Darius the Mede: Identity and reign as king
Darius the Mede is mentioned in the Bible by the prophet Daniel as the immediate successor of Belshazzar the Chaldean king. (Daniel 5:31) However, no mention or reference has as yet been found of such a person outside the Bible, neither in Babylonian history nor that of Persia. Some historians have unsuccessfully tried to identify him with Cyrus the Great, Gubaru the army general of Cyrus, or Darius I. Other efforts to link him with Cambyses II have proved wrong because they don't agree with Darius' being 62 years old at the start of his reign. Critics have therefore concluded that the figure is fictitious and was created by Daniel to "fit his schema."
Of course, the Bible—being an inspired word of God—does not need secular historical evidence to prove its authenticity. (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21) It is interesting that over the years, many scientists and historians have come to accept certain Biblical accounts that they once challenged to be false. By carefully studying and meditating on the historical records surrounding the overthrow of the Babylonian empire by Persian king Cyrus the Great, one can come close to laying bare the true identity of Darius the Mede, and the period during which he reigned as king of Babylon. In the following paragraphs are my thoughts on the subject which are by no means authoritative.
The Medes and the Persians
The Medes were of the ancient Anyan tribe, descendants of Madai. (Genesis 10:2) They lived in a land called Media which was situated at the northwestern part of modern day Iran. They were formed into numerous petty kingdoms but under powerful tribal chieftans. Several years later, Assyria took control of many of the kingdoms, and subjugated them under their rulership. However, around the year 632 BCE the Medes combined with Babylon and defeated the Assyrian Empire. (Zephaniah 2:13) The land of Assyria was subsequently split into two, the Medes taking the northern part while the Babylonians took the southern portion.
The Persians, like the Medes, were of the Anyan tribe. They were situated in the land of Persia, located in the southwestern portion of the Iranian plateau. After the Medes entered into alliance with Babylon and conquered Assyria, the Persians unified with the Medes. Media and Persia grew into a luxurious empire, although the Persians were subservient to the Medes. (Esther 1:3-7, 8:15; Isaiah 13:17) In 550 BCE, Cyrus the Great rose against the Median King Astyages, eventually conquering Media to establish the Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire. (Daniel 8:3, 20) The Medes thus came under the domination of the Persians.
The Persian Empire grew even more powerful when Cyrus expanded his kingdom westward, conquering King Croesus of Lydia and other Greek cities to the Aegean Sea. Even though Media had now become subservient to Persia, historical records show that the two nations maintained a good relationship. The Medes were given the same treatment as the Persians; they were appointed to honorable positions and even chosen to lead Persian armies. (Maybe because Cyrus was born of a Median mother.) In 539 BCE, the Persian Empire joined forces with the Elamites, and likely other neighboring tribes, and attacked the Babylonians.—Isaiah 21:2.
Appointment as king of Babylon
It is noteworthy that Jeremiah 51:11, 28 speaks of "the kings of Media" among those who were to attack and conquer the Babylonian empire. This shows that even under the dominion of the Persian Empire, there were still some rulers, of course, under Cyrus. This wouldn't have been something strange during those ancient times. (See Jeremiah 25:25.) In addition, some historians believe that the Persian Empire was formed as a "multi-state empire, governed by four capital states" allowing, to some extent, regional autonomy. This may have been the primary reason why the other governors never threatened the monarchy of Cyrus throughout his reign.
It is beyond doubt, according to the prophecy of Isaiah and secular history, that Cyrus was the conqueror of Babylon. (Isaiah 44:26-45:7) However, we read at Daniel 5:31 that "Darius the Mede himself received the kingdom" following the fall of Babylon. Noting the phrase "received the kingdom" and the account at Daniel 9:1 that Darius was "made king," it is evident that he was installed by Cyrus the Great. For a self-proclaimed "king of the four corners of the world" who had conquered the Lydian Empire, Asia Minor, and Babylon, it was not foolish for him to appoint a Mede, whom he treated with respect as his fellow Persian, to rule as a subordinate.
According to the prophecy of Jeremiah, at the fall of the Babylon Empire, the Jews shall return to their homeland and restore pure worship to Jehovah God. (Jeremiah 25:11, 12; 29:10) The Bible also tells us that, it was in "the first year" of Darius' reign that Daniel "discerned" that Israel's captivity in exile was coming to an end. (Daniel 9:1, 2) However, it was not until "the first year of Cyrus the king of Persia" as king of Babylon that he gave the decree to release the Israelites from captivity. (Ezra 1:1-4) All these accounts serve as basis to confidently conclude that Darius the Mede ruled for some time before Cyrus the Great took over as king. But for how long?
539 - c. 537 BCE—Period of reign
In the seventh month of Tishri (modern day October) in 539 BCE, Cyrus and his army invaded Babylon while King Belshazzar was celebrating a great feast in the city. (Daniel 5:1) After skillfully drying up the river surrounding the mighty walls of Babylon, Cyrus and his army entered the city without engaging in battle at all. (Isaiah 44:27) On that very night, the Babylonian king was killed and Darius the Mede was immediately made king, hence beginning his reign as ruler of Babylon. (Daniel 5:30, 31) Based on this account, it can be firmly established that Darius became king of Babylon in the seventh month of Tishri in 539 BCE.
Considering the fact that Darius had a "first year of . . . reigning" means that he had at least a second year too. (Daniel 9:2) However, by "the first day of the seventh month" of 537 BCE, the Israelites had already arrived in their cities, and had started offering burnt sacrifices to Jehovah. (Ezra 3:1, 6) Noting that organizing a congregation of 49,942 and their animals to trek a journey of four months long would take a considerable time, Cyrus must have decreed the end of the Jewish exile latest by Sivan 537 BCE. (Ezra 7:9; Nehemiah 7:66, 67) Therefore, the 62-year-old Darius' reign must have ended latest by Iyyar 537 BCE, most likely resulting from natural death.
Based on all the above mentioned facts and analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that Darius the Mede reigned as king of Babylon from Tishri 539 BCE to some time between the months of Heshvan 538 BCE and Iyyar 537 BCE, totaling a period of approximately a year and a half.
The Hebrew months and their modern day equivalents:
- Nisan - March/April
- Iyyar - April/May
- Sivan - May/June
- Tammuz - June/July
- Ab - July/August
- Elul - August/September
- Tishri - September/October
- Heshvan - October/November
- Chislev - November/December
- Tebeth - December/January
- Shebat - January/February
- Adar - February/March
Veadar is an additional intercalary month added 7 times in 19 years.