Darius I: An Archaeological Biography

One of the ways in which archaeology is beneficial to biblical studies is the way in which it furnishes background information that helps us a better understand the world in which events in Scripture took place.  Such is the case with the history of the Jewish people during Persian-era and the subject of our next bioarchaeography, King Darius I, (commonly called Darius the Great).

Darius in Biblical History

The book of Ezra recounts how the Persian king Cyrus allowed the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity.  In the second month of the second year after their arrival, the people began to rebuild the temple (Ez 3:8).  Their enemies began a campaign of discouraging the people and frustrating their efforts from the reign of Cyrus down to the reign of king Darius (Ez 4:5).  Thus, the construction of the temple, which had begun in 536 BC, was halted until work resumed at the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ez 5:1-2) in 520 BC.1

The Persepolis Audience Relief likely depicts Darius I on his throne. Photo: Marco Prins / Livius.org / CC0 1.0 Universal

This time Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond-the-River, challenged the Jews and sent a letter to King Darius to see if King Cyrus had issued a decree to rebuild the temple (Ez 5:6-17).  Darius issued an order to search the archives and a copy of the royal decree in question was discovered in the citadel of Ecbatana (Ez 6:1).  The king then wrote to Tattenai to affirm the decree of Cyrus and inform him not to interfere with the rebuilding of the temple, but rather to fund it from the royal treasury.  Anyone who attempted to change the edict was sentenced to death by impaling (Ez 6:3-12). 

Who was King Darius who helped with the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem? (Note: I used the term King Darius in this article to refer to Darius I, not the ruler known as King Darius in the book of Daniel, whose identity is not conclusively known).

Darius’ Rises to Power

King Darius was not the rightful heir to the Persian throne; he was the son of Hystaspes, the satrap (provincial governor) of Parthia. 2 He had been serving in Egypt as a spearbearer with the Immortals under Cambyses II, the son of Cyrus and true heir to his kingdom.3 When Cambyses died, Darius returned to Media where he killed an imposter named Gaumâta who, posing as Smerdis the brother of Cambyses, had usurped the throne.4  

The primary source for Darius’ rise to power is the Behistun Inscription of King Darius, a tri-lingual inscription and rock relief on a cliff near the city of Kermanshah, Iran. In it, Darius identifies an Achaemenid, and claims, “From antiquity we have been noble; from antiquity has our dynasty been royal.”5 He claims that it was Cambyses who secretly killed his own brother and that he alone who had the courage to remove the usurper from the throne: “There was none who dared to act against Gaumâta, the Magian, until I came. Then I prayed to Ahuramazda; Ahuramazda brought me help… I, with a few men, slew that Gaumâta, the Magian, and the chief men who were his followers…I dispossessed him of the kingdom. By the grace of Ahuramazda [his god] I became king; Ahuramazda granted me the kingdom.”6 

Since Darius was from a different branch of the royal family, he viewed his ascension as taking the throne back from a foreigner. Apart from the Behistun Inscription, Herodotus also provides a detailed account of Darius’s rise to power. Because of the intrigue surrounding Darius’s accension, some modern scholars have suggested that Darius may have killed Cambyses’ brother himself and concocted the story of an imposter to hide his crime and justify his claim to the throne.

The Behistun Inscription of Darius I. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

The Kingdom of Darius

After gaining the throne, Darius had to quell revolts throughout the kingdom.  He consolidated and expanded the empire through a series of military campaigns.  While he decisively conquered Egypt and the Indus Valley, his invasion of Greece was less successful, resulting in his defeat at the famous battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

The remains of the Palace of Darius at Persepolis. Photo: Todd Bolen / BiblePlaces.com

Darius’s strength was in administration and he reorganized the empire into new satrapies, securing an annual tribute from each province.  Darius also undertook many ambitious building projects during his reign, developing land and sea routes throughout the kingdom.  The “Royal Road” connected the empire, stretching from Susa to Sardis – 1700 miles – with fresh horses stationed ever 15 miles, so couriers could cover the distance in one week’s time.7 At Susa he constructed a new palace and an apadana (audience hall), which served as the setting for the events recorded in the book of Esther, during the reign of his son, Xerxes. He also built a new capital for the Achaemenid Empire at Persepolis.  During excavations at Persepolis in 1933, Friedrich Krefter unearthed two stone boxes, foundation deposits that Darius had placed inside the corner-walls.  Inside each box was a pair of gold and silver plaques with a trilingual inscription in which Darius boasts of the extent of his kingdom.8 They read:

“Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid. King Darius says: This is the kingdom which I hold, from the Sacae who are beyond Sogdia [the Scythians] to Kush, and from Sind [India] to Lydia – [this is] what Ahuramazda, the greatest of gods, bestowed upon me. May Ahuramazda protect me and my royal house!”9

The DPh Foundataion Inscription of Darius on a gold tablet was discovered at Persepolis. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Darius and the Rebuilding of the Jewish Temple

