Old Testament

Darius the Mede as Cyaxares II, Last King of Media

In the last post we talked about the common identifications of Darius the Mede. Although the previous post discussed the popular interpretations of Darius, as stated in that post, I think there are some problems with those identifications. Further, as I have been introduced to the work of Steven Anderson (through Todd Bolen), I have become convinced that Darius the Mede can be identified with Cyaxares II, the last king of Media.

Identifying Darius the Mede as Cyaxares II has been most recently (and most thoroughly) proposed by Steven Anderson in his 2014 dissertation. However, this viewpoint is not new, and was the standard Jewish and Christian interpretation from Josephus and Jerome, until the 1870s. However, scholarship of the last 150 years has cast doubt on this viewpoint.

As charted out last time, many scholars identify Astyages as the last king of the Median dynasty. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Astyages waged war against Cyrus but was betrayed by his army and delivered over to Cyrus in the year 550 BC. Thus, according to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Cyrus took control of Media in 550 BC. This narrative is largely supported by Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian.

The Nabonidus Chronicle which does not mention Cyaxares II
The Nabonidus Chronicle, on display at the British Museum

However, if we consult Xenophon, a Greek historian just after Herodotus, we are told a different history—a history of Cyrus ruling Persia while in a strong alliance with Cyaxares II, the son of Astyages. According to Xenophon, the Median dynasty extended past Astyages through Cyaxares II, and when Cyaxares II died (2 years after Babylon fell), the Median kingdom peacefully passed to Cyrus (537 BC).

The Median Dynasty (with Cyaxares II)

Deioces 700–647 BC
Phraortes 647–625 BC
Scythian Rule 624–597 BC
Cyaxares 624–585 BC
Astyages 585–549 BC
Cyaxares II 549–537 BC

Although you can read Stephen Anderson’s post for a thorough discussion of this position, for the sake of brevity, I will summarize four of Anderson’s arguments.

  • The Behistun inscription states that two men of Median descent launched separate rebellions during the time of Darius the Great, falsely claiming to be of the lineage of Cyaxares. This would only make sense if Cyaxares were the last Median king. Otherwise, the claim would likely relate to being descendants of Astyages (if he was indeed the last king).  
  • Herodotus and Xenophon agree that the daughter of Astyages, Mandane, was the mother of Cyrus, an obvious marriage alliance between Persia and Media. This is strong evidence for viewing Persia and Media as being in some sort of strong alliance during the time of Cyrus.
  • The Harran Stele mentions a “king in the land of the Medes” during Nabonidus’ 10th year (546/5 BC). This mention of a king of the Medes along with the king of Egypt provides a date for the continuation of the Median empire after the time of Cyrus’ supposed conquest as described by Herodotus and the Nabonidus Chronicle.
  • A Greek playwright, Aeschylus, who dates prior to Herodotus, describes two kings who preceded Cyrus as rulers of Medo-Persia. Although he does not name them, he describes the first as the one who founded the dynasty, and the second as being in power when Babylon fell (539 BC). Aeschylus lists Cyrus as the successor of the second king. So, for Aeschylus, Cyrus takes over the Medo-Persian empire after Babylon falls.

In summary, I think there is strong evidence for Darius the Mede to be Cyaxares II, the last king of the Median empire. As such, Cyaxares II and Cyrus form a unified alliance against their enemies (including Babylon) until Cyaxares dies in peace in 537 BC. After that time, Cyrus takes over sole rule of the empire.

One of the main issues is which historical records do we view superior on this issue: Herodotus and the Nabonidus Chronicle, or the record of Xenophon. I think Stephen Anderson has done a fabulous job defending the historicity of Xenophon and showing how Cyaxares II is the most likely candidate for being Darius the Mede. Not only does it account for much of the historical evidence, it also avoids many of the problems of the other views.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

12 Comments

  • Michael J. Kelly

    In reading the above my question remains “Is there evidence of a Decree by King Darius as stated in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 6, verses 25 through 27. The Decree is a clear Statement of Belief by Darius affirming that Daniel’s God, “For He is the living God, And steadfast forever; His kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed, And His dominion shall endured to the end. He delivers and rescues, And He works signs and wonders In heaven and on earth, Who has delivered Daniel from the power of the Lions.” My concern is that many people reject the accuracy of the Holy Bible, claiming it is a biased fabricated Book written by acolytes, whereas an independent document affirming the above quote I believe would go along way in proving independently the Truth of the Bible. Is there such a document? I know ISIS went on a campaign to destroy ancient documents back during their reign of persecution on Christians and others. Did such a document escape their very thorough search? Could you send me affirmation if it is in existence. Thank you in advance for your research and desire to seek truth and accuracy. Michael J. Kelly 10/31/21

    • Peter Goeman

      Hi Michael,

      Unfortunately we have no extra-biblical evidence of that quote. But, perhaps one day we will have something show up. But, like you say–there are many ways documents and extra biblical sources can be destroyed.

  • John Todd

    Good work on Darius. Comment on the 70 years. The 70 years deals with Jewish separation from God (not time in Babylon since there were 4 different times for exiles). Jewish tradition was God was in the Temple, so the 70 years deals with destruction of the temple and rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem.

