused the omission of several New Year feasts which ordinarily provided much lucrative revenue to the temples, and his favoritism for Sin resulted in a hostile Marduk priesthood. The administrative mismanagement of the domestic affairs by Belshazzar may have deepened the desire among many Babylonians to have a change of administration. The two rulers seem nevertheless to have had the reins of government so securely in their hands that no revolt was attempted. If it was attempted, we may reasonably conclude that it failed, since we have no records of it.

During the early years of Nabonidus’ reign a new star arose in the eastern political sky, Cyrus, a vassal king of the Medes, known as the ruler of Persian tribes, and who called himself “king of Anshan.” He rebelled against his Median lord Astyages and, after having taken the capital Ecbatana, deposed its king in 553 B.C. (or according to other sources in 550), about the time Nabonidus appointed Belshazzar as coregent. Danger from the eastern tribes was now felt to be more real than before, and when Croesus of Sardis, the king of Lydia, proposed an alliance to King Amasis of Egypt and to Nabonidus against the new eastern power, Nabonidus accepted gladly.

Following the maxim that an attack is the best defense, Croesus invaded Persian territory in 547 B.C., but misjudging his strength, lost capital and kingdom before his allies had time to organize and aid him against Cyrus.

The following years Cyrus consolidated his power in the empire which now reached from the Iranian plateau to the western coast of Asia Minor. When finally in 539 B.C., after further years of preparation, Cyrus felt the time had come to march against the weak empire of Nabonidus, there fell to him without any effort the rich eastern province of Gutium which bordered on Cyrus’ territory and which formed the bulwark to the Median Wall built by Nebuchadnezzar to protect his empire against a possible invasion from the east. Nabonidus was naturally alarmed. Perhaps for his protection, or to deprive Cyrus of the help of local gods in the case of an invasion, he moved the statues of the various city gods to Babylon during the spring and summer of 539. Thus he increasingly embittered the local populations and priests, who felt that he was stealing their gods. His act also antagonized the priests of Babylon by increasing the religious competition in the capital, which was considered mainly the domain of the god Marduk.

When Cyrus was ready to march against Babylonia, Belshazzar had gathered his forces at Opis on the Tigris to meet the threat of invasion and to deny Cyrus a crossing of the river. In the ensuing battle the Babylonians suffered a disastrous defeat, and the Persians were able to push immediately through to Sippar on the Euphrates without finding any resistance. Cyrus captured this city without a fight on October 10, 539 B.C. Nabonidus himself fled in a southerly direction. Belshazzar returned to Babylon, about 35 miles south of Sippar, and trusting in its strong fortifications, remained in the city. It was here that, in a spirit of pride and arrogance and with a reckless feeling of security, he spent his last evening with his concubines and friends in frivolous drinking, using the sacred vessels of Solomon’s Temple (Daniel 1:5). On October 12, Babylon fell to Cyrus’ forces, who, according to Herodotus, had diverted the Euphrates, which normally flowed through the city, and marched in unopposed. Belshazzar was slain. Nabonidus, who had fled south, apparently found his roads of escape already barred, and therefore returned to Babylon and committed himself to the mercy of his victorious enemy. According to a Greek report, his life was spared by the generous Cyrus, and he was placed as vassal ruler over the distant land of Carmania.

The empire of the Chaldeans thus came to an inglorious end after an existence of less than one century. Founded by a strong ruler, Nabopolassar, and enlarged and consolidated by his equally strong son Nebuchadnezzar, the empire had quickly fallen to pieces after the latter’s death under a succession of weak rulers. The Neo-Babylonian Empire had unfolded a glory in material wealth which had rarely, if ever, existed before. For this reason it is compared to a “head of gold” in the prophetic picture of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:38). However, it had all the time possessed the following inherent weaknesses, which materially aided and accelerated its fall:

1. The Babylonian nation was aged and had been held subject for so many centuries by Amorites, Kassites, Assyrians, and now the Aramaean Chaldeans, that it lacked some of the character traits which make a nation politically strong and healthy. 2. There were no common interests and bonds that bound the different nations of the empire to the Chaldean dynasty, even the Babylonians themselves being ethnic strangers to the Chaldeans, who formed the ruling class only. When these weaknesses were compensated for by the strength of the ruler, as, for example, Nebuchadnezzar, the empire seemed strong and healthy. However, under a weak ruler like Nabonidus, who absented himself for many years from his capital, who was more interested in the antiquities of his country than in its present needs, and who favored a provincial deity more than the national patron god, besides committing other foolish acts and political blunders, the synthetic Babylonian Empire could not remain intact.

III. The Empire of the Medes

With the Medes, and the Persians who succeeded them, people of Indo-European stock appear on the scene of world history. The only other ethnically related nations that had played important roles in history before were the Hittites and the people of Mitanni, who had flourished in the second millennium of the pre-Christian era. The Medes and Persians lived in the highland that lies between Mesopotamia and India, a rough country that produced a hardy and morally healthy and strong nation of warriors who were accustomed to hardships and privations. They called themselves Arianu, “nobles,” and their land Ariana, or Iran, a name it still bears.

The first Iranian tribes by the name of Medes appear as hard-fighting barbarians in the records of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III in the middle of the 9th century B.C. Sargon II claims to have defeated and subjugated them in 715 B.C., mentioning Daiaukku as their ruler, a name Herodotus gives as Deikos (Deioces), to whom he attributes the founding of the Median kingdom, and whom he characterizes as a wise and righteous ruler. Deioces is also said to have caused the Median tribes to become a nation, and to have founded the capital Ecbatana. It is, however, difficult to identify the Deikos of Herodotus, who seems to have ruled from C. 700 to C. 647 B.C., with the Daiaukku of Sargon’s records, and of course it is possible that two persons with the same name were involved.

