I've recently been doing some research involving a possible connection between the names Astibaras (a named Diodorus Siculus used to refer to Cyaxares the Mede) and Ahasuerus (the name of both the king of the Achaemenid Empire in Megillas Esther and the father of Darius the Mede mentioned in Daniel 9:1).

As I understand, the hypothetical original form of the name Astibaras (being that it is not attested AFAIK) is Ṛštibara(š). The original form of Ahasuerus is אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ.

My question is how likely is it that the Old Medean /ṛ/ and /b/ of Ṛštibara(š) became the ח and ו of אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ?

EDIT (4/2/2024): I should clarify that my intention isn't to identify Ahasuerus with the Astibaras. Rather, I was thinking that he could be Gaumata.

A few weeks ago, I came to discover that there seems to have been a voice in quite a few Rabbinic writings that point to Ahasuerus being a Mede rather than a Persian (Targum Sheni on Esther 1:1:4, Yalkut Shimoni on Nach 1049:8, and Pirkei deRebbi Eliezer 49:12). In them, Ahasuerus is said to be the son of Darius the Mede, and one of them says he was trying to imitate the Medes during the feast at the beginning of the Megillah. This becomes more interesting when Daniel 9:1 is taken into account, where this same Darius the Mede is said to have had a father also called Ahasuerus. If we are to take these opinions at face value, this means Ahasuerus and his grandfather had the same name. And if his grandfather (who was a Mede) had that name, that would mean the name Ahasuerus had Medean origins.

To make this interesting coincidence stronger, Xenephon makes the claim in his Cyropaedia that Cyaxares had a grandson who was also known as Cyaxares, who was an alleged son of Astyages. While it definitely seems like this Cyaxares never ruled the Median Empire, it is interesting to note this pattern of a Mede king and his grandson sharing the same name, with that grandson's father also being a contemporary of Cyrus II. And as if the connection wasn't strong enough: Whoever wrote the apocryphal book of Tobit seems to identify this Ahasuerus of Daniel 9:1 with Cyaxares (as seen in Tobit 14:15, where we see Ahasuerus leading the Ninevites into exile).

Now what does this have to do with Gaumata? The Jewish commentator Rashi comments on Daniel 11:2 that while Seder Olam orders the kings of Persia as Cyrus, Ahasuerus, Darius and Artaxerxes, Yosifon says that Cambyses reigned between Cyrus and Ahasuerus. This puts Ahasuerus squarely in the same position as Gaumata, a Mede who claimed to be Bardiya (at least according to Darius), and reigned between Cambyses and Darius.

Putting all this together, it seems as though Ahasuerus, Gaumata and Cyaxares II are in fact the same person. We even have a good motive for the initial usurpation: Ahasuerus/Cyaxares II was sidelined by either his father or the Mede nobility in favor of Cyrus, and probably was waiting to take matters into his own hands. Honestly, connecting Cyaxares' other name Astibaras with Ahasuerus seemed to make a lot of sense.

Of course this theory isn't without its faults. Gaumata seems to have reigned for only a few months, while Ahasuerus is said to have reigned for multiple years. And of course, the phonetic issues between the particles *ṛšti and ăḥaš as well as finding out aḫšiyâršu was in fact an attested name this whole time.

Anyway, this has much less to do with linguistics and more to do with history in general. The answers I've gotten have given me much to think about, so thanks!


1 Answer 1


Identifying Ahasuerus with Astibaras, rather than the typical Xerxes I runs into several problems.

The first is that the original Medean form is unattested (as with all Medean), and known only in transcription, so any purported Medean form should be viewed as an uncertain reconstruction.

Note: I will transcribe all Iranian and Hebrew forms into lower case Latin script here. With Hebrew being transcribed according to the Tiberian pointing, noting that that substantially postdates the composition of Megillat Esther.

With that in mind, and looking as Astibaras, let's compare *ṛštibara(h) with ʾăḥašwērōš.

The b~w identification is actually the least of our problems. Given the extensive lenition in many Iranian languages, it's entirely plausible that a post-vocalic *b in Medean was phonetically [β]. If borrowed into Hebrew prior to the development of begedkefet (which is pretty much certain, as the latest dates for the composition of Megillat Esther are still before some dates for the development of begedkefet, and the name could have been borrowed well before the composition of the Megillah), an identification between [β] & [w] is entirely natural, hence a transcription with vav is not unexpected.

The identification of everything before the b/w is extremely problematic however. *ṛšti & ăḥaš are nothing alike. They share a single consonant, in a different position. Even if ṛ (likely a syllabic trilled r [r̩]) were a guttural [ʁ̩] instead, we'd probably expect any consonantal detritus be borrowed as a ɣayin, later merging into ʿayin, or as a resh, and not as a xet > ḥet), and the t & i are lost entirely.