  • john hutcheson

    Peter,
    Thanks for confirming what Dr Anderson proposed in his thesis. I have been struggling with this all day and finally came to a similar conclusion.

    I love what Jeremy proposed with the addition of a couple of years of the rule of darius puts the time in Babylon at exactly 70 years! God isn’t just close, He is always accurate.

    I would like to propose a couple of other thoughts and ask you to review them for me. Maybe Dr Anderson answered them, but I did not read his whole thesis, so I was hoping you could help me with these:

    first, Dan 1:21 – when Daniel “continues” to the first year of Cyrus, what is the meaning of “continues”? it cannot mean death since in Dan 10:1 Daniel receives a vision in the 3rd year of Cyrus. I propose that it means he continued to be in political leadership (all the way through Neb, Neb’s son, Neb’s grandson, Darius for 2 years, then 1 year with cyrus).

    second, Dan 5:30-31, Dan 9:1 – darius seems to have been given the kingdom by someone else. He “receives” the kingdom, He was “made” king. This is not the language of someone who conquered a land and was king by victory, is it?

    third, all of the references to years someone has ruled seem to be specifically about Babylon, right? so cyrus and darius are not co-ruling in babylon from daniel’s perspective, they are one right after another. That would help Jeremy’s case as well.

    fourth, Daniel gets the vision of chapter 10 2 years into his retirement? It says he was down by the river instead of in the castle? Seems like he is living among the jews now? In my mind when the decree from cyrus went out that people could return, this 80 some year old man knew he wasnt going, but he would go live his last few days among his people encouraging them to go. Thats how i imagine it anyway.

    appreciate your thoughts on all this.

    • Peter Goeman

      Hi John,

      Thanks for reading. I apologize for the delayed comment.

      First, in Dan 1:21 when it says Daniel “continues” I think that is just talking about the extent of Daniel’s ministry—it expands into the reign of Cyrus as well. No reason it has to be talking about the end of Daniel’s ministry. It could very well be reference to political leadership, but unfortunately I can’t see a way to prove or disprove that idea. It’s a good thought!

      Second, That is why I think Darius is Cyaxares II, and Cyrus is actually the one who takes the kingdom, and then gives it to Cyaxares II until his death. Then the entire kingdom reverts back to Cyrus.

      Third, the mention of years ruled is not uniform in the ANE. Israel and Judah even used different systems of reckoning the years reigning. And most ANE nations allowed for coregencies to count in years reigning. All that to say, even if you are correct (and you might very well be), we still need to allow for the possibility of coregency, in our calculation and see if that works with the data.

      Fourth, it may be he is not in public office now. Some commentators have taken that approach. But it is also possible that Daniel has different assignments. Perhaps a lesser position given the new government, etc. Or, some have surmised he was on special assignment. It of course is possible that he is out of office completely as well. Good thoughts again!

  • Jeremy

    It seems that if Cyaxares II is the Darius of Daniel (with Cyrus being the sole ruler a few years later in 537), then we end up with the span from Nebuchadnezzar’s first seige of Jerusalem to the decree of Cyrus in his first year at 70 years and not the usual 66/67 that fall short of Jeremiah’s prophecy.

    • Joe Elledge

      You may be correct – the first year of Cyrus is mentioned by Ezra as the year God stirred up Cyrus to issue his proclamation allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Correspondingly, Josephus in book 11 of Antiquities says that the first year of the reign of Cyrus coincided with the 70th, or final year since his people were moved out of Babylon. Since the first deportation of Jews occur in 605 BC following Nebuchadnezzar subjugation of Jerusalem, the 70th year would be 535 BC. So Cyrus’ first year was apparently 535 BC. This would imply that Cyrus delegated the rule of Babylon to Darius the Mede when he seized the city in 539 BC. Then Darius must have ruled until 536 when he died of natural causes (he began his rule at 62 years of age).

  • Patrick Mugambi

    History has it Gubaru was made governor over Babylon and he sets up Satraps. Daniel prospers during Darius reign who sets up Satraps with Daniel as one. Ugbaru dies 3 weeks after conquering Babylon. Adding up all this shows Gubaru and Ugbaru were two different people. Its would have been impossible of Daniel to be succesful in 3 weeks and Ugbaru setting up Satraps in 3 weeks too. Thats leaves us with Gubaru as our Darius. Historically he was of Midian origin.

    • Peter Goeman

      It is definitely possible of course, but Xenophon, a 4th century (BCE) Greek historian, noted that Gobryas (Gubaru) was Assyrian, not Mede. So, that is definitely problematic if Xenophon is reliable.

  • Beireisia

    great article however I’m a little uncertain about the first argument you listed by Anderson. Is it absolutely necessary that the Cyaxares II be the last Median king just because the rebels claim descent from him? I mean Cyaxares II was the next in line to the throne before Media fell into Persian hands.

    • Peter Goeman

      Yes, I don’t think any of the arguments are able to definitively stand on their own. Otherwise, I don’t think there would be as much debate. This particular argument assumes that a rebel would claim to be descended from the last king of Media in order to garner support. Otherwise, someone else could claim to be from the last king and thereby have a better claim to the throne. So the assumption here is that they are trying to forego any future attempts at usurping the throne from them. And I do think this argument is valid, although we can’t treat it as conclusive because there may have been other reasons for this claim that we are unaware of.

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