Phraortes, the son of Deioces, ruled after his father’s death for 22 years, from C. 647 to C. 625 B.C., and is credited with having subjugated the Persian tribes in the south. He lost his life fighting against Assyria.

Cyaxares, Phraortes’ son, ruled over the Medes for 40 years, from C. 625 to C. 585 B.C. He became the ally of Nabopolassar of Babylon against Assyria, conquering Assur alone in 614, and Nineveh jointly with the Babylonians in 612. The Babylonians absorbed the largest and most civilized part of the fallen Assyrian Empire, while the Medes seem to have been satisfied to inherit Assyria’s northern and north eastern possessions. Cyaxares, who thus became the first great king of the Medes, is also credited by Herodotus with having defeated the Scythians, whose territory in Asia Minor then fell to him also.

During his last years Cyaxares had to fight against the Lydians, who, under Alyattes, the king of Sardis, had become the third power of Asia, and who wanted to be the masters of Anatolia. In the sixth year of their war it happened that “in the midst of the battle day turned suddenly into night.” Convinced that the displeasure of the gods rested upon them, the two warring nations became willing to conclude a peace treaty. This was accomplished with the help of some mediators among whom is mentioned Labynetus of Babylon, probably Nabonidus. The solar eclipse on May 28, 585 B.C. (said to have been predicted by Thales of Miletus), which was responsible for the end of the war between the Medes and Lydians, provides one of the few fixed dates for battles of antiquity. The treaty concluded with Alyattes gave Cyaxares all Anatolian territory east of the river Halys, and was strengthened by the marriage of Astyages, Cyaxares’ son, to Aryanis, the daughter of Alyattes.

Astyages, who ruled for more than 30 years (Herodotus says 35), from C. 585 to either 553/2 or 550 B.C., was the last real monarch of the Median Empire. Hardly anything is known of his long reign. The ancient historians who mention him speak of him only so far as he played a role in the affairs of Cyrus, whose grandfather he was, according to Greek sources. He had given his daughter Mandane to Cambyses I, the vassal king of the Persians at Anshan, but when his daughter had given birth to a child he seems to have been hounded by fear that Cyrus would take the throne from him. How much truth there is in the Greek legends which tell of Astyages’ attempts to kill his grandson, is unknown. It is certain, however, that his fears had not been unfounded, because Cyrus rose up against his overlord C. 553 B.C. Twice he was defeated by the forces of Astyages, but in the third encounter the Median army commander Harpagus betrayed his lord and turned his forces over to Cyrus. Not later than 550 B.C. Cyrus was in possession of the Median capital Ecbatana. Also Astyages had fallen into Cyrus’ hands, but seems to have received kind treatment, if we can believe the Greeks, who claim that he became governor of Hyrcania, south of the Caspian Sea.

When Cyrus took over the Median Empire no great changes were apparent in the outward structure of the state, because the Medes and Persians were closely related tribes, as were also, by intermarriage, the two royal houses. Hence we find the empire referred to by historians of antiquity and in contemporary documents of different countries as that of “the Medes and Persians,” or many times simply as that of “the Medes,” although, after Astyages’ fall they played only a minor role in the affairs of state. The transition from the Median to the Persian Empire was therefore really a transition of power from one royal house to another, and a transition of offices held by Median nobles to the Persian nobility. From that time on, Persian nobility occupied first places in the administration of the government, although influential Medes were still employed, and were found throughout the Persian period in many important offices.

IV. The Persian Empire From Cyrus to Darius II

The Persian rulers of the empire period are called Achaemenid kings, since, with the exception of Darius III, all Persian monarchs claimed a certain Achaemenes as their ancestor. The inscriptions of Cyrus and Darius I provide information concerning the genealogy of the two families to which these two kings belonged, and which stem from Achaemenes and Teispes as the following diagram shows:

The sequence of the ruling kings from Achaemenes to Cyrus II is not definitely known, but it seems that most or all of those listed in the above genealogy held the throne in Persia for some time. The two ruling houses reigned either over different Persian tribes simultaneously or the rulership shifted from one house to another several times. The capital seems to have been Anshan, since the early Persian kings call themselves regularly “kings of Anshan,” but its location has not definitely been established, although the proposal to identify it with Pasargadae in south western Iran seems to be the best made so far.

The only Persian ruler preceding Cyrus II mentioned in any extant contemporary records is Cyrus I. The inscriptions of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal mention him as Kurash of Parsuash, who after hearing of the Assyrians’ victory over Elam, sent his son Arukku, probably a brother of Cambyses I, with heavy gifts to Nineveh in order to offer himself as vassal of the Assyrian emperor. This event took place shortly after 639 B.C., the year in which Elam was conquered, but apparently before king Phraortes of the Medes subjugated the Persians and made their land part of his empire.

Cyrus the Great, C. 553-530 B.C.—The Greek historians discuss at length the adventures of young Cyrus, but it is hard to separate truth from legend, and history from folklore. However, it seems credible that Cyrus’ mother, Mandane, was a daughter of Astyages, the last reigning monarch of Media, and that Cyrus himself had married Kasandane, the daughter of Astyages’ son Cyaxares. For reasons that are not clear to us, Cyrus rebelled against his overlord and grandfather father Astyages, probably in 553 B.C. Cyrus, whose forces were twice beaten by Astyages, was eventually successful when Harpagus, the Median commander, betrayed his master and king, and went over to Cyrus, who by 550 B.C. had Ecbatana, the Median capital, and its king in his hand.

Although Cyrus assumed the actual and effectual kingship of the empire, he seems to have treated the Medes with deference. Astyages was sent to Hyrcania as governor of a province, and his son Cyaxares II was, according to Xenophon, put on the throne as a figurehead. Contemporary records are completely silent about the existence of Cyaxares II, but it is not impossible that Cyrus allowed the Median crown prince, who was also his father-in-law, to occupy the throne jointly with him to please the Medes. If so, this Cyaxares may have been the same king mentioned repeatedly in the book of Daniel under the name Darius the Mede.

