But here's the thing – how would we know any of this happened unless someone took the time to tell us? Stories like those in Daniel probably did happen, and plenty worse besides, and then were promptly forgotten. But someone wrote out an apocalypse and called it Daniel. Why? What point were they trying to make? And who were they trying to make that point to? Them's the real questions here; whether it all really happened isn't really relevant, nor, to my mind, particularly interesting.
Anyway, I'm going to keep going down through the four empires of Daniel, just because I enjoy it. Whether the four beasts of Daniel Ch.7 are the same four kingdoms as the four segments of the statue is a question for better minds than mine: I've read a convincing argument that the sections of the statue actually represent Neo-Babylonian kings, but whatever. The four beasts at least are much less subtle. The "lion with the wings of an eagle," for example, isn't hard to interpret: it's a cherub.
It's less obvious to me why the Persians are represented by a bear. It's true the Syrian bear roamed the wilds of the Fertile Crescent from ancient times right up until World War I, menacing travellers and farmers alike (which makes more sense when you realise back then the whole area was thickly forested; the last of the tall pines outside Petra were cut down by Ottoman soldiers during the First World War). The typical justifications for using the bear to represent the Persians strike me as post hoc i.e. they start already knowing that the bear is the Persian Empire and then looking for similarities (great strength, clumsiness, etc). But when I thought about the country symbolised by a bear in our modern, Western minds – Russia – it started to make more sense. The stereotype of a Russian guy is someone big, strong, burly and fairly clumsy, more often than not because they're drunk out of their skull: it seems Jewish rabbis had a similar image of the people of Persia themselves, "who eat and drink like the bear, are fat like the bear, are hairy like the bear, and are restless like the bear."
So I guess that makes sense then. In the early sixth century, the Persians occupied territory around Susa, just east of what we now call the Persian Gulf. At the time they were subject to a Mede king with the fantastic name of Astyages, who ruled another huge empire that stretched from the Lydian frontier in Turkey, wrapped around the Fertile Crescent, and stretched down through most of modern Iran. The Persians theoretically owed loyalty to this Astyages, but you can't keep a dynamic go-getter down: a Persian king history calls Cyrus the Great rebelled against his Mede overlords in 553 and fought them until 550, when he captured their capital Ecbatana. He'd effectively conquered the Median Empire from within. To ease the transition he married Astyages' daughter, and the realm became a sort of Medo-Persian coalition, though the ruling family was Persian and the Persians were the dominant partner, hence the bear being raised up on one side.
So why the three ribs in its mouth? Well, once he was fully in charge, Cyrus turned his attention to conquering the kingdom of Lydia. Lydia's interesting because we never hear anything about it, but it was semi-Greek in culture, and under King Gyges had become quite large by local standards, taking up roughly half of Asia Minor. Croesus, last of the Lydian kings, made himself proverbially rich by exploiting his country's gold deposits, becoming the first state to use standardised gold coins as currency, and also becoming very popular with the Greeks for his lavish temple gifts.
When Cyrus and his army came a-calling, Croesus consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who with typical ambiguity promised he would "destroy a great empire." Pleased with this report, Croesus opted for battle and was quickly and completely destroyed, his capital at Sardis sacked and burned. The "great empire" he was destined to destroy had turned out to be his own. Afterwards Croesus lamented: "No one is so foolish as to prefer to peace war, in which, instead of sons burying their fathers, fathers bury their sons. But the gods willed it so."
With Lydia now under the heel, Cyrus left the conquest of the Aegean coast to be completed by his general (and brother-in-law) Harpagus, while Cyrus himself returned east to capture Babylon, an event was recorded in sanitised form in Chapter 5 of Daniel, aka. The Writing on the Wall.
That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.Belshazzar was in charge because their last Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus, had absented himself from Babylon. Instead he was squatting in a place called Tema, northern Arabia, where he'd been for the last ten years. Why? We have no idea. Tema was a trade outpost and there was plenty of money to be made for the king who held it, and Nabonidus also had a devotion to the moon-goddess Sin that didn't sit well with the city of Marduk, but really your guess is as good as mine. For whatever reason, he left the actual job of being king to his son Belshazzar, and only returned when Cyrus came looking for trouble.
Cyrus captured Babylon easily, that much we know; what's still a headscratcher is exactly how. The city was surrounded by walls so vast a four-horse chariot could turn on top of them; no army in the world at that time had the technology to besiege them, and starving the population wasn't likely to work because there was some acreage of farmland and the river itself within the walls. Cyrus's own proclamations say the people opened the gates and welcomed him with open arms, and even the Nabonidus Chronicle, the most reliable (though not informative) ancient document we have on the subject, says the people laid green twigs before him as he entered (which should also sound vaguely familiar). Herodotus denies this and says Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in the Battle of Opis, then took the city after a hard siege. Complicating the picture is a building inscription in Babylon itself that suggests Nabonidus sent an army up the Euphrates to meet Cyrus before he could make it too far south, then got the shock of his life when a smaller force came up the Tigris and captured Babylon – and Nabonidus himself – with their guard down.
Either way, the text in Daniel clearly depicts the end coming like a thief in the night, arriving suddenly and catching Belshazzar by surprise. So why does the text say the city fell to Darius the Mede and not Cyrus the Great? Again there are theories, but the one I like best is that it's a simple transcription error: in Hebrew "Darius" translates as DRYWS (דריוש) and "Cyrus" as KWRS (כורש); one lapse in concentration and you've copied it wrong. This hypothesis is seemingly supported by early copies of the Septuagint, where the names are reversed in Daniel 11:1 (others say they really meant Astyages, or that Darius was a sort of dynastic name and Cyrus's wife and mother were both Medes, so Darius the Mede it was).
So Babylon was now subject to the Great King, who was very popular with the exiled Jews, not least because he was the one at last let them go home (in Isaiah 45:1 he is even referred to as a messiah, an anointed one, the only non-Jew ever to receive the honour). He subsequently divided his empire into provinces under the rule of governors or "satraps," a Persian word we have inherited in its Greek form... then met his death in an obscure war against some northern tribes. His son Cambyses, despite some evidence of mental instability, went on to add Egypt to the empire and a third rib to the bear's trophies – Lydia, Babylon (meaning the whole of Mesopotamia, the Phoenician trade cities, Syria and Israel), and now Egypt. The Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World, now ruled a land that stretched from the Indus to the Hellespont, home to Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Jews, Phoenicians, Ionians, Persians and Medes. It covered 5 million square kilometres and had a population of 50 million, 44% of all the people in the world at that time (a record that still stands). Earth had never before seen its like.
After an interlude where a usurper took the throne, rule passed to Darius I, also called Darius the Great, another scion of Cyrus's family. He was a good ruler who consolidated what his predecessors had won, supporting his national economy with fixed yearly taxes, making Aramaic the official language, building a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea, and building a network of roads for his armies – although the trade industry of course took full advantage. One of them, the Royal Road, ran all the way from Susa to Sardis, a distance of 2,400km, and one of the most important positions in Darius's court was their supervisor, a position called the King's Eye.
But the bear had not yet had its fill of flesh. When a pretext arose that gave Darius a chance to add Greece to his empire, he jumped at it. And so began the Persian Wars.