The son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid, Darius was ruler of the Persian empire from 522 BCE (when he usurped the kingship in Parsa) until his death in 486 BCE. After a year spent quelling revolts in Mesopotamia, Elam, Iran, and Armenia, he conquered the Indus Valley (about 516 BCE), invaded Scythia north of the Danube without success, and conquered the southeastern corner of Europe (about 514–512 BCE). Part of Libya was subdued; but campaigns against Greece in 492 and 490 failed, and with Egypt in revolt (486) Darius died before his final expedition could be launched. Under his rule, the Persian empire reached its greatest extent.
He had a talent for administration. The empire was divided by him into twenty provinces (satrapies) whose governors (satraps) were responsible for law and order, the delivery of fixed tribute, and local military operations. A leading part was played by an elite increasingly composed of Persian nobles; but in Egypt and Babylonia natives could hold important offices, and in Syria and Phoenicia city kings and local rulers were responsible to the satrap. For provincial affairs, Darius seems also to have used expert advisers whom he could keep beside him or send out as agents. To Jerusalem Zerubbabel seems to have been dispatched as local governor; and the Temple, whose reconstruction had been ordered by Cyrus and allowed to lapse, was completed under his rule in 515 BCE (Ezra 4–6). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah prophesied during his reign (Hag. 1.1; 2.1, 10, 18; Zech. 1.1, 7; 7.1).
In his court style, Darius seems to have set himself on a pinnacle high above his subjects. He had a script invented for his royal inscriptions (in Old Persian), in which he showed himself remarkably introspective. Presumably a Zoroastrian by upbringing, he claimed an intimate relationship with the god Ahuramazda, whose universal omnipotence was matched by his own on earth. He could be called a monotheist, but he supported the established religions of the conquered peoples (including that of Yahweh). As a ruler he was dynamic (his own words at Behistun were “What was said to them by me, night and day it was done”), and though implacable he was generally just. He molded an imperial system that his successors, who prided themselves on their descent from him, were too inclined to preserve unchanged.
Two later Persian kings of the same name were Darius II (423–404 BCE) and Darius III (336–330 BCE). The reference in Nehemiah 12.22 to Darius the Persian could be to either Darius II or Darius III. “Darius the Mede,” mentioned only in Daniel 5.31 and 9.1, is understood by most scholars to be a composite created by the author of the book of Daniel because, they argue, texts like Isaiah 13.17 and 21.2, as well as Jeremiah 51.11, had looked forward to a Median capture of Babylon.
J. M. Cook