During the following years Cyrus consolidated his power over his farflung empire, which reached from the borders of India in the east to the river Halys in central Asia Minor in the west. Our records tell us that he was engaged against hostile tribes east of the Tigris in 548 B.C., while preparing himself for the great test of strength that was soon to come. The comet like rise of Cyrus to the rulership of the second largest empire of its time did not fail to make an impression on his contemporaries. Subjugated people put their hope in him. The Jews, for example, whose prophecies designated a Koresh, or Cyrus, as their future liberator (Isaiah 44:28) must certainly have watched his rise to power with bated breath, as will be seen from the discussion in Section V of this article. But political leaders like Nabonidus of Babylonia, Amasis of Egypt, and Croesus of Lydia viewed Cyrus’ emergence to power with grave misgivings, fearing for their own security and thrones. Hence, they banded themselves together by a treaty of mutual assistance.

That this fear had its valid reasons was demonstrated when Cyrus in the spring of 547 marched into the Upper Mesopotamian region lying between the river Khabur and the great bend of the Euphrates, to reoccupy a former Median province that Nabonidus had taken from the Medes. This was definitely an unfriendly act against the Babylonians, although it seems not to have resulted in any warlike actions between the forces of the two empires. Croesus, however, felt that something had to be done to meet the growing menace from the east, and being convinced that it is always advantageous to take the initiative, instead of waiting until the opponent takes it, the Lydian king crossed the Halys, and marched into Cyrus’ territory. At Pteria the first battle with the Persians was fought in late summer of 547, but ended in a draw. Yet, Croesus deemed it prudent to retreat to his strong capital, Sardis, and await the arrival of his allies before taking further actions against Cyrus. He seems to have believed that Cyrus had been sufficiently weakened in the battle at Pteria so that he was no longer an immediate threat to him, and definitely did not expect the Persians to advance to the west, far from their home base, in the autumn with the severe Anatolian winter at the door.

Geniuses like Cyrus sometimes act irrationally, and do what prudent men consider to be folly. Their actions are therefore frequently unpredictable. Cyrus was of this class. Instead of returning to his home base for the winter and coming back in full strength the following year, he pressed forward and unexpectedly arrived before Sardis with his army. That Croesus had completely miscalculated his opponent, can also clearly be seen from the fact that he had dismissed his mercenaries and allowed them to spend the winter in their home towns. Croesus, trusting in the bravery of the Lydians, and the irresistible strength of his cavalry, dared to attack Cyrus immediately after his arrival. However, the ingenuity of the Persian king was once more demonstrated, when Cyrus quickly had his baggage camels mounted by his cavalrymen and thus awaited the attacking Lydians. The Lydian battle horses, accustomed neither to the appearance of those strange long-necked animals nor to their penetrating stench, shied away and turned back into the city. Very soon—between October and December, 547 B.C.—Sardis fell after a short siege, before the allies had an opportunity to come to Croesus’ assistance. The Lydian king fell into the hands of Cyrus, who seems to have spared his opponent’s life, although one source claims that Croesus was executed. Once more Cyrus had proved to the world that he was a man of destiny and surprises. Mixed were the feelings of his contemporaries when the news of his incredible victories reached the cities and villages of Babylonia. For the Jews in captivity this news must have sounded like sweet music, but the rulers in Babylon and Tema—Belshazzar and Nabonidus—must have been alarmed.

Nothing certain is known of Cyrus’s activities during the six years that followed the conquest of Lydia. However, it is improbable that a man like Cyrus remained idle during those years. From Berossus, as quoted by Josephus, comes the report that Cyrus conquered all Asia before he marched against Babylon, and Xenophon knew of a campaign against Arabia during that time. Hence, we can conclude that Cyrus consolidated his control over the different parts of Asia Minor during the years of which contemporary sources are silent, and may also have encountered Nabonidus in Arabia, because this king claims in one text that he had personally “conquered his [Cyrus’] countries” and taken his possessions to his residence. It is uncertain whether this claim was a hollow boast, or whether Nabonidus had really defeated Cyrus at some time.

Whatever may have happened between the fall of Sardis (547) and 540 B.C., it is certain that by the end of 540 Cyrus had organized his empire into a well-knit unit and had built up a formidable army with which he was ready for the coming test of strength with Babylonia. Once more Cyrus’ good fortune came unexpectedly to his help when the governor of Babylonia’s easternmost province, Gutium, turned his land and people over to the Persians. Nabonidus, who had returned from Tema to Babylon, may have assisted his son Belshazzar, the commander in chief of all eastern forces, in the preparations for the unavoidable clash with Cyrus.

The great and decisive battle between the two empire forces took place at Opis on the Tigris, at or near the site of the later city of Seleucia (about 20 miles downstream from modern Baghdad), and close to the great wall of Nebuchadnezzar. The reasons for the disastrous defeat that the Babylonian army suffered at Opis are unknown. Our cryptic records tell us only that Cyrus succeeded in crossing the river Tigris and that he defeated the Babylonian army so decisively that all organized resistance suddenly ceased to exist, and the whole country lay open to the Persians. The victors immediately grasped the opportunities that offered themselves and lost no time in gaining the greatest possible profit from their victory. They followed the fleeing Babylonians to the west and the south west, and were able to take Sippar, lying about 15 miles west of the Tigris, without battle on October 10, 539 B.C., and Babylon, which lay about 40 miles southwest of Opis, only two days later.