This cuneiform tablet records a transaction which lists a servant of Tattannu, Governor Across-The-River as a witness. Photo Credit: Olaf M. Teflmer / BPK / Vorderasiatisches Museum, SMB

Numerous details in the account of Darius in the book of Ezra have been affirmed through archaeology.  When the Jewish people began rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond-the-River, wrote directly to King Darius for affirmation that this was allowed.  A group of Persian tablets called the Tattannu Fragment Archive, includes a cuneiform document – a promissory note dated to the 20th year of Darius, in which one of the witnesses is a servant of “Tattanu, Governor Across-the-River.”10  The consensus among scholars today is that Tattannu and Tattenai are one and the same person.11  Furthermore, it is not surprising that the governor would write directly to the king about such matters.  The Aramaic letters from Elephantine provide evidence such inquiries were sent directly to the king himself, who would pay close attentions to details like this in his kingdom.12

Upon receiving the letter, King Darius ordered that a search be made of the royal archives.  Scripture is clear that a scroll (not a tablet) was found in the archives in the citadel of Ecbatana (Ez 6:1-2).  Persian scholar Edwin Yamauchi writes, “We know that Persian officials wrote on scrolls of leather and papyrus from the remains of clay bullae found in the east and discoveries made in Egypt.  Diodorus (2.32.4) informs us that the Persians had “royal parchments” recording events of the past.”13  Geo Widengren notes that the practice of keeping archives in a citadel/fortress was a practice that went on for centuries, as there is evidence of documents being kept in the “fortress of the archives” in the Sasanian Empire.14

A Google Earth image of the remains of ancient Ecbatana within the modern city of Hamedan, Iran. Photo: http://www.travellingthepast.com/iran/ecbatana-and-hamadan/

Even Darius’ commands in his response to Tattanai are similar to those known from history.  It was common practice for Persian kings to help restore the sanctuaries of their subjects, as is seen in memorandum from the governor Bagoas regarding the rebuilding of the Jewish temple at Elephantine.15  Tolerance and support for local religions and traditions was a means through which Darius secured peace in his empire, and the good-will of the gods of the nations he conquered.  This is reflected in the biblical text where, in return for aid rebuilding the Temple, Darius asked that the people offer “sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons (Ez 6:10).  Finally, his threat to impale on a beam those who tried to alter the edict (Ez 6:11), was a very real Persian threat.  Herodotus records that Darius impaled 3000 of the chief men when he conquered Babylon.16

The Death of Darius

The tomb of Darius I. Photo: Bernard Gagnon / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Darius ruled the Persian Empire from 522 BC until his death in November 486 BC.  It is possible to pinpoint his death so specifically, since the last letter from Babylon dated to the reign of Darius was written on November 17, 486 BC, and the first one from the reign of his son Xerxes is dated December 1st of the same year.17  He was buried in a monumental tomb that had been carved into a cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam, 3 miles northwest o Persepolis.  Undoubtably Darius I was one of the greatest Persian rulers; he had inherited a loosely organized kingdom and left behind well-organized empire.18  


Darius the Great appears briefly in Scripture to give aid to the Jewish people in rebuilding the temple.  Apart from his role in the book of Ezra, he is mentioned only a handful of other times in the Bible.  Archaeology has not only affirmed biblical details about King Darius, it has illuminated the wider cultural landscape of the Persian Empire that point in history.

Title Photo: Peter.nz1 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0


1 “Darius I” NIV Archaeological Study Bible (ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr and Duane Garrett; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 676.

2 J.M. Munn-Rankin, “Darius I.” Encyclopædia Britannica. April 03, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Darius-I (Accessed Jan. 11, 2021).

3 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 138.

4 “Behistun (3),” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/articles/place/behistun/behistun-3/  (Accessed Jan. 11, 2021), i.11.

5 Ibid, i.3.

6 Ibid, 1.13.

7 Alfred Hoerth and John McRay, Bible Archaeology: An Exploration of the History and Culture of Early Civilizations, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 138.

8 “Persepolis,” Encyclopædia Iranica. https://iranicaonline.org/articles/persepolis (Accessed Jan. 12, 2021).

9 “DPh,” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/sources/content/achaemenid-royal-inscriptions/dph/ (Accessed Jan. 12, 2021).

10 Matthew Jursa and Matthew M. Stolper, “From the Tattannu archive Fragment,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 97 (2007): 243.

11 Ibid, 244.

12 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 157.

13 Ibid, 158.

14 Geo Widengren, “The Persian Period,” in Israelite and Judaean History, eds. J. H. Hayes and J. M. Miller (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 499.

15 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 158.                          

16 Herodotus, Histories, 3.159.  Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Herodotus/3F*.html#159 (Accessed Jan. 13, 2021).

17 “Darius the Great: Death,” Livius.org. https://www.livius.org/articles/person/darius-the-great/9-death/ (Accessed Jan. 14, 2021).

18. Ibid.

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