We also run into problems with the ending. The Proto-Indo-European thematic animate nominative singular -os* regularly becomes -ah* by Proto-Iranian. It is not plausible that this *h (if still present) would be transcribed with shin, or that if it had been lost, a shin would have been inserted.

Additionally, whilst it is a historical rather than linguistic objection, the description of the provinces of Ahasuerus' empire is far vaster than the Medean kingdom or pre-Achaemenid Persia ever was.

The more typical scholar identification has no such problems. The name of Xerxes is an Old Persian name and is directly attested as xšayāršā, and in transcription in Babylonian as aḫšiyâršu & akšîwâršu. If the name arrived in Hebrew via a fusion of both Babylonian forms (something like *aḫšiwâršu, not directly attested as far as I can tell, but well within the range of Babylonian transcriptions), then we'd expect a Hebrew form something like *ʾăḫšiwōreš (written אחשורש in unpointed defective orthography, as was likely typical at the time of the composition of the Megillah). Phonological adaptation to Hebrew's noun patterns (in particular away from the essentially unattested >disyllabic segolate) then explains the remaining shift in vowels.

Appealing to history as well, the description of the extent of Ahasuerus' empire lines up pretty much exactly with the Achaemenid Empire during Xerxes' reign (shortly after its peak under his predecessor, Darius).

There is also an older identification with Artaxerxes I or II, especially in antiquity. This name is attested in Old Persian as artaxšaçāʰ as well as in Ezra & Nehemiah as ʾartaḥšastə, ʾartaḥšaśtə, & ʾartaḥšaśtâ. These are the expected forms of the name in Hebrew, and a form like ʾăḥašwērōš is untenable, especially as there are no plausible Babylonian intermediaries to help.

The extent of Ahasuerus' empire extends slightly beyond the borders of the Achaemenid Empire under either Artaxerxes I or II (as they had lost control of India).

To conclude, the identification of Ahasuerus with Astibaras or the traditional Artaxerxes is phonetically and historically untenable, whilst identification with Xerxes (as is the scholarly consensus) is unproblematic.

Edit: Identification with Gaumata is even less plausible phonetically. Only two of his names are attested directly in Iranian sources: bardiya & gaumāta. We also then have the names smérdis (and its variants like mérgis & mérdis), tanyoxárkēs, and sphendadátēs attested in Greek. None of these names have any phonetic material in common with Ahasuerus.

The Achaemenid Empire was a suitable size during his time, but Megillat Esther portrays Ahasuerus as having a stable reign over an extended period, not at all consistent with a pretender who ruled for a few months during a civil war over a succession crisis. Additionally, prior to the reign of Darius (i.e. in Gaumata's day), the capital was at Pasargadae, not Susa, and the Megillah is very clear that the capital of Ahasuerus is Susa.

There may have been traditions associating Ahasuerus with various other Persian royals at various points, but the only identification that is linguistically tenable is that with Xerxes, an identification that unlike the others is also historically tenable on the basis of the text of Megillat Esther.

  • First of all, I want to say thanks for your answer. I was hoping to get input from someone who actually understands old-Persian/Medean better than I do (I know very little on the topic), as opposed to endlessly scrolling through Tavernier's Iranica. I have a few questions on your answer, but I'll start with the two most obvious ones that occur to me: (1 My understanding was that the only attested Akkadian rendering of Xerxes was Ḫišiaršu, with no preceding aleph, no? (2 Is it possibly that the name Huvaxšaθra is phonetically connected to ʾăḥašwērōš?
    – Engidu
    Commented Apr 2 at 15:30
  • oh there are many more Akkadian (specifically Late Babylonian) transcriptions of Xerxes than that. You can see a (likely incomplete) list here: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/…. Huvaxšaθra (Cyaxares) is not especially plausible either, it is generally believed to be Median (rather than Old Persian) in origin, and we do have several Akkadian transcriptions e.g. waksatar, uksatar, & umakuištar, but none of these have anything in common with Ahasuerues to speak of that I can see
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 2 at 15:45
  • Seemingly there are old-Iranian names (such as Kura-š and Darayavah-uš) that seem to retain the -os* ending. Was it really that rare? Also I made an edit to the original post clarifying why I was trying to make a connection between Astibaras and Ahasuerus.
    – Engidu
    Commented Apr 3 at 2:44
  • final -s is sometimes preserved, but after a vowel only when palatalised to š because of the ruki law (so after u or i. Whilst Cyrus is attested in Akkadian as kuraš, the Old Persian is kuruš, with a preceding u to trigger this shift. Darius also shows a preceding u. The end result is that thematic nouns in -os end in -a(h) in Old Iranian, whilst i & u-stems end in -iš and -uš respectively (various consonant stems may preserve the -s as -s or palatalise it to -š, depending on the specific consonant in question)
    – Tristan
    Commented Apr 3 at 8:21

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