Nabonidus, who had been in Sippar just before the city fell, fled to the south, but for unknown reasons returned to Babylon a few days later and gave himself up to the Persians, who spared his life. After the battle of Opis, Belshazzar awaited his enemies behind the strong fortifications of Babylon. These, however, formed no protection for him. He seems to have had enemies inside Babylon who betrayed him and the city to the Persians. Thus “Ugbaru the governor of Gutium,” who had, after the battle of Opis, marched directly toward Babylon, entered the city without a struggle on October 12, 539 B.C. (See NOTE) Belshazzar, who had engaged in a night of drunken revelry and had literally seen “the handwriting on the wall,” was slain, but there seems to have been little bloodshed otherwise. Contrary to usual customs, the city was spared destruction by the Persians, and soldiers were placed as guards at the temples and public buildings to guarantee an orderly continuation of the daily life in Babylon, and to prevent any looting or destruction of property.

NOTE: Greek sources add this colorful detail regarding the capture of Babylon: Cyrus diverted the river Euphrates by opening the sluices upstream of Sippar, with the result that the water flowed into the marshes of Al Kift and Nejef. Thus the level of the river dropped low enough to enable the Persian soldiers to march into the city on the river bed. When they arrived at the wall of the Inner City they found unlocked the gates which opened into the streets that ended at the riverbank—perhaps left open by traitors inside the city. This story, though not corroborated by contemporary records, is not contradicted by the cuneiform inscriptions that deal with Babylon’s fall. Those inscriptions state that the city was taken without a battle.

Cyrus by his leniency proved himself to be a successful conqueror, not only of kingdoms and cities but also of the hearts of men. When he, some 17 days later (October 29, 539 B.C.), personally entered the capital city, “all the inhabitants of Babylon … kissed his feet, jubilant that he [had received] the kingship, and with shining faces. Happily they greeted him as a master through whose help they had come [again] to life from death [and] had all been spared damage and disaster, and they worshiped his [very] name”.

Seldom had a great empire so easily been conquered, and even more seldom was a conqueror so readily accepted by those he had conquered as was Cyrus. The Chaldean ruling class, but especially Nabonidus, had alienated themselves so much from the Babylonians that they welcomed any change in government. The subjugated nations felt neither love nor loyalty toward their oppressors, but expected better days from the more humane rule of the Persians, who may have already given proof of their policies in those countries over which they had ruled for several years. Those policies had probably become known throughout the civilized world. Their mildness and reasonableness had caused Cyrus to gain the hearts of the peoples with little other effort on his part.

Cyrus was not only a great war lord and general, but also a wise ruler, who knew how to win the peace as well as wars. In his peaceful measures he proved his real greatness. The Assyrians and Babylonians had destroyed the cities of conquered nations and transplanted their populations to other parts of their realm, but Cyrus did not wish to follow their example and to destroy peoples in order to rule over their graves. He spared conquered cities, returned peoples previously moved from their homesteads, and enriched their wealth by measures that favored them economically. The Babylonian capital is an example. By his making Babylon one of his capitals, by his favoring Marduk, the Babylonians’ chief god, and later by his declaring himself “King of Babylon,” he endeared himself to the people. He also became popular by returning to their cities the various deities that Nabonidus had moved to Babylon, and by repairing or rebuilding local temples, one of which was that of Jerusalem. By doing this he did a favor to the Babylonians, who had hated to see the many strange gods and worshipers in their city, and he pleased beyond measure the citizens of those foreign cities and countries whose gods were returned, or whose destroyed temples were rebuilt.

He acted wisely by allowing local leaders to reign over their own peoples as governors of provinces under Persian supervision, and by refraining from imposing on the conquered nations the Persian way of life, religion, or language. These wise policies initiated by Cyrus were followed in general by his successors, although some violated these principles occasionally. However, the Persians generally made an honest attempt to honor local customs, religions, and laws. They also made use of the almost universally understood Aramaic as the official language of the empire.

It was therefore a great loss when Cyrus, only eight years after the fall of Babylon, died in a campaign against some tribes in eastern Iran, in August, 530 B.C.

Cambyses, 530-522 B.C.—Cyrus had designated his son Cambyses as successor on the throne, as we learn from several records. However, unlike his father, he was not a popular ruler. Of this fact he was well aware. Because of this, before he left for Egypt, he had his brother Bardiya, or Smerdis, secretly killed, fearing that a long absence from the capital might be used by his enemies to put Smerdis on the throne. When this murder later became known and a false Smerdis, claiming to have survived the plot, usurped the throne, this usurper was accepted by great sections of the empire, a clear proof of Cambyses’ unpopularity.

We know little more of Cambyses than his Egyptian campaign. The conquest of the Nile country was the goal of his passionate ambitions. Historians disagree in their opinions as to whether Cambyses by his Egyptian campaign carried out his father’s plans, or whether he made a mistake his father would never have made. It is possible that Cyrus had planned eventually to conquer Egypt, whose king Amasis was the only surviving member of the former triple alliance formed by the ruling heads of Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt against Persia. As he had wisely consolidated his rule in conquered areas after each victory before he attacked others, he may have wanted to carry out a thorough consolidation of his power throughout the former Babylonian Empire before turning against Egypt. But he died before revealing what his plans were. It is, however, also possible that he had wisely refrained from overextending his commitments, while Cambyses, the son of a genius, may have felt that only new conquests could establish his name and fame.

When Cambyses marched against Egypt about the beginning of 525 B.C., Amasis had died and Psamtik III had come to the throne. Initially his campaign was unusually successful. He enjoyed the collaboration of the Phoenician cities, including Tyre, and the island of Cyprus, who put their navies at his disposal. Also Polycrates of Samos exchanged his alliance with Egypt for one with Persia. Phanes, a general of Egyptian mercenary forces, left Psamtik and went over to Cambyses, assisting him in his campaign against his former lord, especially by guiding the Persian army safely through the desert to the Delta. The first battle took place at Pelusium, where Psamtik’s mercenary army suffered a grave defeat. Cambyses immediately advanced toward Memphis and took the city after a siege. He was also successful in capturing the Pharaoh, who had reigned for less than six months.

Libya and Cyrenaica submitted voluntarily to the Persians, but a campaign into the western desert failed because of tremendous losses. Another campaign against Ethiopia, the name which was given to Nubia, was successful, but also very costly. Thus all Egypt and its dependencies were brought into the family of nations of which the Persian Empire was composed. To gain the good will of the Egyptians, Cambyses assumed the titles and performed the ceremonial functions of a Pharaoh. He organized Egypt into a strong satrapy, which remained securely in the hands of his deputies even during the years when the greatest part of the empire was in turmoil.

Herodotus describes certain cruelties against the Egyptians and insults to their gods, but his reports in this respect are certainly exaggerated. Some think that they reflect a change of policy after Cambyses’ reverses. At least the Greek historian’s narratives reveal the hatred the Egyptians felt against the conqueror. It is true that Cambyses destroyed certain Egyptian temples—perhaps those in which agitation against his regime was carried on—although there are also records that he favored certain temples and made grants to them. For example, he provided for the cleansing of the temple of Neith at Sa‹s and guaranteed the expenses for the festivals in honor of that goddess.

Cambyses left Egypt in 522 B.C. when he received word that a man claiming to be his brother Bardiya (Smerdis) had usurped the throne. The new claimant was widely recognized in the Persian home provinces, Babylonia, and elsewhere. While passing through Syria, Cambyses suddenly died, either by suicide or as the result of an accident. Since he left no heir, the false Smerdis’ throne seemed to be established. However, his reign lasted only a little more than six months, until Darius, a distant relative of Cambyses, killed him and ascended the throne himself.

Darius I, 522-486 B.C.—Concerning the manner of Darius’ accession to the throne we are well informed through that king’s long inscription on the rock of Behistun, which served as a key for the decipherment of cuneiform scripts in the 19th century. Here, Darius records for posterity the account of how a Magian by the name of Gaumata had usurped the throne, and had made the people believe that he was Smerdis, the son of Cyrus, whom Cambyses had supposedly killed. He says further that Persia, Media, and the other countries had accepted him even before Cambyses’ death, and that Smerdis destroyed certain unnamed sanctuaries, by doing which he apparently initiated a policy directed against the policies of his predecessors. One of the policies of the false Smerdis, during his short reign, was the destruction of temples. With such a king on the throne, it is not hard to see how the enemies of the Jews could stop the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem, which had been slowly proceeding ever since Cyrus had given the permission to build it.

Although Darius, with the help of some faithful supporters, succeeded in killing the false Smerdis, called Bardiya in Babylonian documents, and in gaining the throne for himself, thus bringing it back to the Achaemenid house, it took a long time and more fighting before he was finally recognized throughout the empire. He himself mentions 19 battles fought against opponents, and 9 kings captured, before he could feel secure in the possession of the throne. Among these opponents were two pretenders in Babylon, one rising up after the other, and both claiming to be sons of Nabonidus. The turmoil into which Persia was thrown after the false Smerdis’ usurpation and Cambyses’ death, lasted almost two years. But Darius finally emerged as the victor over all his enemies and undisputed ruler of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. That empire reached from the Indus in the east to the Hellespont in the west, and from Mt. Ararat in the north to Nubia in the south. After Darius had crushed all opposition to his rule he began a reign of peace that lasted for almost 30 years, and that gained him the well-deserved title, “the Great.”

Manifold were his peaceful deeds that promoted welfare and happiness in the countries belonging to his empire. In Egypt, Darius had the canal finished between the Nile and the Red Sea, which Necho II had started to dig many years earlier. On the coastal road between Egypt and Palestine watering stations were built, and a very efficient postal system (for government dispatches) throughout the empire was organized with relay stations for horses and riders at regular intervals. The appointment of natives to responsible offices in the provincial administrations and of royal support of the religious practices and cults of subject nations gained for the king much good will. Numerous inscriptions from Egypt show how many temples Darius reopened or repaired in the Nile land and how he supported the Egyptian priesthood with rich gifts, so that he is called there “the friend of all gods.” This benevolent attitude, known also from Greek records, with regard to sanctuaries and cults of his western provinces is furthermore evident in regard to the Jews. His friendly decree not only allowed them to finish the building of their Temple, but guaranteed them financial aid for their religious services (Ezra 6:6-12). Further, he allowed his subjects to live according to their own laws, as can be seen, for example, from his dealings with Egypt. He commanded that all Egypt’s laws should be collected and published. Because of this the Egyptians called him their sixth lawgiver.

From all of his dealings with his subject nations a systematic effort is discernible to continue the policies of Cyrus and to create good will by a beneficent rule. The religious feelings of other nations were protected by him, their cults supported and encouraged, and their national peculiarities and customs wisely tolerated.

Darius was nevertheless a strong ruler who held his empire together with determination and prudence in true Oriental fashion. He formed the center of the empire and concentrated the glory and wealth of the nation in his palaces at Persepolis and Susa (Shushan). He had 15,000 people fed daily at his palace gates, and introduced a court ceremonial that had the purpose of instilling in his subjects an awe toward his person. Whoever approached him uninvited was liable to lose his life, and those who were allowed to appear before him had to throw themselves on the ground and keep their hands in their sleeves in the attitude of a helpless person. His will was law for all of his subjects, great and small. He chose his wives from the houses of the Persian nobles, and bound these nobles to his throne by giving to them in marriage his sons and daughters. The sons of noble Persians were educated at the palace and were his personal pages. They were taught the national virtues, the speaking of truth, horse riding, hunting, and archery. From these men the highest officers of the realm were chosen. They remained the strongest supporters of the throne after they had spent their youth in the wealth and glory of the court life and had become personally attached to the person of the king.

Darius introduced also a uniform currency by means of a gold coin, called after his name dareikos (daric). Coins had been used by the Lydians since the 7th century B.C., but their use had been rather limited, mostly to the Greek-speaking nations. Now Darius adopted a similar system for the whole empire. The dareikos had the value of about 20 silver shekels, and its minting was a royal monopoly, but the coining of silver and bronze currency was left to the various provincial governments.

The proverbial honesty of the Persians was also a great blessing to the empire. Their religion required them to be truthful in their utterances, and to care for the welfare of the countries in which they lived. Hence, the Persians laid out beautiful parks, called by the Greeks paradeisoi (a Persian loan word; see further on Genesis 2:8), in many large cities and did much to protect forests and promote good agricultural practices and methods.

After Darius had reigned peacefully for about 20 years, he entered a decade politically clouded. Wars against the Greeks were fought with changing fortunes until the empire’s defeat by the Hellenes. The seeds for these wars had been sown in Darius’ first European expedition against the nomadic Sycthians in 513 B.C. This expedition was undertaken to defeat these barbaric tribes in their motherland to prevent their continual raids on his possessions in Asia Minor. He occupied Thrace, lying between the Hellespont and Mecedonia, with its Greek cities, then moved into Scythia, where the people desolated their own land and fled, but harassed Darius’ army until he retreated. In 500 B.C., however, came the Ionian revolt led by Miletus. This revolt spread to many of the Greek cities over which Darius ruled. When Sardis, the center of the Persian administration in Asia Minor, was burned, Darius was furious, and swore never to forget or forgive the crime. It would lead too far a field to follow in this brief historical article the different phases of the Greek revolt and the Persian countermoves. Suffice it to say that the mighty city of Miletus, the center of the revolt, was destroyed in 494 B.C. and thus the burning of Sardis was avenged.

Darius, however, wanted also to punish the Athenians for their part in the uprising, and therefore started his wars against the Greek mainland. The first expedition in 492 B.C. failed because half of his fleet was destroyed by a storm at the promontory of Mt. Athos. Since Athens and Sparta continued to refuse subjection to Persian rule, a second expedition was sent out against Greece in 490 B.C., only to be disastrously defeated at Marathon. The loss of prestige the Persians thus suffered was greater than the loss in material or men, as can be seen from the fact that in 487 B.C., three years after the battle at Marathon, the Egyptians revolted and drove the Persians out of their country. Darius did not live to see the restoration of Persian rule in Egypt or the revenge of his defeat at Marathon. He died an aged and disillusioned man in November, 486 B.C. leaving the empire to his son Xerxes.

Xerxes, 486-465 B.C.—Darius had acceded to the desire of Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus, and appointed her son Xerxes as his successor, although he was not the eldest son. According to Herodotus, the new king was a handsome man who had no equal among the Persians in beauty or bodily strength. However, neither as military leader nor as monarch was he a worthy successor of Cyrus or Darius. He suffered grave defeats, but love adventures and harem intrigues seem to have interested him more than politics and affairs of government. His character was unstable and vacillating but not basically bad. He was certainly not the ridiculous figure that the Greeks, who hated him, made him out to be.

Xerxes’ first task after his accession to the throne was the suppression of the Egyptian revolt. In 485 B.C., he marched into Egypt and reconquered the land in a short campaign. Egypt, which had bravely but unsuccessfully defended its liberty, was brought into a much “harder servitude” than before the revolt and placed under the iron rule of Xerxes’ brother Achaemenes. For nearly 25 years no trouble arose for the Persians in the Nile country.

Probably in 482, only two years after the Egyptian revolt was crushed, two serious revolts broke out in Babylon. The first one was led by Bel-shimanni in August. After its breakdown a second revolt was led by Shamash-eriba in September of the same year. Xerxes commissioned his young son-in-law Megabyzos to quench these revolts with an iron hand. Babylon, which had been spared destruction by Cyrus because of its importance as the cultural center of the world of his time, was cruelly punished for its disloyalty. It was probably in this year that Xerxes had the city’s fortifications destroyed, as well as its palaces and temples, including the glorious temple Esagila with its famous ziggurat (temple tower) Etemenanki. The golden statute of Marduk, whose hands every king, including the Persian monarchs, had grasped annually on the Babylonian New Year’s Day, in order to be confirmed as “king of Babylon,” was deported to Persia and the kingdom of Babylon combined with the province of Assyria. The proud title “king of Babylon” was never used again. Babylon, “the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency,” was destroyed, never to be restored to its former glory, although it remained a city, still partly in ruins, until long after Alexander’s day (see on Isaiah 13:19). The prophecies uttered more than two centuries earlier by Isaiah (chapter 13:19-22) were finally beginning to be fulfilled, and the proud nation received its reward for the pride, arrogance, and cruelty it had displayed in dealing with subjugated nations. The records of Nippur in Mesopotamia have revealed that a few years later much land was in the hands of Persians. This fact seems to indicate that Xerxes confiscated the estates of many wealthy Babylonians and handed them over to Persian nobles. That the Babylonian Jews also profited from these measures is equally evident from the cuneiform records and will be discussed in Section V of this article.

In his wars with the Greeks, Xerxes was dogged by ill fortune. For a long time the king appeared to hesitate, seemingly undecided whether to continue the wars of his father against Greece or limit his rule to Asia. Herodotus tells how one faction of his counselors, led by his uncle Artabanus, was in favor of peace, while another one, whose champion was Mardonius, wanted war, and that the war party finally gained the king’s support and preparations for a new expedition were made throughout the empire. Some think that his slowness was due to methodical preparation. The invasion of Greece started with the crossing of the Hellespont in 480 B.C. It would lead too far a field to describe the well-known third Greco-Persian war in this article, and follow the imperial forces to Artemisium and the Pass of Thermopylae, where the brave Greeks under Leonidas fought one of the most famous rear-guard actions of history. The Persians took Athens, which had been forsaken by the Athenians, but lost the naval battle at Salamis, and had to return as a defeated army.

More disastrous than the campaign of 480 B.C. was that of the following year (479 B.C.) when Xerxes’ forces, led by Mardonius, suffered in one day a double defeat, at Plataea, in Greece, and at the promontory of Mycale on the coast of Asia Minor. The Persians left Greece and and limited their rule henceforth to the Asian mainland, but even there the Greeks proved their superiority as soldiers, when, under their leader Cimon, they defeated the Persians on the river Eurymedon in Pamphylia. On one day in 466 B.C., 14 years after their great defeats in Greece, the Persian army, navy, and 80 Phoenician auxiliary ships were destroyed. Concerning this battle a Greek poet could claim that “since the sea has separated Asia from Europe, and since the stormy Ares has ruled over men’s cities, no equal deed accomplished by humans has ever occurred on land or sea.”

Xerxes’ prestige must have suffered tremendously through the various catastrophes that the imperial forces experienced, but the king seems not to have been greatly disturbed about this situation. Yet, the serious debacle on the Eurymedon may have occasioned the plot against the king’s life, led by his mighty vizier Artabanus. Earlier plots, one of which is mentioned in the book of Esther (chapter 2:21-23), had been unsuccessful, but this last one succeeded, and Xerxes fell under the hands of murderers in a palace revolution.

Artaxerxes I, 465-423 B.C.—Artabanus, Xerxes’ confidant and powerful vizier, seems to have killed the king in the hope of ascending the throne himself. After having Xerxes put out of the way and thinking that he would easily control the younger prince Artaxerxes, whose weak character he well knew, he accused the crown prince Darius of having murdered his father. Artaxerxes believed the story and therefore gave Artabanus permission to kill Darius, but when he learned from his brother-in-law, Megabyzos, who the true murderer of his father was, he slew the mighty and dangerous courtier.

Like his father Xerxes, the new young ruler was no strong leader or general. If the crown had not possessed a strong supporter in the unselfish Megabyzos, Artaxerxes might not have kept the throne for very long. He lived in his palace cities most of the time, had his wars fought by his generals, was ruled by his mother and wife, and was usually undecided what policies he should follow. Since he was easily persuaded by influential counselors to do good or bad, his word could never be relied on. It was remarkable that the empire was held together so well during his reign.

The Persian debacle at the river Eurymedon in 465 B.C. and the murder of Xerxes in the same year were probably the reason for new uprisings in the north eastern and south western parts of the empire—Bactria and Egypt. The revolt in Bactria was not so serious and could easily be suppressed, but the situation was different in Egypt. A Libyan ruler, Inarus, son of a Psamtik, gained control of the Delta (463 or 462 B.C.) and made Mareia, an old border fortress in the north western Delta, his headquarters. A battle against the Persians took place at Papremis, in which the imperial forces were defeated and the satrap Achaemenes was slain. His body was sent to Persia by Inarus. However, the Persians were able to hold Memphis and Upper Egypt, and retained some connections with their homeland via the Wadi Hammamat in southern Egypt and the Red Sea.

The situation in which they were became more desperate, however, when the Athenians came to the aid of Inarus in 460 B.C. and took most of Memphis, pushing the remaining Persian garrison into the citadel. Preparations for an expedition against Inarus were made in Persia, but took a long time because of other, though lesser, troubles in different parts of the empire. In the meantime Artaxerxes tried to keep friendly those nations on whose help and good will a campaign against distant Egypt depended. To these belonged the Phoenicians, and various nations in Syria and Palestine, like the Jews. The concessions made to Ezra and the Jews in 457 B.C. may have been connected with this policy of befriending various nations at this time.

Finally Megabyzos marched into Egypt in 456 B.C. The Egyptians and Athenians were beaten at Memphis and those who escaped from the debacle fled to the island of Prosopitis, where their situation soon became hopeless, since Megabyzos, aided by the Phoenician fleet, was in full control of the river. The defenders were nevertheless able to hold the island for a year and a half until it was stormed in the summer of 454 B.C. Inarus escaped to a fortress in the Delta, but finally surrendered to Megabyzos after the latter had guaranteed his life. The western Delta, however, remained in the hands of an Egyptian dynast, Amyrtaeus, who had belonged to Inarus’ followers. It is not known what the Persians did against him or whether they succeeded in reconquering that section of Egypt. The reconquered portion of the country was placed under the prince Arsham (Arsames), a rich Persian who possessed large estates in Babylonia and elsewhere, and who ruled over the Nile country for almost half a century. A wealth of information about his administration is available in Aramaic, Babylonian, and Greek documents.

Inarus, trusting in the words of a Persian, had given himself up to Megabyzos, and was sent to Persia. A few years later, Artaxerxes’ mother persuaded the king to have him killed in revenge for the death of Achaemenes. Megabyzos, who ruled over the large satrapy “Beyond the River,” which covered all territories lying between the Euphrates and Egypt, was so indignant at this breach of faith that he broke with his royal brother-in-law, and revolted about 450 B.C. Two armies sent against him were beaten by the able general, and the situation in which Artaxerxes found himself became serious.

It was also during this time that the Persian fleet suffered a grave defeat in the naval battle against the Athenians, near Salamis, on Cyprus. Since the very existence of the empire seemed to be at stake, Artaxerxes, tired of the long and aimless war, made peace with the Greeks in 448 B.C. This peace of Cimon, as it is called, gave the Persians freedom from Athenian interference in Cyprus and Egypt, and freed the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor from the payment of tribute. Also a compromise was reached between Artaxerxes and the mighty Megabyzos, since there seemed to be no chance of removing him by force. He was pardoned by the court and retained his high office as satrap of “Beyond the River.” How all these serious events had their repercussions in the province of Judea, which lay in Megabyzos’ satrapy, has already been indicated above, and will be discussed more in detail in Section VI of this article.

Little is known of the last 20 years of Artaxerxes’ rule, in which the empire does not seem to have been seriously shaken by calamities of any consequence. The king remained a weak ruler and a despot who acted according to his moods—good or bad.

Darius II, 423-405/4 B.C.—When Artaxerxes died toward the end of his 41st regnal year, probably in February, 423, chaotic conditions prevailed once more. Xerxes, the eldest son, came to the throne as Xerxes II, but was killed after a few weeks by Secydianus, one of his half brothers, aided by some eunuchs. But the assassin could not keep the throne and was soon put out of the way by another half brother, Ochus, who became king as Darius II. Being a weakling, he was completely governed by Parysatis, who was his wife and sister, a woman of treacherous and cruel character. With some eunuchs she actually reigned over the empire and brought disgrace on it through a series of shameful, bloody crimes.

The result of these conditions was a contempt for royal authority throughout the kingdom and a series of revolts that plunged the government into one crises after another. One of these revolts should be mentioned. It was led by Arsites, a brother of the king, who was followed by the satrap of Syria, Artyphius, a son of Megabyzos. Both of them, trusting the word of Parysatis and Darius, finally surrendered, but were perfidiously and cruelly put to death.

During his last two years Darius was troubled by sickness, unrest in Egypt, and a domestic quarrel about the succession to the throne after his impending departure. After Inarus’ unsuccessful revolt Egypt had borne its humiliating position with resignation. But the obvious and increasing weakness of the Persian government and the continuous unrest throughout the empire caused Egyptian nationalists to take heart again and to rise up against their oppressors. The revolt came fully into the open at the time of Darius’ death, with the proclamation of Amyrtaeus as king of Egypt. The movement of liberation started in the Delta and succeeded slowly. It was not until the turn of the century that all Egypt was wrested from the Persians, as we know from the Brooklyn Aramaic papyri (published in 1953), to be discussed in Section VII of this article.

With Darius II’s death in 405 or 404 B.C. and the accession of his eldest son, Artaxerxes II, Persian history enters the period for which no Biblical records are available. Also, the Jewish documents from Egypt, to be discussed in Section VII of this article, become silent during the early years of Artaxerxes’ reign; therefore this sketch of the Persian history ends here.

The Religion of the Persians.—The original religion of the Persians was closely related to that common to all Aryan nations, like Mitanni of northern Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium B.C., or Media and India of later times. The Aryans were polytheists and their main gods were deities of nature, the sky god, called by the Persians Ahura-Mazda, “wise lord” (the Indian Varuna, lord of heaven), Mithra the god of light and of treaties, Indra the old Aryan storm god, and the horse-driving twins, both named Nasatya. The priests of this popular religion were the Magi, descending, according to Herodotus, from an old Median tribe that had taken possession of the priesthood, and held a monopoly over all religious rites and sacrifices.

A great religious change was caused by Zarathustra (Zoroaster), the founder of a new Persian monotheistic religion. The time of his activity is unknown. Every century from the 11th to the 6th has been proposed as the age in which Zoroaster lived. It seems more plausible that he lived in the latter part of this period than in the earlier centuries, probably during Cyrus’ reign or just before. One basis for this view is that Darius I, who was an ardent follower of the new religion, claims that Gaumata, the false Smerdis, who had belonged to the Magi, had destroyed temples which in the first place must have been Zoroastrian sanctuaries, and which were thorns in the flesh of the Magi. This statement of Darius I thus indicates that the new religion to which the Magi were hostile already existed in the time of Cambyses, and possessed sanctuaries for its religious services.

Zoroaster’s one god is Ahura-Mazda (or Ormazd), “the wise lord,” the main principle of everything good, the wise creator spirit, who reveals himself in light and fire. Pure spirits serve him as the Biblical angels serve God. The evil principle is embodied in Angra Mainyu, the chief of all demons, who adds evil to that which the god of light creates. Man is involved in this fight of the spiritual powers and has the task of leading the good principle to victory. Hence the Zoroastrians appreciated purity and truth, and despised every kind of falsehood. By purity Zoroaster understood health, life, strength, honesty, loyalty, agriculture, cattle breeding, protection of useful animals, and destruction of vermin, which were considered to be a creation of the evil one. Defilement was caused by laziness, dishonesty, or the touch of a corpse. Zoroaster thus elevated the code of ethics of his people and educated the Iranian peasants to become the bearers of a high culture, which spread throughout the empire.

Whether Cyrus and Cambyses were still worshipers of the old Iranian gods of nature or already followers of Zoroaster is not definitely known, though it seems to be rather certain that they were strongly influenced by the new religion. The false Smerdis, a former Magian, must have belonged to the old religious clan, because Darius speaks of him in a contemptuous way for having destroyed sanctuaries, which Zoroastrians like Darius used as places of worship. Darius I, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes I were pure Zoroastrians, and the only god ever invoked in their Persian inscriptions is Ahura-Mazda.

Toward other religions a great tolerance was shown, and concessions were readily made toward other people with regard to their religious customs and rites, although Zoroaster himself had rejected all other gods. This tolerance toward other religious groups shows that the Persian kings were wise rulers, who were anxious to create good will among their subjects belonging to many different ethnic and religious groups. The monotheism of the Jews seems to have been especially attractive to the Persians, for which reason great concessions were made to them. This is evidenced by the various royal decrees found in Ezra-Nehemiah, and by the Jewish documents that have come to light in Elephantine (Egypt).

When the Persian Empire passed its peak, a relaxation in the religious purity of the Persians becomes noticeable. Under Darius II, but especially under Artaxerxes II, many of the old national gods were reintroduced and received a place beside Ahura-Mazda. Also the fire, and haoma, an intoxicating drink forbidden by Zoroaster, were once more worshiped as divinities. But this development took place in the 4th century B.C. which goes beyond the time limits of this article.

Bible Chronology Timeline - Page 5b